Actions

Work Header

But the Wind Was Stronger

Chapter Text


 

Prologue :: Vanya

 


 

The wind cut down to the bone. Natalia didn't flinch, though; she had been trained in colder temperatures and under far more strenuous conditions. So this really shouldn't have bothered her, but yet it did. He did anyway.

He stood knee deep in the snowy yard, blood dripping down one cheek. His wrist rolled unconsciously, as he made the sharp blade in his grasp dance. There was blood on that too, but the injury to his face hadn't been caused by that. No, someone else had been the cause of it; someone who had undoubtedly met a violent and messy demise.

He had been gone for several weeks; sent away on a series of missions that she was none the wiser to, as he was never the wiser about hers. They were only teacher and student; he taught and she learned, and he remained cold while she wavered and thawed.

Externally nothing had changed. They sparred as they always had, but more often than not the gap between their skills had lessened. She no longer spent as much time on the hard training floor mats splayed on her back; he spent some of his time there too now. While it certainly wasn't equal, she knew it would be soon; he had all faith that it would be, and she trusted him in some capacity.

However, something internal had changed; had been compromised somehow. It was unpreventable, even with all her self-control, she hadn't stood a chance. She hadn't even seen the telltale signs of it until it was far too late. Things had bloomed and grown, and had done so without her permission.

That was why she had ventured into the January cold, hardly registering the fact that her boots had been soaked through and her cheeks had turned numb and ruddy. She had waited for him; counted the days mentally in her head, and watched the training yard for any sign of him. Today he'd come back; blood-stained and twirling that bowie knife of his with unconscious precision, as if he had been doing so for years. He'd probably had been too.

As unenthusiastically as she could, Natalia had collected her coat and snow boots; wrapped a worn scarf around the lower half of her face, before she trekked through the elements. She couldn't have said what she expected by her arrival, although she put very little thought into it. That needling feeling had brought her here, and she wisely chose not to dissect it.

He stood still in the snow drifts, recounting his inevitable success to his superior. His lips hardly moved, barely formed the words. He was a man of little words, though. Words seemed to obstruct him, whereas action was the skill that he always excelled in.

Her conversations with him, the very few that they had, had been clipped and straightforward. He spoke with a slight accent, almost indiscernible if one were unobservant; but he spoke with one nonetheless. And he spoke only of her skills (or lack thereof); there was never idle chit-chat or friendly conversation. He was a soldier, after all, and she was meant to be one too. Soldiers hadn't any need for pointless words and sentiments.

The report soon came to an end; the superior officer (if one could even call him that), plodded through the pathway of his own tracks. While he, on the other hand, shifted and moved towards where she stood; a blood-stain in the snow, and one he only acknowledged when they were no more than inch away from one another.

"The cold isn't your friend today, Natalia." He announced without any inflection whatsoever.

"Ice runs in my veins."

"Becoming one with the motherland then,"

"Some would say you're showing concern for your pupil, Vanya." She felt her lips twitch, although they did not spread into a smile; not even behind the protection of her scarf.

"Concern is only relevant to one's partner." He gave her a narrow-eyed look. "You'll be accompanying me to Bulgaria soon. I'd prefer you to be in full health."

The words warmed her, and she could not say why. They hadn't worked on the field with one another before. He was her teacher and he was legendary. The Winter Soldier worked alone; he hadn't any need for accomplices. Which would only mean that she was worthy at long last; he had faith in her and believed that she was self-reliant and capable now.

Without another word, he stomped past her, and towards the gray and unimpressive building in which they were housed. It certainly wasn't home; they hadn't any homes as they didn't have any remorse. Home was a sentiment, and they were stripped of that concept very early on.

Natalia watched Vanya; studied the way he walked which was in between forceful and a sort of a swagger that he couldn't seem to shake. She watched as the wind played with his tangled hair that frequently smelled of gun smoke, metal, and the faintest hint of cologne. And the way his hand continued to toy with the bowie knife, although the movement had grown languid but was equally precise as it had been only minutes ago.

He hadn't procured any noticeable injuries beyond the one on his face. More often than not, the target in question couldn't even accomplish that. The mission had undoubtedly been a dangerous one if the Winter Soldier came away with evidence of the fray.

"Vanya," she called over the howl of the wind to him, but he didn't turn. He had heard her, though; she could tell by subtle almost invisible signs. She knew him all too well, yet she knew very little of herself now.

His name remained in the icy air, while he treaded farther and farther away from her. It was for the best, no doubt; she didn't know why she called to him or why his safety brought her peace of mind either. Especially when emotion had proven detrimental to so many, which was why they had vigorously tried to strip her of anything that could potentially put any mission she was given in jeopardy.

Looking away from his retreating form, Natalia observed the snowy yard and pathways made by innumerable footsteps; all of which were orderly and in no way chaotic. Uniformity was an important quality in the Red Room; emotionlessness was another, and it didn't bode well with her that she might very well be compromised. Because Vanya's name was always on her lips; her eyes always sought him out, and something deeply human seemed to yearn for his proximity.

This would do her no good. She knew it and she was right.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter One :: It Started in Uzbekistan

 


 

They had played a married couple, she and Vanya, in Sofia. It had been an elaborate ploy, perfectly executed to the very last detail. Surveillance had been a given, hence the reason why they had shared the bed provided to them, and touched rather affectionately while in public.

It was the weight of Vanya's cybernetic hand on the small of her back that haunted Natalia once they successfully accomplished their mission. The memory of blood and brain splattered across a hotel room's wall hadn't perturbed her in any way. But the way his body cradled hers while they lied tangled in the bed linens did.

They hadn't spoken about it when they returned. There was little to say in that regard and Vanya had even less to say than that. It had only been a cover, though; it had been a necessity. They did what was within their power (and skill set) to finish the job. Which was the only thing that truly mattered; Vanya did not fail and she wouldn't either.

Failure was not tolerated in their line of work. In fact, failure only led to an early grave; especially when handling such important information. Neither she nor Vanya would have ripened to such a golden age, had they been inept and incompetent. Vanya in particular wouldn't have been as feared as he was otherwise.

Their time together, a fabricated domesticity, had tailed Natalia for months on end. The endless missions, the stolen property and information, the numerous assassinations had only been background noise. The many injuries she'd sustained, the many secrets she'd obtained hadn't the power to overlap her pseudo-tryst with Vanya.

Her mind had a way of wandering away from her in the early morning hours; when she was closest at peace, and the buzz for neutrality was at its lowest. It was in those precious moments she'd permitted herself to feel human; before she'd hide it and sheltered it from the prying eyes of her superiors.

But it had only worsened with time; Moldova had been bloody and their roles hopelessly entwined. They had played newlyweds; Vanya had chosen to play his part without reservations, and had fondled both her breasts and bottom vigorously in public. Once they'd been left alone in their hotel room, standing fully clothed in the compact bathroom with the shower running (lest any bugs had been planted through the room); he hadn't offered an apology or an explanation either.

It hadn't meant anything. He had played the role given to him, and had played it so convincingly that even she had been temporarily fooled. Yet his actions had still poisoned her mind; it had sparked a humanly need in her that was far more influential than it had been beforehand, which had been terrifying to say the least.

Weeks after the incident Moldova, they had been dispatched to Belarus. Tensions had been particularly high then; the operation they'd been given had been delicate. There hadn't been any room for a misstep; not a reluctant sideways look or a moment of hesitation. Everything had to be fluid and natural; they had to be that way.

Vanya hadn't been hesitant; he could slip into any skin and assume any identity with ease. Natalia hadn't had any issue with it either, unless it directly meant playing happily married and/or enamored and engaged to her teacher. Despite her needling attachment to Vanya, it had only made the role that much harder to play while in the trenches.

In Minsk and on a busy street, Vanya had pressed her to the side of a building; where the cold seeped into her skin and made her whole body convulse. Before he had kissed her in a way that had been steely but warm, but overall unassuming; because it hadn't been real. There hadn't been any passion to it; even though her head had spun endlessly like a record.

They hadn't discussed that either. Whatever happened on any given mission, stayed in that city or countryside or wherever it may be. Whatever means, in which they succeeded, minor details of caresses and stolen kisses, were left out of reports and meant to be forgotten. But Natalia hadn't had the ability to forget. She had forgotten many things, although Vanya's touch stayed with her like an untreated burn until eventually everything came to a head.

Half a year after Belarus, they had been in Uzbekistan. Natalia remembered pools of blood and how her lungs burned from over-exertion. Bodies had been strewn about; broken and crumbled by her and Vanya's joint efforts. He had been stained red, although his eyes were blue and clear; brilliant in the dimly lit warehouse, where they had struck.

The smell had been thick and pungent; it would have induced nausea in most, but her stomach was iron-clad. Even the gore that had decorated the floor and the walls hadn't proved to perturb her as much as the look in her teacher's eyes.

It happened in a flash; he had been on one end of the room and then the other, and then he'd been on her. His mouth had found hers, while his blood-soaked gloves had cradled her face as if she'd been fragile; as if she hadn't caused as many deaths as he had in a twenty minute time frame.

That kiss had been real; she had been swept away by it, and had almost slipped in some blood due to her eagerness to reciprocate. He hadn't let her fall, though. He had always been her anchor, even when he'd been the direct cause for her problems in the first place. And he had become a greater problem, when she'd melted into that kiss; taking in him as if he was oxygen and food and water and something that possibly could be home.

Afterwards, they had separated; both covered in blood and grime, and breathless over something besides the mayhem they'd collectively created. But they hadn't discussed it; neither spoke a word, as they had slipped back into the brutal night air, and disappeared further and further into the shadows.

The memory had sustained Natalia for several weeks. She had remembered every detail; the brush of his stubble against her skin, the soft but windswept feel of his lips on hers. They had seemingly melded perfectly with one another, in a way not any two people could. They had trained with one another, entrusted their lives to one another; there hadn't been anyone who could understand their situation now or ever. They were opposite sides of the same coin; it had made sense and would always make sense.

Once they'd been dispatched back onto the field and into the Czech Republic, neutrality and control had been divested as soon as they found the immediate threat behind them. Vanya had meticulously disassembled his sniper rifle, before he'd placed it back into its rightful case. She had disarmed herself of her bulkier weaponry, only to cease when he had come for her.

His presence had been overbearing and dangerous. She had smelled gun powder on him, the metallic stench of his cybernetic arm which had been exposed to the chill of the night. His eyes had been earnest and hungry, and his mouth a desperate and needy thing. But his hands had been demanding, perhaps even contrite as they'd cupped her hips and dragged across the back of her thighs.

They had crumbled onto the much too large bed, and explored one another as they were known to train. They'd been diligent and thorough; both equally determined to unearth weaknesses and sensitive bits of one another's anatomies.

Vanya had taken her apart that night; he'd been the first and the last. His body had been, was still, chiseled muscle and hard lines and heavy but sturdy. His mouth had been wet against her skin, over the swell of her breasts, across her belly, and in her most intimate of places; which had effectively unleashed the pent-up frustrations that she had harbored for so long; the human half of her that had only seen him and him alone.

One night had lead to numerous ones; stolen kisses in the dead of night, embraces in dingy alleyways. But admissions and adorations were never spoken; Vanya never said a word of what had transpired between them. And when they were back in Russia, they could not, would not, try their luck.

Joint missions had been things Natalia yearned for. Those stolen moments had become pinpricks of happiness for her. They had made bleakness turn into vibrancy; death into life, and bad into good. Vanya had made her better in every facade of her life. He had defined her in a way; they had defined one another, really.

Numerous assassinations and data recovery missions had taken place, as they'd found comfort in one another's arms. During a mission in Latvia things had changed, though; it had happened suddenly without any preamble. Vanya had said it was best to end things; that sentiment would only weaken them and they would fail their superiors, their country.

Something unpleasant had clawed its way up her spine, but she had had enough training to hide it. She had forced ice to cover her heart, to throw up her defenses as quickly as she could. Because it wouldn't do any good, it never would, to show her wounds to the world. He had taught her that, after all; and he had been right.

They had returned to what they had been; cohorts in business but no more; except when they weren't. It had happened when she'd been much too ill to join him in their first mission out of Europe, and her ailment had sent her directly to the infirmary for a slew of mandatory tests to be taken.

Natalia had been passed onto a new doctor, a middle-aged woman by the name of Koltsova. Koltsova had been newly recruited to the Red Room, and seemed well-read by the brief and curt conversations between the two of them. Yet that too had changed, as her relations with Vanya had.

Clipped and straightforward exchanges, had eventually crumbled to the wayside; once Koltsova had revealed her ailment with deep-seated concern. There were only two options in order to cure her; one was to carry the baby to term or to abort the pregnancy. And they both knew that her superior officers would not allow her to have a child, unless they worked together to hide her away temporarily.

Fear, anxiety, and horror had taken Natalia prisoner. She hadn't imagined motherhood a possibility; not where she had grown up, and what she had done. Her hands had been stained permanently red. She couldn't be a mother; Vanya couldn't be a father. But they could; or in the very least she could be if she wanted to. Vanya couldn't, never; she could somehow though.

Somehow she had found clarity in her decision, and with Koltsova's promise to shield her from any harm; Natalia had chosen to have the baby. Of course, not until she had ensured Koltsova was a trustworthy ally, who wouldn't betray her while she was too far along. That she wouldn't be carried kicking and screaming back to the Red Room, and forced to face Vanya at her most vulnerable.

Through extensive study, Natalia unearthed the fact that Koltsova was the bastard daughter of one the well-respected scientists of the KGB. That was the only reason for her procuring a position at the medical unit, and why she appeared certain that Koltsova could hide her away without questions being asked; or at least questions being asked without being aggressively interrogated by her superiors afterwards.

It had been difficult to entrust her life to anyone beyond Vanya. Natalia had known him as well as anyone in the Red Room could know another. He'd been her teacher and he'd been her partner; he hadn't any reason to betray, whereas Koltsova could at any given moment. But she had trusted her and had found herself whisked away into a worn down village hours away from Moscow days later.

In a rundown little shack, occupied by a middle-aged woman, two small children, and an elderly woman who looked well into her eighties; Natalia had stayed for six solid months. It hadn't even been safe to venture outside, beyond a few minutes per day. Because god only knew if anyone would see through Koltsova's ploy and track her down. Vanya could have too; almost too easily if he'd been determined to do so.

Maybe it had been lent to sheer luck, or Koltsova's masterful deceit, whatever it may have been no one had found her. The first month had been horribly stressful, although she had always been good at hiding it. And the second month hadn't been any better nor the third. Only when she'd grown too big to move as gracefully and easily as she usually could and when her emotions had become a contradictory entity, did Natalia momentarily forget about the threat of discovery.

Koltsova had frequently visited then. Check-ups were imperative, although they had spoken of little else beyond her health. Well, beside the vague talk about when she would have to return to her normal duties; which would be within weeks of the baby's delivery. And for a small stipend, the women she had lived with would take in the baby and watch it; unless, of course, Natalia had wanted a different arrangement; which could have ranged from a shady adoption to other nefarious means.

The baby would, in some capacity, still be hers if she chose the first option. She could, and had, slipped away from the Red Room's headquarters beforehand. It had always been easy and it would be easy to do so again for her baby; their baby.

"What of Vanya?" Natalia had asked during one of Koltsova's visits.

"Your teacher is fine; he suspects nothing." Koltsova had replied dismissively. "He would be unhappy with the baby's father, for taking his student away from him, I imagine. But he has managed without you."

Koltsova hadn't known, hadn't even expected, Vanya had been the one to father her child. It had been better that way, to hide it. The possibility that Koltsova would change her mind on protecting her could easily happen. Vanya was no simple man; although Natalia was no simple woman either. But the two of them combined could, and had, cause regimes to crumble and fall. They had always been a force to be reckoned with, and a child made between them had endless possibilities.

The Red Room would have killed for an opportunity to raise the Widow and the Winter Soldier's offspring. Koltsova might have been kind-hearted but she wasn't stupid. And Natalia knew that keeping her in the dark had been for the best. No one needed to know who the baby's father was. Not Koltsova, or the middle-aged woman, or the elderly one. The father himself never needed to know either.

Within six months of anxiety and bodily transformations, Natalia had found herself in the worst pain that she had ever experienced before. Despite being trained in horribly frigid temperatures and pushed to the worst physical limits imaginable, it had been nothing compared to the contractions that announced the baby's impending arrival.

It had been a snowy winter's night; Koltsova had been hours away and her only support had been the two women who she had shared the small shack with. Only after hours of delirious pain, and shedding a dam's worth of tears, had she been presented with a tiny wailing bundle that tore down her many defenses and burrowed its way into her heart in a way that no one else had done before.

"It's a boy," the elderly woman had told her with a crooked smile. "Your Vanya would be proud of you, little Natalia."

"Vanya,"

"You called for him over and over again."

"Vanya," she had repeated, before she had stared down at her child; their child.

Somewhere in between Poland or Hungary or Turkey or Lithuania, she and Vanya had created more than just death and destruction. They, hardened and unapologetic assassins, had made something beautiful; a child with dark hair and a little red face that knew nothing of the silence that they were forced to live in.

They had done something right for once. But Natalia knew they'd never replicate it again, and that had brought her defenses down once more. But it had been the last time for many years to come.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Two :: Dead Men Tell No Tales

 


 

Wisps of smoke rose to the cloudless sky; one of the few signs of the destruction that had been wrought only minutes before. Natalia was disenchanted by the sight; she didn't have any ties to the many men, women, and children that they had slaughtered. Nor did she care when one of the more cruel recipients of the Red Room's training, had decided upon setting the village on fire.

They had completed their mission, after all. There wasn't any further need to dwell on it. So she spun on her heel and followed the small precision through the densely grown forest. Footfall echoed in the silence; a war drum that spoke of their victory.

Vanya was at the head of the procession. He strode sure-footedly across the overgrowth, and led them towards the safe house that was nestled at the base of a mountain. No one would find it; even if they had, there were four of them. And each of them was deadlier than the last.

The mission had been a simple one. They'd been instructed to locate a local politician, who had proven to be a problem. The Red Room didn't take too kindly to problems, and while he visited his family's home; they had attacked and burned the place to cinders. Just to be safe. Or so that was what Zubov declared as he set the first house aflame.

No one had stopped Zubov. Vanya had been nowhere to be seen; not until the flames licked from one rooftop to the next. His face had been blank, colored by blood spattered. His arm had shone like an illusion in the fire's heat. He seemed like nothing more than a mirage. But none of those thoughts left Natalia's lips; nothing did unless it came to the mission.

As their party traversed through the closely knitted trees, Natalia furrowed her brow in thought. How many more villages would be ransacked and burned to the ground until the Red Room's political enemies were laid to rest? Would there be more innocent victims in their wake?

The upheaval in the local government had caused tempers to flare within the Red Room's ranks. Natalia didn't know the details, unless they were spoon fed to her. And quite frankly, none of the governmental unease had anything to do with her. She hadn't any say in politics; she wasn't allowed to have an opinion. Puppets weren't allowed any freedom whatsoever. And it was probably for the best anyway.

Wafts of smoke followed them as they continued onward. Charred flesh filled Natalia's nostrils still, as did the moans and pleas of hundreds of people filled her ears. Wherever they appeared destruction followed. She was used to it by now. She knew her function, as they all did; Vanya most of all.

The Winter Soldier; the legend had worked its way through every intelligence agency in the world. She too had created a reputation for herself, although it was easily trumped by the man that led them in both combat and to safety. The man she had once known so intimately so many years ago. But that had been a lifetime ago.

Natalia didn't like to think of that. Emotion was a formidable enemy; one that had brought down many agents within a split-second. She didn't intend on becoming a casualty; even when her heart pounded in her chest, as she watched Vanya in heavy combat against five or ten men, sometimes more, at a time. She knew better than to intervene unless when it was absolutely necessary, which was rarely ever.

Vanya needed no one's help. He worked alone more often than not. But there were special occasions such as this one. Where the target needed to truly be dead and the Winter Soldier was an adequate asset for the job; he was the most beloved but feared in the Red Room. And Natalia couldn't tell how she felt towards him anymore.

In the deepest recesses of her mind, she knew they shared a bond like no other. It had even taken on a physical manifestation; one that was always on her mind. One that Vanya could never know about for obvious reasons. No one needed to know about it either.

Pine needles crunched underfoot and the bump of weaponry on body parts filled the woodland silence. Natalia's eyes focused on the solid form that was Vanya; a formidable figure in black leather and with perfectly polished cybernetic arm. Sparse moonbeams filtered through the trees and made it gleam almost eerily bright, and made the past seem so surreal.

Nothing much had changed about Vanya, though. The one who had changed was her; probably not for the better, unfortunately. At least, not when she considered the pros and cons of what she was bred to do; what she was bred to be.

"Up ahead." Zubov, maybe Smolin, said; once the trees gradually parted.

