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From the Ukraine, with Love

Chapter Text

2011, March

 

Cooking was love made tangible.

That’s what Steve Roger’s foster mother had always said. It was the principle by which he’d lived his life up until that point. When Steve’s mother had died, Winifred Barnes had taken him in (Steve was under no illusions that Big Jim Barnes wanted anything to do with him) and had taught him to cook, she’d taught him to work hard, and she’d taught him that love spoke a lot of different languages and that not one of them ever should be fear.

Which is why the C on his Garde Manger course was so damn disappointing.

“Fuck,” Steve muttered, crushing the course review paper in one hand.

Part of the problem, Steve knew, was that he didn’t really like recipes. He preferred, highly preferred, to cook to someone’s individual tastes. Which meant knowing someone.

Not a skill for a chef in a highly replaced restaurant.

Food was love. It wasn’t grades. It wasn’t… impressing some bored teacher who probably ate fifty nibbles a day and went home to cook ramen.

“It’s only the mid-term, right, Rogers?” One of his classmates sat down next to him on the bench. “I’m sure you’ll pull it up by the end of the semester.”

“Are you reading my report card over my shoulder?” Steve asked her. He was trying to remember her name, but for the life of him, it just wouldn’t come to him. She’d been in two of his classes last semester, and was in his pastry class as well.

“Don’t have to,” she said. “Your face says it all. Cold Kitchen is a nightmare. Honestly, salad dressing is boring. But the ice-sculpture and watermelon carving should be fun. We get to partner up for that, right? You want to work together? I’ve seen what you can do with fondant, you should be a natural for sculpture.”

Steve had wanted to be an artist, but there really wasn’t any money in it. But working with elaborately decorated cakes had been a fun exercise of his talent, even if fondant tasted like shit and he was still not sure at all that layered rice-krispie treats counted as cake.

The culinary school’s ideal was all about presentation. How the food looked on the plate. How well it fucking Instagrammed. Tiny little nibbles served on fancy curve-back appetizer spoons. It wasn’t about the food, it was about the innovative dining experience.

Steve just wanted a goddamn cheeseburger.

“What’s in it for me?”

“Dude, you need to work on your tact,” she said, sitting down next to him. “I’m offering to help you.”

No, you’re not. Steve managed not to say that. “I know what you’re getting out of it--”

“Heavy lifting and artistic skills,” she said, not even ashamed. “What you’re getting out of it is a better grade than you can manage on your own. You don’t suck up enough. The teachers don’t like you. You’re arrogant in all the wrong ways.”

“There’s a right way to be arrogant?”

“If there is, you haven’t figured it out yet,” she said. “Look, Professor Arize likes me, so he won’t grade anything we do together at less than a B. Probably an A.” She looked at him, then made a very specific face; Steve knew the one. And he knew what she wanted. Christ, cooking school was not supposed to be about fucking his way to the top.

It was probably a political move; she wasn’t interested in him for himself, she was interested in him because for some reason he annoyed someone she wanted to annoy. Or she was getting back at her ex. Or proving some obscure point to a rival. Steve didn’t understand any of what was going on in those circles.

He’d been caught up in it a few times. That first time, when he had no idea what he was doing and he’d thought that Ann-Marie actually liked him. She hadn’t, she’d just been rubbing her independence in Bobby’s face. They’d been back together by the end of the month.

God, Steve hated liars. He hated liars, he hated bullies, and he hated this goddamn school.

“Yeah, okay,” he said. “We can work together for the carving.”

“Great,” she said, resting her hand on his wrist, her fingers curling into his palm like she thought she was seducing him. And Steve still couldn’t remember her damn name.

“Here.” He handed her his phone. “Put your number in, I’ll call you.” Best way he knew to actually get her damn name without asking and sounding like a complete putz. If he was going to play this game, he ought to at least sound like he knew what he was doing.

***

Winifred Barnes was a big woman, tall and broad-shouldered with gray eyes that shouldn’t have been warm but were anyway. Her hair had once been dark, rich brown, but it was more dishwater and silver these days. She had a brilliant smile and her hands were warm.

“Stevie,” she said as Steve pushed in through the front door of Dockside. He hadn’t been home in a while; he was sharing an apartment in Norfolk with an ever-rotating list of roommates, but that wasn’t home. He’d started with Phillips and the second bedroom was always swapping in and out. The lease probably said Dooley was still in that room, but he hadn’t been by in months, and Vernon Masters was the one handing Steve a check at the end of the month these days.

“I brought lunch, Ma,” Steve said. “Molecular gastronomy class finals, this week.”

Winifred sniffed. “Is there enough there t’ make a meal of it?”

“Not really, no,” Steve admitted. “You know all that fancy cooking, it’s just for taste and presentation, not for actual, you know, nourishment.” He waved a bag at her. “But I also brought cupcakes, so…”

“You’re forgiven,” Winifred said. “Jimmy’s not here, he’s still up to TCC.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said. When he hadn’t seen Bucky’s Dodge in the parking lot, he’d figured as much. It was too early for Bucky to be out on the prowl.

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Winifred said. She dug into the insulated container first. She eyed the dishes dubiously. They were packed in dry ice, and even then, the actual presentation wouldn’t be as good as the first time he’d set them out. He rather liked the molecular classes; it didn’t seem as much like cooking. More like mad science you could eat. “So, give me the fancy rundown.”

Steve ran through the full eight courses; from the pea gel in suspension to a carrot, mango and orange sphere with rose crystals, all the way to a dessert of caramel powder over a praline sponge cake. Two bites per dish, each served on a little crystal plate-lette or a spoon, or sometimes in the artistic hand-blown glass bowls that Steve’d had specially made for him by the glassblower at Historic Jamestown.

“So,” Winifred said, pushing back from the staff table just a bit, “how much did that cost me in one of your fancy plate restaurants?”

Steve laughed. “About a hundred and seventy-five dollars,” he admitted. “It’s a chef’s tasting menu.”

“For that much, it better wash the dishes when it’s done,” Winifred said. She shook her head and wiped her hands on her apron. “You want me to make you a cheesy western, Stevie?”

“God, Ma,” Steve said, “would you? Please?”

“Anything for my favorite son,” Winifred said. She was a little slower getting up than usual. She put one hand to her lower back as she crossed the kitchen floor toward the stove. Steve scowled behind her back.

“Are you okay, Ma?” Steve was not what anyone would call rational about people he knew being ill. He’d spent half his childhood in and out of hospitals for asthma that had, finally, cleared up when he was seventeen. Turned out that living in a house full of mildew wasn’t good for him; living at Dockside instead of in Joe Roger’s festering mobile home had made a huge difference in Steve’s quality of life.

When his mom had gotten sick -- she’d contracted Hep B from a blood draw gone wrong in the hospital, and the outbreaks had caused liver failure -- his father had left them, but there had been no money to find a better place to live.

Steve was a little too familiar with watching sick people move. She hadn’t answered him, either, and that was worrying. “Ma?”

Winifred gave him a quick smile. “Just getting old, Stevie,” she said. “I’m no spring chicken anymore. Back jus’ hurts sometimes. I’m fine, don’t you fret none.”

Well, that much was true, at least. Steve and Bucky might have been almost the same age, but Winifred had been chasing fifty by the time Bucky was born, a good twenty years older than Steve’s mom.

“I’ll have you know, I excel at fretting,” Steve said in the snotty chef’s voice that Alison had been teaching him.

“Yes, you do,” Winifred agreed, cheerfully enough. “So, how’d your grade go, on that eight course meal of bite-sized nothin’?”

“I got an A,” Steve reported. “I’m probably good to graduate next semester on schedule.”

“And what are you going to do with yourself, then? There’s not so very many fancy dining spots down here. Folk don’t have four hundred dollars for dinner when they’re working at the shipyard.”

Trust Winifred to see right to the heart of the matter. The sort of places Steve was training to work for… Well, he might be able to open a cupcakery in the area, but there were already so many. There were a few three- and four-star places up to the beach, but most of them had chefs that had been there for decades. He was staring at the face of the dilemma; it was either work someplace shitty where he was mostly reheating stuff shipped in that was the same in Newark as it was in Nebraska, or move away from home.

“I don’t know,” Steve confessed. “I hate it.”

“Hate the not knowin’, or--”

“I hate the cooking,” he said, and his voice broke. It seemed like such a betrayal to admit it. Winifred had taught him to love cooking, but what he was doing in class bore only a passing resemblance to what he’d done at Dockside, and certainly nothing like the magic he’d made in Winifred’s personal kitchen upstairs.

Also, it was a bad time to figure that out, since he’d already spent the meager 529 account that his mother had put aside for his education. If he’d gone to a traditional college, he might have at least gotten a bachelor’s degree, and been prepared to do something with his life. Cubical hive work, or something. Not like Steve knew.

His mother had been a nurse, his father had been… well, a professional drunk and con-artist, really. Odd jobs. Managed to sweet talk people into giving him work with his “I’m a recovering alcoholic” speech. And then Steve had come to live with the Barnes family, who owned a restaurant. What did Steve know about white collar jobs?

Winifred slid one of the Dockside’s blue china plates in front of him. They were old and chipped and desperately familiar. The cheeseburger in front of him looked ten times better, smelled a hundred times more amazing, and was at least five times as filling as the ridiculously designed meal he’d offered to his foster mother. Steve took a huge bite, soothed by the grease and cheese and egg, heavily seasoned with mustard relish.

Well, they called it comfort food for a reason, Steve supposed.

“You know, Stevie,” Winifred said, easing her way back into the chair at the head of the staff table, “not everyone loves their job.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said, talking with his mouth full and grinning when Winifred scowled at him. He took care to chew and swallow before continuing. “But you know, I just… I don’t want to hate my life eight hours a day. That seems a waste of a life.”

“Steven Grant Rogers,” Winifred said, “you are the bravest, most generous, most determined young man I know. And I have no doubt that whatever you find yourself doing in a few years’ time, it will not be wasteful.”

Steve wanted to cry, just a little. Part of it was guilt, really. He and Bucky had gotten into some trouble again recently, and Bucky’d fronted, taken most of the blame. So, while they’d both been arrested, Winifred was very clearly not pleased with her flesh-and-blood son at the moment. “Bucky--”

“Jimmy’s… well, he’s going through a wild spell,” she said. “Comes of my bein’ so old, I think, when he was born. Just didn’t have a firm enough hand with him. But you’re his rock, Steven. When he’s all done splashing around, he’ll come back to you.”

Steve managed a smile for her. He and Bucky were more than friends; they were brothers in all but blood. He’d do whatever Bucky needed, he knew that like he knew his own name. “I’ll look after him, Ma, I promise.”

“You’re a good boy, Stevie,” Winifred said. She kissed the top of his head.

Chapter Text

2011, August

The school was located on the banks of a river. They were close enough to the ocean that the river sometimes ran a little salty, but it was a river, just the same. She could stand on the shore and look at the tourists on the opposite bank. And it wasn’t as if there was nothing interesting about river ecology -- Natalia was looking forward to classes starting, in a couple of weeks. But she’d grown up on the shore, had learned to swim at the same time she’d learned to walk (and been better at it, to hear her father tell it), and she needed to feel the surge of the tide, to hear the crash of waves and smell salt on the air.

It took her mere moments to unpack her belongings -- she liked to travel light -- so she made her way out of the little apartment and into the campus proper, currently overflowing with children who were here for science summer camp, and a few other graduate students who had arrived early or stayed for summer classes. There was a knot of them in the yard outside the coffee kiosk, comparing the relative pros and cons of the professors.

“Where is there surfing, here?” she asked when they noticed her.

The tallest of the young men, who wore his hair combed almost straight up, making him seem even taller, looked her up and down. Slowly. Almost insultingly so. “Where you from, Red? Not a local.” The others behind him laughed as if he’d said something clever.

“No,” Natalia responded. “If I were local, I would know where there is good surfing already.”

“Don’t mind this bozo,” the second man said. He tipped a pair of red sunglasses down. “I’m Scott, this is my brother Alex.” He pointed at the others in turn, introducing, “Sean, Dante, and Jean. Best surf is a about an hour or so south of here. Virginia Beach. Crowded, though. Especially this weekend, just before Labor Day. You’ll want a local guide, for the choice spots.”

She nodded once. “Natalia,” she introduced herself. “Do you know such a guide?” An hour wasn’t too bad, though not as good as her parents’ house in Odessa, only a few blocks from the shore.

Scott pushed his glasses back up on his face. “Babygirl, you’re lookin’ at the best surfers in this area. Me an’ Alex, we know all the secrets. And, if you’re real good, we even got access to a boat. Best surfing is north of here, but the beach itself is government property. You can’t get to the waves except by boat. But if you’re not up for boating, Fort Story’s good surf.”

Natalia didn’t appreciate being called stupid cutesy names, but she did need someone to show her where to go. She wasn’t sure if “government property” and “access by boat” meant illegally sneaking onto government land. It sure sounded that way, though, and she didn’t dare risk her student visa for something as small as surfing. “Let us begin with this Fort Story,” she said. “When?”

“She’s really serious?” One of the other guys, nudging the red-headed girl with his elbow, was staring at her. “What, she just ‘spect us to drop every--”

“Shut up, Dante,” Alex said. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want.”

“You got a board and gear, or do we need to hit the Seventeenth Street surf shop?” Scott asked. He was moving in, standing very close inside her personal space. “I don’t know about the rest of these losers, but I'm game. The weather should hold for the weekend. I’ll pay your beach fee, if you want.”

Natalia took a step back, pointedly. “I have a board,” she said coolly, “and I can pay my own way.” She cast her gaze toward -- Dante, was it? “If this time is inconvenient, I will wait,” she told him. “I wish only to know when such a trip may be arranged.”

“Nah, it’s good,” Scott said. “Tide’s early, meet us --” He pointed to the edge of the parking lot. “--there. With your gear. Around seven? On Saturday. We’ll head down, catch some waves, the last of the rays, grab a bite, and come back up? It’ll be fun. Right, guys, it’ll be fun.”

The other girl huffed. “Right, Scott. Fun. Of course. Next trip, we hit the skatepark, okay? I hate having seaweed down my swimsuit.”

Dante nodded. “That seems fair, yeah? We can take turns doing stuff on the weekends. You’re that Russian girl, right?”

“Ukrainian,” Natalia corrected firmly. She had learned this at Rutgers, that Americans could not tell the difference between many Slavic accents and dialects, so she was not quite offended. Yet. (A particularly annoying girl on her residence hall there had insisted, “okay, but, like, you can’t separate out all of our accents, either, so, like, chill,” and Natalia had taken precisely three days of study before returning to demonstrate not only her ability to hear but to speak with at least six different American accents, including New York Bronx, Georgia debutante, Midwestern Opie, Texan rancher, South California surfer, and Bostonian. Dottie had refused to speak to her for the rest of the year. To Natalia’s mind, that made it well worth the three days of effort.)

However, she had no friends here yet and it would be a mistake to alienate the only other graduate students she had encountered, so she added, “I can also skate; this is a good plan. Is there ice cream?”

The one who hadn’t yet spoken gave her a quick smile, shy. He had dark blonde hair that hung in his face in tangled curls. “There’s always ice cream,” he said. “You been to 31 Flavors yet?”

There was a lot that Natalia disliked about America and Americans, but American ice cream nearly made up for all of it. “Thirty-one?” she asked, disbelief stretching her eyes. She had counted twenty-three flavors in the big grocery store near campus, but had never seen thirty-one flavors of ice cream all in one place. “Where is this? Can we go there?”

“Yeah, sure,” the guy said. “There’s one down near Coliseum, in Hampton. Couple others. There’s one down at the beach, too. And Dairy Queen, but that place sucks, it’s all icemilk with bubbles. Not worth the drive. I’m Sean Cassidy, but you can call me Cass, if you want.”

Dante made a high pitched, “oooooOOOOOOoooo,” sort of noise, snorting and giggling with the girl. “Cass is crushin’,” he said, mock whispering.

Natalia rolled her eyes. Were they twelve years old, that two people could not plan to enjoy something together without others turning it into some sort of romance? Well. Given the way Scott had attempted to climb into her cleavage earlier, it was probable that romance was not what most concerned them. “This is good advice,” she told Cass. “Give me your phone, I will put in my number so that we can plan to have ice cream.”

Cass grinned at that, but not in the smug way that Scott had been smirking. She might decide to like him, at least. He handed over an ancient phone, the entire back of it covered with tiny glitter stickers. “It was my sister’s,” he said. He pulled up the contacts screen and then handed it to her. In a low voice, not meant to be overheard, he said, “Don’t drop it; it’s gotta last another year. Unlike some of these guys, I’m here on a grade-based scholarship.” He raised his voice again to ask, “Where’d you do your undergrad?”

“Rutgers,” she said. “Doctor Richards recommended this program to me, as the best for the field I wish to study. Perhaps we will study together, if we have classes in common. Where did you come from?”

“Tampa, Florida,” he said. “Learned to surf in waves that’d knock these guys on their ass.” He gave her a quick wink. “We’ll have fun, yeah?” He hit save on his phone, then lifted it and took a quick picture of her. “Here, I’ll text you and then you’ll know my number, too.” He thumbed the screen several times in rapid succession and then her phone buzzed. He’d sent her two emojis, an ice cream cone and a question mark.

She beamed and sent him back an exclamation point. Perhaps this would not be so bad.

***

The beach was clean. That was nice; Natalia had been on several beaches where picking her way around the trash before getting to the water had been an ordeal. The sky was hazy, a thin skrim of clouds blocked out the sun, which was also nice. She’d already doused herself in sunblock and had to ward off several insistent attempts of Scott’s (and to a lesser degree, Alex, but since Scott appeared to have established some sort of claim over her, the others were following his lead) to smear more lotion on her.

He had been explaining the hows and whats and whys of the surf report, how to go about spotting a good wave, and the best manner in which to get to her feet on the board, once in the wave. Nothing she didn’t already know, but sometimes it was good to listen; the best way to improve her English was to listen to someone talk about things she was familiar with.

Still, it was a little galling to be talked down to as if she were standing on the sand for the very first time, especially since she was leaning on her Widow’s board. Surely, he would wind down soon and let them go about getting into the water.

“Just let him take you double once,” Cass said in her ear. She was getting more used to him, the slight young man who spoke in an undertone. “You can flip him off the tip of his board and he’ll let you make a fool of yourself alone, the second time. It’ll be faster.”

She rolled her eyes again, but Cass might have a point. The next time Scott paused for breath, she stuck her board in the sand and gestured to the water. “Show me. Better than talk.” Let him think her understanding of English was less than perfect.

Scott smirked. He was handsome, Natalia supposed, in a casual, decadent American sort of way. He spent too much money on hair care and clothes, and not enough time improving himself or his mind. Even from their few hours’ acquaintance, she could tell that he relied on money and his looks and his father’s name to get him what he wanted, and unlike Cass, wasn’t really interested in the classes they were taking or what he was going to do with his life after school. But he nodded at her suggestion and dragged his board along with him out to the waves. Finally.

The water was warm, a bit of a shock, since the Black Sea was cool, and the Jersey Shore had been refreshing (although the beach there had been disgusting and covered in trash and excrement). She paused to let the waves wash sand over her feet and adjust to the feel of the tide, sucking at her legs.

“Come on, it’s perfectly safe, I promise,” Scott said, misinterpreting everything. He shoved the board out about waist high and climbed on.

Natalia laughed. “I have studied the ocean for four years, already. It is very far from perfectly safe.” But she accepted the hand he offered and let him pull her up onto the board with him. The danger of the ocean was part of why she loved it. Loved it enough to endure this oaf, with his inefficient paddling that wobbled the board and threatened to dump her back into the water. She couldn’t decide if he was crowding her on the board because he didn’t know how to properly ride in tandem, or if it was because he thought it would give her a thrill. She huffed, and reached into the water to push them farther out.

She would hand it to him, his pop into position was good, once he finally got them lined up for a wave, but his balance was lacking and he didn’t know how to compensate for an additional person on the board; she was in front and it was harder to shift her hips in time with him, since she was having to base it all on the movement of the board under her feet, rather than being able to watch the set of his shoulders and hips. It was like fighting the water and Scott at once, rather than the subtle dance she knew surfing could be.

But the waves were good, four to six footers, with the occasional overhead. She could do something with these waves. Scott shifted, rocked them up onto the glassy surface of the curve. Sharper than she would have done, with a passenger, and she was forced to drop her knees until she was practically squatting on the board to keep her balance.

She could almost think he was trying to dump her off the board, just to make sure she knew how superior he was. Damned if she would fall first, though. She shifted her stance a little, trying to control the board herself enough to get it properly lined up.

There were ways to fall that didn’t involve turning the whole board upside down, but apparently Scott didn’t know them. They got to the end of the wave, Scott moved back -- too fast -- to turn them and the whole board went tip over tail. She took a near-stunning blow to the small of her back as she was diving down to get clear. The tether was too long and too loose and she got tangled in the black cording. It wrapped itself around her arm and she was dragged along the wave by the board’s weight.

She had not panicked at a bad fall for more than a decade, though adrenaline was flooding her over the pain and unexpected lack of air. She stifled the urge to flail against the tether or kick at everything that was bumping into her as they were tumbled along with the wave -- Scott, the board, random bits of shell. She grabbed at the rope with her free hand and tugged it off her arm, then followed it to the board and grabbed it to keep it from rolling again. She clung for a moment, coughing seawater and dragging air into desperate lungs.

Scott popped up about twenty feet away or so; splashing at the waves and turning himself in frantic circles, searching. “Nat?” He coughed, went under, then surfaced again in the right direction. He paddled over to the board. “Nat, you okay? God, sorry, sorry, that was me, that was --” he grabbed the board, coughing again. “You hurt?”

Well. At least he wasn’t a completely useless asshole. “I am not hurt,” she told him. Bruised, at worst, which was hardly unusual in rough seas. She kicked the board closer so he could grab on. “Are you all right?”

“Sprained my dignity,” he said, giving her a watery grin. “You’re faster than I am,” he admitted. “Every time I went to shift, you were already there.”

She huffed at him. “I told you, I am not a novice. I have been surfing many years.” He looked like a drowned puppy, now, with big sad apologetic eyes, and she conceded, “Thank you for showing me this beach. It is a good spot.”

They let the tide wash them most of the way to shore, and then Cass was there, helping them out of the water and fussing. He hissed over the red spot on Natalia’s back, prodding it with gentle fingers, before poking Scott’s bruises a little harder than necessary. “You don’t have to drown out there, trying to prove a point.”

“Nah,” Scott said, waving it off. “I’m man enough to admit I got schooled. Let’s see what you can do solo, Not-a-novice.”

“Let her catch her breath, jeez,” Jean said. She was not surfing, had refused to even consider it. She was stretched out in the sand, wearing a barely-there bikini and soaking up the not-quite sun.

“Oxygen is for losers!” Alex claimed, dragging his own board toward the sea, “but I’ll take a turn while you two sit there like sodden dishrags.”

“Asshole,” Scott said, kicking sand in his brother’s direction. He straightened out the beach blanket and dropped onto it, still breathing hard and coughing from time to time. “I am sorry, Nat.”

“You may earn forgiveness with ice cream,” she told him, but there was a smile tugging at her mouth. Perhaps they could be friends.

 

Chapter Text

2011, just after Labor Day

New Text from Bucky:
Need u 2 cm pick me up

Steve checked the timestamp; he’d been julienning vegetables for the last two hours straight. Eventually, he hoped, Chef would let him do something else -- anything else. If Steve never saw another carrot or zucchini, it would be too soon. Bucky’s text was only ten minutes old, so he texted back. U ok? Still need ride? Where are u?

New Text from Bucky:
Yrktn pub. Prety drnk nt gd 2 drive. ride?

What the fuck was Bucky doing all the way up in Yorktown? Ug, he was going to have to tie his bike down in the back of Bucky’s truck in the dark. But it wasn’t like he was going to just leave Bucky to drive home drunk. He checked the time again. Hour and half to end of my shift. B there in 2hrs ok?

“Do I pay you to stand around and look pretty, Rogers?” The head chef had his arms crossed over his chest; his sleeves were spotted with sauce and his apron was filthy. “You want me to dock your pay another half hour? Put that toy away and do not bring it in my kitchen again.”

One of the sous chefs behind him put her hand over her mouth and muttered to the dishwasher, “I’d pay ‘im to stand around an’ look pretty any day of the week.”

Steve carefully tucked his phone into his pocket, then yanked at the ties on his apron. “I’ve got a family emergency,” he said shortly. “Fuck you, and fuck this job.” He threw the apron into the linens hamper and stormed out the kitchen door.

Chng of plan, be there in 20.

New text from Bucky:

rt. Good Am sad stupidgay asshole undr th tbl thrwng up Cnt miss me

Steve abruptly had a notion of what Bucky was doing in Yorktown, and ground his teeth together. He wondered if he could make it there in fifteen minutes.

Traffic meant it took him twenty-three minutes, even with his best driving and gunning the bike’s engine to make the idiots get out of his way. He was still seething a little when he walked into the pub.

Bucky was more or less as advertised, though someone had managed to get him into the bathroom to clean up a little, or possibly just dragged him outside and thrown him into the river. “Come on, Buck,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Bucky opened one eye. “Do you think I’m unlovable?” That came out in a mix of Bucky’s most flirty drunk come-on voice and like he was an inch from bursting into tears. “Like, completely, totally, not even worth it unlovable?”

Yep, it was definitely Pierce. That was the only person who had this kind of effect on Bucky. Christ, but someday Steve was going to punch Pierce right in the mouth. “If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t be here, you jerk,” Steve sighed. He grabbed Bucky’s wrist and hauled it across his shoulders. “Come on, let’s get you home to sleep it off.”

“Don’ wanna sleep,” Bucky complained. “Ma’s gonna freak at me again for bein’ gone the last two days an’ not callin’ her. I ain’t a kid anymore, Stevie.” Bucky almost walked right into the door jamb before Steve got them straightened out and into the parking lot.

Steve was probably just imagining the collective sigh of relief that came from the pub. “I know, Buck, but she’s your Ma. She still worries. Gimme your keys.”

Bucky dug around in his pocket, fumbled a few times. “He put his wedding ring on the dresser, Stevie. Right there! On the dresser.” He hitched in a breath, more like a sob. “I don’t… I don’t know… He couldn’t’ve left it at home? Or somethin’?”

“Well maybe,” Steve suggested, unlocking the truck and helping Bucky climb up into the passenger seat, “you shouldn’t be fucking a married guy, even if it’s just a political marriage of convenience.” Not that he expected Bucky would listen this time, either.

“They’ve only been married like three months,” Bucky said, sullen. Like that had anything to do with anything. “She’s at her mom’s. Renata. Renata Pierce. It’s not fair, Stevie. I love him. It’s just not fair.”

Steve sighed and closed the door. It took him ten minutes or so to lift his bike into the bed of Bucky’s truck and tie it down so it wouldn’t get scratched up. He braced himself and climbed into the truck. “Someday,” he promised Bucky, “someday you’re going to find someone who loves you back. Someone who actually deserves your love.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Bucky said. He tipped his head to look up at the ceiling and Steve could see the fresh bruises flowering on Bucky’s throat like a collar. “Doesn’t even matter. No one makes me feel like Alex does. Doesn’t matter. I love him, Steve. He doesn’t love her. S’not his fault that we can’t be together all the time. He doesn’t love her, he loves me. He does. He said so.” Bucky’s voice rose and fell and he sobbed out the last sentence. Tears shimmered under his lashes and he closed his eyes, letting them fall.

Steve snorted indelicately as he started the engine. “Alex Pierce doesn’t know how to love anyone,” he muttered.

“Mmmm,” Bucky said, almost dreamily. “He knows. God, he knows. I’m not gonna walk right for a week.”

Steve wanted to throw up, himself. “That’s not love,” he grumbled. “That’s just sex.” And Steve really, really didn’t want any details, but Bucky was a little shit, so saying that guaranteed that Bucky would go into even more detail.

Bucky tipped his head back again. “Ug. Whose idea is it to serve beer and raw oysters at the same bar?” Rhetorical question, Steve hoped. “Besides, how would you know th’ difference between love an’ sex, little brother? You been gettin’ some that I don’t know about? Come on, fess up. When was the last time you got satisfied?”

That was just cold. Steve couldn’t help but remember Peggy, who’d been the last girl interested in Steve for who he was and not just for the muscles he’d finally developed. “Doesn’t matter,” he told Bucky tightly. “When was the last time Pierce did anything for you that didn’t involve your dick?”

“Hey, my dick is prime real estate,” Bucky protested, but even in the dim light cast by the street lamps, Steve could see the ugly red flush creeping up Bucky’s neck and staining his cheeks. “We haven’t seen each other since before the wedd-- since May. Of course we want to spend it naked. S’not like he cares about m’ stupid classes or my damn job or nothin’.”

“That’s the point, Buck,” Steve argued. “If he cared about you at all, he’d care about your life! And if you were just getting your rocks off, too, I wouldn’t care. Well, not as much. But he’s making you miserable, Buck. It’s driving me crazy.”

“I don’t have a life,” Bucky pointed out. “It’s not his fault. I should… I should just deal with it. I just… I love him an’ it hurts, every time he has to leave me. I should be happy. We get some time together. I’m th’ only one he ever comes back to, Stevie, an’ he loves me and I should be happy with that. It’s not his fault I’m greedy. I just… I just want to be able to go somewhere with him, hold his hand, not… not have to worry if anyone sees us. What that’ll do to his reputation. I just… I wish he didn’t have to be ashamed of me.”

Steve was going to crack a molar if he didn’t stop grinding his teeth. “He should be ashamed of himself,” he snarled. “You deserve better. You deserve someone who’ll give you more than a couple of days a damn year and will stand by your side, not shove you in a dark corner.” Not for the first time, Steve wished their brief experiment at dating each other hadn’t been such a disaster. If Steve wasn’t one hundred percent straight, he’d be able to give Bucky the love that Bucky deserved.

Bucky closed his eyes and for a long while, he was quiet. Steve watched the street signs go by. “Thank you,” Bucky said. “F’r comin’ to get me. Sorry I piss you off so much, punk. I’d change it, if I knew how.”

“It’s not you, it’s him,” Steve said, sighing. “You know I’m always gonna come for you. To the end of the line.”

***

James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Why is it that m’ full name always sounds like the crack of doom?” Bucky wondered, leaning a little harder on Steve. So much for hoping that Steve could get Bucky up to bed and let him sleep it off before Winifred got hold of him. They were halfway up the stairs to the residence when Winifred burst out of the kitchen, apron still on. The only possible way she could be more terrifying was if she were wielding a kitchen knife (or maybe a rolling pin) in one hand.

“Steven, you bring him back on down here,” Ma said. “I ain’t fixin’ to yell so loud that I can be heard from the Sound.”

Bucky huffed. “You could yell at me in th’ house,” he suggested.

“No, sir, I cannot,” Ma said. “You want to be an adult, you can come down here and take responsibility for your actions on your feet like a man.”

Bucky turned to Steve with an air of wounded dignity. He scowled, but Steve was already maneuvering around to help Bucky back down the stairs. Bad enough he was drunk, Ma didn’t need to see him fall face-first into the sand. “Why… you ain’t exactly treatin’ me like an adult if you’re gonna scold me like I’m back in grade school, Ma.”

“Well, perhaps if you acted more like an adult, you’d get the respect you think you deserve,” Ma said. “In the meanwhile, I fielded a phone call this morning from the Rite Aid. Maurine asked me to tell you to pick up your final paycheck, based on your lack of attendance to your job. Care to explain to me what was so important that you had to quit on your obligations without so much as a word to your coworkers?”

Bucky groaned. “It was a stupid job, Ma,” he protested. “Jus’ runnin’ a register an’ stocking shelves.”

“And yet, for a stupid job, you weren’t able to hold onto it for very long,” she said. The worst thing wasn’t that Ma was so angry, it was actually that she was calm. Disappointed. “You’re going to ruin your work record, Jimmy. Come time, no one’s gonna hire you with that track record.” She gave him a flat, unimpressed look. “If you weren’t my son, I sure as hell wouldn’t. Not the way you’ve been bouncing from job to job this past year.”

Bucky put one hand on the rail, trying to take his weight off Steve to face Ma upright. “It’s not like it matters, Ma. There ain’t jobs out there for people my age, not for the schoolin’ I got. And I’m never gonna pay off loans to go more. You know that, I know that. Just. Just stop, okay? We can talk about this in the morning.”

“Steven, will you please talk sense to him?” Ma turned a look of expectation on Steve; expectation that, he realized with a sinking feeling, he was not going to be able to meet.

“He’s... kind of right,” Steve said. “Job market’s not gonna want either one of us for anything but gruntwork.” Oh, crap.

Bucky almost toppled off the staircase, turning to look at Steve. “Oh, no,” he said. “Change of plans, Stevie?” His voice was soft, but it still carried.

“Why do either… of you need a job? Steven, you… did you quit another sous-job? Already?” Ma was no one's fool. Her hands went to her hips, making her look even more fierce. “Sake’s alive, are you both tryin’ to fret me into an early grave?”

Steve suppressed a wince. “Buck needed me to come get him; I wasn’t about to let him drive in that state. Besides, that asshole wasn’t worth working for. Not one drop of love in that kitchen, Ma.” He sighed. “You don’t gotta worry about us. We’ll get by.”

“He shouldn’t be in that state,” Ma said. She heaved a sigh. “No, I ain’t gonna worry about you. Neither of you. Y’both need steady work, so you’ll come home. Steven, you can take the grill, and Jimmy’ll go back to dishwashing and bussin’ until he can prove responsible enough to do somethin’ better. You both know my standard wages. An’ I don’t want to hear nothin’ more about it. You get better jobs, you give your notice and you go. Are we clear on that, boys?”

