She hears him coming up the stairs in the apartment because he's not trying to hide. She'd probably hear him even if he were--once upon a time, he might have been the teacher, but even if he can still beat her in a straight-up fight, she surpasses him in stealth. More than that, she's grown used to the rhythm of his footsteps at all times, and sometimes her heart still settles in her chest in a pleasant way when her senses tell her he's approaching.
But he's not trying to be quiet at all. In fact, he throws the door right open when he makes it up the stairs, and then he's striding across the room. She pretends not to care, though she's smiling a little as she looks down at the inconsequential papers on the desk before her, next to the laptop where her actual work sits on the screen. "Hello, James. Nice afternoon?"
His hands rest on her shoulders almost before she's finished speaking, tense with excitement. She hasn't entirely decided yet whether she's pleased that she can no longer clearly tell the difference between them, with the new technology. Is it nice to know that he can hide his fractures now almost as well as she hides hers? She puts the thought away to listen, instead, to his words. "Afternoon? It's evening, Natasha, you've been working way too hard. I got the night off for both of us."
"You didn't ask if I wanted it off," she chides him, though something flutters in her stomach at the thought.
"I saw a chance and I grabbed it. You know me, I'm an impulsive man. Besides--" Something changes a little in his voice. "Tomorrow's Steve's birthday, the first since he got back, I'm going to be busy." A verbal feint over the truth, there: he's not really going to be busy going to parties with his friend. He's going to be doing Captain America things for the entire country on the Fourth of July.
She lets him have his misdirection for now. "You sound like you plan to be busy tonight, too. Am I a part of your plans? Don't leave me in the dark."
He hesitates a split-second, and she knows he's glancing down at the papers to make sure they're not really important. He probably doesn't bother looking at the computer screen--he knows how these things work, of course, but they're still not his strength the way they are hers. But once he's had that look, he pulls his hands away from her shoulders, and a moment later he's leaning forward and spreading them over the desk before her. There's two slips of paperboard in them, foreign ordinary things she rarely sees much of. "Yeah. I'm taking you away from all this boring paperwork, Nat. We're going to go see a movie."
There's something implied on the end of that sentence that he doesn't voice. We're going to go see a movie--like a normal couple. That unspoken addition leaves her silent, almost breathless, for a few seconds, and she hears him start to laugh a little in delight as he realizes it.
Natasha spins around on the chair, grabs his collar, and pulls him down. He must have been running to get here in the summer heat, because he smells of sweat and his hair is messy. She loves him like this, excited, his smile boyish on his face despite everything. "An action flick? Really, James?"
He leans his cheek against hers. "What can I say? I'm a guy, I'm not going to waste a perfectly good night on some sappy love film."
"No," she says, "but you will look presentable. Go take a shower and let's get ready to go."
* * *
They make it to the theater with twenty minutes to spare. That turns out to be a mistake. When Natasha comes out of the restrooms, she finds that the line at the refreshments counter is growing restless. Someone is holding things up at the front of the line. She has a bad feeling about this.
She's right. She's always right, especially when it comes to James Buchanan Barnes. He's at the head of the line, gripping the counter with one hand and gesturing plaintively with the other. "I'm not blaming you, girl," he tells the cashier, though surely he can see that she's looking at him with increasing exasperation. "I'm just saying that this can't be right and I'm gonna have a word with your manager."
The young woman thins her mouth into a determined line for a moment before replying. "You can talk to her all you want, sir, but it's not--" She's gesturing at something on the wall. Natasha has a feeling she knows what the rest of the sentence is going to be.
So she steps in. She presses a hand to his shoulder and says, "James. Give the young lady the money for the popcorn and let's go find our seats."
"But--" Behind his distraught eyes she thinks she might catch a glimpse of a ten-year-old boy passing a shiny quarter over a counter like this one.
Natasha shakes her head at him to cut him off, then passes a ten-dollar bill over to the girl in the concession stand. "I'm sorry for him. The last time he was in a movie theater, the president was in a wheelchair." The obvious silly joke--what a humorous exaggeration!--provokes a moment of relieved laughter from the cashier. Before any more trouble can rear its head, Natasha scoops up her popcorn with one arm and her man with the other, and she hurries both of them away from the line.
"I'm not that temporally displaced," he mutters at her side. "I know how to work a smartphone."
"Refreshment prices at movies, though."
"It's not like--" He cuts himself off, though she knows what he was going to say. In sixty years in and out of stasis, he never bought popcorn at a movie theater. What purpose would that have served?
