“What am I even supposed to wear?” There was an edge to James’ voice Natasha wasn’t used to hearing. Defeat, bordering on revulsion.
In any other situation, this tone alone would have had Natasha reaching for her guns. It wasn’t that kind of situation, though. The unbeatable enemy he was facing was his side of the walk-in closet. So, instead, she held up a pair of blue earrings to her cobalt blue dress, checking to see if there was such a thing as too much blue, and said, “Clothes, dear. Underwear isn’t considered proper church attire.” Maybe her pair of silver ones would work better. The ones James had given her when they moved in together – as if his company was something she had to endure, not something she treasured.
“I’m glad you’re finding this so amusing.” Clothes hangers banged together as he riffled through his clothes. “Clint said it’ll be informal, but this is a baptism, and I’m the goddamn godfather.” He sighed. There was a thump that turned out to be James banging his head into the top shelf. “My mom would kill me if she was here now.”
This wouldn’t do. Natasha walked over to him, took his head in her hands, and stretched to kiss his forehead where a red mark was already fading. “Gray suit, white dress shirt, and a tie that isn’t blue or we’ll end up too matchy-matchy. And your mom would be proud of you. Like I am.”
James didn’t look anywhere near convinced, but he inclined his head in a single nod. “Yeah, okay.”
He had used her shampoo again. With him standing so close, Natasha could smell a faint whiff of coconut mingled with the sandalwood scent of his cologne. She was beginning to suspect he did it on purpose, it happened far too often for it to be otherwise. She couldn’t figure out why, though. His curls didn’t need the extra help and sentimental as he could be, she doubted he did it to smell like her. But then he didn’t think and rethink his every little gesture as she did. It had probably been the closest bottle when he showered.
“Penny for your thoughts?” James was smiling down at her, crow’s feet crinkling the skin around his eyes.
“Nothing important.” Natasha shook her head. What was the point of lying to the only man who could see right through her? “You smell nice. So, I might forgive you for using my shampoo.” She pushed the mop of curls away from his forehead, trying in vain to make it cooperate. It flopped right back.
“The striped one? I thought that was mine.”
Of course, he did. She sighed theatrically. “The smaller the bottle, the more expensive. So, no, that wasn’t yours. The other fifty however…”
“Can’t be that many, five at most. And I thought those were yours.” James’ mouth curled into a grin that made him look like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar and shrugged. “I’ll buy you a new one. I’ll buy you as many as you’d like.”
“Ever the romantic.”
“For you? Always.”
He caught her chin between two fingers and lifted it, leaned down to kiss her, soft and gentle. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing.” She slipped her arms round his sides. He was so warm, even when nearly naked, especially when nearly naked. No heavy tactical gear to soak up his heat. Natasha stepped into his warmth, tilting her head back to keep looking at him, letting the feeling of him and his warmth seep into her bones.
“It’s not nothing. It’s never nothing.” James’ arms enveloped her, one cool and one warm.
“This is your first time out with the Avengers in public without a uniform to hide you. There’s likely to be paparazzi despite what Clint says. And she’s your first godchild. It’s only natural to be nervous.”
“How are you so calm? She’s your first godchild, too.”
She shrugged in his embrace. “The only difference between becoming an honorary aunt and a godparent is that this time I have to sit in a church and listen to a priest for an hour.”
A smirk. “You’re awfully Russian sometimes. Religion is the opiate of the masses, huh?” he said fondly.
“You knew that already.” On stockinged feet Natasha had to stretch to kiss him, his broad chest a solid wall to steady herself against. The touch of his hand skimming up along her back to find rest at the nape of her neck send shivers down her spine. Her thin slip only seemed to enhance his touch.
“Yeah, I did.” James’ breath wafted over her face as he spoke, warm and minty. He touched the tip of his nose to hers, shaking his head minutely to rub them together. Eskimo kisses they had called it when she was young.
If not for the people waiting for them, she would have liked to stay like this forever. Having responsibilities was overrated anyway.
With another feathery kiss, Natasha extricated herself, plucked a pair of black high heeled shoes from a shelf and went to put on her dress. James was straightening a dark gray tie when he exited the walk-in closet. The light gray suit had been a good choice, the pants made his already narrow hips look even narrower which in turn emphasized his broad shoulders. Whatever she had done to deserve this man in her life, she would like to repeat it a few times to ensure that it would last.
“God, you look…” he trailed off, looking at her with parted lips and a smile.
Natasha spun, letting the skirt flow out, just to make that delighted smile on his face last longer. “Not half as good as you, milii moi.”
He dipped his head and grinned at that. Ridiculous man. And ridiculous her for being so taken with him, his smile, his everything.