Ahead, amid a gnarly meeting of elderly trees was a small, rundown shack. It looked like it had been abandoned for years, and would fall with a light dusting of snow on its tin roof. Rumor had it that many of the villagers' children had dubbed it haunted, and left it alone. But even if they found the courage to try and go inside; they'd be met with resistance.

What one would think was a rusty door, was in all actuality a highly sophisticated lock that only someone with a key could get past. Natalia had no doubt the door was not a flimsy wooden one either. The Red Room did not shy away from expense when it came to things of importance. And a safe house was incredibly important, after such risky missions.

Vanya said nothing as he broke through the foliage. He instead reached for a handgun at his hip and slowly made his way around the perimeter of the safe house. The team followed suit; Natalia was at the rear and turned to ensure that no one had followed them. Of course, if there had been anyone; she would have known within seconds of the initial pursuit.

Once they established that no one besides them had survived the massacre; Vanya led them to the door of the safe house. They spread out defensively still; guns at the ready until they heard the groan of unused hinges swing back into activity.

"Inside," Vanya announced harshly, which sent Smolin then Zubov scrambling across the threshold. Natalia, on the other hand, wasn't too keen on the damp stench that rushed out of the dilapidated little shack, and took her time to holster her gun and make her way inside. But not before Vanya captured her eyes in a steely stare.

The weight of Vanya's eyes stopped Natalia in her tracks. For a single delusion moment, she thought he knew. Her heart leapt to her throat and threatened to expel from her lips. And she could think of nothing to say; nothing to decry his suspicions.

"Inside," Vanya repeated, before he turned his eyes outward and freed her of such a heavy burden.

Quickly, Natalia slipped into the stench of dampness and mold. The safe house consisted of only one room with a threadbare couch as its centerpiece. There was a wood stove at the far end of the room with a shelf above it that held several chipped cups, but nothing more. A rotary telephone was mounted on the wall beside the door, but the likelihood that it worked seemed to be slim to none.

The door closed with a thud; followed shortly by a deadbolt being secured into place. Natalia stepped further into the room; inspected every nook and cranny, and kept her eyes on her comrades. Smolin had collapsed on the couch, unperturbed by the plume of dust and dirt that rose around him. Zubov was in the midst of inspecting the stove; the fire bug as he was.

With nowhere to go, Natalia backed into one corner of the room. She swatted away the tangle of cobwebs that congested the spot she'd chosen for her own. Not more than two seconds later, the telephone went off shrilly. The ring startled Zubov, who slammed the stove's door with a loud bang, and caused Smolin to lift his head in surprise.

Everyone turned towards the telephone, although Vanya was the only one who moved a muscle. He reached for the receiver with his real hand, and ceased the incessant ringing that seemed to burrow its way into Natalia's brain. He held the receiver to his ear, but said nothing. He didn't have to.

A monotone drawl was audible over the line; Natalia couldn't make out any of the words, though. She already knew the gist of them anyway. It was always the same; their handlers wanted to know of their success. There wasn't any other alternative; it was success or death. Failure was not an option.

"Mission completed," Vanya uttered eventually, before he set the receiver back into its cradle.

"They'll be here soon, I take it." Smolin announced, carefree.

No one replied. It would be hours still until they were fetched. But they weren't out of danger yet. Anyone who thought otherwise was a fool. The Red Room hadn't any need for fools. They were taken care of accordingly. Not always by their superiors either.

The room fell uncomfortably quiet. There never really was any idle chit-chat. Or at least neither she nor Vanya were the types for that. Natalia couldn't recall the last time she had an in-depth conversation with Vanya, let alone anyone else. She supposed it must have been when they were last together; only the two of them years ago.

The thought of conversing with Vanya wasn't a pleasant one. They had nothing to say to one another. Vanya had made his position known, and Natalia begrudgingly respected it. She wasn't heartbroken, however. Love was for children, after all.

Something twisted painfully in the pit of her stomach, at that thought. Despite her many attempts to banish the past from her thoughts; oftentimes the past came back in extraordinary ways. His eyes haunted her because…

"You are hiding something." Vanya approached her suddenly, although he maintained a safe distance. Neither Zubov nor Smolin would think anything of it; they knew they had once been student and teacher. No one knew of what else they had been.

Honestly, it felt like a dream. What they had had been brief; no more than a few months at the most. It had left its mark on Natalia; both good and bad. But the bad easily outweighed the good.

"A good spy has many secrets, isn't that right?" She replied without any inflection, while her eyes bored at the cleft of his chin. "Someone wise once told me that."

"Can you hold onto your secrets forever, Widow?" Vanya asked.

"Can you, Soldier?"

"Dead men tell no tales, little one." He turned away then, crossing the room, and taking residence in the corner directly across from Natalia. But he didn't look at her again, as if he had learned all he needed to know in that brief exchange.

No one could read her very well; if at all. Vanya was different, though. Maybe she had been transparent for all this time, which was cause for concern. She had been cautious about every little move she had made in three years. Everything she had done had been perfectly executed; she couldn't have been any more careful.

Did she somehow slip up? Had she been acting unlike herself after her brief sabbatical? No, if that had been the case; wouldn't Vanya have approached her sooner?

There weren't any forthcoming answers. Natalia observed Vanya from her peripheral for close to an hour. But there weren't any telltale signs that revealed anything amiss. Vanya was the same; emotionless, immovable, and impenetrable. He was her teacher, her comrade, her former lover, but most importantly he was the father of her child.

Her blood ran cold for a split-second. Vanya could never know. The Red Room couldn't either. And she would do everything within her power to keep her son hidden; even if she had to kill everyone in her way.

Vanya was right about one thing: dead men tell no tales.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Three :: Protect At All Costs

  


 

Natalia's heart pounded wildly in her chest. Her outward appearance had not changed; her expression was schooled into nonchalance, even though she was anything but. It hadn't been the deaths of hundreds of people that had set her on edge, but the way her comrade shot her unreadable glances every few moments without fail.

Vanya knew she had a secret. She held many; her life was a series of unspoken truths but none of which were truly hers. She was a vessel that held onto the Red Room's infinite knowledge of political unrest and military weapon exchanges across Europe, Africa, Asia, and even westward.

Espionage flowed through her veins. She was an elite assassin and spy; she was one of the few Black Widows and earned her title a tenfold. She was the pupil of the feared Winter Soldier. Fear was a foreign concept to her. Or it should have been that anyway. But fear clawed like a beast up her spine as Vanya's eyes rested on her like an anvil.

It was only paranoia, though. She knew Vanya was none the wiser to the secret she held dearly. He might have been an able spy himself, but she had covered her tracks as much as one human being could. She had blackmailed and threatened and paid for silence from all her conspirators. None would speak unless they preferred death to secrecy, and she suspected they were smarter than that.

Crossing her arms protectively across her body, Natalia glanced towards the men who'd come from them in the dense forestland. They were older men, although they weren't yet weathered. She remembered them from her more formidable years; men who were loyal completely to the KGB and harsh beyond compare.

They had led them to an armored van off the beaten path. Everyone had climbed into the back, divested of their heavier weaponry, and settled for the nearly seven hour drive to Moscow. She found the prospect to be suffocating one, but she had kept those thoughts to herself.

"Mission report," the eldest of the handlers called back to them.

"Complete," Vanya returned blankly with his head bowed currently.

"Successful," Zubov interceded unnecessarily. "Anyone who be foolish to be that defiant against the Red Room again,"

"No one asked for your opinion." The eldest handler, Vasin, snarled.

Any further conversation lulled into heavy silence after that. Unlike Natalia and Vanya, Zubov and Smolin were not obedient militants of the Red Room. They hadn't gone through the same procedures as they had. In fact, both Zubov and Smolin had voluntarily come to work for the KGB and believed in the cause.

Natalia couldn't be absolutely certain, but she suspected Vanya hadn't willingly joined the Red Room. He seemed bred into his role as the perfect soldier. She had been raised from her earliest memory to be what she had ultimately become as well.

Loyalty in many of the men and women in the KGB was genuine. They believed in the strength of the mother country. They believed that Russia should reign supreme and uncontested by the outside world. Yet Natalia couldn't say the same thing with any confidence. Her loyalty had been bred by means of studious resilience on her teachers' parts, and some would even call it torture. She wasn't one to question it too much, though.

Questioning things were only bound to exacerbate an already ongoing problem. She had already been compromised by the secret that now she harbored, and she knew that the Red Room would do anything within their means to get their hands on the child she bore three short years ago.

Tightening her arms around herself, Natalia looked towards Vanya again whose head remained bowed. He looked to be about to fall asleep, but she knew better. He was always on alert; he rarely slept and when he did, he said odd things. She hadn't told anyone of the muffled words and the chain of numbers that spilled so easily from his lips while they shared close quarters – 32557038.

As if he could read her thoughts, Vanya's head lifted from across the way. His eyes bore into hers, intrusive and inquisitive. She couldn't look away; if she had then he would know that there was something extraordinary hidden inside of her. He would find out and that was something that she could never allow. She couldn't show him any sign of weakness.

They stared at one another for several moments, only to break contact in the end when they hit a rough patch in the road. The van jostled violently, which sent Vanya's gaze to the men at the front of the vehicle and gave her a momentary reprieve.

The hours that soon followed proved to be tense and uncomfortable. While Vanya only spared her a glance whenever he deemed it necessary; Natalia remained on alert and on the edge of her seat. Outwardly, she continued to show no sign of distress but she knew Vanya could see right through her all the same; he knew she was wary, and he seemed determined to keep her that way.

No one spoke much throughout the ordeal; Zubov and Smolin exchanged words, while the handlers murmured haughtily to one another about reports and upcoming missions that might not involve them directly. None of it truly meant much to Natalia; her thoughts drifted elsewhere when she wasn't worrying about her former teacher and his invasive stare.

Thoughts of the rickety old shack with its three rooms and a tiny bathroom rose to the forefront of her mind. The wizened old woman, the younger woman with two small children, and the dark haired blue-eyed boy that she dreamt of often; they were the ones she had vowed to protect; the family out of obligation, the small boy out of love; the boy that looked so much like the emotionless man across from her at that very moment.

Alexei had very little of Natalia in his appearance. Vanya's likeness was uncanny; their child had even inherited the cleft in his chin. It would be hard deny who fathered Alexei, and that made it even more crucial for her to maintain the secrecy of his existence and to protect him at all costs; even if it meant protecting Alexei from his own father.

The vehicle slowed to a halt eventually. They swayed in their seats as the older men got out from the cabin at the front of the van. Natalia snuck a glimpse at Vanya, who had focused on releasing himself from the confines of the belt around his waist. She soon followed his lead and freed herself just as the back doors flew open to let in the chilly night air.

Smolin was the first to disembark, followed closely by Zubov. Neither Natalia nor Vanya made a move to leave the confines of the van, though. Vanya narrowed his eyes but finally relented and stood hunched over so he didn't hit his head. He carried his sniper rifle in one hand, the only one to remain heavily armed, while the other grasped the side of the open door.

The handlers had given him a wide breadth; even men of such extreme cruelty knew they were no match against the legendary Winter Soldier. There was grudging respect from everyone in the KGB towards Vanya. Vanya didn't appear to hold the same respect, however; he only expressed reverence towards Mother Russia herself.

Once Vanya hopped out of the van, Natalia got up and climbed down onto the wild grass that cropped up from the broken sidewalk underfoot. The Red Room's headquarters were on the edge of the city and looked dilapidated from the outside; although the chain-linked fence, barbwire, and armed men spoke differently of what was inside the confines of those many gray brick buildings.

"Report to General Lukin." Vasin told Vanya, although there wasn't any need for him to say so.

Vanya had already started towards the main building that Lukin frequented. The rest of them were officially dismissed at that point; they hadn't any need to report to Lukin since their mission had been particularly easy and straightforward. There hadn't been any discrepancies, unless you considered a burned village a discrepancy. Natalia suspected not. If anything Lukin probably deemed that the appropriate course of action.

Since she was no longer of use, Natalia took her leave and crossed the expansive compound towards the sleeping quarters. At least two dozen apartments were located in the building; they were made up of the bare essentials, though. There was a communal bathroom and a mess hall for meals. Only the likes of Vanya were given something larger and away from the rest of the Red Room's loyalists.

Her trek was a short and an uneventful one. She pushed through one of the double doors once they came into reach and stepped into a quiet foyer. Cold white and green linoleum spread out like a virus in both directions, although she chose to mount the staircase several feet ahead of her. The bones of the structure were sturdy and could withstand many rambunctious footsteps that always eventually transformed to a military march.

No one was awake at this hour. She walked undisturbed to the fourth floor where only three occupants resided. Her quarters were the farthest from the stairway and closest to a bank of windows. They were not properly insulated and brought in more cold than blocked it out. She woke many mornings numb and achy, but she found no reason to complain. She hadn't any right to complain.

There weren't any locks on the doors, so Natalia turn the knob and stepped into the barren room. A twin bed took up much of the space, although there was a rickety desk against one wall and a stool. Her clothing was folded neatly and pushed underneath the bed frame. The only piece of decoration was an empty flower pot on the window sill; the iris long since dead from lack of care.

Shutting the door behind her, Natalia began to disarm herself. Knives, pistols, garrotes, and the bracelets around her wrists were placed onto the desk. Once that was finished, she slipped off her boots where the expected chill made contact with the bottom of her feet. No matter how thick and woolen her socks were, she could always feel the cold; it was all encompassing.

Her body suit was unzipped and pushed off her shoulders and down her legs until she stood in nothing but her cotton under things. She knelt beside the bed, and retrieved the dull and unremarkable clothing that she wore most of the time. The black of the tank top and sweatpants had faded after so many washes, but it didn't bother her much; clothing was only important when she needed to blend into her surroundings.

Natalia dressed quickly, before folding her body suit neatly and placing it onto the desk. Someone would come to clean it; one of the younger pupils of the Black Widow program, no doubt. They were disciplined in many tasks and trained diligently in ballet. None had risen as high as she had in the Red Room; none had been given the opportunity to train with Vanya either.

Maybe someday another Widow would surpass her, and be given the privilege of becoming the Winter Soldier's student. But until then she would greedily keep that honor to herself and possibly secretly revel in the fact that she was the sole one to train underneath him and become his equal.

For the time being, Natalia bypassed her bed and picked up her left boot. She sat on the stool, before reaching absently for the small knife she usually strapped to her thigh. With practiced ease, she slipped the tip of the blade where sole met leather. The sole was pried away enough so she could slide her pinky finger along the cut to ease out a small photograph.

Setting the boot onto her lap and the knife onto the desktop, Natalia turned the photo around to look at it. The color wasn't as vibrant as it once was, but the corners of her mouth curled up in adoration all the same.

It was dangerous to have anything of sentiment around, yet she managed to hide the picture from sight for close to a year now. She had been given the necessary supplies to fix her boot each time it fell apart, and no one thought anything about it. So she could keep a small token of her child without suspicion.

Alexei had only been a year old at the time of the photo. The old woman had given it to her with a crooked smile, and explained that they had taken Alexei to pick wildflowers on one summer afternoon. Somehow they had gotten a beaten up camera for the occasion and had taken several pictures before developing the film themselves. Natalia had never been that grateful to someone for anything in her entire life.

"Good night, Единственная и неповторимая." She placed a kiss to the photo, before discarding her boot to the floor standing up so she could finally crawl into bedShe put the photo underneath her pillow to ensure its safe keeping until the following morning, and hoped for another day of her secret remaining undetected.

Vanya would remain none the wiser as would every member of the Red Room. Her child would remain untouched one way or another, even if she had to kill every single one of them herself.

Chapter Text


 

 Chapter Four :: Time Will Tell

 


 

The humidity covered her body like a second skin. Natalia wiped at the dampness beaded at her brow. She could have taken a simpler route to her location, but the risks outweighed the convenience of modern transport. So she had headed off on foot, after she had disembarked from the train twenty miles away.

Greenery grew wildly around her. It was in the middle of July and the temperatures were continuing to rise at a steady rate. She yearned for the cool stickiness of nighttime, but it was still hours away and a trip this far away from the city at such an hour would heighten suspicions of her activities. She could get away with a day trip if she was cautious enough, but she didn't want to test her luck anymore than she already was.

Most of the Red Room had been preoccupied as she slipped out. The news of the decimated village had been broadcast nationally; the death of such a viable, young politician had drawn far more attention than Lukin had probably realized. The government also hadn't realized how invested the common man had become in the change in the political tide of late.

Damage control; it had been on everyone's mind. Maybe it hadn't been in the KGB's best interest to slaughter so many people by arson. Natalia distantly wondered if Zubov would somehow disappear without any explanation. It had happened to other agents before; she suspected it would happen again in this case as well.

Things had become particularly heated of late. Many citizens were determined to cause unrest for the government. There was too much poverty; there were too many social issues that needed to be changed. The isolation of the country was weighing heavily on the idealists. And that conflicted too much with what the men in power had in mind for the country; there wasn't room for a revolution.

Obedience was key; Natalia knew this all too well, even if what she was currently doing mocked that lesson quite apparently. She had thumbed her nose at the Red Room once she developed an emotional attachment to Vanya. She had betrayed it when they fell into one another's arms. But worse yet, she had had the gall to birth a child which shifted her loyalty altogether.

She was a traitor, and traitors were given deaths worthy of that title. She had witnessed the macabre scenes before; she had helped in one or two herself. She had felt nothing then; in a way she still didn't. The only thing that she truly felt was her own need for survival.

After so many years, Natalia knew how to prolong her life. She might have had a weakness, but ultimately she knew it could only make her stronger. Cornering her would only cause her to fight harder and fiercer. How else had she survived this long?

The density of the greenery continued as far as the eye could see. The sky was cloudless and the sun beat unforgivably down on her head. She brushed a stray hair away from her sweaty cheek, while winding through a field of thick, knee-high grass.

There was a sweet-woody smell in the air that seemed to compliment the sound of children at play well. Many residents had meandered down the bumpy dirt roads, and children occupied themselves with imaginary games of splendor in the distance. They were far different than how she had been at that age; they were actually children and they were innocent, untouched by the brutality of the Red Room.

The concept of innocence was foreign to Natalia. She knew naïveté when she saw it; she had even felt contempt for it on occasion. But she knew she wanted to preserve it in her own child. She never wanted Alexei to be exposed to the horrors of the Red Room. It changed you for the worst; it could easily make you into a monster.

Objectively, Natalia knew what she was. She knew what Vanya was. They were killers; cold-blooded and conscienceless. Neither of them felt remorse when they made a kill. They viewed it as a job to be done, nothing more and nothing less. However, she was self-aware enough to know that that wasn't a normal reaction to loss of life and she couldn't bear to put her child through the same thing.

Soon the field made way to a familiar road that branched out to several ramshackle homes. Natalia moved a little quicker despite the heat. She hadn't been there in nearly three weeks, and soon she would be taken out of the country and into any corner of the world. So she needed to make good use of her time because she didn't know when she would be able to visit again.

As she drew nearer, she recognized a sandy haired boy no more than six on the fringe of a thicket. She approached him with confident steps, and he smiled up at her like she was a pleasant surprise. Very few people looked at her that way; it was only recently that they did.

"Natalia," the boy, Vladimir, cried and abandoned whatever he'd been up to. "You've been gone for so long!"

"Business as always," she returned as kindly as she could.

Vladimir took her hand in his grubby one, before he urged her into a hurried gait. They bypassed one of the rickety old homes and approached another whose door had been swung open to let in the fresh air. Natalia suspected that that it was doing very little to cool the interior of the home, though.

Loud sounds of cooking and singing could be heard inside. An old, cracked voice sang a lullaby and was soon accompanied by a tinny tiny one that filled Natalia's heart with love greater than anything she ever experienced before. She didn't even mind being pulled so forcefully by Vlad over the threshold and into an even greater wall of heat.

The inside of the home was dark and dreary. Wood, cracked plaster, and elderly mismatched furniture made up much of the room. The front room was a combination of both a sitting room and a kitchen, and that's where the occupants spent much of their time. She had frequently stood at the kitchen window and dreamt single-mindedly of Vanya.

Now, however, her eyes focused onto the old woman in her rocking chair with Alexei propped in her lap. The little girl, Nina, sat at the foot of the chair with a handmade doll in her hands. The children's mother, Marta, was stirring something on the stove top but beamed at Natalia when she caught sight of her.

"Look, Alexei," Vladimir pulled her along further when there was a lull in the song. "Look,"

Big blue eyes turned on Natalia, ones so similar to Vanya's but the main difference was the elation in them. Alexei let out a shrill sound of joy, before throwing his hands up in the universal sign to be picked up.

Vladimir released her hand, which gave her the opportunity step forward and eagerly take Alexei into her arms. She hugged him to her, oblivious to the sweat drenched state she was in, and only focusing on the sweet smell and warmth that the tiny body pressed up against her was radiating.

"Mama, Mama," Alexei cried out as he looped his arms around her neck.

"My beautiful boy," she smiled into Alexei's hair and kissed at the damp strands.