It was half a step up from outright charity, and that stuck in Steve’s throat, but it was also family, and even if Steve was a head and a half taller than her these days, she’d still box his ear for him if he suggested it. Besides, there was no arguing with Winifred Barnes when she had her jaw set like that. “Yes’m,” he agreed, and kicked Bucky in the ankle to keep him from saying whatever stupid thing was lining up to come out of his dumb mouth.

She pointed one finger at her son. “An’ lay off the bottle, Jimmy Barnes. You’re sloppy. I didn’t raise you to be a lush. Get him upstairs, Steven. I’ll see you both tomorrow and I’ll go over the schedule.”

Winifred speared both of them with one last glare and stalked back into the kitchen, muttering and grumbling and gesticulating wildly with both her hands as if they’d literally driven her mad at last.

Bucky watched her go, then heaved a sigh. “‘M sorry, Steve,” he said. “I… I didn’t know you quit so’s you could come get me.”

“Ah, he was an asshole anyway,” Steve said. “He was going to keep me on the damn vegetable spot for the next two years, I could tell. Truthfully, workin’ here’ll be a step up.”

Bucky snorted. “Yeah, it’ll be okay. Maybe washin’ the damn dishes all th’ time’ll get me t’ actually put out th’ damn resumes. Not that I got so much as a bite, th’ last set. Everyone wants five years experience. In five years, all the experience I’mma have is washing damn dishes. Great. Fantastic. There’s nothin’ here.”

God, he hated it when Bucky was drunk and maudlin. “You’re gonna do the dishes for like two months, and then sweet-talk her into calling you an assistant manager or somethin’ through the off-season,” Steve told him in his best no-nonsense tones, “and then you can put that on your resume, too.”

 

Chapter Text

2011, October

 

October was stupidly hot. The days were almost indistinguishable from late June, in the high 80s and low 90s, with ridiculous humidity. The only nice thing about the weather was that Natalia’s school friends had figured out the best way to keep her in a good humor, and ice-cream was readily available.

Despite the rain, which had been intermittant all day, she’d accompanied Cass and Scott out to grab a sundae at McDonald’s. It wasn’t the best ice cream, but they were all up to their eyeballs in mid-term studies and no one wanted to drive more than ten minutes out from campus. The boys had a class together, and plans to meet for a study group. By the time their ice cream break was done, they were running late, and just dropped Natalia off at the edge of campus rather than taking her all the way to her apartment.

It was raining.

It was hot. And raining.

McDonald’s ice cream hadn’t been worth this.

Her hair was clinging to her, getting in her mouth, wet and clammy and uncomfortable. Natalia needed to remember to just start carrying her umbrella with her all the time.

She stepped off the curb to cross the street and water from the rapidly filling gutters soaked into her shoe. She darted across the street and behind her building, headed for the entryway when she heard a soft, plaintive squeak.

She dismissed the noise; there were birds and squirrels aplenty in the area that made a wide variety of sounds. A few steps later and she wrinkled her nose at the smell; someone had dumped something unsavory in the trash. She took a shallow breath and slipped by the dumpster.

“Mrrrr?”

Natalia turned just in time to watch a garbage bag move and shift on the top of the pile. She flinched -- a rat? -- and then leaned closer, curious. The bag let out an unholy yowl, tiny and pathetic. The bag moved again, like something was struggling inside it. Natalia frowned. Even if it was a rat, nothing really deserved to suffocate like that. She glanced around the alley and found a broken-off piece of plywood, thin and strong. She poked the bag with it and gingerly fished it out of the dumpster.

She stepped on one end of the bag and used her stick to rip a hole in the other side, tearing it open as little as possible and moving away, so the rat, or whatever it was, could leave. The smell was worse. Like something decomposing. A swirl of flies buzzed out. Natalia gagged and moved even further away.

The bag rustled some more, squeaked.

A tiny grey nose poked out of the bag. “Mmrrrrrr?”

Koshka?” Nat dropped down into a squat, keeping her jeans away from the wet and filthy pavement. “Kitty?”

The kitten poked its head out of the bag, looked around timidly. It caught a glimpse of Natalia and ducked back into the bag. Natalia sighed. She didn’t want to get closer to the bag, having a really clear idea now of what was in it, but what choice did she have?

“Oh, goodness, you stink,” she told the kitten as she tugged at the bag, trying to see while touching it as little as possible.

The kitten hissed, puffed, and then yowled as her fingers came down on its tail. “Oh, stop that,” she scolded, then got her hand around the kitten’s tummy and plucking it from the bag. She held the struggling furball tightly while she looked in the bag. The mother cat and two more kittens were dead. Very dead.

“Poor baby,” she told it, dumping the bag and dead animals back in the trash. “Someone wanted to get rid of you, but we’re going to spite them, aren’t we?”

The kitten reeked of death and garbage. Under the grime and its matted fur, she thought it might have been the dull gray of dust. Green eyes narrowed at her, and the kitten started yowling like a miniature demon.

“Stop that,” Natalia said. She kept a firm grip on the kitten and stalked up to her apartment. Someone in the complex had… just discarded this poor kitten and its siblings and parent like it was trash. She was furiously angry. God help the person who had done this thing, if Natalia ever found out who it was.

When she got into her apartment, she tossed her pack on the table and took the kitten to the bathroom. “You are very smelly. Poor thing, you will not like me much for this, but I believe I must give you a bath.” She sniffed at her own hands and arms. “Perhaps, if you can be very well behaved, we shall both take a bath? I do not smell any better than you do, now.”

The kitten struggled in her grip, then mewed again, sad.

“Yes, well, I cannot help that,” Natalia said. “You are very dirty and it would be unfair to expect you to clean it all yourself.”

She pushed the plug in, ran some water and felt the temperature. She placed the kitten at the end of the shower, letting it stay dry while she got the water to a comfortable depth, not so much that the kitten would drown if it managed to struggle free. It squeaked and hissed as the water crept toward the back of the tub, trying to stay dry. It was a lost cause and soon the baby was up to its belly in water. She turned the water off and dug under her sink for a sample bottle of shampoo; she knew she had something mild under there.

“Mrrrrp!” The kitten growled and then pounced on the water’s surface, trying to attack a reflection. It got a faceful of water instead and sneezed several times, backing away all the way to the edge of the tub.

Natalia laughed at the kitten and went back to digging under her sink. By the time she found the sample bottle of shampoo, the kitten was thoroughly wet and actually paddling around in the deeper end of the tub. “So, you like to swim, do you, little kitten? We will get along quite well, I think.”

The kitten might have liked the water, or at least not hated it, but was not, at all, a fan of the shampoo. Natalia had to chase the slippery little thing around a few times in order to get all the suds out of its fur. Once she’d rinsed it off a final time, she pulled it out and dropped the kitten on a towel.

“Now, you stay here, and I will get the smells off of me,” she told it. She looked around. There was no place for a kitten to hide in the tiny bathroom, as long as she had both the door and cabinet closed. She pulled the plastic shower curtain back into the tub, undressed, and turned on the spray.

She was just washing her own hair when the shower curtain twitched and swung and a moment later, the tiny gray face was peeking around, having scaled up the cloth exterior. “Well, come in, then,” Natalia said. A moment later, the kitten was playing underfoot and attacking her toes while Natalia worked conditioner into her hair.

***

The kitten, fluffy and clean and slate-gray, was crying piteously from the front pocket of Natalia’s hoodie as she walked into the pet store.

“I am needing assistance,” she told one of the store employees who was wearing a red jacket. “Tell me where I will find supplies to tend a kitten not ready to be weaned. And instructions. I need to know what to do, so she will not die.”

“You took a kitten from his mother?” The guy said. He stopped pushing his broom and rolled his eyes.

“No,” Natalia said. “The mother was dead. Someone stuffed it in a bag and left kittens and mother to suffocate. This one lived. I should like that it continues to do so.”

The guy sighed heavily as if Natalia was asking something of extreme difficulty. “My shift is almost over, why don’t you --” he scanned the store “-- go over there by the registers and I’ll page one of the vets?”

“This is a good plan,” Natalia said.

The veterinarian, who was cleaning the small grooming clinic station, was more interested in the kitten than the floor-sweeper had been.

“Based on size,” she said, “this little lady’s about four weeks old. That’s good, because it means she’s gotten most of the antibodies from her mom that she needs. But you’ll have to hand feed her, probably for another week or two.”

The vet, who introduced herself as Dr. Brandt (“but you can call me Mandy”), weighed the kitten, then gave her a subcutaneous injection to get fluid levels back to normal. “You should feed her every five hours or so, 8ccs per ounce of body weight. You’ll want to get a scale, because that number should go up fairly regularly. If growth stalls out, you should bring her back in, right away. I have a kit in the back for people who do fostering through our adoption agency with all the gear, and a heating pad for her to sleep on. She’ll miss her mama for more than just milk.”

The vet gathered up materials for a feeding, showing Natalia how to mix and measure the formula, test a bottle’s nipple, and do a nursing session, feed for a few minutes, then let the kitten rest.

Mandy gave Natalia a searching gaze. “Hand-raising a kitten is a lot of work. You’ll have to get up in the middle of the night to feed her, and at least for another one to two weeks, you’ll have to help her eliminate waste. She’ll need to be groomed, and she’ll probably cry a lot. Are… excuse me for saying so, but are you willing to commit to this?”

Natalia looked down at the baby who was curled up around her wrist, sucking the last bit of milk from the syringe. “She reminds me of my mother’s cat. Brave and determined, and with such bright eyes. I will keep this kitten.”

Mandy smiled. “Well, congratulations then, cat-mama. I’ll help you get everything you need to give her the best possible care, and bring her back to me in a week, and we’ll see how she’s doing from there.”

“Thank you,” Natalia said.  

“So, does your kitten have a name, yet?”

Natalia looked down at the tiny fluffball. “I will call her Liho.”

***

“Miss Romanoff.” Dr. Namor had stopped in front of her station. “Do you have an animal with you?”

Natalia managed to avoid rolling her eyes. “Yes,” she said, simply, turning back to her work. The OS 520 instructor gaped at her for a long moment before putting his hand over her lab manual.

Why did you bring a kitten into my classroom?”

“She requires feeding every four hours to maintain ideal body weight. It is impractical for me to cease my studies to return home to feed her. Much easier to bring her with me.”

Liho wasn’t bothering anyone. She was curled up in the shoebox that Natalia had brought with her to class. She’d heated a sock full of rice to keep the kitten warm and happy, and Liho wasn’t due a feeding for at least another hour, by which time she would be outside and between classes.

Between classes, Liho rode around inside Natalia’s hoodie-pocket, out of the wind and weather and where she was comforted by Natalia’s body heat and the occasional gurgle of Natalia’s stomach. (Kitten care had also been very expensive, Natalia had discovered, something that the vet had not mentioned, and in order to maintain an adequate supply of money in her accounts, Natalia had started skipping lunch.) Liho seemed to find the gurgling similar to purring, since the kitten would knead on the inside of the pocket and chew the laces of her sweatshirt after a particularly loud stomach growl.

“It will be only a few weeks, Dr. Namor,” Natalia said, trying to sound reasonable. “She will be old enough then, to not need constant feeding.”

“I’m afraid you will have to take your kitten outside, as it is a distraction to the other students. If you’d care to return without it, you can complete your studies,” Dr. Namor said.

“No, sir,” Natalia said, putting her hand over the shoe box. “I will not. She was left for dead in a trash bag behind my home, and I will not leave her anywhere.”

“You may be excused, Miss Romanoff.”

Natalia gritted her jaw, then began packing her stuff. She didn’t look around as the other students behind her shuffled and whispered and probably pointed and mocked.

What she did not expect was that when she was ready to leave, she stood. And her entire class stood up with her.

“Excuse me?” The professor asked, eyebrow up, face supercilious.

Cass grinned, wide, and Natalia couldn’t help but smile back at him. In that moment, her friends were all behind her. And the entire rest of the class. Warmth spread through her chest and she breathed a little easier.

“If the kitten’s not allowed, the rest of us aren’t staying either,” Cass said. “She’s not a distraction.”

“Mr. Cassidy, sit down this instant, or you are risking your grade,” Dr. Namor said.

Cass rolled his tongue around in his mouth for a moment, then said, “Begging your pardon, sir. We’re oceanography students. If we get the jobs we want, we’ll be risking our lives, eventually. I think we can take the risk that you’re not going to fail the entire class.”

Dr. Namor’s cheek twitched a few times, then he said, very tightly, “Very well. As long as the creature doesn’t disturb the class, you may all remain.”

After class, Natalia grabbed Cass’s sleeve. “Thank you, for what you said.” She pulled the warm ball of fur out from her sweatshirt pocket. “And Liho, she says thank you, as well.”

“You’re very welcome, Natalia,” Cass said. “Namor’s a blowhard, but he doesn’t have any spine to back it up.” He picked up the kitten and cuddled her against his cheek. “She’s cute.”

“Yes, she is,” Natalia said. She bit her lip for a moment. “We are good friends, you and I, yes, Cass?”

“Like to think so,” Cass said.

“You… You may call me Natasha, if you like,” she decided.

“All right,” Cass said. “Natasha.”

 

Chapter Text

2012, February

 

“I’m telling you, Buck,” Steve said, averting his eyes from his best friend, who was gleefully stuffing his face, “raw fish is disgusting.”

Bucky chewed noisily. He leaned back in the cheap mall chair, surveying the food court’s floor like he was a king with territory. “It’s good,” he said, finally finishing his mouthful. “You just lack a sense of adventure.”

Steve glared, tempted to kick Bucky’s chair out from under him. If they’d been home, he would totally have done that. Of course, if they’d been back at Dockside, Winifred would probably be yelling that Bucky didn’t have four on the floor anyway. “And talking about living adventurously, you’re eating raw fish at the mall. Seriously, Buck, don’t you care about food poisoning at all?”

In answer, Bucky shoved another piece of sushi in his mouth.

“You eat like a barbarian,” Steve said with an air of finality.  

“‘Least I get laid,” Bucky snarked. He was eying someone over Steve’s shoulder, which was disconcerting. It also made him want to turn around, but he knew better by this point. Anyone that Bucky was getting his flirt on with would take one look at Steve and run for the hills. Bucky called it a side effect of Steve’s resting bitch face.

“Fairly certain that your deplorable taste in food has nothing to do with your ability to… do that.”

Bucky snorted, chair crashing to the floor as he shook his head. “You are so, so sad, brother,” Bucky said.

Steve scoffed. It wasn’t like he was having any trouble; when he went barhopping, he’d picked up a few girls, although he never scored digits, as Bucky would have it. The girls he had gone with never really wanted to talk. Or even let him take them to dinner. When Steve had mentioned how uncomfortable the whole situation made him, Bucky had just laughed.

“C’mon,” Bucky said. “We’re gonna miss the movie.”

“Terrible food, terrible movie,” Steve moaned. “I swear, the reason I don’t have a girlfriend is that I’m goddamn dating you.”

Bucky didn’t say a word, just got up and dumped his trash. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and slouched down, the way he did in public, headed for the courtyard which would take them over to the theater, leaving Steve to scramble to catch up.

Steve groaned inwardly; there was just the faintest flicker of pain in Bucky’s eyes. Goddamnit. Steve always opened his mouth and stuck his foot in it, right up to the hip, but he couldn’t seem to help it. There was an utter lack of filter between his brain and his mouth.

It was warm, for February, and the balcony from the food court was crowded with a group of skater bois. It wouldn’t take long, Steve figured, before the mall cops would be out and run them off. Five guys and two red-headed girls were talking loud and swearing (despite all the “No #$%^!” signs around the mall) and smoking, boards under their arms.

Steve caught a glimpse of one girl’s face, oval and sweet, with a double-curve mouth. She was wearing all black, which drew attention to her creamy skin and peach lipstick. She was smoking a cigarette and glaring at her companions as if she didn’t really want to be there.

Bucky grabbed Steve’s elbow and pulled him to the escalators. Steve couldn’t quite help it, he turned around to watch the redhead fade from view.

“... coward,” one of the skater bois said.

Suka, blyad,” the girl said. She butted her smoke and flicked the filter at the trashcan. She unlimbered her skateboard, shoved off the wall.

Steve was riding the escalator backward at this point, staring. What the hell was she going to do on a skateboard on a tiny strip of cement on the second floor? She got a short start from one side of the balcony and pulled up, landing with her board on the rail.

Holy shit. If she fell, it was twenty feet straight down onto a concrete slab. Steve lurched in her direction and then stopped -- what the hell did he think he could do? She was too far away.

Her friends were screaming, yelling. The other girl was practically falling off the balcony rail. “Nat, you crazy bitch!”

The redhead got to the bottom of the rail and catapulted off, her board spinning away. She landed neatly on her toes and rolled, rather than sticking the landing. She bounced up, bowed, and threw double middle fingers up at her friends. “Suck it, Summers,” she yelled.

Suddenly Steve was in excruciating pain. Agony razored up his shin and he tumbled forward onto the pavement, skinning his elbow.

Bucky yelled, surprised, and then grabbed hold of Steve’s shoulders and tried to wrench him back to his feet.

His shoelace was caught in the damn escalator. He couldn’t get up and it kept dragging his leg.

“Steve!” Bucky snapped, getting Steve’s attention from uselessly jerking his knee forward. “Get your shoe off, idiot.”

The redhead girl stomped over to them and smashed her hand on the emergency stop button. The escalator ground to a halt and Steve found himself on his hands and knees, bleeding and looking like an idiot in front of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life. Proof, he thought, in that track of his brain that never shut up, that he was just pathetic. That voice sounded a lot like his dad.

The woman offered him a hand. “Are you being hurt?” Her voice was heavily accented, the way she placed her words foreign. Adorable. “This, falling from heaven thing, I do not think anyone meant you to do that.”

Next to him, Bucky laughed, the utter asshole.

Steve let her take his hand, the feel of her skin against his got his heart going. “I’m Steve,” he said. “Are you okay?” God, he even sounded like an idiot. He stood up, realized how close he was to her, and how scooped her tee shirt was, giving him a view of entirely more cleavage than he was used to seeing. He blushed, hot and furious all along the back of his neck to the tips of his ears.

“I did not--”

She stopped talking as her friends gathered up around her. A guy with dark hair and a pair of red-mirrored sunglasses grabbed her and swung her around. “Natasha, that was fantastic, you’re amazing! I--”

“Put me down!” The woman was struggling under the man’s hold, twisting and writhing, which wasn’t getting her anywhere. “Scott, let go!”

Scott laughed as if he thought she was joking and swatted her butt, which had her shrieks going up from mildly annoyed to outraged.

Steve didn’t even think, he just reached, grabbing Scott’s shoulder and bringing him to an abrupt halt. Nat stomped, bringing her foot down on Scott’s instep, which had the man hissing and scrambling backward.

“God, Natasha, you’re such a bitch,” Scott snapped.

“You do not call me that!” the redhead yelled, getting right up in his face. “I am not your sweetheart. You call me Natalia.”

“Whatever,” Scott sneered. “Not like anyone would touch your crazy ass if you paid ‘em.” One of the other guys with them laughed.

Steve stood there, awkward, his leg bleeding, his elbow torn up, and he didn’t know what to do. These were her friends, she was old enough to make her own choices, even if they were bad ones. “There’s no need for that kind of talk,” Steve said.

“Dude, fuck off, this ain’t your business,” one of the other guys said, not the one who was laughing.

“Language,” Steve said, mildly, indicating the No Swearing signs. He crossed his arms over his chest, which had one of the guys backing up. Steve sometimes forgot that he’d gotten taller in the last few years; he wasn’t quite used to looking down at people.

“Forget it, guys,” Scott said. “Have fun gettin’ back to school by yourself. Natasha. Let’s go.”

Scott put his arm around the other redhead and pulled her off toward the parking lot. After a moment, they were all headed out.

“I hate this country,” Natalia said, her hands on her hips as she watched them go.

“Steve, hissst.” Bucky was jerking on his sleeve.

“What? Stop it.” Steve winced; God his arm hurt. Natalia was watching her friends leave her behind and Steve was trying to figure out how to offer her a ride, so she wouldn’t do what that Scott guy was obviously assuming she would and run after them-- “Bucky, what?”

Bucky shoved the movie tickets in his hand. “Go, go, ask her.”

Steve looked down at the tickets, then over at Natalia, who had stalked over to her skateboard and picked it up. She ran one hand over the red hourglass in the middle of the board. “I can’t do that,” Steve protested. He wasn’t sure what he was protesting, exactly. Natalia was… beautiful. Perfect. He couldn’t ask someone like that to go see a stupid movie. Not to mention Bucky’d been wanting to see the movie forever; this was supposed to be their thing. They only got one day off together every other week, and they always spent it away from Dockside.

Bucky had terrible taste in movies, but they took turns. Bucky liked romcoms and musicals and comedies where people fell down the stairs; Steve was more of a historical films buff with a side helping of kung fu flicks and biopics. He grabbed Bucky’s arm and squeezed. “But you --”

“Steve,” Bucky said, seriously. “Go ask the girl out. Get laid. It’s fine. I’ll see the movie next weekend, okay?”

Natalia had taken her board and was sitting on the edge of the wishing fountain, her feet on the skateboard. She was rolling it back and forth, the ball-bearings in the wheels ticking. She was staring at her shoes.

“Buck--”

“My god, Steve, you fell on your face just lookin’ at her. Might as well see if she’s worth talkin’ to, right?”

Bucky clapped him on the back and gave him a shove in the right direction. Before Steve could protest again, Bucky was back in the front doors of the mall, hands stuffed deep in his pockets.

Steve kicked a rock out of his way. He stared a moment longer, then looked after Bucky, torn. They both looked so sad, and Steve wasn’t… shit. Finally he looked back at the tickets in his hand; Bucky had been talking about this film since he heard it was coming out. Well, Bucky wouldn’t have given up the tickets if he hadn’t thought it was worth it. Either that or he was going to chase down the guy he was eyefucking over lunch. Probably that; Bucky was always on the prowl.

Satisfied that Bucky would be okay, Steve walked over to Natalia.

“Ma’am,” Steve started, then flinched. No one liked being called ma’am who wasn’t at least ten years older than Steve was, and not usually even then. “Um. Your friends, they, like… I…”

She wasn’t helping him out, either. She just looked up and watched him try to stammer his way through a simple request.

“My name’s Steve,” he said, trying again. “And, I… you’re the most beautiful --” Stop it, shut up, oh, my god! “-- and that rail slide, really amazing!”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Look, I --” Steve’s neck was on fucking fire. He could only imagine what he looked like; his skin was so fair that he blushed like a fire engine. “Would you like to go to the movies with me?”

Natalia blinked at him. She had the prettiest eyes Steve had ever seen. Blue, with a tiny ring of hazel around the pupil. He could die happy, looking at them. “I would. I would like this, very much.” She stood up. “My name is Natalia Romanov. You may call me Nat if you wish.”

“Not Natasha,” Steve said. “I got that.”

Natalia threw an angry look in the direction where her so-called friends had disappeared. “Natasha, this means… sweetie. Darling. It is not for Scott Summers to call me familiar.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah, he was pretty awful. I’m Steve, by the way. Steve Rogers.”

Natalia looked down at the ground, then up at him again, and a smile crossed her face, wide and beautiful. “You have said this, Steve Rogers,” she said. He didn’t realize until that exact moment that what he’d wanted was for her to say his name. He liked the breathless way it sounded, the way she rolled her mouth around the syllables.

“Do you like popcorn?” Steve said. He gestured at the theater. Natalia threaded her hand through his arm, and then she laughed as he almost walked right into the fountain. Her laugh wasn’t mean, or even mocking. A cheerful, low and throaty sound. Almost soothing.

“I do like popcorn,” she said. “You will buy me some.”

He sat in the dark with a strange woman, watched a terrible movie and they both got popcorn grease all over their hands. After the film, he discovered how much of an asshole her friends had been; Natalia was stranded on the Southside when she went to school in Newport News, almost forty miles north.

“We were doing, today, our volunteer work,” she said. “At the aquarium. I am studying ocean conservation efforts. After six months, Scott asks me to date him, but this I do not want. He has been making up for himself excuses. I do not know if we will still be friends. He was not much good at that either, but I only have made a few.”

“Look,” Steve said, “I can give you a ride home, but I just want to tell you, I rode my bike out here. I keep an extra helmet, but I don’t have gear for you. It’s gonna be cold.”

Nat leaned against his side. “You are big and warm,” she said. “And at home, it is below freezing. Minus six, says my brother, when he emails to me. I will be fine.”

As it was, Steve insisted she wear his jacket on the way to her home; it would be colder when he drove back. Bundled up in his jacket, Bucky’s helmet on her head, she should have looked ridiculous, but instead, she was still the most incredible thing he’d ever seen.

Forty freezing minutes later, she climbed off the back of his motorcycle and took off the helmet, her hair crushed flat underneath. “We will do this again,” she said, impish and smiling. “Give me your number, Steven Rogers.” She bounced up on her tiptoes and kissed his mouth, light and quick. Just that small touch had electric impulses racing through his nerves.

“Anything you say,” Steve agreed, dazed.

Chapter Text

2012, May

 

Liho spent half the time Natalia was trying to do her hair jumping up onto the dresser and attacking her hairbrush. “You,” Natalia said, pointing the hairbrush at her cat, a much smoother and sleeker animal than she’d been a few months back, “are useless and annoying.”

She used a pin to hold the braid down, wishing that Borja had come to the States with her. When they were growing up, he could stick a finger into her braid when she needed it. Now, she had a pack of hairpins and an annoying cat instead of her brother.

Natalia twisted the braid and started pulling it around her head. She didn’t wear the style often but she’d also not gotten a haircut in the last several months and it was long enough to do something elaborate.

“What?” she asked her cat, who was sitting on the end of her dresser, looking all judgemental, the way cats could do, sometimes. “He is a fancy chef and he is offering to cook special, for me. I want to look nice for him.”

“Mrrr.”

“What would you know about it?” Natalia pinned the braid in place again. Her hair was trying desperately the escape, and she really needed a third hand. “It’s not like you are old enough to date.”

“Mrrrrrrrrow.”

“Well, of course I like him,” she told the cat. It was true, she’d even told her parents the same thing. She was dating an American man that she liked. It might even be more than that, but she wasn’t sure. She liked him, he liked her. They enjoyed spending time together. Despite the shift-changes at his work that kept them from spending very much time together.

She went through it again in her head. Three times, they had gone to see movies together. Once, he took her to a local Farmer’s Market to shop; it was a combination date and work trip, as his boss had sent him specifically for some items on what should have been his day off, so he’d picked her up anyway, and they’d purchased more onions than Natalia could imagine anyone ever wanted, but also jellies, and homemade bread, and there was goat-cheese and pears poached in wine sauce.

Steven had bought a hand-woven basket to pack their treats in, that day, and they’d gone for an impromptu picnic before he had to take her home and deliver the onions to his employer. They were, he’d told her, for a condiment topping known as mustard relish, and the place he worked only made it once a year, in enormous quantities and would spend most of the weekend jarring it up. He’d promised to bring her some.

It was an American thing, she supposed.

Their most recent date, he’d brought a small bucket full of colored chalks, taken her to an abandoned retail store, and they’d drawn all over the sidewalk.

She’d been proud of her matryoshka art, four dolls, each smaller than the next, that were simple and elegant.

Until she had looked over to see Steven’s drawing. He’d done the most amazing illusionary cut-out, as if the sidewalk itself had broken open to reveal the sea beneath, with a stingray swimming, and sea plants and coral.

She’d known at that moment that Steven was the one. Now, there was only to wait until Steven came to that conclusion himself. She tied off the braid with a clip and looked at herself in the mirror.

“Well, Mama would do better, but it is mostly agreeable,” she said. “Do you think?”

Liho was sleeping and didn’t give an answer. “Useless furball,” Natalia said, affectionately.

A knock echoed through the small apartment, somewhat softer than Steven’s usual firm staccato. It was, perhaps, a little earlier than they had agreed, by five or ten minutes. When she opened the door, he began apologizing immediately. “Sorry, I know I’m early, and I would’ve waited -- I swear, my Ma’d smack my butt for having no manners at all -- but the store was faster than it ever is and I didn’t want to just leave it all sitting in the heat.” He held up his bike’s bag, stuffed with groceries in cloth shopping bags, bicep bunching nicely.

“You may make it up to me,” Natalia said. She smoothed out her blouse, checking to make sure she hadn’t smudged eyeshadow over the fabric. “Come inside before Liho escapes. Always at the door, that one. You would think she had enough of the outside, but no.”

“What? Yeah, of--” Steven looked around his feet for Liho, even though she was still sleeping in the bedroom, and half-stumbled through the door. He pulled up short, staring at Natalia with wide-eyed surprise. “Oh, you... You look like a princess.”

Definitely the one. She put one hand to her hair, checking to make sure the braid was still where she’d put it. “What? Oh, this? It could look better. My brother, Boris, he used to help me with it. I need three hands and an eye in the back of my head to do it, but thank you.” She closed the door behind him and leaned on it to fasten the lock. “The kitchen, just through that door. I did not know what you needed, so I hope many tools are not required. I make a lot of soup. Borscht and solyanka, but mostly, I eat out of the little shops.”

Steve watched her for another moment, as if hypnotized, then shook his head as if to clear it and took his bags to the kitchen. “No, I shouldn’t need anything much, a baking sheet and a roasting pan and some serving spoons. I brought my own knives.” He started unpacking the bags: Bread. What seemed like dozens of kinds of vegetables -- onions and carrots and celery and brussels sprouts still on the stalk. An entire whole chicken. A couple of jars of some unidentifiable stuff, one yellow and one dark brown. Goat cheese, she recognized, and a small wheel of brie. Apples in three different colors. Lemons. Puff pastry. Ice cream. Butter. Sugar. Spice bottles, half-full, that he must have brought from his own kitchen. A bundle of herbs. Balsamic vinegar and oil. “I don’t think I’ve ever had either of those soups,” Steven said. “Maybe you’ll make them for me, sometime? I love trying new food.”

“Borscht is beet soup. With sometimes sour cream. Not American sour cream they put with nachos, but soured cream. And bread. My father makes very good, for occasions, but usually from store.” She put extra stress on her accent, playing up the Slavic poor-me-but-I-will-soldier-on. She'd gotten quite a lot of laughs from her group of surfer friends when doing that voice and despite her falling out with Scott, she found herself missing them. A little. Some days, a very little.

“Hmm, beets can be tricky,” he mused. “And soured cream... That would be an interesting combination, wouldn’t it? What’s the other one? Sol-- Sol-something?”

“Fish, mostly. With pickles and cabbage and lemon. It is very sour,” she said. “I grew up on the shores of the Black Sea. We ate a lot of fish. Too much, sometimes. I will make it for you, but you might not like it. My other friends, they do not. Too sour. Americans don't eat much sour, except desserts, I am thinking.”

Liho poked her nose out of the bedroom with a soft cry.

“And here is my koshka. My kitty.” She twisted into a squat. “Come and say hello.” She didn't actually expect it. Liho had not liked anyone else except the vet. And not even Doctor Mandy very much, all puffing and hissing and spitting.

Steven crouched down too. He didn’t try to reach out to touch Liho, just looked at her gravely, his forearms resting on his knees so his hands dangled down between them. “Hello, Liho,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Liho crept into the kitchen, one tiny gray paw at a time until she was just in front of Steven’s legs. She nosed out and touched his finger. Satisfied, she stropped his calf and then wandered over to look if anything had appeared in her bowl in the last few minutes. Not finding anything interesting there, she deigned to eat two bites of kibble, then trotted off into the living room where she curled up on the sofa.

“She likes you,” Natalia said, unable to keep the surprise from her voice. “She does not like anyone. Me, she tolerates. For food and cuddles and the saving of her life. And when I am in the shower. She likes water, to swim and splash in.”

“A cat who likes water, and me? Well, see, she’s just odd.” Steven grinned and turned to the sink to wash his hands and begin working.

She leaned in the door to the kitchen and watched as he worked; he handled the equipment with the grace of long familiarity, and told her ridiculous stories about the people who came to the restaurant where he worked, and about his childhood. Everything seemed to happen like clockwork: just as the chicken was stuffed with vegetables and dressed, he took a pan from the oven and slid the baked brie onto a plate, arranging toasted rounds of bread around it. Under the pastry that held it together, half the brie was covered in finely-diced baked apples, and the other half in the brown stuff, which turned out to be caramelized onion jelly, only barely sweet.

They nibbled on that while he continued to work, slicing the brussels sprouts from their stalk and halving them, then tossing them with oil and vinegar and goat cheese. He prepared an apple tart, as well, with what was left of the puff pastry and apples, and topped that with more of the goat cheese, glancing at her sidelong to see if she’d protest.

He poured glasses of wine for them both, then, and they took the rest of the brie out to sit on the couch and talk some more. After a time -- there was no timer, and he hadn’t been watching the clock; she had no idea how he knew -- he jumped up to take the chicken from the oven and replace it with the sprouts and the tart. “The chicken needs to rest before we carve it,” he said, which she actually did already know. “Just enough time to get the sprouts roasted.”

That done, he returned to the couch with the wine bottle and refilled their glasses. “I wanted to say thanks,” he told her with that perfectly ridiculous and endearing earnestness of his. “For letting me do this.”

“For letting you make food? All I am doing is eating it,” Natalia pointed out. If Scott could cook and if he'd thought to do so for her, he'd already be implying that she owed him. Steve was thanking her for doing her a favor? “Poch'emu ty tak bezumno mil?”

