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harsh and sweet and bitter to leave it all

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“it’s the cereal, right.”

bucky lifts his head but doesn’t jump, which probably means he knew she was there all along. she’d be more surprised if he had jumped.

“what?”

“in the store. it’s the cereal that gets you, isn’t it,” natasha repeats, hopping up on the counter.

“i don’t-- how did you know?”

she shrugs. “it was the same for me. it’s all overwhelming, but it’s doable, until you get to the cereal aisle. and then it’s too much, all of a sudden.”

bucky looks at her with what would be wonder, if he’d let himself show much emotion. nat understands; she was the same way for a long, long time. still is, sometimes.

“yeah. and the… tea.”

she nods. “not enough. i never could understand how they had an aisle of fucking cereal, any type of cereal you could want, and only the most basic teas.”

“not every type of cereal,” bucky says thoughtfully, after a moment, and she raises her eyebrows. “they don’t have any kasha.”

it makes nat laugh, tip her head back and giggle, and it pulls a smile from bucky as well. “you’re not wrong about that. you have to find the eastern european stores in town for good kasha.”

bucky goes still. “eastern european stores?”

“yeah, there’s a few around. if you’re ever homesick, buck, they’re the perfect places to go. dark and crowded, smelling like meat, and all the good food. they’ve even got the good nutella, the one with the white hazelnut, the off-brand kind that’s somehow better. there’s plenty of tea there.”

bucky has a skeptical expression on his face. “mineral vody?”

“all the borjomi you could ever want,” she says and then frowns. “well, that’s not true. there’s a limited amount, but it’s still there. for sure.”

“when can we go?”

nat glances at her phone and then around the apartment, shrugs. “we could go now?”

 

the closest european store is tucked away in a strip mall, so americana it makes nat laugh sometimes to think of the dissonance. surrounded by fast food and outlet stores is a tiny, gloomy, unassuming grocery, piled high with food from her childhood.

bucky stiffens when he enters the store, wrinkling his nose and hesitating. nat stays quiet, lets him process. it’s a lot; she still forgets she’s in america when she walks in the door. there’s polish kielbasa and bulgarian cheese and ukrainian chocolate stacked everywhere, tea precariously balanced on boxes of cookies and spices, a meat counter humming in the back and an ice cream freezer shoved next to the door. nat can hear the soft sounds of russian from the back, two people talking to each other carelessly.

“alright there?” she asks quietly, when bucky still hasn’t moved. he takes in a deep breath through his nose and lets it out.

“yeah. no guards with machine guns?”

she flashes him a grin. “nope, and no lines either. you can pick your own groceries.”

“groundbreaking,” he says and the corners of his mouth are drawn up in a smile. “do you know how to make borsch?”

“i do.”

bucky chews on his lip. “could you teach me? i’ve been craving it and they didn’t teach me how to cook.”

“yeah, course. or i could just make it for you.”

he shakes his head, reaching up briefly to brush against a box of mango tea. “i want to learn. do it the right way.”

“oh, well. i can tie a scarf over my head and shriek at you for not wearing your slippers or standing in a draft if you want the right way,” she teases and bucky gives her a tiny smile.

the store is tiny, hard to wander in, but nat does her best, eyeing all the goods. everything is in cyrillic and the pressure in her head eases a little bit; she speaks english just as well as her native tongue but russian is always that much easier. she picks up a few things, the foods her fingers pause over and can’t seem to let alone: a box of kasha, multivitamin juice, the near-flavorless wheat biscuits that she drinks with her coffee.

bucky has a similar pile of food, and at least four bottles of the slightly salty soda water that they had been told could cure anything. she picks up a bottle of that for herself as well.

she smiles at the woman at the counter, taking in the typical lipstick and the hair that’s an unnatural shade of reddish-purple.

privyet,” nat murmurs as she drops her armful onto the counter. the woman’s eyebrows arch at the russian but she doesn’t respond any other way, scans each item with a bored look on her face. natasha hums a spacibo and steps neatly out of the way, brushing her finger over the tiny icon propped up on the shelf. bucky pays for his too and they head out to the car again.

bucky keeps a bottle out and holds it up to the sun, reading the label.

“i haven’t had this in so long,” he says as he looks at the water. “i drank it more than anything else, except tea.”

“always a bottle in the kitchen,” natasha recalls but bucky isn’t listening, still looking at the borjomi with a far off expression. his voice is quiet, solemn.

