James appears at the Tower six months after the fight on the highway. Appears is a generous word, considering that he comes in through the roof entrance, the entrance that’s supposed to be secure, and shrugs when asked how he got in. He looks filthy, more so standing under the bright lights of the common area’s kitchen, but he smells like too much nothingness for it to be real. Still, Tony’s running his mouth about ex-assassins dragging dirt into his space, and doesn’t James know that the cleaning staff don’t get paid enough to deal with the amount of super soldier nonsense that already goes on, so James obligingly removes his outer coat and hoodie. The henley he has under it is clean and fits well, but seems to be missing several strips from its hem. Tony steps in almost immediately to throw the offending items away, burn them if his constant chatter is to be believed, but stops when James curls protectively around them. They stay locked in this standoff for several minutes, Tony trying to convince James that he could buy a hundred bulky coats if that’s what he wants, and James silently hugging the coat to his chest.
The coat makes a sound.
It sounds an awful lot like an animal and they all stop when they hear it. James doesn’t move a muscle and the only way they know he heard it too is the way the rise and fall of his chest stutters, just briefly, before it’s under control again. He reaches slowly into one of the oversized side pockets and pulls out the smallest kitten they’ve ever seen, drops the coat on the floor and ignores Tony’s protests.
Clint is the first to notice. He gasps as small “oh” and James turns his head to stare. Natasha isn’t fool enough to think that they’d gone unnoticed until now, knows that James had clocked every entrance, exit, vulnerable point, and person on the floor before he’d even entered, but they’d been silent up until the big reveal and he’d probably been expecting them to stay that way. But Clint operates with a lack of self-preservation rivaling Tony’s, so he marches right up to James’ hands and begins to unravel the familiar strips of red cloth from around the kitten’s back leg.
“I didn’t know how to fix him,” James says slowly. His voice is gritty with disuse and his words seem unsure. “I didn’t do it, I just didn’t want to leave him,” he adds as an afterthought and Clint’s shoulders come down a few inches. Huffing, Clint takes the kitten and leaves the kitchen without a word to anyone, but no one makes to follow. Natasha watches James’ eyes dart to the nearest exit and thinks for a second that he might bolt, but it’s too late because Tony has his phone raised up to his ear.
“Steve, honey, darling, sugar bear, your best friend is standing in my kitchen looking slightly less murderous than usual,” he says cheerfully. He’s looking right into James’ eyes, daring him to run again, because they all know that if James had found his way in this easily he’d been plotting for quite some time and had purposefully chosen a time when Steve was gone, likely to be gone for a while in fact, out with Sam for something or another. He lays it on thick with the endearments through the rest of the brief call, still making eye contact with an increasingly uncomfortable-looking James.
Natasha doesn’t think he’s ever expressed any homophobic sentiment, not even in the Red Room where any and all deviances, except in the case of an assignment, were strictly forbidden. Sex and romance between girls who were trained assasins was messy and there were hardly ever men around, aside from their trainers, so forbidding them each other was a good way to keep them in line. He’d never disciplined the girls who inevitably got caught, but he’d also never intervened on their behalf. Now she wonders if he’d have been able to even if he wanted.
Then again, she thinks, he had given her everything he had but it wasn’t enough to say she knew him very well at all. It’s difficult to know someone who doesn’t know themselves, and anyway, it’s not like she had much more to give him either.
But she’s standing here, no more than five feet away from him, watching his reactions through narrowed eyes and wondering if her initial assessment was lacking this much.
Steve must have been close by because only a few minutes have passed when he shows up, surprisingly without Sam in tow, and Tony stops his pointed storytelling session to give him a theatrical kiss. Confused, he returns it briefly but upon pulling back and seeing that no one was hurt and nothing is damaged, he sighs, lifts his eyes to his long-lost friend who is looking everywhere but him.
“Tony,” he admonishes gently, “Bucky is gay.”
“Bisexual,” James corrects quietly, still not looking at Steve and it feels very pointed that he does not look at Natasha either.
“Huh, you said you didn’t like women, before we..” Steve trails off uncertainly, unsure how to broach the topic of their time, before they shipped out, before James fell.
