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Christmas is all around

Chapter Text

Bucky didn't like Christmas. Well, it didn't bother him before, of course; he loved it as a child, and even before he joined the army he always looked forward to it. But then came the mission in the Alps and everything changed from that year. Nothing was the same. Why would he celebrate Christmas in the Winter Soldier leather? How could he celebrate Christmas when he was brought to cryogenic sleep in Wakanda? And then, when he was finally free to start living, Thanos came along and wiped out half of the population in one snap. But nothing was stopping Bucky now. But suddenly he had little appetite for life. His parents were long dead, his sister died, Steve was gone. And although there was a new Avengers team, Bucky felt alien to them. He just didn't belong. He felt like an intruder.

And that's why he was sitting at a table away from everyone, hidden in the shadows, stone-faced, watching the others enjoying themselves and enjoying their time together. He didn´t want to go to the Christmas party, but knowing that if he didn't show up, Samuel would kick him out of his room and keep an eye on him for the rest of the evening. Whereas if he came willingly, no one would care much for him, and so it wouldn't be hard to sneak out of here after a while.

It was ironic. He had wanted this for so long - to be free at last, to have his mind back under control, and to begin to live fully. But now, with nothing to stop him, he suddenly found he couldn't. That... that he doesn't know. He was stuck in a standoff and didn't know where to go next. Whatever. He knew it would be easier if he had Steve here.

Steve. Bucky ran his hand over his face with a sigh. He smiled humorlessly and sipped his whiskey. Could he blame him? Could he have been angry at him for seizing the chance to finally have the happy life he wanted and deserved? Of course not. He was happy for him, he was happy for him, but... But. A person had always been a selfish creature, and so Bucky couldn't blame the feelings fighting in him.

Suddenly he noticed that two persons had entered the room. One was tall, with strawberry-blond hair, and she was holding the hand of a little brown-haired girl. Bucky's stomach turned slightly when he recognized them as Pepper and Morgan Stark, Tony Stark's most beloved wife. Each time, in connection with Tony, Bucky was overwhelmed by waterfalls of remorse, and he suddenly regretted not leaving much earlier.

Bruce Banner immediately got off the couch and headed after Pepper and Morgan. First, he greeted the little girl, who wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, then said something enthusiastically to him before hopping over to Wanda. The redhead was silent and thoughtful for most of the evening, but as soon as Morgan appeared she brightened up and pulled her into her lap for a cuddle. The two of them have developed a strong bond over the past few months. Wanda may have resembled Natasha in some way, and Morgan resembled Wanda´s two sons, whom she had lost. Bucky felt that his breathing was getting harder, and he looked away from them all, his eyes clinging to his half-empty glass, which he held firmly in his left palm. The surrounding voices and music merged together into a kind of unpleasant noise, and the picture before his eyes began to blur slightly. He could feel the icy sweat pouring over him. The pressure on his chest was expanding, and Bucky felt as if he was suffocating. He had to get out of here. There were just too many sensations around.

But before he could get up and stagger to his room, a brown-haired girl appeared at his side. With sincerity of her own, she immediately said, "You know, if you don't let up a little, you're going to crush that glass."

Pale Bucky shifted his lost gaze to her. Morgan shot her brown eyes at him and smiled a little. "You look sick."

"It's . . . it's nothing," the soldier said weakly.

"Maybe I can help," said Morgan happily, and began to pull out of her pockets some small objects she had stacked on the table. Bucky's eyes darted back and forth, trying to put himself together, get control of himself again, and prosecute what Morgan was doing and saying. He wasn't sure this was a good idea. Maybe he should just get up and - "Mommy told me not to bother you, but I need to try something, and you need my help," she grinned, taking the object in her hand and then gently opening the palm of his fist and inserting the thing. "I think I know what's wrong with you. I think it's called a panic attack. Daddy had it, too, you know?"

Bucky just nodded shakily and felt his stomach lurch. Morgan went on to say something, but he focused more on the color of her voice than on the words she was saying. He tried to focus on the object she had placed in his hand, and slowly began to make out a magnet shaped like a llama. Morgan circled his palm with the tip of her index finger, tracing the outline of the magnet as she told him a story.

He was beginning to realize that his stampeding heart was settling down a bit. His ears had ceased to hum, and everything had taken on sharper colors. He fixed his gaze on Morgan, who was humming carols under her nose and fingering the magnets stacked on the table. He suddenly felt exhausted. He leaned back in his chair and studied the little girl with a mixture of reproach and curiosity. He wanted to tell her so much. Explain everything to her, apologies. . . but Morgan was just a little girl. She wouldn't understand it yet. “You look like your dad, you know that?” he said to Morgan suddenly. The girl only smiled but did not look at him. Bucky had no idea why he'd told her. “I'm Bucky,” he said.

She finally looked at him. "I know," she replied with a proud smile, lifting her chin. "Last time I saw you, you had long hair."

Bucky laughed -- surprised himself. "After a while, I was getting uncomfortable. You can understand me, can't you?" he said, as she brushed her hair back from her face and tucked it behind her ear. "It keeps falling in your eyes, and when the wind starts blowing, you can't see anything . . ." Morgan giggled, and Bucky smiled in surprise. Then he glanced at the llama magnet in his palm. “Why magnets?” he asked her, and the next moment he heard a soft click.

"That's why," she replied, as he lifted his head again, noting the eagerness and impatience in her eyes. By the time her fingers tapped his vibranium arm, he was beginning to understand. Another glance confirmed that he was right in his assumption. His left forearm was decorated with a Christmas tree magnet. There was a pause between them - and then Bucky chuckled and Morgan joined him.

"Why don't you sit with the others?" she asked him when they had stopped laughing, and she began to choose carefully what other magnet to add to his arm.

"I'm not much of a party guy. And I can't talk to others," he finally replied, watching his vibranium arm fill up with various magnets and grow more cheerful.

"Never mind. No one should be alone at Christmas. And the Avengers are family. And you're family, too," Morgan said sternly, then took his hand. He didn't even protest. Uncompromisingly, she forced him to his feet. Bucky looked down at her a little apprehensively, but she only smiled broadly. “Soldier Bucky, prepare yourself. A new mission awaits you."

"Is it dangerous?" Bucky asked her, feeling the corners of his lips lift into a smile despite the slight nervousness.

Morgan grinned at him. "Extremely."

And then she dragged him to the others and spent the rest of the evening by his side, keeping an eye on him. And Bucky promised himself that he would look out for her again, protect her, and make sure no one ever hurt her. He didn't get a chance to settle his differences with Tony, he didn't get a chance to apologize. Keeping an eye on his daughter when he couldn't anymore was the least he could do for Tony. And this time he won't fail.

Chapter Text

Rhodey moved around the Avengers' base like a body without a soul. There was no one else but him, everyone else was either with their friends or family. He, too, had considered spending the evening with Pepper and Morgan, and Pepper herself had even offered. At first, he thought he would accept her invitation. But as Christmas approached, he was suddenly beginning to realize that he wasn't really feeling up to it. He needed to be alone.

He knew that the first anniversary would always be the hardest and the saddest. Their first Christmas without Tony. Of course, they didn't celebrate it together every year, but that didn't matter. Even though the two of them were in different places, hundreds of miles apart, Rhodey knew Tony was out there somewhere, having fun. But now . . . nothing. Tony was gone, and sometimes Rhodey still couldn't believe it. How could Tony be gone? He could always do anything, always get out of anything, even if his chances seemed slim . . .

He sighed heavily and carried the dirty dishes into the kitchen. As he stacked the plates and cups in the dishwasher, a faint tinkle reached his ears, announcing the new message. Rhodey straightened up, closed the dishwasher, and turned it on before making his way to the room, where, to his surprise, a hologram shone.

"Hi, Colonel," the blonde woman said, giving him a cautious smile.

"Carol?" Rhodey said in surprise, frowning. "Did something happen?" The connection was always active, but no one used it after the destruction of Thanos. That's why Rhodey was a little disconcerted when the hologram came on and her face peeked out at him.

She sighed. "Yeah, this probably wasn't the best idea. Sorry, I didn't want to scare you. It's all right. At least, nothing to worry about here on Earth," she quickly assured him, and Rhodey nodded. They paused for a moment, looking away from each other. Something unspoken still hung between them. "Well, I just . . . wanted to . . . see how you were doing. And . . . if you need someone close."

"You really don't have to do this, Carol-"

"Hey, anybody at the door? I think I heard something," she interrupted hastily, seeing that he was about to sit down and continue their pitiful conversation. Rhodey gave her a puzzled look, but she just put on an innocent expression. At last, he shrugged it off and made his way to the front door, though he was sure he hadn't heard a sound. On the way, though, he pulled his gun out of his holster before walking down the hall and reaching the door. When he opened them, he froze in surprise on the threshold.

“Surprise,“ Carol winked, standing there in her brown leather jacket, her short hair falling to her forehead. She chuckled when she looked Rhodey over and stopped her eyes on the gun. "Is this how you greet visitors?"

Wordlessly, Rhodey slid the gun back from its holster. "How many more surprises do I have today?" he asked instead, stepping aside so Carol could come in.

"Well, I don't know, but I hope you haven't had dinner tonight," she replied, holding up a paper bag with the McDonald's logo on it. "I brought us some cheeseburgers."

Rhodey smiled ruefully. "I don't know if I love you or hate you."

She laughed. "Well, there are only two types of people in the world; one loves me, the other hates me. I hope you're at least somewhere in between."

"You know I´m not," he said quietly, starting toward the living room. Carol followed, trying to ward off the increasing nervousness.

"I'm an idiot, am I?" she muttered afterward, as Rhodey sat down on the seat and she put the bag on the table. “Cheeseburgers… Oh God, I´m sorry. I didn't get it, I-"

"No, it´s fine," he said, waving his hand. Then he looked at her seriously. “Carol, what… what are you doing here? I honestly don't know what to think about this," he confessed, and she bit her lip. The two of them wanted to avoid this conversation, but they knew it couldn't be done. “After Tony's funeral, you disappeared right away, and I didn't even get a chance to have a normal conversation with you after all this time. I wanted to see you again. Not through a hologram, but face to face. Now all of a sudden you show up here and try to act as nothing happened . . ."

Carol sighed and hid her face in her hands for a moment. “I know, I… Rhodey, I´m sorry. I thought... I don't know. That you'd need to process it all. That you'd want to be alone. I wanted to give you space and time and... I'm sorry. I've been busy and ... I know I should have called." She ran her fingers through her short hair, and he thought it would drive him crazy.

"I missed you," Rhodey told her, despite wanting to be angry with her.

She chuckled softly. “I missed you, too. But I... God, I really can't walk in this. Me and relationships, it's a nightmare."

Rhodey had to smile. "Well, I guess it's a good thing we found each other because I'm just like you. But ... I guess I need to know what we're on." They've only really been together a few weeks. They had already felt sympathy for each other when they met. They understood each other. They were good together. One thing led to another, but then Carol had to leave. She was busy, and they saw each other only through holograms. That's why Rhodey hoped her to stay at least a few days after Tony's funeral. But when she disappeared without a word, it wasn't that hard to begin to overthink.

Carol walked slowly toward him, then sat on the couch beside him. She cocked her head to one side and studied his face for a moment before answering, "Well, I can still be your girlfriend if you want me to be," she said softly, smiling.

He chuckled. "Girlfriend from outer space. It's a different level of a long-distance relationship." He stroked her gently. "Not everyone can brag about this, can they? "Hey, Rhodes, where's your girlfriend?" "Oh, she's saving the universe. A normal Friday, you know."

She kept laughing. Then she looked at him, and there was tenderness in her eyes. “I really missed you,” she said gently afterward, leaning toward him. He took her face in both hands and she leaned her forehead against his. "I'm sorry, Rhodey. I'm sorry I left you behind."

Instead of answering, he silenced her with a kiss. Finally. Both had wanted it for so long, though neither wanted to admit it. And for the first time in a long time, Rhodey felt as if he had finally surfaced and stopped drowning.

“There's something I have to ask you,“ he said as they pulled away from each other, and Carol snuggled against his chest. He put his arm around her shoulders and began to play with her hair. She looked up at him curiously. "Is the universe a priority for you, or am I?"

Her eyes widened in disbelief, and when he laughed, she gave him a light thump on the chest. “Hey! This wasn't fair. But you know, the universe has to be the priority. Because if the universe is in danger, so will our planet."

"Our planet?" he repeated with a smile. "Looks like Earth is your favorite among the planets."

She smiled and wrinkled her nose slightly. "You know," she crooned, raising her hand to stroke his cheek, "My love is here."

Chapter Text

Wanda was frustrated. Try as she might, she could not find her lost sons who needed her. She promised to find them, to save them. She woke up each night in an icy sweat, with Billy´s and Tommy's desperate screams echoing in her ears. Each time she feared it was too late, and sleepily and in the middle of the night, her heart pounding, she went back to her books, searching for answers. When she could bring Vision back and create the life she had always wanted, all the way, she believed her magic was all-powerful. But as time went on, she felt Billy and Tommy were slipping away from her, and she cursed herself and her magic.

She soon realized that her skills and limited information probably weren't up to the job. That she'd need someone who understood. Who could possibly have advice and answers for her.

Stephen Strange.

She didn't think long. Whether he helped her or rejected her didn't matter to her at the moment. It was one way to help, and if that didn't work, he'd have to think of something else. But time was running out, and every minute after that could be fatal. She had waited long enough, naively confident she could do it, but now was the time to ask for help.

It was time to go to New York. After confronting S.W.O.R.D., and after everything that's happened beyond Westview, she thought it might be a good idea to move aside. She lived alone, away from people, and only her magic kept her company. It was a sad life - but every life was sad when she should have lived it without Vision and her children. She hoped so much that one day it would be the same again. That everyone would find each other and be happy together again.

She thought it best to stay away from people for a while. She kept thinking about what Agatha had told her - she had to explore the depth of her abilities. She needed to understand them, needed to know not only her magic but herself. And she knew that if she didn't get control of it, she could be a threat. And though she often missed some company, even when she missed the Avengers, she didn't want to take any chances. She wasn't sure what she could be capable of.

Walking the streets of New York was suddenly so strange. Everywhere was crowded, everywhere was lively; and though it was silly, Wanda could not shake the feeling that everyone was staring at her. It was nonsense, she knew, but she couldn't help it. She pulled the hood back more into her face, and as her eyes rested momentarily on the shop window, she realized it was Christmas. A chill ran down her spine, but it wasn't because of the cold. Did it take her that long? She couldn't believe it. She felt a lump in her throat and couldn't get rid of it.

Strange was not far away. She was beginning to wonder what she was going to say to him, what arguments she would have to persuade him to help her when she heard her name being called. At first, she felt like she was dreaming, but when the call got louder, she stopped and turned.

An old man stood nearby, looking at her with intense eyes. Even from that distance, she could see the slight smile on his face, and then he raised his hand in greeting. Wanda's eyes narrowed. She had never seen the man, and yet she felt she knew him from somewhere . . . She walked slowly back, and he went to meet her. They met halfway, and Wanda looked into the old man's pale blue eyes. The kindness she found in them made her throat constrict in part, warmed her heart in part.

"Wanda," he said, studying her face. He sighed sadly. "So much suffering..." He shook his head, and her heart sank. Was it...?

'Steve?' she asked him carefully, not sure it was really him. She knew from Sam what Steve had done in returning the Infinity Stones to the past; after returning them, he had decided to spend his life with a woman he had never stopped loving. And then he appeared as an old man who had lived the most wonderful life. Wanda hadn't met old Steve, but the eyes were so familiar, there was probably no doubt.

He smiled and nodded. "Come here, kid," he said, spreading his arms, and Wanda hugged him gratefully. She buried her face in his shoulder and closed her eyes to fight back tears. For so long she longed for a kind and warm human touch, for comfort. She missed her dear Vision so much...

"How are you doing?" she asked him as they let go and pulled away from each other, and she wiped her moist eyes surreptitiously. She was moved not only by meeting her friend but by his appearance now. Seeing old Steve was . . . strange for her. Painful. He seemed so fragile to her, not at all like the Steve Rogers she knew. But she knew he remained the same inside.

He waved his hand. "Oh, it doesn´t matter. I can't complain. Do you want to go on a cup of tea? Cold doesn't do my joints any good," he winked at her, and she had to smile. "But only if I'm not bothering you."

"I'd love to go," said Wanda, offering her arm. Steve chuckled softly but took her arm, and they walked in silence to his flat.

'Make yourself comfortable,' Steve told her as he led her into the living room, then went into the kitchen to set the water for tea. Wanda slowly sat down on the couch and surveyed the room. It was cozy, but she could tell he lived here alone. A small Christmas tree stood in a corner, pitifully decorated, and Wanda suddenly felt sorry for Steve. How sad life was, spending it alone, she had seen for herself, after all.

On a small table by the sofa was a picture frame of a smiling woman. Wanda reached for it and carefully cupped it in her hands. As she studied her face, Steve returned with two mugs of steaming tea. He put them on the coffee table and sat down next to Wanda. "Oh, my Peggy," he said dreamily, a flicker of memory in his eyes. "At times like this, I'm even more sorry she can't be here with me. But enough about me. Wanda. How are you?" he asked her quietly.

"Oh, yes, I'm fine. I mean, it could be better, of course, I'm just . . . I´m trying . . . trying . . ." Her voice broke, and she couldn't go on. She tried. She tried so hard. But she felt like she was constantly failing. She could feel Steve's eyes on her, but she didn't have the courage to look at him. She knew she couldn't hold back her tears after that. "Don't you ever feel so lonely?" she said softly.

He sighed. "Well, I still have Sam and Bucky, both of whom visit me regularly, but . . . yes. I know what you mean." He paused for a moment, then gently placed his hand on her arm. "Wanda," he said gently, "why did you do it, Wanda?"