Her phone beeped, rudely interrupting the moment to announce the arrival of their cab. Natasha grabbed the colorful paper bag with gifts for their godchild, smiled at the way James couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the name tag. Still so stunned by Clint and Laura having chosen to name their fourth child after him. Didn’t even mind that the child had turned out to be a girl in the grand tradition of Barton babies refusing to play along with their generous parents.
Jamie Barton was one lucky child. She had an awesome family and the best godfather anyone could ever wish for.
“You ready for this?” she asked.
A flash of silver as he rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, then with a rueful smile and a wink he said, “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Milii moi = My dear
Chapter 2: A Wedding
“To the happy couple,” Rhodes said and raised his glass of imported and probably very expensive wine.
“The happy couple left hours ago,” Bucky pointed out but raised his glass all the same. Most of the other wedding guests had left, too. The ones who were left were scattered in groups across the immense ballroom on the top floor in the Tower. Sam was trying to teach Vision to play pool in a way that didn’t have Vision winning after two or three shots. Shuri and Peter were sketching out plans on napkins either for some revolutionary invention or a prank. It was hard to tell with those two. Wanda, Hope, and Darcy was likewise up to no good, but Bucky wasn’t even going to begin guessing what they were plotting.
“To the happy couple,” Rhodes repeated a little louder.
“To a week without major incidents for their honeymoon,” said Sharon and raised her glass.
“To Pepper and her immeasurable patience,” Steve said.
They toasted and Bucky finished the remaining Asgardian mead in his glass, regretting it instantly. He was so used to alcohol not affecting him that it still threw him for a loop whenever he drank any of that deceptively sweet liquid. He wasn’t drunk yet, but he was definitely getting buzzed.
The sound of rustling fabric announced Natalia’s return in her bridesmaid dress and Bucky pulled out a chair for her as a welcome. Her fond smile said all there needed to be said about the look on his own face. Scratch getting buzzed. Replace with already buzzed. Maybe add lovesick, but he could hardly blame the mead for that.
“You know, there are times when I think that they only invented these to torture us,” Natalia said and sat down on the chair next to Bucky. She slipped off her high heels and wiggled her toes with a sigh of relief.
“Says the woman who dances ballet because it’s fun,” said Steve, dry as timber.
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Bucky said.
“What?” said Rhodes.
Sharon nodded, a look of serious contemplation on her face marred by an insistent twitch at the corner of her mouth. “You have the legs for it.”
“No, seriously, what?” repeated Rhodes.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that rumor,” Bucky said, his face as blank as he could currently make it.
Natalia snickered, wrinkling her nose in that way that made it impossible for him to look away.
To retaliate, he gestured at her sore feet, said, “Give ‘em here,” and patted his thighs.
She obliged with a little smile, and he lifted her feet onto his lap, pressing his thumb against the ball of her left foot to rub a strip down along her arch. She sighed and let her head fall back, long red hair cascading over the back of the chair.
“Where do I sign up?” Sharon said and grinned when Bucky flipped her off.
“On that note,” said Rhodes and stood. “I wish you all a good night.”
He had a point. Only a couple of hours till sunrise. If they hadn’t been right smack in the middle of one of the most light-polluted cities in the world the sky would begin lightning any moment now.
Checking the time on her phone, Sharon said, “We should go, too,” and tucked it back into her purse. “I have a plane to catch in the morning.”
“Nighty, night,” Natalia said from her relaxed position, her feet heavy on Bucky’s thighs, keeping him seated.
“Have fun with whatever foot fetish thing you’ve got going.” Steve tried and failed to look sanctimonious.
“Fuck off,” Bucky replied and smiled widely at him.
Sharon wrapped her arm around Steve’s waist before he could answer and pulled him with her, saying over her shoulder, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Natalia said and shifted on the chair, facing him fully now that the rest of the table was empty, her feet still not leaving his lap.
“What about you? Ready to call it a day?” said Bucky. Their bed was big and secure, he could hear it calling them from all the way across town.
Natalia looked at him with a speculative expression, biting her bottom lip in what could only be described as a deliberate fashion. Then it hit him: her lipstick was missing. It was obvious and he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t noticed it before. She must have removed it recently because it had been there all the way through the ceremony where she and Rhodes had flanked Stark and Pepper by the alter. It had even survived the lavish dinner. The only time it had been out of place was after they had danced and Bucky had kissed her, not caring that his own lips had come away with half her lipstick. Anyway, it had been worth it, not just because of the kiss, but the look of amusement as she had tried to clean the lipstick off him with a napkin.
But now those lush, pink lips were naked again.
