James Barnes knew there was a paper trail, a collection of noted events joining last winter through spring and summer till now, but leaning in the doorway between the small kitchenette into the living area of the apartment he wondered if the finishing details of that trail were only straight and clear in his mind.
He could tell she had been trying to read through a file when she had fallen asleep. One of Natasha's arms had slipped from her side so her knuckles dragged the floor. The file lay just beyond the open hand where it had fallen from her grasp. Her head slumped to rest almost against her shoulder, that was going to hurt later. He stood still, having debated whether to try and move her to bed, whether to bring a blanket but he had decided against it. Natasha was known to wake up if a pin dropped on to carpet, she was exhausted, her body beginning to get tired with the added strain.
Of course, he knew she needed to slow down. All assignments she was given were based on delegating but it was more than she should be doing. He wasn't sure when she had last got a good full nights sleep, and the coming months weren't looking like much of a turn up for the books.
So he stood in the doorway, jacket still on, shopping bags huddled at his feet while he thought about what to do.
In many ways this had all began much longer ago than last winter, a few years ago at least, but recent enough that James had found himself surrounded by new knowledge of the female body. He had been reasonably shocked when two and two had come together to explain those always adverts with the blue liquid and the connection between these confusing products and the monthlies he had heard of. He had also found himself in a world full of sexual imagery, struggling to get his head around women wearing little enough fabric that they once belonged in men's magazines now wearing the same underwear on televisions. In terms of the act itself there was more, he had began hearing about pills, implants, injections and had seen the abundance of condoms that now existed openly on the shelves in stores. In his youth- in theirs - only pulling out in the last moments had been used to prevent babies but he had come to know that even that was not effective.
The conversation had come following an evening trist. Natasha had felt him try to pullback, to remove himself from her body with enough time for the white liquid to spurt onto her stomach. She had shook her head, encasing his hips with her thighs and digging her feet into his lower back. At first he had tried to fight back, but after only seconds of doing so she was reaching down with her hand, grasping for his flesh hand and pulling it between her legs, pressing his fingers just where she wanted them.
It always amazed James how that little button of her anatomy could do so much, the press of his fingers, a light rub and he could feel her muscles deep inside shudder and squeeze around him.
As much as he had hesitated he had to admit it felt different, it felt amazing. He had only released inside her a handful of times, some of which had been out of his control, because of that he hadn't really thought about her experience.
She had hummed along with his movements, eyes closed and eyebrows close together but when he felt the shudders of them both, he noticed the small smile come on her face as his body instinctively pushed his seed deeper into her.
She released her grip with her thighs, letting her legs flop to the side and hooking a hand around each shoulder she had encouraged him to meet her face to face. They kissed for a while, both of their hearts thundering in their chests, but at the first opportunity James had asked the question playing on his mind.
"You can feel that, inside, when I," he trailed off, still not feeling he had the words to describe that end result.
He kissed her again, rolling his body off to lean on his side, placing a hand on her hip to bring her with him.
"Do you… do you have something, an injection or a pill or something that..?"
Natasha was already shaking her head as he tried to form the question. Her eyes seemed sad,
"No, I don't need to, I mean it has happened before. I have been pregnant."
James felt his stomach drop at those words, she had a child he didn't know about? He wasn't sure how that could even be possible, where was it, who looked after it, what had happened that he didn't know?
Natasha carried on, her gaze shifting, avoiding looking in his eyes.
"I was sixteen, the father a soldier who treated me so much better than I'd ever been treated before. He was killed in action, I went into labour only days later. The rest of the unit didn't know until I was already giving birth, they found a local woman who helped me. It was so hard, I remember that - the pains had gone on for days. I looked it all up in the nineties, learned I had probably been in labour for about five or six days. I'd known it wasn't time even then, but now I believe I was only around six and a half months pregnant, out of the nine it should be. In reality they'd call it a late miscarriage now, she wasn't meant for this world. When she came out she was silent, my baby girl, she never breathed. I held her wrapped in a shawl against my chest as she became colder and bluer.
I remember being wet, when the local midwife had gently taken her from me, insisting we needed to lay her out before her body set. The midwife- her name was Vika - she explained it was milk leaking from me, I've often thought it was like the tears that couldn't flow from my eyes were finding another way out."
At that part of her story, Natasha had looked back at him, tears brimming in her eyes, a few silently sliding down her face and leaving a shine on her cheeks.