She looked at Peggy's face and felt tears in her eyes. She knew how much Steve loved Peggy. He still loves her, she realized, even though she is no longer here. Because so it was with her and Vision. Even when he died, she never stopped loving him.

The only difference between her and Steve was that Steve was luckier. He spent his whole life with Peggy.

Wanda sobbed softly. "I just wanted what you had," she whispered in a trembling voice, finally looking at him. Tears blurred her gaze, but she could still see the glints of sadness in his eyes.

"Oh, Wanda . . ." He put his arm around her and pulled her close. When Wanda hugged him and buried her face in his chest, she stopped holding back tears and sobbed to the fullest. Everything she had bottled up, all the pain and fear and frustration, it all came out. At least for a while.

"I miss them so much," she confided between sobs, and he hugged her even tighter. She wanted Vision, Billy, and Tommy back. She needed them. "At one point, I had it all. Everything I've ever wanted, Steve. And now it's gone."

"I know, Wanda. But this... this isn't right. You know that ... I'm sorry, Wanda," he said softly. "I wish there was something I could do to help."

She wiped away tears with the back of her hand. "Do you . . . do you think I could stay here tonight?"

"Of course," he assured her without hesitation.

She nodded gratefully. She needed a friend. She knew Steve would be sympathetic.

We can't reverse death, no matter how sad it makes us. Some things are forever. But Wanda wanted it to be within her power to conquer death. So she can bring back to life everyone she loved.

Doesn't she deserve her happy ending, too?

Chapter Text

“And don´t do anything stupid until I get back,” Steve winked at him, trying to lighten the solemn atmosphere and fluttering sadness that hung between them.

Bucky smiled slightly and shook his head. Where were the days when that skinny little kid from Brooklyn stood in front of him, getting into every fight and thinking he could do it?

But Steve didn't need him now.

"How can I? You´re taking all the stupid with you," he countered, and they both involuntarily remembered the time they'd say goodbye like this the night before Bucky went off to war. Back then, they were both young, naive, immortal; James was sure he would come back safe, that nothing and no one would separate him from Steve. But fate had it another way, and it put a lot of obstacles in their way. And even though they had managed to overcome them, Bucky knew they had both become completely different men over the years than they had been before. He couldn't blame Steve for opting for a happy life with his love at his side. But even so, he selfishly wished it were otherwise. To keep Steve needing him. Today, he knew, he would say goodbye to him forever.

Steve leaned over and hugged him tightly. Bucky hugged him back, trying to smooth over any emotion so the blond man wouldn't know what he was really feeling. What emotions are stirring him. Then he let him go and pulled away. He wished he could hold him a little longer, but he knew that would make it harder.

He tried to smile. "I´m gonna miss you," he said softly, putting his hands in his pockets. Steve studied him silently for a moment as if to memorize every feature of his face.

"It's gonna be okay, Bucky," he assured him in a firm voice, and then he turned his back on him, picking up a briefcase of infinity stones. Using a new time machine, he was to take the stones and Thor's hammer Mjölnir back to the past, to the exact place from which it had been taken.

It´s gonna be okay. Bucky wasn't too sure about that. He wanted Steve to be happy, of course, but he didn't want to say goodbye. Now that he was finally free after so many years when he could finally begin to live ... the idea of living in a world without Steve Rogers was in his throat. He needed it. He didn't want to be left alone. But he knew he couldn't stand in the way of his happiness.

When Steve disappeared into the past and didn't show up, Sam and Bruce started barking at each other. Neither had the slightest idea what had gone wrong. Bucky turned his back on the two men with a sad smile on his face. He knew nothing had gone wrong. On the contrary. Everything worked out exactly as Steve had planned.

He awoke with a start and sat up quickly. He was breathing heavily, and it was a few more seconds before the image began to fade before his eyes. He pushed the blanket aside and sat facing the window, placing his feet on the cold floor. Outside lamps shone through the curtains, and Bucky ran his fingers through his short hair and let out a long breath. As he closed his eyes and lowered his head, his military dog tags, which were hung around his neck, chimed softly.

It didn't take long for the blanket on the other side of the bed to rustle, and a few seconds later Bucky's mattress arched slightly. “Bucky?” a man's voice whispered in his ear, and the soldier felt a firm, strong body press against him as he hugged him from behind. “What´s going on?“

The dark-haired man leaned against him wearily and grabbed his hand, which he squeezed tightly. “It was just a nightmare,“ he replied in a raspy voice. “You can sleep on."

The man pressed a kiss on his bare shoulder. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked, completely ignoring the last line he had said to him. “You had a nightmare about the things you- about your past?“

"This time ... this time it was different," he said evasively, trying to find the right words. "It was ... about you. About us," he told him, turning his head. The care he saw in his eyes almost touched him. "It's stupid," he muttered, burying his face in his neck. "You're supposed to be the one doing stupid things." Bucky's lips curled in a slight smile as Steve laughed quietly. His laughter warmed pleasantly and made his heart flutter. It also gave him the courage to tell him what he dreamed. "I was back again. It was a few minutes before you set out to return the Infinity Stones. And . . ." he hesitated for a moment. "You know, I… I didn´t tell you something."

Steve looked surprised and drew back a little to see his face. “Alright? So what's going on?" he asked carefully, a worried frown creasing his brow. Bucky closed his eyes for a moment so he could return to that place for the last time.

"I remember standing there and watching you get ready to disappear. And then you didn't come back for a long time. Sam and Banner were afraid something had gone wrong. But I... I thought that was just your plan. Go back to the past and stay there. Finding Peggy and . . . living the life you've always wanted with her," he confessed carefully. Steve looked taken aback by his words.

"Bucky . . ." he breathed, and for a moment there seemed to be nothing else he could say. Both of them were thinking the same thing at that moment.

"Steve!"

Bucky turned in surprise. Steve? Was he dreaming? How could he - how could that be? He gasped softly as he saw him coming down the steps. In his hand was an empty briefcase, which he placed on the ground, making his way with a smile to Bucky, who stood in disbelief and watched.

"I had some trouble. But I shouldn't be surprised, should I?" he said cheerfully, then noticed James's expression. A worried shadow crossed his face. "Bucky? Is something wrong?"

"No," he said shakily and felt a happy smile come to his lips. He couldn't believe he was back. He wanted to jump around his neck again. "I was just... I was worried that something had happened to you," he said, finally smiling.

Steve put his arm around him. “Well, now I´m back and I´m not going anywhere…“

"At the time, I thought you had abandoned me. That you . . . chose Peggy over me," Bucky said quietly, hanging his head. But the next second, he felt the blond man gently take hold of his chin and turn his face toward him.

"Bucky," he said gently, his eyes soft, "how on earth did you think I was going to leave you? After so many years, I finally got you back. I wasn't going to leave you. And I'm not going anywhere, do you understand?" he said quietly but firmly, and Bucky nodded as his eyes dripped into his face. “You´ve always been there for me. Even though I had no one else, I still had you, and that was enough for me. You've always been the most important person in my life to me. No one can ever replace you, Bucky. And please don't forget that. And don't you ever think about me leaving you again. Because that would be the stupidest thing I could ever do."

Though they had long since revealed their feelings for each other and lived together for several months, it was only now that Bucky felt all the uncertainty had finally left him. "I love you, Steve," he whispered, cupping his face in his hands and drawing him in for a long kiss.

Rogers stroked his cheek and smiled. "Merry Christmas, Bucky."

Chapter Text

"Darcy?" Jane peered out of the bathroom, her wet hair falling to her bare shoulders, one hand holding a towel.

"Huh?" said a dark-haired woman with glasses, but she did not look up from her tablet, on which she was reading eagerly.

Jane's eyes narrowed, watching her suspiciously. "I sincerely hope you're reading something important with such enthusiasm. Astrophysics, perhaps."

Darcy put on an innocent expression and finally looked up. "Well . . . sure?" she said, but she didn't sound the least bit convincing.

The brown-haired girl rolled her eyes at her and sighed a little. "I'm not going to comment. You see, the thing is . . . Thor's coming."

"Oh, I know, that's what you told me a few days ago," said Darcy. “Just tell me when to get out of here and when I can get back, and I'll sneak out so . . ."

"No, it's not that," said Jane quickly, running her free hand through her hair. “Thor´s not coming alone…“

"Instead of one third wheel, you want two?!"

"Oh, he . . . he asked me if he could bring Loki, too, and I didn't have the heart to turn him down. He's his brother after all, and..." Seeing Darcy raise her eyebrows at her and put on a slightly puzzled expression, she shook her head and blurted out, "Well, Loki's coming, too, and... I know I should have told you sooner, but I completely forgot, but Darc, please, please, please keep Loki busy, will you?"

Darcy almost choked on a chocolate chip cookie she was nibbling on while reading. “Are you serious? This guy's a freak, and I-- Jane, did Thor ever hit you over the head with a hammer? God," she rolled her eyes, then thought. "Wait a minute, you've met Loki, haven't you? Is he handsome?'

Jane looked shocked not only at the question but at how quickly Darcy had left her disgust and expressed interest. “Darcy! Really? You just yelled at me for making you have dinner with a freak and... You know what, I won't dwell on it."

"Is he handsome or not?" demanded Darcy.

Her best friend shook her head briefly. “I don´t know! Maybe! In case you haven't figured it out, I'm dating Thor, and I certainly don't feel the need to look at other men. But you'll love it, Darc, you will. You have such a soft spot for misfits."

"Hey! None of my exes were misfits!" the woman with the glasses pleaded, frowning.

"Yeah? How about Ian?" said Jane, before closing the bathroom door behind her to prepare for the evening.

Darcy gasped for something to snap back, then paused and thought. "Yeah, you might be right," she agreed to herself, shrugging, before happily returning to her reading of some fanfiction.

•••

"Thor!" exclaimed Jane, jumping up at once from the table to greet him properly. Darcy, who was still tapping her fingers thoughtfully on the water glass, driving her best friend mad, looked up just as Loki, standing behind Thor, who was kissing Jane in greeting, rolled his eyes at them in disgust.

"Oh, he's all right," said Darcy, who had unwillingly given up her comfy sweatpants, sweatshirt, and cap for the evening and, after a long time, put on a dress, much like Jane's.

"Darcy!" bellowed Thor genially, and several people seated nearby turned to look at him. But he ignored them and went to the woman to shake her hand in greeting, then give her a quick hug. "So good to see you again, too bad Eric didn't join in, like in the old days!"

"Yeah, but you'd have to bring a good-looking girl along for Eric, too," Darcy said with a grin, sweeping the God of thunder with her eyes. "Wow, you look good," she said in surprise, having only ever seen Thor in his Asgard clothes or . . . half-naked. But the two brothers chose a suit for the evening, and Thor even pulled his hair back into a ponytail.

He grinned at her, then stepped aside, waving for Loki to come over. "Darcy, this is my brother, Loki," said Thor, "Loki, this is Darcy, Jane's best friend."

Loki shot his brother a look. "I can introduce myself."

"Hi, Reindeer," Darcy grinned at him, and while Thor burst out laughing, Jane slapped her forehead and Loki's eyes narrowed.

"You are close to Stark?" he asked her suspiciously.

"I wish," Darcy chuckled, and then they all sat down at the table.

The waiter brought them the menu, and they were all quiet for a moment, choosing what to order, but then Thor looked at Darcy and said, "Ah, Darcy, I forgot to apologize. I guess you had some other plans for tonight, so I really appreciate you agreeing to keep my brother company. I didn't want to leave him alone at Asgard-"

"What makes you think I'd be alone?" interrupted Loki, snapping the menu shut.

"Because nobody wants you," Thor replied calmly, and Jane, who was drinking, choked. Darcy tried not to laugh, and if Loki's gaze could kill, Thor would already be dead on the ground.

When Jane had stopped coughing, she said, "Don't worry, Thor, Darcy had no other plans anyway except to lie in bed and read fanfictions-"

"Jane!"

At that moment a waiter appeared at their table to take their orders, and all the while Darcy burned Jane with a murderous glare.

When he was gone, Loki narrowed his eyes and stared at Darcy. "What are fanfictions?" he asked her in part curiosity, part hesitation.

"You don't want to know, Reindeer," Darcy replied, returning his intense stare. Loki grinned in amusement while their eye contact persisted, and Darcy raised an eyebrow as if to suggest that she certainly wasn't going to interrupt first.

Thor leaned over to Jane and whispered, "Wow, I didn't expect this. Look at the spark between them."

Well, he didn't exactly whisper his words. Both Loki and Darcy heard him, turned to him at the same time, and barked in chorus, "What?"

"Wow, you're like twins," laughed Thor. Loki rolled his eyes in disbelief and sighed loudly. Darcy folded her arms across her chest and pulled her lips into a tight line, and Jane began to drum her fingers nervously against her thigh. The evening was not going her way at all, she was annoyed by Darcy and Loki's angry faces. She wished to spend a lovely evening with Thor, but fortunately, her wish soon began to come true.

When they had more or less quietly eaten their main meal, - Thor was the only one trying to make conversation and Jane was agreeing with him - the God of thunder leaned over to his girlfriend and whispered something to her. Jane laughed softly, and Thor smiled triumphantly. "Well, my friends, it's been a very pleasant evening, but Jane and I have some plans. The stars are very bright tonight."

"Stars, indeed," sniffed Loki, watching bitterly as Thor helped Jane into her coat. Then the two of them parted cheerfully - Jane looked a little guiltily at her best friend - and left the restaurant.

There was an awkward silence between Darcy and Loki. But then the dark-haired man turned toward her and folded his arms across his chest. "So, now that the redneck brother is finally gone, we can start talking like two normal beings," he said in a haughty voice, poking his green eyes into Darcy. "Now are you going to tell me what the fanfictions are?"

She sneered. "If you're going to stay on Midgard, you'll find out soon enough."

He snorted. "I see no reason why I should stay another minute."

"Well, maybe," said Darcy, reaching for the brown wallet lying on the table, "that Jane left us her credit card. And since we're both kinds of involuntary here tonight, it wouldn't be a bad idea to make it more pleasant, would it?" she suggested happily, pulling a credit card out of her wallet with a triumphant wave.

Loki flashed a devilish smile "Genius," he declared, sweeping Darcy with his gaze. "Aren't you the goddess of mischief?"

She raised an amused eyebrow. "Are you flirting, Reindeer?"

His face was eerie, his eyes glittering. "You can find out for yourself." Then he snapped his fingers and summoned a waiter to their table. “Can we get a bottle of most overpriced Champagne?“

"Each," Darcy added quickly, and Loki nodded in agreement.

"That´s right, each. And bring us a portion of every dessert on offer." Darcy gave him a surprised look, but he just looked at her and shrugged. "What? You won't enjoy sweets on Asgard."

"Okay. Oh, and bring me Rob Roy," the dark-haired woman blurted, and now it was Loki who looked a little puzzled. “So what. I've always wanted to know. When will I ever have that opportunity again?"

•••

"Darcy?" Loki tapped briefly on the bathroom door, then pressed the handle and peered inside. Darcy grinned at herself in the mirror while she combed her hair, and Loki had to chuckle when he saw her.

"Hey!" cried Darcy, but then she grinned in amusement. “What´s up, Reindeer?“

"Well, I accidentally switched on your tablet and this came up..." He showed her a dark display with letters on it, and Darcy immediately realized what was happening. She squealed and lunged for her tablet, but Loki lifted it high, out of her reach. But her foot slipped at that speed, and Loki's other hand caught her hastily in his arms before she could fall to the ground.

Their faces were only inches apart. Loki gave her an omniscient smile, and as he studied her face carefully, he said quietly, "You know, I was curious, so I read a bit and... Darcy, why are you reading fanfiction about me?'

Chapter Text

Yelena opened two bottles of beer and put them on the table while Bucky put the food from the boxes on the plates. “It'll be weird to be home for Christmas. Pretty boring, don't you think?" she observed with a grin, sitting down at the table.

Bucky looked at her in disbelief, then shook his head at her. “Really? Don't you want to have some peace? Especially at Christmas?"

"Barnes, you just said a little nonsense," she drawled, her fingers tapping on the bottle. “Peace and Christmas? Those two words don't go together. Plus, I'm not a little girl who was eager to pull out gifts under the tree. They were empty boxes, I might add."

The dark-haired man took two full plates and carried them to the table. It wasn't until he put one in front of Yelena that he replied, "Well, now it's not just empty boxes waiting for you. But if it's still not enough for you, we can have a fight to spice things up for Christmas."

She chuckled. "Sounds like a good plan. Arguing is cool, especially arguing with you," she said with satisfaction, kicking him lightly on the ankle under the table. Bucky rolled his eyes at her, but he still smiled slightly.

They were both quiet for a while, just enjoying their dinner. Bucky would have been happy to stay quiet for the rest of the evening, but Yelena was the kind of chatty person who wasn't just good enough to listen to, which Bucky was, of course, much better at than talking.

"So what are we going to fight about?" she said, returning a few minutes later to where they had left off. Bucky had to laugh at her relentlessness. Yelena really liked to argue. “How about because of your name?”

He frowned slightly. "What's wrong with James?"

"Oh, nothing," she waved, "I don't mean that. I mean your middle name. Buchanan." She threw up her hands. "What the hell kind of name is that? Buchanan. I wonder what prompts people to name their child Buchanan. Buchanan," she rolled the word around on her tongue. "Buchanan. I mean, it sounded pretty weird before, but the more I repeat it, the weirder it gets. Buchanan. It doesn't make sense."

"For your information, James Buchanan was the fifteenth President of the United States-"

"Pff, boring," Yelena snorted, suggesting a yawn. "What wonderful thing has he done? Probably nothing, right? Because I have no absolute idea that such a person even existed." She pulled her phone out of her pocket, and Bucky watched in disbelief as she began to tap.

"Are you really googling him right now?"