Steven cocked his head, looking a bit worried. “I don’t... Sorry, I don’t know what you said. But I really like cooking, for people that I, I like. My Ma says it’s an act of love.” He blushed, dark red all around his neck, and bright pink on his cheeks, because he was so stupidly adorable. “I mean, you’re not really just eating, you know? You’re letting me see bits of yourself, when you eat something, and I’m getting to find out whether I guessed right about what you’d like, and... I like taking care of people?” That blush just kept getting darker. He rubbed at the back of his neck self-consciously. “Not that you need anyone to take care of you, I mean--”

Natalia wondered if it was the Russian that threw him off. She didn't usually speak it when she wasn't alone. Or on the phone with her family. Strange that Steven made her comfortable enough to wish that he did speak it. “No one takes care of me here. My brother at home, he did. And my parents. Here, it is just me. And now Liho, but she is useless. Not even killing bugs. She is getting fat and giving nothing. You… you give much to me and ask me for nothing but company. It is good exchange. For me.”

“It’s a good exchange for me, too,” Steven told her. “I like your company. I like you.”

“That is good,” Natalia said. “And you were early today. Rude, your mama would say. You can make this up to me, now.”

“Yeah?” Steven said, and his voice was suddenly rough. “How should I do that, Princess Natalia?”

Natalia pretended to consider it. “I believe I will take payment in the form of kisses,” she said, as if this was a terrible punishment and he should be terrified. “One kiss for every minute early you arrived. This sounds reasonable to you?”

“Oh no,” Steven said, inflection flat. “How horrible for me. That will certainly keep me from being rude to you in the future, won’t it.” He caught her around the waist and pulled her closer. “God, look at you,” he breathed, abandoning the sarcastic tone entirely. “I sure musta done something right, sometime.”

“You do many things right,” Natalia said, letting herself relax into his embrace, strong, warm hands on her back. She reached up, lightly touched his lip with one finger, tracing the line of his mouth as it curled up into a smile. “One of those things is kissing me. So, you should kiss me, Steven.”

“As you command,” Steven said, and ducked his head to brush his lips across hers, just a light, barely-there touch, teasing and exploratory. He came back again with more pressure and a flick of his tongue across her bottom lip, gentle and worshipful.

She moved her hand to cup his jaw, urging his mouth to open. She loved kissing him; even if it had taken him three of their infrequent dates to work himself up to it, the first time they’d ended up making out while seated on his motorcycle and she’d spent so long sampling his mouth she’d had a beard burn on the side of one cheek. So fine and nearly invisible was his facial hair that she’d pondered the scrape for a while without realizing what it was.

He changed the angle a little, slotting their mouths together and sending a thrill through her nerves. She let a single, breathy moan escape into his mouth and leaned back, encouraging him to press her against the sofa, wanting his weight on her, wanting the feel of him against her. Liho uttered a meowing complaint and hopped down as they shifted on the cushions. Insulted again. Ah well.

Steven followed where she led, gratifyingly eager. His hand slid down her back, over the swell of her behind, and curled, broad and warm, against her thigh, and his mouth moved to her neck, teasing and licking at the spots she liked best, because he was nothing if not a fast learner.

Each kiss lit a fire inside her, his hands tempting, but not satisfying. She was, she realized, ready for more. More of him, more of this. Perhaps. If he was. He hadn’t said. Then again, she hadn’t asked. She let her head fall back, arched her back upward, pushing her breasts against his chest -- he was so stupidly large and strong and she felt tiny next to him, but also protected. Safe. It was almost as intoxicating as the wine. “How --” she started, then wriggled under him, tempting and teasing. “How many kisses is that, have you been counting?” It was a delight to tease him like that and have him respond to her, in his own joking, deadpan manner. They matched, in that regard.

He gave her such a hangdog look that for an instant, she thought he was truly upset. “Forgot to count,” he said, breath coming hard and fast. “Guess I’ll have to start over again.”

“Yes, you will,” she said, biting her lip to keep from grinning. “Here, give me your hand, you must do this properly.”

He obediently placed his hand in hers. “Such a screwup,” he chided himself, smirking, “it’s a wonder you’ll have anything to do with me.”

“One,” she said, placing a kiss in the center of his palm. Her stomach twisted, a little nervous, a little excited. “Two.” And she sucked one finger into her mouth, letting her tongue glide over the knuckle, then scraped her teeth lightly over the pad. His hands were huge, fingers broad and callused and dotted with burn scars. A working man’s hands. He tasted of spices and vegetables. “Three.” She leaned in, brushed her lips to his, turning his hand in hers. She let her finger circle his wrist -- as much as she could, at any rate -- and led his hand down. The side of her neck, over her collarbone, until his palm was on the swell of her breast. “Four…” She opened her eyes to see what his reaction was.

His eyes were huge, his breath held as he searched her face. She could feel the hard pounding of his heart against her other breast where he was half lying on her. But after a moment, he dragged in air and blew it out. “That’s some fancy countin’ there,” he told her. “Let me see if I can manage it.” He kissed her again, a tease, pulling away every time she tried to deepen it or open her mouth to let him in. “Five,” he said, and the puff of the word skated down her neck and tickled in the best possible way.

His hand moved against her breast then, finally, an ache of wanting that cascaded down her body as his thumb slid carefully over her nipple. “Six.” He was watching her, and when she gasped and arched into the touch, he smiled, genuine and happy and a little surprised, as if he hadn’t realized that he could make her feel so good. “Just how many d’you reckon I owe?” His accent got thicker with his arousal, a realization that delighted her to no end.

“Ten,” she said, less decisively than she meant to, breathless with wonder. She’d done this a few times before, but only once with someone she genuinely cared for, and that had been an awkward, bumbling sort of coupling that had left her out of breath and unsatisfied.

She knew herself better now, knew what she wanted from a man, from a lover, from a touch and a kiss. Steven…. Steven did not appear adverse to learning her, what she wanted and liked. Wanted to please her. Was pleased by her. But there was dinner to eat and dessert to have and they could take their time. Ten. Ten should set the stage well enough, to get them both interested, without being too wound up to function. She wanted to taste the meal he’d prepared for her, to drink more wine, to feed him little bites of apple tart.

Perhaps not quite as much as she wanted other things. But enough to put a limit on it, for now.

His smile widened. He seemed to know what she was thinking. Perhaps. But he rolled his hand lightly over her breast again, watching her reaction, testing every bit of its surface with his palm and fingertips. “Seven,” he told her seriously, though his voice was shaking, just a bit.

It took some doing; he was very heavy and while his waist was narrow in comparison to the rest of him, he was laying in such a manner that both of his legs trapped hers, but eventually she got one leg out and hooked over his hip. She curled her fingers around the back of his neck and drew him down, not letting him pull back. “Eight,” she said, decisive, and closed her mouth over his, licking her way inside, tasting the last remnants of the wine, the silken heat of him. His short hair was crisp and ticklish against her palm, not long enough to get a grip.

He groaned into it and rolled his hips against her, letting her feel the hard length of him against her thigh. He caught her nipple between his fingers and rolled it, ever so carefully, more daring than he had been when they’d been learning each other’s mouths. She arched into it, twisting and aching, and it was barely more than a breath against her ear: “Nine.”

He took another deep breath, then, and-- let go. Sat up. “Maybe... we should save ten for after dinner?”

Natalia closed her eyes for a moment -- he was too handsome, too tempting like that, golden and glowing and earnest. Everything throbbed in time with her heart, her temples, her lip, behind her ears. Between her legs. It was an almost unbearable itch, made her want to squirm and twist and press her hand there to relieve it. She was almost positive that if she did do that, she’d draw him back to her, irresistible. But he had stopped. On his own, without being nudged or directed or discouraged. If his behavior was not unique, it certainly was rare. Rare and precious and it made her want him more.

Good choices on his part.

She gave him a quick nod and a trembling smile. “Yes, perhaps we should eat first,” she said, giving him a coy look. She went ahead and threw the offer out on the table, as direct as she knew how to be. “You… may need your strength.”

His eyes widened again, and then closed, his lips moving in soundless words. But then he nodded, and when he looked at her again, it was with... intent. “I have no doubt of that,” he said. He visibly gathered himself, and pushed to his feet, grinning a little sheepishly as he tugged at the material of his pants and adjusted himself. “I’ll just... go turn off the oven before dessert burns.” He gave her another look, smoldering, and turned toward the kitchen.

Natalia had all of ten seconds to remember how to breathe properly, to try to bank the fire, when he yelled, “Oh, no!”

She rolled to her feet, scurrying toward the kitchen. “Steven, what --”

The chicken.

The chicken was not… entirely gone. The vegetables were still in the roasting pan, except some few that had been dumped into the sink.

There were bones scattered across the floor. Grease smears on the counter and the tile. One wing and part of a thigh had been shoved under the refrigerator, as if for safe keeping.

And the rest of it was just gone. Eaten. By a little thieving cat who was hardly the size of the chicken.

Po'shyol 'na hui, koshka,” Natalia swore. “Oh, Steven, I am so, so sorry.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he assured her. “Or at least, I guess, we were both kind of distracted. I’m sorry I didn’t think to cover it or... something. Too used to kitchens where no animals are allowed unless they’re on the menu.” He growled the last words, looking around for Liho -- doubtless to be sure she had taken his point -- but she was nowhere to be seen.

Natalia put one hand over her mouth, pressing against her lips. Her father had once told her she was the sort to laugh at a funeral, and while certainly this was no tragedy, it was still funny. Liho probably barely outweighed the chicken. She couldn’t imagine how swollen and fat and aching the kitten’s stomach must be, stuffed that full of poultry. There were probably bits of chicken scattered down the hall. Under her bed. On her bed, for that matter. She was going to have to move and clean everything just to make sure, or there would be bugs.

And yet, Steven looked so offended. Outraged. And a little -- fearful? As if losing a chicken was cause for her to turn him off, lock the door in his face and refuse his calls.

Such a big man, bested by a tiny kitten.

Oh, she should not laugh, she should not. Steven would be furious with her, perhaps. But the giggles were like carbonated soda in her belly, and they were going to come out whether she wanted them to or not. Natalia had both hands pressed over her mouth, turned away, as if to run to the bathroom, and just lost it. She leaned hard against the kitchen wall and let out a gasping laugh, and once she’d let one out, the rest of them were uncontrollable. She laughed, snorting and snickering behind her hands, eyes squinched closed as tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks. Her face heated and her lungs ached and she laughed until she couldn’t stand up.

When she finally regained enough control to look up, she found Steven leaning against the counter, arms folded across his chest, watching her with a bemused look on his face. He shook his head, lips spreading into a grin. “Well, Ms. Romanova, it seems the kitchen’s run out of chicken tonight. What’ll you like with your fancy side and dessert? Pizza, or Chinese?” He held up his phone and gave it a little waggle.

She twisted around on the floor to face him. “Pizza, this is good choice,” she said. “And you, you may call me Natasha, if you are especially feeling affectionate. This… Ms. Romanova, I do not know her. She does not come from around here.” She held out her hand that he might help her up. “I like mushrooms, onions, and none of this sausage as you call it. Too much fennel. You order, I will track down the kitten and see what else will need to be cleaned. Yes? This is agreeable? And I will, perhaps, owe you some kisses, that I have such a bad kitten.”

He pulled her into his arms after he’d gotten her up off the floor. “I might like the sound of that,” he admitted. “Very agreeable indeed.”

Chapter Text

They eventually found the rest of the chicken, buried in the pile of dirty laundry that was near, but not actually in, the laundry hamper. Based on the remnants, Liho had only managed to eat about a third of the actual chicken. The remaining two thirds had been scattered from one end of the apartment to the other, and to add insult to injury, it had apparently given the kitten an upset stomach, because there was a pile of still warm and wet cat-puke in the exact center of Natalia’s bed.

She stripped the sheets off the bed, muttering and grumbling in Russian the entire time.

They did not, however, find the cat.

Natalia piled all the clothes and sheets into her basket and grabbed a handful of change from her dresser -- a bowl there for that purpose, apparently, was full of coins to the point of spilling over. “I will get this in the laundry,” she said, “while we wait for our pizza.”

She opened the door, basket tucked against her hip, and almost ran the pizza delivery person down. The basket slipped from her grasp, spilling her clothes everywhere. She answered that with another round of Russian, angry and frustrated and stalked down the stairs, leaving Steve to stare at the delivery driver.

Fortunately, the driver hadn’t dumped the pizza; that would have just rounded out the evening to perfection. The driver waited until Natalia was out of hearing before giving Steve a sympathetic look. “Upset the missus, did you?”

Steve held up his hands in surrender. “If I’m lucky, she’ll let me make it up to her,” he said. He fished his wallet out of his pocket to pay for the pizza, and was grateful that she wasn’t there to see him wince over how it was going to clean him out. He’d dumped most of his ready cash into the dinner he’d planned to make. He handed the last of his cash over to the pizza girl. “Here you go,” he said. “You... might want to be gone before she comes back up the stairs.”

“Better you than me, dude,” the girl said. She made a little mock-salute with two fingers and dashed down the stairs.

When Natalia came back in, she threw herself down on the couch with a sigh. “Someone is leaving their clothes in the washer and there is no basket. I put them into the dryer, but if they do not come back soon…” She twitched her mouth a few times. “Steven… I…” She stared up at him as if not knowing what to say.

Like he would know any better? God, he could barely even look at her, still, without feeling starstruck and breathless. All the activity had made her hair start to come loose from its crown of braids, frail little wisps of hair dangling down and only serving to make her even more beautiful, which was just patently unfair.

Well, he’d been doing okay -- he thought -- so far by trying to remember some of the outrageous things Bucky had told him. What would Bucky do, here? It was such an absurd situation... Well, probably just keep the absurdity rolling until everything came around to okay again. “Come on,” Steve said, hefting the pizza box. “Come and have some dinner. You wanted sausage, right?” He waited until he saw the momentary flash of panic and frustration in her eyes before he grinned to let her know he was being a tool. “Nah, come on, mushrooms and onions,” he said. “Come eat.” If he couldn’t properly cook for her, he would at least feed her.

Nat pointed a finger at him and let out a rather expressive torrent of Russian, complete with hand waving exasperation and eyerolls and grimaces, enough so that Steve was starting to get really worried, when she finished it off with a batch of English, “too nice and how am I supposed to take you to my bed when I own exactly two sets of sheets and they are now both in the wash?”

She stopped, suddenly, putting both hands over her mouth and looking absolutely horrified that she’d said that much.

The words made Steve’s stomach clench. Not that he hadn’t figured out that’s what she’d meant, earlier, but hearing it was... nng. But she didn’t look terribly seductive right now, or even the sort of fake-mad that she sometimes put on as an excuse to demand that he make out with her. She looked actually worried, slightly pale and a little wild around the eyes.

Steve reached out, caught her hand-- well, more accurately, her wrist, because her hand was still flat over her mouth. He tugged gently until she stepped into his space, and then put his arms around her. “If it makes you feel better,” he offered, “I can be a jerk for a little while so you feel okay about pinning me down on the couch to have your wicked way with me.”

The corner of her mouth twitched and she lowered her hands. “I… yes, Steven, would you? I… perhaps enough of a jerk that you will owe me two.”

“Two... kisses?” She usually aimed higher than that.

“Two,” she said, and then she blushed, which didn’t quite match her hair, but it was close, a dusting of pink across her cheeks. “Two orgasms. And not yours and mine, either, Steven. Two for me. One for you. Yes? This is agreeable?”

Christ, it was like that time Bucky had accidentally elbowed him in the crotch, but better. Much, much better. So not like that time at all. Why was he even thinking about that when this amazing woman wanted him to give her orgasms?

Wait, he had to be a jerk first. “Yeah, sure, okay,” he said, with what was probably the most poorly-feigned nonchalance in the entire state. “But first you need to get us some plates for the pizza.” Jesus, how did actual jerks say this shit without wanting to kick themselves?

Natalia scowled at him, her face screwing up in a picture of righteous indignation, then she flounced off into the kitchen, her hips swaying provocatively. She slammed open the cabinets. China thumped onto the countertops. She did something else, he wasn’t sure what, and he also wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but when she came back, she’d taken two paper towels and done a fancy french pleat, tucking the silverware into each section, and put them on top of the plates.

I am gonna marry that woman, Steve thought, looking at the beautiful “fuck you” of those elegantly folded paper towels. They’d only been dating a few months, though, and hadn’t even slept together yet, so instead he took the plate she thrust at him,  flipped open the top of the box, and helped himself to the two biggest slices without so much as offering her one. (How much of a jerk was two orgasm’s worth? He had no idea. He was looking forward to finding out.)

Natalia grabbed one of the smaller slices, took an exceptionally aggressive bite out of it, then her eyes widened. She finished chewing, then said, “Oh, Liho, there you are.” She stared over Steve’s shoulder toward the sofa. “That was very naughty of you, stealing food.”

Steve turned to look, but didn’t see the little fluffball anywhere. He turned back to say something about cats having a sixth sense for being watched, only to discover that Natalia had scooped the entire bed of cheese and toppings off his pizza and was stuffing the whole mass into her mouth, leaving him with two wedges of greasy bread lightly coated with tomato sauce. “Oh, that’s how it is?”

Natalia chewed and swallowed like she’d grown up in the same house with Steve, Bucky, and Becca and had to have gladiator games to the death to get a second slice of pizza. She wiped her mouth off with her fingers and nodded. “That’s how it is.”

Steve nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “Okay,” he said. “That’s how it is.” He snatched her half-eaten slice off her plate and stuffed into his mouth.

The meal became a free-for-all, no-holds-barred battle. It’d been quite a long time since someone could eat more than Steve, but Natalia was fast, scarfing down pizza as if her life was on the line. Around the halfway mark, she started feeding him bits from her fingertips, half a mushroom, a bite of crust, letting him lean in before she’d actually give it over. At one point she grabbed hold of crust that was most of the way in his mouth, tearing it off with her teeth. By the time the pizza was gone, they were both well past stuffed, greasy fingers and faces.

“Aw,” Natalia said, looking into the box. “None left for breakfast. You will have to let me make you pancakes.”

A shiver went through Steve’s gut that had nothing to do with too much pizza and grease, and everything to do with that so-careful acknowledgement that he would, in fact, be here for breakfast. Steve drew a breath. “I’d like that,” he admitted. “You make good pancakes?” He snaked out an arm and pulled her from her chair and onto his lap. She didn’t weigh anything, it felt like.

“You will have to tell me,” she said. “No one else has stayed.” She bit her lip and then leaned in to kiss him, nothing like the frantic necking they’d done on the sofa, but soft and sensual, like she was memorizing the shape of his mouth. Her arms went around his neck, oily fingers against his scalp, the back of his ear. “I like you, Steven. I like you very much. I would… like it very much if you would stay with me, tonight.”

Steve wondered if she could feel the way his heart was pounding and his blood had all turned to fire. “I’d like to stay,” he said, as sincerely as he knew how. “I like you very much, too.” He caught her hand and pulled it to his mouth to kiss her palm, each finger. He licked the grease from her fingertips and then sucked on them, lightly flicked his tongue across the sensitive pads. “I’d like to make you feel good,” he confessed, feeling his skin flush as he nipped the base of her thumb.

“Yes?” She asked, shifting her hips to rub against him until he was panting, then grinned mischievously. “You must come down with me, then, and change out the laundry. Hold the rude person’s clothes, while I get sheets into the dryer, or I will be sleeping on the sofa, and you on the floor.” She climbed off his lap, making more of a production of it than strictly required, twisting and squirming.

Steve wanted to point out that if it came to that, he could sleep on the sofa and she could sleep on him, but he had to admit that having the space of a whole bed would be better. He arched up into her squirming, let her feel how affected he was already, but stood up once she’d put her feet on the floor and offered her his arm, a ridiculous gallantry. “Shall we, then?”

Swapping the laundry might have taken less time if Natalia hadn’t stopped to kiss him several times, taking advantage of his armful of cold, wet laundry that belonged to someone else, to tease and touch -- she stopped for a few moments to thoroughly explore the contents of one front pocket, claiming to have dropped one of her quarters -- before they finally got her stuff in the dryer, and the stranger’s things back in the washer where they could mildew in peace.

“This will take some time to dry,” she reported, turning the dial to 75 minutes. “And you owe me, I think… three, now. We will test my sofa, and see how well you can manage, yes?”

“Yes,” Steve said, probably too fast. “Yes, please.” Definitely too eager. He didn’t care. He’d been dreaming about this moment for months, he wanted her so much, wanted her to want him... He crowded her against the dryer and kissed her, deep and heated and oh, god she tasted like pizza and apples and how, how had he lived a single moment without knowing that?

She hopped up onto the dryer, spread her legs and cradled him in the vee, pulling him closer until they were grinding obscenely against each other in the laundry room. She was shivering in moments as he pressed against her, so sweet and good, even through their clothes. She gasped, then again, and Steve realized her thighs were vibrating in time to the load of laundry spinning underneath her. “Oh….” she said, her eyes went wide with a flush of heat, wanting.  

She twisted, squirming, against him, rubbing it out against his hardon, still annoyingly tucked inside his jeans. She moaned, sweet and thrilling, and then writhed again. “Not enough,” she complained. “Not… here, here, Steven, put your thumb, right…” She shoved frantically at his wrist, pushing his hand down. She leaned back, propped up on her elbows on the thrumming dryer and directed his hand where she wanted it. Her body heat was baking through her jeans, or perhaps it was the dryer, but Steve liked to think it was all her.

He watched her face, then, watched for the way her eyes rounded or her mouth dropped open or her whole expression went still. Tiny, minute movements, he reminded himself, because he hadn’t done this much, but he could cook, he knew the difference that small, subtle changes could create. A pinch of salt could turn a dish into perfection, or ruin it, leave it bland and unsatisfying... Without thinking, he curled his fingers in the familiar gesture, pinching salt from the cellar, and Natalia jolted under him, a low cry shaking out of her mouth, and Steve couldn’t stop himself from covering her mouth with his, desperate to lick that sound out of her again.

She shuddered, clinging to him for a long moment. When she pulled her mouth free of his to breathe, she uttered a few phrases. He didn’t know what she was saying; she could have been reciting the Ukrainian version of the preamble to the Constitution, for all he could tell, but the tone was heated, praising, affectionate. “You,” she said when she’d finally managed to come back around to English. “You still are owing, two. But this is a good start. Upstairs, now. It is too hot, too open. And I do not want my neighbor lady to see your butt. She will steal you away.”

“Nothin’s taking me from you,” Steve promised, but he pulled her close as if to help her down off the dryer, but then curled his arms under her thighs and ass and lifted her entirely. “Upstairs it is,” he said cheerfully, and carried her toward the steps.

Natalia squealed and buried her face against his chest, eyes squinched shut, going very, very still. “If you drop me,” she said, “you will be owing me soo very much wine and chocolate and orgasms.” She paused for a moment, then, “do not drop me, nevermind.”

Steve chuckled. “I’m not going to drop you, Nat.” He nuzzled at her ear. “At least not ‘til we get to the couch.”

Up the stairs, and she was still light and easy in his arms. She twisted the knob for him, and he carried her to the couch, but when he went to drop her, she slithered to her feet. “You stay here, one moment. I get for us, towel and a… prezervativ.” She made a gesture, holding her hands up to make a small circle. “That goes over your…” She waved a hand at his groin. “I forget the word.”

He grinned. “Forget which word? Condom? Or dick?”

She glared at him. “Condom. I am not bringing you a dick. You should have one of your own.” She peeled her shirt off and threw it at his face; her aim was pretty good and he didn’t get much of a look at the lacy red bra she was wearing under it before she disappeared into the bathroom. A moment later she came back in the room, turning lights off as she went. She had a towel over one arm and an extendable lighter in her hand. She clicked it on and lit a few candles, then turned off the rest of the lights, leaving them in a soft amber glow.

Spreading the towel on the sofa to protect the cushions, she was so pretty in the candlelight, her skin glowing, her hair all loose from her earlier braid and cascading in waves down her back. Just over her hip was a ragged, silver scar, somewhat smaller than a clove of garlic. She turned to him, looking up, and ran her fingers around the hem of his shirt. “Yes, you next?”

He couldn’t stop staring at her. “...Huh?” He blinked, shook his head, felt the way she was tugging at his shirt. “Oh! Yeah, of course.” He pulled the shirt off as quickly as he could, not willing to take his eyes off her for more than half a second. He sat down on the couch, hard, still unable to look away. He put his hands on her hips, and though he’d been manhandling her for laughs just a few moments ago, it felt new, now. Realer, more important. He didn’t dare do more than touch, and that only lightly, gently. Asking, with as much sincere respect as he could pack into the wordless gesture: come here, come closer, please?

She granted him that gift. She stepped between his knees, and her midriff was right there in front of him, creamy skin and that warm, sweet smell of her that made him wild. He pressed his lips to that skin, tasted it, and hell, he shouldn’t have done that, because now he was going to crave it forever.

Natalia unfastened her jeans, sliding the zipper down and then pushing them down her hips. Her lacy red bra did not match the black underwear she was wearing; a thing he might not even have noticed, except she was standing right there in front of him, wearing only her underthings. As she balanced on one foot to tug her pants off, he saw she had a beautiful, simple tattoo of a red hourglass just above her left ankle, with half the sand running out. On the other ankle, she wore a twisted piece of leather, knotted with beads and looped twice around. She looked at Steve expectantly for a moment, then tapped her foot. “This works much easier if you take off your pants, too,” she teased. “You are already behind in owing me. I would hate to have to add another mark to your tally.”

“Would you?” Steve asked. “Because I really, really would not mind that.” Despite that, he started unbuckling and unzipping quickly. It wasn’t that he’d meant to leave her standing there in her underwear while he stared at her like some kind of animal. It was just that she was standing there in her underwear and how was he supposed to be able to think? He shoved his jeans down and half-kicked, half-flailed until they fell to the floor, leaving him standing there in his boxer-briefs. His erection thanked him gratefully for the extra breathing room.

“You may have to come back for a second round, if you get too high in the counting. I do not --” she stopped talking suddenly, her gaze having traveled from his face, down along his chest, mouth pursing in admiration, and then “-- oh.” She was staring, he wasn’t quite sure if it was horrified fascination or awe or what, but her gaze was firm-fixed right at the swelling of his dick behind the thin shield of his drawers.

He resisted the urge to put his hands over his crotch like the girls’ gym teacher had just walked into the boys’ locker room. It was a little amazing that he had any blood at all for his dick, given how hard he was blushing, but he kept his hands at his sides. “Okay?” He knew he was on the large side. It’d been a source of mockery in middle school, grossly outsizing the frail kid who wore it; and despite rumor, he knew not everyone liked their partners so large. It would be okay, if Natalia didn’t want him in her, though. Right? She liked him, they’d work it out.

“Okay?” She repeated, not asking, really, just blinking. She hesitated, then reached out, stopped only a few inches away from him, her fingers stretching, then, “It is… that is… how are you--” She blinked again, then looked up at him. “Can I… Steven, can I touch you?”

He blinked. And then blinked again. Winifred Barnes would beat him to within an inch of his life if he ever touched a woman without proper consent, and then probably his mama would rise from the grave to finish the job, but he hadn’t ever had a girl ask him before. “I... yeah, of course,” he managed. “Whatever you want.” He spread his arms in wordless offering. I’m all yours.

They’d rubbed against each other more than once, dry-humping while they made out on the sofa, but she’d never put her hand there before. She reached out again, let her fingers trace lightly up the line of of him, through the cloth, whisper soft. “You are very beautiful,” she said. “Do you know this?” Her touch was so gentle, yet it sent ribbons of fire through his veins. “There are many places I want to kiss you, where you are so beautiful. I will do this, yes?” She didn’t wait for an answer; just stepped in until he could feel the heat of her breath on his skin. “Here, this is where you are most beautiful.” And she kissed his chest, just a little to the left of his sternum.

For a moment, aching with wanting, with the beauty of her, he thought she meant to compliment his pectorals. And then she did it again, and his heart sped up, pounding as if it were trying to escape his chest entirely to meet the touch of her lips, and-- Oh. Oh. “Natalia,” he breathed. He cupped her face in his hands, and she seemed so small but so vibrant, like holding a star in his palms. He hesitated only a second, wondering if this was going to be all wrong, but his instincts had been good so far. He kissed her forehead, just between her delicate eyebrows.

She shivered under this simple touch, and then her hand moved again, on him, cupping the length of him, exploring his prick, her hand moving harder, giving him some much-desired pressure to rub against. “Do not get me wrong,” she said, her mouth twisting up into a smug, feminine smile, pleased with herself as he rocked into her touch. “This is nice, too. Very nice.” She tugged at the waistband, pushing his boxers down. “Sit, and I will show you.” She reached behind her with a practiced hand and unhooked her bra, letting it dangle from her shoulders, still covering her, but only a single motion from falling off.

Steve itched to reach out with one finger and tease those straps down her arms until the garment fell free, but he was naked and she was offering to show him how much she liked his dick and he was pretty sure that was an offer no man who liked women even a little bit could turn down. He wanted to drop onto the sofa with easy, insouciant grace, but it probably looked more like an overeager flop. He did manage to land on the towel, at least.

Looking up at her from that position was its own reward, the swell of her breasts visible under the loosened bottom of her bra, her hips right in front of his face... He put his hands on her hips and tucked his fingers under the waistband of her panties, then looked up again, tipping his head into a question.

She gave him another one of her mock-glowers. “If you tell me this stupid thing about being a natural red-head, I will lower your count,” she told him. “I am hearing this more than once. It is boring. I am bored with it.”

“Ma always told us, you don’t ask a lady about her age, her dress size, or her hair color,” Steve told her, and it was serious and funny at the same time.

She let him tug her drawers down and stepped out of them. The bra went with them, baring her to his sight. She put her hands on her hips, cocked one leg out as if posing for him. Her breasts were good sized, an entire handful, he thought, if he palmed her. Her skin was peachy in the candlelight, two more scars across her lower belly, almost on one hip, a thick rounded mark and another near it, about four inches long, like a surgical scar. “You are satisfied with me?” She probably meant to sound smug, or seductive, but her voice was a little trembly and her eyes were wide.

“Satisfied? Christ, so much better than that,” he swore. “Look at you...” He slid one hand carefully down her leg and then back up, over the swell of her hip and up her side until he was almost, almost cupping her breast. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“This is good,” she decided, then fell into a squat between his spread thighs. She writhed, sensual and easy, the tips of her breasts rubbing against his legs, stirring the fine coating of hair there, until she was pressed against him, his cock -- oh, Jesus -- between her full breasts. She flicked her gaze up at him for just a moment, long enough for him to fully appreciate the picture she made, her chin not more than an inch away from him, and then lowered her mouth and took him in.

It was like being covered in fire, like electricity was lighting up his every nerve, like-- like nothing he had words for. “Oh, god,” he breathed, brushing his fingers lightly through her hair, pushing it aside just enough to watch the way her mouth stretched around him, the way her jaw worked an instant before her tongue curled and-- “Oh, fuck. Nat, Natalia, Natasha,” he panted. “Oh... Oh, please, yes.”

She licked, sucked, kissed her way down the length of him, warm and soaking wet, then pushed her breasts together and slid him in the narrow gap between. He couldn’t help but thrust up into it, the slick, hot channel between her, watching the way her fingers framed her own nipples as she made her hands into a sultry corset. She dipped her chin again, licking at the head of his cock as it appeared at the top of his thrust.

“Oh my god,” he repeated, feeling the skin around his eyes stretching. “What-- Oh, god.” He couldn’t help but thrust into it again, his body moving without any conscious effort on his part. She glanced up at him, coy, and he nearly came right then and there. He balled his hands into fists and tried to think of something, anything, that would let him back down off that edge.

She pulled back a little, panting for air. “You want to finish, this way, or…” She groped behind her and found the condom she’d brought out from the bathroom. “It will fit, I am told this, even if it is not extra large.” She gave him a very wicked smirk and took as much of him in her mouth as could possibly fit, before dragging off him again, her lip a slow tease.

He ought to ask her what her preference was, he really should. But if she was offering then she was willing, right? She certainly didn’t seem at all intimidated or pressured or-- He wanted to be in her. He would be pathetically grateful for whatever she deigned to give him, but she was offering and he wanted... he wanted as much of her as he could take. He plucked the condom from her fingers with a grin and leaned in to kiss that tempting smirk off her lips.

***

Steven was so splendidly huge, Natalia wasn’t entirely sure what to do with him. His muscles gleamed golden in the candlelight. She felt as though she could come, just watching the way his stomach crunched and relaxed as he had fucked up between her breasts. Russian massage, she thought with a mental sneer, something that Scott had joked about. She hadn’t been sure that it was a real thing, but Steven had liked it, had been nearly undone by it. She was pleased that he was pleased, but also, oddly enough, turned on by it herself. By the way he moaned and moved under her.

She sat back on her heels while he messed with the condom; she let him do it. She wasn’t sure it would fit, and said so, but he’d brushed that off. His hands were shaking, eager, and it was the most beautiful gift, to feel this extravagant swell of desire, just watching him.

Like Thanksgiving dinner, she thought. Gorged herself on the sight of him, the way he tasted, the sounds he made, the way he kept looking at her, like she was something rare and precious. His long legs, dusted with golden hair, seemed to go on forever. He was so huge, she couldn’t circle her fingers around the girth, and her jaw ached from taking him in. Using her breasts to sheathe him had been inspired, gave him a full thrust without him feeling the lack.

He got the condom on and she climbed into his lap, spreading her legs to rest her knees against his hips. He was still huge, she decided, looking down at him, proud and full and quivering between her thighs. For just an instant, she was speared with the fear that this would not work, that he was too big for her.

It should not hurt, lapushka, her mother had told her. Not even the first time. If you take care and you are ready for him.

She didn’t know if she was ready, so she would let him make her so. “You are still owing,” she said. “You will help me with another, before you have yours, so you will not roll over and sleep.” Natalia gave him a quick, flirty look. She felt unbelievably affectionate toward him, tender and sweet and eager to learn his body, to have him learn hers. She hooked one leg up, spreading herself so that he would work her with a hand.