The mask of nonchalance and cold calculation that she always wore dropped away. It was a peculiar sort of transformation that could only be invoked by the child in her arms. She never knew her capacity to love unconditionally until Alexei. Vanya had an expendability to him in comparison.

"I've brought something for you." Natalia pulled away a fraction so she could look at her son. "Let's go outside and I'll show you."

Alexei nodded vigorously in agreement, but before she moved from the spot; Natalia reached into the shoulder bag across her body, and found an envelope that had been filled with money. Wordlessly, she held out the bundle to the old woman who took it without much of a reaction beyond the nod of her head.

Their agreement was simple. They watched over Alexei and served as his surrogate family, and she paid them so they could survive. Although unlikely, Natalia hoped that she could find a way out of the Red Room where such an arrangement would no longer be needed.

Once the money passed hands, Natalia carried Alexei out of the house and into the sweltering heat. She had a place in mind where it would only be the two of them. She didn't want any interruptions, especially with what she had for her son. What she wanted to share with him would have to remain between the two of them and no one else.

They weren't followed as she headed behind the home and into the thicket that extended for several yards. As she walked through the undergrowth, Alexei began a long narrative of the things he liked and disliked and the fun things that Vladimir and Nina had taught him. He was especially happy to talk about Babushka Irina.

Every jumbled and babbled word was better than the last. Natalia could listen to Alexei speak for hours on end if she could have. She wanted nothing else. Her only dream was that she could raise Alexei herself without any fear of the Red Room or the Winter Soldier. But she also knew that maybe she wasn't the best candidate for the job.

Motherhood, full-time motherhood seemed like a daunting task that she might not be able to succeed in. She wasn't meant to have a maternal side; all kindness had been programmed out of her long ago. Or so she had been led to believe until she had held her son for the first time. Everything had changed then; she still marveled on how gentle and natural it was to be with Alexei when it was still so easy to snap a man's neck without any hesitation too.

When they were far enough away to permit privacy, Natalia found a comfortable spot underneath the shade of several trees to sit under; she placed Alexei in her lap as she settled down and pulled the strap of her bag from her body. She reached into the bag and found almost immediately what she was after.

"Now, Единственная и неповторимая, I want to show you something." She said, while Alexei squirmed curiously in her lap. "But you can't tell Babushka Irina or Nina or Vlad or even Mama Marta; do you understand?"

Alexei nodded, although Natalia suspected he might not grasp the concept of secrecy just yet. It didn't truly matter, she supposed. So long as no one saw what she was about to share with Alexei then that was enough.

It had taken quite a bit of time to find what she had wanted to show her son. She had picked through several files over the past two months, until she found something suitable enough to let him see. She held up the photo in front of him with a slight smile.

"Remember how you told me Vlad and Nina had a picture of their papa?"

"Uh-huh,"

"Well, see this man right here?" With a bit of shifting, Natalia pointed with her other hand at the photo. "That's your papa."

The photo wasn't the best, but it was the least intimidating that she could find. The Red Room hadn't kept much incriminating evidence on file. They seemed determined to erase any mention of the Winter Soldier particularly. Unfortunately for them, they hadn't hid all their files as well as they hoped and Natalia had found half a dozen photos of Vanya stuffed in between leaves of paper and in congested storage rooms.

Vanya's likeness in the photo was captured sometime during a training session. His face was blank and his hair fell loosely above his shoulders as it normally did. He had been in a black tee-shirt and loose gray sweats, and his metal arm had photographed dully.

"Papa," Alexei repeated almost uncertainly, before looking up at her.

"Yes, Papa," Natalia felt her heart begin to pound wildly.

That confirmation cemented Vanya's contribution to Alexei's existence once and for all. Whether or not she should have shared a photo of Vanya with Alexei remained to be seen. But if she could, in the very least, let Alexei know that he did have a father the risk was more than worth it; especially when he had asked about his own papa after he had seen a photo of Vlad and Nina's.

Natalia pressed a kiss to Alexei's temple, and allowed her paranoia to be pushed to the back of her mind for the time being. She let her son stare inquisitively at the photo of Vanya, without trying to discern if she made a grave mistake or not. Only time would tell.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Five :: Virginia Potts

  


 

After weeks of extensive research involving mostly money transfers Natalia had followed the paper trail to the smartly dressed man ahead of her. Boris Salenko was a businessman from Kiev, who had an unhealthy fascination with Russian politics. He had funded many of the campaigns by those pesky bit-time politicians who wanted to revolt against the current regime and who the KGB were trying to deter with lethal force.

Sipping on the cocktail she'd gotten from a passing waiter, she strategized on the best way to approach her target. Salenko seemed to be quite the ladies' man; she had watched him mingle, and noticed how he paid quite a bit of attention to the women in attendance. She suspected that was why she'd been chosen for this specific task.

Her feminine wiles had proven to be more of a benefit than a hindrance, which had given her an upper-hand when it came to some assassinations. It was simpler to kill a lustful man than one that was self-aware, and she would gladly take advantage of it.

Salenko was in the middle of a discussion with white-haired man; both were speaking animatedly and bringing a bit of attention to themselves. The words were garbled from Natalia's vantage point, although she suspected they wouldn't have interested her anyway. Men were worse than women when it came to gossip; they simply masked it under the guise of business talk.

Natalia watched for several minutes, before she chose to make her move. She walked on the outskirts of the party. Men and women of high economic standing had gathered for a frivolous evening of drink and laughter at a hotel in Poland's capital. Everyone had dressed in their best cocktail attire, and she was no different in that respect.

During assignments of this nature, she was given a stipend to purchase whatever she needed to ensure her success. She had purchased a black velvet, form fitting dress for the occasion and had garnered several appreciative looks for her trouble. She suspected Salenko wouldn't deny her his time either.

Soundlessly, she slunk towards Salenko and stepped into his field of vision. That's all that it took; she had thrown her hook into the water, and it was only a matter of reeling in her catch. Men could be very simple creatures; she supposed that's why she was fascinated by Vanya. That man was the farthest thing from simple; in fact he was utterly unpredictable.

When she was certain she had left an impression, Natalia continued on her way as if she had stopped unintentionally. She weaved through the crowd, while taking another drink from her mostly full glass; before she was interrupted by the abrupt sound of excuse me's and pardon me's from behind her.

Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Salenko make his way towards her. She didn't acknowledge his advancement any further, though. Instead she continued forward for a few more paces until her target cut her off rather abruptly.

"Excuse me," Salenko, a mustached forty-something year old, smiled charmingly at her. "I couldn't help but notice you all by yourself. What a shame,"

"Yes, well my boss wasn't able to attend the party tonight." Natalia adopted an easy American accent.

"Boris Salenko," her target held out his hand, which she smiled at before taking it coyly in hers.

"Virginia Potts,"

"Now I've heard the name before."

"Oh, you flatter me." She batted her eyelashes as Salenko pressed a kiss to her knuckles. "My boss's reputation precedes him. I'm sure you've heard of Tony Stark of Stark Industries."

That produced the reaction she was after. Like many things, Natalia had pored over everything to do with that evening and the individuals in attendance. She had learned with her research that the billionaire inheritor of Stark Industries had been invited to the soiree, only to decline at the last minute for unknown reasons.

With that in mind, Natalia had chosen to assume Stark's well-known personal assistant. No one had seen her much in public, but it was well-documented that she was a redhead that handled most people that needed to get in touch with Stark. It seemed like the perfect cover, and she suspected someone as dense as Salenko wouldn't be any the wiser to the deceit.

"Now this is a pleasant surprise." Salenko grinned widely, as he released her hand. "I've heard a lot about your boss, Miss Potts."

"I'm sure you have; he can be quite the handful!"

"But certainly a genius first and foremost,"

"I couldn't agree with you anymore." She set her cocktail on a passing waiter's tray, so she could focus solely on her target. "I'm only disappointed that he couldn't join us tonight. He is a busy man."

Salenko shifted his eyes away from her, and appeared to be scoping the immediate area for eavesdroppers. There was no doubt in Natalia's mind that there were many. At any given time, there were at least a handful of people ready to sink a knife into your back. The Red Room and high society weren't that different in that respect.

"I would love to talk to you in a more private setting, Miss Potts."

"Would this have anything to do with business, Mr. Salenko?" She intentionally butchered his name, and felt a small thrill when he shot her an annoyed glance.

"Highly sensitive business talk,"

"Well, if that is the case then how could I refuse? Mr. Stark sent me specifically here to mingle."

"Genius, he is." Salenko motioned towards the double doors that served as both the entrance and exit. There was an emergency exit deeper into the room that she spied on her first walk around.

With a cheery smile, Natalia led the way through the crowd. Since the party was being held in an upscale hotel, she could only imagine Salenko would take her to his room on the twenty-second floor. She had planned to end up there, may it be because of his carnal desires or otherwise.

Admittedly, Salenko's desire to talk business with Stark's personal assistant piqued her interest. Stark Industries was the premiere weapons manufacture in the civilized world. No one could compare, and if Salenko wanted Stark technology that meant there was a greater ploy for a revolution than what the KGB had first believed.

Money to fund campaigns was one thing, but highly volatile weapons of war was another thing altogether. So this was what the fallout of Zubov's indiscretions inevitably was. A regime change seemed to be imminent unless, of course, they could get a handle on it first.

Natalia wound her way through the party guests, before she eventually found her way to the exit. She stepped out into the much quieter hallway with Salenko at her back, although he moved to stand in front of her. He smiled as if to reassure her that this was only business and nothing more.

"Miss Potts, would it be too forward of me to invite you to my room?"

"I don't know." She crinkled her eyebrows together. "That doesn't sound like a good idea. Privacy is one thing, Mr. Salenko but I wouldn't feel comfortable going upstairs with a man I barely know."

"Rest assured I mean you no harm."

"With all due respect, I would like to know what you'd like to talk about before I even consider it."

"Understandable," Salenko showed his annoyance once more. "I would like to discuss a hypothetical with you. Say, how could I get my hands on…some of Mr. Stark's inventory?"

"We are contracted strictly with world governments. Mr. Stark doesn't sell to private buyers."

"Don't be naïve, Miss Potts."

"I don't like the insinuation, Mr. Salenko." She retorted. "At Stark Industries we adhere to the American government's laws; anything you heard to the contrary is a lie. And besides, I don't even know what you do. Why would you need anything our company sells?"

"I'm an entrepreneur, but I have a fondness towards politics."

"Militarized weaponry in the hands of a single politician doesn't sound like a smart idea to me."

"I think I could convince you otherwise. Would you at least consider discussing this privately?" Salenko's cheeks had gone red with frustration; he was a man who clearly did not like to be contested, but a fiery American woman like Virginia Potts wouldn't let him trample all over her either.

Natalia considered her target for a moment. Salenko had gray in his hair and a bit of a gut that looked misplaced on his skinny frame. Possibly when he was younger, he had been an athlete of some sort; although she hadn't scourged the records for his more formidable years.

What she did know was that Salenko's mother was Russian, and he seemed to have an invested interest in the country because of it. He was an entrepreneur as he claimed, dabbling in banking to publishing and even commercial marketing. The man had his hand in many pots, and he believed extending into Russia would somehow help him more.

Stupid men always sought power beyond their reach. Salenko threw money at rebels and expected a hefty return to eventually find him. Now he had a vendetta because of the fact that his prized pony had been shot in the head by the Winter Soldier himself.

"I'll listen to what you have to say, Mr. Salenko. But if I even get a paper cut while in your room, you bet I'll call the authorities." She finally said, before she headed for the coat room. "I'm going to get my purse, which has my cellphone in it and a can of mace. I hope that stands as a warning to you."

Without waiting for a reply, Natalia hurried into the aforementioned coat room that was steps away from where they had been speaking. She hadn't checked in a bag or a coat; she had everything she needed on her person already. However, that didn't deter her from marching up to the front desk and asking for a Natalie Rushman's possessions anyway.

The haughty way in which she spoke seemed to baffle the boy behind the desk. He didn't even bother to ask for any sort of identification, and instead rushed into the backroom to find whatever Natalie Rushman might have brought along with her to such an extraordinary party.

When he was out of sight, Natalia surveyed her surroundings and quickly slipped through the half-door that separated guests from the employees. There were several items stacked neatly into some open-faced cabinetry along one wall. She spied a leopard printed clutch on one shelf, and grabbed it before walking out of the room with an unrushed air.

Salenko was where she left him. He looked angry, but he seemed to have decided that trying to negotiate for a weapon of mass destruction was more important than his pride. Truly, he was a stupid man to believe that the real Virginia Potts would even entertain such a notion.

"I believe we can come to an understanding." He tried to smile, as he headed out of the hallway and into the lobby where the elevators were located.

The wall of elevators was close to where they emerged from, so they avoided any unnecessary interactions. Salenko pressed the up button, which led to one set of doors to open seamlessly a second later. Natalia boarded before him and left him to choose the twenty-second floor.

No one else joined them, and they soon were carried upward towards their destination. Neither of them had much to say. Salenko could easily be a paranoid man, and believe their conversation could be recorded through the security cameras. Or else he might just be angry with the crass little American tramp that Tony Stark sent in his place.

It must have been painful for Salenko to have to deal with a woman when her legs weren't open. Natalia had encountered men like him all too often in her life. It was easy enough to take advantage of them without giving them what they wanted. That was one of her greatest strengths, but by no means her best. Her skills spoke for themselves; her record was impeccable.

After several minutes, the elevator lurched to a stop. Salenko was the first to move; he stepped out and Natalia soon followed. Champagne colored marble tiles covered the floor and led in two separate directions; each way revealed a bank of doors.

Salenko turned left and walked several feet away until he found the door he wanted. Room 2206 proved to be where they needed to be; Natalia watched Salenko warily as he slid his card key out from his trouser pocket and swiped it twice until he heard an approving beep.

"Ladies first,"

"No, thank you. I haven't forgotten you're a stranger, Mr. Salenko."

"Are all American women like you?"

"Only the smart ones," Natalia smirked when Salenko relented and went in first. She followed and let the door swing shut behind her. "Let's not drag this out – why do you want military grade weapons?"

"Has anyone ever told you that you epitomize America's insufferable attitude?"

"I wouldn't have to be insufferable if you were straightforward."

"Much like your very own government, Miss Potts, I think the Russians need to be put in their place." Salenko had proceeded into the lounge and directly to the collection of liquor bottles assembled on a bureau in the corner.

When Salenko turned his back, Natalia dropped the clutch soundlessly to the carpeted floor and slid her hand up the hem of her dress. Tucked for easy access in her garter belt was a garrote, which she pulled free and curled into her hand.

"The Cold War's over, Mr. Salenko," she moved closer to him; her footfall muffled by the carpet. "Our focus is elsewhere."

Salenko was too busy to notice her progress; he had found the bottle of whiskey in his hand far more favorable than her. She was inwardly pleased by this turn of events; her sexuality wouldn't have to be used now. She had already hooked him with this whole charade about weaponry, which was less of a headache if it progressed otherwise.

"Afghanistan, Iraq," Salenko poured himself a drink with a chuckle. "You Americans are short-sighted; the real threat is underneath your very nose right now."

"I think, that we can both agree on that." She dropped the accent, before striking without a moment of hesitation.

Natalia crossed the few feet in between them, and threw the wire around her target's neck. She grabbed the ends and pulled them with as much force as she could muster. The whiskey bottle dropped from Salenko's hand; it didn't break or make much noise as it fell to the floor. But he did make a loud gagging noise that most people did on the other end of a garrote.

Without missing a beat, she kicked at the back of the target's knee which made him drop like a stone. Salenko didn't go down without a fight, though. His big hands scrambled to slip underneath the wire, and when that proved to be impossible; he tried to grab at her instead. It was futile fight.

Soon enough the life ebbed out of Boris Salenko, and left him as nothing more than a motionless piece of flesh. Slowly, Natalia unraveled the wire and let the body fall forward. She stared dispassionately down at him for a moment, before she moved into the adjoining room and found a leather briefcase forgotten by the bed.

Picking up the briefcase, Natalia set it onto the mattress and opened it. She didn't bother to look at the paperwork inside but instead threw the garrote into it, and shut it again and made her way back into the front room.

Calmly, she walked to the front door and pulled it open. She didn't spare Salenko a second glance as she stepped into the hallway and headed towards the stairwell which would take her up to the roof. Unbeknownst to anyone of yet, she had already compromised the security system earlier in the day and what was being shown on the monitors wasn't what was happening in real time but what had happened the night before.

By the time anyone became the wiser to the events that had just unfolded, she would already be on her way back to Moscow. It was a job well done, even if Virginia Potts's reputation had been tarnished a little in the process.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Six :: Snakes Can Eat Spiders

 


 

 

The network of political rebellion was far larger than the KGB originally believed it to be. Boris Salenko's documents had implicated over a dozen other businessmen in and out of the country. There were even more small-time politicians that were stoking the fire of upheaval amid the poor and downtrodden.

What seemed like an easy problem to rectify was now anything but. Tensions were on the rise; Natalia couldn't definitively say what that would mean for any of them, though. Lukin seemed to believe that they were directly in the crosshairs, which didn't bode well with anyone.

The current regime directly funded many of the KGB's projects. Without the financial help that essentially left them in limbo. Not only that, but if the rebels rose to power there was a possibility that the KGB's activities would be leaked to the public; and that would only spell disaster for every active spy and assassin that had served blindly and faithfully all these years.

Natalia had heard the murmurs; she knew if they couldn't destroy the mutiny on the rise then desperate measures would inevitably have to be taken. The dissolution of the KGB and the Red Room would put her into limbo and direct danger as well. But it would also provide her the clean break that she had yearned for.

This might be the only opportunity for her to leave the country. She could take Alexei away without any fear of a backlash. Lukin and his closest associates would be far too busy trying to save their own necks that they wouldn't have time to worry about her. Mass hysteria would ultimately be what could free her from the life she had known for all these years.

She knew how dangerous such thoughts were, but she couldn't help it. Her child was far more important than the people who had shaped her into the monster she was. And every day that she carried this particular secret, proved to become a larger burden than she ever believed it to be. Because even she couldn't hide such a secret forever; someone was bound to find out one way or another.

No matter how much money exchanged hands, Natalia couldn't expect Alexei's surrogate family not to slip up along the way. She also worried once Babushka Irina died that that Marta would use that opportunity to end the arrangement. She had expressed a desire to move into the city, and she had the means with the monthly payments Natalia sent to her. So she might very well do that when she was freed of Babushka Irina.

Babushka Irina was the only one truly shielding Alexei from harm's way. Without her Natalia knew that her child would be vulnerable to greed and deceit. So maybe this was a sign for her to make her move. Maybe she needed to finally make her move; one she hadn't ever expected to make. She would be a fool if she didn't even try to formulate a plan in the very least. Because she probably wouldn't get the opportunity ever again; this might be her only chance.

"You look troubled." Someone said above her and drew her from her thoughts; she glanced up and furrowed her brow at who it was.

"Dr. Koltsova,"

"Romanova," Dr. Koltsova rounded the table Natalia had seated herself at in the mess hall, before taking the seat across from her. "It's unlike you to look this troubled. It's not in your nature."

Natalia didn't reply, choosing instead to observe the middle aged woman closely. It had been quite some time since she had spoken to the doctor; they hadn't any business with one another anymore. In fact, it was much too dangerous for them to have any further interaction after what Koltsova had done for her. People were bound to talk if they became too friendly and familiar with one another.

To this day, it was still unexplainable on why Koltsova helped her. Natalia's theory was still a shaky one at best, and for the first year of Alexei's life; she had suspected Koltsova would tell someone of what happened. But she hadn't, which only made Natalia that much more highly suspicious of her motives.

Koltsova might have been the bastard daughter of one of the Red Room's head physicians, and maybe most people were unaware of this revelation; but would it really hurt her that much to be outed? And true kindness seemed unlikely in this situation as well.

"General Lukin is worried. I suppose we should all be worried then." She muttered after a bit of consideration.

"Let him worry." Koltsova returned flippantly. "Until we're certain of discovery what's the point of worrying ourselves sick?"

"You aren't a leader or a spy."

"Right, I'm a doctor. I'm not a leader, a spy, or even a mother." Koltsova set her arms onto the tabletop with a plastic smile, which made Natalia's blood run cold.

What did that mean exactly? She could only interpret that as a direct threat to her. The word didn't draw any attention from the occupants of the hall, but they were spoken dangerously close to actual discovery. Anyone could have interpreted that message for what it was.

"What do you want?" Natalia spoke lowly and felt her fingers twitch with the desire to kill.

"Oh, oh, you've misinterpreted me. I meant nothing by that I assure you."

"I find that highly unlikely. I figured this day would come; I should have known it would. You didn't help out of the kindness of your heart."

"I think you're highly paranoid, Romanova. Although, I suppose since you've been trained in the Red Room so long that you wouldn't be able to spot true kindness even if it bit you in the ass,"

"What do you want?" She punctuated each word with a hiss.