She wonders if she should ask about the handful of years afterwards, but it's not like she can talk, either. If she's kept up with the world as it changed around her better than he once did, it's only because she's savvier, not because she's better at tending to her own enjoyment. "I can spare the money, James. You can relax."
He sighs at her side. "Tonight's supposed to be perfect, Nat." On the heels of that sigh, the honest words leave his mouth almost reluctantly. "There's nothing perfect about ten-dollar popcorn."
"I'm touched," she says.
"You held up a line in a movie theater for almost five minutes just for the honor of a perfect night with me," she says. She kisses his cheek. "Thank you, James."
She does it mostly to watch him blush, which he does, radiantly.
* * *
Twenty-one minutes into the movie, she feels him twitch in the seat next to her for the first time. On screen, the hero of the film just ran in slow motion away from an explosion. At that distance, judging by the type of explosives used, the concussive blast should have broken at least a few of his bones. The two of them both know it immediately. She tries not to wonder how many such explosions he's set off; she's much more concerned over whether he's recalling them now, his mind racing after that one incorrect detail.
For now, she puts one hand over his and feeds him popcorn with the other before he can make any audible protests.
Thirty-nine minutes of the movie have passed, and this time he actually tenses up in irritation. She's pretty sure she just stirred too, because that was a typical mistake on screen right now, but an annoying one all the same.
"That guy won't be getting up after that blow to the head," he mutters next to her, this time before she can stop him. They're out of popcorn now anyway.
Two minutes later, the unfortunate extra who took the blow to the head stirs and wakes up with no apparent damage. "Oh, come on!" The family behind the two of them makes annoyed shushing noises. "You can't want to watch this crap that badly," he starts to protest, but as he turns, she feels his resolve wilt.
Natasha glances behind her to see the two parents glaring daggers at James and their young son just looking confused and frustrated. "He really does want to watch this crap that badly," she murmurs to him, and it's the last nudge he needs to give up that particular fight. Awkwardly, clearly fighting embarrassment, he slumps back down in his seat.
She reaches over to squeeze his hand with hers, and she leans against him. The movie doesn't seem very interesting at the moment. There are some more explosions of an inaccurate size, and dismayingly, someone is hacking into a secure server by pressing two keys repeatedly. Her head against his shoulder in darkness dappled only by special effects, though: she enjoys that.
Barely audible, he whispers into her ear, "Sorry about the movie."
She thinks if she breathes in too deeply right now, she might taste his regret, not at the poor logic of the film, but at the more bitter logic of their lives. They aren't people who can enjoy a casual movie like this. She doesn't breathe too deeply; she just nestles against his side and sighs in contentment, just loud enough for him to hear it.
He doesn't say anything more, but after a minute, when they're both well on their way to forgetting the big screen before them, he starts to kiss her ear in small strange bursts. She senses immediately that there's a pattern to his kisses. An instant later, she realizes that it's Morse code. B E A U T I oh, no, he's kissing endearments against the side of her face, and the worst and most charming part is that he's completely sincere, as much as he might like to play it off as a joke.
Natasha does the only thing she can do. She elbows him hard in the side. He stops his kissing, but only so that he can laugh silently and helplessly beside her.
* * *
They walk out of the theater into a summer thunderstorm. It snuck up on them like no human being ever could. It's fortunate that Natasha is always prepared for the expected and the unexpected alike. She reaches into her purse to take out her umbrella.
It's too late, though; he's already stepping out from the awning of the building into the pouring rain. She sighs as she watches him tip his head back into it. He must have heard the umbrella open, but still, when he turns to look at her, he feigns shock. "You're playing it safe, Nat?"
She smiles. "And you're not. What a surprise."
He puts his hand to his chin as if in deep thought, though a grin is creeping onto his face. "But that won't win you a race back to the apartment. You'll be slowed right down. I think I made the right choice here."
"I didn't agree to a race," she says. Thunder rumbles in the distance, or maybe it's an early firework nearby. It's impossible to tell, just as it's impossible to tell whether he'll really go through with this ridiculous idea of a race. "Wouldn't you rather walk hand in hand, James?"
"That umbrella isn't big enough for both of us," he says.
"Of course it is."
He shakes his head. "Nah. Not if I want to dance with you in the puddles, or spin you around beneath the rain."
She considers him with her most thoughtful expression for a moment. Then she snaps the umbrella closed, puts it away in her purse again, and jumps into his arms. She gives him no warning, but still he catches her, laughing, and he kisses her longer and harder than he did in the theater. She may have clung to uncertainty, but he knew how this conversation would end from the start.
