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ordinary frozen morning

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Cold weather sucks.

Really the big problem with cold weather and how it's insisting on staying really late this year, from Mercedes' point of view, is she still gets super-overheated-warm when she goes for her run, ever since she added the sprints to her routine. So if she wears long pants and a coat to start with she ends up sweaty and gross-feeling, like her pulse is trying to move up into her cheeks and beat her head off. But if she wears shorts and a thinner coat, it means showing bare skin to seriously cold wind every single morning and makes her not want to do it.

She bets there are special running clothes for this stuff, but she doesn't even want to think about how much they cost, and they probably don't make them in her size anyway.

She doesn't bother complaining about this to anyone. Her mom'll just remind her she doesn't have to do this, LeAnn and Hannah'll just go on about how she's crazy for doing it anyway because uuuugh, and the idea of complaining to James about how her legs get cold in the morning is just embarrassing. Plus he'd probably just say something about life being full of hard choices in That Bland Tone.

In the end she goes with the shorts and the thinner coat, but it means she starts every day with a "don't wanna go 4 my run" tweet. At least everyone on Twitter is all encouraging. Especially the adults.

It's weird how things are different in the cold. How it feels like it's easier to pick up the little scrapes and nicks, like the cold's making her skin brittle and tense. If she takes a jump up a concrete or brick wall in the winter, it's like she's almost guaranteed to come away with scuffed knuckles even if she can't figure out how and Mama basically picks up more New Skin every time she hits the pharmacy or the grocery store with the good toiletries section.

It seems like it's easier to do things like twist her ankle, too, and that's why she's limping and sucking at her right pinkie-finger when she makes it back to the front door of the building at the same time the white lady with red hair shows up for the first time, wearing high-tops and skinny-jeans, a hoodie and a coat overtop.

The lady stops at the door and waits, a little bit of a smile on her mouth and says, as Mercedes limps her way up and frowns at her because hello stranger, "You must be Mercedes."

And that isn't creepy at all.

"How do you know that?" Mercedes demands, stopping down the steps to give herself a bit of room if she has to start running or something. She can't think of any reason she'd need to run, but she can find out the reason after she got away, if there is one.

The lady smiles a bit. She's dressed like a hipster but she isn't standing like one and she's really, really gorgeous. Like, if Mercedes ever grows up to manage to be half that gorgeous, she'll be happy. The lady's got wavy-tousled red hair and green-grey eyes. Her hoodie is grey with a pattern of green leaves on it, and the coat's leather. She doesn't have any jewelry, though, except for a really thin gold chain necklace with a gold arrow that sits right at the collar.

She says, "Steve's mentioned you a few times, and there aren't that many middle-schoolers who'd be out in this weather for a morning run. My name's Natasha."

It's probably not very nice that Mercedes feels even more suspicious the minute the lady mentions Steve's name, but she does anyway. "Weather's not so bad," she says, as nonchalantly as she knows how. "It's not actually snowing."

And she knows the lady's face and she's trying to figure out from where and she has a feeling she's going to be embarrassed it took her so long once she gets it.

"Am I in your way?" Natasha asks, gesturing to the door and Mercedes shrugs.

"I don't bring my keys for runs, they bounce and it's annoying, I just get my mom to buzz me up," Mercedes says, going for casual. "You go ahead."

The look on Natasha's face is knowing and amused and Mercedes fights not to feel like she's being caught out as the lady hits the button for Steve's place; it buzzes a couple times before there's the sound of the phone picking up and it's actually James' voice that says, "Yeah?"; Mercedes has to hide a smile at how sleepy and grumpy he sounds.

"I can't believe I woke you up," Natasha says, openly amused. "It's almost six o'clock, did you actually manage to get sick?"

James answers in a different language but the tone sounds a lot like I hate you, die in a fire and Mercedes does catch Romanova on the end and she was right, she is embarrassed because obviously Natasha is Agent Romanoff, who dropped the SHIELD databases and was probably the one who shot Alexander Pierce and now Mercedes isn't sure if she's even more suspicious or if she wants to ask for her autograph.

Or both.

But holy shit.

Natasha replies in what sounds like the same language for a couple words and then says, in English, "Now let me in before your gatekeeper decides she needs to call the cops on me."

Mercedes refuses to blush. Flatly refuses. Keeps her chin up too. Natasha aka Agent Romanoff winks at her.

Then James says, "It's okay, kid, she's fine, just irritating. I can throw her out the window if I have to."

"Cool," Mercedes says, and is pretty proud of herself that she manages to just chirp that and she's still not blushing. Then there's the buzz of the door unlocking and Natasha pulls it open, gesturing for Mercedes to go first.

Mercedes heads for the stairs, Natasha for the elevator; Mercedes manages another chirp of "Have a good morning!" and a wave before she opens the stairway door, closes it and then leans on it and claps her hands over her mouth and hyperventilates for a little bit, trying to keep her eeeeeee as silent as she can.

Then she takes the stairs two at a time so she can tell her mom and text LeAnn and Hannah. Because holy shit.

****

If looks could kill the phone would be a charred plastic and silicon lump on the floor from Bucky's glare. Steve pulls his shirt on over his head and says, mildly, "You could just stay in bed, you know."