“I didn’t,” he confirms, quieter still.
“Why didn’t you say something Murderbot?” Tony demands, hands on his hips, ignoring the way Steve’s breath hitches at the flippant remark, “I could’ve been telling you embarrassing stories about American Dream’s first attempts to ask me out,” thumbing back at Steve for emphasis.
James smiles, a small thing, but it’s enough for now.
James adjusts to life in the Tower, relatively speaking. He finds a steadfast companion in the talking-ceiling, unexpectedly ends up nicknaming all of the bots in the house, and can occasionally be seen sitting at the edge of conversations. He smiles more readily now. He grins sometimes, widely and usually directed at Steve and Tony’s antics, offering them a glimpse of what he was like before the war. It’s unusual and anxiety-inducing, to be displaying this much open emotion with no ulterior motives, but he allows it to happen because it’s worth it to glance up and see the dopey smile stretched too-large across Steve’s face.
The problem is, he never asks for anything. He accepts gifts when they’re given, dutifully allowing Tony to develop and install a new, less trauma-riddled arm, and sits in common areas wearing aloe-infused fuzzy socks from Steve and reading vampire romance novels from Sam. Sam thinks he’s funny. James scowls at him each time, but he reads every one and sends Sam pictures of pages with particularly awful lines. But he still doesn’t ask, doesn’t even hint that he might be interested in anything, and seems more than uncomfortable when they try to push him to make a decision. They try taking baby steps, asking if he wants a beverage with dinner but not offering anything specific, and it turns out that James would rather suffer through an overly-spicy meal without anything to drink than ask for anything. Sam eventually takes pity on him, pushes a small glass of milk in his direction and makes fun of him for being “one of those people who can’t handle a little seasoning, James, god, ” and everyone plays along as if that were the joke all along. James knows better, just like he knows better than to raise his eyes over the rim of his glass and risk seeing the disappointed face of his best friend.
So Natasha’s confused when James appears at her door no more than a month after the spice incident, holding a pair of black ballet slippers and with his long hair pulled up into a tight bun.
She stares at him for a second.
It’s not the slippers, per se, but he had to have asked for them. They would have had to measure his feet, or he’d have to have given them his measurements by memory, and it wasn’t exactly public knowledge that he danced. Someone who looked at the Winter Soldier files might know, might see that HYDRA and Red Room loved sending their pet assassins out for honeypot missions, might see that ballet was practical due to its popularity with the rich and corrupt, but they’d also probably assume that James wouldn’t want to relive his particular part of his past. So he’d asked. He’d asked for ballet shoes, presumably for other gear as well, and was now standing at her doorstep patiently awaiting a response.
She breathes out, uncharacteristically breathy and quick: “Yasha.”
“Natashka,” he murmurs, steps in as she steps back to grant him entry.
“You can change here,” she offers as she turns to dig around in her closet, pulling out tights and leotards and foregoing a practice skirt. It feels like a middle finger to every woman who taught her to dance and she doesn’t like to deny herself small pleasures anymore. James is almost ready when she looks back at him, shirt and jeans stripped off to reveal a black tank top, black tights, and he’s seated on the edge of a chair lacing up his shoes. She doesn’t bother with false modesty as she changes, figures that it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, throwing her discarded clothing directly onto the floor to deal with later. Small pleasures.
She doesn’t feel a familiar, appreciative gaze on her, and she tries not to feel disappointed about it.
She pilfers a hair elastic from him as they head downstairs. They pass no one on the way to the performance room but she has no doubt that everyone is curious what James will do with his slippers, that they will mysteriously find themselves needing to use the performance room shortly after they start dancing in earnest.
So they stretch, individually and together, and she revels in the weight of James’ leg against her back, pushing her further down with the same unrelenting pressure she remembers from years ago. It feels like coming home, but she knows it’s not a permanent stay, her heart rests elsewhere but it’s not resistant to the pull of nostalgia if it doesn’t have to be. She does the same to him, sitting on one leg and pushing the other back towards his face, and he treats her with one of his rare grins so she rewards him with one of her own.
