I Know It's Still the Same

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It's hard not to watch her sleep. He remembers sleeping beside her, but there was never time for much peacefulness in their past. Now isn't exactly peaceful, he supposes, but dancing with her was certainly relaxing. And they're pretty safe here. Particularly since they don't have to fear discovery from their handlers in addition to their enemies. If Steve and the others suspect that there is more between the two of them than being colleagues, no one will object.

Not that there is, he reminds himself. Even if part of him wants there to be. He's a mess, he's barely human these days. Trying, but she deserves better than that. She's so impressive at what she does, being who she is, that he can't imagine her wanting someone like him. He thought she was with Barton, or even Banner, but seems happy on her own. He won't get in the way of that.

When his shift ends without anything suspicious happening, she is lying on her stomach, face buried in a throw pillow. The sight is enough to take his breath away, and he runs his fingers down her back tenderly before he can stop himself. It's enough to wake her, and he steps back to keep from taking her in his arms, especially when she smiles at him just like she used to.

Taking her place on the couch is painful – the scent of her is overwhelming. It's a relief when she leaves the room to check on things. He isn't sure if he sleeps at all, but he does a lot of thinking about their past. He loved her then, he's sure. Even if he wasn't supposed to be able to feel things like that. But she doesn't remember, so he has to be careful not to come across too strong. He does want to be with her, though. She's amazing, how she came back from what was done to her. In the Red Room, she always impressed him and he loved her for her abilities. But now she's her own person and how could he resist that?

Markov rises early, which is helpful. He is glad not to have to feign sleep any longer. They bring Markov with them to the hotel to change into more casual clothing, then go to the train station, where his wife is due to arrive. The place is difficult to secure and he continually looks around for threats. But he knows HYDRA – and they have all kinds of nasty surprises at their disposal. Even spotting suspicious characters earlier might not thwart HYDRA's plans, and he grows more and more anxious as they wait.

"Vasily, the trains are all running a little late this morning," Natalia tells him with a smile, putting her hand on his right forearm. It's warm through the cloth of his coat and he feels a little calmer.

He gives her a weak smile. "I'm sorry, beloved. I just worry for our aunt. I know she hates traveling," he explains. An odd look crosses her face at the endearment, but she returns his smile before turning to continue chatting with Markov.

Finally, the woman arrives. She smiles and waves, and he reminds himself that she doesn't know who they are or why they're here. When she is introduced, she hugs him tightly and then kisses Natalia's cheek, seeming delighted at these unknown relations from America. He wonders how she could be so naïve. When they all pile into the car, Markov whispers to his wife what is happening and she becomes very serious. He's impressed that she takes the news in stride, and the two of them start to whisper hastily in Russian too fast and too soft for him to make it out. It feels like eavesdropping, anyway, so he turns his attention to the road.

Natalia is driving, as usual, but she glances over at him. "Ready to go home?" she murmurs in English.

He nods. "It's a lovely country, but I prefer mine," he tells her.

Perhaps she can read the deeper meaning he was thinking of, but she takes his hand gently. It may be for their cover, but no one is around who would care, so he lets himself be optimistic about what it means.

Traveling from Russia to New York with people in hiding is difficult, but they manage. Natalia has fake identification for them, for all of them, and gets them through security and customs. And, finally, they can leave the Markovs with SHIELD and go home. He gets more nervous as the mission winds down, afraid he might not be allowed to be this close to her again. She notices his tension, but just gets a little gentler with him, not referring to it.

When they've debriefed with Fury and are finally back in the Tower, she smiles at him as they ride the elevator.

"Well, it's been fun, James, but I'm looking forward to sleeping in my own bed tonight," she says casually.

Biting his lip, he nods. Then takes a deep breath, watching the floors pass by. Soon they'll be at hers. And then she'll get out. Without another thought, he presses the emergency stop button.

"What are you doing, James?" she asks slowly, like he's lost his mind and she has to speak carefully. When he doesn't say anything, she gives him a hesitant smile. "Are you going to tell me more about how we used to know each other?"

She's teasing him, maybe. "Natalia – I," he licks his lips. "I don't have to tell you," he finishes quietly. Then tentatively reaches out to touch her face with his right hand. Her expression softens and he leans in to kiss her lightly on the lips.

He releases her and she looks momentarily pleased, but then puzzled. "James... I've been thinking," she says a little hoarsely. He stands back, waiting. "I've been thinking that I wasn't in – that my memories of Alexei might not be real. That maybe they were of... Maybe they were planted to cover up something else."

"Cover up what?" he asks warily.

She moves closer to him, looking up with a sorrowful expression on her face. "You," she answers simply.

"What makes you say that?" He really wants to kiss her again, but he waits.

Licking her lips, she looks passed him. "Whenever you touch me, I'm reminded of him. Even when it doesn't make sense. He didn't have this," she explains, touching his left arm almost reverently.

Uncertainly, he nods. "Can I kiss you again?" he finally says when she doesn't continue.

She smiles. "Well, I think it's the best way to test my theory," she teases.

He doesn't need any further prodding.


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