Yelena raised her index finger. “Shh, I'm studying,” she said, and Barnes rolled his eyes at her. Then she grinned triumphantly. “Ha! Do you know what Wikipedia says about him? That he was one of America's worst presidents!" She looked down at Bucky and burst out laughing. "You know what I wouldn't want, Barnes? Be named after the worst president."

"Hey, he wasn't the worst, he was just one of the worst-"

"He was president in the second half of the nineteenth century. Remember him?" she teased, and Bucky didn't know whether to kick her under the table or start laughing. "Buchanan. Weird name, weird person." She reached for the bottle and, before taking a sip, grinned slyly, looking Bucky directly in the eye. “Yea, it fits.“

"Are you going to insult me much longer?"

"Well, you know, I like insulting you even more than arguing with you," she winked at him, then leaned back in her chair. “Okay, fine. We can start arguing about something else."

Bucky chewed a mouthful before telling her, "You know, I'd rather enjoy the rest of my dinner in peace."

"And I want a dog. We all have our wishes," she replied quite calmly, putting her arms around the neck of the bottle, resting her chin on them. "Besides, you're the one who started talking about fighting."

He blinked in disbelief several times. "You want what?"

"A dog." She shrugged. "We should get a dog."

"No way," Bucky said. "If you want an animal, we´re getting a cat."

She frowned and curled her lower lip. She waited while James finished his last bite, then began, "A cat? Cats are everywhere. And you don't have enough? You lived with a cat in Wakanda for several years."

He raised an amused eyebrow at her. "Are you talking about T'Challa, or about some woman I don't know about?"

She didn't answer him. “Enough with cats. We're having a dog."

"If you're really comparing Black Panther to a cat right now, then . . . I'm actually a White Wolf, and that means we don't need a dog," he replied calmly, sipping his beer with satisfaction.

Yelena snorted. "I want a dog. Not a wolf.“

"Too late," he smiled at her, "I've been living here for a few months. And a wolf is still better than a spider, Black Widow."

The blonde woman muttered something under her nose, and Bucky felt he'd won the argument. "They could have given us a better alias, couldn't they?"

"It's not that bad. At least your enemies know better than to mess with you."

•••

Yelena rolled sleepily on her side and stretched, eyes closed. She didn't want to get out of the warm bed, but she knew she had to get up and do something or she'd spend the rest of the day lounging. And she needed to go to the bathroom. She yawned mightily and rubbed her eyes. Then she slowly sat up and stared into space for a moment before the doorbell woke her out of her trance. She plopped down on the bed and covered her face with her arms. She hoped Bucky was up and about to open the door.

But then the doorbell rang again. And again. Yelena hissed in frustration and stood up, reaching for her robe. "Barnes, I'm going to kick your ass for this," she grumbled as she walked out of her bedroom and across the hall to the door.

When she opened them, she was in for a surprise.

Bucky was standing there, looking mysterious. "You don't have keys?!" she said, crossing her arms reproachfully. "Because of you, I had to involuntarily get up."

"Well, I'm sorry, but I thought it was time to go on a walk," he said, smiling in amusement. Yelena wore an expression that asked him wordlessly if he was normal, but Bucky just chuckled and bent over something Yelena couldn't see. Before she could peek out to see what he was doing, he straightened and she gasped.

"Merry Christmas, Yelena," he said with a smile. "I guess I'll have to give you the empty box eventually because I'm afraid our little friend wouldn't like it inside," he said, scratching the puppy's ear.

"You bought me a puppy!" she exclaimed incredulously, and immediately took the puppy from him in her arms. The puppy immediately snuggled up to her, began to sniff her, and then licked her hand. Yelena fussed over the puppy, clutching it close. "That's wonderful. Does she has a name?" she asked.

Bucky shook his head and watched her glow with happiness. “No. You can pick out some for her yourself."

"Then it's clear," she smiled wistfully, remembering her sister. “It´s Fanny.“

Chapter Text

"Was it good?" Clint asked as everyone at the table finished their lunch and he got up, picking up the empty plates. The children nodded and ran into the living room to get back to their game, and Wanda got up to help Clint with the dishes, too. “You don´t have to,“ he said to her when she started picking up things from the table.

"I don't mind," she assured him with a slight smile and took the dishes to the kitchen, where she put them in the sink and turned on the water to wash them. Clint exchanged glances with Laura, who nodded encouragingly and motioned for him to go talk to the redhead. He nodded back and made his way to the kitchen.

"Wanda?" he said carefully, appearing at her side and placing the plates on the kitchen counter. “How are you feeling?“

"I'm handling it," she said quietly, not looking up at him. A few weeks ago, Clint offered to stay with his family for a few days. He didn't want to leave her alone on the base after all, where everything reminded her of old times. Steve, Natasha, Vision, and Tony were gone, leaving Wanda alone. Clint wanted to make up for the lost five years with his family, but he needed to make sure Wanda was okay, at least as much as possible. He hoped the change of scenery might be good for her.

He was glad she had agreed to his offer, and though only a few days became weeks, no one in the Barton family minded. Wanda was popular with everyone, and especially with little Nathaniel, who spent the most time with her. Clint was glad to have the redhead under surveillance, and he hoped she knew she could always turn to him. Life had dealt her a lot of blows, and he couldn't begin to imagine the emotions she must feel constantly. He admired her strength. He knew it must be incredibly challenging for her.

He put his hand on her forearm and squeezed it gently. She looked up at him. Even though she smiled every day, he could tell she was exhausted. "You know you can talk to me," he told her quietly. She nodded and handed him a washed pot. He reached for a towel.

"Clint, I appreciate everything you've done for me, I really do," Wanda began slowly, returning to washing dishes, "and I know you're trying, but ... you can't help me. I have to... I have to deal with this on my own. I just have no idea how long it will take." Then she looked toward the living room, and there was tenderness in her eyes. "But this . . . this reminds me of what we could have had. And what I'll never have."

Barton's eyebrow furrowed uneasily. "Does that mean you want to leave here? Do you want to go back to base?"

She shook her head. “No, no. I don't want to be alone anymore. I feel safe here with you, and I'm grateful to you for all your efforts. As you try to distract me, ease my pain..." She smiled at him. But then she looked serious. "But if I'm already bothering you, I can leave."

"Forget it," he winked.

"But if you change your mind, you'll tell me, won't you?" she said.

He sighed. She was stubborn. "Of course, but I already know I'll never have to tell you something like that. We want you here, Wanda. But I'm not going to keep you here at all costs, okay? If you want to leave, no one will stop you, even if we miss you here," he smiled, then turned to hear the tap of tiny feet. "Well, maybe Nate will try to stop you." She laughed.

"Wanda, will you come out and play with me?" Nathaniel asked her, his eager eyes on her. Nathaniel had been quiet and a bit of a loner since he was a kid, but as soon as Wanda showed up, he talked to her and spent every moment he could with her. He probably found his soulmate in her. Sometimes they didn't even talk, they just sat next to each other and all they had to do was know the other was there.

Clint smiled at this and ruffled his son's hair before nodding to Wanda. “Go. And bring Cooper and Lila!"

Nathaniel curled his lower lip. "We have to?"

"I know you want Wanda all to yourself, but your siblings want to enjoy her, too," he said, amused.

Nathaniel grabbed Wanda's hand and was already pulling her toward the foyer. "It's nice to have an older brother and sister, isn't it, Nat?" the redhead suggested, still loud enough for Clint to hear. While he was wiping his plate, he moved to Laura's dining room.

"Hmm, maybe. You have a brother and sister, too?" Nathaniel asked her curiously as Wanda knelt beside him and handed him a warm jacket. While he was dressing, she tied his shoelaces and nodded to his question.

"Brother. A big, older, protective brother."

"And what's his name?"

"Pietro," she replied, a faint smile on her face.

"I'm Pietro, too," Nathaniel said enthusiastically, and Wanda looked up at him. Her eyes gleamed sadly.

"I know," she said simply, gently pulling the cap over his head. Then she got up, put on her coat, and the two of them put on gloves. Then she held out her hand to Nathaniel, and he took it contentedly.

Clint smiled ruefully and went back to the kitchen to finish the dishes. After a while, Lila and Cooper headed out, and soon a muffled, cheerful shriek reached the house. Clint slung the towel over his shoulder and looked out the kitchen window. There was a fierce snow battle in their garden, and Clint didn't know where to look first. What amused him most was little Nathaniel, who tried at all costs to defend Wanda from his siblings.

"What are you spying on?" said Laura, smiling, stroking her husband's back.

"Just look at our children," he said cheerfully, keeping his eyes on them. Wanda and Nathaniel seemed to be winning. They high-fived with laughter, and then the redhead bent to pick Nate up in her arms. He put his arm around her neck and hugged her contentedly.

"Wanda's good with kids," Laura remarked.

"Yeah, Wanda can win people over," Clint muttered, and when he felt her hand on his shoulder, he covered the back with his hand. "Thanks, honey," he said quietly, taking his eyes off the children, turning to Laura. "Thank you for being so accepting and allowing her to stay."

Laura smiled and stroked his cheek with her other hand. “Of course, Clint. I know she means a lot to you. It's your second family. And the family has to stick together," she whispered, and Clint smiled fondly at her. He pressed a gentle kiss into her palm and then stood up, pulling Laura into his arms. He was so grateful to have them all back.

Chapter Text

"I always come here when I need to be alone. When I want to collect my thoughts and try to pretend I'm far away from all that here," Natasha told Bucky quietly as they sat on the roof of the Avengers tower in the middle of the night with a blanket and a bottle of vodka. Neither of them felt very comfortable at Stark's party, and while at first, it seemed they wouldn't be able to find common ground with each other - because a biting Natasha had parried all of Barnes's attempts at conversation at first - eventually the impossible became real.

Bucky looked at her and couldn't help grinning a bit. “You shouldn´t tell me, Natalia. I may come to see you more often than you like."

She looked up at him, her eyes twinkling playfully. "Well, I can still knock you out of here," she quipped, but Bucky didn't react. Instead, he clenched his fist and trembled a little. "You okay?" she asked him, tilting her head to one side.

He grinned. "Yeah, just... I don´t like heights."

Natasha blinked. "Why didn't you tell me?!" She shook her head in disbelief and rose, holding out her hand to help him up.

"No, you don't have to do this, I can do this," he said quickly, grabbing her arm to pull her back to him. "I just need to get used to it, that's all. It'll be fine in a minute," he said, but he didn't sound convinced. It was more like he was trying to reassure himself than her.

She rolled her eyes at him and took a sip of vodka. “Fine then. But if you still don't feel well, you're going to tell me, okay?" she said sternly, and he had no choice but to nod. “You need to distract yourself, James. So just look ahead and enjoy the view," she said, leaning back against her palms, smiling slightly as she gazed at the dark shapes of the buildings in which the lights shone.

Bucky looked -- but not at the view ahead. He turned to Natasha and smiled as she twisted her head as soon as she felt his gaze on her. She waited a moment, and when he continued to look at her, she turned to him and leaned forward. Bucky imitated her, drinking into her green eyes. When she grabbed his chin, he felt his heart race. "Enjoy this view," she whispered provocatively near his lips, on which he felt her breath before she turned his chin to the left, toward the city.

"I liked the view better before," Bucky sighed in mock sadness, and Natasha slapped him on the shoulder. Then she handed him a nearly full bottle and urged him to drink. He raised an eyebrow at her. “You sure about this? You encourage me to be honest."

"I´m gonna take the risk," she winked at him and waited for him to drink, then took the bottle back and took a few sips.

"Fine. So do you want to hear that I'm in love with you?" he said, in a tone like they were talking about the weather, and Natasha, still drinking, sputtered the alcohol.

"What?" she said, clearing her throat. "I mean, I didn't expect you to be honest until this early."

He shrugged. "I'm not sure I'd ever get another opportunity like this. And you had to suspect something, didn't you, Agent?" he prodded, but he still felt a little nervous. He had no idea what she was going to say, how she was going to react, and especially how things were going to be between them now. Won't that be weird? Won't they start avoiding each other to avoid awkward moments? Bucky didn't want to lose her. She was one of the few people who understood him and he could open up to them. But at the same time, he needed to tell her.

She looked away. "Yeah, it's... it's just... I guess I thought you were over it."

"No, Nat. I'm still drawn to you. I just fell into it." It was such a strong feeling that it felt like it was going to last forever, that it wasn't going to go away. He had no control over it. And he knew he never would. This was something he had no control over.

She sighed and, perhaps to encourage herself, took another drink. Then she gave him a serious look. "Man proposes, God disposes. I once promised myself I would never fall in love. That I must never fall in love with anyone because love only complicates things. But then you came along. And I remember the moment I realized that everything had changed. We were in the kitchen, arguing about something first. And then we started talking and suddenly it was 4 am and we were laughing like we were never going to stop. And I... I finally felt happy again after all these years. I remember sitting on the counter, looking at you sitting at the table, and you can't stop laughing, and I knew I was screwed."

Bucky didn't know how to react to something like that. He was both surprised and amused. And he couldn't believe it. This was too perfect to be true. And he probably got the feeling in his face, because Natasha rolled her eyes at him, grabbed his sweatshirt, and pulled him in for a kiss. And Bucky's fears ran away. He put his arm around her waist and laid her gently on her back, leaning over her, before pulling away slightly. Her fingers stroked his cheek.

"I know you can't get drunk, super soldier," she whispered to him, her eyes twinkling.

He paused for a moment. "Oh, my gosh, you saw right through me," he sighed, then winked at her. "But maybe I was just drunk with love for you," he said playfully.

"Disgusting," she replied, kissing him again.

•••

"Holy shit," Tony said as he flew over the Avengers tower in his Iron Man suit. Then he grinned mischievously.

"What is it, Tony? What happened?" Steve's agitated voice came over the com.

"Wow, Cap, how come none of your "language" followed that dirty word?" Stark teased Rogers with amusement. "Jarvis, you just couldn't tell me?"

"I thought this would be more fun for you, sir," Jarvis replied, and Tony chuckled.

"Tony, what's going on!?" the Captain demanded impatiently. “Did you find Bucky?“

"Yeah, I did," he assured him, still grinning. "And I found Romanoff, too. Don't worry, he's fine. I'd say he's more than fine. Because they're having sex on the roof right now."

Chapter Text

"All clear bellow," Yelena reported happily. “Eighteen seconds, Kate. Kate?" she repeated urgently when her partner didn't react. A moment later she knew why, when the screams reached her ears. She turned in the direction it was coming from and saw Kate falling from the ruined and snow-covered building. Yelena immediately jumped on her motorcycle and rode behind the sprawled Kate, with two robots bent over her, ready to destroy her. But Yelena was faster, and a moment later pieces of smashed robots were rolling around.

The blonde woman jumped off the bike and bent down to pick up an object that had landed a few feet from Kate. The dark-haired woman howled in pain as she braced herself on her elbow and raised her eyes to Yelena. She snorted in annoyance when she saw Yelena smirking at her. “No, don´t say it.“

"Like what?" she asked innocently, holding out the metal arm Kate had lost in the fall. “Need a hand?“ Kate rolled her eyes. „Come on. I feel like you should know me by now. Puns aren't my style anymore. Now everything is so serious . . ." Kate took her arm and slipped it into place. She circled her hand a few times to make sure it was properly in place and everything was working properly. “Okay, I´m kidding. I'm not missing a single opportunity for jokes. Unfortunately, there haven't been many lately."

"Then I'll lose my arm more often," said Kate sarcastically, rising to her feet.

Yelena grinned. “Rather not. Couple more seconds and the Sentry signals would´ve alerted Ultron hive mind to our location. We are rusty."

"Another joke? It was weak," Kate said, and Yelena playfully slammed her on her real arm. Then the dark-haired woman looked around, brushing a few strands of hair loose from her ponytail from her face. “Our location… which is where, exactly?“

"Home, sweet home," Yelena replied simply, and the two turned toward a snow-covered, half-destroyed structure that had once looked spectacular. Saint Basil´s Cathedral. Now it's just ruined. “Well, what´s left of it anyway."

"So you really think the secret to taking down Ultron is here?" said Kate doubtfully, but even so, both of them started toward the temple.

"It's Russia, Hawkeye. Secrets were the national pastime. Up to the KGB archives, then," she said wryly.

***

"Your countrymen never heard of a PDFs?" muttered Kate in frustration, setting another box aside. Nothing. She had no idea how long they had been stuck here, but it seemed like hundreds of hours.

"Hard copies are harder to steal and easier to destroy. But code, code is slippery and it never dies," Yelena replied, and didn't seem as bothered by the job as much as Hawkeye.

"Being a superhero is amazing. Everyone should get the chance to try it out," Kate grumbled to herself and looked up at Yelena when she felt Yelena's eyes on her.

"You're frustrated."

"Oh, don´t say" she murmured, then sighed and sat down on the cold ground, her back against the boxes in the wide shelves. "I´m not frustrated, I´m not. I'm tired of this, Lena. Are the last two still fighting, and for what? I´m not sure there´s anything left worth fighting for. Isn't it hopeless?"

Yelena was quiet for a moment. She thought about her words. Finally, she sighed softly, put the box back in, and went to sit next to Kate. She put one arm around her shoulders and the dark-haired woman clung to her, hiding her face in her shoulder.

"I know it's long, challenging, and, apparently, fruitless," she began softly, squeezing her shoulder tightly. And as long as the last person is fighting for something, it's worth it. And I'm fighting for you. For my best friend.“ She leaned her chin against the top of her head and closed her eyes for a moment. “Believe me, if I didn't have you here, I probably would have given up pretty soon.”

Kate smiled, which Yelena couldn't see. "You're all jokes and acting like you don´t give a shit about anything, and then here's what you tell me."

"I don't give a shit about anything," Yelena said with perfect seriousness.

