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Old Flame

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It was Wednesday.

Natasha took one last look in the mirror, taking a moment to pin back a lock of red hair that hung near her face. Months ago, Tony Stark has decided that the Avengers needed regular bonding time and declared every Wednesday night be reserved for some casual revelry. Provided a mission didn’t interfere, everyone joined together at the Tower for dinner, whether they lived there or not. The choice of food and music rotated between the heroes, and tonight Tony himself had chosen classic rock while Clint set a menu of good, old fashioned, American, grilled steaks.

But this Wednesday was different. It was six days after James “Bucky” Barnes had stepped into the lives, and about nineteen hours since everyone, including the lofty Nick Fury, had finally accepted his story. If a friend of Captain America needed help, the general consensus seemed to say, then they would help him. And it certainly didn’t hurt that this friend happened to be a super soldier with abilities that may benefit them in later missions.

Whether their reasons were altruistic or strategic, Natasha was glad for them. Perhaps her fellow Avengers would cease digging into James’ past and the secrets that she had also buried there. Perhaps tonight would be focused on the present, or even the future, she hoped. A clean slate, a fresh start, a new beginning. Tonight, James would be joining them for Wednesday dinner.

The Black Widow wasn’t sure she had ever been more nervous in all of her long life.

She was one of the first to arrive in the dining room, and helped herself to a cocktail while the others filtered in. Steve and James were the last to arrive, and Natasha felt her breath catch in her throat when she saw them.

James was dressed in a simple long sleeve shirt and jeans, both of darker shades, both fitted enough to show the powerful muscles they covered. His metal hand was tucked into a pocket as if to disguise what it was that made him different from the others. His hair was washed and combed, still hanging loosely around his face in a style that made him look clean and rugged all at once. He had shaved, but a five o’clock shadow had already grown which only served to highlight his strong jawline. Those light blue eyes of his sparkled as they moved to carefully take in the room and everyone in it. He looked about as nervous as Natasha felt inside, but he held his chin up and shoulders squared.

He looked really good.

Though nearly all of the Avengers had some sort of contact with the former Winter Soldier by now, Steve took advantage of the evening to make a fresh start. He guided his oldest friend around the room, formally introducing him to his allies. Steve’s eyes were light, his grin broad. This was what he had always wanted, all of his friends together.

The others’ reactions were predictably mixed. Nat didn’t miss the fact that Sam neglected to shake James’ hand or the fact that Tony’s greeting was more clipped and sarcastic than necessary. But just the fact that they were present in the room was something, she supposed.

When the two men approached her, Natasha found that her mouth had suddenly gone dry. She took a quick sip of her drink to compose herself before turning to face them.

“Natasha Romanoff,” Steve was saying with a gesture of his hand. “Former Russian agent, now a good friend and partner. You won’t meet a man or woman more clever than her.”

“Such flattery,” Nat returned with a wink before focusing her green eyes on the man of the hour. She extended her hand to take his, which felt warm, rough, and so big around hers.

“James,” she said his name in greeting, purposely choosing the name by which she knew him instead of the nickname by which Steve kept referring to him. She kept her hand clasped with his for longer than necessary, not wanting to break the first physical contact they had in years.

”Welcome home, Comrade,” Natasha said, switching to her native Russian.

A hint of amusement flashed in James’ blue eyes and the lines in his face softened ever so slightly.

Steve looked expectant, glancing from Nat to Bucky and back again. “What did she say?” he finally asked.

It was James who responded. “She said ‘welcome.” He turned back to lock his eyes with hers again. ”Thank you.”

“Yeah, okay,” Steve replied, reaching over the bar to grab a pair of beers. “Is dinner ready yet? I’m starving.”

——

The man formerly known as The Winter Soldier found himself alone for the first time that evening, and was incredibly grateful for it. Dinner had been surprisingly satisfying, and the company of others felt awkward yet weirdly welcome, but he also felt the need to sit back and take in the events of the evening. While Steve was engrossed in a lively conversation with Sam Wilson, Bucky had moved away to a seating area and taken his place on a couch.

He tapped his empty beer bottle silently on the arm of the couch, trying to resist the temptation to pick off the label in his unease. He felt out of place. The interrogation upon his arrival had been expected, and he had braced himself to face all manner of tactics the so-called “Avengers” might use to draw information from him. But they had been shockingly civil. They didn’t withhold meals or sleep, didn’t inflict any sort of pain or fear based strategies, and even gave him a warm bed, full stomach, and new clothes. It had both relieved and confused him. Despite the fact that some of the members of the team obviously and openly distrusted him, Bucky had felt more like a guest than a prisoner.