They start slowly, as if their muscles would ever let them forget what their minds would, falling easily into each of the basic positions, taking their positions at the barre and finding comfort in the repetitive motions of sequences he’d taught her. She stumbles on what feels like the thousandth ron de jambe circuit and he smirks at her. Competitive then, another drop of their past seeping through, so she flips him off as they move away from the sidelines to begin their combinations. His bulky form has always been good for murder, bad for allegro, and she makes sure to toss him a smirk of her own when she notices him breathing harder than she is after they break for water.
They’ve attracted a small audience now, just Sam and Steve sitting quietly in the back of the room, but they ignore them as they set up for their first pas de deux. Romeo and Juliet, a popularized Russian classic, but they know the original so they dance that instead of the variation as a ‘fuck you’ to the Soviets. It’s easy to pretend for a moment that they’re not who they are, easy to fall in love momentarily with the way James sinks to one knee and grips her hips in mismatched hands, easier still when his hands move to her ribs, supporting her weight as she molds her body to his, when their lips are a few scant centimeters apart for a few scant moments before she’s transitioning into an arabesque. There’s not long to think about it, the show must go on, and they continue moving apart and together again, contorting their faces into mockeries of love, passion, strangled need, and maybe they know a bit about strangling their needs.
She catches Clint’s eye before the end of the scene, before pressing her lips to James’ to seal the end of the first act. Distantly, she might hear a murmur of surprise from the now-larger group behind them, but she focuses instead on the way James’ hand comes up to cup her cheek. It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t obstruct the view, but this is for them and she wants to be selfish so she leans into it until it would be indecent not to break apart. Clint remains when she looks again, still watching her, and she knows her eyes must look like what his do when he thinks of his own dead lover. Her own is back, against all odds, and they’ve never demanded exclusivity from each other, and anyway, Clint understands.
They transition smoothly from piece to piece, always Russian, Firebird to La Bayadere, solos and duets and when one isn’t dancing they seem unable to look away from the other. At some point, and hours must have already passed because all but the most dedicated of their watchers have left, Natasha realizes that there are smears of red on the floor where they have bled through their slippers. She has not been unaware of the pain, not when her entire body has been screaming at her to rest, but is surprised to see that James also seems to be favoring a less-injured foot.
So they transition again. Leave behind classical ballet and move into what would’ve been contemporary music in their time, spill their emotions onto the ground alongside their blood and smear them with their feet until it doesn’t make sense anymore. James stops policing his movements and throws his body into leaps and turns with abandon, as if the movement itself cannot flow but must be forced through his joints. Natasha’s own style is similar to that of classical, but she touches more wholeheartedly, wrapping full arms around James’ biceps, cupping his chin, ignoring feather-like touches and elongated fingertips altogether. Their hair falls over their shoulders as the harsh movements yank it from their loosened buns.
A woman’s voice croons in the background, strong and deep and bold over the high notes of violins. She calls her lover the devil and Natasha wonders if she felt that way back then.
The songs pass, the remainder of their small crowd leaves, and they’re left with heaving chests in the middle of the room when Natasha finally stumbles and falls, drags James down with her, and they lay tangled on the floor while yet another woman sings behind them. She, too, sings strong and powerful, promises her lover that if she could suffer for them she would. Natasha wishes she were half as brave, had half the sense she has now, had half the resources or half the world on her goddamn side.
“I didn’t-” know , but she never gets to finish because James is covering her mouth with his. She groans into it, encourages him to deepen it, chases him when he pulls away instead.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says roughly, voice slightly shaky, but there’s that look of appreciation she had missed earlier.
She searches his eyes for a moment, reveling in the expressiveness she can find there nowadays, compares their clear-sky blue to the icy dullness she’d been used to, leans back in as she says “okay.”
So they remain for some time, trading affections, but they have never been made of sweetness so she twists one hand in his hair, tugs, and bares her teeth in a sort-of smile when he drags his next breath in through his teeth. He pulls her into a sitting position, maneuvering her legs around his waist, and stands; carries her across the room like she isn’t made of compact-but-weighty muscle and his arms don’t ache from lifting her for hours, politely turns off the light and really, that would be more impressive if they had cleaned the floor. The cleaning staff only get paid so much, after all.