Hawkeye grinned. "Sure. Lena, you're the kind of person who jumps first and then checks to see if there's a pool underneath, but you can't convince me that you don´t give a shit for everything. You aren´t like that, and now you've confirmed it for me."

"Oh, shit. But I like the whole pool thing," she grinned. "Are you trying to tell me I'm a bit of an archer? Ha ha, that's good. You're supposed to be the archer. I guess I went the wrong way years ago."

"Go ahead and take my bow if you want to go out and shoot some robots," Kate offered generously, and Yelena straightened up. When she said nothing for a long time, the dark-haired woman looked up at her. "What?"

"If you're so willing to offer me your beloved bow . . . does that mean you're going to lend me your invisibility cloak, Potter?" Her eyes sparkled and her corners twitched in an amused smile. “You are smiling again! Crisis averted?"

"Well, we'll see," she said, but she had to admit she was feeling a little better. Hopelessness wasn't entirely gone, but hope was returning, and she was about to banish her evil sister. “Cloaking tech. Pretty cool, huh?"

"Well, you know what else is pretty cool?" said Yelena eagerly. "My vest," she said proudly, running her hands over the piece of clothing.

Kate chuckled. "Wow, are you seriously offering me your beloved vest for an invisibility cloak right now?"

Yelena thought about her words for a moment. "Yeah, but ... I wouldn't give that vest to just anyone, you know? It would have to be someone special because the vest is special too. See? It's got lots of pockets. Pretty cool, huh?" mimicked Kate.

"All right, I'll lend it to you-"

"Ha! I knew you couldn't resist the vest," Yelena said, rubbing her hands in satisfaction. Then she looked at her best friend. "You know, Kat... if you can't win, change the rules of the game." Kate cocked an eyebrow at her curiously. "Ultron may think he's got the whole world under his robot thumb by now, but we . . . we've got a few cards up our sleeve." And she reached out and pulled the folder they'd come for out of one of the boxes.

Kate gasped, then gave her a reproachful look. “Hey! You know this was here all along and didn't tell me?!'

Yelena blinked at her. "Not all along, just the last few minutes. I didn't want to destroy our deep conversation."

"Deep as the pool you always jump into," muttered Kate, shaking her head.

"Nope," Yelena said, holding up her index finger. "You forget that sometimes the pool isn't there. Now come on,“ she said, rising and then helping the dark-haired woman to her feet, “it's time to go to Siberia.“

Chapter Text

'Are you ready?' Steve asked as he stepped out of the bathroom and looked into the bedroom, where Tony was standing in front of the mirror, frowning as he adjusted his suit. The blond man smiled in amusement at his expression and started toward him.

"Hmm, probably," he murmured back, turning to his husband. Steve immediately began adjusting his shirt collar, and Tony just rolled his eyes at it.

"I know what this is about," he said omnisciently, looking into his brown eyes. "You don't want to leave Peter."

Tony threw up his hands. “He wasn´t without us yet! Even when one of us was far away, the other always stayed with him . . ." Steve held out his arms, and the dark-haired man curled up gratefully in it. “How is it possible that you all handle it better than me? When did I become so sensitive?' he complained into his chest, and his fingers went into Steve's hair.

"Probably since you became a father," Steve replied with a smile, and Tony grumbled. “Don´t worry, Peter will be okay. You'll see we'll be home before he starts to miss us. And Nat will take care of him."

'Well, I sincerely hope when we get back we don't find our son posing, shooting a gun, and climbing walls or something,' Tony said, hoping aloud, and Steve had to laugh.

"Come on, let's get there in time. By the way," the blond man turned to him as he took his hand and led him out of the bedroom, "you look stunning today," he whispered, kissing his cheek.

Tony raised an eyebrow at him, and his eyes sparkled. "I don't know why you don't tell me this every day. I look stunning all the time."

Steve gave an ostensibly bitter sigh. "You egotist."

Downstairs in the living room, Peter had by now stacked all his favorite board games on the floor, choosing very carefully which one he and Natasha would play. When he heard someone coming down the stairs, he turned and then beamed when he saw Steve and Tony heading toward him hand in hand. He eagerly ran to meet them and jumped into Steve's arms.

"Hey, buddy," he said, smiling at him and lifting him into his arms for a cuddle. Peter was immediately taken by his bow tie. "Listen, you know your dad and I have to go somewhere now, right?" Their son nodded in agreement, raising his brown eyes to him. "So you're going to be here with Aunt Nat for a while until we get back tonight, okay? You´ll be a good boy, right?"

Peter thought, then grinned. "Maybe," he told him quietly, and Steve chuckled. Then he put Peter back down so he could go say goodbye to Tony.

"You don't look happy, Tones," Natasha said, eyebrows raised, as she came out of the kitchen with a bowl of gummy bears.

"Well, I was just wondering if we might find Peter throwing knives or something when we get back," he replied, giving her a warning look.

Natasha grinned at him. "Can he shoot a gun?"

"No!"

'Daddy, Daddy,' Peter tugged at the hem of Tony's jacket, and the dark-haired man bent over him, thinking the boy wanted to hug him goodbye. Instead, he said quite seriously, "I want Auntie Nat to teach me how to shoot a gun."

Steve put his hand over his mouth and tried to muffle his laughter, while Natasha smiled proudly and ruffled Peter's hair. “That's Aunt Nat's good boy,” she winked at him, then registered Tony's warning look. “But do you know I'm shooting a water pistol?”

Peter frowned as he thought about her words. "But I thought you were a spy. And spies need real guns, don't they?"

"Well, that depends on what kind of spy you are, you know? And I'm lucky enough to shoot a water pistol. That's a lot of fun!" she tried to convince him enthusiastically, then quickly changed the subject: "So, have you decided what game to play yet?"

"Not yet."

"Let's have a good time while the dads are away," she said, smiling at him and going to sit on the sofa, placing the bowl on the table.

Tony gave his son a brief hug, then looked at him solemnly. “You´ll be fine with Auntie Nat?“

"Sure," he grinned at him. "And if our house gets raided, Nat's got a water pistol and she's going to take out all the bad guys!"

The dark-haired man sighed, and Natasha shrugged innocently. "It's just in the kid's blood. I would be surprised if he doesn´t want to be a superhero when his family is all superheroes.” Then she gave Tony an encouraging wink. “Don´t worry, Tones, we can make it. And when you come, Steve will tell us a story about the birth of Jesus.”

Tony looked up at his husband, barely holding back a laugh. “Oh, I almost forgot. Oh boy, it must have been amazing to know how was the first Christmas."

Peter turned to the blond man eagerly. “Really, dad?“

Steve shook his head in disbelief. “How old do you think I am?” When everyone was eloquently silent, he just sighed and decided not to comment further. Tony affectionately ruffled Peter's hair, and then the two of them said goodbye to him, leaving for the foyer to get dressed. Tony took one last anxious glance into the living room before they left the house, but to his relief, Peter seemed content and eager to explain the rules of his favorite game to Natasha.

'You'd think Peter would be more dependent on you, not that you'd be dependent on him,' Steve said, amused but affectionate, as they walked arm in arm towards the restaurant.

Tony elbowed him in the ribs. "Hey, knock it off, old man," he warned but smiled. Then he looked up at Steve. “You and Peter… you are everything to me. You're my second chance, and I'm not going to waste it."

Steve smiled gently and put his arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer to him. "You're everything to us, too, Tony," he replied, and the other man stopped him, took hold of his cheeks, and stood on tiptoes for a kiss. Steve kissed back enthusiastically and ran his fingers through his hair. “I always wanted a family. Some things are a little different than I imagined years ago, but that doesn't matter, because this," he looked deeply into his eyes, "this is perfect," he assured him.

Chapter Text

Bucky felt as if everything was falling on him. It was as if he were trapped between four walls, which were moving slowly toward him so that they could squash him like a cockroach. Every minute he spent at home made him feel worse. It choked him, it ate him, and he was sure that if he spent any more time here, he would not endure it. So he got up off the ground, wandered languidly into the foyer, where he grabbed his jacket, put on his boots, and hurried away.

As he stepped outside and took a breath of the sharp cold air, his mind cleared at least slightly, but what he felt went nowhere. He moved forward, wandering through the streets, his hands in his jacket pockets, concentrating on his breathing. A hurricane of thought roared through his head, loud as a swarm of bees, fighting over each other. It was the utterly incoherent bits that drove him mad, stirring not only a terrible headache but feelings he never wanted to experience again. The feelings he experienced after losing Steve. Once again, he felt as if he were all alone. He felt again that he wasn't good enough, that he'd never be good enough. Again, it felt as if he didn't belong here. Everything was wrong. Why did it come back again? Why did these thoughts attack him again, why did these feelings consume him? It all came so suddenly and Bucky hated it. He hated how easily he had given in, how easily he had begun to doubt himself again. He hated that he couldn't fight it. If only it could all just be turned off...

How naive he was to believe that things were about to start to turn around, that he would get over the past and start a new life. But he still wasn't able to.

After their final run-in with the Flagsmashers, his relationship with Sam had improved markedly, and Bucky was finally feeling better again after everything he'd been through. He never thought it would be Sam who would help him the most. But he did. He knew he could trust him, Sam tried to understand and support him, and Bucky felt safe with him.

Safe...

He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. He realized it was snowing, but he barely noticed it. He thought. Is that a stupid idea? Of course, it is. But you need help, said a small voice in his head, barely above the clamorous thoughts he had tried in vain to shut down, whispering things that made him anxious and brought him to his knees. One day you'll have to open up and understand that some people really want to help you and that you can trust them, his former therapist's voice added. Yes, he knew he could trust Sam and turn to him, but... it was Christmas. And Bucky didn't want to ruin a pleasant evening for him and his family, just because he suddenly began to feel bad. That's normal, isn't it? Everybody feels a little down sometimes, and they don't have to freak out about it... it'll go away again.

But in how long? he asked himself fearfully. And this wasn't just a one-day thing, a moment's anxiety for fear of the future, for the perfect surroundings...

Bucky could never ask for help. He was always sure he'd solve it himself. But he learned. He was learning to talk about what he felt, what he needed, what weighed him down. And with Sam, it was easier than with anyone else.

He made a decision. He'll go to Sam's house, and if he finds him there... he'll ask if he can... if he can... do something. Help him get through it. Interrogate him. And if he's not home, then it's clear he's with Sarah and his nephews. Besides, it wouldn't have been unusual, especially since it was Christmas. Bucky didn't hold out much hope.

It took him half an hour to reach the house where Sam lived. He didn't try to sort through his thoughts and prepare what he was going to say, what he was going to ask, because he knew it would be pointless anyway. The man who had held the door for him had just come out of the house, and Bucky nodded gratefully and slipped into the hallway. He went upstairs before stopping outside Sam's flat door, hesitating for a moment before raising his hand and briefly pressing the bell.

As he headed this way, he was about ninety percent convinced he wouldn't run into Sam. So he was somewhat surprised when the door opened a few seconds later and Captain America appeared on the doorstep, apparently on the verge of going somewhere. He looked startled to find out who had come to him. "Bucky?" he raised his eyebrows, and in another moment a concerned shadow crossed his face. Bucky shifted uneasily from foot to foot and looked away. Sam knew at once that he wanted to turn on his heel and walk away. So he grabbed his arm and pulled him in. “Come on. You're staying," he said firmly, closing the door behind him.

"But you're on your way out," Bucky said, a little taken aback, but when Sam looked at him sternly, the soldier knew better than to protest. He took off his shoes and hung his jacket on a rack. "How come you're not with your family?" he inquired on his way into the living room.

"There was something else I needed to do. And good thing, because you wouldn't go to Sarah's, would you?" he said smartly. “So what´s going on?“ he asked seriously when they sat on the sofa.

Bucky looked ahead with a sigh. He felt Sam's intense gaze on him, and frosty needles ran along his spine. “I… I don´t know. It's just..."

"Nightmares?" asked Sam carefully, but Bucky shook his head.

"Not this time. I just... I couldn't take it anymore. It was like I couldn't breathe. And all these feelings and thoughts were trying to choke me up and..." He looked up at him. "I didn't want to be alone."

Sam gave him a proud smile and squeezed his shoulder. "The fact that you realized that and decided to take the first step and ask for help, even though we both know how hard that is for you... that's great, Bucky. And I'm glad you know there are people you can turn to if you need them. I can imagine how hard this must have been for you."

Bucky smiled slightly and felt the pressure on his chest slowly ease. Just the words he needed to hear, he guesses. Assurance. "Well, actually, I expected worse. And . . . if I was going to turn to someone else, it would probably get worse and harder." He looked at Sam carefully. The Captain seemed both surprised and pleased. "But I don't want to keep you here. Cass and AJ must be excited for you, and it's Christmas and-"

"Stay here, okay? Just stay here," he interrupted in a firm voice, rising to his feet. Bucky looked a bit like a puppy who's afraid his master will abandon him. Sam looked amused by his expression and raised his hand to sweep the last snowflakes out of Bucky's hair. “I have a lot of time. And if I'm late, they'll understand. And even if they don't, they'll forgive me if I bring you along. If you want, of course."

"I don't want to interfere..."

Sam sighed. "Sometimes you make such silly things fall out of you..." He shook his head and pulled out the blanket he slung over the Bucky's shoulders. “You´ll get a hot chocolate. And don't you dare protest and tell me you don't like sweets. Because I know that´s all lies."

So Bucky just smiled and pulled the blanket closer to his body as he watched Sam head into the kitchen. Yes, he felt comfortable, safe here. He knew Sam would help him.

Before disappearing into the kitchen, Sam paused on the doorstep. He turned and winked at him, a mysterious smile curling his lips as he said, 'Yeah, and I think I've got the Hobbit here too...'

Chapter Text

"How come you and Steve haven't gone dancing as you promised all those years ago?" Natasha frowned as she and Peggy walked out of the cafe, each holding a warm drink. "Or is dancing some kind of acronym for something else?" she winked at her in a conspiratorial way, and Peggy gave her an incredulous look.

"No, it's not an acronym, it's just a dance," she assured her tepidly, sipping her coffee. "You know, compared to seventy years, a few more months is just a blink. Plus, it's been pretty hectic lately for me and especially for him."

Natasha rolled her eyes. "God, you're making a fuss about it. Can't you just go somewhere and dance? You are so in love, and even though everyone knows it a hundred miles away, you're not able to pull yourself together at last. What's stopping you? Hydra's gone, you can both relax. And gather strength for your dance."

Peggy put her hand in her pockets and looked around, a little glumly, at the crowded streets and windows crowded with Christmas decorations. She thought she'd get used to this new world by the time she was back, but that hasn't quite happened yet. She was still groping and feeling lost, but when she became friends with Natasha, things started to get a little easier for her. Having Steve and Bucky back made her feel a little better because she knew she'd finally have someone who really understood her. With whom she could reminisce about old times . . .

"You know, maybe that's kind of the problem," she began slowly after a moment, and Natasha turned her head to let her know she was listening. "The world is different than Steve and I knew it. And we still haven't adapted much to that change."

'And that's why you're postponing your dance,' Natasha said, slowly starting to put a plan together in her mind. But she knew she couldn't do it alone. “Do you know what you're giving Steve for Christmas yet?” she then changed the subject.

"I have no idea. I'm really horrible at this," Peggy sighed, looking at her best friend.

Natasha raised her hand. "Well, don't look at me, I may be even worse at this than you are," she said. "But we can stop somewhere along the way, and maybe we can come across something Steve would appreciate. Wait, didn't you say he likes to draw? How about getting him some of this circuit?"

"Not a bad idea," Peggy said with a satisfied smile, then put on a curious expression. "Well, what about you and your personal life?" Natasha raised an eyebrow at her. "How about you and Bucky, huh? Come on, don't tell me you haven't noticed the way he looks at you!'

"Huh, well, you don't want to get in the same river twice," Natasha said vaguely.

"What do you mean?" said Peggy.

“Well, Barnes and I have a history. When I joined the Black Widow program, he was the one who trained me," she confided a little reluctantly. "You could say there was a spark between us. One thing led to another, and, well, it didn't end well. It was just a fling."

Peggy looked uncanny. "I'd say it was more than a fling for him."

Natasha grinned mirthlessly. "I don't know. I'd be surprised if he remembers. I doubt Hydra wouldn´t take care of it.” She shook her head slowly, then pointed to a small store a few steps ahead. “Luck favors us. Art supplies. This is where Steve would be in paradise. I'll wait here, okay?" she suggested as casually as possible as they reached the shop. Peggy nodded, and as soon as the door closed behind her, Natasha had her phone in her hand and was dialing.

"Huh?" a sleepy voice said a few seconds later.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Huh, really? Are you telling me you're still asleep?"

"Cut it out, Romanoff," he muttered.

“I’m going to need a hand, Barnes.”

"Which one, exactly? The plain one, or that great present from Hydra?" he asked sarcastically.

"Ideally both. I'll see you this afternoon, I'll text you later. And leave the wannabe jokes at home, will you?" she replied sweetly.

"No problem. They're supposed to be wannabe funny because I'm not in shape yet. I hope I can take the really funny ones with me?" she heard amusement in his voice and sighed in annoyance.

"I'm starting to regret calling you."

He laughed. "I'm looking forward to seeing you, too, Nat." She was sure that if they had spoken face to face, he would have winked at her. She rolled her eyes and ended the call just as Peggy came out of the store.

"Who called you?" she asked.

"Christmas elves. So what's the deal?' she said quickly and then she was pushed from behind. She winced and accidentally spilled some of her drink on Peggy's coat. “Oh, great,” she sighed, and turned around, annoyed, to the man who had pushed her in a hurry. "Hey!" she called after him angrily, but Peggy squeezed her arm as if trying to calm her.