And now this dinner thing? Steve was obviously trying to help Bucky feel like part of the team. Like he was welcome. Like he belonged there. It was… kind. But when one is out of practice in social events, one tends to feel like the odd man out, even with such a warm welcome.

“Care for something a little stronger?”

A silky smooth, feminine voice drifted to his ears. Bucky didn’t need to turn around to know who it was that had approached him, but he did anyway. Natasha Romanoff stood nearby, holding a glass of crystal clear liquid in each hand, a smile painted on her lips. She had approached silently, without him realizing. He would have to keep a better eye on her in the future.

For now, he gave a short nod and watched as she settled into the chair next to him. His empty bottle was placed on the coffee table and she handed him one of the glasses of vodka, the ice making a tinkling sound as he brought it to his lips.

It was smooth. Cold. Strong. Familiar. Good choice.

He thanked her and took a moment to size her up. She was petite and pretty, with full lips, stunning red hair and bright green eyes. Steve has said she was clever, and that was no surprise. The Winter Soldier knew about Black Widows. You don’t get to be stupid and survive long at that position.

She was watching him, too, Bucky realized, probably making similar judgements about himself.

He took another swallow and leaned against the couch, lifting his arm to lay along the back in a position he hoped conveyed a sense of casual ease. Something about her was tugging at his curiosity. Her posture, her friendly, flirtatious smile, her greeting when they had shaken hands earlier, the way she hadn’t shied from touching his hand.

“I have a question,” he finally said.

The girl tilted her head to the side in polite interest, but waited for him to speak.

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?”

That made her laugh. It was a beautiful, carefree sound that, paired with her smile, made his heart beat a little faster. Natasha’s eyelashes fluttered as she glanced down at her lap, then back up at him. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be,” she answered, a playful tone to her voice.

But Bucky wasn’t interested in playing. He gestured around the room with his hand, his metal hand, and noticed that she didn’t flinch when she saw it.

“Stark treats me like a time bomb that’s going to go off any second. He’s keeping me at arm’s length. Banner stumbles over his words, as if he doesn’t know how to speak to me. Even Steve, for all his friendliness, is handling me with caution as if I might break apart any minute.”

He turned his eyes back to the woman sitting next to him. “And you’re here, alone, bringing me a drink and inviting conversation. Why aren’t you afraid like everyone else?”

Natasha smiled again, this time it was less flirty and more melancholy. She took a few seconds to find the right words, her emerald eyes flickering downward to her drink before speaking.

“You’re just a person, James,” she said, and he found himself distracted by the way his first name sounded on her lips. “You’re not a time bomb and you’re not made of glass. I have no reason to be afraid of you.”

She held his eyes for a moment longer before turning toward the rest of the room. She gestured with her glass as she continued to speak. “Tony thinks he’s our dad, and that he needs to protect us. You’re like the boyfriend coming to pick up his daughter for the first date. Of course he’s going to be distrustful, but he’ll come around.” She flashed him a secretive smile. “To be honest, I don’t think he trusts me most of the time, either.”

She nodded toward Banner. “Bruce is afraid if his own shadow, so don’t take that personally. But he’s a smart guy, and a good one to have around. I hear he’s been putting out some feelers with a few... experts who might be able to help you.”

Bucky opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but the Black Widow has already moving on. “Sam is the newest guy here, and he’s really made a connection with Steve. I think he thinks you’re going to steal his new friend. And Steve…”

She trailed off, drawing her lower lip between her teeth. “Steve’s heart is bigger than his brain. He talked about you often, with all of us. He really did miss you. He’s excited to have you here, and he just wants everything to be alright.”

Bucky found himself, once again, drawn into her green eyes as they fell into silence again. Black Widows were supposed to be smart, sexy, irresistible, he reminded himself. A siren that could lure any man in. She was damn good at her job.

Movement caught both of their attention, and the pair simultaneously looked up to see Steve approaching. Bucky didn’t miss the flash of annoyance that crossed over Natasha’s features, but he was secretly relieved. The last thing he needed was to be seduced and used for whatever a Widow wanted. While this woman seemed sincere, and while she spoke so openly and honestly with him, he wasn’t willing to take any chances.

“I'm not interrupting anything, am I?” Steve asked with a broad smile as he approached.

Natasha answered with a smile of her own. “That’s alright,” she began,rising from her seat. “We have all the time in the world to get to know each other, don’t we, James?”

Without waiting for a reply, she was walking away, and Bucky found himself watching the way her hips moved as she left.

Great. The last thing he needed was a distraction.