“they sent me on assignment to leningrad, once. i stayed in one of the khrushchyovki*, still sort of new then but not great. it was dark, and damp, and cockroaches everywhere. i had to boil the water on the stove to have hot water to wash. but it had a little balcony and it was during the summer, and i sat outside at midnight because it was a white night and it was so light outside, even that late. and i wasn’t happy, not really, but i was something. alone. content, maybe, for that night, as i watched the city and drank mineral vody and didn’t answer to anyone.”

“bucky--” she starts and he blinks, focusing on her. it’s the most she’s heard him talk, maybe ever, but especially about his time as an assassin. something tugs in her stomach. “come over tomorrow. you can bring clint, and i’ll make dinner. something from home.”

“tomorrow, the eighth?”

“yeah.”

he studies her for a moment and she wonders what he finds there, what he sees, because he nods. “we’ll come.”

“it’s a party.”

 

borsch is not hard to make, and even less with a food processor handy in her kitchen. the first times she had cooked, she had chopped all the vegetables by hand, staining her palms red from the beets. now, she dumps everything in a processor and pushed a button, everything pulsed to the perfect texture a few seconds later.

“whatcha cooking?” clint hollers as he stomps into the room. he hooks his chin over her shoulder and peeks down at the carrots and onions sautéing in butter. “smells good.”

“that’s the garlic.”

“smells like budapest, a little. down in the christmas market where they had the cow testicles on sale.”

“that’ll be the beef. and the garlic.” she nods to the big pot that’s simmering on the back burner. clint frowns.

“are testicles technically beef? i thought it might not count.”

“it’s cow,” bucky says quietly from where he’d slipped into the room. “so i think it’s beef regardless.”

“gross either way.”

nat rolls her eyes and stirs the vegetables so they don’t burn, plucking a carrot out of the pan and chewing on it thoughtfully.

“almost done.”

clint clears his throat and she turns to look at him, eyes wide when she takes in the flowers and chocolate.

s denyom angela,” clint announces and then looks at bucky. “did i say it right?”

“no,” bucky says. “happy name day.”

“was he trying to speak russian?” nat asks as she takes the gifts. there’s five flowers, no even numbers that call for mourning. they would always give an even number of flowers in the red room, if they ever gave flowers at all.

“i practiced that pronunciation for ten whole minutes!”

“thank you, by the way. but it should be me giving you chocolate. it’s my name day, after all.”

“you’re making us dinner,” bucky says. “it’s enough.”

clint swivels his head between them two, questions clearly mapped out on his face, but he doesn’t press, does try to dip his fingers into the culture bucky and nat cling to in their own small ways.

nat looks at the curling cyrillic on the chocolate box, ukrainian if she’s not mistaken.

“milka’s better,” she says, tapping her finger on the edge of the bar. bucky shrugs.

“milka’s german. less authentic.”

“is this the kind with cherry liqueur?”

“of course.”

she slits the tape with a fingernail and pulls the tray out, offering it to both boys. they both take, clint popping the whole mound into his mouth and biting down. both of them watch as his expression changes.

“that’s a lot of rum,” he says after a moment, coughing a little. “i wasn’t expecting that. do they let kids eat this?”

“yes,” bucky replies, taking his own chocolate. he eats it carefully. “they’re very popular.”

nat rolls one of the pieces in her fingers for a second, reminiscing. they hadn’t gotten treats often but sometimes they were allowed a few, usually on the president’s birthday. the cherry liqueur is sharp on her tongue, heavy, and nat swallows against all the vague memories that are pulled up by the taste.

“milka’s better,” she repeats and turns back to the soup.

“i couldn’t find the bread. the brown kind, i mean.”

“we looked for so long,” clint complains, shuffling aside dishes so he can sit on the counter next to the sink, feet banging against the cupboards. “that and sour cream. apparently american sour cream is terrible.”

“it is,” bucky and nat say together. nat continues: “it’s fine. i have some mayonnaise we can blend with garlic.”

clint wrinkles his nose. “mayonnaise in soup?”

“mayonnaise on everything,” she corrects. “but yes, in soup.”

“i’ll try it but i won’t like it,” he declares and bucky and nat exchange a look. they’ve yet to find a food that clint doesn’t like, and they’ve tried a lot of weird shit. nat has half a mind to drag him to the black sea and feed him tsa tsa, the salty fish you eat whole, just to see what he’d do. he probably wouldn’t notice the eyeballs.

bucky edges closer to the stove to examine what she’s doing, how she’s making everything. nat shows him the meat and the potatoes, simmering away in the pot, and the vegetables that are almost done frying.