"Let it go," she said, waving her hand over it and looking down at the large stain on her light brown coat. “It´s not that bad. Er, Nat?' she suggested in another second, realizing she didn't smell any coffee, but - 'Is it me, or do I smell some gingerbread spice?' Natasha pressed her lips into a tight line. Peggy laughed. She caught her red-handed. “Nat, really? You're the toughest agent I know who's only ever drunk black coffee . . ."

Natasha sighed and sipped her drink contentedly. “So what? I have my light days, too, when I need to trade coffee for a gingerbread latte."

***

"It's boring," Bucky said, yawning ostentatiously as he stretched out on the couch, winking at Natasha, who had been pushed out of her seat and forced into an involuntary chair. Peggy and Steve looked at each other now and then and smiled sheepishly. They seemed to have exhausted all the topics of conversation - they hadn't, it was just that Bucky and Natasha hadn't bothered much to start talking about anything. And Steve and Peggy ... well, they'd appreciate it if they could spend some time alone together. "How about a game?"

“I hate to say it, but I have to agree with Barnes,” Natasha said, and so Peggy and Steve agreed that they could play something. “Oh, great, I have an amazing game here,” she said happily, rising from her seat and walking to the other room from which she had brought –

“Time flies?” Steve said, pulling a face.

"Don't worry, this is enhanced time flies. We used to play it with Stark and Clint. No embarrassing charades, but proper tasks," she winked at him, opening the box to lay out a pack of cards and figurines on the table.

“I'm surprised it's not a drinking game,” Barnes said, and Natasha slapped him calf-length with a playboard. “Ouch! Was that necessary?"

"The only one who drinks here is you," she replied with a satisfied smile. “So, who´s going first?“

“Ladies first,” Steve said.

"Exactly! But I think the Captain should start. After all, she is Captain, not only an Agent," Bucky said, looking intensely at Natasha.

She smiled sweetly at him. "Wait till I kick your ass."

He winked at her and held up his bottle of beer as if toasting her. “Can´t wait.“

Peggy, meanwhile, took the card from the packet and read what was written on it. She looked a bit taken aback. "You and the player on your left," she glanced quickly at Steve, "put a blindfold on. The other two players will take you to your place to complete the task. The task? What task? She gave Natasha a suspicious look, but she quickly jumped to her feet and pulled out the scarf to make Peggy blind. Bucky did the same with Steve, and then the two of them winked. They helped them to their feet and led them slowly to a room that had been empty, but they had decorated it for the evening to fulfill its purpose.

“Don't take your scarves off yet,” Natasha said as they were led to the center of the room and released. Bucky made his way slowly back to the door, while the redhead ran quietly to the radio, where she thrust the Christmas track cassette into it. As the first notes of It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas filled the room, Peggy gasped and ripped the scarf from her eyes. She turned just as Natasha and Bucky, standing in the doorway, grinned at her and waved adoringly before closing the door and leaving them alone.

"I knew the two of them were up to something," Peggy said, twisting her head above them as Steve, too, removed his scarf, and then the two of them finally looked around the room. It was decorated with Christmas lights, there was a pleasant gloom, and there was even a table with glasses, champagne, and candy.

"Well, I guess it's obvious, isn't it?" suggested Steve, with an uncertain smile, holding out his hand to Peggy. “Will you dance with me, Pegg?“

She smiled at him and accepted his hand. "With the greatest of pleasure," she replied, and he drew her to him. They began to move slowly to the music, drinking into each other's eyes.

"Good thing they picked something slow for us. I don't want to step on your tiptoes," Steve said quietly.

She squeezed his shoulder gently. "I think I promised you that I would teach you to dance."

"That will be difficult."

Her smile widened. "Well, we've got all night."

***

Bucky and Natasha, meanwhile, had returned to the living room. "Took them long enough, huh?" remarked James, amused, as he returned to his sofa.

Natasha grinned. "I think if we hadn't put them in there, it would have taken them another seventy years to swing by and finally dance."

He chuckled, his eyes twinkling at the sight of her. "Shall we put ourselves somewhere, too?"

She threw a peanut at him. "Shut up, Barnes."

He grinned. "You'll take me to your mercy one day anyway."

Chapter Text

'Yelena won't join us?' asked Sam, peering into the kitchen and finding Wanda standing by the stove, cooking. The redhead looked back at him and shrugged.

"No idea. I haven't seen her since last night," she replied thoughtfully.

"Well, maybe you should go see her," Sam suggested, looking concerned. "I'd go to her myself, but she's more comfortable with you. And if there's something wrong . . ."

Wanda nodded and put the spoon on the saucer. “You are right. Will you stay here, please? Don't forget to stir it so it doesn't burn. I don´t want to cook it again."

Sam winked at her on the way. "Well, we can order something from the restaurant."

The redhead sighed. "It's going to be Christmas..." But she believed Sam wouldn't screw it up, and with somewhat mixed emotions, she started toward Yelena's room.

It was only a few weeks ago that Yelena Belova showed up at the Avengers' base claiming to be Natasha's younger sister. No one wanted to believe her because Natasha had never mentioned a sister, but then Wanda confirmed that Yelena wasn't lying. The witch knew that in Wakanda, while battling Thanos's army, Natasha had thought of her sister. So Yelena could stay and meet everyone who knew her sister. Well, almost all of them...

When Wanda reached the door of her room, she raised her hand and knocked briefly. There was an invitation to come in, so she pushed the handle and opened the door. And she blinked in surprise when she found Yelena frantically running around the room, tossing her neediest belongings into her backpack.

"Yelena? Are you going somewhere?" Wanda asked, looking at the distracted blonde.

"Uh-huh," she said angrily, glancing at her briefly. That one look was enough for Wanda to figure out what Black Widow was up to. She gasped in shock when she discovered the reason she had been here.

"Yelena, you can't do this," Wanda said, slamming the door with one wave.

Belova shook her head and blinked. Then she frowned. "You got into my head?!" she snarled at her, her eyes flashing. She pulled a knife from its sheath and held it tightly in her hand. "You know I have no problem getting out of here by force, either?"

"And do you know I have no problem stopping you?" Wanda countered in a similar tone, raising her hand, pointing her fingers at the knife her magic had immediately snatched from Yelena's hand and flinging it to the other side of the room, where it plunged into the floor. Yelena hissed and lunged at Wanda, but she used magic to lift her into the air before Widow could attack her. “Yelena, stop it. Can't we talk like adults?"

"Then let me go!"

"I can't let you go, Yelena," Wanda said, shaking her head. “Please, let´s talk –“

"Nothing to talk about!"

"You know I don´t want to hurt you. And you don't want to hurt me. So don't make me do something I'll regret later," the redhead pleaded. "Yelena, please. Let's talk about it. Promise me you'll calm down and we'll talk normally."

Yelena sighed bitterly. "Fine," she growled, and Wanda carefully put her back on the ground. The blonde woman rolled her eyes and went to sit on the bed. "You're wasting your time with me, Wanda. I've made my decision."

"Did you decide, or did someone decide for you?" she said. "Revenge doesn't bring your sister back, Yelena, it just takes an innocent life and leaves a lot of sadness. Clint has a family. They need him."

She sneered. "Please don't praise the murderer to heaven in front of me."

"I don't intend to. I just want to help you, I want you to think twice. Is it really worth it?" she asked her quietly, then went to sit next to her. "I understand you more than you think. I've also taken the wrong path, and if the Avengers hadn't given me a helping hand, I would have stuck with it until now. Despite everything I've done, they haven't given up on me. Everyone deserves a second chance. Yelena, you know deep down that all this is pointless."

Yelena turned her head to look at her. "But because of him, my sister is dead."

Wanda shook her head slowly. “No, not because of him. This was her decision, Yelena. Of course, Clint would jump so he could save her life. But this is what she wanted. There was nothing he could do about it, you understand? He bears no responsibility. Clint is a good man. He was the one who brought Natasha to S.H.I.E.L.D. He was sent to kill her, and instead, he gave her a second chance," she told her quietly. “He helped me, too. He made me an Avenger. He was a friend to me, he took care of me. I've made a lot of mistakes in the past, too. I wanted revenge too. Tony Stark killed my parents. I understand how you feel. I understand the hatred, the desire to hurt him as much as he hurt you. But this isn't the solution, Yelena. Is that what you want? Do you want to throw away the chance to become a better person?"

"Stop playing the moralist."

"He was her best friend. Natasha wouldn't want this," Wanda said, and Yelena lowered her head. Of course, Natasha wouldn't want her to kill him, but Natasha's not here anymore. And she was so angry, she had this pain inside of her... "Let it all out, Yelena."

"I miss her so much," Yelena whispered, closing her eyes as she felt the tears sting inside her. “You can´t imagine how much…“

"Believe me, I can," she sighed, remembering the beloved Vision.

Yelena looked at her with glassy eyes. “I don´t know what to do, Wanda.“

"Stay," Wanda said simply. “Don´t chase after Clint. He's my family, he's an Avenger. We all care about him. If you want to hurt him, you'll have to get to him through us." But then she reached for her hand and squeezed it tightly. “Please, stay. You can start a new life here. You can become someone better. I'm sure Natasha would want it that way."

She sighed. "You really know what you're talking about, don't you?"

She smiled. "Years ago, I was exactly where you were. Then let me help you. Let me help you move on. You have to move on, Yelena. Past is past. Don't let your desire for revenge destroy you."

"Why are you helping me?" Yelena asked quietly.

"Because Natasha meant a lot to me, too. And because I know you're a good person."

"I've never met anyone like you. I've never had . . . a friend," Yelena told her.

Wanda smiled. "You have so much more to gain. You can get a family that has your back, that will be there for you no matter what." Then she rose and held out her hand. Her smile widened. "If you step out that door, you're an Avenger."

Chapter Text

Peggy knelt to light a candle in front of the gravestone. Her hands shook as she did so, and tears stung her eyes. When she felt the man standing behind her put his hand on her shoulder, she hung her head on her chest with a sigh. Her fingers touched the gravestone blindly, gently stroking the name carved on it.

"Pegg?" the man said solicitously. “Are you okay?“

She shook her head slowly and sighed. "I miss them." He smiled sadly. "She's alive, but I have no idea where she is. And it's killing me." She looked up at him sadly. "Haven´t I earned my happy ending?"

"Of course you do, Peggy," he replied without hesitation.

"Then why does everything keep going wrong, Bucky?" she sighed bitterly, rising to her feet. Bucky put one arm around her waist, and she pressed against him. Together they looked at the gravestone of Steve Rogers, who had died a few weeks ago. Both Peggy and Bucky had been with him practically every day during his final days, not wanting him to be alone and trying to ease his pain as much as possible. To see Steve old, gravely ill, and even more frail and thin than she had known him, it tore Peggy's heart. She wished they had been given more time. She wished to live many years by his side. She wanted more than what little they got.

Bucky looked at her gravely. “You have to find Natasha, Pegg. You deserve to be happy."

She shook her head shakily. "But how am I going to find her, Bucky? I have no idea where she is. If she doesn't want me to find her, I won't. You know better than anyone that she's elusive. And if she hasn't called back by now . . . it's probably not worth it," she shrugged, putting her hands in her pockets.

"You can't give up. She's got to be somewhere," Bucky insisted.

"Yeah, she's somewhere. But where? The world is big."

"She cares about you. She betrayed a hundred and seventeen countries for you," Barnes smiled, trying to lighten the mood.

"If she cares so much about me, why hasn't she come back? Why didn't she at least call to say she was okay? Why wasn't she at Steve's funeral? And don't tell me she didn't know about it," she added quickly. "Natasha's an expert at getting information."

Bucky raised his hands as if in surrender. "Don't ask me to know Natasha Romanoff."

She nodded and tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. “I don´t know what I expected. That everything changes after that kiss? I... when I realized I felt something more for her, I felt terrible remorse," she confessed to James. “Because of Steve. Because of our past. It felt like . . . like I was betraying him."

He smiled at her encouragingly. “He would understand that, Pegg. You can't be mad at yourself for falling in love."

She looked again at the gravestone. "He was my first true love. I loved him. And I cared about him so much. I just hope he knew."

Bucky looked at Steve's name with a sigh. He missed his best friend enormously, and he was glad to have Peggy here, at least, who understood him on this. He squeezed her shoulder. “Don´t worry. He knew."

•••

"Don't you want to go? Just for a little while? Don't leave me alone with Samuel, please," Bucky muttered as he escorted Peggy home. The Captain chuckled.

"Is that the only reason I should come?"

"And, of course, because I don't want you to be alone." Then he winked at her. "And I'd miss you, too." Peggy shook her head at him, amused, and was about to tell him she was giving up and had changed her mind and was coming to the Christmas party when Bucky suddenly stopped and grabbed her arm. She looked at him, puzzled, but he merely pointed his chin in front of her. She looked back and her heart skipped a beat when she saw a person standing outside the door of the building where she lived.

"Well," Bucky said, smiling, "I guess I can understand if you're not coming tonight. Looks like you're in for something funnier and a lot better than a stupid party."

"No, Bucky, don't go-" Peggy said quickly as he let go of her arm and waved an amused wave at a nearby redhead before turning on his heel and walking back.

"Go on, Pegg," he called over his shoulder, "you've waited long enough for this. Go give her a kiss and talk."

Peggy watched him go, lost, and mustered the courage to move forward and meet Natasha. And asked her what the hell that was all about. The realization that she had been left alone for so long, confused and without answers, even though Natasha had no reason to remain on the run when everyone was pardoned, finally brought that courage to her. Peggy needed answers. She needed to know what had happened. And how things are between them.

With only a few steps between them, Natasha smiled carefully. They just stood there for a moment, looking at each other, before Peggy looked away and took the house keys out of her pocket. She walked past Natasha and felt her heart pound as she finally got that close again after all this time.

"Are you coming in?" she asked as she opened the front door and held it.

"If you want," Natasha said quietly, and Peggy nodded. The redhead walked past her and toward the first flat Peggy lived in. The Captain unlocked the door and motioned for her to come in, feeling her throat tighten with both anxiety and enthusiasm. Then she closed the door behind them, took off her shoes, and took off her jacket, which she hung on the rack. Without a word, she went into the kitchen and heard Natasha's soft footsteps behind her.

"So," she cleared her throat, taking two cups from her locker, "why are you here?"

"Because I wanted to see you," the redhead replied honestly.

Peggy sighed and leaned her palms on the kitchen counter. "You wanted to see me," she repeated after her, before finally turning around. "Why . . . why didn't you call? Why did you just disappear without a word? If you didn't want to see me, couldn't you at least let me know you were okay?"

"Sorry, Peggy, I ... thought it would be easier that way-"

"Easier?" the Captain moaned. "How-how could it be easier? Why --"

'Because I care about you too much,' Natasha said quickly. Peggy stopped her heart racing. "I hoped that if I disappeared for a while, it would fade. I didn't want to put you in an awkward position and... it was always you and Steve and I was just --"

Peggy couldn't take it anymore. Crossing the distance between them, she grabbed Natasha around the waist in mid-sentence and pulled her in for a long kiss. She felt Natasha relax in her arms and wrap her arms around her neck. Peggy raised her hand and gently stroked her cheek.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she whispered as they pulled slightly apart, and leaned her forehead against hers.

Natasha closed her eyes. "Because I didn't think you could love someone like me," she confessed in a low voice, and Peggy kissed her again to banish all her doubts. She felt Natasha smile into the kiss. “I don´t have any Christmas present for you.“ Peggy laughed and picked her up, hugging her tightly around the waist. Natasha wrapped her legs around her torso and placed her hands on her shoulders, looking down lovingly at her face. She caught her face in her hands and stroked it with her thumbs.

"This is the present, silly," Peggy assured her gently, smiling happily.

Chapter Text

Bucky looked sleepily at his watch, then rolled over to see if Sam was still asleep or if he had got up sooner, as always. Of course, the other half of the bed was empty. Barnes yawned and lay there a moment longer, staring at the white ceiling, before reluctantly getting up and changing.

Ever since he and Sam had been together, things had started to turn around again. Nightmares still made themselves known here and there, but they didn't haunt him every night. Even his sleep problems were wearing off, and whenever he found it hard to sleep, he could curl up in Sam's warm arms. Bucky finally knew that he could turn to someone if he needed, that someone was there for him, and always would be, in his good moments and the bad ones. And with that in mind, things were simpler for him.

After getting dressed and making the bed, he went down, where cheerful boys' voices came to him. As soon as he appeared downstairs, Cass and AJ ran to him enthusiastically. "Bucky!" cried Cass, beaming as he saw James waiting for them with a smile on his face and open arms. The two boys hugged him tightly, and he hugged them.

"We were going to wake you up to surprise you, but Mom wouldn't let us," the younger AJ complained at once.

"You know, mothers have to be obeyed," Bucky winked as Sam's nephews pulled away from him.

"But Sam said it would be fun," AJ added, grinning. “Uncle Sam is funny.“

"Really? Did Uncle Sam say that to you?" Bucky raised his eyebrows and looked into the kitchen, where Sam, wearing a chef's apron and making a sly face, glided casually into the doorway. "I've got a feeling Uncle Sam's going to accidentally fall out of bed at night..."

Cass laughed. "See, even Uncle Bucky is funny," he said, elbowing his brother. AJ punched him in the shoulder, and the two boys immediately began to poke each other, as was their custom. It's a good thing neither of them has any superpowers, shield or vibranium arm, Bucky thought as he went into the kitchen to ask Sam what that was all about. And also to say good morning, of course.

"Oh, Sleeping Beauty is awake," Sam greeted him with a grin, his eyes twinkling.

"Nice apron," Bucky said dryly, reading the embroidered sign Mommy on his chest and leaning against the door frame, folding his arms. "Hi, Sarah," he said to Sam´s sister, who was sitting at the dinner table drinking coffee.

Sam picked up the spoon. "Hey, think about what you're saying and what tone you're using, or you won't get breakfast," he warned, quite seriously, and then looked him over. "And stop seducing me."