Koltsova tilted her head to the side, peering at Natalia through her thick glasses. She was truly an ugly woman; she had a weak chin and a collection of wrinkles that extended around unremarkable brown eyes. It would be almost too easy to kill her. Natalia should have done that from the beginning; she shouldn't have allowed this woman to blackmail her.

"Dr. Chelomey,"

"Petty revenge will draw suspicion your way."

"Our relation isn't known by anyone but the three of us."

"So you believe." Natalia curled her hands into fists underneath the table. "I could easily implicate myself."

"The infamous Black Widow, I don't think so. But I think you have more at risk than that." Koltsova shrugged as if she hadn't threatened, as she put it, the infamous Black Widow.

This was the least opportune moment for Koltsova to ask for her repayment. Natalia didn't need to know why she wanted her father dead now. All she knew was that she was in between a rock and a hard place. Because she knew that Koltsova probably had kept extensive records about her medical care during her pregnancy, and everything would probably be released somehow if she was murdered. So this was the only way to keep her child safe.

Shutting her eyes, she tried to tame the fury that threatened to spill out. It was already a risk that Koltsova had approached her in the first place. And it wouldn't do her any good to react violently without any preamble. That would invoke a lot more suspicion than their conversation in the first place.

"I don't think you have many options, Romanova." Koltsova sounded cheery.

"Widow," a gruff voice snarled suddenly, which caused her eyes to snap open again.

Koltsova's bravado drained out of her rather abruptly. It was no wonder; Vanya had sidled up to the table in full armor and a sniper rifle clutched in his real hand. His metal arm shone threateningly under the poor lighting of the mess hall, and he looked just as deadly in this setting as he did on a mission.

Natalia sat up straighter as she regarded Vanya. She knew he wouldn't have approached her unless it directly correlated with business. Vanya didn't have any friendly relationships with anyone; he seemed to particularly loath unnecessary conversation and most of his colleagues.

"Come," he ordered, before he stepped away from the table, and started towards the building's exit.

Pushing her chair back, Natalia stood and narrowed her eyes at Koltsova. No doubt they would be revisiting this conversation involving Dr. Chelomey at a later date. Until then Koltsova knew better than to override Vanya. He wouldn't hesitate to shoot her dead, and he wouldn't face any consequences for it either. Koltsova was expendable to the Red Room; maybe she didn't know that of yet, but she eventually would.

Without a backwards glance, Natalia hurried her stride to catch up to her former teacher. Everyone's eyes had fallen onto them, although that was unsurprising. It was impossible not to give the Winter Soldier the utmost attention whenever he walked into a room. He was highly revered and feared, despite not seeming to notice or even care about what others thought of him.

They exited the mess hall into the July humidity; even though the skies were gray, it felt unbearably warm and suffocating. Sweat already began to prickle at her forehead as they crossed the yard and towards the artillery building at the end of the compound, which meant a mission was imminent. It was probably one that Lukin had decided last minute on as well.

"We leave for Turkey within the hour." Vanya muttered without breaking stride.

"An associate of Salenko's," she said more than asked.

There wasn't any forthcoming answer, which spoke for itself. The target must have been an important one if they were being sent off so abruptly. She didn't mind; at least that would put some distance between her and Koltsova, and possibly given her the time to process the threat. But it also meant she would be too far away from Alexei to protect him from Koltsova's ire.

That realization didn't bode well with her. If Koltsova was feeling particularly vindictive then what would stop her from telling Lukin about Alexei? What would that mean for them then? What would that mean for Vanya?

"Soldier-"

"I don't like her." Vanya practically ripped the door open to the artillery building, before he stepped into the sterile looking corridor.

She paused outside the door, but quickly stepped inside before the door could close on her. It was cool in the building, which was a welcome reprieve from the heat. But she didn't think much about it; instead for one delusional moment, Natalia had thought about telling Vanya about their son. But thankfully he had had the foresight to speak up before she said anything stupid.

"Are you talking about Dr. Koltsova?"

"Stay away from her."

"I don't have any intention of striking up a friendship with her, you know." Natalia followed after him, but came close to running into him when he spun around with a peculiar sort of elegance.

During their many trysts, Natalia had frequently marveled with how lucid Vanya's movements could be. He could be rough and unforgiving, but he also possessed a grace that didn't match his muscular frame.

Vanya pointed his rifle upwards and stared at her. His face was blank as it always was, although there was something intensely unhappy in his eyes. That was truly the extent of his emotions most of the time. He never seemed to feel much of anything. She was the same way. Or at least she had been before the birth of their son.

"Stay away from her. She is a snake."

"And I'm a spider."

"Snakes can eat spiders. If it serves their purpose,"

"Vanya-"

"Stay away from her." He repeated and turned forward. "You have an hour to arm yourself."

Natalia didn't immediately follow after him. Her feet seemed to be cemented to the floor, and her heart had jumped into her throat. His words echoed forebodingly in her head; Koltsova was a snake and she had threatened her. But what could she do at this point?

Could and would Vanya protect her and their child if she told him? Would he run away with her and ensure their safety? Or was he no better than a snake himself? She didn't know and that scared her most of all. She was alone in this.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Seven :: Queen of Hearts

 


 

We can't go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds

"Suspicious Minds" - Elvis Presley

 


  

 

 

Elvis Presley's voice drifted through the apartment. It did little to calm Natalia any. Her hands were shaking as she tried to hack into the ancient Compaq computer that that the target had in his home office/living room.

Vanya proved to be useless when it came to technology, so that left her to retrieve the files that outlined what the rebellion intended on doing next. Or so that was the hope of copying all the data onto the memory stick Lukin had provided her with anyway.

Something told Natalia the man whose brain had been splattered across the opposite wall wasn't exactly computer savvy. The Compaq groaned and rattled noisily as she clicked away at the keyboard. She made too many mistakes to count already, and she inwardly cursed herself for losing her composure only minutes ago.

They had entered the residence easily enough. No one had been signaled to their approach and Vanya had led the way. The only problem had been that their intel hadn't been exactly accurate. Their target hadn't been alone; his family had been in the vicinity.

That hadn't been cause for concern, really. Natalia hadn't hesitated to neutralize the wife, who had been cooking dinner in the kitchen, while Vanya had confronted their target listening to an old record player in the living room. But what had stopped her was the couple's young son, who couldn't have been any older than ten.

She had been the one to find him in the hallway. His eyes had been wide in terror and a horrible cry had burst out of him. And she had hesitated; she hadn't even lifted her pistol. She had been frozen to the spot, incapable of doing what she needed to do. She couldn't kill him, despite all her instincts telling her otherwise.

Vanya hadn't had the same issue, though. The high-pitched sound had drawn him into the hallway, and he had shouldered her out the way which sent the boy running. He didn't make it very far before Vanya had shot him; sending a spray of blood and brain matter every which way.

The sight had been enough to unbalance Natalia. She remembered staggering backwards and almost falling to the floor. The only thing that stopped her was the way Vanya had looked at her. It was accusatory and disbelieving and angry. He was angry that she couldn't kill the boy; he was angry that she had shown any kind of hesitation.

Throughout her years training within the Red Room, she hadn't hesitated a moment. She had fought young girls just like herself, and broken their necks with precision. She had killed without a conscience, and she had been doing as much throughout her adolescence and adulthood. Not once had she hesitated until tonight, and Vanya had to be a witness to it.

Neither of them had spoken about that moment, though. Instead he had demanded that she retrieve the information Lukin had wanted, while he looked through the other rooms for anything of value. So that's where they were currently.

Vanya hadn't returned from wherever he'd gone in the apartment, and she was finally making progress with transferring the computer's contents onto her thumb drive. She hoped the process wouldn't take longer than absolutely necessary, but with how old the machine was she figured it would take some time yet.

Taking in a deep breath, Natalia glanced around the room. Much of the décor looked like it had trendy in the late seventies or the early eighties. The walls had been covered with dark wood paneling and the floor was fitted with yellow shag carpet. Family photos were clustered in bunches on end tables and shelves, which only made her hands shake a little harder.

She had killed children before. If they had the cognitive skills to speak, they had to be dealt with. They couldn't risk any eye witnesses. But this had been the first time since becoming a mother that she had been faced with such an inhuman task, and she couldn't bring herself to follow through; which was enough to tell her that she needed to find a way out of the Red Room once and for all.

Koltsova's threat and the mutiny that was progressively becoming stronger were signs enough for her that she couldn't peddle around any longer. She needed to leave the country with her son as soon as possible. Her decision was made.

As the computer whirled loudly, Natalia spied Vanya from her peripheral. He entered the room empty-handed; he didn't say anything as he walked up to where she'd been sitting. His presence loomed above her forebodingly, and it made her insides clench up in fear.

Distantly, she wondered if he would report her indiscretion to Lukin. Something like that needed to be told to someone, in order to remove the responsible party from the field. Because one moment of hesitation could jeopardize the mission entirely; she could have risked their discovery that way.

"When will you be done?" Vanya asked noncommittally.

"Three quarters through," she gleaned the dim monitor, and tried to will the machine to work quicker. Because every moment that she was away from Moscow proved to be a danger not only for her, but for Alexei as well.

Then again, at that very moment Natalia was in danger. She had shown a weakness to the KGB's most prized assassin, and it would be within his rights to execute her on the spot. It only really depended on Vanya's mood. He might take the bureaucratic route or he might take the matter into his own hands.

Her body tightened in anticipation of his next move, but nothing came into fruition. Vanya remained stoically beside her until a prompt filled the computer screen that said the process was completed. As she removed the thumb drive, she decided to delete the possibly incriminating files, before shutting off the computer. He walked out of the room by the time she was finished; no doubt to the window in which they snuck in through.

When she was certain the computer had turned off, Natalia stood and slipped the thumb drive into the pouch at her hip. She strode out of the room, followed closely by the sound of Elvis's voice still. She suspected she would never be able to hear any song by him without reliving that boy's demise. She was glad that she hadn't any use for music, so it would never pose a problem for her.

Vanya was halfway out the window by the time she made it there. She hopped up onto the ledge and pulled herself out onto the narrow fire escape. Vanya had already mounted the ladder leading up to the roof, as she closed the window securely behind her; before she trailed after him.

Within minutes, they were creeping up onto the rooftop and running to leap onto the next one. Vanya led the way as he was prone to do. There wasn't any need for conversation, even though Natalia feared what would inevitably happen to her from this point on. She had an even greater problem than Koltsova; she had the Winter Soldier to deal with now.

Four rooftops away, they eventually came to a stop. They had hidden a backpack and a duffle bag with civilian clothing inside of them, so they could walk to the safe house without the chance of discovery. Vanya strode from one end of the rooftop to the next, leaving Natalia to locate their possessions close-by and carry them to an obscured spot behind the heating ducts.

"Hurry," Vanya commanded as he finally joined her, and ripped open the velcro on his vest.

That was the only prompting Natalia needed (if she needed any at all that is). She pulled down the zipper of her cat suit, before removing her widow bite bracelets from around her wrists. They both undressed in a flurry of movement, and yanked on their street clothes as fast as they could.

Natalia pulled on a pair of denim shorts, sneakers, a green tank top, a hooded white jacket, and then the backpack over her shoulders. Vanya wore something equally as casual; he had put on some jeans, a black tee-shirt, and a leather jacket that covered up his metal arm. He didn't change his footwear, however but no one would be able to tell the difference.

After their stealth gear was stuffed back into their bags, Vanya pulled open the door to the building and allowed her to proceed down the stairway first. She started down the steps as carefree as she could, even though the worry was eating away at her from the inside-out.

The walk to the ground floor seemed to have taken a lifetime, and it was only when she reached out to open the door to the street that Natalia noticed her hands were still shaking. The tremors had lessened considerably, but they were visible enough that she tried to hide it from Vanya after she pulled open the door and stepped out onto the busy sidewalk.

If Vanya had seen anything, he didn't make it known. He did, however, fling his real arm around her shoulders and urged her into the direction that he wanted to go. This was just another layer of their cover; they were like any other couple on an evening stroll. There was no visible sign of them just murdering an entire family less than half an hour beforehand.

"We're approximately twelve minutes away from the rendezvous point." He muttered as they weaved through the flood of oncoming people.

"Noted," she eyed the crowd warily but kept her stride leisurely.

They didn't appear to have drawn any suspicion from the people around them. They moved with a naturalness that neither really possessed. Both of them had a determined aura to them that it was almost impossible to break, unless they were, of course, in a situation like this one.

"You're trembling." Vanya led her around a corner and past a drunkard sprawled across the pavement.

"Cold,"

"Liar,"

"Takes one to know one, I suppose." Natalia returned tersely, although her heart was in her throat.

Vanya didn't say anything further, which did little to ease her mind. If anything it only worried her more. Her emotions had already betrayed her, but now her body was showing the telltale signs of the fear that she was inevitably experiencing. And Vanya was not a stupid man; he knew that something was amiss.

Those thoughts followed her as they moved from one busy street to another. She tried to strip away the anxiety that she felt, but it only seemed to mount as they headed down a dirty alleyway and to a chipped door that was painted gray.

Vanya produced a key from somewhere on his person, before shoving it into the lock, and gaining access into the rundown, windowless room with very amenities at their disposal. Natalia shut and pulled the deadbolt into place as Vanya walked inside, dropping the duffle bag to the floor, and searching the room until he found a mobile phone for them to call their handlers.

The call was a brief one. Vanya announced their success as he always did, before he listened for a few moments, and eventually shut off the phone without another word.

"Oh-one hundred hours,"

"Understood," Natalia felt comfortable enough to shrug off her backpack, and step further into the mostly barren room.

There was a weak-legged table in the corner of the room with three chairs around it. An old pack of playing cards had been left on top of it. Vanya had found the cellphone on a short bookcase with elderly paperbacks running along one shelf. And an armchair had been positioned in the middle of the room, but there was nothing else to be seen.

Warily, she moved towards the table and sat down. She dropped the backpack at her feet, and watched Vanya as he toyed with the cellphone. He pulled out the battery and then joined her at the table. He sat across from her, placing the phone and battery onto the tabletop.

"Never do that again." He said sternly.

"What are you referring to?" She returned, and wished for a split-second that she hadn't stored all her weaponry into her bag.

Vanya reached for the pack of cards. He opened them and tossed the box aside; before he began to shuffle them expertly. There was something threatening about the movement; she couldn't tell for certain if that was his intention or not. He was impossible to read.

"Hesitate, never hesitate again."

"I didn't."

"You are a good liar, Widow. But you can't fool me; you hesitated. And I'll kill you next time if you do it again." He paused and looked directly into her eyes. "I taught you better than that."

"Why won't you kill me now?"

"Because you're still useful to me,"

"To you," Natalia tried to keep her expression blank; her voice remained nonchalant without any effort, though.

Vanya continued to stare at her, as he tossed a card across the table. Shifting her gaze away, she looked down at the card which was face-up. She reached out to pick it up and stared at the image for several moments. It was the queen of hearts.

"Vanya-"

"Keep both eyes open, Natalia." He plucked the card from her hand gently and returned it to the deck. "Pick the game."

"Poker," she said automatically, even though she felt overwhelmed and confused.

Despite the sudden impulse that struck her again to tell Vanya of their son; she kept her lips sealed and began to formulate a solid plan to flee. Vanya wouldn't help her, even if he seemed to hold a soft spot for her still. Because he was made of the same material that she was, and they were not good people. Killers never were; they had suspicious minds, after all and for good reason.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Eight :: It Starts Tonight

 


 

 

General Lukin was a severe but handsome man. He ruled the KGB with an iron fist, and he wasn't a man to be taken lightly. Anyone who believed otherwise hadn't any sense of self-preservation or any intelligence for that matter.

"We have a very big problem, comrades." Lukin announced to the packed conference room of agents. "I'm afraid our previous estimation of the mutineers has been terribly miscalculated."

No one said a word. The rumor of the threat had circulated through the ranks already, although no one truly knew the full extent of it. No one knew if they were in the line of fire or not. It was probably likely that they were, since much of the KGB was funded by the government. And with a possible revolution in the works, all of their dirty little secrets would become public knowledge. And they would all be viewed as criminal instead of what they were; or what they perceived themselves to be anyway.

"As you know, we are not adverse to change. We've survived several regimes, but the likelihood that we can sustain another is questionable at this point. Because the men who intend on taking power have quite a different outlook on things; they want to integrate us with the rest of the world, and they don't want the mother country to be a power and a force to be reckoned with.

"That goes against what we've worked so many years for. We will not bow down to our enemies, so we must eliminate this threat before it becomes vastly larger than it already is. And we have very little time to snuff out the problem." Lukin looked from one face to the next. "We have intel to who is involved in this scheme, and we will eliminate them starting today."

The declaration didn't surprise anyone. Natalia had expected as much; she also knew that the data she had obtained in Turkey was the catalyst for this sudden decision. It was also the final push for her to decide what she was going to do with her life.

Her decision hadn't been a rash one. She had seriously contemplated on the matter, no less the inevitable threats that were now circling around her. Whether she wanted to or not, the only way to protect her child was to flee from the KGB. She had to leave the country, particularly now with everyone's attention pointed elsewhere. It was her only chance for survival; it was the only way.

Ever since she returned from Turkey, Natalia had formulated an exact plan for escape. She had chosen to leave within three weeks' time that way she had everything in order. She had gotten in touch with various contacts, who weren't the types to ask questions; no less get involved in the KGB internal affair problems.

They were good for boarding passes onto trains and airplanes. But they weren't the kind you left an innocent child with. If she had been so stupid to leave Alexei with one of them, he would have probably been sold off to an American couple for adoptions purposes or even worse. But she had faith that they were good for what she asked for.

As of ten o'clock this morning, Natalia had gotten a forged passport made for her and passage onto a train out of the country and into Lithuania. From there she had a connection to Germany, and then she boarded a plane to England. Everything was up in the air from there on out, though; she supposed somewhere in North America might be her safest bet.

"There are quite a few idealistic men out there," Lukin's voice reached her again. "And they have the ability and now the opportunity to rouse an unjust revolution. Think of your country, think of what we've been able to accomplish for all of these years. Do not let them take this away from us or our country."

The conference room murmured in agreement. Of course, they were bound to. Most of the men and women in service had joined of their own volition; they believed in the KGB's idealism. There weren't as many like Natalia or Vanya who'd been bred to defend the KGB without question. They were believers.

"We've become aware of many of these traitors' whereabouts. So we will track them down and neutralize the threat appropriately." Lukin stood from the head of the table he'd taken refuge behind. "You will receive instructions throughout the day; be prepared, comrades."

Without further ado, Lukin and his top officials who'd been flanking him, made to leave the room. Vanya hadn't been in attendance of the meeting; it wasn't exactly uncalled of, though. The Winter Soldier didn't need to hear about any of the finer details involving his missions. He seemed to enjoy the air of ignorance, and doing whatever his superiors told him to do.

Natalia pushed away from the wall she had taken as her own during Lukin's speech, and bypassed her fellow agents before they could strike up a conversation with her. Some were more talkative than others; the men were especially intrigued by her, but she hadn't any desire to boost their egos if she could help it. Besides, she had preparations to be made. More than ever now, she needed to make sure everything was in place.

Due in part to the unknown state in which the KGB found itself in, Natalia had avoided any further encounters with Dr. Koltsova. It had been less than a week since she returned from Turkey with Vanya, and honestly she hadn't had to do much to avoid the woman. She had been in and out of briefings with the KGB's top men almost daily.

She needed to continue to keep a low profile, and take full advantage of whatever mission she was sent on in the coming days (maybe hours). The sooner she was sent away from base, she would start to feel a sense of equilibrium again. Although, her mind would remain elsewhere; toying with the next move in which to keep her son safe.

On soundless feet, Natalia wound her way through the labyrinth of the administrative building. Soon enough this place would be a distant memory. Her life of espionage would come to an end and then…and then what?

While she was trained extensively in her field, even in ballet; Natalia hadn't any other skills needed for a normal occupation. She was smart enough; she'd been called brilliant quite frequently by her many teachers (Vanya excluded), but how could she adapt to a normal everyday job? Could she file paperwork, answer telephones, and make coffee for business executives? Could she be a bank teller? Or could she even be a waitress without any previous experience?

One way or another, she would find a way to survive. She was adaptable; she knew how to put on many faces, and in the end that would benefit her more than anything else would. She could be a normal person; she would be one somehow. It would be a challenge, but she never backed down from one before. And this one was imperative for Alexei.

As she rounded a corner, Natalia came very close to colliding with someone several inches taller than her. For a brief delusional moment, she feared that she had unwittingly come into contact with Dr. Koltsova; that would have been her luck. Thankfully, that hadn't been the case. In fact, she was almost grateful that she came close to careening with none other than General Lukin himself.

Lukin appeared to be doubling back the way he originally came from; he had two of his closest advisors behind him still, and he looked annoyed by the near collision. Although his annoyance turned to cool calculation within the blink of an eye; he even offered Natalia a tight-lipped smile which did little to ease her mind in any way.

"Romanova, you are the person I honestly wanted to see."

