In This Place It Seems Like Such a Shame

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He was hoping for a different response from her, and he doesn't think she believes him. It makes him doubt himself sometimes, but he's pretty sure it was her. He looks into any details from the Red Room that he can, asking Steve for all the information that he has on either of them. Steve is troubled by the question, but doesn't press him. Sam does come to talk to him soon after, no doubt at Steve's suggestion, though he doesn't make any reference to his newfound curiosity. Nothing provides definitive proof, but it's certainly plausible.

He doesn't talk to her about it again. If she wants to discuss it, she knows where to find him. Life continues much the same. He goes on missions with Steve and Sam and Barton and Natalia, and Natalia may be a little gentler around him than she was before he talked to her, but everything else is unchanged. It's nice, he supposes, to slip back into the routine. He's glad to have friends who support him.

The memories aren't coming back anymore, at least not like they were. He may dream of his past a couple times a month, but it's no longer as intense or frequent. Perhaps he's remembered everything he is going to. Younger Natalia is rarely in them, which he decides is more of a relief than anything else. It's confusing to have those memories fresh on his mind when he sees her as she is now, especially as they're usually on a mission.

His improved state of mind must be noticeable to the others as he is sent on more high-risk missions, sometimes alone. Accomplishing them is not a problem, and he figures Steve and the others knew that all along. The concern has always been whether or not he will come back. There are triggers he may have, implanted by his handlers, which he would be unable to resist. HYDRA wants him back. And, while his location has not been made public by any means, they could find him.

So he doesn't blame Steve for keeping him close by for the first few months. Or the others for not wanting to be alone with him in the field. But now he's treated just like one of the team, and he really enjoys that. It's like when he was a Howling Commando again, instead of being like when he was the Soldier. The freedom is appreciated, and he finds himself actually feeling proud of himself for what he's done to help them. If it weren't for the occasional dream plaguing him, he would be pretty happy.

The connection to Natalia is there whether she will admit it or not. They are usually on the same page, both on and off mission, and he gets along better with her than with anyone. Possibly better than Steve, though it's pretty close. He doesn't refer to this and is unsurprised that she doesn't, either. Still, it must be noticeable, because they are often put on missions together.

One such mission requires the two of them to go undercover overseas to protect a scientist, Victor Markov. He finds it difficult to pay attention to the importance of the man after he is told Natalia will be joining him. He's been a bodyguard before, and it is in Russia, so both of them are uniquely capable for the mission. Fury insists on it when Natalia questions his choice. Usually Steve gives the orders these days, but Fury showed up out of nowhere (something he should get used to, Natalia muttered to him) and said it was vitally important to keep HYDRA from capturing or killing this scientist.

She doesn't speak to him after that until they are landing in Moscow. His arm fortunately has tech to keep it from being noticed by metal detectors, though he was apprehensive about flying. There are no unexpected complications, however, and the mission proceeds as planned. Their cover is that they are a newly married couple visiting their uncle (Markov). He smiles grimly at the choice, remembering more than one previous assignment involving faux matrimony between them. She wasn't too pleased about it the first time back then, either.

They leave the airport and she drives them to the hotel in which they will be staying. It's a nice one, nicer than what he usually endured on missions. Then they go to dinner with Markov and his people. Natalia does all of the talking, with him smiling and looking (hopefully) like the pleased bridegroom he should be. Markov is an older man, mid-sixties, with greying hair and sharp brown eyes – he clearly sees more than he lets on. Natalia gets along with him quite well, and his friends are similarly impressed by her. She is very impressive, after all.

When they return to the hotel, she goes through their plan to protect the man and bring him back with them to safety. He listens silently, but has trouble focusing when she's standing there in her close-fitting black cocktail dress, shoeless, taking her hair down.

"What is it?" she asks, sounding both amused and annoyed.

"What?" he responds guiltily.

"You're not listening to a word I'm saying, James," she chides.

"Maybe I'm just tired from the trip," he suggests.

Arching an eyebrow, she gives him a knowing look before shaking her head. "Fine, get some sleep. We'll go over it in the morning. We have a couple days here."

She goes into the bathroom to get ready and he closes his eyes, wishing he didn't have so many memories of her that she can't recall. It was fine when they had separate floors in the Tower, but sharing the room with her tonight is going to be a challenge. He figures he'd better hurry up and try to get some sleep before she comes back.

"No! Stop! Let him go!" Natalia's cry echoes across the concrete chamber, but it's too late. He's already strapped to the chair, and even his metal arm cannot budge it.

"Natalia!" he calls back, watching her break away from the man restraining her and run over to him.

She pulls uselessly at the metal holding him down and he tries to help her, but the men come forward and drag her away again. She hurts them, fights back viciously, as he had. It's no use. There are too many of them. She just has to watch helplessly while the machine whirs to life, lowering over his face, and wiping her from his mind.

" – up! James!"

Her voice is somewhere above his head and his throat is raw from screaming. He grabs her instinctively, rolling over to pin her beneath him. But she looks startled, maybe afraid, so he immediately pulls himself away, backing toward the other side of the room. She sits up slowly, watching him carefully.

"You were having a nightmare, James," she tells him, her voice soothing, at odds with her mussed appearance.

He allows himself to be soothed, nodding slowly. "Sorry," he mumbles, not looking at her.

She gets to her feet and walks over to him, reaching up to touch his face gently. "Are you okay, James?"

He loves the way she says his name. No one else calls him James. "Natalia, I –" he begins, roughly. Uncertainly, he turns his head to kiss her palm.

Her body stiffens for a moment, then she wraps her arms around him comfortingly. Not quite what he wants, but he isn't going to move. "You're safe, James. No one is going to hurt you." Her hands move slowly up and down his back and he lets out a deep breath.

"We should... get some sleep," he murmurs into her hair.

She steps back, giving him a gentle smile that hurts more than a glare would have. "Wake me up if you need me, James."

He spends the rest of the night awake, wondering what constitutes needing her.

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