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late and morning's in no hurry

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me: just to make sure it's not _three_ years in a row I'm reminding you it's christmas eve today
steve: last year wasn't forgetting, last year was a conscious choice, and one that I am wholly confident Christ would understand
steve: in fact I'm pretty sure He'd've asked me what the fuck good I thought I was doing in a church right then and told me to go the fuck home
me: profanity and all?
steve: that's vulgarity, not profanity, and actually after several years of contextual study and personal contemplation, yes, I am pretty sure Our Lord and Saviour knew when to make appropriate use of swear-words
me: well just as long as you're happy in yourself.
me: what _are_ you doing this xmas?
steve: as it happens, going to Mass
me: oh my
me: how times change
steve: I was told if I didn't just go he'd drag me and then he'd be going and nobody would be happy
steve: which is true
steve: Bucky at Mass is nobody's friend
me: wasn't it kind of compulsory at one point?
steve: yeah, but he was usually hungover
steve: so he'd just stare at the back of the pew in front of him and wince occasionally
me: want some company?
steve: seriously?
steve: _you_ want to come to Mass?
me: all things considered I'm *relatively* sure I can get through a church doorway without bursting into flames
steve: now you KNOW that's not what I meant
steve: I just find it hard to believe you have nothing better to do
me: believe it. :P
me: my life is not actually non-stop glamour and outrage
steve: if you're actually serious, I'm going to the Oratory-Church of St Boniface for 10pm.
steve: clara's not going this year, because she and the kids are out at her sister-in-law's, but she says the music is good and the priests have more between their ears than smug air
steve: offering not required, heavy weaponry discouraged. :P
me: steve the only way anyone there could tell if i was armed or not would require things i am absolutely sure a catholic priest is not allowed to do.
steve: I'm just making sure.
me: I'll see you there.

*****

When he sees her just a bit down the street, Steve calls out her name and then adds, "I did say heavy weaponry," as Natasha stops and waits for him. "I mean if I'd said 'unarmed' you'd have to leave yourself at home."

"Says the supersoldier," Natasha retorts, smiling, and Steve jokingly raises a finger to his lips.

"Shh," he says. "I'm incognito." Natasha pretends to look him up and down.

"Well you're something," she says, looking mischievous.

For half a second Steve feels self-conscious. He does have a suit, but he'd kind of balked at wearing it, was thinking of getting rid of it and buying something else anyway for the rare occasions he might need to go to a funeral or pretend he remembers how to be formal. The three-piece he's had in his closet since his first year in the future feels like it should belong to someone else, and oddly hostile.

And he doesn't really have a lot between that and jeans and a t-shirt.

In the end he'd settled on nice jeans and a button up shirt in pale blue. It's more or less as far as most men his age and apparent background get to knowing how to dress up anyway, as far as he can tell. His coat's open, because it's not that cold, especially for him.

He's suddenly very aware that it's different from what he usually wears, these days.

All he can see of Natasha is the dark charcoal of her knee-length coat, her black slacks and her hair in a loose french braid, the kind where he can tell she's wearing it wavy by default again. And he thinks her makeup might be different from normal, more contrast between her eyes and her lips, but he wouldn't want to swear to it. It might just be the night.

"So why exactly," he says, looking both ways and then stepping into the street to cross it after the one car coming passes them by, "are you bored enough to want to sit through someone else's religious observances?"

The look she shoots him is amused, again, but she shrugs and he's pretty sure her answer's honest. "Christmas is a strange time for me," she says. "All major religious holidays are, really, wherever I am and whichever one it is. And most secular ones."

Steve gives her a quizzical look and she shrugs again. "None of them are mine; I'm never a part. Not even the Russian ones. Not only that," she goes on, "I'm not even part of any of the groups that aren't a part of it, either. I'm . . . something else."

"The difference between being raised in an atheist home," Steve fills in, as lightly as he can, "and being raised in an underground bunker somewhere in the Urals."

Natasha looks at him, mock-frowning slightly. "How did you know it was an underground bunker?" she asks.

"Lucky guess," Steve replies, blandly, and her mouth twitches a bit.

"Explicitly being someone's guest," and she quirks an eyebrow at him, half teasing-ironic and half not, "always feels less awkward than pretending to be one of the crowd, or even sitting somewhere watching it go by while I'm not even part of the crowd watching it go by."

"What's Clint doing?" Steve asks, because it's the obvious question and he might as well get it out of the way. It's not like she doesn't know what Bucky's probably doing.

He's not exactly sure when he started automatically thinking of Natasha and Clint in that same kind of way, but even after he noticed, he can't see that he's actually wrong.

Natasha suddenly gets the look of amusement that people get when they're anticipating someone else's reaction.