“I’m going to go powder my nose. If I’m not back in say a minute or two, you should probably come looking for me,” Natalia said, her green eyes filled with mischief. With that, she picked up her discarded shoes and purse and headed for the hallway lined with restrooms.
He made it to the count of twenty before he followed her.
There were eight separate restrooms in the hallway, each with their own little discreet plaque. Natalia wouldn’t be so obvious as to pick the first or the last ones, that left six. Bucky walked down the corridor, checking the lock indicators as he went. He didn’t get very far before he noticed something black hanging off the doorknob on one of the doors. A sock. She had put a goddamn sock on the doorknob. One of his from the look of it.
At least she’d waited till the place was less crowded.
Bucky pulled the sock off, opened the door, and stepped inside, locking the heavy door behind him. Natalia was leaning against the vanity, the soft light around the mirror behind her gave her a halo in stark contrast to the wicked smile on her face. The door was thick and at least somewhat soundproof behind him – an earlier visit while the band was still playing had proved how much noise it filtered out. He could only hope that there weren’t any security cameras in the restrooms like there were in the rest of the Tower.
“What took you so long?” She pitched her voice low and rough.
He held up the sock and stalked over to her. “How long have you been planning this?”
She tipped her head back to look up at him, picked a non-existing piece of lint off his jacket before she took the sock from him and put in on the counter. The very definition of casual. “Do you remember that Friends episode where they go to London?”
He didn’t, not really. Mostly because he had been so distracted by having Natalia sit right next to him – still alive, still in love with him after all those decades – that he had barely paid any attention to what happened on the screen. But also because it was two years ago and who remembers stuff like that when there are so many more important things to memorize? Like the pattern of little golden flecks near the pupil in her otherwise green eyes, or the sound of her laughter.
“Vaguely,” Bucky said. “For a wedding, right?”
“Got it in one.” Natalia looked satisfied with his prompt answer. Rewarded him for it by pulling his head down to her with a loose grip on his tie.
Bucky obliged her happily, glad to be able to kiss her properly without coming out of it with most of her lipstick. Her lips were soft against his, the kiss slow and tender. Like she hadn’t lured him in here with one thing on her mind. He weaved his fingers into the soft hair at the nape of her neck, deepening the kiss with glacial slowness. Didn’t pick up speed until she seized the lapels of his jacket in tight fists. Then he dipped lower to wrap his arm around her waist, lifted her up, and deposited her on the counter.
“It was the first time Monica and Chandler hooked up,” she informed him when she pulled back, her voice betraying nothing of the hunger he could see in her eyes.
He had to rewind the past few minutes to clear the fog in his brain, then he said, “We live together. It’s kinda late in the game for a wedding hookup.”
“Eh.” Natalia shrugged. “Never say never.”
It was true. Here he was, a little under a hundred years old, about to get lucky in a restroom. Bucky shifted his grip on her, rubbing tiny circles through the layers and layers of flimsy material that made up the skirt of her bridesmaid dress. “Alright, wise-woman, enlighten me on what makes for a traditional wedding hookup?”
“Traditionally, it’s with one of the groomsmen.” She didn’t even pause as he straightened and made to leave, tightened her strong legs around him to keep him still. “But I’ve had my eye on this other guy for a while. He seems standoffish when you meet him, but if you get to know him, you get to see him for the giant softie he really is.”
He put a hand on her shoulder, furrowed his brow in mock concern. “Fury isn’t here, Natalia. It’s not gonna happen.”
She snickered, then laughed, her body shaking with it, leaning her head against his shoulder. “I’m telling him you said that. Have fun spending the next decade in bureaucratic hell.”
“The horror,” Bucky said, deadpan. “I guess I’ll have to work hard to get on your good side again.”
The front of her hair was tousled when Natalia looked back up at him and he reached out to smooth it. Something warm that didn’t have anything to do with the mead bubbled in his chest. It often did when she looked at him like this, but she usually only did that inside the confines of their home. Or at least places that weren’t littered with security cameras like the Avengers Tower was. Stark wouldn’t have put any security cameras in the restrooms, would he?
“We don’t have to. We could go home instead,” Natalia said, reading him like an open book apparently.
Fuck it. If Stark had put cameras in the restrooms there’d be a lot worse things on those tapes. Loving Natalia wasn’t something Bucky would ever feel ashamed about. “Who am I to rob you of the grand tradition of getting screwed at a wedding?”
She sighed, tilted her head to the side, and said, “You always say the sweetest things.”
“C’mere.” He pulled her into a kiss.