Bucky raised an eyebrow at him. “I´m not seducing you.“

"Oh, yes, you do," Sam insisted, turning to his sister. 'Tell us, Sarah, is he seducing me?'

Sarah raised her hands as if in surrender. "I don't know either of your's seduction tricks, so please don't drag me into this."

Sam rolled his eyes and lifted the pan off the stove to scrape scrambled eggs for Bucky on his plate. "Sit down before I change my mind and you stay hungry."

"I'm sure the boys would bring me something in secret," Bucky winked, and Sam stopped. Then he looked incredulously at Sarah, who was muffling her laughter.

"He's got allies here, can you believe that?"

Sarah just shrugged with a smile. “Actually, I can.“

"Unbelievable," said Sam, shaking his head and putting his plate on the table. "My family traded me for some White Panther."

"It's White Wolf," Bucky said, rolling his eyes.

"Sure, tiger," Sam mimicked, but then grabbed him around the waist and pulled him close for a kiss. "Too bad my sister's here," he muttered, but deliberately so that Sarah could hear.

"All right, I better go," she said, and Bucky gave Sam a look. Sarah patted her brother on the shoulder and smiled at Barnes. "I almost pity you for having to stay here with him."

"Hey, hey, what's this all about?" Sam frowned, wanting to look angry, but finally laughing. "Remember, we're babysitting your kids."

"Right, so speaking of kids, don't forget they're here," she winked omnisciently before leaving the kitchen to say goodbye to her sons. Bucky, meanwhile, sat down at the table and began to eat his breakfast, and Sam went to see Sarah off.

Bucky had barely eaten a few bites when Cass and AJ came running into the kitchen. It was immediately obvious to the soldier that something was up. "Cass claims you're stronger than the two of us put together and we can't beat you," AJ reported at once, watching eagerly. "But I told him it wasn't true."

"Do you really think you can beat me?" Bucky asked with an amused smile, slowly rising from his chair.

"Yeah!" AJ replied confidently.

"Well, we'll have to see about that," Bucky snarled playfully, and bent down, cradling the two boys in his arms. AJ shrieked, and when he started laughing, Cass joined him. Bucky slung them over his shoulder and remarked with amusement, "This is all you got, huh? Captain America didn't teach you much."

***

'Bucky, get up,' came Sam's soft voice from afar. He just mumbled something and pulled the blanket up to his chin. He heard laughter, and then a strong male body pressed against him. Bucky threw his arm over his torso and pulled him close. “Are you awake?“

"No, Bucky's asleep," he answered hoarsely, yawning.

Sam poked him in the chest with a finger. “It´s Christmas. Gifts are waiting."

"You're such a 5-years-old kid, Samuel."

"Well, I'm sorry I can't wait to find out what you gave me."

"I gave you my heart, what more do you want?" Bucky prodded, opening his eyes just as Sam frowned in outrage and started to pull away. Barnes laughed and hugged him tighter. “Don´t worry, you´ll get a present.“

Sam looked more pleased with himself. “I think so.“ Then he leaned over and kissed him.

Bucky smiled, hugged him, and closed his eyes again so he could savor their moment all the more intensely. "So, have you picked a date for our wedding yet?" he asked, amused, stroking Sam´s back.

Sam chuckled. "What? Bucky, we're not engaged."

At that moment, Bucky's eyes open and he sat up abruptly. He sat stunned for a moment, then looked back at Sam, who at first was watching him blankly, then put his hand over his mouth and tried not to laugh.

"Damn," Bucky sighed, "I knew I forgot to do something yesterday."

Chapter Text

"And please don't turn this into a woodshed for us," Clint said quite seriously, as he helped Laura into her coat in the hall and gave his final instructions, both to his children and to Wanda and Natasha, who looked a little annoyed. "I finally finished the kitchen floor, and I'd like to take a break for a while now, so please think about that before you decide to trash the whole house."

Natasha folded her arms across her chest and smiled sweetly at him. "You know, after your endless speech, I kind of want to do it. The kids would enjoy it, and with Wanda, it would be so much fun."

Clint looked down rather desperately at Laura, who was muting a laugh. “I told you we should have told Steve to babysit.“

“Uncle Steve wouldn't be as much fun as the best aunts in the world,” Natasha said, putting her arm around Cooper and Lila. Little Nathaniel enjoyed Wanda's arms and smiled because he was finally the same height as his parents.

"Don't worry, honey, they'll be fine here," Laura assured her husband, retrieving her purse. Then she stroked each child's hair and kissed them goodbye, while Clint gave Natasha a warning look and she grimaced in response.

"Wanda," he pointed gravely at the witch, "I'm counting on you to keep Natasha on a short leash." Wanda exchanged glances with Natasha, who muffled her laughter, and then they said goodbye at last, and Mr. and Mrs. Barton headed into town for a dinner.

"So, what's the plan?" asked Wanda as they returned to the living room.

"I've got an idea!" said Cooper enthusiastically, his eyes twinkling. "Let´s fight!"

Wanda looked a little horrified. "Do you think that's a good idea?" she asked, doubtful, and Nathaniel hugged her closer.

“Of course!“ said Lila. "We'll build bunkers and fight! And I'll be Hawkeye as my dad, I have my bow!" she cried quickly, and immediately ran to the room.

"No, I want to be Hawkeye!" Cooper frowned disapprovingly and ran after his sister.

Natasha laughed and went looking for blankets so the children could build a bunker. Wanda, meanwhile, sat down with Nathaniel. "What about you? You want to play with us?" she asked him with a gentle smile.

"I want to play with you," he replied. "So, yeah."

She winked at him. "They won't stand a chance against us."

“We'll see,” Natasha sang, walking past with the blankets in her arms. Two were generously offered to Wanda, who made a bunker for herself and Nathaniel out of two chairs and a table, where the boy had already camped with his toys and even brought a water pistol.

Natasha, meanwhile, had made a bunker of chairs nearby, and Lila had won over the surly Cooper and captured the childhood bow that Dad had given them. Cooper had to settle for a water pistol and gave one to Natasha.

"Isn't it a little unfair that Auntie Wanda's only going to be with little Nat?" suggested Natasha as they camped out in the bunker to discuss strategy. Cooper looked at her in disbelief.

"Auntie Wanda is the most powerful Avenger," he reminded her quite seriously. "We'll have to try to beat her at all."

Natasha chuckled. "Well, don't worry, I know a few tricks."

And then they went into battle, screaming with delight, Lila shooting plastic arrows, Natasha and Cooper with water-filled pistols, and little Nathaniel proving to be a determined defender. Only Wanda had any real weapon, so Lila and Cooper flew through the air, laughing, before falling carefully into a pile of pillows.

At one such moment, Natasha sneaked up behind Wanda. Nathaniel was in a fight with his sister, and Cooper had just fallen into a soft pillow when Natasha yanked Wanda to the ground, threw her onto her back, and rose above her with a triumphant smile.

"That's not fair," said Wanda, shocked, then laughed.

Natasha chuckled. "Is it fair that you're using your powers on us?"

Wanda pretended to be thinking. “Hm, you are right. But come to think of it, I think I didn´t use my magic on you,“ she winked, raising her hands, and before Natasha could react, she was airborne and landed beside Cooper.

He gave her an I told you look. With a grunt, Natasha pushed herself up on her elbows, her lips curling into a smile as she looked at Wanda. “I know, I know.“

•••

'When our careers as superheroes are over, we should become professional nannies,' Natasha said with a grin as she returned from the children´s room. She hadn't even finished telling them the story, and all three were already asleep, exhausted from the day.

Wanda, meanwhile, was cleaning up the mess in the living room. Everywhere you looked, there was something. Luckily, though, her magic was a big help, and all she had to do was wave and move her fingers and things flew into place.

The witch laughed and glanced briefly at the redhead, who was watching her with interest. “Well, I don´t think it´s the best idea.“

"I think the kids would be thrilled."

"Kids may be, parents not so much."

Natasha shrugged. "Well, we don't live in an ideal world. Anyway, this is fascinating," she said to her abilities, glancing with some satisfaction at the tidy living room as if it were her doing. Unlike the orderly Wanda, she was more of a mess.

"We still have some time before Clint and Laura get back, so why don't we watch a sitcom? Ideally a Christmas episode?" Natasha suggested with a wink and went to sit on the sofa.

Wanda couldn't help smiling. "You're the best, you know that?"

Natasha snorted. "Of course I know. But feel free to remind me every day," she said innocently, and the witch had to laugh. Widow tapped the seat beside her, and Wanda went to sit beside her. She snuggled up to her and Natasha put her arm around her.

"This is nice," Wanda murmured contentedly, closing her eyes to enjoy Natasha's closeness.

Nat smiled and ran her fingers tenderly through her hair before resting her head gently against hers. “Let´s stay like this forever.“

Chapter Text

"So, what are we going to watch today?" Yelena asked eagerly as she scoured the Internet for the ideal movie for tonight. It was such a tradition for them to have a movie night every Friday that they could finally enjoy like normal people.

"How about some comedy? I guess I don't have the energy for anything demanding," Sam suggested, putting a handful of popcorn in his mouth. Yelena reached out and slapped his hand. “Hey! What that was for?"

"If you don't stop eating like that, there won't be anything left!" she scowled at him, and then proceeded to mutter, "Comedy . . . preferably romantic, eh? Ew."

Sam looked amused. "What's wrong with a romantic comedy?"

"As I said -- ew," she replied maturely.

"Must you always be so cynical? Can't you even bring out the romantic soul at Christmas?"

Yelena wore an expression of such disgust that he laughed out loud at it. “A romantic soul? I don't have one of those. Those two words, combined with me, don't go together." Then, looking somewhat annoyed toward the kitchen, she called to Bucky and Natasha, "What about the two lovebirds back there? You want a romantic comedy, too?"

Bucky came in with four glasses, and Natasha brought two bottles of wine, which she put on the table. "Honestly, I don't care," the redhead replied to her sister, and even James shrugged.

Yelena cheered like a small child and rubbed her hands in satisfaction. “Nice! So because you don't care and I don't want a romantic comedy, it means we're going to put on some amazing horror! It's three against one, Sammy," she stuck out her tongue at him, eager to find the best horror movies.

The Falcon swallowed, trying to look neutral. "Seriously... horror? Can't we just watch something Christmas?'

The blonde grinned and gave him a defiant look. "What? Are you afraid?"

He folded his arms across his chest in disapproval. "Of course not, it's just... it doesn't seem like the right time for a horror movie."

"Dear Sam," Yelena trilled, putting her laptop on the table when Natasha and Bucky finally sat down with them, "it's always the perfect time for horror movies. And this one is supposed to be super scary! Let's see if the reviews are lying."

•••

"That was boring," Yelena said, yawning as the film ended.

Bucky and Sam looked at her incredulously. “Boring? Are you kidding?" Sam asked her, shaking his head.

Yelena grinned at him. "I can see how it wasn't boring for you when you were screeching like a little girl every five minutes and getting on Barnes's lap..."

"Hey, some of the scenes were really scary!"

The blonde woman turned to Natasha, who was trying not to smile too much. “You see that? And these are supposed to be the best superheroes in the world. How can you handle dangerous missions if you're afraid of a horror movie? Oh, wait," she paused then, pretending to think, "of course. Gentlemen, I apologize. I forgot your missions are just helping old grannies cross the street."

Natasha couldn't take it anymore and laugh out loud. Both Bucky and Sam frowned at Yelena, but she looked satisfied. "That wasn't nice," Barnes replied, letting Natasha hug him.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, folding his arms across his chest. “This isn´t what we are doing. And even the street is sometimes dangerous!'

“If you want to keep arguing, go ahead, but I'm going to bed,” Natasha said, putting her empty glass on the table before rising.

"Oh, my God, Natasha," Yelena blurted out, her eyes widening, "how can you sleep after this super scary horror movie? Aren't you afraid that the demon will hide under your bed and drag you into a blazing inferno at night?' Then she chuckled, and Natasha, though she could barely contain her laughter, motioned to Yelena to stop. "That was a good Samuel impression, wasn't it?" she suggested, and Sam looked offended.

"I'm going to bed, too," Bucky agreed, and Sam threw up his hands, giving him a look.

'Into my bed, eh?' Natasha prodded, wrapping her arms around his waist. “Don´t worry, I´ll protect you before some demons.“

"Aww," Sam drawled, turning to look at the empty space beside him, "are you going to protect me, too, honey? Oh, wait," he laced his fingers together and burned Natasha and Bucky through eyes, "I don't have anyone."

Yelena laughed. "Just don't look at me, I'm not going to sleep with you."

"That's nice of you, honey, but I don't need protecting," Bucky replied to his girlfriend.

Yelena cleared her throat, sounding like a "yeah, sure," then grinned at Barnes.

"We'd better get some sleep," Natasha decided, and they said good night, and she and Bucky headed for her bedroom.

"Well, are you going to be scared?" she teased as she changed into her pajamas and lay down in bed with him. He pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly.

"Of course not, when I´m with you," he replied happily, kissing her forehead.

Natasha chuckled. "Poor Sam. Hope he will survive the night.'

"I think he'd rather sleep with the light on," Bucky said, stroking her back as she crossed her legs over his torso. "But Yelena didn't have to tease him so much."

"She's like that. I'd be more surprised if she didn't tease him," Natasha remarked, looking at him curiously. “Were you really that scared?“

He buried his face in her collarbone. "A little," he muttered, and when she laughed, he hugged her even tighter. She ran her fingers through his hair and began to stroke it, closing her eyes. Both of them were already half asleep when suddenly a terrifying scream reached their ears. Natasha raised herself on one elbow, then rolled her eyes as she heard the stomp and her sister's loud laughter. Her bedroom door opened in another moment, and an angry Sam appeared with a blanket draped over his shoulders.

"That´s enough, I refuse to live with your evil sister under the same roof!" he declared, quite seriously.

"What happened?" Bucky asked.

"She hid under my bed! I went to bed hoping to sleep, and all of a sudden I heard these weird noises. So I wanted to go sleep in the living room and when I got up she grabbed my ankle!" he complained. Bucky and Natasha seemed too anxious not to burst out laughing. But then Sam said something that wiped the smiles from their faces. "I'm not going to sleep alone tonight, and certainly not near that devil woman! So move over, Bucky, because I'm staying here until morning."

"You've got to be kidding," Bucky said.

Sam gave him a look. "Do I look like I'm kidding? I'm dead serious."

Natasha raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Yelena, I´m going to kill you.“

Chapter Text

"Fanny!" cried Yelena, stopping in the middle of the road, looking around. The hound seemed to bark in response, instead of running back to her. "Fanny, what are you doing?" the woman muttered to herself, thrusting her hands into her pockets and following. When the sound of footsteps reached Fanny, she raised her head and pricked her ears. She watched closely as the woman approached her, and when Yelena reached for her collar, Fanny ducked her head and ran merrily away from her. Yelena smiled only slightly and bent down to make a small snowball out of the snow. She put on an innocent expression, and Fanny barked as if urging her to try something if she had the courage. The woman smiled in amusement and gently threw the snowball at her, and Fanny, as if she thought it was a ball, jumped up and caught it in her mouth. Then she shook her head and began licking herself, snow all over her nose. When Yelena saw her, she laughed.

"Come on, you dummy," Yelena said, patting her thigh as she moved on. The dog barked at her, then sprinted after her, sending the snow flying. When she caught up with her, she started bouncing around, snarling playfully at her, and jumping up at her now and then, almost knocking her out in the snow for the first time. “You like that, huh?” Yelena snarled back at her, and Fanny barked. The woman grabbed her quickly in her arms and then, laughing, fell with her into the snow. The dog squirmed in her arms, yapping in frustration, but eventually began to lick her face lovingly. Yelena threw snow at her and get up to her feet. Snow was everywhere, both she and her pet. She probably won't be able to drag out her visit with her sister for very long, lest they both catch a cold.

The memory of Natasha hurt her again, and her good humor began to fade again. Yes, they hadn't seen each other in years, and after a while, Yelena was coming to terms with the idea of never seeing her sister again, but then Natasha showed up and she got back everything she wanted. But for how long? Natasha was last seen after the destruction of the Red Room. At the time, they both believed it wouldn´t be the last time they would see each other. But then this Thanos came along and wiped out half of humanity. Yelena was among them. And when she returned, she found that five long years had passed and that her sister had died. She sacrificed herself for the world. And Yelena couldn't believe how quickly she lost everything again. This wasn't fair.

"Fanny, come here, easy, girl!" she shouted, as the dog ran off, suddenly cheerful. Yelena whistled, but the dog made no response. With a sigh, she picked up her pace, and in a few moments, she saw where and why Fanny had been in such a hurry. For a young man was kneeling by one of the graves, and the dog, always curious, had to come with him at once. "Fanny!" yelled Yelena a second before Fanny playfully leaped at him. The young man yelped, shocked for a few moments, but then he laughed hesitantly, and Fanny, standing on his chest with her front paws, began to lick his face eagerly. Yelena ran toward them.

"Jeez, I'm so sorry, she doesn't normally do that," she apologized hurriedly when she showed up, grabbing Fanny's collar, pulling her away from the young man. Then she held out her hand to help him to his feet. Surprised to find he was even younger than her, he looked like he was still in high school. “You okay?” she asked him carefully.

With thanks to her, he accepted her hand and rose to his feet. “Yeah, I´m fine. I've seen worse, believe me," he smiled amiably at her, then bent to scratch the dog's ears. “She´s cute. I'd like a dog, too, but I don't think my aunt would like that very much."

"Well, I had to wait until I could get my wish, too," Yelena said, and when she was sure Fanny wouldn't freak out again, she let her go. The dog sniffed the young man quickly before running away from them and exploring the area. Yelena was gasping for more to say when she caught sight of the name on the tombstone. She had no idea they'd made it here ... She looked at the young man a little incredulously. "You ... you knew Natasha Romanoff?"