But it doesn’t matter right now because it’s a short walk, short elevator ride full of roaming hands, before he’s depositing her onto her back, onto her bed. He stands above her, stands in a way that doesn’t make him look half as imposing as he used to, and she wonders if that started before he came to the Tower, if he had anyone else like this before he came to them; someone more breakable.
“Tell me,” he says simply, like he’s said so many other times, like so many others haven’t.
“Yes,” she says just as simply, reaching for his metal arm like she’s done so many other times, placing it over her pulse to demonstrate that she’s not scared. It beats steadily under his fingertips, fast with arousal, but not jumping with the fear of this weapon circling her throat.
So he lowers himself onto the bed.
The way he touches her skin isn’t necessarily tender or gentle, but it’s demonstrative and reverent all the same, and it feels like she’s burning through her skin. His metal arm doesn’t yield to her lips, tongue, teeth, but she pulls the fingers into her mouth all the same and doesn’t ask if he can feel it.
Those same digits trail wetness over her chest as he carefully draws down her leotard. She thinks back to all their measured movements, sewing stitches when they’d accidentally broken seams, punishments if they’d torn clothes beyond repair. She grasps her hand in his, he stills and searches her face for discomfort, but she curls his hand into a fist around the fabric. “Pull,” she says, and it takes him a moment, but he does. He tosses it onto the floor, covers her body with his, and trails wetness back up to her breasts with the tip of his tongue. The angle is difficult, not conducive to her doing anything but arching up beneath him, tugging at the hem of his shirt impatiently.
He sits back on his knees long enough to pull it off. In another lifetime, they both remember how he’d shirked from removing it, hesitant to reveal the full extent of scarring around his shoulder, worried she might eventually catalog all of the healed-over wounds and see that new ones were added regularly, even when he hadn’t been out on missions. She never asked, she did then what she does now, smooths her hands over his chest and down his sides, lets him straddle her thighs while she sits up to suck at his neck. The blood rushing up to the surface will never bruise, but his healing factor isn’t quite so advanced that it won’t stay reddened for the duration of their activities, and it’s so easy to do it now that they don’t have to worry about whether it’ll still be red after their short, stolen moments in time. They don’t have all the time in the world, they never have, but they have the comfort of covering their own bodies when they so choose. So she bites marks into wide swaths of available skin and he digs his fingers into her hips, trade places, pull back to admire their handiwork.
It takes some rearranging to get rid of their tights. Too difficult to rip off, really, and it’s somehow less sexy to rip off a dance belt, so they struggle out of them individually and come back together with James on his back. He tangles one hand in her hair, drags her down for a kiss, steadies her hips with the other and rocks them together. Slowly, not teasingly, just slowly, and he thinks back to all the times that they couldn’t have slow. He urges her up, settles his head between her thighs, moans into her flesh as she pushes back into his tongue, finds it difficult to close his eyes and miss the way she cups her breasts and tosses her head back, her own lips parted. Loud, and slow, and all of the things they deserve to have. He works her open with metal and flesh indiscriminately, listens to the way she nearly-chants his name. Not his name, his name: Yasha, Yasha, Yasha, varying levels of breathlessness, and it doesn’t hurt but he hasn’t been Yasha, and she hasn’t been Natalia, Natashka, Little Spider if they were bold, for more years than he might ever remember.
He pushes through her shuddering release until the hold she’s got on his hair tightens, pulls, and she pleads with him in Russian words that soothe the ache in his chest from the language itself, until he’s settled with his back against her headboard and she’s tasting herself on his lips.
“Do you have supplies?” he murmurs, pulled back only far enough to speak, and her breath tickles when she breathes out and points to the bedside table.
She lets him, for a moment, but grabs his wrist before he gets too far.
“You can’t catch anything, or give me anything, and I can’t-” but her eyes are squeezed shut, and he knows that she can talk about almost anything with her eyes wide open, daring anyone and everyone to say anything or everything, so cups her cheek again and kisses her mouth as gently as he dares.
“It doesn’t matter,” he whispers. He knows what graduation presents they give the girls. Even if he didn’t, it doesn’t matter. They are riddled with the scars of their environment but they do not have to reopen every old wound and pool their blood together to establish a connection.