He grinned and did as she commanded, slipping his big, callused fingers between her folds, sliding against the soft, sensitive flesh there with what should be surprising delicacy -- but somehow, with him, it was exactly what she expected. He touched her with reverent eagerness, not rushed at all, as if this part was as good for him as the other, as if he was in no hurry at all to sink himself into her body.

He found her nub, the most sensitive point, and she gasped and threw back her head. His voice rumbled around her and he came back to it again, and again. His mouth closed on her nipple and that-- that was some kind of echoing loop, jolts of nearly overwhelming pleasure bouncing back and forth across her body.

She hissed and wriggled, not sure what she wanted anymore, but something, something… her belly seemed full of liquid fire, the smooth burn of vodka. He pushed one finger into her, touching inside, where she was so wet and greedy, and her muscles clenched around him without her knowing that was going to happen. She curled up into it, rocking her hips eagerly against his hand. She let her eyes close, licked her lips. Gasped for air. She wasn’t sure what he was doing, she couldn’t see, but it was right, it was exactly right, and she trembled and grew hot, too hot, “Oh, Steven!” She cried out and then her arms were around his neck, her mouth was on his, thrusting her tongue inside frantically, urging him to greater efforts as she rode his fingers. “You… you are going to kill me,” she said, very seriously, into his ear, licking at the lobe, then biting down on the shell. “And I will die happy.”

“Well, at least take me with you,” he chuckled, but he did not stop doing whatever he was doing with his fingers, which was the important thing. He nuzzled against her neck and teased her into another kiss, and her hips and thighs were not quite obeying her, going jerky and stiff, but his fingers didn’t stop at all, like the most wonderful torment.

Her body stiffened, seized up, each muscle pulling and tightening until the most movement she could make was a pathetic quiver, and then she was flying. The rush of air and heat and everything just let go at once. Hot and cold and amazing, she shuddered all over, a sweeping rush of sensation washed over her. She let go of him, trusted him to hold her up, let herself fall back until she was staring at the ceiling, gasping for breath, spread out in front of him.

For a long moment, she panted through the quivers and jerks and starts of sensation that twitched out of her, like pinprick fireworks. She almost -- almost -- didn’t want to do anything else. Her body was heavy and weary and she was sheathed in sweat and trembling with exhausted joy. She was utterly and completely relaxed, save for the swirl of heat that Steven traced out over her thighs. If she was going to be able to take him, his full length and find some pleasure in it, it would be now. She was as ready as she was going to get. And he was still waiting for her.  

“I want for you to come inside me,” she told him, pulling herself upright by sheer force of will, her muscles quaking under the strain. She raised up on her knees, poised over him.

He shuddered at the words, though his hands came up as if on automatic to steady her, and he slouched down a little to give her plenty of room. “I want, I want that, too,” he groaned. “Please, Natalia...” He bit his lip as she started to lower herself. “If it’s too much...”

It burned, a bit. She’d known it would, stretched and spread. She moaned, adjusted her hips a little until she was straight and let gravity do the rest, sliding down slow. Felt every inch of him. Wide and full and throbbing under her. She took a deep breath and as she let it out, she impaled herself on him, arching backward as she did so. For half a second, she was split in half, holy god and all the saints, it was too much, way too much.

Steven made a sound, holding himself still, so still for her, and she opened her eyes to look at him. He looked both entirely blissed out and terrified at the same time. Scared of hurting her, and yet, wanting her so much. They were together in this, feeling exactly the same things, and somehow, that was enough. Everything in her unclenched, untwisted, and relaxed. She took his chin in her hand, drawing his attention up to her mouth, her eyes. “I need you,” she told him. “Everything that you are, everything that you have. You will give it to me.”  

His heart was in his eyes, and she had no trouble at all believing him when he said, “Everything I have is yours already.” He covered her hand with his, tipped his head to kiss her palm. “Need you, too. Give me a little somethin’ back, huh?”

She didn’t know what to say, only what to do. She kissed him, kissed him with everything she had, rolling her hips and moving over him. She’d never felt this before, this connected to another person. He was deep, deep inside her, part of her. She kissed him, and she gave herself to him in the most primal way she knew how, riding him. She clung to him, her arms around his neck to steady herself, her thighs burning with effort as she pulled herself up and let him yank her back down. She knew what she needed, didn’t know how to ask. She dragged one of his hands up, thrust his fingers into her hair where it was a knotted mess at the nape of her neck.

He curled his hand into her hair, gently at first, and then harder, tugging at the strands, watching her with something like wonder. Another few rocking thrusts, then, and he suddenly tightened his fist until she had to tip her head back, and he pulled her down against him even as he surged upward. She hadn’t known he could get any deeper inside her, but if he made it any further into her, she’d be tasting him again. “Like this?” he asked, voice rough.

Her head went further back, baring her throat to him. She couldn’t nod, not without ripping her own hair out. The tingles and zings of sensation over her scalp was perfect. Heat built in her spine again. Joking aside, she hadn’t known, hadn’t thought it was even possible. He was like riding lightening, channeling a storm. Too much and not enough and she clenched down on him with everything in her, wrenching a climax out of herself like wringing a towel. She shattered, screamed out a breathless sound. It was too much to stay inside her and she shook herself to pieces. “Oh. Oh, please…” and she knew she was begging for him, for him to finish, because if he wasn’t done, she was finished. He’d pulled everything out of her and she was done.

Another one of those rough, perfect thrusts, and then another, and Steven’s body was shaking, trembling as his whole body arched. He held her to him, and inside her, he swelled, pulsing, coaxing aftershocks out of her with those ripples of his pleasure. When, finally, he collapsed back onto the couch, limp, she fell against him and his arm curled lazily around her waist, keeping her close. “Oh god,” he panted, hoarse despite having been almost entirely silent when he came.

“You stupid man,” Natalia muttered into his chest. “You have ruined me.”

“Goes twice for you,” he mumbled back. “No, wait. Three times.”

“I am ruined,” she said again, poking his chest with her finger. “How am I supposed to be having the sex again with some… lesser mortal, after you? Ruined, I tell you. You will have to make it up to me.” She considered that for a moment, then added, “Later. Much later.”

Steven rumbled happily, catching her poking finger and kissing it. “At last, my evil plan has come to fruition.”

 

Chapter Text

2012, June

 

When the phone rang at nearly nine-thirty, Steve glanced at the number and almost, almost, didn’t answer it. It wasn’t Bucky’s cell, but the house number. It was quite possible that Bucky had run through all his minutes for the month. Bucky had been calling religiously and either talking Steve’s ear off about Pierce’s visit not four days past, or calling up to talk Steve’s ear off about how miserable he was, Pierce having left again. He hesitated, thumb over the Accept, then punched it.

“First Third Bank, Rogers speaking, will you hold a second?”

“Rogers,” a male voice said, and for just an instant, Steve thought it was Bucky, except Bucky almost never called him Rogers, and especially not in that tone of voice. “Need you to come in and work a shift tomorrow.”

Steve felt the beginning of a headache in the pressure behind his eyes. Big Jim didn’t really feel the need for words like please or sorry. It made dealing with him difficult at times, even after living with the man for more than a decade. “I have plans, but I can move them if it’s an emergency. Is everything okay?” Natalia would be upset and require placating, but that was -- sort of -- all right, because placating Natalia was quickly becoming one of Steve’s favorite things.

“...Would you just give me--” That was Bucky in the background, before Big Jim probably covered the mouthpiece with his hand. There was some muffled conversation, and then Big Jim was back.

“Just come in.”

“God dammit, Dad!”

Click.

What even the hell... Steve stared at his phone for a long minute, considering the options, then flipped over to his contacts list and tapped Bucky’s name.

The phone rang, then Bucky’s voicemail cut in; either his phone was turned off, or he’d rejected Steve’s call.

A moment later, his phone buzzed with a text.

Fsk. cll u bk 10mn, fite w/ dad. Sit dwn.

Sit down? What the hell did sit down mean? What the hell was going on over there? Steve stared at the phone, tempted to call back anyway, but Bucky would just send him to voicemail again. Steve paced instead. After a few minutes, he texted Natalia: may have to reschd tmrw will let you know detalis asap. Then he was back to pacing and mentally urging Bucky to just fucking make up with Big Jim already and call him back.

It ended up being closer to twenty minutes, and Steve was half ready to jump on his bike and drive over to Dockside when his phone finally rang. “Stevie?” Bucky’s voice was harsh, as if he’d been screaming. Or crying.

Stevie wasn’t a good sign, either. “Buck. What’s going on?”

“You sittin’?” In the background, Steve could hear the surf rolling. Bucky inhaled, blew out a breath, shaky and unsteady.

Steve rolled his eyes, but he impatiently dragged the cheap folding chair away from the crappy dining table and flopped down with enough force to strain the chair’s joints. “Fine, I’m sitting. Will you please tell me--”

“Ma’s in ICU,” Bucky said with all the gentleness of ripping off a bandaid.

“Oh my god.” Ice water flooded Steve’s spine and he was grateful to be sitting down. “What-- What’s wrong? What happened?” Fucking Christ, why hadn’t Big Jim just said; Steve would have been more than willing if he’d known.

“She’s got…” Bucky inhaled again, coughed, then… “she’s got a… pleural effusion, the doctor says. Um. Fluid in her lungs. She can’t breathe. They’ve… they’ve got a fucking tube in her throat so she doesn’t choke to death, Stevie.”

“Oh god. Buck, I’m so-- What can I do? I mean. Your dad wants me to work tomorrow, I assume so he can go to the hospital, but-- I... There’s got to be something.”

“Teach me th’ grill,” Bucky said. “Ma can’t, Dad’s gonna be at the hospital. We… we gotta keep Dockside open, she’d expect that.” Bucky sniffled, a loud, wet sound. “And… can I come over, Stevie? I… I don’t wanna stay here, tonight. Dad an’ I… not tonight. I can’t.”

“Yeah, of course, any time,” Steve said. Because he knew exactly what Bucky was talking about. Big Jim didn’t do emotions very well. Anger, sure, happiness and pride, occasionally, but... fear? Sorrow? Those weren’t things that Big Jim would find manly. And when he suppressed his feelings, he just got... difficult. And he and Bucky had been butting heads for a while over Bucky’s moping around. “End of the line, right?”

“Looks like it, pal,” Bucky said. “You’re family, you know that. Right? An’... an’ we love you. I… I love you.” He didn’t give Steve an opportunity to respond to that. The line went dead in Steve’s hand.

Steve got a sinking feeling that this might be even more serious than it sounded. His mama, when he’d been a boy, she’d gone into a hospital and not come out again, and it had taken him a long time to get over that. He didn’t know if he could handle losing his Ma, too. Hands shaking, he texted Natalia again. Famly emergncy hv 2 postpnoe. Sorry. Mor ltr.

He couldn’t stay sitting down. It would take Bucky a good fifteen or twenty minutes to get to his place, even if the traffic was behaving. He had time for a quick run down to the end of the street and back, just to try to burn up this nervous energy that was boiling up out of his gut.

By the time he was coming back and close enough to see the parking lot again, Bucky was parked -- if you wanted to call it that -- on the curb, leaning against the door of his truck. He dropped a cigarette butt on the ground and scuffed it with his foot. Steve watched him take the pack out of his pocket and tap it against his wrist a few times before sticking another smoke in his mouth. Bucky’d picked up the habit after middle school, mostly, Steve thought, to make himself look tough. But he almost never smoked around Steve, even after Steve’s asthma had taken a turn for the better. He clamped the butt between his lips, pulled out his phone and started thumbing at the screen.

Steve was just getting in hailing distance when his phone buzzed.

New text from Bucky:
Stpt 4 gas. There soon.

Steve actually stopped to stare at the message. Bucky was leaning against the truck, the smoke a pale wisp floating in the air. Why, why would he lie about this now? Bucky was getting far too comfortable with lying lately. Steve broke into a jog, and slowed it to a fast walk as soon as he could make himself heard without yelling. “Gas, huh?”

Bucky startled, his phone tumbling out of his fingers and he scrambled after it instinctively. He managed to get his foot under it before it hit the pavement. He lost his grip on the smoke and just left it, smoldering fitfully. “Shit.” He dropped into a squat to scoop up his phone and made a not successfully subtle attempt to wipe his face. “Shit. Shit, you scared th’ hell out of me, punk.” Bucky made a gruesome attempt at a grin before it fell right off his face and his eyes welled up.

Steve sighed and pulled Bucky into a hug, grimacing at the smoke smell but not commenting. “C’mon, jerk, let’s go on upstairs and you can tell me just how bad it is.”

“S’bad,” Bucky managed. He was shaking, trying frantically to dry the tears that wouldn’t stop. “Shit, Stevie. Shit.” He shoved his phone at Steve. “Take it, take it, before I throw it, please.” Big Jim wasn’t a fan of emotional outbursts that weren’t rage, and Bucky’d gotten into a bad habit a few years back of throwing things, or punching things, when he was at the end of his rope. It was a wonder he hadn’t wrecked the truck on his way over, bad as he was crying.

Steve kept an arm slung around Bucky’s shoulders, but he was starting to feel a little shaky himself. He managed to get Bucky steered into the apartment and found an old stressball for Bucky to fidget with. “Tell me.”

Bucky took a gasping breath, wiped his eyes off on his tee. He turned the toy over in his hands several times. “They did an x-ray,” he said. “Thought maybe she had pneumonia ‘r somethin’.” He shook his head. “She’s… she’s got a tumor. Stevie, it’s fuckin’ huge, like...the size of a damn grapefruit.”

Steve stumbled and then fell next to him. “No. Oh, fuck, Bucky, she can’t--” He swallowed, hard. “In her lungs? Are they going to-- What’re they saying?” Oh, god, it was a nightmare, it was his nightmare, come back to haunt him again.

Bucky shook his head. “Her… intestines. Doctor says, maybe they can operate, but… it’s all over her kidney, too. Stevie, she’s been havin’ back pain for years.”

“Well, sure,” Steve said, because Winifred was on her feet for a good fourteen hours a day, of course her back hurt. But it was more than that, apparently, and none of them had guessed, no one had suggested that maybe she see a doctor, had ever thought it was worth paying attention to. “Did they-- how long?” Because if it was that bad, even operating would only slow the inevitable. God, let there be enough time for what she needs to say goodbye, to settle her things. Let it be long so we don’t have to lose her too soon.

“They’re… uh, keepin’ her in the hospital until her lungs are better,” Bucky said. He wasn’t squeezing the ball so much as he was picking it to pieces, taking little pinches out of the spongy material and dropping them on the floor. “Uh, there’s an oncologist what’s gonna work on her case. You know, like th’ guy that’s House’s best friend?” Bucky managed a wavering, watery sort of smile. “He’s gonna do some… borium thing? See how bad it’s spread. We’ll know more in a few days. I guess.”

Uncertainty. Steve’s least favorite thing. He closed his eyes tight, and dug his knuckles into them until he saw lights flashing on the backs of his eyelids. “God, Bucky. What... I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what to think. Can we go see her tomorrow morning, before we open? Will they let me in at all?”

There was a flash of anger in Bucky’s eyes. “You’re her son, too,” he said, his jaw working sullenly. “Th’ visiting for ICU is fifteen minutes on the even hours. Eight, ten, like that. It’s stupid, but… we c’n figure it out. You c’n see her. I’ll make sure.”

Steve’s chest ached. “Don’t... don’t fight your dad about it,” he said. “Not yet. Not until we know... more,” he finished lamely, unable to voice the painful truth. Until we know how much longer she’ll live.

Bucky laughed, bitter and ugly. “Don’t fight with Dad, yeah, right. Tell me t’ stop breathing, it’d be easier.” He took a deep breath. “Bex’ll be up day after tomorrow, she says. I gotta… fuck, I need t’ clear out her damn room before she gets here. Ma’s been puttin’ her reenacting spillover in there.”

“I can help with that,” Steve promised. There was probably some of his boxed-up stuff in Becca’s room, too. “I can... Shit, Bucky. Shit.” His eyes stung, and his hands shook.

“Yeah,” Bucky said. He stared at the shredded remains of the stressball. Swallowed hard a few times. “Do… um… you wanna rack in together? I know we ain’t, not since we was kids, an’ all, but… swear t’ God, Stevie, I can’t… I can’t handle this.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, and it came out hoarse from having to fight past the knot in his throat. “Yeah, I don’t think I can stand to be alone right now, either.”

***

Steve barely had the energy to climb off his bike and shuffle toward his apartment. At least his keys were already in his hand, and how pathetic was it that he was grateful not to have to dig his keys out of his pocket?

Everything was exhausting. Winifred, having been tested and poked and prodded and given the treatment options -- and their less-than-promising odds -- had decided that she’d rather just let nature take its course without loading up her family with additional debt or herself with treatment drugs that would make her more miserable than the cancer itself. And Steve couldn’t blame her for that, but Big Jim wasn’t handling it well. Neither was Bucky. Steve didn’t want to be handling it, either, but someone had to run the restaurant, and Winifred was already too weak to do more than roll silverware, most days.

So Steve had been on the grill for most of a month straight, lunches and dinners, getting home from work between midnight and two and then getting back up at eight to go back and start the prep for lunch. He’d had to reschedule and then cancel three dates with Natalia -- he wouldn’t even keep trying, honestly, except Bucky kept swearing he was going to show up and help out and then flaking out instead, going out drinking or... things Steve didn’t want to think about because they made his blood boil. Big Jim had managed to pull himself together to help out a few times, mostly on days Winifred was feeling well enough to demand to know why he was hovering around her when they had a place to keep afloat.

What they were going to do without her, God only knew. And shit, there went the tears again. How was it fair that he was going to be losing two mothers before he’d even reached thirty?

The stairs loomed in front of him like an insurmountable obstacle. Steve managed to get one foot up on the bottom step, and then leaned against the wall. Why even bother? He could sleep right here.

From his doorway, a shadow detached itself from the wall. The light from the hall spots illuminated the person exactly wrong, or maybe exactly right. They moved a few steps and suddenly coalesced into an angel. “Steven?”

Steve looked up, blinking slowly. “Natalia?” His brain engaged a few seconds later with a jolt of combined adrenaline and guilt. “Did we have a date? Did I forget? Oh, shit, I’m sorry, I... I’ve lost track of everything, lately.”

“We did not,” Natalia said. “We have, however, a situation, and I would like some… is closure the word I am looking for? Resolution? I’m sorry. I drive here without license, and I am followed into the lot by a policeman. He went away without bothering me, but I was concerned. It… my English is not so well.” She looked almost exhausted as Steve felt.

The word closure hit Steve like a bucket of ice water. Was she breaking up with him? Shit, he kind of deserved it after the last month, but... “You drove down without a license? Nat, what--” He shook his head and made himself climb the stairs to meet her. “Come on, let’s go inside, at least, yeah?”

She nodded, then bent down and scooped up a soft-sided cooler. “Yes, inside. There are many bugs out here. I was… not sure when you would be home. If you would be home.”

Steve opened the door and waved her in ahead of him. “Well, it’s Virginia in the summer, so yeah, bugs. I’m sorry, if I’d known you were coming... I don’t know, it was a crazy night, I didn’t get to shut down the grill until almost eleven.”

“I was prepared to wait,” Natalia said. She walked over to his Ikea-reject dining room table and put her cooler down. “I have brought for you…” She unzipped the bag and started putting containers on the table. “Frozen soups, and fresh bread, for later. And for now, vodka and ice cream. I will leave these for you, yes?” She tugged off the lid of the ice cream and smiled a little. “Still good. I packed dry ice, so it stays frozen. You have spoons?”

Steve was frozen, that lump back in his throat so big that it hurt to breathe. “You... cooked? For me?” He was going to start bawling like a baby any second. He pressed his lips together and ducked into the kitchen. “Spoons yeah, just...” It came out rough, pushed through that knot in his throat.

She packed the soups away into his freezer, putting one in the fridge. “Yes, I cook for you,” she said. “It is not what you cook. It is not… it is necessary, not skill.” She started rummaging through his cabinets, finding two juice cups and a pair of spoons. “Come, sit down. I pour vodka and we will have ice cream. Do you know how wonderful your United States is, that you have so much ice cream? At home, there are only two places that make ice cream, still. It comes wrapped in dirty papers, has been half-thawed and refrozen many times before it arrives in my town. And still, since I was a little girl, I have always loved it.” She handed him the pint. Butter Pecan. “Your favorite, yes?”

He took it, curled his hands around it, feeling the fuzzy frost from the condensation. “Yeah,” he agreed. He let her steer him toward the couch and put a glass and a spoon on the table next to him. “You brought me food,” he said. “You cooked.” He swallowed, made himself dash down a gulp of the vodka, and chase it with a bite of the ice cream. “Ma says, cooking is love. Not-- You know. Caring for someone. Feeding them, it’s a way to show them you care. I haven’t even had time to make anything nice for her since she got home.” Tears fell down his cheeks, and he wiped at them impatiently. “Sorry, I’m-- You came all the way down here and I’m useless.”

Natalia took a long drink of vodka, like it was nothing more than water. “I came to see you,” she said. “For you, food is love. For me, it was… faith. Hope, maybe? I came to see for myself.” She looked down at her hands. “I am sorry, Steven. Sorry that I doubted. I would blame Scott Summers, but he only said words. I chose to listen.” She took a large bite of ice cream, chased it down with more vodka and then refilled their glasses.

Steve frowned, but he couldn’t wrestle her words into sense. “I don’t understand. What... did he say? What did you come to see?”

“We are close,” she said, “Scott and I. Not of fondness, but necessity. There are not so very many of us, we study together, spend class-time and lab work together. They see. I am checking my phone, I am not going out. Scott says to me, you are done. You have gotten what you want, and you make these excuses, always. He says I should date other men. I should date him. He will, he says, treat me right. He has money, he has a nice car. He never blames you, that we never had an arrangement. But now, that arrangement is over, and I should find someone else, yes? He already has a candidate in mind.”

Steve scowled. “Scott Summers is an ass. I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to dump me, after this month, Natalia. I’d be devastated. But I couldn’t-- I haven’t exactly been a model boyfriend. I haven’t even been a mediocre boyfriend. But God, whatever you do, don’t lower yourself to Scott.” He put the ice cream down and reached for her hand. “I’m not done. I’m not sure I’ll ever be done with us, not unless you tell me so. It’s been... it’s been a hard month, I’m not gonna lie. And it’s gonna keep bein’ hard for a while. I’m sorry. I don’t think I can fix that, not...” He had to swallow past the lump. “But you came. You brought food, for, for caring, for faith, and I have to hope that means you’re not done, either.”

“I came,” she said, softly. “And I find here that you need me. I am not done, Steven. I was not done even if you needed nothing. But…” She glanced at him, eyes unfathomable. “I would ask, then. I know, not proper, but… This is. More than just dating, yes? You care, more than just a bedmate. I feel this way, but you are having family problems, I do not want to make things harder for you. Tell me what you need of me.”

I don’t need anything but you, he almost said. I’m fine, this is enough. But he thought of Big Jim, watching his wife fading before his eyes and being unable to tell her how frightened he was, how sad. And Steve knew that Jim loved Winifred, even if Jim wasn’t a demonstrative man. Steve could see how carefully Jim treated her, like she was spun glass, infinitely precious. But that care took its toll; away from Winifred, he was harder, colder, more hidebound and stubborn than ever.

He couldn’t do that to himself, to Nat, to their friends and loved ones, could he? Couldn’t close her off just because it was frightening to show his vulnerability. Steve took a breath and tugged Natalia’s hand until she scooted closer, almost all the way up into his lap, and then he wrapped his arms around her and put his head on her shoulder. “I need you,” he admitted. “I need you to tell me it won’t be like this forever, that things will get better. That Jim’s being an ass because he’s hurting and it’s not my fault. That Bucky’s falling into a bottle for the same reason, and that’s not my fault either. I just. I need someone to talk to who isn’t going crazy, you know? That’s all, I just need you.”

“You are not to blame, Steven,” she said, gently. Then the side of her mouth twitched a little. “I have bad news for you, however. I am… Steven, I am already crazy.”

A helpless chuckle fell out of Steve’s mouth. “Well, I guess you’ll fit right in, then,” he managed, and giggled again, pulling her tighter against him.

 

Chapter Text

2012, August

 

The tiny apartment had an unused and unlived-in feel. Natalia leaned against the counter in the miniscule kitchen area, watching the salt water slowly trickle off the ends of her hair and splatter on the linoleum. Steven was tucked into the cubicle of a shower, rinsing off seaweed and beach sand. His nose was probably already peeling; he’d been pink by the time they had finally yielded the waves to oncoming Navy boys. Served him right for not listening to her. She’d brought sunscreen.

It was nice to have a date, she reflected. Their first in a while that wasn’t just a cuddle or him bringing her breakfast at her lab in the morning. Too much to hope for, that the man she was interested in would be a surfer, but Steven was. Not only that, he was good. Talented. They’d been in the water almost all afternoon and her core muscles ached. She wanted a good beer, something light to eat, and a long sleep. Maybe a bout of nice wake-up sex. She smiled, planning what she could take offense at, as it seemed to be the best way to let Steven know she was interested without coming out and saying it, which always made her blush and stammer and feel like an idiot.

The water turned off in the tiny bathroom. Finally. She realized there was quite a lot of him to wash, and the shower in there was too cramped to even consider sharing, but he hadn’t needed to take quite so long. She was getting cold, standing in the kitchen. She was quite certain that she could poke holes in her bathing suit top if she got any colder.

“You are taking quite long enough, Steven,” she said, crossing the room to lean on the bathroom door.

“Sorry!” he called, over a creak of his weight on the floor and the whispering sound of the towel on his skin. “I started thinking and kind of lost track, a bit. I owe you one?” He sounded far too hopeful.

“Did your brain escape down the drain while you were thinking?” Natalia teased. She cracked the door to peek in; a naked Steven was hard to resist. Also, warm air. She inhaled in relief as the steam started thawing her out. “You do owe me. I am freezing, and I am Ukrainian. This is an appalling circumstance to be in, Steven. Look, I am all covered in little goose bumps. Hideous. Wine, I think. And two kisses will go far to warming me up again.” She made no pains to hide that she was gawking at him through the small space between the door and the frame. She couldn’t open the door any further without hitting him with it, though. Shame, that. Warm, steamy kisses would have been welcome.

Steven’s lips curved. “I just about think I can afford that,” he agreed. “Though we’ll have to go next door or downstairs for the wine; there isn’t any in here.” He shooed her back a step to shut the door, then promptly re-opened it so that he wasn’t standing in its path. The steam billowed out of the tiny room to envelop her, and she sighed.

Steven laughed and tugged her into his arms. “How can you be cold?” he demanded. “It’s like a hundred and seventy degrees outside.” He didn’t wait for an answer before ducking his head to kiss her.

She let him get involved in the kiss -- truth be told, she almost lost track herself as his tongue traced over her lip and slid inside -- and then stuffed her cold hand into his armpit. “We are not outside right now. And there is too much air conditioning in here. Who is living here, a polar bear?”

Steven yelped and tried to dance back away from her icy fingers -- much good it did him, because the bathroom was to small for both of them to entirely fit, much less maneuver. When she finally gave up tormenting him, he rubbed at his skin and said, “Jim built the place for Becca, and she always hated the heat, so I think he made it hold the cold to try to tempt her back. Why she moved to Atlanta of all places, I’ll never know.”

It took some maneuvering -- and several more kisses, and some wholly unnecessary (but thoroughly enjoyable) rubbing up against each other -- to swap places so Steven could leave the bathroom and let her get her own shower. “Oh, hey,” he said, just before she closed the door. “Ma was having a pretty good day, before I headed down to the beach. You up to meeting her today, maybe?”

Natalia chewed the inside of her cheek, then nodded. “Yes, I think,” she said, carefully, “that I will like to meet your mama.” She slid the door the rest of the way closed and then inspected her face carefully in the mirror. She was freckly again, no great surprise, having spent half the summer studying out of doors and on boats, but she wasn’t sunburned yet today. “Get my sundress, from my bag, yes? I will hang it here, while I shower, so it is not all wrinkly.” She hung up the dress on the hook, shaking the skirts free. It was not as pretty as some of the other items she had, but Steven’s foster mother ran a beachside restaurant. She probably wasn’t expecting a formal introduction. Not like home.

The shower was piping hot -- apparently Steven’s foster sister liked her air cold and her water hot -- when Natalia got in. She picked at the bits of seaweed that stuck to her skin, wishing she’d thought to bring a loofa. She recognized that nervous feel in the base of her stomach again: what if Steven’s Ma didn’t like her? Steven thought a lot of his foster-mother, banked much on her opinion. She tugged her fingers through her salt-water snarled hair and scrubbed at her scalp.

“You did not talk me up, I hope, too much,” she said once she was out of the shower, talking through the door. “I don’t want to disappoint.” She pulled the dress on, adjusted the interior tube-bra. Bra? Hmph. More like flimsy elastic. She sighed. It would have to do; she hadn’t brought anything else, except her swimsuit, which was wet and cold.

“Nah,” Steven said. “I mean, what’s to say?” She could hear the smirk that went with that.

“That I am a terrible girlfriend and you suffer greatly from my wrath,” she suggested. She attacked her hair with the comb and pulled it straight, parting it in the middle. It would look better if she had brought her flatiron with her, but she patted it into place. “And that was uncalled for, Steven. You owe me two glasses of wine now. And if you do not behave immediately, you will owe me at least one orgasm. I have had enough of your smart mouth today.” She twisted the knob and walked into the main room.

She finished her rant, found her sandals, and then kissed said smart mouth thoroughly. “I look presentable? This is… if it were home, this is very important, first meetings with parents. I will not shame you?”

Steven wrapped both arms around her waist and pulled her close. “You couldn’t ever,” he promised. “You look like exactly what I told Ma you were: the smartest, prettiest girl in the whole world.”

She kissed him again, then ran her fingers through his still damp hair, making the cowlick in the front into something a little less slovenly, twisting the locks through her fingers to make them behave. “All right,” she said. “I am ready.”

She wasn’t. She really, really wasn’t. She’d have rather had her whole makeup kit and a nicer dress and some of her mother’s jewelry. But status was not as important, she knew that. She didn’t have to show off her father’s wealth, her mother’s teachings. She didn’t think that was true, but Americans liked to pretend, very hard, that they really were all equal. It would be well enough.

She hoped.

Steven kissed her forehead. “Okay, let me just go make sure she’s feeling up to it. Come on, the main house isn’t quite this chilly, I’ll get you that wine before I go talk to her, yeah?” He took her hand and tugged until she followed him out of the tiny little apartment and along the walkway to the Barnes’ house.

There was wine in the kitchen, several bottles -- and several more bottles, plus some empty liquor and beer bottles as well in the recycling bin. Steve poured her a glass of white that he took from the fridge, gave her what was probably meant to be a reassuring smile, and disappeared down the hallway.

The house was nice, wide windows that looked out to the sea, with furniture that looked worn and comfortable. The kitchen had a wide butcher’s block that stood in the center. There were wilted and dead flowers in the vase on the dining room table, so old and brown that she figured that no one who ate here saw them anymore. Perhaps she could send some flowers over; Steven’s Ma might like that, even if the men wouldn’t notice.

She drifted into the living room, ran a hand over the books on the shelf. War novels and American classics. A copy of Anna Karenina, how delightful. She wondered if anyone had actually read it, or if it was only there to look impressive. Borja had once killed a rat with their hardback copy, so she had to say, it was an all-around useful book. She turned a few pages in an old photo album that was laying out on an end table, which put her at the end of the hallway to where the bedrooms were. It wasn’t that she was meaning to eavesdrop, she told herself. She was just curious about the pictures.

She flipped a page and let herself listen, really listen. It was a skill, her grandpapa had taught it to her when she was a girl. In his day, they had listened for the secret police. A skill he’d hoped she’d never use.

“...meet her?” Steven was saying. “If you’re feeling up to it, of course. But I know you’d love her, Ma.”

“I look half-dead already,” Ma Barnes fretted. Her voice was sweet, the accent that Steve had, but thicker. Syrupy, somehow. “Poor child, you’ll bring her in here and give her a fright, bless her heart.”

Natalia glanced at the page under her fingers. Baby picture of someone, a brown-haired child with a wide smile, holding a beleaguered looking frog in both hands. Bless her heart. That was one of the more flexible phrases Natalia had learned while at school. Not until she’d come south, admittedly. The students at Rutgers didn’t use it. She let herself smile; either Ma Barnes was actually concerned that Natalia would get a shock at seeing her (This was doubtful. Natalia studied deepwater fish for two semesters. Very few humans were that ugly.) or she was being sarcastic. In either case, Natalia liked her already.

“You look fine, Ma,” Steven chided gently. “She knows you’ve been... ill. She’s not expecting the queen or anything. I’d just like my two favorite ladies to meet each other.”

“All right,” Ma Barnes said. “Have her come in, I ain’t up to standing too much today. Doc gave me all sorts of hell for that tumble last week, and I’m still a mite dizzy. You’re a good boy, Steve. I’m glad you… you look happy. That’s good.”

“You just stay right there, and I’ll be back with her,” Steven said. There were quick, heavy footsteps, and the door opened. Natalia pretended to be absorbed in the photo album. “Hey there,” Steven said, fond. “Ready to come in and say hi?”

“Yes,” Natalia said. She let her fingers rest on Steven’s forearm, the way they did here. She didn’t want Steven’s mama to think she had no manners at all. He’d stressed several times that his Ma would kill him for being rude. She walked into the back bedroom with Steven.

Ma Barnes was a woman who’d probably once been big. She had that look, deflated and rumpled, that Natalia’s grandfather had in his waning years, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her hair was gray with some touches of black, and her eyes were blue and as piercing as ice. She gave Natalia a wide, warm smile, however. The sort that was impossible not to respond to. Natalia let her own mouth curve up.

“Ma, this is Natalia Romanova,” Steven said. He was standing up a little straighter than usual, his tone more formal. She wasn’t the only one affected with nerves, which was oddly comforting. “Nat, my ma, Winifred Barnes.” He smiled a little wanly, drawing her a few steps closer to the bed.