She hadn't needed to ask for him to envelop her smaller body in his arms. James held her tight, hearing gentle sobs from where she had tucked her head into his chest, he held her as tight as he could, supporting as much of her body as he could. He wished he could absorb the feelings from her somehow, take on some of the pain she must have known for so many years. James thought he knew all her pain, and she his, but this piece of the puzzle was buried so deep that she could hide it from herself.
He had learned more from her over the next few days, heard more about the tiny baby girl who had been a perfect, peaceful miniature. Natasha had named her Rose, a name that wasn't recognised in Russian at the time. He learned she was buried in the Slovensky forests of Slovakia, which had been the USSR back then. He had heard her explain that it was both the first and the last time she had been pregnant. She explained that the Biochemical experimentation that had taken place on the Red Room girls had made her immune system so strong that her body saw a pregnancy as a threat. When Rose had been born Natasha hadn't yet finished the course given to all the girls, she believed back then her body had mostly killed sperm, that somehow the one that was necessary had got through. Despite that her body had still been hostile to the baby, causing her to die. Since then there had been no sign she could conceive.
Contraceptives were an inconvenience that she used for work only, that same immune system meaning she wasn't at risk of any sexual diseases, they kept up the facade.
After all of that, after unburying the painful truth, they had stopped pulling out. James had to admit it was a small perk of Natasha's infertility. They could enjoy a play under the blankets without anything in the way, without planning. It meant more fun, more adventure and taking advantage of the flexibility Natasha had.
Then it all changed. It changed dramatically and quickly in ways they couldn't have imagined. Natasha had been away for a few weeks home only days and off again on another job. They had barely seen each other in person and then, arriving home after a days work, looking forward to having Natasha's company and knowing she should have been back in the flat before him, James had walked into a scene he hadn't expected. Natasha's cabin - sized case sat on the counter, the top open and a few items had been rummaged through. He had called her name, shouting a second time when he crossed out into the hallway.
"Ugh, yeah, in here James."
The reply sounded distant, distracted. She hadn't come to meet him. He saw the light on in the ensuite but his eyes had caught on something else lying on the edge of the bed. He'd never forget that moment.
There had been a paper bag on the bed, the type which came from a pharmacy, then there was some stick of white plastic a bit longer and slimmer than a marker pen, a little cap even stuck on one end. He had known what it was instantly, from tv and advertising, but he had been so thrown off by the eight letter word clearly visible in the window situated in the centre. He was certain he could never forget the lettering, the hue of grey/black, every part of the word pregnant.
"Is this real?" He remembered saying the words out loud as he had looked at it, not sure if he was talking to himself, the chemical test or Natasha but she had emerged from the bathroom while he spoke. He had heard her reply before he saw her.
"yeah, I think it's pretty real."
He had turned to see her standing in the joining doorway, her eyes on him but her mind clearly miles away. She looked pale, he couldn't tell if it was a result of shock. Natasha had stood there her spaghetti strap top pulled into a rough bunch and held in one hand the other one sitting just below her belly button.
Braving it James moved slowly back across the kitchen and out into the hallway at the other side, breathing a sigh of relief when he got into the small box room-slash-study-slash-armoury without any sounds that indicated he had woken Natasha.
The room was still mostly in its multipurpose state, only a few large unopened boxes indicated that any time now it was to become a nursery. Among the groceries he had brought home were a few extras. Diapers in newborn size, which he had eventually narrowed down from the packs upon packs on the store shelves. Along with these were the wipes, the cotton wool balls, a pack of pacifiers he had decided to get at the last moment.
He hadn't brought any clothes in, respecting Natasha's culture where superstition dictated that nothing for the unborn baby should be brought into the home until it had arrived. Of course there were many things that this couldn't apply to for practicality reasons, and it hadn't stopped him having a bag in the trunk that had the tiny onesies, sleepers, hats, socks and mittens.
He sighed as he took in one of the two large boxes, the first contained the basket for the baby to sleep in, something that maybe could stay within its box, but the second, the second was where he saw concern.
The second box was the car seat, the seat that by law they needed to bring home their baby. The seat would need to be properly installed in the car, it's straps would need to be set at the right level, he would need to check it could fit securely in the car and - his biggest reason for concern - it needed to be in situ when her labour began. The baby had been due two days ago.
Leaving his latest editions to the baby stash where they were he made his way back to the living room. Natasha hadn't moved, still sleeping on her back which was a rarity. Usually she slept curled up tightly in a ball, he reckoned it came from a life where warmth was not a given, where the young girls were tortured by being shackled to beds with no more than a sheet to cover themselves in the freezing nights.