"General Lukin, sir," she replied and was about to apologize, but Lukin seemed to sense as much and waved the sentiment away before it could gain any traction.

"I'm assembling several teams. I would like you to be a part of one of them. After all, you were the one who'd given us the intel that we sorely needed to uncover this net of traitors."

"I would be honored, of course."

"Very good, very good indeed; the Winter Soldier will be in charge of the mission, and you will have at least six or seven other teammates alongside the two of you." Lukin explained, while sidestepping her to wherever he had initially planned to go. "The objective is simple, Romanova. We intend on destroying everyone who stands in our way. It all starts tonight; I know you will not fail. The Widow and the Soldier are our best assets,"

Natalia glanced over her shoulder as Lukin and his advisors walked away, murmuring about the first step of many that would bring down the men and women responsible for this unnecessary problem. The shift in the political climate was clearly far more serious than even she had taken into account, and the ensuing chaos would inevitably benefit her incredibly in the end. Not to mention, Koltsova wouldn't have any grounds to demand an assassination attempt on her father when she knew she was under Lukin's thumb.

At least that was her hope anyway. But Koltsova might prove herself to be an irrational woman. She must have been if she wanted to kill her father so suddenly. So she might not very well respect the fact that Natalia's main concern was finishing any assignment that Lukin put in front of her.

"It'll be over soon." She whispered under her breath, as she quickly moved down the hallway and down a shorter one to the building's exit.

The afternoon heat hit her head-on when she stepped out of the building. It felt like a wet blanket had been thrown over her, which lessened the haste of her steps a bit. She squinted against the brightness of the sun, and moved into the shadows of the closest building.

There were very few people mulling around the yard at the moment. Some prepubescent girls were running in a uniformed line around the grounds, but no one paid them any mind and they remained singularly focused on their current drill.

Usually the girls from the Widow project were in an isolated building away from this particular compound. They made an appearance or two whenever General Lukin wanted to see their progress, and Natalia supposed they were being made to wait with what was currently preoccupying Lukin at the moment.

Natalia eyed the line of girls from her peripheral. Their hardened faces were covered in a sheen of sweat, and their ponytails and braids bounced off their shoulders and backs with military precision. They were hardly little girls despite their appearance; they were shells of little girls and probably bona fide killers already.

Something tightened inside Natalia's stomach as she watched them. Her decision to leave would be the only chance for her child to have some kind of a normal life. He wouldn't have to become a faceless killer. He wouldn't have to serve under the KGB's brutal reign. He would have a future; a future without blood on his hands, and an opportunity to be something wonderful unlike what his parents were.

With a renewed determination, Natalia moved towards her personal quarters until Lukin beckoned her into action. She had some loose strings to tie up, and also to contemplate mentally on how she could use the current chaos to slip away undetected within the coming weeks.

America would be the best place to take Alexei, she decided. They could settle somewhere in the middle of the country; a quiet and unassuming place. They would find a way to blend in, far removed from this blood stained life of espionage and murder. It would work out; she had to believe it or else she would get cold feet, and the infamous Black Widow did not get cold feet.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Nine :: Midnight Raid

 


 

 

Midnight raids; Natalia knew them all too well. She had been on several during her years with the KGB, although very few had involved a team effort. One of her greatest strengths was her ability to work alone and accomplish as much as several agents could within the same length of time. But paired with the right person, with the right team, they could do so much more in comparison.

Tonight's objective was to locate the head of the current political rebellion – Sergei Petrov. Petrov had been a scholar turned community leader of sorts. He had hopes of running for office in the near future, and his overzealousness had drawn attention from many men who viewed the current government control like he did.

Petrov was enemy number one. Lukin believed if they cut off the head then the body would die. But just to make sure, there were several teams working in tandem; each targeting a man who would try to take Petrov's place once his death became widespread among their circles.

Natalia didn't believe the rebellion would end with Petrov's death or any of the allies he confided in, though. She knew human nature well enough to believe that it would only stoke the fires of outrage even more. The country was bound for a change, and there was nothing the KGB could do to derail it now.

In the very least, she had to believe that that would be the case. It would hinder her carefully calculated plans to leave the country behind otherwise. She depended on the distraction of chaos, but one way or another she would still follow through with them anyway. She'd already come too far to back down now.

Unfurling her fingers one by one, Natalia pushed her former thoughts aside. She needed to focus on the objective of this raid. As of right now, they were speeding down a desolate city street to an apartment complex where Petrov lived with his wife of twenty-two years.

Subtlety wasn't their goal on this mission. They wanted to strike fear in the hearts of Petrov's supporters and let them know, without naming the KGB specifically, what would ultimately happen to them if they didn't back down. This was to be a message; this would be their only warning.

"We'll arrive within five minutes." The agent, Durov, called from the driver's seat.

"The target lives on the third floor; apartment 308." Vanya spoke then; his words muffled behind the muzzle he sometimes wore during missions. "Yurlov, Osin, Ilyin, you will stand at the building's exits in case the target attempts to flee. Durov will stay in the van. Dragomirov, Romanova, and I will infiltrate the building and locate the target."

Everyone gave their affirmative. They knew that Petrov wouldn't stand a chance against an encounter with the Winter Soldier. He would be easily eliminated, and he wouldn't have the opportunity to flee and run into Yurlov, Osin, or Ilyin. The mission was bound to be a success without any difficulties.

When Vanya was in charge, the success rate was always one-hundred percent. There hadn't been any target that had gotten away. He always got his man (or woman); no one had ever survived unless Vanya allowed them to. And unsurprisingly, he never did.

Natalia didn't have any anxiety about this mission. Petrov hadn't any children, beyond a grown daughter that lived in St. Petersburg; so she knew that there wouldn't be a repeat of what happened in Turkey. She and Dragomirov would play back up for Vanya; either one of them would probably handle the wife. But the actual assassination of Petrov was up to Vanya and no one else.

The final minutes to their destination ticked away quickly. The van swerved and soon came to an abrupt halt, which jostled everyone in their seats. Ilyin uttered an expletive, as he almost tumbled off the bench beside Vanya. Other than that though, no one spoke a word or even reacted to the van coming to a stop.

"Comrades," Dragomirov stood first, before shuffling to the back of the van and shoving open the doors. "Let's go."

While Vanya was the leader of the operation, Dragomirov was the mouthpiece if he was added to the team. He was a big, mean looking man and should be feared by anyone who crossed his path. Natalia had seen him violently rip a man to pieces before. Unsurprisingly, his violent tendencies made him one of Lukin's favorite agents within the KGB.

Osin, Ilyin, and Yurlov leapt out of the back of the van behind Dragomirov. Natalia soon followed suit and felt Vanya move behind her. His hand ghosted at her waist for a split-second, as they hopped to the cracked asphalt of the street. But it was much too brief and almost indiscernible to really give it much thought, especially when there was a mission ahead of them still.

Dragomirov shut the doors behind them, before swinging his semi-automatic into his hands. Vanya was armed with a small arsenal of weapons; his favorite always tended to be his sniper rifle which was slung over his shoulder almost casually. Natalia had various weapons on her person too, but none were in her hands of yet; they would be soon, though.

With military precision, everyone scattered and moved to where they needed to be. Yurlov disappeared into an alleyway where the back exit was, Osin took the side, and Ilyin ripped open the front door just in time for Vanya to hold it open and rush inside. Natalia followed behind him, while Dragomirov took the rear.

They bypassed the rickety elevators, and took the stairs at a run. The sound of their footsteps echoed almost melodically as they ascended; enriched by the click and clank of the weaponry jostling on their bodies. But even with the noise they were making, no one came out to investigate. They were probably far too smart to want to see what all the ruckus was about anyway.

They reached the second floor landing within moments. In that time, Vanya had taken his rifle in hand and his body loosened even more than it had been. He was a man that appeared to be more at home in high intensity situations than in between them. Natalia had seen him in some very intimate settings, yet he was never truly at ease. Only a battlefield was meant for a soldier, and he was a soldier through and through.

Soon after running up another flight of stairs, they found themselves on the third floor. Vanya's stride was leisurely as they headed down the carpeted hallway and she struggled to keep pace without Dragomirov mowing her over. The apartment they were targeting was 308, which proved to be one of the first around the corner.

The brass numbers had been tarnished with age, and the elderly olive green paint had begun to peel and fade. Natalia reached for the derringer strapped to the outside of her thigh, as they approached but she and Dragomirov drew up short. Vanya had backed away from the door, clearly deciding subtlety in this insistence was unwarranted as well; before he gave a running kick and sent the floor careening inside the apartment with a crack of splintering wood.

He shot into the apartment shortly thereafter, and Natalia hurried after him. The delayed scream of a woman soon erupted from the cramped living room off the entranceway. The room was filled with stacks upon stacks of books, old and new. The furniture was big and ornate, and the woman was tiny in comparison to all of it; she might have been smaller than Natalia herself.

Without being told to, Natalia left the room and headed further into the apartment to locate Petrov. She stepped into the outdated kitchen, which permitted to Dragomirov to hurry down the hallway and towards the bedrooms.

Petrov wasn't in the kitchen, so she made to her way down the hallway too, and pushed open the first door available to her since Dragomirov chose to go to the very back of the apartment first. She lifted her derringer and quickly pointed into the room, the bathroom, without any results. And that's when she heard something terrifying and foreign.

It was Vanya and he was screaming.

Her heart leapt to her throat, and without a thought against the contrary; she ran back to the living room. The woman, no doubt Petrov's wife, was on her knees in front of an empty hearth and blubbering loudly. Vanya stood above her with the sniper rifle at her head, in the midst of screaming fiercely yet again.

"Who told you we were coming?!"

"P-Please, please,"

"Who told you?!" Vanya demanded and pressed the barrel to the woman's forehead.

Dragomirov reappeared then, clearly confused by this turn of events as Natalia was. Petrov wasn't here, and someone had tipped him off to their visit. The only ones who knew of it were the members of the KGB, and it seemed unlikely that there was a traitor in their ranks. But even more confusing than that, Vanya was screaming. He never screamed; he always had a handle on his emotions or lack thereof.

"Have mercy!" Petrov's wife sobbed hoarsely still.

"Who told you?!" Vanya repeated.

"Nadya, it was her,"

"I don't know any Nadya."

"Koltsova, Nadya Koltsova is her name!" Petrov's wife pressed her hands together as if in prayer.

The air seemed to be sucked out of the room by that revelation. Natalia's eyes widened, temporarily dumbfounded although she didn't know why. Koltsova was a mad woman; she had had the gall to blackmail her, after all. But she hadn't any idea that she could be a traitor of that degree. She didn't know how crazy she truly was.

Had Koltsova been planted into the KGB from the very start? Or was her traitorousness a newfound quality? Natalia assumed it had always been there, though. Why else would she have helped her hide her pregnancy in the first place? She obviously wanted leverage against the infamous Black Widow, and she might have very well wanted to drag her down into the underbelly of this current political rebellion.

Vanya seemed to find his sense again then. His uncharacteristic outburst slowly ebbed away, but not before he pulled the trigger of his rifle; sending a bullet directly through Petrov's wife's head. The woman dropped sideways like a stack of bricks just as Vanya turned towards them with an intensity to his eyes that Natalia had only seen when he was buried inside of her.

"The snake," he murmured lowly. "Dragomirov, take Yurlov, Ilyin, and Osin head back to base; find Koltsova and keep her for me. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Dragomirov immediately responded.

"Romanova, Durov, and I will find Petrov. I know his location now." Vanya weaved around the dusty stacks of books and oversized furniture, before he strode back the way they had originally come.

As faithfully as before, Natalia followed him and Dragomirov followed her. They moved much faster, almost erratically, in comparison to when they began their journey. Then again, things had turned horribly bad and they needed to track down Petrov as soon as possible. And now they had the issue of Koltsova on top of that.

Half-formed and erratic thoughts swirled in Natalia's mind, as they found themselves rushing down the stairs, and eventually on the outside of the building once more. They hadn't encountered anyone again, but that was probably for good reason. She suspected nosy neighbors had been peeking through their peepholes and had seen them in full combat regalia but were too smart to try and snoop around now.

Ilyin saw them emerge, seemingly ready to ask what had happened; but he quickly clamped up by the venomous look Vanya had shot his way. Vanya headed to the passenger side of the van almost immediately, and pulled open the door. He slipped inside, which left Natalia to open up one of the back doors and clamber into the back without much thought against the contrary.

She only just made it too, before Durov had thrown the van in drive; and sent her lurching forward onto her knees with a pained hiss. Wherever they were going, neither Vanya nor Durov decided to tell her; clearly it was only on a need to know basis, and she supposed she would find out soon enough anyway.

Besides, she had a lot of things to think about right now. Koltsova had been outed as a rat, and now Dragomirov and the others were on route to find her. But would she even be there by the time they arrived? And if she was, would she spill all her secrets before Vanya even got to her?

A sense of dread slowly clawed its way up Natalia's spine. She didn't say anything, though; she couldn't demand that Vanya let her be the one who kept an eye on Koltsova. Not when Durov was already racing like a bat out of hell to find Petrov.

Maybe she had been too confident in her three week timeline; maybe she wouldn't get out of the KGB alive. And maybe her son would become the Red Room's star pupil. Because a child bore from the infamous Winter Soldier and Black Widow had soldier's blood in his veins. He was a natural born killer through and through.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Ten :: Papa

 


 

 

Sergei Petrov had fled from the city. Natalia deduced as much as they drove well over two hours, and the lights of the city dimmed through the windshield. She hadn't been given any details nor had she tried to extract any. One way or the other, she would find out where they were headed, and hopefully they would return to base soon.

While her main focus should have been on finding Petrov, she was preoccupied with thoughts of the ugly doctor who was actively blackmailing her. Something told Natalia that that Koltsova wouldn't hesitate to tell Dragomirov of her secret; hell, she would probably spill every secret she ever held if he threatened her in the right way.

Dragomirov might not be so bold, however. He had loyalty to Vanya, or at least the figurehead that was the Winter Soldier; which might cause him to be far more docile than he normally was when faced with a traitor. He might not use any violent force with Koltsova, not until he got the okay from Vanya anyway.

Then again, all of that was dependent on the fact that Dragomirov had found Koltsova. She could have easily fled herself and with her escape, she would take Natalia's secret with her. That didn't bode well with Natalia; at least when Koltsova was within arm's reach then she had some kind of control over the situation. But with her out in the air, the threat seemed far worse in comparison.

If only she could get her hands on Koltsova first. Better yet, she needed access to all her files computerized and physical. She needed complete admission to everything Koltsova had ever touched. She needed to flush any record that the woman might have had involving her medical history.

Once Koltsova's deceit became known to Lukin, he would demand a thorough sweep of all her files. Anything that had been buried would be found. Natalia knew it wouldn't take three weeks to find all of Koltsova's dirty little secrets; which meant that her plans were in grave jeopardy.

With that in mind, Natalia knew she needed to come up with an alternate strategy. She had to leave the country within the coming days somehow. And while she knew it was not impossible to do, it wouldn't be as seamless as she originally hoped for and probably twice as dangerous.

What else could she do, though? She couldn't allow Lukin to get his filthy hands on her son. She couldn't let Vanya know of his existence either. Because Vanya was a creature of the KGB; his loyalty and very existence was tied-in to Lukin. Or there was a great possibility he would be loyal to anyone who had a leash around his neck.

The thought was a bitter one, she knew. Vanya hadn't any way to protect her or their child without knowledge of his very existence. He hadn't asked to father a child with her. It had simply been a miscalculation on both their parts. The only difference between the two of them was that Vanya had had the foresight to end things before they had the opportunity to become even more complicated than they already had been.

Unfortunately, they were far too entwined now even without him knowing. Natalia would always carry a small part of Vanya wherever she went. It was only a shame that he wouldn't know that himself. But it was for the best; she had to believe that.

The smooth an unobstructed road that they had been traveling along for quite sometime, suddenly became bumpy and uneven. The van leapt and jerked with enough force to jar Natalia not only from her thoughts, but from her seat too. She grabbed onto the edge of the bench to keep herself in place.

Glimpsing to the front of the van, Natalia followed the headlights down a dirt road with very little else in sight. Trees flew by in dark clusters; however there weren't any visible structures of any kind or any sign of civilization either.

Petrov had foolishly chosen refuge in a desolate place, which made his chances for survival minimal at best. It would have been wiser to have chosen a place with a high number of people around him. While it wouldn't have stopped them in any way, it could have given Petrov a head start in the very least.

Despite wanting to question their whereabouts and when they would eventually reach their destination, Natalia kept quiet. Vanya was already in a peculiar temperament, and it would be beneficial for her to stay out of the crosshairs. She had cache of her own problems to deal with without adding another to the pile.

"Stop here," Vanya spoke up then, as if he could read the trajectory of her thoughts.

Durov lessened the speed of the van, before he pulled onto the almost non-existent shoulder of the road. There wasn't much cover there, which might prove to be an issue later on. But for now, Vanya seemed satisfied with the parking spot.

The headlights were killed, which plunged them into an eerie darkness. Natalia bristled slightly as they sat in a heavy silence for a while. No one moved a muscle; Durov wasn't about to do anything without Vanya's lead, and she was equally unlikely to do so. They'd been trained to obey a superior whoever they may be.

"Thirty yards away, there is a village or better described as a collection of small homes." Vanya uttered in his usual monotone. "The target is in one of them; he has friends here. So we will split up and search for him. We will kill anyone who we suspect to be harboring him or having helped him escape if he is not here."

"How many houses are there?" Durov asked.

"No more than a dozen; they're a distance away from each other, though."

"Which would make it easier for him to run," Natalia supplied and that garnered a grunt of agreement from Vanya.

That was the extent of the conversation; it was all that they needed to know. Vanya was the first to move; he opened the passenger side door and that motivated her and Durov as well to make their exit from the vehicle.

Natalia slipped soundlessly from the back of the van. She stood on uneven ground, and the trees loomed overhead like an omen. The sky and its stars were visible out here, which she would have marveled at had she not been in a hurry to finish this mission and return back to base as soon as humanly possible. Koltsova was waiting for her.

Rounding the van, she found her place naturally behind Vanya. Durov was close behind as they moved quickly from along the bumpy road, and eventually through the tree line. For the first few minutes, Natalia had a difficult time navigating the way but her eyes soon adjusted to the darkness as best as they could.

Vanya proved to be a point of direction for her; he appeared to have no trouble at all when it came to moving through the dark. He didn't stumble or brush too closely to a tree or step into an overgrown shrub. His movements were fluid and easy, as if he could see far better than a normal human being could. Maybe he did even.

They eventually found their way through an overgrown thicket, before they reached a small clearing where poorly packed dirt roads connected outward like a spider web. The houses were small brittle structures that resembled shacks, and that was the moment Natalia's heart seized in her chest.

This wasn't any village, this was the village. She had visited this exact place only weeks ago with a picture of Vanya and an envelope of money in hand. This was where her most valuable secret lived with Babushka Irina and her husband-less daughter Marta, and her two grandchildren too.

Within view, their little hovel stood as still and dark as death. This couldn't be happening; after three years of tiptoeing around and continual secretiveness, this couldn't be where things ended. Vanya could not find Alexei; he couldn't become any the wiser.

"Split up," Vanya commanded, as he headed to the right side of the clearing towards a home away from Babushka Irina's.

As calmly as she could, Natalia moved into the clearing as well and onto the trail that led to the home she knew far too well. She had spent almost six months in between those tired walls; she had grown heavy and swollen with Vanya's son there. And now she had to protect it and its occupants at all costs.

She passed by two homes just when she heard the splintering of wood further away. A similar noise resounded behind her, undoubtedly where Durov had broken into one of the homes she completely disregarded. And that's when she gave herself the leeway to hasten her steps into a full-blown run.

She ran the last few feet to the shack, and swallowed down the lump lodged in her throat. This had to look believable; she hadn't any other choice, but to follow the model that Vanya and Durov had put in place. So without another second of hesitation, she backed away from the front door; before lurching forward and kicking it in.

The wood didn't splinter much, as it swung inward into the dark room. Only the dying embers in the hearth illuminated the space; although it was soon followed by a lamp being turned on in the bedroom in which Marta, Vlad, and Nina slept.

Quickly, Natalia hurried inside the shack and through the bedroom's open door. The children had roused just as their mother had, looking bewildered and terrified even though they knew her well enough. Before Marta could gather her wits enough to demand a reason for the unnecessary ruckus, she held up her hand for silence.

"Go to Babushka Irina's room now! Hide my son! I'll protect you, but only if you follow my directions! Now go; there's not time for questions!" She hissed, despite wanting nothing more than to scream.

There was probably madness in her eyes because Marta did not think of questioning her. She climbed out of the double bed she shared with her children, and urged them onto their feet as well. None of them spoke a word to Natalia, as if they feared what she might do to them if they spoke to her normally while on her sporadic visits.