“Miss Romanova,” Ma Barnes said. She held out her hand, fingers bent. Not a handshake, then, but a clasp. Her fingers were gnarled, and one of them had a deep indent where a ring had rested for quite some time before being removed. Steven’s Ma was older than Natalia had expected, perhaps even old enough to be his grandmother. Her voice was soft, but not the least bit yielding. A woman who’d held authority. Not a rarity in Natalia’s village, where the fishermen’s wives ruled on land the way the men ruled at sea. “I would be happy to meet anyone that either of my boys chose to bring home, but it’s a special privilege to meet the girl responsible for the smile on Steve’s face when he talks about you.”

She took Ma Barnes’ hand and let those warm fingers curl over her own, the skin soft and papery, but strong underneath. She was, quite obviously, a matrushka, and Natalia found herself pleased, charmed, and warmed all at the same time. “Please,” Natalia said, “you must call me Natasha.”

Steve’s breath hitched, and she knew he was thinking of the day they had met. “Nat’s up at William and Mary,” he told his foster mother, as if she didn’t already know. “At the Marine Science school. She’s studying conservation.”

“That’s a good subject,” Ma Barnes said, patting Natalia’s hand. Natalia had an urge to sit at the woman’s bedside and listen to her read in that storyteller’s voice of hers. She would be willing to place quite a bit of money on the idea that in her heyday, Ma Barnes could have yelled from one side of the sandbar to the other. “There’s certain to be a lot of work in that area.”

“Work to be done, at least,” Natalia agreed. “Finding corporate sponsors willing to do work, this is another mess altogether. My father, he is ship’s captain, on small fishing boat in the Black Sea. We have many boats, but little. Every year, there are less and less fish to be caught. Big companies take, they do not put back. So, there is work. Here, at home.” She was suddenly struck by the thought, as she hadn’t been before, that going home, which she’d always planned to do, meant leaving so much behind. She turned her head to look at Steve.

He was smiling, as if his thoughts had not turned in the same direction as hers, and he was still thinking of this as a moment that would never end, with his mother living and Natalia at his side.

Ma Barnes had a way, probably from years of working with the public, of speaking and asking questions that put Natalia at ease, that made her feel welcome and appreciated. They talked a bit about Steve and his schooling, some about Steve’s mother, who’d died when Steve was a child, and how Ma Barnes had taken him in, so they wouldn’t lose him to the boy’s home up to the beach. Natalia was coaxed into telling a few stories about the Ukraine and the fishing village where she’d grown up, and some about her schooling there. She talked about her brother, Borja, who she missed desperately, and her father’s bread, that she couldn’t replicate even with his recipe. Ma Barnes suggested, on hearing the recipe, that she try adding a little blackstrap molasses to the mix.

And somewhere in the fifteen or twenty minutes of conversation, Natalia found herself calling the woman Ma, and knew she’d been accepted as one of the family. When Ma fell asleep, mid sentence, Natalia gently unwound her hand from the woman’s fingers, straightened the blanket over her chest, and shooed Steve out the door. Quietly.

“I hope we did not make her too weary,” Natalia said, once they reached the living room. “She seems very pleasant. I see where you get your winsome ways.”

Steve rubbed at the back of his neck, blushing. “Nah, I mean. Bucky, for sure, he’s just like her. When he was little, before...” Steve waved a hand vaguely. “Big Jim used to call them two peas in a pod.” He smiled at her, brighter. “She definitely liked you. I knew she would.”

As if she’d not been worrying herself into an ulcer not half an hour before, Natalia waved airily. “What is not to like? I am perfection itself.”

Steve put his hands on her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “That you are.”

“But do not think that having a charming mama gets you out of anything,” Natalia said, trying hard to sound scolding, but knowing she wasn’t managing it, the way her mouth kept turning up into a smile. “You should take me home, that you can start making up with me.”

They were walking down the stairs when the back door swung open and a dark-haired man -- he looked vaguely familiar and Natalia thought he might have been the same one, Steve’s brother, who had been with Steve the afternoon they’d met.

“Oh, good,” the man said. He scraped his hair away from his face, tying it back. “Wanted to talk with you a minute, before you head out.” He scrambled in his pocket for a moment and came up with a bright pink, plastic card. “This is for you.” He handed it to Natalia, who looked at it curiously.

The logo was familiar, even if she’d only managed to talk Cass into taking her once. Baskin & Robbins, ice cream.

“Stevie said I owed you ice cream,” the man said. “I’m Bucky, by the way. It’s a pleasure.”

Natalia wasn’t entirely sure about that; the things that Steve had said about his brother -- obviously fond, but also very frustrated and upset -- had been mixed. “Nat,” she said, giving the short form out of respect for Steve. And Bucky's mother. She turned the card over, then blinked. Fifty dollars? In ice cream. Well, maybe she would be forgiving. If she could get out to the shop often enough to eat that much ice cream.

“Buuuuck,” Steve said, not quite whining, but clearly wanting to. “We’re just on our way out.”

“Don’t worry,” Bucky said. “I ain’t askin’ you to work. Jus’... wanted t’ say sorry. An’ --” he glanced at Natalia, then shrugged. “-- not like you don’t probably know already, I guess. Look, Stevie, I’m… I’m done with Alex. Thought you should know. I’m… I’m gonna stop lettin’ you down, okay? Promise.”

Steve looked positively poleaxed. “I’m-- Not that I’m not thrilled to hear it, Buck, but... what happened?”

Bucky’s mouth twisted like he’d bitten a lemon. “Renata’s pregnant,” he said, bitter, angry. Grieving. “An’... an’ Alex doesn’t even tell me. I read it in my news feed? I dunno, Stevie, I guess… I guess I thought I mattered more t’ him. He told me he didn’t care about her, that… that they didn’t… you know. I think I knew that was a lie, but he was just… last week!” Bucky made a choking, almost sobbing sound and Nat stepped away a little, to give him the semblance of privacy.

Steve stepped in where she had stepped away, and drew his brother into a rough embrace. “I’m sorry it happened like this, Buck,” he said, “but I’m glad you’re done with him. I have to be glad for that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said, curling up against Steve for a moment, then let him go. “Back to having days off, right? Take your girl, go get an ice cream, have a good night. I’ve got a new waitress coming in tomorrow, maybe she’ll take some of the load off, right? Ma said I could hire someone else, an’ Dad… he didn’t say no, so, we’ll see if Wanda works out.”

Steve tipped his head. “Maximoff? From up the road? Tiny little thing, has that brother who likes to run?”

“Yeah, that’s her. She would have applied earlier this summer, but no beer sales until she was legal age,” Bucky said. He clapped Steve on the shoulder. “I gotta get back. Dad’s covering the grill for me while I’m on break, but he’ll be out here soon enough.”

“Yeah, we’d better be gone before then or he’ll put us both to work.” Steve squeezed Bucky again and clapped him on the back a couple of times. “Thanks, Bucky. I mean it. We’ll go out or something soon.”

Natalia smiled, waving the pink card. “Ice cream,” she said. “We will have ice cream, all of us, later. It is good to meet you again.”

 

Chapter Text

2012 October

 

The service had been long. Winifred Barnes had achieved her life’s goal: her family, the one she’d made through Dockside, had all turned out to see her away. Bucky had given a nice eulogy. Big Jim had stammered through a few choked and incoherent sentences before Bucky pulled him back down, gently. And then neighbors and friends and more distant cousins; two of the four waitresses, and then people Steve didn’t even know that Winifred knew had made a token remarks. Really, there should be some sort of limit to how long people were allowed to talk.

The burial was faster, which was good, as it was clouding over and the wind was whipping leaves off the trees.

“Hey, sunshine.” Becca Barnes came up on Steve’s left. She looked remarkably sallow in a black dress. “Can we declare a temporary truce and I’ll buy you a drink or two?” When Steve had been fostered by the Barnes family, Becca had almost been done with nursing school; she hadn’t cared for the addition of a second younger brother, and her scorn had been especially unwelcome because Steve was still in mourning. She’d moved away as soon as she’d graduated, and the family occasions that she’d come home for since then (Christmas and Easter, Steve and Bucky’s high school graduation -- the sorts of events that she’d felt required to attend) hadn’t been particularly pleasant either. Becca was waspish and short-tempered and her fights with Winifred tended to spill out in all directions, catching all of them in the backsplash more than once.

“Seems like it’s the sort of thing she’d approve of,” Steve agreed. “Okay if I bring Nat along?”

Becca glanced over at Natalia, who was peering at the floral arrangement and sometimes plucking a flower from one and surreptitiously poking it into a different bouquet according to some rule that Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to know about. “You did well for yourself,” Becca noted. “Sure, bring your girlfriend. I just need to be not in the house for a while, you know?”

“Oh, I know,” Steve said. “Big Jim’s been... tetchy.”

Horrible,” Becca corrected. “Hideous. Unforgiving. Demanding. Single-minded. You’d think he was the only person in the world who lost anyone.” She shook her head and the tumble of hair she’d pinned up loosened. “Fuck this shit,” she muttered, yanking the whole mess down, shedding hairpins everywhere.

Privately, Steve agreed with her. (Maybe the world was coming to an end.) But they were still in the churchyard cemetery, and it didn’t seem right to speak ill of the dearly departed’s husband when she hadn’t even been in the ground for a full hour. “I’ll round up Bucky,” he said instead. “You driving?”

“Jimmy’s taking Dad home,” she said, flicking out her hair. “Thought it might be better if Dad didn’t get behind the wheel, said we didn’t need to bury both parents this week.” She sighed and pulled a tissue out of her coat pocket, blotting at her eyes with obvious annoyance. Steve had seen people cry when they were upset, or angry, or even happy, but he had to admit, Becca Barnes was probably the only person in the world who cried out of sheer exasperation.

“Probably a good idea. I’ll text him, then. Where are we going?”

“My paycheck can afford drinks at…” she hesitated a moment, as if doing math in her head, and then said, “Bar Norfolk?” It wasn’t quite a dive, but it would be dark and loud, and the drinks weren’t likely to be watered down the way they would at the tourist spots in Virginia Beach.

She walked over to the headstone, the tips of her shoes not quite brushing the gravedirt or the horrible fake green astroturf. She let her fingers touch the marble headstone, polished and fresh and very clean. “Night, Ma.”

Becca patted Steve on the arm. “Say your goodbyes. I’m gonna have a smoke and I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

Steve looked at the stone, neat and clean, the edges crisp and sharp, not yet roughened with time. “I know what you’re gonna say, Ma,” he said softly, “and I’m gonna do my best, I promise. But you know Bex an’ me, we haven’t ever got on that good, and Buck... I’m here for him, always, you know that. But he’ll have to work through this thing himself.” He patted the top of the stone. “Glad you got to meet Natalia, at least. Sleep tight, Ma. It’s rest well-earned.” He choked up a little as he said it; it was something she’d said to him time and again when he’d been exhausted from fighting his own body.

He didn’t have time for tears now, though. Bucky and Jim would be at each other’s throats as soon as the aura of the church wore off them both, and it was going to be harder than ever to keep them separated without Winifred’s comfort for an excuse. Steve dug the knuckles of his fists into his eyes until he saw spots, then took a couple of deep breaths and let his hands fall.

He found Natalia watching him curiously. “Just...” He shrugged. “Told Bex we’d meet her for drinks, if that’s okay with you? I just need to text Bucky and we can go.” He pulled out his phone even as he said it. Bex, u, me, nat @ bar norfolk?

New text from Bucky:
Gmm 20m? Doc gv dad some pills. Gt him into bed, meet u thr?

Natalia frowned and plucked one more flower out of an arrangement and tucked it into Steve’s lapel. “There. Yes, we will do this, drink with your sister and brother.”

Good plan. Steve put his phone away and reached out for Natalia’s hand. “What are you even doing with the flowers? Do I want to know?”

“It is tradition. Even numbers of flowers for funerals. Odd number for other occasions. Back at school, I was very upset for my roommate when her boyfriend brought her a dozen roses. She tells me the number twelve is good, for romance. We agreed to disagree.”

“That’s... good to know. Not that I’m going to be able to afford roses anytime soon.” He would have to make a note for himself so he wouldn’t forget. Natalia wasn’t really a flowers kind of person, anyway -- mostly she preferred wine and chocolate and ice cream -- but once in a while, for something different... In odd numbers. Apparently.

Becca had gotten a table out on the patio where they could look out over the city and Becca could smoke. She’d ordered a huge plate of cheese fries and was making headway on them, licking ranch dressing off her fingers in between knocking back swigs of an already depleted whiskey sour. “Sunshine, sit, sit,” she said, patting the chair next to her. “It’s still Guinness, right?”

“A beer you can cut your teeth on,” Steve agreed with a wan smile. He took the indicated chair, pulling Natalia down on his other side. “I know you’ve officially met, but Becca: Natalia. Thanks for coming up, by the way. Buck was about half-convinced you would stay in Atlanta just to spite your dad, and he didn’t want to listen when I told him that was more his thing.”

“Big Jim could use more spite in his life,” Becca said. She tossed back the rest of her whiskey and gestured to their server. “It’s on me, tonight. Whatever you want. Food, or you can have some of my fries, whatever.” She swallowed, hard, then said, “I just made shift-lead. There was a bonus involved. I… I dunno, kinda wanted to tell Ma, before she left.”

“Hey, congratulations,” Steve said, and lifted his pint glass toward her. “Ma would’ve been proud, I’m sure.” Jim wasn’t going to care. Probably wouldn’t have even if he wasn’t in mourning. As far as Big Jim concerned, no accomplishment of his daughter’s was going to be better than what he wanted for her, which was to settle down and get with the making of babies.

Their waitress came back and sat Natalia’s shot glasses of vodka in front of her, dropped off another whiskey sour for Becca.

Natalia lifted one of the glasses. “To your mother,” she said, and knocked it back neatly, licking the last droplet from the rim. She peered at the empty shot glass afterward. “Terrible vodka, here in your United States. I will go home for Christmas, bring back something worth drinking. How many bottles, do you think, customs will let me bring through?”

Becca had given a half-hearted sip at Nat’s toast, but smirked at the rest of it. “Oh, she’s cute,” Becca said. “Good work.”

Steve felt himself flush. “I didn’t do anything, really. Just got lucky. Kind of fell into it, you could say.”

By the time Bucky finally made it to the bar, Steve had gone through two beers, Natalia had put away god only knew how much vodka, and Becca was entertaining them with stories from the ER where she worked, mostly about patients and the stupid things they came into the ER for. She was just telling about a woman who’d gotten a lightbulb stuck in her mouth when Bucky dropped into the chair next to them, hair a wreck from having tugged on it, eyes red. “Hey,” he said, not looking at anyone.

“Hey,” Steve said, matching his tone, even though a moment ago he’d been laughing. He looked around for the waitress to signal her over. “Get your dad to bed okay?”

“Sorta,” Bucky said. “He’s in my bed for th’ night. Won’t sleep in his own. I don’t… I don’t know what we’re gonna do, without Ma.” He ordered a Jim Beam on the rocks, then poked at the dessert menu listlessly. “Christ on a cracker.”

“Can’t say that I blame him,” Steve pointed out. He and Big Jim disagreed on a lot of things, but Steve couldn’t help but feel for the man today. “Gotta give him some time to mourn, and then I expect we’ll all... carry on. Next few days or so are gonna be rough, though.”

“Might be bad for a while,” Becca said, philosophically. “Might never get better. Seen it before, with older men. Widows, they get on with their lives, but men, sometimes, they just… stop. Stop caring. Stop living.”

“Well aren’t you just a ray of sunshine,” Steve muttered into his glass.

Natalia was smiling, though. “You are a realist,” she said. “I like this. Steven is all airy clouds and happy endings, he does not understand.”

“I understand!” Steve protested. “I just like happy endings better.” He sighed. “Get enough of the other kind without looking for more of ‘em.”

“I work in the Emergency Room in Atlanta. More gunshot wounds than tennis elbows, you know,” Becca said. She ran her finger around the wet rim of her glass, sent out a shimmering note. “Still like a happy ending, though. If I didn’t, I’d do hospice. At least there, I’d know all my patients were going to die.”

Bucky made a muffled, sobbing sound into his drink.

“Hey, hey, come on Jimmy,” Becca said, sounding a little bit ashamed of herself. “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.” And then Bucky was crying and Becca moved her chair a bit to put her arms around her brother. She was still dry-eyed, looking at Steve over Bucky’s shoulder.

Like Steve knew what to do any more than she did? He reached over to pat Bucky’s arm. “Yeah, it’s going to be okay, Buck.” He shot a helpless glance at Natalia. Maybe this going out drinking thing hadn’t been the best idea, after all.

Natalia nodded, got up and tracked down their waitress again. When she came back, she was carrying a huge bowl of ice cream and several spoons. “Here,” she said, pushing the dish in front of Bucky. “This helps.” When Bucky didn’t take the spoon, Natalia sighed, started talking in Russian, low and crooning, and pushed the spoon loaded with ice cream at Bucky as if he was an infant.

Startled, Bucky took a bite. “You are so weird,” he accused Natalia. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and took a second bite rather than letting Natalia shove whipped cream up his nose. “Steve…” he protested, but his voice was on the verge of laughing, and that was a decided improvement.

Natalia was a blessing, and Steve loved her. “I don’t know why you’re looking to me for help,” Steve replied, smirking. “You’re the one who pushed me down the stairs at her in the first place.”

“This,” Natalia said, earnestly. “Morozhenoye. Ice cream. You say it.”

“I did not push you--” Bucky protested again. He glanced at Natalia. “Morozhenoye. Jesus, Christ, woman--” his mouth was suddenly filled up again and Bucky snatched the spoon away from her.

“That is very good,” Natalia said. “Steve has terrible ear, cannot say anything correctly, except borscht.”

Steve thought that was very unfair. He couldn't hear any difference between the way Bucky said it and the way he’d said it, the times Natalia had tried to teach him. Of course, he couldn’t remember the words for more than a few minutes at a time, either. Languages simply weren’t his skill. Which his barely-passing grade in high school French could have told anyone.

“Is this a private ice cream battle,” Becca asked, “or can anyone join in?”

There were more spoons on the table and Natalia handed one to Becca while she attempted to stuff more ice cream in Bucky’s mouth, evading the spoon he was using to block her. It was fascinating, the way neither of them were getting ice cream on themselves. In between passes, she was throwing out more and more Russian words and Bucky was giving them right back to her.

Steve had just grabbed a spoon and was battling with Natalia over some of the scoop of chocolate when Becca shoved her spoon in his mouth. He spluttered and stared at his foster sister as she buffed her nails and looked smugly at him over the rim of her whiskey glass. It was the first time in a long time that Steve had actually felt like Becca was part of the family.

Chapter Text

2013 March

 

The reality of the situation didn’t truly start to sink in until Natalia was filling out her “intent to graduate” paperwork. Her thesis was ready to present -- finally, and there had been many late night, coffee-fueled hours with her nose buried in books and the computer, and trips offshore and research, where she and Cass had taken turns refilling the lab’s coffee bean supplies -- and she was all set. She was going to have her Master’s degree in less than two months. Assuming her thesis went well, but she was mostly confident. Mostly. Come to think on it, she might want to--

She turned her attention back to the paperwork, tapping her pencil against her lip. Stupid paperwork, it would be much easier to fill it out on the computer, but the school was still stuck at least half a century ago, as far as their files were concerned.

“Have you decided, what your plans are?” She tried looking over Cass’s shoulder, but he was left-handed and she couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was writing. “For after school?”

“I should find out in another week or so,” Cass said, not looking up, “if I made the internship for the Aquarius Sealab. Six months at the bottom of the ocean floor. You know, assuming I don’t get HPNS and go all psycho. Of course, six months of not getting paid and doing significant amounts of work, and I might go psycho anyway. Pretty sure these student loans are going to come due for payment the instant the ink on my diploma is dry.”

“At least you will be far away from the bill collectors?” Natalia suggested. She chewed on her pencil again. Cass laughed and jotted some more chicken scratch on his paper.

There were options. She had options. While home for Christmas, she had applied to several internships and been accepted to three different programs. One was far from home, but close enough that a few hours on a plane would get her back to her parent’s home. The other two were stationed out of Odessa. She would be home whenever she had time off.

Natalia sighed. It had always been the plan, she reminded herself. Get her degrees, go home and work toward conservation efforts. It was what she’d wanted her whole life.

Right up until she’d decided she wanted something else.

Her student visa was good for another two years, and then she would have to apply to extend -- again. But a doctorate would go a long way toward the better paying jobs at home.

She tapped her lip with the pencil, then pulled out her phone. She pulled up her most recent text conversation with Steve. They’d had dozens, chatting while she was studying, setting up dates. Pictures of things he’d seen that he thought she’d like. Her series of photos from the sealab.

When is next time you are available?  

It took some time for the response to come back; that was not unusual lately, since Steve and Bucky had been taking over more and more responsibility for the restaurant. Finally, it arrived.

New text from Steve:
Dpnds. Can talk in an hr when i take my brk, can be there pbly ~11 or so, lite floor 2nite. Or if its emergency idc im there in 45.

Natalia sighed. “Steve has no respect for me,” she said, squinting at the mangled words. “What does ‘idc’ mean?”

“I don’t care,” Cass responded, not looking up from what he was doing.

Natalia shot him a sharp look. “You do not care what it means, or Steve does not care?”

“I am not going to tell you that your ginormous boyfriend doesn’t care about you,” Cass said, holding his hands up in surrender. “‘Idc’ means ‘I don’t care.’ Note that I’m not saying what he does or does not care about. I bought you ice cream last week; we’re good and still friends until at least we finish studying for that quiz in Dr. Namor’s class.”

With that new information in mind, she read the text again. All right. “I am told,” she commented idly, “that saying ‘we need to talk’ this is bad, yes?”

“Oh, god, don’t say that unless you’re dumping him,” Cass said. “And please, don’t dump him. We just got everyone in the group to stop with the fucking drama. Wait ‘til the end of the semester if you’re going to dump him. I can hide under the ocean and I don’t have to watch Scott embarrassing himself by asking you out again.”

“So, how do I say this, if what I need is to talk?” Natalia asked. American customs were so weird and stupid and complicated.

Cass finally looked up. “What do you need to talk to him about?”

She tapped the sheet in front of her. “Do I stay here, more schooling? Or go home, after graduation.”

“Oh. Fuck. That conversation.”

“Yes,” Natalia said. “Oh. Fuck. Sounds correct.”

“Uh…” Cass hummed. “Tell him you need his help with something, not urgent, just whenever he can come up, I guess. And, um, before the deadline. If you want to move to your doctorate, you need to declare by Monday.” He paused, then said, “and if he gets all bent out of shape, please don’t tell him that I told you to say that?”

“Why?” Natalia’s thumbs were already moving over the tiny screen.

“Because your boyfriend is a scary muppet and I don’t want him to break my neck for me?”

I need help w/ decision. Not urgent. Before Monday? What is a muppet?

New text from Steve:
Bcuky says he can cover 4 me tomorrow AM so I can come over 2nite? Miss u. Muppet = puppet sort of. Google it.

“Steve is not scary,” Natalia said. “He is sweet and adorable.” This is good. Bring wine. Much thinking to do tonight. I will see you soon.

“He is fucking Sweetums,” Cass said. He signed his name to the bottom of his sheet with a flourish. “Good luck on your talk. Wear a red shirt to class tomorrow if you need an ice-cream emergency and I’ll know you’re going down with the ship.”

Natalia rolled her eyes. Cass was a strange man, but she did like him. He’d made school so much better than she’d thought it was going to be. She’d miss him, too. She inhaled, thought about going home. Getting her career started. Alone. She wouldn’t even be able to bring Liho home with her, which was something she should have thought of before adopting a dumpster pet. Putting Liho in quarantine for a minimum of six months and hoping the cat would be allowed into the country would be cruel.

She checked the time. She should grab dinner and take a nap. If she knew Steve, and by this point, she was pretty sure she did, no matter what they talked about, they would be up very late discussing it, and she had suffered through sleep-deprived classes before, but why would she, if there were options? She packed her stuff up, ruffled Cass’s hair until he batted her hand away, and headed for home.

***

She spread the papers with her offers across the coffee table. She’d put on one of her embroidered shirts that rode to her mid-thigh and left her legs bare. Pulled her hair out of the braid. Stared at herself in the mirror. She wanted to look… soft. Appealing. She had already sent off an email to her father. The laws in the United States prevented her from earning money while on a student visa, so if anything would be done, it would have to be paid for by her parents.

As always, her father had been matter of fact and encouraging. There is no shame in more education, child. He closed with the latest news from home and to remind her that he was very proud of her and that he loved her very much.

She wasn’t ashamed of herself; more education would be lovely. She adored school. But it wasn’t the real reason she was considering it. “What do you think, koshka?” she asked Liho, scooping up the cat and tucking Liho under her chin. “Do you think I should stay, yes? Stay and give you all the kibbles?”

The knock at the door sounded... harried. “It’s me,” Steve said, unnecessarily, muffled by the door.

She was still brushing cat fur off her shirt when she opened the door, scowling at the fleeing animal who’d bolted as soon as Steve knocked. It wouldn’t be but a few minutes before Liho was back in the living room, cuddling up to Steve and practically trying to climb inside his mouth. The cat was ridiculously attached to Natalia’s boyfriend. She’d be lying if she said it didn’t bother her at all, but mostly she thought it was funny.

“I do not see the resemblance,” Natalia declared. “Come inside.”

“The resemblance to... me?” Steve looked confused. Tired, and confused. Tired wasn’t new; for months he had been working more and more. He followed her into the apartment and dropped onto the couch carefully, as if he were worried he might disturb something.

“To Sweetums,” Natalia said. “Cass says you are a scary muppet.”

“That’s why you were asking me about muppets earlier?” Steve blinked up at her. “Am I scary?”

“I do not think so,” Natalia said, “It is what Cass said, when he told me not to say ‘we need to talk.’” She sat down on the sofa next to him and let her knees touch his. “But, this is true, we need to talk.” She poked her fingers together, staring at her fingertips, then flitting up to look at his expression.

He took a long breath, and let it out slow, his eyes fixed on the table in front of him. “I gotta say, if you’re dumping me, I wish you’d just told me over the phone instead--”

“-- why does this mean that?” She interrupted him. “Cass, he says the same thing. I am not doing this dumping.”

Steve slanted a look at her. “I’m not as smart as you, Nat, but I can read a calendar. And you said you needed to make a decision. I’m. I’m a little on edge, here; help me out.”

“I have choices to make,” she said. She gestured at the pile of papers on the table. “These are offers, to go home, for work, there. Internships, study programs. Once my degree is complete. Good jobs. My father, he is very proud. I miss my brother. But… there are more choices than that, so. I wish to know. We are dating. We are… exclusive. There are more options than that, as well, yes? Is this --” She made a shapeless gesture, indicating the apartment. “-- is this all that we are?”  

“Whoa, slow down,” Steve said. He reached out and caught her waving hand. “You’re telling me you’re thinking about... what, staying? For me? And do what?”

“There are oceans over the whole world,” she said. “For now, more school. Dr. Romanov, yes? Sounds good? My student visa has more time, then I can apply for an extension. I would not even have to apply for more school, I can move to the doctoral program with one piece of paper and a signature. And more money, of course.”

He blinked at her. “Staying to get your doctorate,” he repeated slowly. “And you... is that something you want?”

“There is no harm in more education, my father says,” Natalia informed him. “I enjoy my studies. But, it would not be the only reason.”

Now you’re talkin’ about me,” Steve guessed. He took a breath and blew it out. “You have to know I’d rather you’d stay than go. Everyone I love leaves me, but I was hoping to keep you around a little longer.” He rubbed at his face, tired. “I guess the question is... Even if I weren’t in the picture, would you still want this? Dr. Romanova?”

Natalia stared at him. Did he even know what he’d said? She blinked, tipped her head, studied his expression as if he were a particularly new and exciting sort of deep-sea creature. No. No he didn’t, really. How… utterly and completely typical. Men in general, Steve in particular. She would be almost upset if she wasn’t relieved. He did want her to stay, not just as a bedmate, or a date partner. Someone whose company he enjoyed, and who would miss her when she was gone, but then get over it and find someone new. And he didn’t even realize he’d told her.

She did some math in her head; they’d been dating for somewhat more than a year. In that time, according to the journal she kept, they’d had sex just over fifty times. Fifty-three, to be precise (or perhaps fifty-four; she wasn’t sure if the time that he’d gotten her to orgasm on his fingers and then been called into work and hadn’t been able to finish himself counted.) Three more years for a doctoral program to complete. Considered upping the number somewhat, because they hadn’t started sleeping together for a while. And hopefully they would be able to see more of each other, rather than less. She wasn’t sure about that, though, either. Doctoral programs were brutal.

And she might have wanted to do that math earlier, because now Steve was staring at her, eyes wide and full of hurt and she realized that she’d been just sitting there, thinking, while he was waiting for some sort of answer. “Two hundred and fifty,” she said, putting her hands on her hips and giving him her best mock-glare. “I cannot believe you, Steven, how can… how can you do this to me?”

“Do-- Do what? What did I do?” He held up his hands, eyes darting back and forth across her face, trying to read its weather. “Two hundred and fifty what?”

“Two hundred and fifty orgasms,” she said. “I cannot leave until I have collected them all. You owe me this. You…” she pointed a finger at him. “You do not say it, ever, and it just slips out? Look at you, you don’t even know what it is you said.”

Steve’s lips moved without making any sound. “I... You’re right, I don’t know what I said,” he confessed. “I’m... You’re going to stay, though?”

“Everyone you love leaves you,” she said, blinking, her eyes burning with feelings. “That’s what you said.”

“I don’t mean to be so melodramatic, it just slips-- Oh. Oh.” He clapped his hand over his mouth, his eyes wide. “That probably should’ve been a little more romantic, huh,” he said, muffled by his hand.

“This is true, though?” Natalia asked. Her voice was shaking and she knew it, but she didn’t know how to make it stop. She’d been waiting, and of course she knew that she could say it first, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. She dreaded the look on his face, the way he would pat her hand and say something horrible like “well, you know I care about you, too.” She’d worked it up in her head so much that she didn’t know how to jump across the chasm, so she’d just… waited. “You meant it, even if you did not mean to say it?”

“Of course it’s true.” Steve reached with both hands, curled them around her arms, not quite pulling her into his embrace but ready for it. “Christ, Nat, I think I’ve been in love with you since our second date.” He blushed, that pale skin betraying every thought. “If I’d said it too early, though, you’d have thought I was just trying to butter you up or something.”

Natalia wrapped her arms around him, pulling herself into his lap. “You don’t want to say too early, so you almost say it too late,” she accused, trying to put some heat behind her words, but she was too happy to manage it. “Three hundred. Idiot. I love you, Steve. I love you, I do. If you tell me this before, I would not have had to have talk with you about it. Decision would already have been made. I love you.”

The smile that he gave her then was almost, almost worth the agony of indecision and worry. He pulled her close, finally, hugging her almost too tightly. “Oh, god, Nat,” he whispered. “Thank you.” His face was tucked into the curve of her neck and he was trembling. But after a moment he looked up again, that same happy smile on his face, and he kissed her, hard and sweet and passionate. “Three hundred, huh? I might have to get started on that soon.”

“If you do not say it now, properly, you will owe five hundred,” she teased.

“If you keep threatening me like that, I’m not sure I want to ever say it,” he teased back. Then he sobered and cupped her face in his hands. “Natalia Romanova, I love you.”

“Well, perhaps I will owe you the other two hundred,” she decided, wiggling around in his lap with intent. “I love you, Steve Rogers.”

***

It was nice, Natalia thought, to be able to speak Russian and just relax. She had her laptop balanced on her knees, and her brother Borja was talking on the family computer. Behind him, she could see the decorative plates her mother had hung so many years ago. Strange how she missed things like that; American decor was so… bland. They didn’t like the brilliant oranges and reds on black that made up much of Natalia’s childhood.

“You are staying,” Borja said, his expression dubious. “For a man?”

What was it, Natalia wondered, about brothers, that they could repeat only the facts in such a way that made Natalia feel like she should be questioning her decisions.

“Not only for a man,” Natalia said.

“Yes, yes, Pappa said, you are going to be the first doctor in the family,” Borja said. “But still, you decided to stay for a man. Go on, admit it.”

She scowled. She wasn’t ashamed about her feelings for Steve. “Yes, for a man,” she said, finally. “What, do I owe you now?”

“Nothing,” Borja said. He leaned back, looking smug and satisfied. “I have already collected. You are staying for a man. You admit it. You are in love.”

“Did you think I was incapable?” Natalia groped around on her bedside table and found the pint of ice cream she’d pulled out, opening the container and stuffing a spoon into it. Her new favorite flavor, Coffee Crunch.

“Of love? No, of course not,” Borja said. He was stroking his beard knowingly. His beard was as red as Natalia’s hair, even though what grew out of his head was as black as their father’s hair. It made for a striking combination. Borja had been popular with the ladies as soon as he’d grown it out. Last year, he’d made an offer to one of them, and Natalia was looking forward to having a new sister in the next year or so, nephews and nieces. “I only wondered that you would be able to find someone you considered worthy. Tell me, is he big as a bear?”

“More like the lion, I think,” Natalia said, stretching. “Graceful and swift, not lumbering around like you do.” Her brother was huge. Her father was huge. It was no wonder Natalia was attracted to big men, it was what she’d always known. But it was more than that. Steve was more than that. The way he looked at her, even on that first meeting, was what drew her. He was a man who looked at her like she was the sun, the moon, and every star in the sky. It was hard not to respond to that level of devotion. Even harder, the struggle to feel worthy of it. To be the woman Steve Rogers believed that she was.

“Can I beat him?”