She responded by sliding her hands up his chest to the back of his neck, wrapping herself around him as he kissed her. Vicious, loving, possessive Natalia. He nipped at her bottom lip and she opened her mouth to him. Soft and warm and completely his. Bucky kissed her languidly, breaking away only to litter kisses along the line of her jaw, smiling against her skin when she arched into his touch as he reached her slender neck. The remains of her perfume left a trace of flowers, but the rest was all her. Her smell in his nose, her taste on his tongue. The thin strap of her dress slipped off her shoulder as he reached it, interrupting his trek along her collarbone.
“I like this dress,” Bucky declared, tracing a line along her other collarbone with a finger, and slipping that strap off her shoulder, too.
“You like everything I wear. Especially when it gives you easy access.” She leaned back, her nimble fingers loosened his tie, leaving it to him to remove it as she attacked the buttons on his dress shirt. “Speaking of.”
Bucky discarded the tie and grinned as she ran her fingers down his bare chest in a possessive gesture that ended with her hand on his belt buckle to yank him closer. He followed her lead, reaching around her back for the zipper to her dress. “Now, about that dress…”
“That hardly seems fair,” Natalia said contemplatively. “I’d be completely naked then.”
It took Bucky a long moment to realize what she’d meant. “When did you—?” She had been wearing underwear this morning, he was sure of it. He had spent a few entertaining minutes inspecting the glorified stickers she had called a back- and strapless bra. His right hand moved to cup her breast on its own accord. Her nipple a hard pebble under the fabric, her breast heavy in his hand and only covered by the bodice of the dress. He groaned and leaned his forehead against hers.
“A few hours ago. After Tony and Pepper left.” She combed her fingers through his hair, her tone easy and relaxed. Like the increased migration of blood from his upstairs brain to his downstairs brain was entirely out of her control and not something she’d planned for.
“All that time and you didn’t…” Bucky trailed off, apparently having lost the ability to speak in complete sentences.
“You seemed to be enjoying yourself. Didn’t want to interrupt.” Natalia pulled him in for another kiss. Deep and wet and doing absolutely nothing to help with increasing tightness of his pants.
“Enjoying myself. I’ll show you enjoying myself.” He dropped to his knees, pushed up layer after layer of flimsy skirt out of his way until he could wrap his fingers around her bare hips and pull her closer to the edge of the counter and his face.
She didn’t stop snickering until he’d kissed a line up the inside of her thigh.
Bucky eased her legs onto his shoulders, nudging her with his nose before he finally put his mouth on her. He had always loved this, even back in the Red Room where time for themselves had been severely limited. The taste of her, the sound and smell. Making Natalia feel good, have her fall apart using only his mouth and maybe a couple of fingers centered him in a way nothing else could. The rest of the world fell away to be replaced with the little breathy sounds she made, the involuntary jerks of her hips under his ministrations.
He nuzzled closer, opened her up further with his mouth. He had to put his left arm across her stomach to keep her restless hips still and he was glad his grin was hidden from her view when she reached for his hair in an attempt to take back control. She might have planned for this restroom rendezvous, but that didn’t mean she got to control his pace. Nothing could keep him from enjoying every second of it. Savor every little moan, the taste of her, her soft flesh against his face, the way not even the weight of his arm could keep her hips still. After another unhurried lick, he sealed his lips around her clit. Natalia’s gasps became muffled, but the damn dress kept him from seeing her face, seeing if she was hiding it in her elbow or covering her lovely mouth with her hand. Didn’t matter, he could do this by touch alone. Had already memorized how she looked while falling apart. He slipped two fingers inside her. She was so warm and slick and Christ he wanted to bury himself inside her to the hilt, but not yet. Waiting always made it that much sweeter.
Her whole body jerked when he crooked his fingers inside her. If Natalia’s feet had been touching the floor or anything else granting her a foothold, she might have broken his nose. He did it again to hear the strangled sound she made, feel the way her thighs trembled as she tensed up. Her grip on his hair on the right side of painful. It, somehow, it spurred him on in a way he couldn’t quite put into words. He groaned against her hot flesh, fought the urge to reach down between his legs to let his straining cock free and then she was contracting around his fingers, desperate little sounds spilling from her lips as she came.
He eased her through the aftershock, didn’t pull back until she let go of his hair. Sitting back on his haunches, breathing almost as hard as her, he looked up at her. Her cheekbones and chest flushed; her eyes hooded. Debauched, was the word according to the staunch old priest leading Sunday school when Bucky was a kid. Beautiful, if Bucky had anything to say about it. Incredible.
Natalia caught hold of his hand resting on her thigh, pulled him up. He stood, using a snip of his shirt to wipe the slick of his face.
“You had me worried, dorogoi. Thought you were about to ask me to marry you.” Her tone was droll, but the look on her face soft.