Steve'd been just stepping out of the shower when the landline rang, and apparently Bucky used up all the words he cared to find pre-coffee letting Natasha in, because he gives Steve a dire look, a two-finger salute, and then drags himself off the bed, out of the bedroom and into the bathroom. The kitten jumps down behind him and wriggles under the door. Steve thinks she's going to be very disappointed in the world when she gets too big to fit.

There's a tap on the front door and Steve calls, "It's open," on his way to the kitchen, because he unlocked it before he got in the shower. He also put both Bucky's coffee and a pot of normal coffee on to brew before he got in the shower, which means he can greet Natasha by handing her a cup.

"That," Natasha says as she closes the door behind her, "is an adorably fierce child. You should have seen the look she gave me. She even lied about having her keys so she could make me buzz you first."

"Be nice," Steve says, amused.

Natasha's playing hipster again, or looks like she is to Steve. Her hair's wavy instead of straight or outright curled, she's wearing layers and skinny-jeans, and if she's got any makeup on it's the kind designed to be invisible, and Steve's not even going to try to guess at that. She seems more . . . present than the last time he saw her, less distance in her eyes, less of a sense that she's trying to just skim over the surface of life and more like the Natasha who kept trying to get him to date.

"Oh I'm completely serious," she says, leaning one hand on the closet door and kicking her shoes off before she takes the coffee. "She's adorable. And either needs new sneakers, or to train barefoot, those broken things she's got are the worst of both worlds."

She leans over and kisses Steve on the cheek and steps the rest of the way into the condo. Then she blinks. "Nice," she says, looking around. "You've been busy."

Steve's a little bit smug; he's got a little bit of painting left to do, but in general, he's pretty happy with what he's managed, especially for doing it all himself. "Thanks," he says, and, "Good morning."

"Good morning," Natasha says, and then yawns. "Although right now for me it's about two AM. If I fall asleep on your couch I promise it's not because you're boring." She sips the coffee, still looking around, and then suddenly smiles. "You didn't keep the dents I left in the wall?"

"Hah, hah," Steve says, dryly. "I have a bottle of really nice tequila for Barton for that, by the way. I hope you got him something nice." And Natasha laughs.

"He'll have to wait to drink it," she says. "He's in bed with the flu."

Steve's eyebrows go up and he says, "And you abandoned him to it?"

"Clint hates people being healthy around him when he's sick," Natasha replies blandly. "I asked JARVIS to keep an eye on his vital signs and let me know if his fever spikes or he otherwise needs medical attention, and otherwise I'm leaving him to sleep it off, and trust me, it's the best option."

They wander into the living-room to sit down; in the hallway the bathroom door opens and Bucky comes out, dressed in one of his more worn pair of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, his hair damp and pulled back and the kitten on his shoulder. He waves a wordless acknowledgement to Natasha's good morning and goes directly for the coffee-pot.

Jane actually bought him a mug, after one of the mornings they'd been at the Tower and Tony'd managed to talk everyone into Breakfast. Steve'd seen the ones with "shhh" and "almost" in quirky writing but never thought they were quite right; Jane managed to find one with a newspaper font and the words, "you may not speak" at the top, "now you may speak" in the middle and then at the bottom, "actual conversation possible now".

It's pretty accurate.

Natasha's still idly looking around as Bucky emerges, hands Steve his cup and settles on the futon with his own. After a minute she says, frowning, "You need better art for the walls, though." Then she gives the plain brown curtains hanging on either side of the living-room window a look full of mild distaste. "And better curtains."

Steve tries to hide a smile, but Bucky actually snorts, and Steve knows they had the same thought. At the snort Natasha glances at both of them in turn and demands, "What?"

"Curtains," Steve says, making a slightly helpless gesture, "it's just . . . exactly what female relatives showing up would say," he manages. "The stereotype, it's that men aren't good at things like curtains."

Natasha looks thoughtful, like she's digging into stuff she knows but doesn't think about all the time and says, "Right," in that kind of voice. Then she frowns at the curtains again and says, "Well you have to admit they're not great. And stop that," she adds, turning towards Bucky as he snorts softly again, "especially - "

But they never found out about what especially, because at that moment she stops and tilts her head so far to one side that for a moment Steve thinks of owls. "No," she says, slowly, "that's not a weird heat-pack or ice-pack or anything. No, there's a kitten on your shoulder."

Bucky makes a wordless sound of confirmation, as Abrikoska sits with her feet tucked up under her and her eyes scrinched closed. Steve has a vague suspicion that the morning before Bucky's actually had his coffee and isn't doing much is the cat's favourite part of the day.

Natasha gives Steve a look that really clearly communicates her sense of what in Gods name - ?

"Mercedes," he says. "After sufficient coffee, you can probably have the whole story. It wasn't really planned."

"A little girl made you accidentally a kitten," Natasha says, shifting straight through to eyes-sparkling-amused, and it's Steve's turn to frown slightly.

"I think there was a word missing in that sentence," he says. She waves away.

"It's an internet thing," she says. "How much is sufficient coffee? Because this," she adds, "I want to hear."