Of course Borja would ask that. She would have to brace Steve for that, eventually. Because her family would want to meet him, and there was no doubt in her mind that Borja would want to test his strength against Steve in the ring. Americans were different; they maneuvered and plotted, they based status on what women they were able to attract, on what money they had, on what car they drove. On those markers, Steve’s status was about mid-level; he had a pretty girl, he had a very fine vehicle.

She did not know what his skills were in a boxing ring. Steve had muscles, from lifting loads, from running, but she wasn’t sure if he knew what to do with them against an opponent. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Well, if he can’t at least take me to a draw, he’s not worthy of you,” Borja said.

“I shall let him know,” Natalia said, eating another mouthful of ice cream. “You should come and visit, before you get married and your wife will not allow it.”

“You think you’re going to stay? Become an American?”

“I will always be Ukrainian, Borja,” Natalia said. Some things were deeper than paperwork. Bone deep, blood born.

“But you will marry him, this American man?”

Natalia contemplated her spoon. It was sadly lacking in ice cream and she had to peer into the bottom of the carton to prove to herself that once again, she’d eaten the entire thing. “He is very American,” she said. “Eagles scream his name as they soar by. The national anthem is his theme music. He was even born on their Independence Day.” This last thing, at least, was true, but Natalia enjoyed spinning yarns, once in a while. The deadpan hyperbole was part of storytelling, like the man who could plant eighty fields of wheat, reap the fields, brew the beer, drink all the beer and sleep off his morning hangover, and still catch up with his bride.

“And then, yes, you will marry him.”

“When he asks,” Natalia said. If he asked. They hadn’t talked about it.  

“You’re getting old, little sister,” Borja teased. “Well past your eighteenth birthday now.”

“If he does not ask before I am thirty,” Natalia said, lightly, “I will come home and marry your best friend.”

“It is a bargain, Natasha,” Borja said, smiling.

 

Chapter Text

2013 July

It was almost nine when they checked into the hotel in Guethary, France, but Steve’s body told him it was still early afternoon. They’d been up early to catch the flight, but Steve was used to staying up until well after midnight working; sitting on a plane for most of eight hours had left him more restless than tired.

“I’ve never stayed in a hotel before,” he said as they pushed through the door into their room.

Nat thanked the hotel’s attendant in heavily accented English and recovered their bags from him. She was stressing the Slavic tones and chewing on her w’s like it was going to be a long, cold winter. They’d discovered pretty quick -- getting a taxi from the airport to their destination had been interesting -- that Frenchmen would take one look at Steve and refuse to acknowledge that they spoke Englishat all, even though apparently most of them did, if Nat would start the conversation in Russian.

“What do you do, then, when you travel?” Nat asked. She moved around the room, opening the windows; it was much cooler in France than at home and the sea breeze was both foreign and familiar at the same time.

Steve snorted outright. “What travel?” His poor health had made travel impossible when he was young, and the Barnes’ weren’t exactly rolling in money. Dockside ate a lot of its own profits. Steve’s annual trip to Busch Gardens for his birthday was about all the expense they could take in a summer, and that was a day trip.

Nat stared at him for a moment, then smiled. “Well, then I am more glad that my babushka, my grandmother, thought my accomplishments deserved a reward. We shall have a grand adventure that you will remember your whole life. Wine and chocolate and surf and sights. We will take many pictures, too, and bore everyone back at home with our slideshow, yes?”

Steve laughed. “Does anyone even use slides anymore? But yeah, that’s the plan.” He dropped onto the bed, letting it bounce under him. “Also, enjoying the fact that we have sheets here that we don’t have to wash.”

“And fresh croissants in the morning,” Nat said. She stretched, then crawled onto the bed to flop next to him. “France is well known for its pastries. I will get so stuffed, I will have to buy a new swimsuit. Well, half of one, at least.” She rolled over and looked up at the ceiling, criss-crossed with exposed support beams.

Steve sat up and looked her over appraisingly, closing one eye as he sized up her top and then her bottom. “Which half?”

“The bottom half,” she said. “The beaches here are topless. I will work on my tan.” She fluffed her hair out, spreading it in a fan over the pillows.

“Wait. What?”

“The beach,” Nat said. “It is not a full nude beach. For that we must go to a different part of France -- or Italy, but that is not this trip. But I do not have to wear the stupid top piece with all its ties and straps and doesn't actually hold anything up, anyway. Good riddance.”

It wasn’t the idea of seeing Nat’s breasts that seized his brain -- he’d seen her undressed plenty of times, and while he didn’t think he would ever stop enjoying it, it had stopped being novel. But the idea of her being naked -- or half-naked, anyway -- outside, where everyone could see...

Intellectually, he knew this was a thing, that Europeans (and, to be honest, pretty much the entire rest of the world) were much less prudish than Americans. Every summer, they had an incident or two with foreign visitors who disagreed with the city’s public decency laws. But to suddenly be faced with the opposite problem...

Nat glanced over at him, then hummed thoughtfully. “I could wear the top, if it makes you more comfortable, but it will be better if I don’t. You will get adjusted to it faster. Because even if I cover, most of the other women will not.”

Steve struggled for an actual thought containing words aside from just “boobs”. He was in France, and the French contempt for Americans was already abundantly clear, and they’d only been in the country for a couple of hours. He should at least make an effort not to fulfill their expectations. He blew out a breath. “No, you’re right. And I’d never even try to tell you what to wear. Just... expect me to wipe out a lot for the first day. Or so.”

She rolled over again, closer, her hand lightly trailing up his leg. “It would be worse for me, at the full nude beaches,” she teased. “Ten minutes, tops, and some Italian signorina would be leading you back to her casa.”

He shivered at the touch. “Hm, only if she’s prettier than you.” Patently untrue, and also impossible. There were no women prettier than his Natalia.

Nat laughed, let her fingers touch him just under the hem of his shirt, along the tender skin of his belly. “I don’t know,” she said, thoughtfully. “Italian women are mostly brunettes, in the south. Blonde in the north. Red hair, that is rare. But I do not know, maybe you prefer the sultry dark-haired women with their smoky eyes and their smoldering looks. But you still have a great many marks on your tally sheet; would you be so dishonorable as to run out before I am repaid?” She leaned in closer, let those last words come out as a heated whisper, letting her breath tickle along his neck.

“That’s a point,” Steve agreed. “Definitely wouldn’t want to leave that sheet unfinished.” He tipped his head back, letting her at the sensitive skin on his neck. “No Italian signorinas for me.”

“It is good,” Nat said. “We are close enough now that Borja could come and drag you back for me.” She’d been threatening him with her brother for a while now, since she’d decided to stay in the States at least for a few more years. When Bucky had found out that Nat’s brother’s name was Boris, he’d had to cover his mouth to keep from cracking up -- the asshole -- and absolutely refused to explain to joke, leaving Steve to rather sheepishly bring up a website and show her a few Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons.

Nat ran her fingers through the short hairs along the back of his neck, letting her nails drag a little, which always gave him the shivers. “But we will work a few of them off your ledger tonight, yes?”

Steve rolled over, pushing up onto his arms so he was hovering over her, his body pressing hers down into the soft mattress. “Yes.” He ducked his head to kiss her.

There were times when Nat was a tease, winding him up so badly that it was an effort to go slow and get her to the same place with him. When she would draw back from his attempts to kiss and touch, just slowly enough that he knew she wanted him to chase her down. Those first few kisses, she always treated like a challenge, like she was trying for some imaginary gold medal.

This time, his first time in a hotel, first time overseas, first time on a vacation ever in his life, and she opened up to him immediately, thrusting her tongue into his mouth and kissing him breathless in moments, squirming under him until he was resting between her legs, feeling all of her heat soaking up through her clothing. “No Italian signorinas for you,” she said, sealing that off with a nip of sharp teeth at his bottom lip.

He licked at the corner of her mouth, the hinge of her jaw, the shell of her ear. “Can’t imagine why I’d want one,” he admitted, rolling his hips against her heat.

“Me, either,” Nat said. She shoved at his tee, pushing it up until it was bunched up under his arms, her fingers greedy to trace over the skin of his back, his sides. “I am as much woman as you can handle. Our signorina, she would eat you for lunch.” She gave him a hot, wicked look. “But if you take off your pants for me, I might be convinced to eat you for dessert.”

God, I love you,” Steve said. He kissed her again, hard, then rolled off to start stripping down as quickly as he could. It felt so good to be able to say it, not to have to swallow the words anymore.

Nat took advantage of him not laying on her to peel out of her own clothes until she was down to her underthings. She matched this time, both were a pale blue with little flowers, very cute, and clung to her. He knew they were cute because she’d told him so, very pointedly, the first time she’d worn matching undergarments. In great detail. With a lot of complaints about how hard it was to find bras that were her size that weren’t black or white or beige. He’d learned more about women’s underthings in one fifteen minute conversation than in the entire course of his life before that. And he discovered that Nat expected him to remember -- and notice, and comment -- when she had new things. And these, these were decidedly new.

He kicked his shorts onto the floor, then traced a finger down one strap and along the edge of the cup. “New things for the trip? I like it.” (...He hoped these were new.)

Nat beamed at him, thrusting her chest out and breathing harder for show. “Yes, you like? I find a nice little shop, up in Virginia Beach. Very expensive, but a good fit. I think, this blue, just like your eyes. So I put it on, and think about you watching me all day.” She was exaggerating her accent again, which she tended to do when she was feeling playful. “And look,” she said, drawing one finger down the line between her breasts. “Front closure. You can unhook, very easily.” She leaned over toward him. “You try it.”

She got so much enjoyment out of mocking him for being unable to unhook her bras without looking -- as if he’d had the decade of practice that she’d had -- that he was a little surprised she was actually catering to his lack of ability. Not that he was going to complain. He focused in on the smooth, delicate material. There was the hook, which meant... Pop! It popped right open. Why didn’t the back ones go that easily?

Which did mean that when he stopped marveling over her underwear, her breasts were right there, practically under his nose, and she’d gone through an awful lot of trouble to make sure he noticed them. Honestly, the woman seemed to be convinced sometimes that he didn’t notice how perfect and beautiful she was, that he didn’t walk around half-hard and wanting her most of the time. But, she had gone through some trouble and the least he could do was give her what she was asking for. He pushed her back onto the bed slowly, one hand coming up to cup her, to test the weight of her breast, to thumb at the nipple.

She arched up into his touch, back making a beautiful curve against the dark rose-pink of the blankets there. Every time he saw her, undone like this, he had a brief urge for charcoals and pastels, for a pencil and drawing paper. Nat was exactly the sort of beautiful that should be marked down on paper forever.

Except then she looked at him like -- like that, right there, that smoldering come-hither look that he was pretty sure wasn’t even deliberate. Just her wanting him, and him knowing how perfect she felt and tasted, and suddenly needing it. Steve groaned; he couldn’t resist any longer. He closed his mouth over her nipple, sucking just hard enough to make her gasp and arch into him. He smoothed his hand over her skin, soft and warm, eager.

He flicked his tongue across her nipple, circled it, dragged his teeth over that nub so, so carefully, then rocked his hips up against her -- satin wasn’t quite as amazing against his cock as her skin, but it was still pretty great -- and moved to the other side, teasing a little, driving his own need higher and higher.

It had taken them a few times to work it out, the best angle for her -- and for him as well, since the very first time she managed to take most of him in her mouth, he’d come unexpectedly soon -- but she knew how to do it now. She shoved him away after a few moments of teasing so that she could arrange herself on the bed, laying with her feet up near the pillows. Sometimes he wished that they could work out a mirror or something, because he couldn’t see much of her, that way. Although he wasn’t complaining; her ass was perfect and cute and she had little dimples at the bottoms of her cheeks that were completely adorable. Right now, he could just find one of them under the lace of her new underwear, and he resisted the urge to poke it with his finger, which often made her squeal.

But all he could see of her face was sometimes the side of her jaw, if she pulled her hair back. This time, though, her hair was still in its braid from traveling, so he could see as her chin as it dropped to take him in. Her mouth was slick, her lips full, and she writhed a little as she moved on him, almost snakelike, pressing herself against his entire side.

Oh, God that felt so amazing. He stroked a hand over her hair, though he couldn’t really run his hands through it with her braid, but that was okay, that was -- being able to see more of her was definitely a tradeoff worth making.

Nat reached back blindly and plucked several hairpins out, tugging the braid from from its crown until most of it hung over her shoulder. The brilliant fire of it was lovely against her skin and he barely had time to admire it before her mouth was on him, sucking him back. The head of his cock rubbed against the roof of her mouth and her tongue wriggled against the sensitive underside.

And then she shifted. Her braid moved over his skin, the soft brush on the loose ends painting sensation across his skin like fire. He couldn't help the groan that escaped him, although making noise during sex wasn't a thing he did -- being a teenager in a full house had taught him to be quiet when jerking it.

An accidental brush of her hair maybe, but then she moved it, grabbed the end of her braid and deliberately swept it across his skin, teasing over his thigh.

“Ohmygod,” he gasped. “Nat...” He couldn’t even decide if he wanted to tell her to knock it off or do it again. “Nat, please.” She knew what he wanted, sometimes, even when he didn’t. Either way, he was going to do his best to make her scream when they switched places.

She did it again, dragging her hair over his skin, up his thigh. And then, moving her tongue over his cockhead in delicate flicks, she teased her hair over his balls. Ticklish and tormenting and teasing all at the same time and he had to grab huge handfuls of the blankets to keep from bucking up into her mouth and gagging her. Every nerve lit up, bolts of sensation raced through him. Until every point of his body was on fire for her.

He was whimpering and shivering, begging her to finish. Begging her to never stop. He wanted... He wanted, needed... Another flick of her hair against his balls, and it felt like setting a match to a candleflame, a sudden white roar of sensation that rushed through him and left him limp and boneless.

“Oh... God,” he panted. “Nat, that. You.” Words were too hard. She knew what he meant.

She pulled off his cock with a wet, slick sound that dragged another shudder out of him. She rolled over on the bed and her feet touched the floor lightly. A moment later, still reeling from the aftershocks, he heard her spit into the sink and rinse her mouth. She was back before he had time to miss her, looking unbearably smug and satisfied with herself.

“You,” he told her, still slightly breathless, “are a minx. I would say you owe me for springing that on me without any warning, but I’m not sure I’d live through it.”

“You are young,” she decided. “I will only take a few days off the end of your life. You'll never miss them.”

“I’d miss any days I don’t get to spend with you,” he said. She didn’t respond immediately, which was unlike her. Steve cracked an eyelid to find her staring at him. “What? We’re in France, I’m allowed to be romantic.”

“That was terrible,” she said, scowling at him. “how am I even supposed to answer that? You have been unbearably sweet and we have been here less than three hours. I will never top that. I may as well give up now. You win.” She flopped down on the bed, arms spread out. “I surrender. Claim your spoils.”

Steve hummed and rolled onto his side, propping his head on his hand while he traced slow spirals across her stomach. “I like the sound of this,” he said. “It’s almost too bad we’re already in our room; it’s the kind of line that demands throwing you over my shoulder like a caveman.” He grinned at her glare, and let the lazy trace of his hand toy at the waistband of her underwear. “Want to lose these?”

“You are the caveman. You take them off,” she said. She raised her hips a little, wiggled her butt to tempt him.

Steve sat up the rest of the way and hooked his fingers in the band. “Okay, but no complaining if I stretch them out like I did that one time.” It had only been the once that he’d tugged too hard, too eagerly, breaking stitches in the elastic and leaving a long, thin bruise on her hip. It had been the elastic she’d scolded him for, though, and so he never wasted an opportunity to tease her about it. He carefully eased this pair down her hips, not letting himself look at the small patch of hair between her thighs until he’d dragged the underwear off.

Then, he could look all he wanted. He slid across the bed, nudging her thighs apart so he could fit between them, pulling her knees over his shoulders. He dropped a kiss on those red curls, breathing in the heady scent of her, feeling how wet she already was. It was gratifying, how much she wanted him, every time.

He nosed downward, using one hand to spread her labia, and tested, carefully, with his tongue. Sometimes she wanted it so hard that it left his jaw aching, and sometimes she was so sensitive that she couldn’t bear much more than the lightest touch. Usually, it was somewhere in the middle, and he’d learned to rely on her sounds and the way her hand clenched in his hair to tell him when he’d reached the perfect pressure and rhythm.

He’d heard other guys say they didn’t like the taste of a woman’s fluids, but Steve thought they were obviously either with the wrong women, or were straight up smoking crack. Nat tasted like the ocean, inviting and also dangerous, giving life with one hand and taking it with the other. He could lose himself in this for hours, if she’d let him.

She rocked herself against his mouth, eager and already sighing into it. Her knees came up and then relaxed again, until her thighs were quivering and she shifted restlessly. Her hands came down on his head, fingers stroking his hair, pulling at it. He thought she might have come already, almost immediately, but he wasn’t sure. Sometimes she batted him away after, until she had a few minutes to bring herself down, but this time she just rose up to meet him, and then uttered a sharp, feral sound before letting her legs go open, splayed in front of him.

Nat murmured his name, soft, almost soothing, and with such passion behind it that he was shivering. She had a pet name for him, too, in Russian. Stepka, she sometimes called him, and only in very private moments, where no one else ever heard them. She lay under him for a moment, panting, and then twisted again.

Eager and needy, she wrapped one leg around his back, pulling her to him, and he ended up having to hook his hand around her knee to keep her spread. She’d told him before that sometimes, it was hard to stay still and she wasn’t struggling to get away, but writhing and twisting to get closer. “Stepka!” She was crying out for him. She gasped, pleaded with him, her voice spiraling upward.

He knew, that time, that he’d gotten her there for sure; her little knot of flesh at the very tip of her throbbed under his tongue in time with her cries and the fresh rush of fluid from her soaked the blankets under them. Then, then she squirmed to get away, whining at the overstimulation as he licked her through the aftershocks.

She yanked at him until he moved up, pillowed on her breast. When he teased a little with one hand, she swatted at him and grabbed his wrist, moving it to her ass and patting it firmly. Stay there. “Let me breathe, Stepka,” she fussed, chest heaving. She gazed at him through slitted eyelids, then, satisfied with whatever she saw, snuggled up to him as the evening breeze flowed in through the windows and cooled them down.

“Love you,” he murmured, brushing his fingers through her hair. “Natasha.” It was a name he only called her in private, though she’d given him permission to use it generally. But it felt like something quiet and special, like her calling him Stepka. It sent a little shiver through her whenever she heard it, so he figured he must be doing okay.

“Love you more,” she said. There was a long beat and then she sighed. “And now… now I am hungry.”

 

Chapter Text

2013 August

 

“What is this?” Natalia had assumed that Steve’s brother was not stupid, but he was doing his best to appear as though he was.

“My resume,” she said. She knew it didn’t have much on it; she hadn’t actually had a job since she’d done some child care for her neighbors before she left for school. She would assume, however, if she was capable of taking care of those four monstrosities for days at a time, she would be perfectly good at taking orders and writing them down.

“I see that,” Bucky said, pushing it back across the desk at her with the eraser edge of his pencil like he was concerned it was going to catch the room on fire. “What I am not understandin’ here is what that’s got to do with me.”

“Steve says that you are understaffed,” she said, trying to summon patience. “You call, all the time, ask him for help. He works extra hours, and you pay him more and this would be lovely, if he ever got any time off to spend any money on me.” Or spend time with her at all. Money had never been the actual issue.

Bucky rubbed at the back of his neck. “Doin’ the best I can,” he confessed. “Not my fault that Dottie quit on us last week. I can’t handle th’ grill and th’ customers at the same time.”

“Yes, I am aware,” Natalia said. “Which is what this has to do with you.” She shoved the resume back at him.

The look Bucky gave her was flat and unimpressed. “You. Want to… what? Waitress. Here?”

“You need cook, you need waitress, you need help. Steve tells me your father is not able to do these jobs, he is burdened. You lose your part time help. It will take some time to find a replacement. I have time, and I have a need to see my boyfriend more than once a month. You love your brother, yes? Wish him to be happy?”

Bucky sighed. “Yeah?”

“Then you will do this,” Natalia said. “You will hire me, and I will help.”

Bucky licked at his top lip. “They’re gonna eat you alive,” he said. He glanced down at her resume. “You don’t have a Social Security Number.”

“You will add my hours to Steve’s,” Natalia said. “I am on a student visa, I cannot legally hold a job. Pay Steve the extra, and we will be fine.” It’s not like she needed the money. But she’d gotten the impression from both Bucky and Steve that they wouldn’t want her doing them favors, either. A step up from charity, Steve had called the job, once. It wasn’t, anymore. If anything, Steve was doing Bucky the charity, working so many hours.

“You know, when people talk about illegal aliens taking our jobs, I really didn’t think they meant it quite so literally,” Bucky said.

“You are very rude,” Natalia pointed out.

Bucky gave her a weary smile, sweet and somehow achingly sincere. “Get used to it, darlin’,” he said. “I suck as a boss. I didn’t want this, I never wanted it, and I ain’t got the slightest clue what I’m doin’. Do you even know how to wait tables?”

There were a lot of things Natalia knew how to do. She knew how to break down the chemical composition of seawater to test for pollutants. She knew how to measure the tides and currents that caused beach erosion. She had analytical skills and data mapping talents. She could identify hundreds of species of sea life at a glance, knew how to gene map others. “You will teach me,” she declared.

Bucky leaned back in his chair and laughed. “I understand why Steve likes you. Boy needs some direction in his life. You boss him around in bed, too?” He shook his head hastily. “Nevermind, I don’t think I want to know the answer to that.”

“Am I, or am I not, a better option than having no waitress?” Nat demanded, tapping her foot. How hard could it be? And surely, he would find someone else, eventually. She’d heard many of her fellow students complain over the summer that there weren’t jobs. Here were two (or three) perfectly respectable jobs, just waiting for someone to fill them.

“All right,” Bucky said, finally. “You’re hired. Jeans, black pants, or shorts. I’ll get you a couple of tees with the logo on ‘em. Those come out of your first check at cost. Four dollars each. What size are you and what colors do you like? I’ll pay you under the table. Steve’s already working a shitton of overtime, if I give him any more hours, I’ll have to pay him triple, and that’s not gonna fly. And tell me you’re at least twenty-one so I don’t lose my liquor license for you sellin’ hootch illegally.”

“I am older than Steve, somewhat,” Natalia said. “And I wear a medium. Not pink, not yellow. Other than that, color is not important.”

“A’ight,” Bucky said. He dug around in the shelves behind the desk and threw a blue tee at her. “Get changed, grab an apron, you can shadow me for today. Congrats. You’re hired.”

“What, no party?” Natalia said, deadpan.

Bucky choked, shocked into a laugh. “Here, take this thing,” Bucky said, handing her back her resume. “This doesn’t belong here at all.” The way he said it, Natalia heard the undertones. He didn’t think she belonged here, at all, either. Natalia grabbed one of the aprons from the pegs in the hall and followed Bucky into the dining area. She would prove that wrong. She knew hard work, after all. And this… how hard could this be?

***

Natalia collapsed on Steve’s terrible couch, groaning. She waited until Steve sat next to her and she turned in her seat, putting her legs up over his and lolling back against the arm. “How have you not died, yet?” she asked, plaintively, aware that she sounded like Liho when her bowl had just the tiniest speck of the bottom showing through. It was like the two weeks leading into Christmas, when her family would get together and do nothing but bake cookies six hours a day. She was full of food that wasn’t good for her, her legs ached, she had bruises on her hip from constantly walking through the swinging doors with her hands full, and her fingers hurt from carrying trays.

And at least at home, she hadn’t had to deal with all the thinly veiled come-ons, demands for her to smile, people cheating her out of tips, and tourist children who ran around the floor shrieking at the top of their lungs.

“You get used to it, a little, after a while,” Steve said, rubbing at her leg where it draped across his lap. “I don’t envy you the customers, though. There’s a reason I work the grill.”

The actual job part of the job wasn’t hard, exactly. She was used to writing quickly, she had a pretty good memory, and she didn’t mind some of the customers. Although she’d found out relatively quickly that tourists were even more narrow-minded than some of her fellow students. When her slavic accent had gotten her dubious looks -- and what was with the talking slower and louder? Her English was almost perfect? -- she’d switched it up. Bucky had blinked at her in astonishment when the Ukrainian student at his side disappeared and been replaced with a southern Georgia peach, but the customers responded a lot better.

Her tips got better, too, she’d noticed, if she flirted a little. Let her hips sway as she walked. Bent over to fill up glasses with iced tea. It was stupid. Did diners think she was going to go home with them for an extra four percent? No. But they gave it anyway. It was a game, she decided. How to read the people at the table, as much as the menu, or their orders.

She twisted her leg a little, moaning, as Steve rubbed at her sore muscles. She was really taking up Liho’s bad habits. Soon she’d be shredding the furniture and leaving hair everywhere. She wasn’t sure she’d mind that, as long as Steve didn’t stop petting her.

“If it’s too much, I’ll tell Bucky you’re bowing out,” Steve offered. “It’s a tough job, he’ll understand.”

Thin as paper and twice as sharp, that little blade that skated under her skin. “It is a tough job,” she hedged. “It is not… complicated. But it is hard. Harder than I thought. But I can do it.” She struggled to get herself into a straighter sitting position, that by no small coincidence, put her bare feet in Steve’s lap. “You, you will not quit. This is your family, your friend. You do this to help him, and this is a good thing. I… I will not quit on us. This seems the best path to both goals, yes? I help him, you love me more. I see you regularly, you love me more. I am amazing and get all the tips. And then, I buy all the ice cream. It will work out, Steve, you will see.”

Steve laughed, but he took the hint and began rubbing her aching feet. “I don’t know how I could possibly love you more, but you’re the smart one, so I guess I have to believe you.” He gave her a smile that meant he was... proud?

Natalia nodded, squirmed around a bit until she was comfortable and let her eyes drift shut. Everything would be fine. And at least she had the summer off, and could help. Once school started again, her free time would be vastly impinged on. And having a little spending money wouldn’t hurt. She’d use it to buy better shoes, if nothing else.

She wasn’t entirely asleep when Steve lifted her up gently and took her into the bedroom, but it was nice to be taken care of, so she just lay there and let him do it, snuggling up against him when he crawled into bed. She could get used to this, she thought. It was… nice.

***

It took less long leaning against the wooden door to the men’s room to confirm her suspicions than Natalia would have preferred. She would have preferred being wrong.

She tucked the round serving platter under one arm and stormed into the kitchen, thrusting the palm of her hand into the middle of the batwing doors with precision. “You must make them stop,” she announced.

Sam, the dishwasher, glanced up at her from his station at the sink and then promptly went back to work. “Above my pay grade,” he said. “Whatever it is.”

“Steve!”

“Very busy,” Steve said quickly. He was not very busy; he had a small stack of hamburgers already pushed to the “keep warm” side of the grill, and half a dozen crabcakes just laid down that would take a good ten minutes to cook properly. He had time. “Far too busy to stop anything.”

Natalia glowered around the kitchen impotently. “I cannot,” she said, firmly. “I cannot go in there. One of you has to.”

Steve looked around at Sam.

“Nuh-uh,” Sam said. “She’s your mail-order bride, you get to deal with her problems.” He pointedly grabbed another plate and plunged his hands into the soapy dishwater.

Steve slumped in defeat. “Go in where?” he sighed. “And stop what?”

“The men’s room,” Natalia said. “Someone is… having the sex in there. They have been in there for at least half hour now. I had to take a little boy into the ladies room, after making sure it was clear, and they are still not done.” Which was both annoying and impressive for a bathroom quickie. She’d never involved herself in it, but some of her fellow students at Rutgers had been all about the sex perched on a bathroom sink. Honestly, the thought made Natalia a little ill. How many germs were in there? Ick.

“You don’t gotta use articles with sex,” Sam said. “It’s just having sex. Not having the sex.”

Natalia flounced at him. “English is a stupid language.”

Sam grinned. “That it is. And I ain’t goan help you stop ‘em from doin’ it in the men’s room. I got a great big pile of excuses here in front of me.”

Steve groaned. “Fine, but you owe me,” he growled to the room at large. He stalked out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron, and headed toward the restrooms. Quite a few heads turned as he made his way across the dining room, either because the customers knew what he was about to confront, or because he was worth looking at.

He didn’t seem to notice any of them. He banged sharply on the men’s room door. “Coming in, in three. Two. One.”

Natalia peered around the doorframe from the kitchen. “I may owe him,” she said to Sam, “but in the comfort of his apartment and not in some--” She broke off suddenly because she knew that voice.

The other man looked vaguely familiar, as he jerked his jeans up onto his hips. He gave Natalia a wide grin and ducked out the back, pushing through what was supposed to be an emergency exit (but wasn’t really, because the security system in the building had been shut off for years) with a cocky salute.

She crept closer, uncertain.

Steve’s face and neck were turning a dark, brick red. She would chalk it up to embarrassment, except his jaw was doing that grinding tic thing that meant he was utterly furious and trying not to explode in front of all the customers. Then he stepped back and Bucky brushed past, clothing well in place but hair still disheveled.

Oh. Oh, dear.

“Was… was that a customer?” Natalia hissed as he strode past her toward the office. If it was, he’d just left, shafting her on the check and her tip. She didn’t wait for an answer, really, scurrying into the dining area  to do a quick head-count. There weren’t that many people there, which was good. Thursdays and Monday evening were their quietest days in the summer, and it was past nine, which meant most of the families were gone. A few of the guests were looking around, curiously, and Natalia had to work at it to keep her smile in place. She was going to throttle her boss.

She did a quick lap across the floor, filling iced tea glasses, dropping off a check, picking up two. Noted that tables four and seven needed to be bussed. Headed back into the kitchen where she picked up on Steve’s half of the conversation.

“-- aren’t the first amorous couple that I've had to eject from the washroom, but you’re the first that’s worked here, Bucky! What the fuck even?”

“Oh, God, Steve, will you stop?” Bucky groaned. He sounded… tense. Which meant he probably hadn’t gotten off. Good. “Dad’s barely leaving th’ house anymore, an’ you know I can’t afford a hotel. Besides, did you see the ass on that guy? I mean, did you?”

“Yes,” Steve bit off. “I did. And I’d very much appreciate not having to ever see it again! What the hell were you thinking? You couldn’t at least wait until after closing?”

“Mighta got carried away,” Bucky admitted. “We been chattin’ a bit since Dad hired him, an’ he said he noticed me watchin’ him today. An’... then we were in the bathroom. Stevie, I ain’t got laid in forever, man.” So not a customer, but one of the contract carpenters that were fixing the deck seating. Now that Bucky had said, Natalia remembered. Rumpot? Rumford? Something like that.

“Well, I suppose it’s a better excuse than ‘you tripped and fell on his dick,’ but not much,” Steve said. “Now, given the whole floor saw me extract you from the men’s room with sex hair, I’m going to strongly suggest that you go upstairs and take a shower, and then wait an hour until all the tables have turned. I am going back to work.” It wasn’t a big enough kitchen to let him stomp off, but he turned back to the grill with a very final air.

As soon as Bucky slouched out of the kitchen, Natalia turned on Steve with narrowed eyes and sharpened purpose. “Steven. Did you tell Sam that I am this mail order bride?”

Steve’s lingering scowl transformed into one of sheer panic. Natalia had a hard time suppressing a gleeful giggle. “No,” he said. “No, no, no, god no. Sam’s just, he’s got a terrible sense of humor, I’m so sorry, I’ll tell him to--”

“Good,” Natalia interrupted, putting her nose in the air. “Because I am too beautiful, too expensive. You could not afford me. Yes?”

“Yes,” Steve agreed quickly. “Far too beautiful for me.”

“<You are too adorable,>” she scolded crossly. “<Stop it at once or I shall get cavities.>”

Ah, good. Steve had recognized her false-angry tone for what it was and was now blushing and rubbing the back of his neck, and not fretting about his brother. And was well on track to make the evening a pleasant one for them both, as well, which was a nice bonus. She picked up the waiting plates and loaded her tray, and granted Steven a small smile before returning to her duties.

Rumlow! That was the man's name. She almost groaned. As an employee, albeit a temporary one, Rumlow would be around again. She did not want to deal with this again. Boundaries. She did not care who Bucky was with, only that she did not have to witness it.

The nicest thing, she decided, about this job was how she could do it and still have plenty of time to think about other things.

“I am going to take a break, Sam,” she said, near the end of Bucky’s allotted hour. “There are two tables out, check them in five minutes for drinks and I will be right back.” She ducked into the office, rummaged through the button-down that Bucky had left hanging over the back of the chair and snagged the pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket. She headed out the kitchen door and up the stairs. Just in time.

People were so predictable.

She lit the smoke, took a drag. She didn’t smoke very often -- she didn’t like the way the smell clung to her hair -- but had been known to have one from time to time. Usually someone else’s, because they were an expensive habit. “Ah, Bucky,” she said. “Come, speak with me a moment.” She handed him the cigarette and pushed past him to the stairs.

Dockside had a widow’s walk; a balcony-like structure over the garage apartment. Theoretically, the structure was originally for sea wives to be able to look out over the ocean and get the first view of ships headed to shore.

Sandbridge, she understood it, had never had ships at harbor. Even the dock from which the restaurant took its name never had a ship in port; the dock was more of a pier, for fishermen and tourists to walk on. But the appeal of being able to look out to sea, to view the whole of the horizon… Natalia loved it. She frequently took her breaks there. A few fold-out chairs and one beach umbrella were installed, for comfort.

She didn’t look to see if Bucky was following her. If he wasn’t, they were done and she would put him in the same mental category as Scott Summers. Pretty, sometimes funny, but in the end, useless. Not worth her time.

But he was right behind her when she glanced up from the rail.

“Are you plannin’ to lecture me, too?” Bucky didn’t look at her, his gray eyes fixed on the ocean. Moonlight glinted off the waves, a sparkle of starlight against the seafoam.