“Would you? Would you marry me? Would you make me the happiest man in the land?” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. He had meant it as a joke, but there was a kernel of truth to it and she must have spotted it on his face because her eyes widened ever so slightly. It was as good as a look of terror on anyone else.
Something that could be mistaken for a smile flashed across her face, then Natalia said, “Maybe. Ask me again when you’re not drunk or filthy with me and I’ll think about it.”
They had never talked about it before. Hell, he hadn’t really thought about it. Not in any planning for the future kind of way. Having her in his life again had been enough of a miracle and more than he had ever hoped for. Bucky opened his mouth to speak, not knowing what he was going to say, but Natalia wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled him down into a kiss, nipping at his bottom lip before she kissed him properly. He kissed her back, open and a little messy, using his body to make up for startling her. She needed time to think and she could have as much as she needed. The soft sound of her breath was all he needed to hear right now anyway, the sharp intake of breath when he slipped a hand between her thighs.
It took him only a few moments to make her come again, swallowing all those little noises she made all the while.
Natalia’s hair clung to her forehead when she looked at him again, her hand steadier than her breathing when she reached for him. Clever fingers had his belt open and pants undone in seconds, then she pushed aside his clothes and wrapped her hand around his cock. Bucky shuddered. Barely managed to stop a groan from escaping. She must have liked his reaction because she did it a few times more. Angling her hips so that he was trapped between her hand and her slick heat. Didn’t stop until he gripped her thighs in hands that trembled from the effort it took to keep his touch light. Guided him inside with a grin on her beautiful face.
He paused once fully inside her. With her recent orgasm Natalia was tighter than usual, staying still allowed her to acclimate to him, and well, not to put too fine a point on it, made sure he didn’t blow his load right away.
When Bucky started to move, he did it slowly, carefully. Still made his breath catch.
They moved together easily. Catch and release. Part muscle memory and part deliberate choices. It was that mix that made them work so well together now or when they sparred or fought alongside each other. Muscle memory was instinctual, based on repetition, but instinct alone would only get them halfway there. The way they reacted to each other was deliberate. Natalia let him swallow her moans instead of keeping them silent because he had once confessed to her how much it turned him on to hear her. And he steadied her with a hand on the small of her back when she pushed away from the wall for closer contact. Deliberate choices, not instinct, made them fit so well together.
They had chosen to go against their old masters, chosen to allow feelings to grow between them instead of ignoring them like their training dictated. Just as they had chosen to be together now that they were free to be with anyone or no one.
Bucky wrapped his fingers around her ankle, uncoiled the leg from around his waist to lay it up against his chest to give her more of that friction she sought with restless shifts of her hips. Her breath came out in little gasps each time he pushed into her, as fast as his own. It was all he could do not to come. He shifted his grip from her leg to her hip to keep her steady and slipped his free hand between them, pushing his thumb between her folds.
Friction, pleasure, his life on a silver platter. There was nothing she could ask of him that he wouldn’t give her in a heartbeat.
They rocked together, chasing pleasure and giving it. On and on until he thought he couldn’t bear it any longer. Natalia’s hand going to her mouth was the only warning he got before she clenched around him, making him spill himself inside her, his thrusts uncoordinated, his hips snapping against her.
“Was it everything you wanted?” he said a while after. When he had caught his breath and eased her leg back around his waist, his hand keeping it there. Not wanting to pull out yet, unwilling to let go of the closeness.
She grinned wide and viciously, “Everything and more. Like always.” Sobering a little, she added, “You’re so good to me.”
“Hey, you’re the one who lured me in here.” Bucky kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose, and finally her lips. “Nothing is too good for my best girl.”
She caught his face in her hands, cradling it. “I love you.” This was another choice. A deliberate one at that, judging from the intense look in Natalia’s eyes.
He would go to the moon and back for her. “I love you, too.” His voice came out rough. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulled her as close as he possibly could and she hid her face against his neck, her breath small huffs of air on his skin.
Didn’t matter if Natalia wanted to marry him or not. They had never been people for doing traditional relationship things. They found each other after they had been torn apart. They would find each other again if necessary. What mattered was that she loved him, and he loved her, and right at this moment, they had each other. The future could wait.
Chapter 3: A Funeral
“It was a beautiful service, Buck.” Steve’s hand twitched when he said it, like he wanted to reach out and touch James, for comfort, maybe to pull him into a hug. But it remained by his side.
James was staring holes in the ground, had been doing so since the funeral ended, had barely registered the family and friends of the family saying goodbye. He didn’t pay much attention to this well-wisher either though they were a lot closer.
“Thank you for coming, Steve,” Natasha said, filling in. “And thank you for the eulogy. It was beautiful.”
