Though It All Looks Different Now

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Alexei was her first love and she hasn't thought of him in years. Until she killed him. So maybe it makes sense to have random things conjure up a memory or two of their past. But what strikes her as strange is that these only occur when James is around. When he wakes up screaming in Russia, she is convinced it's Alexei having a nightmare. He kisses her palm, just like Alexei used to, and it's hard to know how to react.

They spend the next day with Markov, acting their part and keeping an eye out for HYDRA. It's hard to focus, tortured by memories of a man she loved then killed. But James seems to be able to keep his mind on their assignment, so she doesn't feel compromised enough to report in. Markov is giving a lecture that afternoon and insists on staying for a party in the evening. His wife is out of town right now and returning for that, so they have to wait for her. He won't go without her.

The KGB wouldn't put up with that kind of sentimentality, but she thinks it's probably good that SHIELD does. It's not exactly why she switched sides, of course, but she counts it among the reasons. An asset is more than just an asset – they can be a person, too. And that's a very important distinction, she's found.

The lecture is interesting, though over both of their heads. It's bizarre to sit in a lecture hall next to James, like they are college students instead of expertly trained assassins. It also doesn't remind her of Alexei, so that's a nice change. James seems a little strained. Alert and on the lookout, but whatever woke him up must still be bothering him. She understands the feeling.

When it's over, they all get changed and head to the party. Her dress is black with blue trim, and feels fantastic. It's nice to wear a dress for missions, and not just her tac suit. Even if she feels a little less prepared because of it. James is wearing a suit and cleans up nicer than she might have expected.

"Is she here yet, sir?" she whispers to Markov, her tone and expression betraying none of her anxiousness. James is clearly tense and she isn't sure how much longer he'll be able to stand waiting. Mrs. Markov should have been here two hours ago.

The old man smiles at her fondly, as though she really were his niece. "Oh, don't you worry, my dear. She'll be along. Why don't you and your husband take a break and dance? He looks like he could use it," he adds, winking at her.

She sighs inwardly. "I'd rather not leave your side," she answers, keeping her voice down.

Markov shrugs. "I'll be fine. Go have fun, it's a party!" he insists. "Vasily, come here and take your lovely wife for a dance," he calls.

James looks unsettled by the suggestion and his gaze is directed at her sharply. Then he forces a smile and nods. "Well, if you wouldn't mind losing the company, Uncle," he says slowly, as though hoping to be dissuaded.

Markov claps them both on the shoulders. "I appreciate what you came here to do, but you look sourer than my old mother. I'll be fine for one dance," he murmurs before pushing them toward the floor.

Giving in, she walks to the closest available space and turns to face James with a delighted smile on her face. "Come on, beloved," she teases.

His expression is serious as he takes her right hand in his and gently presses his metal hand (covered by a glove) to her hip. She rests her left hand on his shoulder, trying not to be distracted by warmth even through the shirt and jacket he's wearing. The dance is familiar to her, as most are, and she subtly leads him through the steps. She pushes away thoughts of dancing with Alexei at the officers' club, where she likely learned this one. James catches on quickly and soon can keep up with her. She smiles at him and he gives her a real smile back. It's always a surprise, seeing how the genuine expression changes his whole appearance. She is starting to think that he is a rather handsome man when the dance comes to a stop and he steps away from her.

Markov is looking upset when they return to him. "What is it, Uncle?" she asks, slipping her arm through his.

"She's been delayed," he tells her, clearly afraid what that might mean for their plans.

It is a blow, but she's dealt with such before. James' eyes narrow and he glances over the room to identify any threats. "Did she say when she would arrive?" She keeps her tone light, as though this were just a minor inconvenience as she considers how to accommodate this alteration.

"Tomorrow morning," Markov says flatly.

She bites her lip to keep from swearing. "Alright. Well, why don't we get you home?" she questions.

"Bed does sound nice," the old man replies, using the correct phrasing to indicate he still feels safe at home.

They bring him back to his house and check to be sure he is as safe as he thinks he is. There's nothing to indicate that HYDRA will attack tonight, but she doesn't feel good about leaving him there alone.

"I'll stay. You head back to the hotel and get some sleep, James," she tells him after Markov has gone to bed. They kept up the façade, chatting in the front room for a while just in case anyone was watching.

James frowns at her. "I should stay," he says stubbornly.

She sighs. "I got plenty of sleep last night, dear, I'll be fine." His eyes stay narrowed and he doesn't respond. He's taken off his jacket and she can just make out the red star on his shoulder through the starched white shirt he's wearing underneath it. She wonders how he feels about it. She was never so obviously branded. Throwing up her hands, she goes to close the blinds. "Fine, stick around. I'm sure no one will slip passed us," she grumbles.

The lights are turned off and they make another inspection of the house. "We'll take shifts. You sleep first," he tells her and she wonders which of them is really in charge here.

"Alright," she says because she doesn't want to argue. She takes off her shoes and curls up on the couch, closing her eyes. She tries not to think about James standing guard or about dancing, and is eventually successful enough to sleep.

"Natalia," the voice whispers into her dream and she finds herself smiling at the familiarity of it. Fingers run gently down her back, causing a shiver despite the relative thickness of the dress fabric.

She turns over to look up at him, somehow surprised to find James standing there. Which doesn't make a lot of sense, since he used his left hand and it was clearly metal. Alexei didn't have a metal hand. "James," she replies sleepily.

"It's after three," he murmurs.

Sitting up, she is somewhat amused when he steps back a few feet. As though she might lash out at him. "Time to switch?"

He shrugs. "I'm fine if you want to sleep more."

Inspecting him briefly, she smiles at the lie. He looks terrible. Well, exhausted, anyway. Even when they found him after he escaped HYDRA, he never looked terrible. Not good, certainly, but not terrible. "No, no, you get some sleep. I'll wake you in the morning."

After she gets to her feet, he tentatively lowers himself onto the couch and then lays down, an odd look crossing his face. She thinks about what he said, about them knowing each other, and wonders if he's right. And what he might know about her if he is. He meets her eyes briefly, then closes his. "Good night, Natalia," he whispers as she turns to leave the room.

"Good night, James," she replies gently, the sight of him curled on the couch somehow making her chest hurt.

The rest of the night passes without incident, though she can't shake the feeling that she's been awakened exactly that way once before. But perhaps not by whom she thought.

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