Bucky wasn't sure what drew him to sit by her side, but that's where he ended up. He sat on the floor, knees tucked up under his chin, his head in line with her belly on the sofa. He picked up the menilla file, tossed it lightly onto the coffee table. He was surprised to see the thicker file already sitting there, the file with her name scrawled on a sticker on the front which contained all her maternity care records. Had she been looking through it? That would be a first.
" Oh miss Tasha, what are we going to do about this mess?"
Bucky sighed, speaking to no one in particular - even Liho the once street cat had been keeping her distance at the moment, only appearing for food now and then. It was like the cat knew something was up, that the woman she had once forced into adopting her had a new intruder who needed to be loved far more than the little black cat did.
"You know, it wasn't something we ever thought about, back then I mean, having kids one day, well that was a part of life. None of the boys ever really thought about it much, maybe we were too young to really think about it but that's what a happy marriage meant back then. A man and wife who loved each other, well they had a bunch of kids. Maybe the queers didn't think like that, you know, the homosexual men, but even most of them must've got married and such 'cause there weren't many single men around. Even the single ones, like Tony's father back then, they always had a pretty girl on their arm. "
He let silence fall for a moment, reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out his brown leather wallet. It was starting to get a little tattered now but Natasha always insisted that you couldn't buy your own wallet. His Ma had been superstitious like that, all the Irish descendents were. They had come from a country so much older than the United States of America, a country full of explanations made before science gave them the words to understand the truth. Still a lot of the superstition had stayed on. Bucky smiled to himself thinking what his Ma would have said about owning a black cat.
Unfolding the wallet he pulled out the three images he kept in there. The first was one he'd been given as a gift by Bruce Banner, he didn't know the guy well other than that he was generally a little quiet but always kind hearted. The Doc had got the photograph enhanced on his computer and reprinted it in a good quality. It was him and Steve, in their uniforms, Steve had an arm thrown around his shoulder and they looked happy even if they were covered in all types of dust and dirt.
He flicked through to the second picture, one of Natasha, she was looking back over her shoulder towards the camera, eyes bright and sparkling, her natural hair like fire amidst the snowy background. He believed it was taken in Estonia, somewhere near Aravate. There was a polished snowball in her hand that he knew was coming his way and he knew it would have hit the target only moments after the phone camera snapped the image.
Again he flicked on, the third image being the one he was looking for. The third one had taken some training for him to understand fully but now that he was used to seeing it he could easily map out the little arm that was up, the elbow bent beside the large head shape, the feet, one ankle crossing the other in what seemed a position no one could be comfortable in. Then he had remembered whom this tiny human was growing within and realised that he knew all about Natasha's abilities to be comfy in the strangest of ways. The black and white grainy image looked to him like it was all made up of different strands of rice, some black, some white and some grey but he knew that they were made by the transmission of waves, a little like the sonar stuff that dolphins used to communicate, waves that people couldn't see but machines could read. He had known about x - rays back in his youth, but those were still in the early days and not many people got them, now they had these sonography devices and ones which used magnets too.
It was mesmerising to think he held a printed out image of the baby who sat behind layers of skin and blood, inside the body of the woman behind him. There was so much of this modern world he was still learning to understand, and so much he was sure that little person would learn alongside him.
"You know," he said again, speaking under his breath,
"I was glad when the baby stayed, before then I didn't know how much I actually wanted it, how much it was so normal for me that I didn't think about it. It's the most normal thing we've ever had, you and me Nat, the most normal thing we could want after all the mess we've had in our lives."
" I know you saw a baby die, you saw your own baby die and I can't imagine what that must've felt like. I saw kids die too, but they weren't all babies. I remember the summer when we went back to school and I sat at my desk, Steve at his, and I had a smile on my face looking at the empty desks, thinking about all the trouble those kids would be in who forgot which day they had to come back to school. The school teacher though, he was usually a pretty strict man, didn't take any nonsense but he came in that day with his cap in his hand. I'll never forget that thick feeling of my heart sinking in my chest when he told us. The kids in those empty desks weren't coming back, they had died over the summer. Measles, each of them; all five."
"There was the group home a couple of blocks from where we stayed, one of these places for kids with disabilities, though we didn't say that back then. I remember we were maybe twelve when Eddie Hamilton got Polio, a few months he was in hospital, and when he got out he lived in that home for a bit. He had these big metal braces he had to wear on his legs, they went right up to his hips with joints where his knees were and some sort of wool on the inside to stop them cutting into his skin. He had those braces and two crutches for a long time. I don't know what happened to him in the end, he never came back to school and we stopped seeing him in the yard of the home."