"Sorry about the storm," he says as he sets her down beside him, still holding onto her hand, and begins to walk.
"You know I don't mind the rain," she says.
"I know," he says. "But I wanted tonight to be perfect, so I was hoping we could come out to clear skies and the moon and stars up above."
"James," she says, "we'd never see the stars if they were there. This is New York City."
"Oh." He looks down at her, a little bemused.
"What is it?" That can't be a surprise to him. He's lived here for years now.
He rubs his head sheepishly, swipes rainwater out of his eyes. The thunder almost swallows his next words; he probably timed them that way. "I always feel like the stars are out when you're here."
She squeezes his hand more tightly. "It's just a summer storm. It'll be over soon."
"Everything's over sooner or later," he agrees, without enough of a somber lilt to his voice for words like that.
"Not everything," she says, although she doesn't specify the exceptions. She doesn't say that when he talks about seeing stars because of her, it stays with her, one solid arrow buried in her ever-changing heart.
"I know," he says, and he drags her through a puddle. The rumble of thunder nearby really sounds like fireworks.
* * *
They don't race to the apartment, but he does stride quickly up the stairs when they get there. Before she even reaches the same room herself, Natasha hears him tossing his wet shirt to the floor. She's already smiling when she steps in after him, but still she takes the time to stand in the doorway and admire him: half-naked, grinning easily as he runs his hands through his soaking wet hair. She could easily shove him against a wall and take him right now, without any preamble.
Instead, she folds her arms and says, "Worried about catching a cold from wet clothes? I thought you were tougher than that."
"No sense taking the risk," he says, though they both know you don't catch a cold from wearing wet clothes.
"And here you complained about me playing it safe," she says as she takes off her own shirt. She snaps it at him just to see him duck and laugh, which he does. He also retaliates by kicking off a shoe in her direction.
"Don't think you can get away with challenging me like that, James," she says, and she starts to unbutton her pants. "You'll find that a wet pair of women's jeans can be a powerful weapon in the right hands."
"Are you saying you're a master of soaked-fabric martial arts?" He pretends at astonishment once more. "I'll have to see it, Nat, you know I can't believe--ow! That was a shoe, not jeans!"
"I'm a devious woman," she says.
Within five minutes, most of their clothes are scattered in heaps about the room. As she finally pulls him to the couch, Natasha recalls scenes like this from several lifetimes ago. But those rooms were dimmer and less familiar, and besides, right now they both still have their underwear on. It is all very different. She doesn't mind the change in the slightest. Without regrets, she sprawls next to him on the sofa, and they sit there in contented silence, no desperation or urgency in the way they hold each other.
"I had a good time," she says, eventually, when she's had enough of the quiet, though not enough of the feel of his chest beneath hers.
"The movie was stupid," he says, a little ruefully, but without any real vitriol.
"I thought stupid films would be to your taste, James. That's why I let you pick."
"That's a low blow," he says, but he's grinning at her.
"We can try again," she says, "sometime. We'll learn what kinds of movies we enjoy."
"Okay," he says, and then he kisses her. He pulls her closer still and buries his face in her still-damp hair, and she kisses his chin and throat. Despite the faint chill of the rain, he's very warm beneath her lips.
Eventually, they kiss more deeply, and they get rid of that underwear, too. But that is late into the night, and they have no reason to hurry.
* * *
Dawn is just approaching beyond the windows when Natasha stirs in bed, half-waking. James is not there beside her, but a quick glance at the rest of the room reassures her. He has a long day ahead of him and is already preparing for it now. It's still dark, but she can make him out easily enough: a broad and familiar silhouette, the faint shine of his left arm since he turned the simulator off. He's getting dressed.
She watches him pick up the costume before she calls out to him, "James."
He lowers it. "I didn't mean to wake you."
She sits up in bed. "I know." He is considerate that way; that's why he left the lights off even though it's still dark. "Come here."
He doesn't complain that he lacks the time. He just walks back to the bed and leans over it. "Natalia?"
She leans in and puts her arms around him; she rests her head against his cheek. Together, for a moment, they are still: for once not moving in and out of the roles other people have arranged for them, but simply at rest in each other's arms. "Have a good day today," she says at last.
He lingers a moment longer against her, cherishing her touch and her words. "I will. You'd better do the same."
"I always do." And she kisses him before he leaves. Even in the dark, she can see the way his eyes light up, and it's illumination enough for now.