Steve smiled that sad smile of his. “It was the least I could do. I still can’t believe…”
That Rebecca was gone. That James’ younger sister had grown old and died of old age in a bed with pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren around her while Steve and James still looked like they were in their thirties. Even discounting the decades they had spent in the ice or cryo-sleep it was some trick.
“If there is anything—” Steve began.
“Yeah,” James interrupted, his voice rough. “Thank you. And thank you for not letting this turn into a media circus.”
“That wasn’t me, that was a team effort.” Steve glanced over at Natasha, but she shook her head. Steve had worked out the plan and coordinated everything. It didn’t matter that she had asked him to do it, he would have thought of it if she hadn’t. He was as bad at accepting praise as James, but at least he couldn’t argue now.
A brief smile crossed James’ features, sharp at the edges and a little sad, but a smile all the same. “Take the damn compliment, Steve.” Takes one to know one, as the saying went.
Steve dug his hands into the pockets of his coat and looked down at his feet in a failed effort to hide his smile. “Just paying back for when my mom died.”
“Right.” James’ tone was dry, but the glint in his eyes warm. He let go of Natasha’s hand and stepped forward to hug Steve.
The absence of his warm hand made her very aware of how cold it was standing in the cemetery with snow falling all around them, and she pulled on a pair of gloves while the two men said goodbye. Kept back until Steve left and James reached for her.
He turned his hand over when he touched the glove, looked down at it then up at her face. “You cold?” He was standing by his sister’s grave, the last relative who had known him before he had been turned into the Winter Soldier, and still, he found the energy to worry about his girlfriend feeling cold. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. James Buchanan Barnes.
“Have we met?” Natasha stepped closer, adjusted the thick scarf around his neck. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Besides, you promised to show me where your parents were buried.”
“Okay,” he said with another brief smile and curled his arm around her shoulder. “It’s this way.”
They walked together along the paths in the cemetery, leaving the gravediggers to work without an audience. Snow crunched under their soles, still nearly pristine. Somewhere far off a couple was having a row, a car honked and revved, but all the sounds had been muffled by the snow, left it in the background. Unimportant.
They reached his parents’ grave after a few minutes. The headstone was plain, the carved inscription worn but still readable. Unlike many of the graves they had passed along the way, there were no dead leaves under the snow here. And there were fresh flowers on the grave. It was lovely. Beautiful even. Half a century since they died, and people still brought them flowers.
Natasha leaned her head against his shoulder, relished in the brief press of his lips against the top of her head, his exhale as he pressed closer to her side.
“Wish I could have met them,” said Natasha.
“They would have loved you. Mom always said it would take someone extraordinary to make me settle down. Guess she was right.”
“Rebecca said something similar. Well, she said she was glad her brother had finally found someone who would put up with his antics for more than a few hours, but it was basically the same thing.”
He huffed out a laugh. “That’s Becca for you.”
“I’m glad I got to meet her.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“What were they like?”
James was quiet for a while and she began to wonder if she had misread him, if the brief conversation had been all he’d have to give, if he’d rather be left to his thoughts. Then he said, “They were good people. Decent. Hard-working. Like a lot of other folks back then, but they were also…” He trailed off, bit his lip when Natasha looked at him. “Easier to tell you a story.” He shifted as he began to speak, turning them away from the grave to continue their walk across the cemetery grounds. “This happened in ’38, during the summer. Becca had just turned sixteen when she caught the eye of this huge guy across the street a few years her senior. She didn’t like him back, but he was too thick-headed to see that. To make matters worse, Billy already had a girl who wasn’t too happy with his straying eyes.”
“Billy? As in the William Proctor she married?”
“Different Billy. People weren’t as inventive with names back then. There were four Billies on our block, five Jimmies. Why do you think I went with Bucky in the first place?”
“Well, I attributed that to your, at times, remarkable lack of judgment.”
He shot Natasha a sidelong glance but failed to conceal the twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Anyway,” James said. “Guy took a liking to Becca, girlfriend wasn’t amused, and neither were her four huge brothers. Easiest solution for them would be beating up Billy, but his dad had connections to the Irish mob and since they were all good Catholic boys, they couldn’t very well beat up a girl. So, they picked the second-best option: trying to intimidate Becca into leaving the neighborhood. After about a week of this, Becca complains to me and I did what any sensible bigger brother would do and told them that if they had a problem, they could take it up with me. All hundred- and ten-pounds soaking wet me with my toothpick arms.”
Natasha had seen pictures of him from when he was younger. Becca had gleefully shown them to her much to James’ dismay. Would have found this description of his younger self hard to believe if she hadn’t. “Terror of the neighborhood,” she supplied, earning her another sidelong glance.