He smiled somewhat ruefully. "Honestly, the whole world should know her name." Then he put his hands in his pockets and stared at Natasha's tombstone. His eyes glittered. "I guess I can't say I knew her, but . . . yeah, I met her. We fought together. Like on a team, not against each other-"

"What are you, fifteen? Aren't you a little young to be a superhero?" she couldn't keep up the nagging remark, but as soon as she said it, she regretted it. “Sorry, this was… this was stupid. Forget it."

He shrugged his shoulder and looked at her. "Well, sometimes you can't choose when to be a superhero. And if you want to become one at all. If you want to live a normal life more..."

She sighed. "Yeah, you're right," she said bitterly. What she would give to live a normal life with her parents, with her sister. She didn't want to become Black Widow.

He held out his hand to her. "I'm Peter, by the way," he finally introduced himself.

Yelena hesitated for a moment, then accepted his hand. "I am Yelena." She did not miss his inquisitive glance. "I'm her sister. Stepsister."

Peter looked astonished. "I didn't know Natasha had a sister."

"Well, I'd be surprised if you knew. She didn't tell people on sight. Things were complicated between us. And when it finally settled . . . we didn't get a chance to continue our relationship."

"I'm sorry," Peter said, and he could be heard to be sincere. Yelena nodded.

"Thanks for coming to see her."

"Yeah, well . . . I thought I'd . . . come and see them, since it's Christmas. To see her, Mr. Stark..." To see mum and dad, Uncle Ben. He wiped his damp nose with the back of his hand. “Is it silly?“

"No. I do that, too. It's normal to want to be with them on days like this. Even if this is the only way we can be with them," she said quietly.

He nodded. "Do you have a family? Because no one should be alone at Christmas. Hey, I have an idea! I'm going to stop at the base today, so why don't you come with me? At least you'll get to know the other Avengers, they're all very nice-"

"I don't know if that's a good idea . . ."

"Please! I'd blame myself if I said goodbye to you and left, even though I know you'll be alone today." He saw her draw a breath and raise his index finger. "Fanny doesn't count."

She sighed. She didn't want to do it. But then an idea occurred to her . . . "So you're an Avenger, huh?" she asked with a slight smile, feeling her heart race as he nodded proudly. She took a deep breath and asked as casually as she could, "You must know Hawkeye, too . . ."

Chapter Text

Wanda had no idea what she was going to do. It wasn't just about tonight and tomorrow's Christmas, which she was to spend alone, without the people she loves, but the days ahead, her future, the rest of her life. Family always came first for her, but she never realized how much she depended on them until she began to lose everyone. First Mom and Dad, then Pietro. On the day of his death, she thought her heart had broken into thousands of pieces that would never be glued together again. But Vision did it. He gave her life meaning, he gave color to her black-and-white world. He gave her love. And when she started to believe that she could be happy again, everything started to go wrong. And then, in one single day, she had lost not only her beloved Vision but her best friends; Steve and Natasha who had always been there for her, who had taught her to know herself, who had given her a second chance, despite all that.

It was a shock when she returned to find that it had been five years since the Battle of Wakanda. And that Natasha died, that Steve disappeared into the past for his love and came back as an old man. Everyone was trying to make up for the lost five years. Not Wanda. She had no one left. Clint was all that was left of her closest, but he, too, had a family of his own that was always more important to him than the Avengers. Could she blame him? No. She understood. She would do anything for a moment with her loved ones.

Sighing, she left her room, heading for the kitchen to prepare her dinner. Then she'd probably move into the living room, wrap herself in a blanket, and turn on her favorite sitcoms to lift her spirits. It stung her heart. That's exactly what she was trying to do after Pietro died. She hoped the silly jokes would cheer her up. It failed. It wasn't the same without Pietro, she missed him so insanely much that she felt it would destroy her. It wasn't the sitcoms, it was Vision who put a smile on her face after a long time. And in the end, she lost him, too. The two people she loved most in all the world were irrevocably gone.

What is grief if not love persevering?

Wanda closed her eyes for a moment, palms planted on the kitchen counter. Somewhere she had heard that grief had five stages. She was sure she had passed the first three - denial, anger, and bargaining. Then came a fourth - depression. She was aware that they would never come back, she felt helpless, lost as if she would never feel joy again. She was afraid to be alone, but at the same time, she didn't want to tie anyone back to her because she was afraid she might lose them, too. And she was sure she couldn't take another loss.

There was only going to be a fifth, final phase - acceptance. But it seemed silly to Wanda. How could she accept something like that? How could she accept such a thing? She can't say goodbye to either of them.

"Are you all right?" came a vaguely cautious male voice. Wanda opened her eyes and looked over her shoulder. Bucky was standing in the doorway, watching her anxiously. His presence surprised her. She thought she was the only one left on the base. How long had he been standing there watching her? What must he think of her? Before she could answer, he added, as if to himself, "Stupid question. More like no than yes, huh? It's the worst time of the year."

Wanda felt a surge of sympathy for him. Yes, Bucky understood her. He, too, felt strongly about the loss of Steve and Natasha. She knew she didn't have to explain, and that he wouldn't regale her with encouraging talk and advice that wouldn't do her any good. "Will you have dinner with me?" she asked him instead, realizing this was the first time she and Bucky had ever had this conversation. They hadn't spent much time together in the past, nor had there been the chance.

He grinned and nodded toward the box of cereal. “Good dinner. So why not," he finally shrugged and sat down on a bar stool. Both Wanda and he were surprised that he agreed to her offer. She poured cereal into two bowls, then put it and the spoon in front of Bucky and took the milk out of the fridge. After pouring some, she took the bowl and leaned her loins against the kitchen counter before eating. Barnes chuckled a little more before there was a moment of silence between them.

Finally, Bucky looked up at her. “Were you talking about it with someone?“

She shook her head slowly. “No. I don't even know if I want to. I don't know if anyone could understand me. I don't know how to talk about it," she sighed, setting the bowl on the counter and wrapping her arms around her torso. “I just feel so… so empty. So alone, you know? And inside me, it's just helpless."

He nodded thoughtfully. “I know how you feel. It's like an endless hole. I cannot imagine how something so dark and empty and endless could ever be filled."

"Everyone always says that part of the person we loved and lost lives forever inside us. I agree with that, of course. But at the same time, something dies inside us. And when I lost Vision, I felt like I lost some part of me, too. The best part of me, maybe the only good part of me. And..." she whispered shakily, still afraid to even admit it, let alone confide it to anyone else. "And I have no idea how to get her back. I don't know if this is me. I don't recognize the woman who looks at me in the mirror every morning. All I'm sure of is that I hate her," she confessed to Bucky.

Bucky got up and approached her carefully. She looked up at him, tears sliding down her cheeks. "You know, I can't walk in this," he told her quietly, "I'm not very good at consoling. But... Wanda, I understand. I understand how you feel. You're not alone in this. Okay? I want you to know that you're not alone in this and you'll never be alone." Then, hesitantly, he opened his arms. Wanda slipped into it gratefully, burying her tearful face in his chest.

Maybe this was exactly what she needed to hear.

That she's not as alone as she feels.

Chapter Text

"Come on, Sprite, you're not going to let me go alone!" pleaded Cora for the fiftieth time today, looking at herself in the mirror from all sides. She was wearing a new black cocktail dress she'd bought especially for the evening. Today, their school was having a Christmas party, and Cora, who loved social events, certainly couldn't miss it.

Sprite, who was lying on her friend's bed, her legs flicking in the air, grinned. "You know I'm not into that. You're more likely to enjoy it without me than with me," she replied, not even looking up from her phone. I told you you'd become addicted to it, like she heard Sersi's voice. Sprite sighed inwardly. She and Sersi had been through a lot, and while Sprite often envied her and sometimes resented her for being able to live a normal life as an adult and not as a child, she still liked her. And she missed her.

Cora stopped looking down in the mirror and turned to the red-haired girl. She put her hands on her hips and watched her for a moment before breaking to the bed, kneeling in front of her and snatching the Sprite phone from her hand. The girl frowned at her.

"You've spent enough time on it. Now it's time to have fun! Come on, our holiday starts tomorrow! Are you really going to sit with your phone all the time and scroll Instagram?"

"Of course not," Sprite said indignantly. “I´ll watch Grinch, too.“

The dark-haired girl chuckled. "Sprite, come on. You're my best friend. Come with me, please. I promise it'll be great! And I wouldn't really enjoy it without you. I'd miss you," Cora told her, putting on her pleading face. Sprite groaned. Cora knew full well that if she put on that expression, Sprite wouldn't be able to say no to her.

'I hate you, Coraline,' she snarled at her, but when the dark-haired woman squealed enthusiastically and clasped her in a hug, Sprite had to smile. But as soon as Cora let go of her, she remembered to look grumpy again. The evening with Cora didn't sound so bad after all, though it meant she'd have to spend it in the big gym of their school along with a lot of other people. Ugh, who'd have thought that if she became human, she'd have to socialize this much...

Cora had been her best friend since the first day Sprite started school. Of course, she didn't know anyone here, which is why she was quite frightened, even if she didn't show it. After all, even as Eternal, she didn't show much of her emotions, preferring to keep them bottled up inside her. Such as her love for Ikaris... Sprite was sure she would spend the whole of high school alone, but luckily she got a place next to the friendly Coraline, who immediately made contact with her and took her under her wing. She found a wonderful listener in Sprite and a loyal and lovely friend who was always there for her. And everything was easier for Sprite, thanks to Cora; she became more involved, overcoming her fears and feeling like she belong somewhere. She knew that if she didn't have Cora, being human would be unbearable for her. She and Cora had known true friendship, and she wouldn't trade that feeling for anything in the world. In the end, she did not regret her decision to ask Sersi to turn her into a mortal who could live life as it was, all the way.

"You should grow your hair longer," Cora frowned, her fingers going into her short red hair, which was perpetually tousled in all directions, and she studied its length. Sprite looked into her intent face and had to smile.

"I like having them like this. It's not that much work," she said slowly.

Cora wrinkled her nose in amusement. “Yeah, that´s right. All right, don't listen to me. I guess short hair suits you better. You're such a rebel," she laughed, standing up. Sprite began to miss her touch immediately and raised her eyes to her, watching Coraline rummage in the closet. "I'll lend you some of my clothes. You may be shorter than me, but we'll find something here. And don't you dare resist," she added quickly, recognizing Sprite's intake of breath to say something disapprovingly. "No offense, but your clothes are not fit for a party. Trust me, you'll be charming today. Not that you wouldn't normally be, but . . . you know."

Sprite laughed. "You're getting a little tangled up."

"Yeah, chaotic babble, that's what I'm good at." Then Cora straightened up, holding a long turquoise dress triumphantly in her hand. Sprite, who preferred comfortable sweatpants and wide sweatshirts, gazed at them in fascination. And she felt a slight stab in the heart. That color was hers. "I knew you'd like them."

•••

"Cor, you don't have to spend the whole evening with me," she assured her friend Sprite as they stood nearby, looking at the crowded floor, each holding a juice cup. “I think I saw Dustin there. We both know you're crazy about him. You should go find him and go dance with him. And I'm going to sit somewhere and watch you guys look cute together."

"Am I hearing you right? No sarcastic remark?" Cora asked, her lips twitching into a smile.

She winked. "I'm saving that for later."

"I don't know, Sprite . . ."

Sprite grabbed her arm. "Well, we'll find him together, and I'll start telling him about how amazing you are-"

"No, Sprite, no!" laughed Cora. “Your storytelling is incredible. And you'd be over-egging me, and he'd fall in love with that Cora you portrayed to him... Or he'd fall in love with you because you'd bewitch him with your storytelling talent."

The redhead wrinkled her nose. “Bad for him. Not my type."

Cora gave her a look. "Sprite, is anyone your type?"

Sprite pretended to think. "Um, actually, I have no idea..."

Both of them laughed. Then Cora squeezed her hand tighter and looked at her. "I want to spend the evening with my best friend. I'd blame myself if you were wandering around by yourself and bored. Plus, I promised you'd have fun, so... let's dance!" she exclaimed enthusiastically, already dragging her to the dance floor before Sprite could protest.

"But Cor, I don´t know how to dance!"

"Don't worry, I'll show you how!"

Chapter Text

Life on Midgard was not, after all, as gruesome as Loki had first skeptically assumed. Of course, at first, he thought he would die of boredom here, and it was only through his pride that he did not come to beg Thor to take him back to Asgard. The only thing that made him feel better was the frequent teasing of the Avengers, predominantly Stark. But soon there was a pleasant distraction in the form of the witch Wanda Maximoff, who, along with other heroes, became a member of the Avengers. But the others didn't interest Loki. At first glance, he was intrigued by her - those deep eyes and the mysterious aura that flowed around her. Loki felt more potential from her than from all the Avengers put together. The world's most powerful superheroes, he chuckled to himself. Only Wanda deserved this. And Loki was drawn to her, some unknown force he could not resist, that he could not explain.

Before long, he understood why he was so drawn to her. Wanda wasn't born with her powers, of course. She got them when she and her twin brother, Pietro, joined Hydra. It came as a surprise to him to discover that it was the mind stone hidden in his scepter that had given her her powers. That was the reason, he realized, that´s was why I was so drawn to her.

To his discontent, however, he had not yet had a single interaction with her. Not that he didn't try. But there was always someone to thwart him. It was as if the Avengers suspected that he was plotting and that he was attracted not only to Wanda but especially to her power. It was all smiling. And finally, he was in no hurry. Who knows how much longer he'll be cooped up here, and at least he had enough time to figure out how to win Wanda over. He knew the Avengers would make a mistake someday, and it would open the way for him to reach the young witch. He knew he would talk to her eventually, whether they liked it or not. And that day finally came.

Loki walked down the hall toward his room, cradling a pile of books he had not yet read. The team enjoyed Christmas time together, and though Thor offered to join them, Loki immediately turned him down. He had no desire to celebrate Christmas, least of all with them. And good thing he did, because as he passed Wanda's room, he noticed that not only was the door ajar, but muffled voices were pouring out of the room. There was a satisfied smile on his face, and he did not hesitate to knock briefly.

"Come in," Wanda said, and Loki went inside. She looked up from the TV and looked surprised to find that it wasn't one of the Avengers who had come to her. “What´s wrong? Do you have a message for me from the others?"

He grinned mirthlessly and put the books on her desk. "Do I look like someone's errand boy?" he asked rhetorically, noting Wanda's wary eye on him, adding, "You don't have to be afraid of me."

"I'm not afraid of you. I just don't know what to expect from you."
"Ah, so the others have told you a thing or two about me, have they?" he snorted, leaning his loins against the table, folding his arms across his chest.

"Of course. They told me to watch out for you, that you were unpredictable, insidious-"

"-that I killed eighty people in two days, blah blah blah," he finished quickly, rolling his eyes. "Why look at everything so negatively? It could have been a lot worse, couldn't it?" Then he gave her a crooked smile. "The rednecks haven't even introduced us. I've-"

"I know who you are, Loki," Wanda interrupted, studying him. "Do the others know you're here?"

He laughed. "Of course not. But what about you?" he changed the subject, giving her a long look. "How come you're alone in your room? Why don't you spend Christmas with the others? You're an Avenger-"

She shook her head. "No, I'm not. I'm not an Avenger," she disagreed, her eyes straying back to the TV screen. "I ... feel like I don't fit in." She herself was probably surprised to confide her feelings to Loki, who tried not to look too pleased. But Wanda seemed more oblivious. This looks even better than I expected, Loki thought, savoring the strong presence of magic. "They all... know who they really are. They know what they're fighting for. They're heroes. And I've . . . messed up enough."

"But so them," Loki said, realizing how fragile Wanda was and therefore easily influenced. He couldn't really get a better chance. "Do you think they never screwed up? You don't think they've made any mistakes in their lives either? They pretend to save the world, to be indispensable, perfect... but that's not true, Wanda. Real power looks different. And the salvation of the world, too," he sneered, moving slowly toward her.

"What do you know about it?"

"Much more than they do, anyway. I've seen and experienced a lot. I could learn from the mistakes of my father, my brother, and my own." She looked back at him. He pointed at her bed with his finger, and she nodded and moved a little to make place for him. He sat down beside her. As he pondered how to phrase his next words properly, he raised his gaze to the small television. "Bambi?" he asked, realizing he knew what Wanda was watching.

She blinked in surprise. “You know it?“ Then she smiled. "If you're afraid of crying, you don't have to. That part's been done."

He raised his eyebrows at her. “I don´t cry.“

She looked at him as if he had fallen from another world. Um, well... "You didn't cry when Bambi's mom died?"

"Oh, sure, it was very sad when the guy stopped drawing the deer," Loki replied quite seriously, and then- Wanda laughed out loud. He looked surprised and smiled. He didn't think he'd ever make anyone laugh. He was strangely pleased with the knowledge. "Wanda-"

"Don't say it," she interrupted and stopped laughing. He cocked his head. "Don't say I'm different from the others, that I'm better, and... because I'm not."

"That depends on the point of view," he replied calmly. There was a devilish twinkle in his green eyes. "Let's get out of here."

"What? We can't-"

"Why not? Must you report your every move to them? It's your life, Wanda, and they have no right to decide it."

"I've caused enough problems, I shouldn't..."

He grabbed her by the shoulders and looked urgently into her eyes as she looked up at him. "You told me that you don't feel like you fit in there," he said in a low voice of his own. Wanda stared at him and felt . . . understanding. He knew how she felt. She nodded slowly.

"I have no place in the world..."

"Neither do I. So far," he added quickly, and then his lips parted in a wide smile. He squeezed her shoulders and his pupils widened eagerly. "Just because we don't have it doesn't mean we'll never find it. And it's never too late to start looking for it..."