Truth is, she was. But he didn’t need to know that. “How would that do anyone good?” she mused. “I am here to see how I can help.”

Bucky actually turned, stared at her. “Why? Help with what?”

“You are sad,” Natalia observed. Not that it was hard to see, Bucky was rushing from one thing to another without pause. The number of bottles near the trashcan in his kitchen had not changed much, either. She rarely saw him drunk, but sometimes in the careful way he moved, she thought he did not stop drinking, either. “You lost your mother. Your sister, she goes in this terrible fight, I hear. You are losing your father.” That was even easier to see. Big Jim was nominally the owner and operator of Dockside, but they rarely saw him belowstairs, and whenever they did, it made life difficult on all of them.

“Yeah, and?” Bucky’s shoulders tensed and his eyes narrowed. “What of it?”

“Is Steve next on your list?”

Bucky blinked. “What?”

“You have two choices, as I see them,” she said, picking another cigarette out of the pack and lighting it. “You can hold on to what you have, or you can throw it all away. Find something different, maybe better. But if you throw this away now, you may never get it back.”

“I ain’t throwin’ Steve away,” Bucky said, his jaw grinding a little. They had that much in common, the brothers. Both stubborn. And sometimes blind to what was in front of them. “And I ain’t givin’ up on Dockside. I jus’. I never asked for this. This is my mom’s dream, I never wanted to run it.”

“But it has come to you,” Natalia said, matter-of-fact. It was only the truth. “And now you have it, you should decide what you plan to do. We cannot go on this way. Do not think, what does Steve need. There are other jobs, he will find one if he must. Do not think what your mother wanted. She is gone. If your father no longer wishes to own this, he can sell. Retire. We will all be well, Bucky. Think… what does Bucky Barnes want?”

“You don’t pull any punches, do you?”

“What is the point of that?” Natalia said.

“In Ukraine,” Bucky said, his voice shifting to that somewhat darker, choppy accent he used when learning Russian, “decision make you.” He ended that with a laugh, but Natalia failed to see the joke. It was true, as far as it went. People were the choices they made.

“Steve says I am fatalistic. I say, I am realist. The situation is, Bucky. And you must deal with it. Better for us, if you deal with it. Whatever your choice. It will be better if you make it.”

Bucky scoffed, snubbed his cigarette and put it in the can of sand kept for that purpose. “You give terrifying pep talks, I’ll have you know.”

Natalia smiled. “I know.”

 

Chapter Text

2014, March

 

Everything happened faster than it did in the movies, Steve thought. In the movies, there were always long periods of time where the cops investigated the scene, where lawyers prepared arguments and where the hero of the film had a moment to think about fleeing the country and deciding to stay and fight the good fight.

That was exactly nothing like what happened when Steve’s best friend got arrested and charged for a crime he didn’t commit.

In reality, the cops questioned Rumlow, who lied like the sack of shit he was, implying that Bucky had attacked him entirely without provocation. They questioned Buck, who was deeply in shock and practically incommunicado by that point. Steve didn’t blame him; watching your lover -- or fuckbuddy, or whatever they were calling it -- rape your underage friend had to be pretty damn traumatic.

Then the cops questioned Kurt, who was both traumatized from the rape and terrified of his parents, and therefore also lied. Steve couldn’t really blame the kid for that, either; he’d met the Wagners. They were horrible people, exactly the sort who would send Kurt to one of those terrible conversion therapy camps where they tried to pray away the gay and when that didn’t work, resorted to electro-therapy. On the other hand, Kurt wasn’t facing jail time, either.

As far as the cops were concerned, Rumlow’s story made the most sense and his sudden acquisition of a girlfriend made him seem respectable. Less gay. More likely to have been attacked than to have done the attacking.

Buck got nine and a half minutes with a lawyer who laid it down for him in very brutal terms: with no proof, if Buck pushed his innocent line, then they’d be forced to charge him with the whole nine yards. Buck would almost inevitably be found guilty. A jury wasn’t going to care about the plight of a gay boy. They’d side with Brock Rumlow because that would fit their worldview and with the whole bevy of charges, Buck would be looking at a minimum of ten years, and a felony record -- it would ruin his whole life.

Steve’s opinion on the whole matter, looking at the substantial list of charges the prosecutor was throwing at Buck, was that plea bargaining was basically torture; it was confession derived from fear or pain, and had nothing to do with the law, or with justice, or with innocence. “You’re not guilty,” Steve repeated about eighteen times through the whole thing, but it didn’t matter. Because if it went to trial, Buck was going to be found guilty.

The stupid county lawyer had been convinced that Buck would get a fine and probation for six months. But even with a guilty plea, the sentencing itself was up to a judge. The maximum penalties for what was, essentially, being billed as a bar-fight, were still better than felony charges. But the judge had been Johann Schmidt.

Schmidt remembered Buck, who, as a minor, had been involved in a spot of joy riding with Steve. But Steve had the orphaned kid thing going for him, and he was younger, so Buck mostly ended up taking the fall for it, despite that fact that it was Steve’s idea. And then later, when Buck was nineteen, he’d been a bit-player in a smuggling ring of fake IDs. (He’d gotten out of being directly involved, but Buck still knew a lot of those guys; Steve supposed they were just lucky that Kurt hadn’t left his fake ID at the scene.)

“You just don’t seem to learn, do you, Mr. Barnes?” Schmidt had said. “Arrogance may not be a unique trait, but I must say you do it better than anyone. What makes you think that you are so special, to be above the law?”

Buck hadn’t had a good answer for that.

Steve checked his watch. Azzano prison (a small, minimum security prison in York County, an hour’s drive from the beach) had a visiting schedule that was arranged alphabetically, by the prisoners last names. As a Barnes, Steve could only visit Tuesdays from twelve-thirty to one-thirty, or Fridays from five to six. Neither of them were convenient for Steve’s work schedule, but he’d worked overtime on the weekend and Big Jim could handle the grill for a few hours, even if the man hated it.

Steve was going to do this. Jim had given Steve the impression that he had no intention of visiting his son while Buck was in jail, and the wildly inconvenient schedule at least gave Steve an excuse to give to Buck. Wild horses couldn’t have dragged that truth out of Steve and still, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for Buck to have to get through this alone.

Bad enough Bucky had already been through ten days on his own. The paperwork to visit a damn inmate was a nightmare.

Steve checked his watch again. He’d specifically been told that he needed to arrive twenty minutes before the scheduled visitation time, but not any earlier than that, or the guards might start wondering if he was trying to do something like a jailbreak (for sixty days? Even Steve at his most elaborate world-building fantasy super-hero daydream drunk wasn’t fool enough to try that shit.) Since traffic on the Southside was never what one would call reliable, he’d chosen to arrive early and lean against his bike in the parking lot outside the local 7-11 until it was time to go.

He was ushered through the gate to the facility parking, where his bike bins were searched and he was given a general pat-down. The guards eyed him up. Steve was still not used to being big and tall, and the guards’ excessive caution seemed odd to him until he saw a reflection of them in the side window of someone else’s car and realized how much bigger he was than they were. They didn’t look at him and see Buck’s brother and best friend. They saw a muscular dude who looked like he could bench both of them. Who’d arrived on a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket. They saw trouble.

Steve would have liked to have given someone some fucking trouble over all this shit, but this wasn’t the time, it wasn’t the place, and most importantly, it wouldn’t help Buck at all. Unless Steve also getting arrested and going to jail would be help. Which… it probably wouldn’t. He could protect Buck better from inside the jail, but there was no guarantee they’d end up in the same facility at all.

“This way, Mr. Rogers,” one of the guards said after they failed to find anything more dangerous on him than about thirty dollars worth of ones. Steve felt like he’d been to a stripper convention, but what information he’d managed to get out of his friend Masters (who’d spent a bit of time in jail himself) suggested that he should buy Buck snacks and sodas. Prison food was shit, and vending machine candy could earn him some friends.

The inside guards got him to sign, leave his wallet, keys, cell phone, and everything else that might possibly be used for some sort of mayhem in a little locker. Steve had a moment’s panic that this was the beginning of them locking him away, because honestly, who would miss him? Big Jim probably wouldn’t, that was for sure. He would probably just shut Dockside down and think nothing of it if Steve didn’t show up for work for a few days.

Nat would miss him. Steve clung to that idea with both hands. Except that she wasn’t a citizen of the United States and there were all sorts of legal loopholes that would prevent her from visiting him if he ended up in jail. He shoved that thought away. There was nothing he could do about it anyway.

Steve was wearing appropriate footgear (no shoelaces) and the right color pants (jeans -- the inmates wore khaki uniforms, and therefore, Steve was not allowed the comfort of his normal pants) and a shirt that had no obscene sayings on it. They took his watch and put it in the little locker, too. Steve was almost tempted to tell them they could keep it. He wasn’t sure why he still wore Joe Rogers’ watch sometimes.

The visitor’s hall looked sadly like a half-empty middle school cafeteria. It held a bunch of tiny tables that could seat two or three people, each close enough to the next one that conversation wouldn’t be private. The tables and chairs were bolted to the floor. There were two guards at the door that Steve went through. Two more guards at the door on the other side of the room. And two inside the room, who watched and walked around. And this was a fucking minimum security place? What the hell even?

Steve sat where they told him to sit. He’d read the rules when they’d been given to him. They read him the rules, just in case he couldn’t read, and he was again reminded when he sat down. Two hugs, one at entry, one at exit. No holding hands. If he wanted to pass Buck the money to get snacks from the two vending machines at the far end, he needed to put the money on the table and pull his hands back before Buck was allowed to take it.

The door opened and Buck came in, slow and slump-shouldered, his head down and only looking at the space on the floor between his feet. His hands were locked behind him. The guard unlocked the cuffs, but left the bracelets attached to one wrist. Not entirely smart, Steve thought. A talented fighter could use the metal bracelets as extra damage in a fight.

Buck stumbled over to the table and sat down. He still hadn’t looked up, using a curtain of dark hair to hide his face.

“What are you doing here, Stevie?” Buck said. He tipped his chin just enough to catch the emotional weather on Steve’s face and then vanished again behind the shield of his hair.

“I thought that was obvious,” Steve said. “Visiting you.”

“You shouldn’t have come,” Buck said. His voice was low, raspy. Steve wasn’t sure why Buck was keeping his head down; surely if he’d been crying enough for his voice to sound like that, his eyes were red, but they’d never hidden that sort of thing from each other before.

“Well, I’ve come a long way to hear Bucky Barnes say something really stupid,” Steve said, leaning back a little from the table and crossing his arms over his chest.

“I’m fuckin’ serious, Steve,” Buck said. His fists clenched at his sides for a moment, then he dropped them again. “You can’t… you shouldn’t be here.”

“You look me in the eye and tell me why the fuck not.”

Buck’s entire body stiffened and then he slowly straightened up. He wasn’t hiding a tear-streaked face.

Buck was hiding a black eye and a bruised jaw and a thick purple band around his neck like someone had fucking throttled him. Steve’s jaw tightened and his own fists curled. “What happened?”

“What do you fucking think happened?” Buck glared. “Let’s you and I pretend for five fucking seconds that you’re not stupid. You know where I am. You know who I am, and more importantly, you know what I am.”

“I know you’re my best friend,” Steve said.

Buck’s eyes lit up with some sort of mad, furious glow like an impotent jack-o-lantern. “That’s exactly right, Steve. And that is why you cannot be here. You’re gonna cry in about four minutes, and then I’m gonna cry. And I’m gonna look weak, Steve, and I absolutely cannot look weak right now.”

Steve twitched his jaw. “No, I’m not going to cry. And neither are you.” He put five of the ones down on the table and backed up from them. “Get us a soda and a candy bar each, and then come tell me what I can do to help. You know what Ma always said. Can’t cry and eat at the same time.”

Buck snorted. “Tell that to Ben & Jerry’s, Stevie.” But he did what he was told. The instant he got up, the guard was immediately more alert. Jesus fuck, you’d think the guys in here had done something more than gotten into bar fights and stolen office supplies.

He came back with two Cokes and a bag of Skittles that he tore open and spilled onto the table. Steve took his time picking out the yellow and orange ones, knowing that it drove Buck batshit crazy. Buck, heathen that he was, scooped up a handful and ate them all at once, tasting the rainbow and not caring that the different colors tasted different and should therefore be savored.

“It’s not… it’s not as bad as it looks,” Buck said. He cracked the tab on his soda.

“How bad is it?”

“It was a break-me-in fight,” Buck said. He gave Steve a really bitter smile. “I’m kinda a big deal in here. Violent criminal. Most people here, they’re… petty little baby drug users that had just a little bit more Mary Jane on them then the law allows and got hit up for intent to distribute. And a coach who stole money from the baseball team’s fundraiser. This… this was me against three, Steve. I held my own. They… stop lookin’ at me like that, okay, what you’re worried about didn’t happen.” But there was a sidelong skating to Buck’s eyes that Steve didn’t like.

“Well, something happened,” Steve said. He wanted to reach over and poke that bruise; not the one on Buck’s eye, or the one on his jaw, but the one around his throat. His fucking throat, just like that asshole Pierce did to Buck every goddamn summer. It made Steve want to puke. Whenever he’d brought it up, Buck just glared and told him to stop kink shaming him.

Buck’s eyes did that slide thing again. “I made a friend,” he admitted. “They tell you to do that. Win a fight or make a friend. You know me, Steve. Over-achiever.”

Is he a friend, Buck?”

“He’s a thief,” Buck said, flatly. “He’s a thief and a smuggler. He’s the guy you go to, around here. For smokes. For snacks. Contraband. No one wants to piss him off. Which is --” Buck coughed a few times and pressed his hand to his bruise before taking a long gulp of his drink. “-- which is kinda funny if you know him. Scott’s not very scary.”

“And you’re… you’re okay with this--”

“I’m blowin’ him, Steve, that’s all it is,” Buck said. His eyes darted to the side again. “It’s fine. Don’t ask questions about shit if you are not emotionally prepared to handle the answers.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Buck,” he said, very seriously, “if you can handle living through it, I can live with hearing about it. If you need to talk. If you need anything that I can get you. You just tell me what you need.”

Buck gave him a tiny little half-smile and it was like a gift. Buck was building walls like nobody’s business, trying to keep what was going on from hurting him. But there was still a light inside the fortifications and it gave Steve strength to see it. “I need you to be safe, Stevie. I need… I need someone to look after my dad. I mean, I know he won’t let you, but do what you can, anyway. I’d like to know Kurt’s okay. I know he can’t come to see me, but… I want him to know I don’t regret the choices I made. I’d like Rumlow’s head on a platter, but I don’t think you should try for that, really. Wouldn’t want you in here.”

Steve managed a smile. “I’ll do what I can. And I’ll be back next week. You know I will. You’re not… you’re not doing this alone.”

“Steve, I don’t… I don’t know if I’m worth all this,” Buck said, and there went those walls again. Buck pulled himself up into that keep like the Huns were invading and snapped the drawbridge.

“You’re a good man, James Barnes,” Steve said, “and I have never, ever been ashamed to call you my friend. So, you’re just stuck with me.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, Stevie.”

“How can I? I’m leaving all the stupid here with you.”

Their time was up. Steve tossed a few more of the ones on the table so Buck could get another soda and candy bar before he was taken back to his cell, or the yard, or whatever it was that happened on the other side of that door. Steve… Steve didn’t want to know, really, but for Buck’s sake, he’d listen to whatever Buck wanted to tell him.

Steve managed to get to the parking lot, jammed his helmet on his head, and got off the property. He was shaking so hard that by the time he reached that little convenience store again, he had to pull over.

He’d promised Buck he wouldn’t cry, but what Buck didn’t know wasn’t going to hurt him. Not this time.

 

Chapter Text

2014, May

 

Natalia kept having to stop unpacking to look around in wonder, to remind herself that this was real. She and Steve were moving in together. He had suggested it while they were celebrating the end of her first year of doctoral studies.

In typical Steve fashion, it had been a muddle of a suggestion, a jumble of practicality (“The research station for your thesis is at the beach,”) and romance (“We wouldn’t have to sleep apart ever again,”) and utter irrelevance (“You have your driver’s license now and everything,”) and Natalia had to put a hand over her mouth to smother the ridiculously fond smile that refused to leave her lips.

He’d already had the apartment picked out, and she’d gone to inspect it with a suspicious eye, but it had turned out to be perfect, a top-floor apartment with a kitchen that wasn’t terrible and a spare room where she could work and telecommute for her on-campus classes, and the master bedroom had an actual balcony with an actual (if small) view of the ocean.

They were still picking out furniture, but when Natalia had called home to give her family the news (a little nervously, for all she was twenty-five), her father had sent her some extra money for that purpose, and her mother had dominated the Skype session for half an hour with decorating advice and thinly-veiled hints that perhaps wedding bells would follow soon. Borja had affected disdain (“How could you live with a man I have not fought?”), but Natalia had recognized the pleased twinkle in his eye.

She’d turned in her key from her old place, argued with the landlord about the deposit, and brought Liho over. Steve was still attempting to track down the guy who was on his lease, but who had not actually been seen for a while, in order to get his key back. He’d expected it to take not more than an hour or so, but he was going on three, now. In the meanwhile, Natalia could unpack.

Liho found the boxes very fun, now that they were in a new place -- while Natalia was packing her things up, Liho had been very stressed and unhappy -- and was currently jumping on the wads of balled up newspaper that Steve had used to pack cups and plates and bowls in.

She wondered if he could be home in time for dinner and if he was, would he want to cook, or would he prefer to eat out? Tomorrow, they needed to go shopping for a sofa. The terrible one at his place had literally fallen to pieces when they tried to move it into the truck. At present, they had a few large floor cushions taking up the spot where a sofa would go, and Natalia had written the dimensions of the space on a sticky-note and attached it to the wall, so that when they shopped, Steve could avoid being tempted by a sofa that they didn’t quite have space for.

The problem with not having a sofa yet was that she couldn’t flop on it in disgust when she was tired of unpacking. She had to walk up the stairs and into the bedroom where she would have to flop on the new queen-sized mattress with no sheets on it yet because they’d bought them, but Natalia wasn’t sure where she’d packed them.

Which meant she was hovering between the staircase and the living room when her cellphone rang. She dug it out of her pocket and glanced at the screen. Bucky-Boss flashed a few times on her screen.

“I know, I know,” Bucky said as soon as Natalia slid to accept the call. “I ain’t callin’ you in to work. What… what’s the house number? I gotta see Steve an’ he’s not answerin’ his phone. I think I’m on the right street an’... where is he?”

“He is trying to settle our living arrangements,” she said. “I will tell him you called and that he must call back. What is the problem?”

“Look,” he said, frantically, “I know you don't like me. I wouldn't like me either if I was someone else. That's fine. Hell, I am me and I hate me, so it works out. Maybe we can bond over our mutual loathing for Bucky Barnes. But I think I'm on your street an’ I just need to park ‘fore I wreck my truck. What's the… just come outside and wave or something? Please?”

Natalia pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it, then put it back to her head. “I do not hate you,” she told him. She turned and went back down the stairs toward the street. “Are you drinking?”

“Not right at this very second, no.” Which sounded like he very much had been, not all that many seconds ago.

Natalia sighed as she pushed out the door. “You are drunk,” she guessed. “And driving?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I… yeah, okay. Good enough. I'm out by the little fish statue. It'll be fine. It says no parking but there are two… three other cars here. No. Two.”

If he kept driving, he was going to get arrested and put back into prison and a parking ticket or even a towed truck would be the least of his troubles. “Yes,” she agreed. “Get out of the truck so I can see you and I will come and get you.” She knew where the fish statue was, only a couple of blocks away.

When she got closer, she could see only one car parked there other than Bucky’s truck. She decided she did not want to know whether the other car had departed, or if Bucky was so drunk he was seeing double or possibly triple. It was a warm day, but he was huddled in on himself, arms wrapped around his torso as if he were trying to stay warm. Natalia waved to catch his attention.

“Hey, Nat,” he said, quiet. He looked up at her, eyes red. “I’m sorry, I… I jus’. Couldn’t go home right now, didn’t have an’place else t’ go. It’s jus’... I thought. I thought we settled it, an’ he wasn’t gonna… but he did, and then he… an’ it’s not his fault, I shouldn’t have said yes, but I did, and… Steve’s gonna be so mad at me.”

“It is possible,” she agreed solemnly, but she tucked her arm through his and pulled him back up the street toward the apartment. “I would know more certainly if I had any idea what you are talking about. Who did what that you said yes to, Bucky?”

“Alex,” Bucky said, his voice catching. “I don’t… I don’t know how to quit him, Nat. An’... hurts worse than ever, bein’ with him and knowing. Knowing. He doesn’t… he doesn’t love me. I know that.

Oh, Pierce. Natalia felt her lip curl in disgust, but forced it to subside. “Another thing you must decide,” she told him. “You must decide if the pain is worth the pleasure. But Steve most certainly will be angry, if he finds out. We will not tell him.” On impulse, she turned away from the apartment, leading Bucky toward the nearest convenience store. “Come, we will need ice cream.”

“He came t’ Dockside,” Bucky expounded, obviously feeling the need to explain himself, excuse himself. “Again. Alone, this time. Wanted… wanted to talk about everything that happened, say how sorry he was, he heard I was havin’ a tough time. An’... I don’t know why he can’t leave me alone.” He made a scoffing noise in his throat. “No, don’t… don’t say it. I know why. ‘Cause I can’t tell him no. I don’t know, I just wanted to feel like someone cared.”

“We need much ice cream,” Natalia said. She pulled him into the convenience store and found the tubs of ice cream in the freezer. “What flavor, for you?”

Bucky, at least, was serious about ice-cream. Almost as serious as Natalia could be. He grabbed chocolate, pistachio, cookies and cream, a spray bottle of whipped cream, and a little jar of cherries. “I got this,” he said. “Whatever you want. I… Alex…” He sniffled, wiped his face with the end of his tee shirt. “Gives me gas money, whenever I go see him. It’s a thing. It’s a stupid thing. But I don’t want his money… let me do this, okay? For you.”

She nodded. “You may buy us ice cream,” she decided. “And then we will eat it all and you will tell me everything, before Steve comes home. When he comes, you may tell him that Pierce came, and you are sad. You will not tell Steve that you slept with him. Yes? Nothing is served, if Steve is angry. You are not happier, he is not happier, and there is too much yelling and not enough ice cream.”

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, he… uh, Steve don’t understand. He never did. He was all… I dunno, waitin’ for you, I guess. Don’t know if he never did anyone he regrets, but…” He put the ice cream down on the counter and glared at the cashier while she rang them up. He handed over a couple of twenties and stuffed the change in the March of Dimes jar next to the register when they were done.

I do not understand,” Natalia told him. “I would not say it is better to wait, but I would wish only to be with someone who respected me.” She took the bag and looped it over her arm, then tugged Bucky back outside. “But it is too late to change, so there is no reason to be angry. You will not change your mind, if I yell, if Steve yells. So why do it?” They walked most of a block -- well, Natalia walked, and Bucky half-staggered, less coordinated as the drink wore off than he had been at its height. “I do not hate you, Bucky. I hope you do not truly believe this thing.”

“I don’t know what I believe anymore,” Bucky said, earnestly. “I don’... don’t know when everything went all wrong. Alex used to tell me he loved me and I believed that, I thought… you know, I’m out. Ever’one knows I’m a fa-- that I’m gay. So, he couln’ take the risk, but he loved me. I believed that. I wanted to believe that.”

He sighed, blowing his hair around in a great cloud around his head. “I don’t… I don’t think he does. I don’t feel loved. I feel… used.”

Natalia nodded. “He is not a good man. You would be better without him.”

Bucky squinted at the building number as they walked up the stairs. “I’m not a good man, either,” he said. “Stupid. I ain’t been nothin’ but trouble for Stevie since we got outta school. Before… when he was jus’... did you know he used t’ be this little thing. Tiny. Shrinky little asthmatic kid with a big mouth and bruises on his arms all th’ time. Did you know?”

She nodded. She had seen the pictures on the wall at the restaurant, though it was hard to see her big, brawny Steve in the tiny boy he had been. “He says that you took care of him, then.”

“Little bit,” Bucky said. “You know he cain’t shut up when he sees somethin’ wrong. That ain’t new. Always openin’ his mouth at the wrong time. Got into a helluva lotta trouble with Steve, back in th’ day. Then he got his shit together an’ I guess I didn’t.” He frowned at the kitchen with its stack of boxes. “Any idea where your bowls an’ spoons are?”

“Mine? No. But Steve was very meticulous about packing his kitchen. The rest of his things, they are thrown into the boxes, no reason or sense. But the kitchen -- very organized.” She laughed a little and found the box labeled “cutlery” and ripped the tape free. The plates and bowls were in a different box, but the cutlery shared space with a large trifle bowl. Natalia eyed it, and then eyed the ice cream. It should fit.

“Yeah, okay mighty mouth,” Bucky said. He peeled the tops off the cartons and used a serving spoon to maul the ice cream into the bowl. He covered the whole mess with whipped cream (spraying some directly into his mouth, and then into Natalia’s when she made a baby-bird face at him) and the cherries. “Oh, oh, hey, yeah, lemme show you a thing.” He handed her one of the spoons and dragged the whole mess out into the middle of the living room where they crowded around the bowl.

Bucky grabbed a cherry, stuck it in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully for a few minutes, watching her as she made some headway on the ice cream. A moment later, he spat a small knot out into his hand. “Hmmm…? Not bad for the southside’s biggest idiot, yeah?”

She looked at the cherry stem with its knot and ate another spoonful of ice cream. She didn’t understand why one would want to do such a thing. It seemed useless, a waste of effort. How would one even do that? One’s tongue would have to be able to--

Oh.

Oh.

“Teach me,” she demanded.

Bucky gave her a sharp grin that didn’t quite touch his eyes, but it was so much better than the way he’d looked when he first showed up. “Steve told me once he almost went gay for me, watchin’ me do this.” He plucked another cherry out of the mess. “First, you need a long stem, makes it easier, yeah?” He walked her through the whole process a few times, and in between they worked on the ice cream, which was melting without much consideration for his lessons. It took some time to learn, cherry stems not naturally being inclined to turn into knots. She had it, and then she’d spit it out just to watch it uncurl itself in her hand.

By the time she finally managed it, the ice cream was soup and her jaw and tongue ached abominably. But she spat out the stem and its tight curl... stayed put. “I did it!” she cheered, and showed it to Bucky.

Molodets!” Bucky said, leaning over to kiss her cheek. “Good job.”

There was a brief rattle at the door and Steve shoved in, looking annoyed. He stared at them, the huge bowl of melted ice cream between the two of them, and dozens of cherry stems scattered over the carpet. “Do I even want to know?”

“I’m stealing your girlfriend,” Bucky said, smiling brilliantly. “She’s now my therapy bitch and I’m paying her in ice cream.”

Natalia smacked Bucky’s arm for the “bitch” part, but turned a blinding smile on Steve. “Look what Bucky taught me!” she said, showing him the cherry stem. “I have decided that Bucky and I shall be friends. American television says every woman should have a gay best friend. Bucky will be mine.”

Steve blinked. Looked at the cherry stems. Blinked again. His neck colored and he rubbed at the back of his skull, not quite meeting anyone’s eyes. “I… this is… Bucky!

“What?” Bucky said, fishing around in the bottom of the bowl with his spoon. “I got skills. Someone might as well benefit from ‘em, right?”

“Come and have some ice cream, Steven,” Natalia said, gesturing. “We have-- Oh. Have we finished all the ice cream?”

“Therapy bitch,” Bucky said, ducking away when she aimed another blow at him. “Order a pizza. Eatin’ my troubles ain’t gonna make ‘em go away, but I do feel better.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek again. “Gotta piss. You c’n fill him in, I don’t wanna go over it again, anyway.”

Nat already had her phone out and the app for their preferred pizza shop loaded. She waited for the bathroom door to close before she glanced up at Steve from under her eyelashes and said, “Pierce came to the restaurant today. Bucky is... in need of company. It was ice cream or drinking, and he had done enough of that already.”

Steve’s lip twitched up into a snarl. “I thought Buck was done with that asshole.”

“Perhaps. But the asshole is not done with him. We must remind him of his reasons to be strong and resist.”

“One of these days, I am going to punch Alexander Pierce right in the mouth,” Steve promised. “Sorry I’m late. Took me forever to find Masters and get him to sign off on the deposit we lost. Don’t know why they think they need the keys back, it’s not like they don’t change the locks as soon as we move out. Whatever. That’s two hundred dollars I’m never going to see again. Better get two pizzas.”

Natalia nodded, pleased, and poked at the ordering app. “Shall I show you the cherry trick, while we wait?” she teased.

Steven dropped into a squat and fell gracelessly onto his butt with a thud. “Yeah, why don’t you do that?” He curled a strand of her hair around his finger. “This is nice… you and me and Buck, just hanging out.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It is a shame we cannot do so more often.”

By the time the doorbell rang half an hour later, they were arguing over the Bucky’s “alternate” rules for a card game he’d picked up from the friends he’d had at college. “No, we always played it this way!” Bucky insisted, waving the rulesheet around wildly.

“This is a stupid rule,” Natalia informed him as Steve got up to answer the door. “No, do not make sad pouty face at me; I am immune!”

The pizza guy, a scruffy-looking blond with his tee shirt inside out, cringed when he looked up at Steve, and more up. “Aw, dude, no,” he said, then straightened up. “Hey, um, look, man, we got a small problem, and I am so, so sorry, but um… look, I’ll cut you half my tips for tonight if you could just not complain, m’kay?”

He sounded right on the edge of desperate. Natalia climbed to her feet and peered around Steve at him. “What is small problem?”

“Well, actually, it’s kinda a medium-sized problem, you know, about this tall,” the driver said, gesturing to something about knee-high. “And, he... okay, look, my dog ate about half of one of your pizzas. I’m really sorry ‘bout that, and, you know, normally, I could just go get another one, but I’m already on my third strike for this week an’ if another customer calls in to complain about me, I’m gonna lose my job, and I… it’s been a bad week. I know this looks bad.”

Bucky glanced up from -- okay, now he was just cheating, because those were Natalia’s cards that he was looking at. “Um. Is there dog spit on the rest of the pizza?”

The driver scuffed his foot on the landing. “No,” he said, very quietly. “I picked the side pieces off, too. The rest of the pie is clean.”

He looked... pale. And thin. Natalia considered. “I will see this dog,” she told the driver.

He pointed down in the lot, where a horrifically purple car was parked next to the fire-hydrant. There was, indeed, a dog in the passenger seat, looking out the window and wagging a bushy tail hopefully. “Don’t… uh, don’t let him out, miss. He’s got a hurt foot an’ if he gets anything in his paw pad, he could get an infection.”

“I understand,” she said solemnly. She blocked the door with her body as she opened it and caught the dog by its frayed collar (a purple that clashed with the purple of the car). “Hello,” she crooned. “Who’s a good boy? Hm?” Petting the dog confirmed her suspicion: the dog was too thin, and so was its owner. The backseat was a jumble of mess -- wrinkled clothes, a tattered paperback book, a blanket and -- incongruously -- a black recurve bow long enough to take up the whole length of the seat.

The dog was ecstatic at the attention, licking at Natalia’s hands and face with great enthusiasm. “Thank you,” she told the driver. “You are very busy today, or no?”

“It’s Wednesday,” he said with a shrug. “Only people orderin’ pizza are moms that don’t wanna cook tonight, or people movin’ in.” He gave her a quick smile. “I am sorry. Lucky doesn’t mean to be trouble, do you, boy? He’s a rescue, and… oh, hey, wanna see a trick? Hey, hey, Lucky. Who’s th’ best pizza dog ever?”

The dog gave a soft woof and then touched his nose to the rearview mirror of the car.

Natalia applauded and reached out to scritch the dog’s ears again. “I have decided,” she said firmly, just loud enough for her voice to carry to Bucky and Steve, who had come out as far as the front steps of the building, “that we will take the pizza, and you will come in and play this terrible card game with us. It is better, I am told, with four.”

The driver blinked at her. “Can Lucky come inside? I don’t want to leave him too long by himself. He’s a good boy, I’ve got a leash for him. Oh, and, uh… my name’s Clint. Sorry, probably should have led with that much.”

“Give us five minutes to find the cat and shut her up so she doesn’t hurt Lucky,” Natalia said. “It’s good to meet you, Clint.”

Chapter Text

2014 November

 

Steve found Nat at the McDonald’s a couple of blocks from their apartment. She had commandeered one of the larger tables and had covered it with papers and books.

It wasn’t an unusual sight; the McDonald’s had public Wi-Fi, was closer than the library, and had more table space than their apartment, and Nat appeased the managers with the regular, steady purchase of soft-serve ice cream. Tonight, however, she didn’t seem to be focused on her doctoral thesis or classes. Instead, as Steve approached, he recognized half a dozen cookbooks spread out over the table, studded with sticky-note tabs as meticulous as those in her oceanography texts.

“Date night is McDonald’s, now?” he said as he slid into the booth seat beside her. “Classy.”

Nat waved him off. “We will go and be classy when I have finished this,” she promised.

“And what is this?” Steve asked. He picked up one of the books, a seafood specialty book that he’d inherited from Winifred. “Have we moved on from saving the fish to cooking them?”

Nat scowled at him. “Thanksgiving is coming, Steve,” she told him severely. “We must be prepared!”

“Thanksgiving, really?”

“It is my favorite American holiday,” she said.

“Why am I not surprised?” Steve had probably already known that, but last November, Bucky had been awaiting trial and they hadn’t felt like there was much to give thanks for. And the year before that, Winifred’s loss had still been eating at them all. Maybe it would be good to have a big Thanksgiving dinner this year to sort of clear the air. “Okay,” he said. “I’m in. What do you have planned so far?”