So he kisses her again, more fiercely this time, and doesn’t ask her if she’s sure.
She raises slightly, guides him, groans low in her throat and lets her head fall onto his shoulder as she sinks back down. She’s not sure which one of them needs time to adjust, but she stills anyway when she’s fully seated, doesn’t stop the shiver running through her body, leans into the large hand cupping the back of her head, drinks James’ moan from his mouth when he urges her lips back up to his. He lets her set the pace and she moves slowly, savors the way his muscles flex and jump beneath her. It could be hours that they stay like this, he never moves to put himself on top and she never indicates that she wants him to, content to enjoy the burn in her thighs because it feels like the moment is more real that way. He rubs circles into her with his thumb, lets his head fall back when he gets close, and it’s hard to focus on anything except all of the points where they’re connected so she entwines the finger of his free hand with hers and helps him drag them both under the crashing waves of pleasure.
She falls against his chest after and catches her breath in the comfort of his arms, listens to his heartbeat slow back down, leans into the gentle way he pets her hair and thinks about the cat he brought to the Tower all those months ago. Alpine. Alpine the cat. Alpine like the mountains he fell from and she thinks privately that that might be the biggest marker of his recovery.
She’s not quite willing to let him carry her to the shower after they separate, even if walking with sticky thighs isn’t her favorite, but she does demand that he wash her back with the rose-vanilla body wash she’s come to favor and that feels similarly cozy, so it’s fine. She gives him an approximation of a mohawk with her favorite shampoo, and they comb conditioner through each other’s hair. They don’t talk, not much, they were ever defined by words, so he spends more time massaging her scalp instead.
The water washes down the drain of a clean floor, the soap doesn’t stick in the grooves of his metal arm, the towels are fluffy and warm, and it keeps him grounded in the presence of his past.
They fall back into bed, kick the wet top sheet off, and she curls around him as if she could guard him from his dreams.
It’s not late enough for him to be staying the night, not even dinnertime, but they can nap. He wakes up first, pulls on a pair of lounge pants he’d stuffed into the dance bag he’d left sitting on her floor, tucks the covers more securely around Natasha and slips quietly out of the room. He pads down to the kitchen on light feet that make little sound, another remnant of himself, and sets about making two cups of hot cocoa. He piles the mugs high with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, slides a stick of peppermint into one of them and thinks about all of the times he and Steve had pooled their dollars to share one cup of hot cocoa, asked for the peppermint stick on the side and broke it in half and stuck it in the icebox to share at a later date.
He carries the mugs back to Natasha’s room, opens the door with his foot and isn’t surprised to see the woman in question awake, burritoed in a blanket and sitting at the edge of the bed. She takes the mug from him, takes a sip, watches him lean casually against the dresser. She looks into his eyes and quietly asks Jarvis to put on some music, something new, something neither of them have ever heard, and Jarvis puts on something sweet sounding in the language of a country neither of them have been to.
They drink their hot cocoa in near silence. Occasionally, one of them will speak up to ask for the name of a song they like, but they don’t trade words, they focus on building new memories, re-establishing their relationship.
Cups empty, and they have nowhere to go but forward. It only takes a few steps for him to cross the small distance between them, but it happens slowly and he falters once. Takes the next step. Jerkily. As though he’s not sure this is the right decision. But she smiles encouragingly at him and he keeps going, gathers the cups in his hands.
“Yasha..” she reaches out to him, stops just shy of touching him, pauses, and they stay locked there for a moment. “Thank you,” she finishes lamely, simply, but he smiles slowly at her and there’s nothing else she can say.
“Call me Bucky,” he says just as simply and drops a kiss to her forehead.
“Clean the floor in the dance room then, Bucky,” she responds and he flips her off. There. All is well.
He leaves the room and the door shuts with a soft click. The room feels quieter without him here somehow, even though they weren’t speaking when he was.
He’s left his dance bag sitting neatly on the floor. It doesn’t matter. He’ll come back for it and she’ll wrestle him onto the bed, show him how to paint her toenails, tell him all about Clint, and tease him about smiling at his phone when he thinks no one is looking.