Marta grasped both children's hands, passing through the open doorway and into the one next door. Natalia followed them and was unsurprised to see Babushka Irina already awake with sagely and knowing eyes. Alexei was curled up into the elderly woman's side, but his small hand reached for her automatically and she reached for him like it was her lifeline.

Outside the shrieks of men, women, and children rang out in the night. Durov's voice resounded like a whip across them all and that caused Natalia to pull away from her son's hold. She grabbed at the derringer at her thigh, which she had carried earlier on in the night. Because she still had a part to play, and she couldn't slip up now; not when things were so dangerous.

"Listen to me, Единственная и неповторимая; I need you to be a very good boy." She looked over her shoulder as the noise of fear heightened. "Stay here with Babushka Irina, Mama Marta, and Nina and Vlad. Don't cry and be brave. Do you understand?"

The sound of gunfire broke out; a sound that was embedded into her very personality. She didn't flinch, even when Nina started to cry loudly. This was who she inevitably was, even if she too was scared beyond belief right now; she was molded from gunfire, blood, and violence. She was different from them.

"Do you understand, Mama?" She looked back to her son, who was whimpering like a wounded animal and on the verge of tears. "Единственная и неповторимая,"

"Mama," Alexei nodded and soon crumbled into tears too.

"I love you; I'll always love you." Natalia said fiercely, before she hurried out of the room and shoved open the bathroom door. She then rounded back to Marta's bedroom and ripped the bed sheets off the mattress, as if the occupants of the bed were violently scared awake by her appearance.

Once that was done, she walked into the large room at the front of the house to wreak further havoc. She pushed over the rocking chair carelessly. She grabbed for a throw pillow and that's when the sound of heavy footfall met her ears. She knew who it was without even having to look his way. The sound was one of nightmares.

Terror so great overwhelmed her completely. Natalia froze with one hand curled around the throw pillow's fringe, and other gripping her handgun for dear life. She could probably shoot him; her marksmanship was quite good with a ninety-seven percent accuracy the last she checked. She could go for a head shot; it wouldn't be easy, but she could try.

Even with that thought at the forefront of her mind, Natalia dropped the pillow and somehow felt an eerie sort of calm sweep through her. She looked to the dominating shadow in the doorway, and forced her heart to slow down.

"He isn't here; it's only an old woman, a younger one, and three young children." She said without any inflection, which surprised her even.

Vanya studied her and looked ready to turn away, in order to return out into the madness. But something stopped him from doing just that, in fact whatever it was compelled him to walk deeper into the house. He didn't make a move to approach her, though. Instead he moved, he was moving, he was going to the bedrooms!

The calm that settled over Natalia blew away like smoke. She jerked forward and almost ran after him, even though it wasn't exactly necessary since the house was so tiny. He moved forward and stopped in front of Marta's bedroom door, staring curiously into it. When he seemed satisfied that it was empty, Vanya stepped onto the threshold that led into the occupied bedroom.

"Only women and children," she managed to say around the lump in her throat. "Unless you believe our target transformed into either of those within the past few hours,"

That didn't garner any response. Vanya reached out and pushed the door open further. The bed was now empty and the family was huddled into the corner of the room. Marta and Babushka Irina had wrapped their arms protectively around the children but Alexei was nowhere to be seen.

Vanya stood in the doorway for several moments, as if he didn't believe that Petrov was not there. He moved almost casually towards the bed, and turned on the lamp beside it which chased away the shadows. That's when Natalia noticed his muzzle was gone; his eyes were ringed with black charcoal still which made him look foreboding and terrifying.

Nina's cries became louder by seeing Vanya without the veil darkness to shroud him. Vlad even cowered as Vanya stared at them intensely. But that proved to be the extent of his intimidation much to Natalia's relief.

Vanya returned to the doorway and looked to her. His mouth opened to say something that she probably did not want to hear. Petrov must have gotten away, which meant that they would either be away from base longer than intended or that they would have to report their failure to Lukin. She couldn't say which would be worse; she imagined both would make it impossible for her to flee either way.

The words never left his lips, even when he parted them though. Because in that moment, the sound of fabric rustled, and from underneath the bed frame Alexei crawled out. It felt like it happened in slow motion, and Natalia couldn't move fast enough to prevent it.

Alexei climbed to his feet, crossing the short distance between the bed and door. He reached out and wrapped his arms tightly around Vanya's leg. For one brief moment, it looked as if Vanya hadn't even realized what had transpired. But his gaze slowly dropped and he was looking down at Alexei, while Alexei looked up at him with wondrous eyes.

"Papa, Papa," Alexei exclaimed, and the world seemed to shatter around them all.

"Soldier, Widow," Durov's booming voice called out to them. "I found him; I've found the traitor!"

Reality soon careened back over them by those words. Marta suddenly lurched forward and grabbed Alexei, managing to break his hold on Vanya. He let out a howl of displeasure that seemed to rattle Vanya to the bone. He looked at Alexei then at her, before he gathered his wits enough and shoved past her to where Durov was calling to them again.

With wide eyes, Natalia stared at her son but could do little to calm him down. She had to follow Vanya and somehow save face. She had to pretend like nothing had happened back there, that that child was completely and utterly confused.

Her heart was in her throat, as they dashed out of the small shack and out into the open where Durov had Sergei Petrov by the collar. It looked like Durov had pistol whipped Petrov once or twice by the state of his face.

"You are scum and murderers! You've colored our country red!" Petrov moaned in agony. "You will not win! You are monsters! May God curse you all!"

Durov dropped Petrov to the ground unceremoniously and stepped aside. That's when Vanya pulled a handgun from his hip, cocked it, and shot Petrov between the eyes. He shot two more rounds to the sounds of cries and moans of horror around them; although it had little affect on him.

Petrov's final words echoed in Natalia's head, as much as the gunfire did. They were monsters. She and Vanya most of all, and their child would know no differently. That is unless she saved him from this place.

Now more than ever, she and Alexei had to leave the country; within the next few hours if she could manage it. But Koltsova had to be dealt with first, and she feared that the doctor would be beyond her reach already.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Eleven :: The Slaughter

 


 

 

The drive to base was deathly silent. Natalia stared sightlessly ahead of her; consumed by a fear unlike any other. Her secret had been revealed, and now Vanya knew. Vanya knew that that blue-eyed, beautiful boy that she held dear was his. Even if he hadn't said a word, she knew that he knew. And what was worse – he hadn't done anything about it.

In her worst nightmares, she had thought he would throttle her with his cybernetic hand. She thought he would put a bullet between her eyes, similarly to what he had done to Sergei Petrov. But instead, he had chosen to do nothing and that was so much worse.

The unknown was petrifying. At any moment, Vanya could strike. He could go to Lukin; he could go to the village himself and eliminate what he perceived as a problem. And all the while she couldn't do anything to prevent it. Not right away anyhow.

She dropped her head down and felt like the monster that she was. She had left her child unprotected. She had chosen to return to the KGB with her tail between her legs. The infamous Black Widow was nothing more than a coward; a scared and naïve little girl that hadn't any right to motherhood.

Petrov had been painfully accurate about them. She had known for some time now what she was, but it was reinforced by her willingness to leave that tiny village behind, and to climb into the back of the van that Durov was currently driving. She had told herself in those numb moments that she was going to eliminate Koltsova, but really what was the point now?

Vanya knew and it would be harder to kill him than a civilian. If they were put toe to toe, Vanya would win. Maybe he wouldn't have an easy time of killing her since she would fight him with everything that she had. Yet he would be the victor one way or another. He would kill her.

Tears prickled unwelcomingly in Natalia's eyes. She should have taken her son right then and there. She should have done something other than follow Vanya outside to execute Petrov, followed shortly by a family that had tried to hide him. But she had been (and still was) weak; she had been too scared to disobey or think coolly as she normally did.

The Red Room was supposed to eliminate fear out of her. As a child, she had lost that sense of dread in her belly when forced to fight viciously with another girl for survival. She didn't even cringe when she broke that blonde girl's neck. She had even killed her first man without any hesitation.

Somehow though, she had experienced fear many times still. When she had recognized her ability to feel when it came to Vanya, she had feared it. When she had been alone with him, and his weight had been above her; she had feared that too. When she'd found out she was pregnant, when she gave birth – she felt fear. And every day for three years she had felt a fear so pronounced it was a wonder that she could function at all.

Now, most of all, she felt the worst kind of terror imaginable. It was almost suffocating her, and it was threatening to unravel all of her teachings that had been beaten into her by the KGB. One way or another though, she needed to get a hold of herself; she couldn't let herself shatter into a million pieces. That wouldn't serve anyone, especially Alexei.

Brusquely, Natalia swiped at her eyes and took in a deep breath. Whether Vanya chose to eliminate her or not remained to be seen, and until she knew for certain then she needed to calm down. She could still get away, so long as she played her cards right.

All hope wasn't lost yet. She was still the Black Widow; she knew how to slip away unseen. She could disappear right underneath Vanya and Lukin's noses without too much difficulty. She just needed to outsmart them both and use Koltsova's betrayal as a catapult to do just that.

Just as she started to formulate a strategy to get off base and back to Alexei, the van slowed to a stop. Durov let out a heavy sigh, before he cut off the engine. The sky outside was still dark and gloomy, but sunrise would come within an hour or two no doubt.

Vanya practically ripped open the passenger side door, and climbed out of the vehicle. He slammed the door shut with enough force to make the van sway. Natalia managed not to cringe, and sat up straight as she tried to collect her composure in its entirety. She couldn't allow anyone to see her weakness now. They would use it to their full advantage; it was a death sentence to let anyone in the KGB see your vulnerabilities.

Any hope to compose herself was all for naught, though. Vanya made his presence known once again by opening the van's back door. He didn't look at her; his gaze was directed to a point beyond her, as if he couldn't bear to look at her at all.

"You," he snarled lowly. "Come with me."

Natalia thought about shooting Vanya dead right then and there. He probably wouldn't be prepared for that. From what she briefly seen in that shack, he looked shell-shocked by a child that resembled him so greatly holding onto him. So he might not be as present as he usually was, and that could work to her advantage.

Her fingers twitched, yet she didn't reach for any of her weapons. Instead she obliged and stood up, walking to the edge of the van's bed; before she hopped out. He shut the door with equal force as when he exited the van, and then spun on his heel to go wherever he intended to go.

It was stupid for him to turn his back on her. Or maybe he knew full well that she wouldn't turn against him of yet. Whatever he thought, Natalia didn't know at all. She never really could say that she knew him very well. She probably knew more than any living being (beside Lukin possibly), but Vanya was still a mystery. He seemed to prefer his solitary and to keep himself hidden in plain sight.

Despite her many and multiple reservations, Natalia trailed Vanya through the compound. They moved past the administrative building and the sleeping quarters. They bypassed the collection of training facilities and even the mess hall, before they moved towards the medical and research and development buildings at the back of the compound.

On the fringe of those structures was the hangar and the cluster of garages, which Natalia briefly considered a stroke of luck. She could use the proximity to her advantage and steal a vehicle, even though she knew there would be agents on her almost immediately. It might not be a smart plan, but it was a plan and she might very well be able to get away with it somehow.

Her mind began to conjure up several possibilities of escape. Stealing a vehicle would be much easier than stealing an aircraft; however the latter would probably lead to the best rate of success. She could reach Alexei faster that way and leave the country quicker; although anonymity would be far harder to maintain while flying a plane or a helicopter.

Soon enough the sight of the hangar was replaced by the medical facility, although Natalia's thoughts hadn't shifted any. Vanya shoved one of the double doors in and stepped inside. Natalia managed to slip in behind him, before the door shut with a bang. He was already on the move down the sterile hallway once she set foot into the building, and she had to hurry to keep up.

So they had come to see Koltsova, after all. She followed after him closely, and tried desperately to shove her fear down again. Whatever Koltsova had to say wouldn't be as devastating as what she had already witnessed only two hours beforehand when father and son met for the first time. This meant absolutely nothing in comparison.

Forgoing the bank of elevators ahead of them, they instead found their way into the stairwell. Vanya wasn't the type that enjoyed being confined in small spaces. Or he might not have been a fan of elevators; either way, he always had a penchant for taking the stairs even if he could save time otherwise.

They walked down three flights of stairs where many of the doctors' laboratories and offices were located. Natalia hadn't visited in some time; she never thought she needed to, which proved to be naïve of her. Of course, she would have to see Koltsova on her own territory again. She never thought it would be like this, though; not exactly.

Their footfall was mostly silent as they descended. Vanya moved with a continued purpose, although Natalia didn't know what it was of yet. She wished she knew what he was thinking; she wished she was braver than she was, so she could ask about what had happened between him and his child. But she wisely left it be.

Within minutes, they dismounted the stairs and reached the basement level. Vanya led them through the only door, and they found themselves on another sterile floor. White tile and fluorescent lights made up the décor; it was almost painful to lay eyes on. But Natalia didn't brood much on that, as they were on the move again.

Down the hallway, they found an open door and inside the room were Osin, Ilyin, Yurlov, and Dragomirov. Sprawled unceremoniously in between them was Dr. Koltsova; Dragomirov had her by the arms, as she cried sloppily for mercy. She looked uglier than she normally did.

Various items within the decently large room had been broken and strewn about. Files were on the floor and their contents ripped and stepped on. There probably wasn't any incriminating evidence on base; Koltsova was smarter than that, unfortunately.

"The bitch won't crack." Dragomirov said in means of greeting. "I could use force, though. Let me; she will sing like a bird."

Vanya walked into the room; Natalia could tell his eyes had zeroed in on Koltsova. It was fairly apparent especially when Koltsova shrieked at Vanya's approach. She had always been wary of him, and she had good reason to be.

Sick pleasure rushed its way through Natalia's veins from the sound. She followed Vanya and stood at his side, temporarily forgetting that she too should fear him at that moment. But for now she wanted to bask in this weak, ugly woman's terror. She wanted her to pay for what she had done.

"Lukin isn't here, so you are mine." Vanya explained.

"I haven't done anything! I haven't, I swear!"

"She's a bad liar, eh?" Dragomirov hoisted Koltsova up onto her feet, although she had some difficulty keeping herself upright; her legs seemed to want to let out from underneath her.

"W-When General Lukin learns of this, you will be in trouble!"

"You heard him. He isn't here, traitor." Natalia hissed, unable to keep quiet for any longer.

The sound of her voice drew Koltsova's gaze towards her. While she looked scared still, something malicious flared in her sunken eyes. Her ugly face scrunched up, before she turned a brilliant shade of red.

"I'm a traitor, you say? What about you, Widow? Have you forgotten about your treachery?"

"You told Petrov we were coming for him!"

"Lies, all lies," Koltsova shrieked shrilly. "I serve the KGB and the mother country! Anyone who says otherwise is a liar! But you, on the other hand, I have proof of your treachery! I have documented proof!"

Fury roared to the forefront of Natalia's mind. She made a move to step forward, ready to throttle the life out of Koltsova. But Vanya's arm, the metal one, shot out and blocked her path. He gave her an unreadable look, yet it was enough to keep her at bay; at least for now anyway.

"My only sin was not outing you sooner! I helped you and I hope General Lukin will forgive me!"

"Ugly women always lash out at the pretty ones." Yurlov chimed in with a perverse smile.

"I am not a whore! Will you tell your comrades-"

"Enough-"

"You were with child? That you gave birth to a bastard three years ago!" Koltsova laughed wetly but victoriously as Natalia's stomach dropped to her knees, although she had known Koltsova would expose her one way or another; it left her reeling.

It was only a matter of time. When she had opened her mouth, she had drawn Koltsova's ire onto her. She had only sped up her exposure quicker than it would have been. But it still felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath her. Worse yet, Koltsova was practically giddy by the way her team turned on her with disgust and curiosity in their eyes.

Many of them had low opinions of her already. Not because of her skills, but because she was a woman. She had seen the lecherous stares; she had felt them rove across her body in desire. They only worked with her because of Lukin and Vanya; they hardly respected her. And now they knew she was nothing more than a whore.

"I bet you've opened your legs so many times that you haven't a clue who the father is!" Koltsova goaded on. "Half the men of the KGB could have fathered that bastard-ah!"

Koltsova let out a blood curdled scream. One of her knees had been shot by none other than Vanya. He had moved so quickly that Natalia hadn't even noticed what he had done. No one had paid him much attention during Koltsova's brutal rant.

Dragomirov dropped her to the floor, leaving Koltsova to sob and writhe around like a fish out of water. The other men backed away, as Vanya advanced and pointed his pistol at Koltsova once more. He didn't pull the trigger right away; instead he watched her, as if he enjoyed the suffering and fear that was permeating off of her.

"Don't hurt me!" Koltsova sobbed. "General Lukin-"

"Is not in the country," Vanya finished cavalierly, before shooting Koltsova in the other knee.

Another high-pitched scream rippled out of Koltsova. Natalia could only watch; she was fascinated and sickly pleased by the doctor's suffering. This woman threatened her son; she deserved nothing better than to suffer. She deserved to die a true traitor's death. Maybe she was a traitor too, but she never helped the enemy like Koltsova had.

"I-I'm not a traitor!" Koltsova held up her hands, only for Vanya to shoot through one then the other.

Blood spattered and pooled underneath Koltsova's shrieking body. Vanya shot her twice more in the crook of each elbow, which caused her arms to flop uselessly to her sides. And that's when he moved closer to stand above her like judge and jury. He looked half-mad but oddly serene too.

Koltsova was sobbing uncontrollably; her former glee nowhere to be seen. Even with her destiny decided, she was still begging for mercy. She didn't stop, despite Vanya crouching over her and pressing the barrel of the gun to her forehead. He whispered something to her, which made Koltsova's eyes widen and practically bug. That's when he pulled the trigger.

It was over. The threat had been neutralized. Vanya stayed in place for several moments, before he slowly rose, and then looked to the men around him. They said nothing, although they looked slightly shaken; everyone besides Dragomirov anyway.

"Well," Ilyin broke the silence, and that proved to be the last thing he would ever say.

Vanya pointed the pistol at him and shot him through the eye, while he reached for one of the knives strapped to his lower back. He threw it and caught Dragomirov in the throat in a splay of blood and wet gurgling noises.

Natalia gaped in shock as Vanya expertly shot at Osin then Yurlov. Each man dropped dead from the precision of the Winter Soldier's marksmanship. They hadn't had a chance; they hadn't even gotten the opportunity to reach for their own weapons.

The only one still alive was Dragomirov, whose death rattle continued wetly. The big man had fallen back against a wall with a hand gripping his throat underneath the protruding knife. With every breath he attempted to take, blood oozed everywhere. It must have been a horrible way to go. He was drowning in his own blood.

Vanya considered the bodies around him, before he eyed Dragomirov. He watched him for some time until he eventually decided to end his misery. He shot Dragomirov in the head, which caused him to fall into macabre heap on the floor like his comrades and Koltsova respectively.

"Vanya," Natalia stared at Dragomirov's prone and blood soaked form, and then looked up to him with a sudden realization – he was going to kill her too.

That seemed to be the right assessment. Because he had turned to face her then; his face was painfully blank with speckles of blood fanning over his cheeks and forehead. His eyes were cold and his movements mechanical and easy as he crossed the short distance between them.

Blindly, Natalia backed away and tried to grab for any weapon strapped to her body. Her hands wouldn't cooperate, though. They were shaking too hard; she couldn't fight him off. Not now, not like this. Maybe not ever.

That's when he lashed out. He was much faster than he looked; she thought as much as he swung his pistol and hit her in the temple. A clipped cry flew out of her mouth as a dizzying pain bloomed through her head and caused black spots to dance across her vision. She staggered a little, before her knees decided to give out on her. But she didn't hit the ground, she knew that much as she was eventually pulled under into unconsciousness.

Vanya had caught her; he hadn't let her fall.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twelve :: The Great Escape

 


 

The steady hum of an engine slowly drew Natalia out of unconsciousness. Blearily, she opened her eyes a fraction and was assaulted by a pounding ache in her head. She shut her eyes again and curled onto her side in hopes of finding some kind of equilibrium, although it seemed unlikely at the moment.

Her body swayed to and fro, and she distantly wondered where she was. She couldn't recall where she had been or what she'd been doing. All she knew was that she was in pronounced pain, and the cause of why was equally unknown to her.

Something had happened, something that needed to be remembered; she knew that much. She tried to focus and to work her way through the fog that settled thickly over her mind. It wasn't an easy task, though. Pain bore down on her like an anvil, and it was a relentless foe.

Urging her eyes open again, Natalia squinted against a dark gray light. It appeared to be the sky, heavy with foreboding rainclouds but still much too dark for daytime. Not only that, she was looking at the sky through a windshield of some sort.

All of this information made her head hurt even more. It didn't really make any sense, especially since she could only see sky. She should have seen some kind of building or even a tree, but it was only endless sky as if she was in an aircraft of some sort.

Slowly her gaze moved sideways; there was a long console of buttons and dials underneath the windshield, and there was someone seated at the driver's seat. She could only see the back of their head, although it proved to be enough of an identifier for her. It was Vanya; Vanya was flying an aircraft, maybe a helicopter, with her crumbled in the back of it. Why would that be?