Date night at McDonald’s, planning Thanksgiving dinner in a couple of weeks. He’d had worse.

“No, we can have Brussels sprouts,” Steve was saying an hour later, “it’s just that almost no one-- What is it?” Nat had gone stiff and was staring at the ceiling-mounted television with wide eyes. He glanced at it: CNN with shaky footage of tanks and troop transports. The tank had a big red star on it.

What color is the star? he remembered from a lengthy and not particularly humorous anecdote of a school acquaintance. American tanks had white stars on them; Russian tanks had red ones.

The banner at the bottom of the screen read, “Russian Invasion of Ukraine? Putin Denies Involvement.”

Oh, shit.

“Nat?”

Her eyes didn’t leave the screen. “That is Odessa,” she whispered, so quiet he could barely hear her. “That building, there, is my school, when I was--” The image flipped to a mass of protesters chanting, and her eyes flicked as she searched for faces she knew. “This is only a few blocks from my parents’ home,” she said. “I must...”

She was gone, then, already lifting the phone to her ear as she barged out of the McDonald’s and into the parking lot.

Steve watched her go, lip caught in his teeth, uncertain. Was this the sort of thing he should give her space for? Or the kind of thing where he should be supportive? If he were a better boyfriend, he would know. But how the hell did you say I’m sorry your home has been invaded?

Whatever the right answer was, they weren’t going to be planning dinner for a while. He packed up the notes, watching through the windowed walls as she paced the edge of the parking lot, free hand making a mess of her hair.

He couldn’t, couldn’t just leave her alone like this. At the very least, if she wanted space, she could tell him, right? She’d never been shy about that. He finished packing up the books and stuffed them into the backpack she’d brought. Jesus, how had she even carried it all the way here? It weighed at least fifty pounds.

By the time he joined her in the parking lot, there were tears standing in her eyes. She jabbed at the screen with frantic urgency, but when she lifted it back to her ear, her expression was closer to hopeless. “No one is answering,” she told him, and her voice was rough. “The system is overwhelmed, it only rings every few tries. But no one answers!”

Steve put his hands on her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I wish I could say more, do more, but... Come on, let’s go home, and you can keep trying to call while I look around online, okay?” She stared at him, uncomprehending. “Natasha?”

“It is the port,” she said, almost clinical. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, all access to the Black Sea was cut off. They want the port. My father --” Her voice cracked, broke, and the tears in her eyes spilled down her cheeks. “--he is a ship’s captain. We own… we own many ships. The Romanov family, we are known for our ships. They will… Steven, they will kill him.”

Steve pulled her into an embrace, desperately wanting to protect her and wholly unable to do so. What could they do, from here? What could anyone do, from anywhere? “Maybe he’ll be able to hide,” Steve suggested, knowing already that Nat’s father would do no such thing. “At least the rest of them,” he amended. “Let’s go home and see what we can find out. You keep trying. Are there-- can you try neighbors or friends?”

“Borja, maybe,” she said. “His wife, she is… her family, I think I have an email, at home, for her sister.” She punched the redial on her phone again and this time Steve could hear the wah-wah-wah as the phone refused to connect. She scrolled frantically through her call list, punched another number. That time, it rang, and Nat was practically holding her breath, terrified to miss anything, if there was an answer.

For just a moment, the phone connected, a sibilant hiss of a man’s voice. “Dobryj den,” the man said.

“Oleg?” Nat asked. “It is Natalia, tell me what, what is happening?”

The man on the phone snapped a few things, and Nat spoke with him in their language, or maybe it was another one. She sounded a little slower, less fluid than normal. Hadn’t she said once that Ukrainians spoke Russian or Ukrainian, depending? Like French and English, in Canada.

She was just starting to straighten up, wipe her face, and Steve heard it over the phone. Gunfire. Impossible to mistake it for anything else.

There was no way to tell if Oleg had been shot or if he’d dropped the phone or if he’d run away, but the line went dead in Nat’s hand.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Nat said. She crumpled on the street, hitting the sidewalk hard, erasing the skin on the palm of one hand. “No. No. That was… my father’s dockman. The docks are burning, Steven.” She stared at him, utterly lost and haunted. “Steven…”

“I’m here,” he said. He lifted her carefully to her feet, and then off the ground entirely, cradling her against him like a promise as he began walking back toward their apartment. “I’ll always be here. I’ve got you. We’ll go home and keep trying.” Not that he could do much to help. Keep her fed and hydrated while she kept trying, because he knew she’d keep trying until she collapsed. And then she’d get up and do it again. He would do no less, for his family.

He understood, suddenly, the inane urge to offer tea in a crisis. Tea was simple and soothing, and offered hydration and electrolytes and a few calories. And it gave the useless people something to do. Anyone could make tea.

By the time they got back to the apartment, Steve’s arms and back were killing him, but Nat clung harder to him the one time he tried to put her down. He was forced to let her climb the stairs on her own, he didn’t think he could manage that, but he kept a hand at the small of her back. She spun into a flurry of activity, opening up his computer, her computer. She plugged in her phone. Turned on the television and flipped to a news channel.

Fox, of course, wasn’t covering the invasion. MSNBC had a few snippets, mostly an overview. CNN had some footage. She pulled up news sites on Steve’s laptop in English. Tried to access overseas sites on her own, snarling curses when the news was older than a few hours.

She called, kept calling. Tried different numbers. Had a hasty discussion with an aunt in a different city who didn’t know very much, either.

Then she pulled up Norfolk’s airport’s website and started checking ticket prices.

That hit like a blow to the solar plexus. Of course she wanted to go look for her family, but if she went now, the Russians would take her right off the plane at the airport, wouldn’t they? If her family was as important as she said? But what right did he have to stop her? He’d wade through fire if it were Bucky in danger. If there were even a chance...

“Nat... I don’t-- Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I should be there,” she said, scrolling through the list. “I should be… I should stand with them. I should…” She was crying again, swiping at her tears with both hands trying to read the computer screen. “Why can they not just leave us alone? Tariffs are not so unreasonable. Why do they have to take everything, just to prove they can?”

She selected a ticket, started entering her information. Then stopped.

“Pappa wouldn’t,” she said, slowly, “wouldn’t want me to risk it. If… if I could do something, once I got there, I should go. But all I can do is nothing.” She was shaking and then she threw herself at him, buried her face in his shirt, sobbing with grief and fear and the unknown. “I can do nothing, Steven.”

“I know,” he said softly, stroking her hair. Even if they could go, it would take at least a day’s travel to get there, and who knew what they’d find? He held her close, as if he could keep her together with the strength of his arms, and prayed like he hadn’t since before his Mama had died.

***

“My father is dead,” Nat said, her voice hollow and emotionless. “The Russians have claimed the company. They… they could not do that if he were alive.” She stared at the website. Steve couldn’t read it, it was all in Cyrillic. A business site, she’d said. Like the New York Stock Exchange reports. Something cold and hard and calculating.

He didn’t want to ask, but he had to. “What about your brother? And your mom?”

“Borja’s wife is dead,” Natalia said. Still flat, still emotionless. “I spoke with Galina Nemirovsky. She was shot, trying to put out the fire. The house is gone. Borja… no one found a body, but. It means nothing. Mass graves. The Russians, they force people, sometimes. Dig their own grave, and be shot into it. No one would know who was buried there. No one has time to look.”

Very few casualties had actually been reported, but that meant nothing, Steve had learned in the last weeks. If Borja was alive, he wasn’t able to answer the phone, and no one that Nat could get in touch with knew where he was. If he wasn’t dead, he was as good as. Steve swallowed. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I am sorry, also. I am sorry I was not there, to stand with them. I am sorry that it would not have mattered, even if I was. I am sorry that…” Nat took a deep breath. “I… am sorry that I am selfish, and that I am worried about something I can do nothing about. It is selfish. The way… the way the visa works, I am allowed in the United States for schooling. You know this. When my schooling is done--” She glanced at him. “I have no choice. I will be sent home after the semester is done. My visa… there is no money for more school.”

“Hey,” Steve said, cutting off her rambling. “We’ll figure that out. You can change it for a work visa, probably the easiest option. You’ve already got a job, we’ll just have to switch it from under the table to legal and proper. Or--” He’d offer to marry her, but even with years of dating, even with a shared apartment, that was risky, given the situation at home. One unsympathetic anti-immigrant bureaucrat could tangle that red tape for months, long after her student visa had expired.

And, selfishly, he didn’t want the stain of “have to” on their relationship. If -- when -- they got married, he wanted it to be wholly and entirely because they wanted it. “We’ll figure it out,” he said instead. “I promise. I’m not going to let you go anywhere without me.”

“We must… we must get all new,” she said. “Bank account, and credit, and phone. They will track the money here, seize my assets. There is not much, but they will do this.” She sighed. “I have nothing, Steven. No home.  No family. No money. Nothing to go back to. Nothing to keep. I have nothing.”

“Stop that,” Steve said. He took her hands and held them tightly, too tightly, but he couldn’t seem to loosen his grip at all. “You have me. You have our home here. You’ve always got a home here, I swear.”

“Yes,” she said, after a moment, squeezing his fingers. “Yes, I have you. I have you, and this place, and…” she looked around as if weighing what she had “... and this terrible pink sofa that you let me buy. How could you let me buy such a hideous thing, Steve? It is awful. You must be colorblind, to have let me do such a thing. What… what were you thinking?”

Steve had argued against the couch. Vociferously. He had lost the argument, but he had tried, desperately, not to bring the damn thing into their apartment. But it had been very comfortable and extremely cheap, having been marked down multiple times by the furniture store in an attempt to get its ugliness off their showroom floor. Eventually, he had caved, thinking they could throw a sheet over it or something. “Obviously, I was thinking that you needed an interior decoration challenge of some sort.”

“Yes, obviously,” she said. “Obviously, this is what I need. You will help me. We will lose our deposit, but we will make this work. And… you will make it up to me. This bad choice, on your part.” She gave him a very direct look, the sort he hadn’t seen in these last few, miserable, weeks. She’d clung to him while she cried, curled around him when she was too exhausted to stay awake any longer, but that had been all. “This is acceptable, yes?”

“I imagine I can suffer through that,” he agreed, and scooped her up. “I could start now, if you like.”

“It will take some effort,” she cautioned him. “You have been slacking. Many marks, still left.” She gestured at the wall; Steve had used chalkboard paint and a few pieces of antique door to make a stylized tally board on the wall near their bed. Natalia had been gleeful, that day, adding up all his faults and slights and episodes of general rude behavior, giggling as she jotted them all down with relish. Her marking system was somewhat different from the four vertical lines and a slash like Steve would use. Instead, she did a complicated system of dots and connections, leading to a little box with an X in it to indicate ten.

She scrambled to her hands and knees when he dropped her on the bed, reaching for the chalk. She sketched in the four corners for a new box, added one line. “Five, for letting me select that stupid sofa,” she said. “And one more, for not thinking of it yourself.” She went to put the chalk back in the tray, hesitated. Drew three slashes on his side of the board for her own penalties. “And for me, because I argue with you about the sofa. It really is very ugly.”

“It really, really is,” Steve agreed, stretching out on the bed and kicking his shoes onto the floor. “It reminds me of something from those pictures in your grandmother’s house.”

“We could get some,” Natalia said, slowly. “Embrace the ugly. Everything, very slavic and traditional, my grandmother.” She peeled out of her clothes, not doing it for show, just to get them out of the way. “Come here, Stepka. Make me forget, for a while, yes? You will do this for me?”

“Anything for you,” he promised.

 

Chapter Text

2014 late December

 

Natalia’s breath hung in the air. The temperatures had dropped drastically in the last three days, falling below freezing. She’d stopped at the mailbox and picked up their mail. Her final grade report was in the box, including the return of what funds were in her account. Her father could no longer keep up the payments, so she’d withdrawn from the doctoral program. There was no sense in pursuing the degree, even if she could convince an American bank to give her student loans.

She flipped through the rest of the mail idly, feeling the chill in the air. She was getting soft.

“Wooof.” A muffled bark drew her attention. Natalia looked around and saw a familiar purple car. They’d seen the pizza delivery guy, Clint, a few times since the incident with his dog. She looked around some more, and found the dog, intent on a squirrel still industriously and determinedly packing away acorns.

She called him, dropping into a crouch to offer ear-skritches to make up for the lost opportunity of the squirrel. “Lucky,” she scolded gently. “Do not get your owner into trouble!”

Lucky bounded over to her, sticking a cold, wet nose against her throat. The dog was thin, thinner even than last time, but bright eyed and playful, tail going a mile a minute.

She was just considering what to do when she heard, “Aw, dog, no,” nearby. “Lucky! C’mere, boy.” Clint whistled for his dog in a low tone, slamming the door of his car shut. It didn’t stay latched and fell back open almost immediately, cluing her in as to how the dog was running around in the first place.

“We’re over here,” she called, because Lucky didn’t seem the least bit inclined to give up skritches. She smiled up at Clint as he approached, and then froze, because he obviously hadn’t shaved in a while, and with that beard, darker than his hair, for an instant he had looked like... No, no, she would not become a watering-pot in the middle of the parking lot. She forced the smile back onto her face. “He likes me best,” she said, trying for a light tone.

“Yeah,” Clint said. He didn’t look at her, instead staring at a pair of ratty shoes. “Don’t blame him f’r that. I’d like you better, too. Sorry. We’ll get out of your way. C’mere, dog.”

Lucky whined, burying his nose deeper into Natalia’s armpit, then sneezed on her.

“Oh, are you sick?” she asked, petting Lucky’s head. “I can recommend my vet,” she told Clint, “if he’s not feeling well.” Clint watched her mouth carefully while she was talking, seeming to stare a hole in her face.

Clint sighed, a breath that seemed to come all the way from the bottoms of his feet. “Been t’ every vet an’ clinic in town, tryin’ to find someone who had a fund, or a charity, but… last of my check went to getting him seen, but I can’t afford his medication.”

She frowned. “That is not his fault; he should not suffer for it. I can loan you a little, if it does not offend? I know how it is, to... how did they say it? To have month at the end of the money?” She couldn’t offer as much as she could have a few weeks ago; they’d managed to move most of her money before the accounts were frozen, but without her father’s steady support, there wasn’t as much coming in now as before.

Clint stepped a bit closer. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t…” He gestured at his ear. “Lucky got in the way, I didn’t see all that.” He scowled. “I’m deaf, an’ my hearing aid is broke.”

That... was definitely going to be beyond her to help with. “Isn’t it dangerous to drive, without hearing?”

Clint scowled again. “I can see just fine. Better’n most. They used to call me Hawkeye, back…” He gestured behind him, but she wasn’t sure what he was pointing at. “Back at the circus. World’s best archer, that’s me. Can’t do that if you ain’t got a good eye.”

“And so you shoot the car through the traffic?” Natalia said, definitely teasing, now, and it felt even more heartbreakingly familiar, like prodding at her brother to make him scowl. Though Borja had never been so thin as Clint was, bordering on gaunt. And with the holidays on them... “Do you have many more deliveries to make tonight?” she asked. Maybe she could get him to come back when he was done and have something to eat.

He was back to scuffing at the pavement with his toe. “No,” he said. “Half-hour ago was m’ last one. I… your parking lot is safe. Was gonna sleep here, but I can move back to th’ K-mart. This’s just… out of the wind. It’s been cold.”

Natalia blinked and then blinked again. He was sleeping in the parking lot? In his car? The one with a door that didn’t latch all the way? “No,” she said. “You must come back to our house and stay there tonight. It is too cold to sleep outside. We have a guest room, you and Lucky will be warm. Come.” She was going to owe Steve for making that offer without consulting him first, but she didn’t care; they’d had Clint over twice already, and he seemed a good person. She could not leave him out in the cold all night.

She watched as his jaw tightened pugnaciously, hands clenching up into frightened fists, then Lucky sneezed again and all the fight drained out of him at once. “I… shit. Okay. Okay. For tonight. I ain’t… I’m just down on my luck, right now. So was Lucky, an’ I was trying to help him. Th’ trainer was gonna put him down. I know this looks bad, but… we’ll get by.”

Pride, of course, and she must not try to take away what little he had. “For tonight,” she agreed. “If you are amenable to washing dishes in exchange, we will even feed you, yes? If Lucky is not particular. I have tins and tins of cat food and she decides, all of a sudden, she does not like! Lucky may have them.”

“Yeah,” Clint said. “Yeah, I can wash dishes.” He stopped by his car, pulled out a bow and quiver, gorgeous workmanship. “Can’t leave this here, someone could get hurt.” He grabbed a battered purple backpack and slung it over his shoulder. “It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I was gonna head south, but I started worrying. I know th’ carnival won’t be here until next fall, but I don’t know where else they are. I’m sorry ‘bout this.” He ruffled Lucky’s ears. “I just wanted to be… for him to be safe.”

“That is not a thing to be sorry for,” Natalia told him. She pulled out her phone as she led the way back toward the apartment, texting Steve that they had a guest and that he should sneak some edible leftovers home when he finished his shift. “It seems it is a season for unexpected paths.”

Liho took one startled look at the dog and promptly fled, burying herself so far under the bed that Steve and his long arms might be able to get her out, but Natalia wasn’t going to be able to fetch her. She came back from trying to tempt her cat out, and then decided to just close the bedroom door instead. Liho could use the litter box in the bathroom and feel safe from the dog. Probably. Clint was standing in the middle of the living room, shivering.

“Sorry,” he said again. “Haven’t been warm in a while, but… I didn’t want to sit on your furniture an’ get it dirty.” He dug around in his pack and pulled out a large, hideously purple towel and spread it on the carpet. “Lucky. Sit.” The dog obediently went to the spot and sat down. Offered a paw for Clint to shake. Gave him a high five, then an up high (the dog balanced on his hind legs for that one) and a down low before curling up on the towel. “Go to sleep, boy.” The dog closed his eyes, although the way his ears twitched with every movement Clint made, Natalia was pretty sure Lucky wasn’t sleeping.

“He is very well-trained,” she said. “Circus?”

“Yeah,” Clint said. “There was an accident, he got a broken leg. The trainer was gonna put him to sleep, rather than wait for him to get better. I… my parents died in a car crash when I was eight, and believe it or not, my brother and I ran off to join the carnival. Not like anything nice, one of those crappy little mobile jobs. You know, sets up in the parking lot of the mall, with rickety rides. I had my act, with my brother. It was good. For a long time. An’... then it wasn’t.”

She rummaged in the closet and came out with two towels. “Here. You may sit on them or go take a shower, it is up to you.” She waved toward the bathroom.

“Shower?” Clint said it the way a man dying in the desert might have asked for water, his pale blue eyes going wide with longing. “Oh… yes, please.”

She waved toward the bathroom again. “Do not use up all of my soap or I will be very cross.”

Clint made a gesture, his hand pressed to his mouth like he was blowing her a kiss. “Thank you.” He made the motion several times. He took the towels from her, leaned in as if he was going to kiss her cheek then wrinkled his nose. “I’ll save that ‘til I’m cleaner. I stink.” And he disappeared into the bathroom. Lucky looked up as soon as the door closed, then slunk over to Natalia and pawed at her leg, whining.

“Food for you, yes,” she agreed. “I do not think one night of cat food will hurt you too badly.” She found a plate and dumped onto it two tins of the food that Liho had inexplicably stopped finding acceptable, and put it on the floor. He looked like he needed more, but if she let him eat too much too quickly, he would throw it up, and then they would have a mess and a starving dog.

She checked the time and decided that Clint could probably wait until Steven got home -- it would not be long, and instead poured herself a glass of wine and curled up on the end of the couch to wait.

Clint took a very long shower, then when the water closed off, he was in there for a lot longer than she would have thought necessary, then finally, she heard him knock on the door with a muttered, “Clint, you idiot. I uh. Nat? Mighta done something stupid. I… uh. Don’t have any other clothes.”

Oh, dear. That was... Not ideal, not with Steven still at work. “Are they really so terrible?”

Clint cracked the door, her towel wrapped firmly around his waist. “I… erm. Washed them.” He was even thinner when missing the layers of tee shirts and sweatshirts. He’d shaved off his beard and even trimmed his hair in the hour or so he’d been in the bathroom. Past him, she could see his clothes, hanging up on the curtain rod. “This… uh… looks bad, I know.”

“You washed your clothes,” she repeated. She caught herself counting his ribs again, and hurriedly pulled her eyes back up. “I’ll... find something. Just wait.” She dashed into her bedroom and cast around for something Steve would not mind-- Ah. He never actually wore his bathrobe; Clint could use that. She pulled it off the hook and took it back to the bathroom. “Here.”

Clint snatched it, neck and cheeks furiously red. “I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry.” He vanished back into the bathroom.

New text from Steve:
Guest? Chzy wstn ok? Sm crab sld. Can say it’s almost over. Jim won’t ask.

Nat texted back quickly. Perfect. Explain when you are home. Owe you many.

New text from Steve:
Now am worried? What’s up? Nvmnd omw hme

Clint came out a moment later, Steve’s bathrobe huge on him. His hands were stuffed in the pockets and he couldn’t seem to look at her for more than a few seconds before staring back at the floor again. “Why?” he finally asked, curling up in a desolate little ball on the end of their sofa. Lucky shoved his nose in the bottom of the bathrobe and Clint scrambled to keep himself covered up. “Dumpster dog,” he accused his pet.

Natalia did not pretend to misunderstand the question. “Only recently, I lost my family, all of it, at once. If I think too much, I am sad, all the time. It is not fair. Not fair to me and not fair to my family and not fair to my boyfriend or my boss. So I do not think. I do things. I decorate the apartment. I read many terrible books. And I see you, a friend, and know that you have also lost everything. And I can not help myself. But maybe I can help you, a little.”

“M’ brother Barney would tell you that you picked th’ worst person to try to have make-up family,” he said. He stared down at his fingers for a few minutes. “Just a dumb, deaf kid with like two skills. And there’s not much demand for someone who can shoot a bow. I don’t… know if I can make this up to you.”

She frowned at him. Why was he being so dumb? “This is not a making up favor,” she told him. “It is not family.” Beard shaved, he didn’t even look like Borja at all. “One night of sleep, a little food, a shower? This is barely a friends-favor. We are friends, are we not? Should I let my friend sleep in the cold when I have a perfectly comfortable spare bed that is not used?” She scowled. “Call it a Christmas tip, if you like, for our favorite delivery driver. Or pay it frontward. I will not be owed, not from you, not for this.”

“We’re friends,” Clint acknowledged. “Sorry. I didn’t… mean t’ pick a fight. I just… nobody does this, you know that, right?”

Whatever she might have said to that was interrupted by Steve opening the door and walking in. He grinned at her, waving the take-out bag, and then stopped, staring. His arm, half in the wave, wilted down to his side.

“Natalia,” he said, “why is there a half naked man in our living room. Wearing my bathrobe?”

Clint made an abortive lurch toward his bow, then settled again, warily. “This… uh… well, this looks bad.”

“Shut up, Clint,” Natalia said. “Steve, it’s Clint, our pizza driver, surely you recognize him! He is our guest tonight, and he is wearing your robe because we do not want him wandering the house entirely naked, do we?”

Steve blinked. “Um, no, that’s not necessary,” he said. “I guess. This is for you?” He waved the bag again, with its deep fried foods. He handed over the bag to Clint, and then speared Natalia with those brilliant blue eyes. “Can I speak with you a moment in the kitchen, Natalia?”

For a wild moment, she thought of saying no, of forcing Steve to stay in the living room with her and Clint, where he would be forced to be polite. But no, she had earned what was coming. “Of course,” she said. She smiled reassuringly for Clint, who looked distinctly less reassured, and then made her way to the relative privacy of the kitchen. At least the thin walls (and the fact Steve didn’t know Clint was deaf) meant they couldn’t actually yell.

“Are you insane?” Steve leaned against the kitchen counter, crossing his arms over his chest.

“He has been sleeping in his car,” Natalia defended. “He and the dog are both starving -- look at them! We have been friendly with him before, invited him to play cards. What does one night of decent sleep for him cost us?” She bit her lip and made herself calm down. “I know I should have talked to you first. I’m sorry. I owe you so, so many. But look at them, Steve, and tell me you would say no, that we must push them back out into the cold!”

Steve sighed, huge, and when he finished, he looked somehow smaller. “Nat, I…” He ran one hand through his hair, ending with a tight squeeze at the back of his neck. “I was here for that. I know, I know, he seems nice enough. And no, we shouldn’t put them out in the cold. But I would die, if something happened to you. Do you know that? Do you understand that? What if he’d hurt you and I came home to that? Just… I’m not saying what you did was wrong, or bad, or anything. But… I don’t want you to get hurt. Okay?”

She slipped her arms around Steve's neck and pushed up onto her toes to kiss his cheek. “I understand,” she said meekly. “I am not hurt. Clint would not hurt me. I would not offer such a thing to someone we did not know. But we know Clint. And I...” She sighed and dropped her head to Steve’s shoulder. “You will think I am being manipulative. But I thought -- what if my Borja is still alive, hiding, running. Is he warm, tonight? And I could not turn him away.”

“All right, Nat,” Steve said. He folded his arms around her, petting her hair. “All right. He can stay. For a while. Find out how bad it is, there are… you know. Shelters and stuff around.”

Natalia sniffled a little and nodded against Steve’s chest. “Didn’t you say that we need a new dishwasher?”

“Yeah. Sam’s starting classes full time in January, so he'll be down to part time.” Steve hitched in a breath. “We could use two more waitresses, a dishwasher, and someone to smack Big Jim over the head, yes.”

“Clint has agreed to wash dishes in exchange for food, here. If he does not break any dishes, we could talk Big Jim into hiring him. He needs another job.”

“Natasha,” Steve said, quietly, “he may need more help than we can give him. Just… you know. Don’t get attached to him or anything. He’s not a pet.”

“No,” she agreed. “He is a friend.”

Steve studied her face for a moment, then nodded. “And you owe me. Like… a dozen. At least.”

***

“Come,” Natalia said imperiously. “Bucky likes you, there is no being nervous.” She swept toward Dockside without looking to make sure Clint was following her.

“I’m not nervous,” Clint protested, catching up with her so he could watch her face. “Just… the guy was drunk an’ all red-eyed upset about his ex, last time I saw him, and, well, I don’t know that I’d want someone working for me who remembered that.”

“Steve and I also were there, and we work for him as well,” she pointed out reasonably. “We need a dishwasher more than Bucky needs dignity. Pretend you do not remember him being pathetic, and all will be well.”

“Yeah, well,” Clint said, tugging his pants up again. “We all need a little dignity. S’ the only thing other people can’t take away.” It was always a little surprising when he said things like that; Clint had his dumb kid routine down so pat she forgot that he was actually rather observant.

“If he says no,” Natalia said, “then you are no worse off than now.” She paused just inside the door to run her fingers through Clint’s hair, impatiently fixing the damage the wind had done. “There, now you are presentable. Bucky!”

Bucky came out of the kitchen, his hair pulled back in a messy bun and a splatter of what looked like ketchup down his apron “Hey, Nat, how’s my favorite waitress today?” He glared back over his shoulder at the swinging kitchen door. “Come on, I need a fuckin’ smoke.”

“He is being difficult today?” Nat asked sympathetically. She couldn’t be too sorry for it, though; Big Jim being grumpy and difficult in the kitchen was worlds better than the days he couldn’t be bothered to get off the couch upstairs in the house.

Bucky hissed between his teeth, nodding. He pulled a pack of smokes out of his apron pocket and tapped it against his wrist. “I might hafta call Stevie for this one,” he said. “Dad’s got th’ recipe wrong for the crab cake mix, an’ people’ve been sending their plates back. He won’t believe me that I know those recipes. Wish Ma’d written ‘em down.”

“I will call Steve,” Natalia said. “You talk to Clint.” She smiled between them. “Clint is our new dishwasher.”

Bucky licked his teeth, put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. “Are you, now? Good to hear it, I need th’ help.” He glanced at Clint. “What happened to the pizza job?”

Clint shrugged. “Doing that, too. I need th’ income. My dog’s been sick, an’ no one gives health insurance for a mutt of dubious lineage.”

Bucky gave Clint a look like he wasn’t the least bit fooled. Natalia wasn’t surprised. Steve had probably given Bucky a head’s up. She knew better, now, than to even tell Steve what she’d gotten Bucky for Christmas. Steve was incapable of keeping a secret from his brother, even if Bucky didn’t hesitate sometimes in lying.

“Okay,” he said, slowly. “Look, my pay rate’s not that great, right now. We’ve still got some outstanding bills, but I can throw in meals. And… look, Steve told me you’re between places to live right now. We’ve got an empty apartment above the garage. You wanna take it down to five an hour, and I can take the rent from that?”

Clint was staring at Bucky like someone had offered him a winning lottery ticket. The he whirled on one heel to glare at Natalia. “Did… why did you tell him?”

Bucky grabbed Clint’s arm. “Steve told me you were sleeping in your car,” Bucky said. “Look, it’s not charity, okay? I really do need the help, and things are bad for us right now. I’ve… I’ve got a bit of this reputation, okay, and people don’t want to come work for us. But… this was my Ma’s place, and she loved it. I’m doing the best I can to keep th’ doors open.”

Clint scowled. “What kind of reputation?”

Bucky sighed. “I got in a fight, broke a guy’s arm. It’s… there was more to it than that. You stay a month, help out, I’ll tell you the story, okay?”

“You trust this guy, Nat?” Clint asked, eyebrows going up.

“He is Steve’s brother,” Natalia said. “And he is a good man cursed by ill circumstances. Like you. Like all of us, sometimes.” She put on her customer-dimples for Bucky and her Georgia-peach accent. “He’s jus’ the best boss.”

Clint’s mouth twitched. “All right,” he said. “We can give this a try.”

Bucky held out his hand. “Good enough. Welcome to Dockside.”

***

Watching Steve cook was like watching the ballet, Natalia thought. He moved with grace, quick, precise movement, without a single iota of wasted energy. After some fussing about it, Natalia had talked him into wearing shirts that actually fit him, instead of being two sizes too large, and watching the play of muscle under the thin fabric was an added delight.

“I put Liho in the bedroom and closed the door,” Natalia reported, leaning in the door. “She is dismayed and wishes to register a complaint, but I tell her it is for her own safety. She is still convinced that the chicken was your gift to her.”

“Sure,” Steve said. “Her birthday and Christmas gifts for all the rest of her nine lives.” He pinched up a little salt from the salt cellar and sprinkled it over the pan. “I’ve heard cat isn’t bad eating.”

“Do not say this thing in front of my cat, Steven,” Natalia scolded him. “I will have to get pet therapy for her!”

Steve rolled his eyes eloquently. “She doesn’t have enough brain for trauma. When’d you tell Clint to be here?”

Natalia made a show of checking her phone. “About forty minutes ago. I expect him exactly on time in the next ten minutes.” Clint was pretty good about getting to his job on time (although it helped that Bucky often banged on the door on his way downstairs) but anything else, and he was between an hour and three hours late. There were adjustments to be made, but Natalia was all right with that.

Steve grunted and adjusted the oven temperature. “Good thing this only gets better the longer it cooks, then.” He checked everything again, then leaned against the counter and pulled Natalia back against him. “No more strays for a while, though, okay?”

Natalia nodded, settling herself against his bulk. “It is Bucky’s turn to pick up a stray,” she said. “We will hope he picks up one a little less… purple, yes?”

Someone kicked at the door a few times, awkward and loud.

Natalia laughed and scurried off to answer the door. Clint was there, a plastic cake-stand in one hand and a bag from the local winery in the other. “Beware of geeks bearing gifts,” he intoned as she opened the door.

“What kind of gifts?” Steve called from the kitchen. “Is someone going to jump out of something?”

“My contribution to dinner,” Clint said. He made a show of sniffing. “Smells good!” He handed off the bag to Natalia. “Wine for you. They have a discount, twenty percent off if I buy a case. With you, I need it.” He winked, made a show of adjusting his hearing aids. “Is he talking? I can’t tell…”

Natalia took the bag from him, eager, pulling out a chardonnay and some pinot noir. “Oh, a good choice,” she said. “Free is my favorite kind of wine.”

Clint put his cake down on the table. “I’ll have you know that I made this myself.”

Steve came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. “Define made,” he challenged, but he was smiling. He lifted the cover from the cake tray curiously.

It was distinctly lopsided. The top layer had been pinned in place with a shish kabob skewer. And he obviously hadn’t waited until the cake was completely cool to frost it, since the icing was melted around one side. And purple, but that was only to be expected, because it was Clint. He had drawn little arrows on the top with black frosting gel, pointed toward a bullseye in the middle of the cake. “It’s… um. Blueberry.”

Steve sniffed. “Blueberry muffin mix, and then you dyed white frosting purple,” he guessed. He considered the monstrosity of the... “cake”. And then grinned at Clint. “Yeah, we’re keeping you.”

“Good,” Clint said. “Lucky would miss you.” He put one arm around Natalia and one arm around Steve. “And so would I.”

Natalia grinned at him, then shoved Clint away. “Enough with the sappy sincerity. Steve has been cooking all afternoon. We will eat, and have wine, and cake, and watch stupid television. Yes?”

Clint nodded. “Real happy t’ be a part of a plan that involves eating something that’s not leftover pizza or a cheeseburger.”

Steve’s face fell comically. “Oh. Uh. I...” He ducked, laughing, when Natalia snatched away his towel to hit him with it. “No, okay, kidding! It’s just stew, really. And some sides. And homemade bread.”

Clint batted his eyelashes at Steve. “You had me at ‘would you like to come to dinner,’ big guy.”

“As Steve says,” Natalia pointed out, “cooking is love made tangible. We have love for you, so, we invite you to dinner. You have… well, something, for us, so you make this… thing.” She poked the cake with one finger.

It was almost perfect; the top half of the “cake” slid off and landed, frosting-side down, on the tablecloth.

“Aw, cake, no.”