" I'm worried that you're not ready, that your mind is too closed off to see the joy in this baby. I think you're scared, and you have a right to be. Nat, the things you've had done to you, the things you've been forced to do, I know it's hell. I was there too. Maybe this is the other side, I don't know if I believe everything my Ma did, or that we learned at church but."
He paused to take a breath, thumb stroking the edge of the image in his hand even though he had clearly begun speaking to the sleeping woman at his side.
"My Ma used to say to me that every baby was a new blessing, even those ones that didn't stay long. We went to Coney Island one time when I was really little, I don't remember much else from that trip but we went to look at the Child Hatchery - all these tiny babies that I didn't quite believe were real inside glass cabinets like ornaments on display. My Ma explained that they came out too soon from their Mom's bellies, that they weren't ready yet like an undercooked cake. I had asked her why God let them come out too quick if they were stuck in these boxes being sick, and she had said she didn't know but she bet each one of them had a part to play in the story of their families."
"She was right on that, I believe she was anyway. I think what happened to you Nat, you were a kid, and it gives me chills to think of you all alone and in pain like that, but I think you know in your heart why Rose was taken. You don't want something to happen again, you worry that in that last moment things will turn bad like they did back then. I've had to learn that all of the technology in the world now makes things better, those babies at Coney Island, a lot of them live now and a lot of them are even smaller than the ones I saw. They've been checking everything, done all the heart checks and the scans."
Again he stopped, letting out a sigh, his eyes focused on a spot in the corner of the photograph. He let the words fall into the right order in his mind before saying them out loud.
"I know I can say all the right things to you Natasha. I know I can tell you what will and won't happen, but that doesn't take it away. I don't think taking it away really helps though, Rose has been with you for seventy years, in your mind, in your heart. I think she always will be, like my Ma and Pap's were always in mine, like my picture of Rebecca when I last saw her - not the Rebecca who is riddled with Alzheimers. I also think Ma was right, this little guy or gal, they are a blessing, they are part of our story and they are meant to be in it. We need to push aside the fear and embrace the excitement, we need to be strong. I'll be right there with you the whole way, even if it's something I never expected to see and, even if I really hope none of the nurses speak russian.
"Back then you were alone, you lost Nicolai and then Rose, I didn't even know you then. Now you've not just got me, you've got the whole team. Steve, Tony, Clint, Wanda, a load of people who are here, who love you in their own way. Heck, even the cat, sure she won't come in the house much at the moment but she still wants to check on you. I imagine she was a Mama before you got her fixed, maybe mother's intuition and all that, but whatever it is even she wants to be here for you. So do I, little miss, and I'm not going anywhere."
Bucky let the silence fall again, beginning to feel the embarrassment of having spent a solid ten minutes speaking to no one. He slipped the three images back into their place in his wallet, pushing the leather back into his pocket. He was just about to stand up, to go make himself busy somehow when the husky voice of a barely awake Natasha almost made him jump.
"Your such a sap Barnes,"
He turned, seeing her still unmoved but eyes open, smiling at him with the smirk that said she was playing with him.
"Hey, ugh, how much? Did you hear any of-?" She cut in, stopping his ramble of embarrassment
"I think I heard most of it, maybe all of it. You moved the file, that woke me up. I was going to say something earlier but, well, we're not the most open people, I wanted to hear your thoughts."
Bucky shifted his weight onto his knees, turning his body to face her as she did the same, moving her body carefully onto its side so she faced him properly. He felt the tips of his ears burning, even after everything the thought of Natasha hearing him pour out all of his thoughts as words made a part of Bucky cringe.
Natasha's eyes began to film over with tears the very second she began to speak.
"I was scared. I am scared. This wasn't something I ever thought could happen, and I sure as hell didn't bargain for it to get to this stage. I know you're here, and I know you will be, even if my mind is screaming right now. I'm not ready for this, but when have I been ready for any normal life event. They didn't teach us that stuff alongside breaking necks and the anatomy of a person based on the major arteries."
A look of surprise came onto her face, then it scrunched tightly into a look of pain, her eyes squeezed shut for a moment, she breathed in deeply and out again, softening the creases in her face tentatively as she exhaled.
"And James, I read the folder stuff, that's why I had a nap - hadn't planned to fall asleep with the work stuff but I was planning on sleeping. It says to do that."
Judging by the confusion on Buucky's face she carried on, realising he was surprised by this strange Natasha who read the instructions.
"It's time for another out of the frying pan and into the fire moment James Barnes, in the next twenty four hours you're being promoted to rank of father I reckon. It's not been long since the pain started, still a long way to go but I know this feeling, I remember it. Are you ready to take my hand and jump?"