The revelation remained a mystery to her. None of it made any sense, unless they had been on a mission and she'd been demobilized. She couldn't remember any time that that had happened, but she supposed there was a first time for everything.

Where had they been? What had they been doing? There were hundreds of possibilities. They'd been across Europe, once or twice to the Middle-East. They'd been on assassinations, data recovery, and everything in between. Very rarely did the details of any mission leap to the forefront of her mind. Most of the information she recovered was disposed of from her brain when the mission had been finished.

And that's when it hit her. Sergei Petrov – that had been their target. They hadn't found him at his home; he had fled after Dr. Koltsova had leaked their activity to him. So they had followed him to a village, to the village where everything had come to a head.

Images splashed through her consciousness then; vivid snapshots of Koltsova's mangled body splayed across her office floor. But not only her there was Osin, Ilyin, Yurlov, and Dragomirov too. Vanya had killed them all, and she had been under the impression that she would be next.

Shakily, Natalia pushed herself up and was hit by a bout of vertigo. Her vision wavered for a moment, before it steadied once more and zeroed in onto the back of Vanya's head. Where on earth could he be taking her? Why hadn't he killed her like the rest of them?

"Where are we going?" She managed to say, although her voice was strained.

Vanya didn't respond; she knew he'd heard her, but apparently he hadn't any desire to elaborate. That didn't bode well with her. He could be leading her to a bloody and unpleasant ending. The others could have possibly gotten off easier than she would.

Realizing the futility of the situation and knowing there wouldn't be any forthcoming answers, she lowered herself back to the cool floor of the helicopter. Whatever Vanya intended for her, she wouldn't become any the wiser until he decided to reveal his plans in motion.

"Don't hurt him." Natalia pleaded, even though it seemed like a pointless endeavor. "He's only a baby. Do whatever you want to me, but just don't hurt him."

If these were her final moments, Natalia was determined to keep Alexei safe somehow. She didn't know what would happen to him if she wasn't around. Vanya could kill him or take him directly back to Lukin where he'd become the best assassin the KGB had ever seen. Lukin and Vanya would make sure of that.

"If you take him back to Lukin, he'll make him into what we are. That isn't any life for a child. Regardless of where your loyalties lie, you know that that isn't any way for a child to be raised. You've seen what happens in the Black Widow program. You know what I am, Vanya."

Despite her impassioned words, she somehow managed a flat affect. The emotion wouldn't stir much; in a way, she supposed she didn't want to appear any more vulnerable to Vanya than she already was. She was already at his mercy, and yet she wanted some control still. She wasn't entirely out for the count.

Natalia ran a hand down her thigh, and touched something cool and definitely metal. She was still armed. Her derringer was still strapped to her leg, and even the throwing knives that she always had on hand were too. For some reason he hadn't disarmed her, which was completely unlike Vanya; unless that meant he hadn't any intention on killing her, after all.

It didn't make any sense, though. Why would he spare her and kill the others? Koltsova had to die due to her betrayal; there wasn't any way around that. But why did he kill the others? They hadn't done anything; in fact, they had followed Vanya's orders precisely.

Dragomirov could have tortured Koltsova into a confession. He had the means and personality for it. Yet he had waited for Vanya to arrive without hurting a hair on Koltsova's head. He had known his orders and followed them. So really, he hadn't deserved to die. None of them did but the traitor in their midst.

As much as it pained her to do, she sat up fully this time around. She tried to blink the dizziness away, but wasn't very successful. Her head was still throbbing from where Vanya had struck her, and it would probably take several hours before she felt anywhere near normal again.

"You know I couldn't tell you." Natalia confessed. "What would you have done if I had? I know you'd tell me to take care of it. Because our loyalty could only be to the KGB; we couldn't have our own lives outside of it. I know you, Vanya."

It was only a half-truth; she didn't know Vanya like she wanted to. She had only gotten glimpses of him; snapshots of the man he was behind the exterior that made him the renowned Winter Soldier. But she was certain that Vanya would have wanted her to handle her pregnancy as she should have.

The thought was an awful one. She loved Alexei without hesitation; however she knew that having a child had been foolish on her part. She had jeopardized her life too many times to count and Alexei's life as well. Her son might not even live to see another day at this point, and she would be solely to blame.

Silence eventually took hold again. Natalia didn't even understand why she had tried to reason with whatever humanity Vanya might have had. His focus was singular and emotion had very little to do with how he conducted himself. He seemed to be more weapon than man. He was a soldier and nothing more.

During her continued contemplation, the helicopter slowly started to descend. The sky led way to the tip-top of several unidentified trees, and she wondered if Vanya had taken her to a secluded location to execute her. But the question still remained – why would he leave her armed if that were the case? Did he want her to fight tooth and nail for her life?

When the helicopter touched down, Natalia risked standing and grabbed her derringer. Even with a horrible bout of vertigo, she still managed to aim at the back of Vanya's head. This was her only chance and she wasn't going to waste it. She had to kill him; her feelings for him meant nothing in comparison to saving their son.

"Put away your weapon, Natalia." Vanya muttered with a dismissive air as he shut off the engine.

"Not until you tell me where we are and what we're here for." She demanded, keeping her hand steady.

Vanya turned so he could look at her. There wasn't any telltale sign of his intentions on his face; he still wore that damn blank mask of his. All she knew for certain was that he looked like what he was – a killer. His face was still flaked with dried blood, and his eyes were endless pools of blue; stormy like the ocean.

He climbed to his feet, unfazed by the weapon pointed at him. In fact, he disregarded the danger entirely by moving towards her. He ended up veering to the side though and pulled open the side door, before turning to look at her.

"You don't have much time. Get him and bring him back."

"Get who?" Natalia had followed Vanya with her gun, although her confusion lowered her defenses temporarily. That is until the dawning realization hit her like a bolt of lightning.

Without a thought for her own safety, Natalia staggered to the open down and past Vanya to see where they had landed. The same familiar thicket of trees was there; she knew well enough even in the dark. How could she forget them from only hours ago?

She looked from the trees to Vanya, before she hurriedly but without any coordination jumped out of the helicopter onto solid ground. It took her a moment to decide which direction to go, and when she did she ran. Her body protested and her head screamed shrilly for her to stop and reevaulate what she was doing; maybe even rest. That wasn't an option right now, though.

The village wasn't that far away, she soon found out. Vanya had landed far closer than Durov had parked several hours earlier. Time was of the essence even more so than on their mission, which would explain why he'd chosen to land so closely instead of choosing the element of surprise. Anyone from the KGB could be on their heels now, since Natalia now began to suspect that Vanya had taken the helicopter without any clearance. He might have killed more agents in his wake as well.

Running proved to be a difficult feat. Natalia's head throbbed in sync with her pulse, but she persevered anyway. She had faced greater adversities on missions in the past, so this wasn't anything. This was far more important and she would be damned if she gave up when time was running out for her to protect Alexei.

Soon the trees began to thin out and disappeared altogether to reveal the clearing. People were mulling around in sorrow; loud wails punctured the early morning air, and pools of blood still colored the ground. The bodies of Sergei Petrov and the family who had hidden him remained out in the open. They were already beginning to smell of rot and decay.

Natalia clutched her derringer tighter than before. There was a great possibility that she would have to fight through the sparse crowd in order to get her child. Even with the cloak of darkness during Petrov's execution, she knew her form was a recognizable one. She wouldn't go unnoticed.

Regardless of the danger, she darted out into the open. She pushed her body forward with the last threads of adrenaline that she had. The ache in her head, probably caused by a concussion, was only a secondary concern at the moment; especially when someone let out a cry of surprise as she zipped her way past the mourners.

Another yell followed the first, but this one sounded more angry than surprised. Natalia knew that they would be on her if she didn't move faster. She was too close to her child now; she couldn't let some downtrodden mob tear her limb from limb. She was too good for that.

Weaving this way and that, she managed to avoid capture and without resorting to violence either. That might not be the case very soon, though. If they laid a hand on her child, she would show to them why she was the Black Widow of the Red Room; and why no one else had been rewarded that title.

The shack was only feet away now. She could reach out and touch the side of it if she wanted to; she even shot out her hand in anticipation of the wood against her fingertips. But something stopped her abruptly; something jerked her by her hair, so hard that she almost cried out in pain.

"She-devil," a man roared and jerked her backwards with unneeded force; almost ripping her hair from her scalp. "You killed Sergei! You killed Nikolai and his family! Murdering bitch,"

Natalia snarled savagely. Without so much as a glance behind her, she kicked the man as hard as she could in the knee. The connection was solid enough to make him scream in more than just outrage. He even loosened his hold on her hair because of it, which she used to her full advantage.

She twisted free and grabbed him by the wrist with her unoccupied hand, before kicking upward and snapping his arm like it was a twig. The sound of shattered bone was a familiar one, as was the agonized noise that quickly followed.

That didn't satisfy Natalia completely, though. She let go of the man's mangled arm, and kicked him right in the ugly face. Something crushed on impact; she suspected it might have been his nose, maybe a few teeth. She didn't wait around to find out the extent of the damage, and instead spun around to run the last few strides to Babushka Irina's home.

The front door swung open with the barest of touches after she broke it hours ago. Unsurprisingly, the household was awake and huddled around Babushka Irina's rocking chair; Alexei was in the old woman's lap as he always was. Even if she didn't want for any of them to see her fully armed, the personification of the Red Room's creation; she hadn't any say about it now. They'd already seen her, and now they were going to have a better look.

"You," Marta declared and tried to stand, although Vlad and Nina clung to her desperately.

"I've come for my son."

"Who are you? What have you done?" Marta shrieked.

"Give me my son. I have nothing to lose now." Natalia's hand twitched; she knew the mob would come for her after they checked on their fallen comrade. "Don't make me do something drastic."

Babushka Irina turned her eyes on her then. The old woman had never asked any questions; Natalia suspected that's why she had been sent there in the first place. In retrospect, it all made sense; Koltsova had been working with the rebellion and there were tightly formed ties between that and the villagers. She could have been a walking target for years now without even knowing it.

"He is your Vanya, after all." Babushka Irina said sagely. "Will he protect you and the babe, Little Natalia?"

The question came out of left field. Natalia was taken aback, and she hadn't the time to be. She had to take Alexei away before anyone noticed she was gone. And she had to do it before she had to end up killing people. She didn't have time to think about it.

"He brought me back for our son."

"Because he loves you," Babushka Irina began to wrap the quilt spread across her lap around Alexei, and she somehow even managed to lift him as she stood.

Shooing away Marta and the children, the old woman shuffled towards Natalia. Her thin lips kissed the top of Alexei's head. Alexei blinked up at her, before looking to Natalia in confusion and fear. He knew that he would have to leave Babushka Irina now; maybe he didn't know for how long, but he knew.

"Time to go with your mama, sweet one," Babushka Irina handed Alexei to Natalia. "Remember the love of this old woman; it was true."

"Thank you. Thank you so much."

"Go, go now Little Natalia to your Vanya."

"Babu," Alexei whimpered, even as he clung to Natalia.

"To your mama and papa, sweet one," the old woman leaned over and pressed a dry kiss to Natalia's cheek. "Now hurry; don't be a fool, Widow. Sentiment for others will lead to your downfall."

Natalia's eyes widened, but she did as she was told. She managed to holster her derringer, cradling her son protectively to her chest; before she raced out of the warmth of the only home her child would ever know, and out into the world covered in blood and despair.

The collection of individuals had dispersed a bit; the man who Natalia had taken care of had been dragged away. That didn't mean she was safe, though. The men had probably gone for their weapons. Only several bullet holes would stop her now. And even then she might push herself onward.

With a quick and final look behind her, she started to run again. Her eyes darted from one shack to the next, and heard a building commotion inside at least two. That wasn't a good sign; she needed to get back to the helicopter immediately.

Alexei let out long-winded cry, although there was little she could do to comfort him at the moment. Soon they would be safe; they would have a moment to breathe. Until then, Natalia had to pump her legs faster and adapt to the added weight she was now carrying.

Just as she stepped out of the clearing, the sound of many men's screams erupted behind her. She gritted her teeth, relying heavily on her adrenaline to get her through this. She pushed herself as hard as she could; the ache of her head was temporarily gone, and even the burn of her lungs was only a distant irritant. The only thing that mattered was the crying child in her arms.

The last few yards seemed to spread infinitely in front of her. She heard the oncoming mob and the clink and boom of gunfire. She hunched her shoulders in an attempt to become the barrier between any wayward bullets and her child, and that's when she saw the welcomed sight of the helicopter.

Vanya stood outside it with his Vz G1 Skorpion at the ready. Fluidly as always, he crossed the distance between them and shoved her towards the helicopter; before he fired off several rounds. She staggered forward, almost losing her footing as Alexei shrieked loud enough to make her ears ring.

"You know how to fly." Vanya called out to her.

She knew he didn't expect an answer, so she hurried to climb inside the helicopter. She rushed directly to the cockpit and put Alexei down on the copilot seat, and expertly belted him in; even with his squirming and screaming.

"Единственная и неповторимая, trust your mama." Natalia said breathlessly, as she dropped into the pilot's seat and flicked on switches, and slapped on buttons.

Within seconds the engine roared to life, which only made Alexei wail again. She reached out then to grab his hand and squeezed it gently. They were going to make it out of the country; she knew it now. It was up to Vanya to come back to them and they would leave. They were going to get away; the KGB would never get their hands on their child.

The slice of the helicopter's blades blocked out the noise of the gunfight outside, but instinctively she knew it was still taking place. She hoped that Vanya would eliminate the threat soon. They didn't have any time to waste; they were already running on borrowed time. Their head start wouldn't last forever.

Thankfully, Vanya did appear soon thereafter inside the helicopter. His eyes were wild and he let out a yell, although his words were drowned out by the other sounds around them. She knew what he wanted, though. She quickly started to take off, and brought the helicopter several feet off the ground.

"This is the last time, Widow." Vanya yelled.

"What are you talking about?"

"I have a plan."

"You are not staying here!" Natalia turned slightly to look back at him.

The door to the helicopter was open still, and Vanya was hanging halfway out with a grenade in hand. He looked back at her with an expression she had never seen on his face before. He looked amused, as if this whole thing was a big joke.

"You're smarter than that, Natalia. I could never go with you."

"Vanya," she almost lost her semblance of control. "I can't do this on my own! Don't you dare make me do this on my own!"

"You already have." He retorted, although the amusement had faded away back into nothing.

Dangerously, he reached down with the hand cradling the grenade, and unsheathed a knife. He tossed it to the floor of the helicopter, before his eyes returned to hers. She knew there was no way she could change his mind. She had been naïve and stupid to believe he would come with her and their son. Of course, he wouldn't. That wasn't in his nature.

"Please,"

"That is for him; a memento."

"His name is Alexei. Your son's name is Alexei."

"Raise him to be strong." Vanya finally glanced towards the copilot seat, although he probably couldn't see their wailing son at that angle.

"Vanya-"

"Natalia," he said only to leap out the helicopter a second later, but from what she could ascertain; he was clinging to the door, and probably relying on the helicopter's landing skids to keep his footing.

Even though she was desperate to see what he was about to do, Natalia had to focus on flying the helicopter. She could guess on his actions, however. Once she heard the door slam shut, she envisioned him dropping to hold onto the landing skids, and throwing the grenade.

The boom that followed moments after that initial thought was enough of a confirmation. And she knew he would drop off somewhere, regardless of the ascension. He would survive somehow; he had fallen from greater heights in the past, and while he had been injured, he had a recovery rate that was to be envied. He would be fine.

There was no doubt in Natalia's mind that Vanya was already gone now. He had left her alone in this world. She had figured she would be alone to take their son out of the country, but for one delusional moment she had thought he would stay. She had hoped he would stay.

It was only later on when they crossed into Hungary that she realized she had started to cry; a falsetto that matched her son's perfectly. Their great escape had been a success.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirteen :: The Farm

 


 

 

The Hungarian countryside spread out as far as the eye could see. Collections of homey cottages were nestled in the hills, and thick and lush greenery accented the territory. Natalia stared disenchanted and dry-eyed at this new country, and looking for some place to finally land the Kamov Ka-60.

She wanted to avoid high-traffic areas for the moment. Because she was in desperate need of some rest, and a safe spot to take care of her child that had soiled himself during the traumatic escape that they had only executed hours ago.

Pain and exhaustion enveloped Natalia like a wet blanket. Her temple had adopted a dull ache, and her eyes had grown heavy more times than she would like to admit to. But now it was unavoidable, and she needed to take care of Alexei properly. She had already neglected her motherly duties in order to fly them to safety, and she couldn't continue it any longer.

Aimlessly she flew, hoping to find a spot that spoke to her. She had a talent for finding places to hide, and she would find one again. She only hoped it would be sooner than later. She couldn't continue sleep deprived and concussed; that would only lead to an early grave.

"My beautiful boy," Natalia glanced to her son, whose eyes were droopy and red from crying. "Mama will make everything better, I promise you. We'll clean you up, feed you, and put you to bed."

Now that the promised was made, it was imperative that she find some place to land as soon as she could. But she was also fully aware of the fact that it would be difficult to hide a Russian military helicopter somewhere. So she needed to get rid of it immediately, and maybe make a profit from it too.

The bank accounts she had taken out under a pseudonym were currently unavailable to her. Her contacts would need additional payments to resend any and all forged identification. Which meant her only source of income was the very helicopter that she was flying; and she knew there had to be someone on the black market who'd pay a pretty penny for it. It was only a matter of when the transaction would transpire rather than if it would.

At the moment though, Natalia needed a safe, mostly abandon, place to land and hide the helicopter while also dealing with a three year old child. She needed to find a working phone, in order to call one of her contacts. And the transaction needed to be made within hours; that way she could try and grab the threads of her swiftly unraveling plans.

Scouring the next thirty miles or so soon brought what looked to be an abandoned barn into view. Even from this height, Natalia noticed the discoloration of the structure that stood sentry in front of a small but wild collection of trees and shrubbery.

Several yards away from the barn was a house that looked equally abandoned. There was even a rusty old single-cab truck that she might be capable of fixing if she had the opportunity to do so with Alexei now relying entirely on her. She didn't know how she was going to manage under such strenuous circumstances. It would have been so much easier if Vanya was here to do most of the dirty work.

That appeared to be the only suitable place to land. It would have been both irresponsible and neglectful (more so than she already was anyway) of her to continue her search. Her child needed to be cleaned and fed now, and being concussed was only putting them in peril.

With that in mind, Natalia started to make an easy descent. She maneuvered the helicopter lower and heard Alexei let out a soft cry. She murmured a reassurance his way, while lining up just above the space in between the trees and the elderly barn.

Methodically, she started to bring the helicopter down. She cleared the landing without any trouble, although she really hadn't expected any regardless of her current physical state. And within minutes she had touched down completely, before she flipped a few switches and the blades overhead decelerated and came to a whirling halt.

The silence that followed was peaceful. Natalia leaned back in the pilot's seat, and sighed in some semblance of relief. She hadn't realized how tense she was until then; in fact, she had tried hard to focus on the present and nothing more, especially when she had cried on the verge of hysterics only several hours beforehand.

Emotional distress wasn't something she could fall into again. Now she needed to leap into action and make things happen. She needed to use all her training to her advantage. Because this was like any other mission, except for the fact that this one was to save her and her son's lives. So it was far more important in comparison to data recovery.

"Will you be a good boy for me?" She turned to look at her son, whose face was puffy and dirty with tears and mucus. "Will you stay here for a minute while I look around? I'll be right back."

Something told Natalia it would be impossible to reason with a three year old. But to her surprise, he bobbed his head wearily and almost bordering on being dejected. The poor thing had been traumatized beyond belief, and she was single-handedly to blame for that. It was almost enough to make her lose her composure again.

Even with the realization she was an awful mother at the forefront of her mind; Natalia still unbuckled herself and leaned across the way to the copilot's seat. She pressed a gentle kiss to the top of her son's head, before she opened the door to let herself out into the late morning's heat.

With a final lingering look at Alexei, she climbed out of the helicopter and dropped down onto the soft earth. She leaned up to secure the door closed, and then took possession of her handgun. She staggered a bit with her first few steps, but soon regained her equilibrium enough to scout the immediate area.

The group of trees on one side of the helicopter proved to be filled with small apples. Many shriveled ones had fallen from the branches, which seemed to suggest that no one tended to them recently. The barn looked in even worse disarray than from above; it had clearly been neglected and left to the elements.

Flecks of red paint adorned the rotten and water damaged wood, although the bones of the barn seemed to be sturdy in spite of its rundown appearance. Natalia brushed her shoulder against the sun-warmed building, as she slowly advanced around the corner. That's when she heard the snorts and squeals of a pen of large hogs.

How she hadn't seen the pen from her bird's eye view was beyond her. But there it stood only a yard away with the swollen bodies of hogs covered in a layer of thick, black mud. Her body tensed with the realization that this wasn't an abandoned farm at all; someone lived here still.