“Yeah right. So, I had been living on my own for a few years by then and I knew how to take care of myself in a fight courtesy of Steve’s gift for pissing off thugs, but this was four on one and I didn’t come out of the fight looking pretty. Mom didn’t find out about it till it was time for Sunday mass and she was so pissed she wouldn’t look at me. Dad just frowned but didn’t say anything either. You could tell what they were both thinking. This was a return to the bad, old days when I’d show up with a shiner every so often. When in reality the only thing that had changed from those days was that I’d gotten better at fighting.”
Natasha couldn’t help but smile. His stories always had that effect on her. He had a knack for telling them, even Tony would shut up and listen once James got started. “This only proves my point, James. Steve starting fights, you ending them.”
“Better than him getting his scrawny ass kicked six ways from Sunday.”
Neither suggested that maybe Steve could have just not started the fights, because anyone who spent more than five minutes with him knew the impossibility of that. Natasha bit her lip and nodded for James to continue.
“Thing about the Barneses is that we always had Sunday dinner with our parents after church. Come rain or shine. Even Sarah who had her own family by then, husband, a kid, and another on the way. So, we get back to their place and Mom is banging pots in the kitchen and Dad is smoking like a chimney, stinking up the place with those cheap cigarillos he loved so much. It takes him an hour before he asks me to step outside with him.”
“Oh, no,” Natasha said, filling in during the brief pause allowed by his intake of breath like she was supposed to.
“Oh, yeah. And it gets worse,” James shook his head. “Okay, so, I’m outside about to talk with my dad and Becca is easing the door open to listen in like the nosey little sister she is. Dad notices me glancing over his shoulder and whirls around to catch Becca red-handed and orders her and me to follow him into Mom and his bedroom. ‘Cos he didn’t want the neighbors to hear. Could tell just by looking at us that is was something we weren’t too proud of. After a lot of stalling, she spills everything, answers every question Dad has for her. When he’s satisfied, he goes to the kitchen where Mom is and then nothing. Radio silence.”
“Nothing.” James shrugged one shoulder. “Both Becca and I got an extra helping of pudding for dessert, but that’s it. Neither Mom nor Dad ever mentioned anything about it again.”
Natasha glanced up at him curiously. “How does that tell me anything about your parents?”
“I’m coming to that. I thought that was the end to it, too, but it wasn’t, it was only the beginning.”
“Good thing I have nothing else planned for today,” she said drily.
James looked at her with an expression of mock offense, said, “Shut up,” and rolled his eyes when Natasha stuck out the tip of her tongue at him. “You’re the one who wanted to know what they were like. Besides, I was only present for the first part, the second I had to hear about afterward.”
“Carry on, Soldier.”
“You joke, but the next part was a couple of months before I got shipped out, so, yeah, a soldier by then, but the regular kind. I’d risen to the rank of sergeant and one day I see the new recruits all lined up and getting shouted at by an officer and among them one of the brothers who beat me up. Now, I’d spent the last few years boxing and going through basic training while he’d gotten soft around the edges, so I was dying for him to start trouble and for me to wipe the floor with his face,” James said, proving once again that his vicious streak had already been present before Zola had experimented on him. “But this guy just lights up when he sees me. Proper happy, like it’s his birthday, not like he can’t wait to beat me up again and when I see him in the mess he comes over and thanks me. Shakes my hand and everything. Said my parents had put the fear of God in him and his brothers. Turned his life around by doing it. Thought they’d also talked with Billy, though he wasn’t too sure about that ‘cause his sister had found herself another man who didn’t stare at sixteen-year-old girls.” He looked down at her, his smile warm and soft and a little proud. “And that was my parents for you. Good people, but nobody messed with their family if they could help it.”
Natasha shook her head and stifled her snickering. “I guess the apple doesn’t fall a long way from the tree.”
He ducked his head. “I guess not.”
“Did you ever tell them you knew?”
“No.” He sobered. “Thought about it a bunch of times but couldn’t figure out how to bring it up. And then it was too late.”
Natasha tightened her arm around his waist, turned her head when she saw a weird expression cross his features out of the periphery of her vision. Said, “What?” followed up with, “I can hear you thinking from here, James,” when he didn’t answer.
He remained silent, carding his hand through his hair, then grinned like he had remembered something and said, “Asked Becca about Billy last year, if she knew what Dad had done to the brothers to scare them. She laughed so hard she nearly choked. The nurse wanted me to leave, only got to stay because Becca collected herself enough to tell her to piss off. Turns out she had asked Mom and Dad about what had happened, but Mom had said that she’d had a good long talk with the boys and their parents while Dad had excused himself, left the room shaking with laughter. Which, really, I can’t blame him for. Imagine my tiny mom shouting at these four giant thugs and them being afraid of her.”