"Clint is volunteering at a shelter for families at risk," she says, "being Santa's helper. And yes, I'm serious," she adds, seeming to be pretty satisfied with Steve's disbelieving look. Then the smile turns slightly softer, more fondness and less mischief, and she says, "He'll never talk about it," she says, "but he did have family, once upon a time, parents and aunts and the whole set." She shrugs. "He had his reasons for walking away, but this is the kind of time he remembers what he's missing, even if he won't actually admit it to himself. So he deals with it by making things better for other people's families, if he can."

And that . . . sounds like Clint, Steve has to admit. It's lower-key than Natasha's overt, deliberate, testing interventions, and if you're not paying attention you could absolutely miss it, but Clint's pretty quietly invested in making sure people around him are okay. Honestly, Steve's just surprised Natasha's not with him.

"Not your idea of a good time?" Steve asks, curious. Natasha exhales in one long push, breath condensing in the cold air.

"Sometimes it's fine," she says, soberly. "And then sometimes . . . how much I know about what can happen to vulnerable people, and how hard it can be to get away from those things, it kind of starts . . . " she purses her lips, " . . . pushing me towards the idea that maybe just a little bit of the world could be cleaned up if I used the right amount of blood."

"That never works out, in the end," Steve says, mildly. But he thinks he might get what she means. He can let his thoughts flinch away from that kind of thing; it makes a kind of sense that she just can't.

"It really doesn't," Natasha agrees, and then breezes on. "And Tony Stark at a party is Tony Stark . . . well, it's fifty-fifty whether it ends up with me wanting to drown him in a bucket, and I don't like those odds tonight, and that's where everyone else is. Including Sam."

"I did hear that," Steve says. "I also technically got invited."

"Technically?"

"Tony left me a handwritten note on the tickets that said, 'I know you're not coming but I wouldn't want you to feel left out'," Steve says, and Natasha laughs. He shrugs. "Maybe next year."

Natasha surprises him by agreeing, "Maybe."

And then they're at the church door, and both of them watching what they say a bit more carefully.

 

The music is very good, and the homily is decent. Definitely decent. Actually, Steve kind of appreciates how clear it is - at least to him - that it's meant to be as broad, and welcoming, and gentle as possible. It's pretty clearly meant to be the kind of thing someone off the street feeling lonely could hear and appreciate, and Steve likes that, honestly.

Natasha looks at him curiously when he doesn't actually go up for Communion, but he shakes his head just a little and murmurs, "Not yet."

The thing that's weird is that she looks like she might actually understand. Get that he has reasons. What they are.

Well. Technically since he hasn't confessed in about seven or seventy-odd years (depending on how you want to count it), he'd be in mortal sin if he did, but it's not really that. It's mostly the same reason that, even though he is happy he came today (and couldn't've convinced Bucky he didn't care about coming if his life depended on it, because it would be a lie), none of the forms, rituals, observances, none of them are really part of life right now. And he's not looking for them to start.

It's not because it'd be hard. It wouldn't be hard. It's actually because it'd be easy, because they're easy. The patterns are easy. Worship is easy, sacraments are easy - all of them. They're comfortable the way unexamined habits are comfortable, rote and repeated, and he . . . doesn't need that right now. He doesn't want that right now.

Of all the things he's worried about right now, Steve thinks, the state of his soul is so far down the list he's not even thinking about it. So he's not really interested in coming back. Not yet.

And if at some point he is, it's going to take a lot of work and looking and scrutiny to find someplace he actually wants to find all of it again at. A place where he actually feels like it'd be making him better, instead of worse.

And he really doesn't have the time or the energy for that search right now. And he's okay with that.

For now, this is good enough.

 

Afterwards, he and Natasha get terrible McDonalds' mochas and walk for a while, talking about . . . different things. He ends up admitting how little he's ever seen of Paris and why; once she's done laughing (which takes a minute or two), she tells him what he missed and whether he was actually missing much in it in the first place, and he throws in the story of Jacques Dernier's seething, endless hate-on for Charles de Gaulle.

"I did hear he was neck deep with the anarchists," Natasha muses, and Steve smiles slightly in remembrance.

"He was in with any movement that promised to actually address injustice and inequality," he says, "and they all disappointed him bitterly. Socialists, anarchists, unionists, feminists - pick one, he was passionately involved at some point or other, and then they'd fail him, and he'd leave them in disgust. Eventually that included France in general, or so I've gathered.

"On the other hand," Steve muses, "he assured all of us that any brothel he would patronize was run by a woman of character and discernment who in turn treated her ladies well and did not pull funny tricks with her wine." He feels himself slipping into Frenchie's accent as he says it.