“we’ll add them to the soup, and then steam the beets. those will go in for a while, and then the cabbage the last few minutes. easy.”

“easy,” bucky echoes.

they eat the bowls with a dollop of mayonnaise, with the brownest bread nat could find at the american grocery store. clint pokes dubiously at the pink soup and then eats three servings, dripping beet juice onto his shirt.

 

“thank you for this,” natasha says quietly, later, when bucky is carefully drying her pottery. “for realising and remembering. it’s been a long time since someone has celebrated my name day.”

he concentrates on the towel for a second, the dish cradled so gently in his metal hand, before setting it down on the counter.

“steve would’ve, if you had told him.”

“i would’ve had to explain,” she answers. “and it was easier just not to.”

he nods, twisting the damp towel around his fingers. it gets tiring, having to constantly explain why you’re different, having to explain why a name day is important to be celebrated and what a name day is at all. she gets tired of it after a while, even if people mean well.

she doesn’t have to explain to bucky. he picks up the slavic parts of herself she doesn’t want to lose and lets her lean into them for a minute, remember her origins. the good parts of her origins, the parts that make her human and not just an assassin, like her name day and the steps to making borsch and the way gentle roll of russian nicknames over her tongue.

с днëм ангела, наташка,” he tells her solemnly.

“спасибо бол, яшка.”

he grins, sudden and quick. “yashka?”

“would you prefer buckychka?”

“no,” he says and he’s still grinning. nat hands him another dish to dry.

alen**?”

“definitely not,” bucky insists. “but bonus points for creativity.”

“did they not call you yakov? i can’t imagine they’d call you james.”

he’s quiet for a minute, staring at his hands with a frown. nat doubts he’s even really seeing his hands, too caught up in memories.

“they mostly just called me the soldier or comrade,” he says. “never yasha, never yashka. i wasn’t-- no one was familiar enough to call me that. but i would go by yakov when they let me, yeah.” he peers at her then, a curious expression on his face. “you kept natasha, not natalya?”

“that’s what they called me, most of the time. natalya was when i did something wrong. natalya alianovna romanoff,” she spills out, shuddering at the sound. “natasha when they were being sweet, when i was good.”

he doesn’t try to touch her, doesn’t try to sling his arm around her shoulder the way someone else would. she appreciates that about him, even if they’re more of his boundaries than hers, but she thinks she might crack if she was hugged right now.

“natasha suits you,” he says quietly. “natashka.”

she laughs, a short thing so she doesn’t cry, and shakes her head. “it sounds like i’m five.”

милый маленька наташка моя, чай будешь?” he recites with zero emotion in his voice and she laughs in earnest now. there’s a weird tugging at her chest at the childhood she should’ve had, someone demanding she eats more food because she’s looking small, filling her up with tea made in the old family samovar, tugging boots on her feet in the cold moscow winters, crooning diminutives so often she barely knows her real name.

instead, she had the red room and experiments, brainwashing and lessons on how to kill someone six hundred ways, all the softness leeched out of her until she was nothing but ice.

the plate slips from her fingers and she braces herself for the crash, blinks when it doesn’t come. bucky has it pinched between two fingers and there is more understanding on his face, more things she doesn’t have to explain to him because he knows. she looks over and there’s clint, leaning against the door and his face is carefully expressionless, but he’s here and he cares. he steps closer when she sees him, a quiet sort of support, and wordlessly starts putting away her dishes in the cupboards. bucky puts the plate on the draining rack and hums something familiar, an old soviet tune that they used to sing in school sometimes.

and this is not her childhood, nor is it a replacement for all that she lost, but it is something special and comfortable and wholly hers. the flowers are in a vase in the window, the leftovers are carefully put away in the fridge for tomorrow, the chocolates are half-eaten on the table, and clint has put the kettle on for tea. the september sunlight is streaming warm and golden across her floor, lighting up their hair with red and yellow, and it is warm and human here in her tiny kitchen.

most days, nat would trade her past away in a heartbeat if given the chance, wish it away and be normal, whatever that means. but here, in this moment-- as bucky hooks an arm around clint’s waist and clint presses a tiny kiss to his cheek, as she rinses soap off her polish pottery and hands it over to be dried, as they dance around each other in the casual friendly intimacy that comes from years of trusting each other, of understanding each other-- maybe, nat thinks, maybe she wouldn’t trade a single second .