“Paints a lovely picture,” Natasha agreed.
He huffed out a quiet laugh, said, “It really does.”
They were getting close to Rebecca’s grave. The gravediggers had finished up, covered the black dirt with the flowers from the funeral. Bright colors against the white snow. James let out a breath when they reached it, crouched to straighten a ribbon that had been turned over by a gust of wind. ‘Great great Gran’ it read in gold letters on white silk.
“She was so mad that Sarah an’ Mary an’ me had all moved out by the time she turned fifteen. Hated being the little one. Said she wanted so many kids that the youngest would get to grow up with their nieces and nephews.” He paused. “No doubt cursing God out by now for making her miss the birth of her great-great-grandchild.” There was something regretful about his tone. It hadn’t been there when he told his story.
Natasha licked her dry lips, said, “Do you want that, too? Start a family, have children.”
He looked up at her, then stood. “I already have everything I want.”
Back when she had told James about the graduation ceremony in the Red Room, he had looked at her with nothing but understanding. He knew what it was like to lose parts of himself, didn’t pity her for it or think her less of a woman. It stung a little that he would choose now to start treating her with kid gloves. “Don’t try to spare my feelings. I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t want to hear your answer.”
A whisper of a smile crossed his face. “I wouldn’t dare, lyubov moya.” The cold light made his eyes look like blue ice or the ocean by some tropical island. Bottomless in any case. “I don’t know,” James said finally. “I thought I wanted to back before… before everything. But then it became all about survival.” He looked at his hand, curled and uncurled his fingers in a flash of silver, then back at her. “I’m not saying I want kids and I’m not saying I don’t. Maybe when things are less explode-y. If you want them, too. Maybe then we’ll talk about adopting a kid, but not now.”
Adopt. He wouldn’t even consider having a biological child of his own because she couldn’t. The only future he mentioned was one with her in it. Words stuck in Natasha’s throat.
“I want you,” James said. “More than anything, I want you by my side.”
She took half a step forward and caught his hand in hers, kissed the palm of it. “You have me.”
He was silent for a long while. His eyes never leaving her face, his fingers tight around hers. Then he swallowed and said in a voice that sounded none too steady. “Back at the wedding. Stark’s and Pepper’s. It was a joke and it wasn’t. I do want to marry you. It doesn’t have anything to do with Becca or—” he motioned around with his free hand, encompassing the cemetery around them “—fear of mortality or anything like that. I’ve thought about it for a while. Don’t want to put it off till it’s too late because I was afraid to ask.”
Most people reacted to a proposal from the person they loved with happiness or maybe surprise. In that restroom, at a party where they had been celebrating the love between two of their friends, Natasha’s reaction to the love of her life proposing to her had been gut-churning fear. And to make it even worse it hadn’t been the thought of spending the rest of her life with James that had scared her. It had been the utterly repulsive thought that he deserved better than someone with blood on her hands. But she’d gotten it all wrong. What this kind, generous, loving man deserved was someone who understood, someone who knew what it was like to fight, tooth and nail, for their humanity. Someone who could see all that he was, the good parts and the bad, and not flinch away from them. Now the answer was simple. She swallowed and opened her mouth to answer, but he stopped her.
“I’m not asking you now. Not in the middle of a graveyard. I’m gonna do this properly, with roses and champagne and all that. But I want you to know that I wanna ask you to marry me. If that’s something you’d be okay with. It’s not something we have to— I’m not—"
“James, darling, stop talking.” Natasha put a finger on his lips, tried in vain to keep the stupid, happy grin off her face. “I accept your proposal to propose.”
He looked down at her with wonder and so much love it made her dizzy. “God. Good God, Nat.” He caught her face in his hands, kissed the tip of her nose and brushed his lips against hers. “I adore you.”
The top of her head might fall off if her smile got any wider. Natasha slipped her arms inside his warm coat and wrapped her arms around his ridiculous waist, said, “I know you do.” Buried her face in his thick scarf when his mock-disgruntled, “Hey.” transformed the warmth bubbling in her chest into what would have been a bout of laughter.
Married. She felt like a love-sick teenager. A schoolgirl swept off her feet for the first time.
Another, “Hey,” this time soft, made her look up at James’ adoring face. “Let’s go home.”
She nodded, unable to trust her own voice.
Home, where they could wrap themselves around each other and not let go for hours on end. Home, where it was just the two of them and the love they shared. Nothing could be sweeter than that.
She stretched to kiss him with closed lips, then released her embrace and they walked together, arms around each other, through the falling snow.