Natasha's laughing again; Steve finishes, "So that was apparently very reassuring. Not that I would know."

Natasha flashes him a slightly sardonic look. "Do you really think they cared?" she asked, and if the question has an edge Steve's okay with the flaws and foibles of the long past. And given what she'd said before Mass, it's a fair question.

"Jim Morita might've," he says, thoughtfully. "On the other hand I honestly think he just spent his time drinking a lot, whistling at the shows, and falling asleep in a soft bed, because if you got the man started on his wife you'd be there for the next hour and a half. Well," Steve pauses, "and I think Frenchie really did. Frenchie cared about a lot of things."

This time the smile Natasha gives him is knowing and he thinks it might be a bit fond. And he knows the knowing is for the way he can't quite help that his voice gets wistful.

"Should I ask about Christmas on the Front?" she says, teasing kind of gently, as a kind of way to pull away from that, and Steve laughs ruefully.

"We were being shelled," he tells her. "Me and Bucky and Gabe and Dum Dum in one foxhole, Frenchie, Gabe, Monty and Morita in the other, covered with pine branches and hoping nothing'd hit us directly. I don't know if you've ever been shelled," he goes on, and she shakes her head, "well - other than on that fucking train at the end, that's basically the only times I was really, honestly fucking terrified."

"With swear-words even," Natasha says, mock-solemn and wide-eyed. Steve shakes his head, smiling a little.

"I'd give you my mom's lecture on foul language and dignity," he tells her, "but Bucky does it better. He heard it more often." Then Steve tilts his head, hesitates a moment and says, "Should I even ask - "

"If there are any reminiscences?" Natasha finishes, wryly. "I deserve that."

She takes a drink of her mocha and Steve has just enough time to consider regret that he asked before she answers, in the kind of solemn voice that's actually quiet and serious and a little regretful, instead of pretending to be, "Most of my 'sisters' died when Clint came to find me. But - some of them didn't. One decided to become someone else, and she's married, with a little girl. Another lives on top of a mountain in New Zealand with her dog. I . . . spend a lot of time hoping they have some kind of peace."

She glances up at Steve and adds, "Not many people know that. SHIELD didn't."

"I'll keep it to myself," Steve tells her. And then he says, "Thank you." He says it because he thinks he needs to.

"You've told me a lot of secrets, Steve," she says, smiling a bit crookedly. "I can return the favour."

Steve hesitates and says, "I wouldn't actually ask - "

"I know," she says, and reaches over to briefly touch the side of his face. "That's part of why I can."

 

After that, Steve turns the conversation back to safer things, like asking about what Tony's done with her wristlets and if it's really made any difference. Natasha hails a taxi after she starts yawning, and Steve turns towards home.

Abrikoska scampers to the door to meet him, but doesn't give off more than the greeting yowl before scampering back into the kitchen where one of the under-cupboard lights is on. Steve shakes his head, takes off his coat and kicks off his shoes.

At least that answers the question of where her human is.

Bucky's leaning on the counter, both hands braced against the edge behind him. There's a coffee-pot on the stove, but it's just turned off, and there's steam from the mug beside his right hand.

He looks up when Steve comes in, but with the kind of slow focus that says he was staring through the linoleum before. Might've been for a while. His hair falls the way that says he's been raking it out of his face. The blue t-shirt he's wearing's almost worn enough to be see-through; Steve thinks the jeans he's wearing are one of the pairs Steve's tried out covering all the inside seams with strips of flannel, like Natasha suggested.

And the thing is -

The thing is.

The thing.

And Jesus, Lord, merciful Christ on high -

Bucky raises his eyebrows after a moment, and says, "You planning on standing in the doorway staring all night?"

And Steve considers saying I might, and he considers saying do you have any God-damn idea how much I - but then he actually stops the thought. Because the first one is trite and flip, and the second is just God-damn stupid, all things considered. Unbelievably stupid.

So instead he just crosses the kitchen and maybe he doesn't mean for that to end up with his hand cradling Bucky's head, Bucky's on either side of his neck, kissing Bucky as hard as he can, but it was probably inevitable.

Okay, no, it was definitely inevitable. And his chest aches so much it's almost beyond ache, into real pain, but it's an ache he wants, craves, and gathers up as tight as he can.

And the question do you know how much I need you is stupid and pointless, and it'll probably be a long time still before do you know you're the best thing in my life is something Bucky can believe.

"You were right," he says, after the kiss ends, forehead against Bucky's. Bucky snorts.

"So what else is new?" Bucky murmurs, and then kisses Steve again before he can answer.

 

Steve only succeeds in getting them to the bed because of the winning argument of not having to move again afterwards.