Chapter Text

Bucky stirred uncomfortably as he felt Natasha stir in his arms and put her palms on his arms so she could get out of his embrace. Instead of letting go, he grunted and hugged her tighter, pressing his whole body against her. "No, no, no, don't go anywhere," he muttered sleepily, burying his face in her collarbone.

"I really have to get up, Bucky," Natasha said in an amused voice, running her fingers through his long hair. "And so should you."

"I'm not going anywhere. And neither do you because I'm comfortable," he replied firmly, pressing a fleeting kiss to her neck. "Just a minute, Nat," he moaned, and she had to laugh.

"I hate you," she sighed, running her fingertips over his unshaven face. He opened his eyes slowly and gave her a slight frown.

"What did I do?"

"You're too cute, and I can't resist you," she said disapprovingly, and Bucky's lips curled into a smug smile. He leaned slightly toward her, rubbing his nose lightly against hers before kissing her. She laughed and pulled away from him, covering his mouth with her hand. In another moment, she felt him lick her palm. "James!" she exclaimed in disbelief, and he chuckled softly.

"Then don't put it in my mouth."

"That's it, get up! I already know we're going to be late, and we're going to listen to Tony's constant innuendo until tomorrow morning," she said, rolling her eyes and sitting up. Bucky pressed up against her from behind and hugged her, resting his chin on her shoulder. She had to smile. She leaned her head against his and grabbed his hand, intertwining her fingers with it. "I hope you remembered to wrap your gifts."

"I did the best I could."

"Me too," she confessed, and Bucky laughed.

"We can't walk in this yet, can we? It's strange to suddenly be able to live a normal life, at least within the realm of possibility. Honestly, after all these years, I almost didn't think the chance would come."

"Neither do I," sighed Natasha softly, her other hand stroking Bucky's forearm. James was right; even she didn't think she'd ever lived a normal life, that she'd get a family, a boyfriend...

"Are you sure you wrapped all the gifts?" Barnes asked thoughtfully. "Somehow I can't shake the feeling that you've forgotten one . . . what about the one for me? Oh, of course, as I see it, you forgot to wrap yourself..." Natasha pulled back so she could see his face. There was a moment of silence between them, and then Bucky grinned. “Awkward?“

"Yeah," she agreed, her eyes twinkling. "This was a really lame pickup line."

"If only I'd wrapped it up as a gift and put it under your tree..." Natasha groaned. “Okay, okay… I have a better one, then. Did it hurt when you fell-"

"All right, that's enough! It hurts me and it's disgusting," she grinned as if she'd eaten something disgusting. "What do I do to make sure this never happens again?"

Bucky did his thinking. "Well, maybe we can lie back down and stay in bed until tomorrow-"

"Okay, I have a better idea. I'm going to take a shower. Do you wanna join me?" she suggested with a playful smile as she got out of bed and stretched. Bucky watched her closely, his eyes sweeping admiringly over the beautiful curves of her body.

Barnes cleared his throat, then said quite seriously, "Babe, you know there´s a gun in my bedside table?" Natasha raised her eyebrows, not sure exactly where she was going with this, but nodded. "If I ever say no," he slowly rose to his feet, a smile on his face, "I want you to take that gun and use it on me." He didn't hesitate a moment longer and grabbed her in his arms, carrying her to the bathroom. She laughed and wrapped her arms around his waist.

"You're getting better."

•••

"I wouldn't want to be a woman," Bucky said thoughtfully as he lounged comfortably on the bed, watching Natasha with interest as she sat in front of a mirror, curling her hair with a curling iron.

"I wonder what are you going to say," she murmured, listening to him halfheartedly.

Bucky intertwined his fingers. "You spend a lot of time in front of a mirror trying to please us."

"Aw, James, it's cute how naive you think we're doing this for you," Natasha said, running her fingers lightly through her crimped hair. Then she turned to her boyfriend, who looked taken aback. “We are doing this for us. When we want to lift our spirits, when we want to feel beautiful... don't take this personally, honey, but this is all quite challenging. And do it every day, just for you? No, thank you," she said.

"Well, you know I like you when you look . . . normal," he stammered, and Natasha chuckled softly. "And I'm glad you don't do this every day, and you don't have to spend so much time in front of the mirror, because then at least there'll be time for other things," he winked at her as he found his footing again.

"Shame on you, you naughty boy," she snarled, then clicked the curling iron. "And so I'm thinking . . . don't you want to be charming tonight, too? I may know how it could be arranged . . ." she told him, rising slowly, approaching his side of the bed with a beastly stride.

Bucky blanched slightly. "What--what exactly do you mean? Don't you want to put that dangerous thing away somewhere?" Natasha stopped and looked at the curling iron in her hand. She shrugged and, to his relief, put it down on the bedside table. Barnes breathed a sigh of relief, but then Natasha sat astride his lap and pressed herself against him. She took his face in her hands, and Bucky's pupils widened as she bit her lip. “Nat, what are you-“

"Do you know how much I like your hair?" she crooned, and he felt her hot breath on his lips. Natasha dug her fingers into his long hair and ran them gently through it. "hmm, James... there are so many things I want to do with you..." She brushed gently against his lips. She felt him tense as a string and had to smile.

"R-Really?"

She winked innocently at him. “What do you think… can I?“

•••

"When you talked about the things you wanted to do with me, I didn't think this would be one of them!" frowned James, looking at his reflection in the elevator mirror. Natasha just smiled with satisfaction and put her arm around his waist.

"But you look good," she said, amused, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.

"I should have washed it," he moaned as the elevator stopped and the doors opened. Loud music reached them.

“There was no time for that. See, I told you we should have gotten up earlier," she crooned, grabbing his arm. “Come on. You're cute. Cute little grumpy man."

"I really needed that," Bucky growled discontentedly, letting Natasha drag him into the large common room, where, of course, they immediately saw Tony, who wore his glasses and Santa hat to punctuate the Christmas spirit, in the doorway. Seeing Bucky and his curly hair, he pulled his glasses down to the end of his nose and stared at him. There was a pause, and James just counted down the seconds when the real suffering would come and he would be under an endless barrage of Tony's lines.

In another moment, Stark sputtered and began to laugh loudly, gasping for breath. Bucky rolled his eyes at him, annoyed. Then Tony looked over his shoulder and called out to the other Avengers, "Do we have any ribbons around here for this little girl?"

Chapter Text

"Why didn't Aunt Thena come with you?" asked Jack, a little disappointed, as he and Druig and Makkari sat down at the table to have dinner together.

Phastos laughed and gave his son a look. "Oh boy, you're fixated on Aunt Thena," he said, amused, but a little nervous inside. He liked Thena, but since her last visit, he had wondered if she was a good role model for their child. Jack was charmed by her, of course, but Phastos wasn't all that happy about it.

Jack grinned at him and stuck a piece of turkey on his fork. He then put it in his mouth and murmured enthusiastically, with his mouth full, "Aunt Thena is cool."

"Jack, what were we saying? You don't talk with your mouth full," Ben chided gently, looking rather apologetically at the Druig and Makkari, who was smiling, and when the Druig translated what Phastos's husband had said, the woman replied in sign language that it was nothing and that he had no need to apologize for it. As soon as she began to sign, she immediately drew Jack's attention, and the boy began to stare at her.

"I want to learn that, too," Jack said as soon as Makkari had stopped signing, and he said it in such a determined voice that Phastos had to laugh.

"You know, it's kind of hard, Jack," he replied with a smile, then looked at Makkari, who had revealed what his son had said. The woman's smile widened.

"But I want to talk to Aunt Makkari, too," Jack frowned, scooping up some cranberry sauce.

"Of course you can learn," Druig replied, putting his arm around the woman's shoulders. "And Aunt Makkari can teach you, what are you saying?"

"And Druig and I will assist you, of course," Phastos added quickly.

Jack thought about it, then nodded in satisfaction. "All right," he said enthusiastically, looking eagerly at Makkari as if he expected to get right on it.

Ben shook his head slowly, though, and pushed his son's nearly full plate toward him. “No, not now, Jack. We'll all eat our dinner in peace first, and then you can learn a few phrases later," he told him firmly, and Jack, though it seemed at first that he was going to protest, finally nodded his agreement and then quickly began to eat his dinner. He stuffed so much into his mouth that his cheeks turned into lumps and he looked like a greedy gopher. Everyone at the table laughed at the sight of the boy. “Jack, slow down! Then your tummy will hurt. I know you're excited, but Makkari and Druig aren't going anywhere."

"It usually takes a long time for Jack to eat his food," Phastos told the couple, translating his words into sign language for Makkari as well. "He's always dawdling about it and talking more at the table than he is eating."

"Because I have a lot to tell you," said Jack, sipping his juice.

"You're a little smartass, aren't you?" said Phastos, shaking his head but smiling.

"Do you like it?" asked Ben anxiously. He was preparing dinner this evening and was nervous when Phastos assured him that Druig and Makkari were indeed coming. His husband squeezed his knee encouragingly under the table.

"It's delicious, Dad," Jack replied instead, concentrating on his plate and trying to eat his portion as quickly as possible.

They laughed. "I didn't ask you, Jackie, but thank you."

"It's great," Druig assured him, and Makkari nodded in agreement. Ben sighed in relief.

Phastos looked at them thoughtfully. “So, what´s new? Are you in touch with the others?" he asked them, then leaned across the table to wipe his son's cranberry sauce off his chin. Jack grinned at him.

Druig chewed slowly before replying, "Not that much, actually. All we know is that Sersi has moved in with that boyfriend of hers and that Sprite is enjoying her new school and is content to live a normal life."

The man breathed a sigh of relief. “Glad to hear that. I was afraid that Sprite would one day regret it. But I understand why she did it. It would frustrate me, too, if I was her. It might be a little hard to get used to at first, but I'm sure she'll love it. Life has many beautiful things to offer," he said, looking fondly at his son, who scraped up the remains with a fork and then beamed at his fathers. "Wow, Jack, you've never eaten a meal this fast. But I'm afraid you'll still have to wait until Aunt Makkari finishes eating."

Jack nodded, swinging his legs. He looked at Druig and Makkari as he did so, and seemed troubled by some question he wasn't sure whether or not to ask. Ben cocked his head. “What´s wrong, Jack? If you have any questions to ask, don't be afraid to ask or you won't know."

"All right," the boy blurted, his expression serious. “None of you Ete- Etr- just none of you superheroes wear a cape, do you?"

Druig thought about that. "No, not really. Why do you ask?" he asked with interest. Both Phastos and Ben had an idea where their son was going with this.

Jack breathed a sigh of relief. “That´s good! Because -- I don't know if you've seen this, but in one cartoon, the Incredibles is called, there's Miss Edna, who designs costumes for superheroes, and she forbids everyone to wear a cape because if you have a cape, that cape can kill you! Unless you're Doctor Strange, he's got a cool cloak!" he veered off-topic for a moment, daydreaming as he remembered Doctor Strange. “But you aren´t Doctor Strange. So a cape can get stuck on a rocket, you can get sucked in by a jet turbine, sucked into a vortex . . ."

"Jack, how many times have you seen this?" Ben asked, amused.

"Why didn't you name me Jack-Jack? I could have been a superhero, too," he muttered, his lips curling in frustration. But then he brightened with new hope. "But maybe my powers will come later! Dad, can Druig and Makkari and I watch The Incredibles?"

"I thought you wanted Aunt Makkari to teach you sign language," Phastos replied with a smile, and Jack's enthusiasm returned to learning sign language. Makkari had just announced that she had finished eating, and he immediately jumped out of his chair, grabbed his aunt's arm, and dragged her into the living room, where they sat on the rug in front of the fireplace. Druig chuckled and quickly finished the rest of his portion, so he could translate to Jack what Makkari was saying and correct him as he tried sign language himself.

Phastos shook his head in amusement and helped Ben clear the table and wash the dishes. When all was done, they followed the others back to the living room, where Jack was looking intently at Druig, who was slowly signing off on what Makkari had shown him, and the boy was eagerly repeating it. Phastos smiled and grabbed Ben around the waist. The smaller man pressed against him and murmured affectionately, "We've got a great kid, don't we?"

Chapter Text

'You're cute,' Steve whispered with a loving smile on his face as he gently stroked Tony's hair while they lay in bed together. The younger man, resting his head on his bare chest, stirred contentedly and looked up at him. "Very, very cute," he said hoarsely, leaning over to sprinkle kisses all over his face.

Tony laughed and raised himself on one elbow, running his fingers over Steve's muscular chest. "Hmm, I could listen to this every day," he purred happily, bending down to catch his lips in a deep kiss. As soon as Rogers grabbed him around the waist, Tony straddled his lap and ran his fingers over his temples. When he stopped kissing him and drew back a little, his eyes swept into his face and he enjoyed the view.

“What is it?” Steve asked him, his forehead wrinkling slightly until a small wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows. Tony smiled and kissed it before answering his boyfriend.

"I just realized . . . looking at it closely . . . there's a bit of green in the blue of your eyes," he said thoughtfully, and Steve chuckled.

"I hope you're not going to break up with me because of this," he said in mock horror.

Tony winked at him and put on an expression of thinking. “I have to think about it. You may have to convince me somehow," he whispered, so close to his lips that Steve could feel his warm breath on them. He growled, and before Tony could react, he rolled Tony under him and braced himself over him. Stark chuckled and placed his hands on his chest. “Staying?“

'You're like April Fool's weather, Tony. First, you think about breaking up, now you think about me staying. You may have to convince me somehow," he mimicked, his nose brushing against his own.

'You don't want to leave me here alone on Christmas,' Tony said glumly, looking like an abandoned puppy. "And I wanted to make you the best breakfast."

Steve chuckled in amusement. “Tony, you and cooking? It doesn't add up. Besides, you hate getting up early," he teased good-naturedly. “Of course, I´ll stay, I promised you. And the idea of you being left here alone, wandering around bored as a soulless body... I can't let that happen. But I make breakfast!"

'Deal,' Tony grinned, drawing him in for a passionate kiss. He wouldn't trade moments with Steve for anything in the world, and since there weren't as many as he wanted, he enjoyed every one of them to the max. So he very much welcomed the fact that his parents were going away for Christmas and he could spend more than a few stolen moments with Steve. “But I want it to be breakfast in bed, yes, Mr. Rogers?” he purred against his lips, then smiled at Steve as Steve pulled back slightly, his blue eyes twinkling with amusement.

"Somebody likes to give orders," he whispered, pressing his lips against his neck, on which he pressed a few fleeting kisses. “Aren´t you a little spoiled, Anthony?“

Tony snorted. "Spoiled? Pff! My mom never let me eat in bed! Not even on my birthday!"

'Well, that's really terrible, how did you survive here all these years?' said Steve, drawing him in for a kiss. Tony wrapped his arms around his neck and kissed back enthusiastically. He muttered something inaudible, and Steve pulled away for a moment. “What did you say?“

"I said I thought I heard the front door slam and . . . yeah, that sounds like my parents," he added, completely unruffled. Steve went pale, but Tony just pressed close to him. "Mhmm, this is nice, shall we proceed?"

'Tony, damn it!' hissed Steve, breaking free of his grip. He rolled over it and struggled out of the blanket, almost falling off the bed and onto the ground.

'What are you doing?' chuckled Tony, sitting up, taking in the view of Steve's... Steve's muscular back.

"What am I doing? Tony, didn't you say your parents went to the Pentagon?" moaned Rogers, quickly picking up the pieces of his clothing that Tony had scattered around the room in the heat of passion.

Tony grinned innocently. “Yeah, they went to the Pentagon. I must have read the twenty-seventh instead of the twenty-fourth."

“No kidding,” Steve snorted, opening the window. Then he looked at Tony incredulously. "Did you really mistake a four for a seven?"

'Have you ever seen my dad's handwriting?' Tony raised an eyebrow at him, and when Steve just shook his head without further comment and threw a pile of his clothes out the window and into the snow, the dark-haired man burst out laughing. “Steve, what the hell are you doing? Can't you go through a door like a normal person? Now you don't have to prove how special you are, babe."

'Tony, in case you haven't figured it out, your parents have arrived and have no idea we're dating -'

"Hmm, what's the problem? At least we can finally tell them and not have to put it off any longer. Didn't you say you wanted to meet them? And you're very charming today..." he couldn't stop laughing.

Steve gave him a look and grabbed the sill. “Haha, very funny.“ After that, he waited for nothing, threw his legs over the sill, and jumped down. Tony chuckled as he heard Steve fall silently into the snow pile below his window, followed by a mixture of curses that were no longer muffled. Tony rolled out of bed and noticed that Steve had left his T-shirt in the blanket. He immediately rushed to the window and looked out, grateful that they were only on the first floor and his impact was not so hard because of the freshly fallen snow. The dark-haired man had to put his hand over his mouth when he saw Steve standing there in only his underwear, picking up pieces of clothing.

"Steve!" he hissed at him, and when the blond man looked at him, he raised his hand holding his white T-shirt. “You forgot something!“

Rogers waved his hand. The nervousness left his face for a moment as he smiled gently at Tony and blew him a kiss. “Keep it!“

"When will I see you again?"

"As soon as possible, I hope. I love you!" he called softly, raising his hand in greeting, before hugging his clothes to his chest and running away as inconspicuously as possible.

Tony buried his face in his T-shirt and took a deep breath of its smell. He already missed him. In another moment, there was a brief knock on the door, and Maria Stark peered in. “Hey honey, we are home already. Listen, did your boyfriend run out of here by any chance?" she asked, puzzled. "I thought you were finally going to introduce him."

"Yeah, Mom, that was him," he told her, sighing in love. He could still make out his silhouette in the distance. Then Steve stopped, turned, and waved again before continuing. Tony rested his elbows dreamily on the sill, looking after him, unable to stop smiling.