She clutched her derringer securely in her hands, and knew it was inevitable that the residents of the farm would have heard the sounds of a helicopter already. Hell, they could be calling the police to report that a Russian military grade helicopter had landed behind their barn.

Before she was given the opportunity to choose her next move, the shrill sound of rusted hinges split across the property. The house that stood farther away was the cause for it. Someone pushed open the front door, and Natalia pressed into the barn's wall and into the shadows which kept her temporarily out of sight.

Her heart leapt to her throat, as her eyes locked on the person who walked out onto the wobbly old porch. It was man, closer to elderly than young. He didn't look feeble though; his face was severe, sunburnt, and wrinkled. His shoulders were hunched forward, and he walked with an air of annoyance and hatred.

Natalia studied him closely. His hands were big and rough with manual labor, and free of any kind of wedding band. His whole demeanor appeared to speak of his inability to get along with people, in which case meant that he probably lived a solitary existence. Or at least she hoped that ended up being the reality of the situation.

When he dismounted the steps that led to the house, the old man with gray and white clipped hair moved towards the direction of the barn. Natalia knew what she had to do, and honestly she hadn't any qualms about it. There were too many deaths on her conscience; one more wouldn't keep her up at night. Plenty of things did do that, but it never involved the people that she had killed.

She waited as he drew closer, only a few feet away. That's when she made her move; she slipped out of the shadows, which caused the old man to halt. His face went from surprised to enraged within a split-second; his mouth opened, ready to shout at her but she made sure he didn't get the opportunity to. She pulled the derringer's trigger and watched dispassionately as it hit its mark.

It was a head shot; right between the eyes. The bullet appeared to have lodged inside in the old man's skull because there wasn't a ridiculous amount of blood spatter. But it did do its job; the man was dead before he even hit the ground.

With that done, Natalia hurried towards the house to see if anyone else was inside. She mounted the steps, crossed over the porch, before she pulled open the old screen door, and slipped into the sparsely furnished front room.

The house consisted of a sitting room with a threadbare sofa that must have been purchased in the sixties or seventies. There were newer pieces of furniture but of low quality; the television looked to be a recent purchase, although it lacked any substantial size.

Down a hallway, she found a room that served as an office, and a kitchen that was clean but outdated. The floor was tiled in black and white, and the kitchen table resembled something that would have been found in a diner with turquoise upholstered seats. The old man's half-eaten breakfast was on the tabletop, but there wasn't any sign that someone else had been joining him.

That discovery didn't curb Natalia's paranoia any. She retraced her steps, before taking the stairs that were pushed back into the wall of the sitting room. Upstairs was equally abandoned; there were two bedrooms and a bathroom equipped with a claw foot tub.

Now certain that the old man lived alone, she headed downstairs once more and out of the house. She knew what needed to happen to the body, and hopefully it would work as she hoped it would. It would be far easier than digging a grave or setting a fire; it would also be better than letting it rot inside the barn.

Holstering her handgun, she walked down the porch steps and towards the body. The body didn't look especially heavy, which meant she could probably lift it. She had to dispose of bodies before, and while dead weight was a pain to deal with; she had had enough experience with it to know what she was in store for.

She crouched beside the body, and hooked her hands underneath its arms. As to be expected, the lack of mobility made the body harder to maneuver. She managed though; she straightened slightly and started to drag the old man across the yard and towards the pig pen. Hopefully, they had an appetite because this was the only thing they were getting to eat for the foreseeable future.

Closing the distance completely, Natalia felt beads of sweat roll down the back of her neck. This wasn't an easy task at the best of times, but the heat wasn't doing her any favors either. She blew out a heavy breath, as she put all her strength into her following actions. She hoisted the body up higher, staggering as she did so, and with some difficulty she managed drape the body halfway over the side of the pen. She then grabbed the body by both legs and flipped it into the mud with a wet plop.

The sound drew the hogs towards the dead body, and that's when Natalia turned and sprinted back to the helicopter. She would check on the outcome later, but for now she had a child to take care of and that was now her sole focus. Her son needed her now more than ever before.

She made it back to the helicopter without incident, and scaled the side to open the door. The smell of urine was pungent in the cabin, and Alexei was sniffling fearfully while still wrapped in Babushka Irina's quilt. Natalia's heart threatened to break in half from the sight.

"I'm here, Единственная и неповторимая." Natalia leaned across the way and unbuckled Alexei, before she hoisted him easily into her arms. He clung to her and buried his dirty face against her neck, as she managed to climb out of the helicopter without too much difficulty; even though it left her feeling dizzy and unbalanced for a moment afterwards.

Once she shut the helicopter's door, she held his head to her neck as they started across the farm. She doubted that he would see the feast the huge pigs were having, but it was better safe than sorry. Her poor child had already witnessed enough to leave him scarred for life.

They fled from the ever-growing heat into the house. Natalia carried Alexei upstairs right away, and stepped into the bathroom. She unwound the quilt from around him, and let it drop to the floor; before she set her son onto the vanity to undress him.

His pajamas were wet from his former accident, and she vaguely recalled that the old man had a washing machine in the kitchen downstairs. For now, Alexei would have to make do with his sleep things until she could buy him something new. She doubted he would mind, though.

Soon enough, she had Alexei in the bath with a newly washed face. He splashed around a bit, but was more than compliant about letting her clean him from head to toe; washing away the stench of fear from his skin. Natalia had never given him a bath beyond his first few days, so it was new but successful experience.

The bath was brief, and when she took her son out of the water; she quickly wrapped him up in the towels that she found underneath the vanity. Afterwards, she carried Alexei downstairs along with the dirty quilt and pajamas into the kitchen. She sat Alexei on the kitchen table, before locating the laundry detergent and throwing the soiled items into the machine.

When that was finished, she went to task on making something to eat for the two of them. She found several eggs and some sausage, which she fried together on the stove. She wasn't that experienced in the kitchen, but she managed to throw together a manageable meal that her son was willing to eat, alongside with a cup of cold milk for the two of them.

As Alexei sat on the table and ate, Natalia was pleased to find a telephone mounted on the wall and forwent her own breakfast for the moment, in order to make the phone call she desperately needed to. She kept an eye on her son, as she used the rotary dial to enter her contact's phone number.

Pressing the receiver to her ear, she listened to the loud thrum on the other end which awakened her headache once more. She waited and waited, four and a half rings; before the person on the other end answered.

"Hello,"

"It's me." She said lowly, as if the kitchen was bugged.

"Yeah,"

"I have a Kamov-Ka 60, painted black, in my possession. I'm outside Budapest." She recalled the coordinates before she landed and recited them. "Behind an old barn; it's yours so long as I get what it is worth."

There was a long pause on the other end, and Natalia wondered if the connection had somehow been severed. Suspiciously, she looked around the kitchen but nothing appeared to be amiss.

"You'll meet me tonight, nine o'clock sharp; and you'll take me to the helicopter. I don't really trust you." Her contact finally replied, and gave her the meeting point before the line did go dead this time around.

Natalia shut her eyes for a beat, before setting the receiver back into its cradle. So she had to meet her contact face-to-face; this had the possibility of turning dangerous and ugly very quickly. Worst of all, she would have to take her son with her. That was exactly what she wanted to avoid, and now she was throwing her child head-first into the grimy, ugly world she had always known. And she couldn't help but curse Vanya for it.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fourteen :: Budapest

 


 

The old truck proved to be fully operational, after all. Natalia discovered as much once she finished her motherly duties several hours into her stay at the farm. After she had created a cozy nest of blankets on pillows on the sitting room's floor for Alexei to nap on, she had gone outside to check on the hogs' progress and to make sure she had transportation to the city come nightfall.

The hogs had done a decent job on body disposal, in the very least. Hopefully she'd be thousands of miles away before anyone thought to check on the old man. She expected to be gone by morning, and she suspected she'd have enough money to fund her way to London and overseas by that time too. She was confident that someone on the black market would want the helicopter currently in her possession.

Calmly, she pulled the keys out of ignition and killed the engine. The fuel tank was almost entirely full, which meant she wouldn't have to stop unnecessarily and draw any attention to herself. It would be easier to blend into the shadows when night came. She had to have confidence in the fact that she would get away with this somehow; it was the only shred of hope that she had left.

She climbed out of the truck, and closed the door with a little more force than it needed; before she went back into the house. The interior was stuffy and unpleasant, and she temporarily thought of stripping off her cat suit and taking a cold shower. But that wasn't a necessity at the moment; she needed to keep an eye on her son, who was sprawled out on the floor, clutching an end of Babushka Irina's quilt in a tiny fist.

In between breakfast and trying to entertain Alexei with a model airplane Natalia had found in the old man's office, they had had a conversation about Babushka Irina. Alexei wanted to know when they would see her again. He hadn't shown any interest in either Marta or her two children, but he wanted Babushka Irina and wanted her to live with them.

Natalia hadn't had the heart to tell him the reality of the situation. He was three years old; he wouldn't understand that they could never go back to their home country. He wouldn't understand why his father was a distant memory as well; although they hadn't worked up to that part of the situation just yet. She knew it would come around eventually. Children were inquisitive creatures.

With a lingering look at her son, Natalia moved away and headed up the stairs for a quick retrieval mission. She knew she couldn't be seen walking around, even at night, in the attire she was currently wearing. It would draw suspicion, so she needed to find something to throw over it for the time being.

Nothing of the old man's was bound to fit; he hadn't had a slight form, and even the smallest of men wouldn't have matched her body type at all. She could make do with a button-down shirt to cover the topmost part of her cat suit; even if the thought of an extra layer made her break out in perspiration even more than she already was.

It was close to dusk at least. The temperature would drop, which would provide her with the slightest of reprieves. But she had lived with greater discomforts; she could live with sticky skin and dirty hair and an achy head. She couldn't live with putting her son in any immediate danger, though.

Once she found herself on the second floor, Natalia went into the old man's bedroom. The space was tidy as every nook and cranny in the house was. The double bed was made up with a sky blue duvet; the pillows had been taken downstairs for Alexei to use earlier on. They had been perfectly fluffed and smelled clean, which seemed to draw her son's attention almost immediately.

Alexei had curled around one of the pillows, and had fallen asleep within minutes of being presented with her find. At least he appeared to be easy to please; Natalia knew that her son hadn't had any kind luxury by any extent of the word, so small pleasures seemed to be enough for him. And that would definitely be a benefit within the coming weeks, since she suspected they wouldn't be living richly for some time if at all.

Walking up to the wardrobe on the opposite wall of the bed, she opened the doors and eyed the selection inside. It didn't really matter which button-down she chose, but she still studied each shirt until she decided on an argyle red, white, and green one. She pulled it off the hangar, before she shut the doors again, and headed downstairs.

The shadows had begun to grow in the room, and she knew it would soon be time for them to leave. Budapest was almost two hours away, and she imagined it would take a while yet to locate the rendezvous point where she would meet one of her faceless contacts at long last.

She didn't like it at all. She liked it even less that she had to do this with her son in her care. Things couldn't possibly go the way she had diligently planned for. Then again, she supposed she should be grateful that she'd gotten out of the country when she still did.

Vanya could have prevented her from leaving. He could have killed her and killed their son too. But he had chosen to save them both. He had made a great sacrifice for them, and while Natalia had inwardly cursed him for not coming with them; she knew that he had unfinished business to deal with.

There was a great possibility that Vanya had gone to erase any medical records that Koltsova had about Natalia's pregnancy. It seemed likely considering he had let them leave unscathed. What would have been the point if he allowed the KGB to eventually discover Alexei's existence? So he must have stayed behind for that. Or she wanted to believe that anyway. It was easier to stomach the abandonment she was feeling.

Natalia frowned while sitting down on the sofa. She left the button-down on her lap, and stared down at her son. He looked painfully like Vanya; she had tried to find any trace of herself in him but to no avail. He was his father's son, and it was only by the luck of the draw that Koltsova had never gone to check on Alexei after his birth. Because if she had, she wouldn't have hesitated to run to Lukin; she would have gladly sold them both up the river.

Koltsova was a problem of the past; she had to remember that. She was dead now and suffered some as well, even if it wasn't enough to satiate Natalia completely. But at least she was dead; she couldn't hurt her or Alexei anymore. Vanya made sure of that.

Her thoughts twisted and turned for quite some time, after that repeated commentary in her head. By the time Natalia came back to herself, the inside of the house had started to darken quite a bit and the clock on the wall read six-twenty three. She shook her head free of the clutter she'd been reflecting on, before she got to her feet, and shouldered on the button-down. She closed the shirt, effectively hiding the top part of her cat suit and inserted the truck keys into the breast pocket.

The button-down hung loosely on her frame, but it was the best she could do with her current resources. Its length proved to have its benefits, however; it hid the series of knives and her derringer strapped to her thighs, and she wasn't about to take those off anytime soon.

Slowly, she crouched down beside her sleeping child and eased him awake with several soft words and a gentle touch. Alexei came to with a yawn and a stretch of his small arms every which way. He blinked a few times, and didn't fight Natalia as she wrapped him up in Babushka Irina's quilt like the night before.

"We're going for a drive, my sweet boy." She murmured as she hoisted him into her arms and stood back up; she then headed outside, and managed to maneuver both doors shut without locking them. There wasn't anything of value in the house; there wasn't any money to be found. She already looked.

The air had cooled a bit, and Natalia couldn't help but sigh in some relief. Soon she would have airy clothes and a cool room to sleep in. Until then though, she had to keep her wits about her and remain on her toes. Sleep deprivation wouldn't cloud her judgment; the Red Room had kept her up for days at a time during her training. She could do this; there wasn't any way around it.

She carried Alexei to the truck and opened the passenger side door. She set him down on the seat, and wasn't surprised that he had fallen asleep again. Luckily for her, the truck was of an older model and the seat belts only looped around the passengers' waists. So she secured one around his prone form without too much trouble, before she shut the door, and went around the truck to get in herself.

Within minutes, Natalia had strapped herself into the driver's seat and was headed out of the farm and onto the old dirt road. The drive wasn't a smooth one by any stretch of the imagination. The cab rattled and clattered with every bump in the road, but Alexei proved to be a deep sleeper unlike either her or Vanya had ever been. Or maybe the excitement of the past day was enough to lull him into an unshakable sleep; either way it was a good thing.

As she drove, she decided to roll down the window halfway to get some much needed fresh and cool air. It felt like heaven on her sweat soaked brow. Her hair had been stuck to her neck for most of the day, and she was desperate for a bath. She hated to feel dirty. When she had very little control of things, in the very least the Red Room would let her clean herself whenever she wanted. And the filth accumulating on her body was revolting to her.

"Soon," she reassured herself and had to believe it; she needed to believe there was light at the end of the tunnel.

The drive to Budapest seemed to stretch on endlessly ahead of Natalia. The roads eventually turned to paved ones, and the scenery became less sparse and far more populated. Clusters of homes and businesses popped up along the way, and other vehicles soon whizzed past the truck to whatever destination they had in mind.

The appearance of other people did very little for Natalia's already frayed nerves. She knew she was coming within city limits after so long. But it seemed like less of a good thing as she drove nearer to Budapest. Something didn't feel right; her intuition was telling her as much, and yet she knew this was the only way she'd survive another day. She needed to have faith in her contact; she had relied on him before with good results, after all.

Reaching across the seat, Natalia touched Alexei's sweaty hair. He was still asleep, which was for the best. She didn't know if he would stay that way, though. It would be ideal if he slept through the whole transaction between her and her contact. But she highly doubted that things would work in her favor. Something had to give. It felt like something was about to go very wrong.

Her contact, as far she knew, hadn't any association with the Red Room. She had come across a variety of people during her missions; some proved to be quite handy and put her in touch with men and women who worked on the black market. Several connections removed was how she met this particular man; his name was unknown to her but so was hers to him. And they had been doing business with one another close to year without any unpleasantness.

There wasn't any reason to think their arrangement would go sour now. If he wanted the helicopter, he was welcome to it. If he didn't then he could help find a buyer for it or he could wipe his hands clean of this situation. Either way it wouldn't do him any harm, and he wouldn't have to do any harm to her. It was a simple transaction, really.

Soon enough, the sparkling lights of the city came into full view as she drove down the congested freeway. She crossed onto the very edge of Budapest and into the bustle of traffic that awaited her. The freeway had been busy, but it was worse within city limits even at this hour. It wasn't a shock really. People were bound to want to drink away their daily sorrows or prowl the streets in hope of other reliefs. It was human nature, after all.

It took well over an hour for her to find her way through the city to the designated rendezvous point. Her contact had insisted on meeting at a dock on the fringe of the city. At nine o'clock at night she supposed it would give them some kind of privacy to make their deal.

About a block away from the dock, Natalia pulled the truck to an available spot against a curb. There wasn't much activity on this particular street; the buildings were dark and were probably only operational during business hours. She studied her surroundings as she shut off the engine, and pocketed the keys in the breast pocket of the button-down again. It looked safe enough, but appearances were frequently deceiving.

Even with that in mind, she unbuckled her seatbelt, and moved to do the same with her son's. The quilt had loosened around his body enough for she could take it away from him without waking him up. When she had taken possession of the quilt, she climbed out of the truck, and locked the driver's side door. She spied the street again, before she walked around to the passenger side. But not before she expertly knotted the edges of the quilt together in order to create a sling.

She slipped the quilt diagonally across her body, and then opened the passenger door to put her son in the makeshift sling. He whined a bit as she maneuvered him into it, until he eventually ended up burying his face between her breasts with a muffled and defeated cry.

"It's okay, Единственная и неповторимая. Mama is here." Natalia shut the door, and wrapped her arms around him as an extra precaution. She had faith that the knot was secure enough to keep the quilt around her, but sheer motherly paranoia had her keeping him in place all the same.

Alexei's fussiness lasted for several minutes. He cried and squirmed a bit, before he finally settled down and presumably fell back into a somewhat restful sleep. Natalia rubbed his back, and hoped beyond all hopes that he would remain quiet for the coming meeting.

When she was certain her son wouldn't cry anymore, Natalia crossed the street and headed for the dock. She moved soundlessly and found her way into each and every shadow. It was by some miracle that she didn't cross paths with anyone else.

The scent of water wafted its way to her nostrils within minutes, and she found herself beside the abandoned and poorly lit meeting spot. There were boats of all varieties on the water; some were dark and abandoned, while others were lit up beautifully and jovially and filled with people.

In the distance, there were plenty of buildings lit up too. Natalia didn't see anyone in the immediate vicinity, though. It was likely that she had come a bit too early; there wasn't a clock anywhere in the truck. Or maybe she had come later than promised, which didn't bode well with her at all. She had a reputation to uphold. Or at least for the time being she did. Soon enough her reputation as the Black Widow wouldn't matter anymore.

Minutes ticked away without any contact still. Natalia paced while absently patting her son's back. She wondered if her contact had gotten cold feet, and decided in the end that he would rather keep his anonymity than try to buy a Kamov Ka-60 from her. Maybe they weren't in demand like she initially believed them to be. Maybe Russian technology wasn't as advanced, even within the KGB's grasp, as the rest of the world's. It was possible, of course; the Russian government hadn't had any ties to Stark Industries or any similar company.

"Drop it." A voice suddenly demanded from behind her.

Natalia came to an abrupt halt. She hadn't heard a thing. She usually would have heard someone approach, but maybe her sleep deprived, no less concussed, brain had betrayed her. And that made her annoyance flare up; not only because of the man behind her, but mostly at herself. She should have been at full attention.

"Drop whatever you've got strapped to you. Don't make this difficult; drop it and we'll be golden."

"Set-up," she said to no one in particular, and felt her heart begin to thrum harder in her chest. She had to find a way out of this, but running wasn't an option. She didn't know if the person behind her had a weapon or not. He more than likely did, though.

Deliberately slow and controlled, Natalia slipped one hand away from her son's prone form and tried to reach for her handgun. If she could get one good shot off then she might stand a chance. If she didn't then her son could possibly be killed. Vanya didn't sacrifice himself for that to happen. She hadn't either. They both wanted their son to live.

"God, of course you were going to make this difficult." The man behind her groaned almost comically just as she ripped the derringer from its holster; unfortunately, she never got a chance to shoot at him. He proved to be faster than her, and probably was well rested on top of that.

The whoosh of an object cutting through the air met Natalia's ears, before she was struck by something in the shoulder. White-hot pain took her by surprise and she staggered forward unintentionally, dropping the derringer to the ground. She stumbled a few paces, and she used both hands now to cradle her son to her body. That's when the instinct to flee hit her like a freight train.

Without looking behind her, she started to run. The movement, unsurprisingly, jostled her son to the point when she distantly heard a cry. She tried to form some kind of reassurance, although she couldn't seem to think of anything to say. Her mind had drawn a blank; even her lips seemed unable to form any words.

"We got a runner; I repeat, we got a runner!" The man whooped. "Too bad for you sweetheart, you aren't getting very far!"

Unfortunately for Natalia, the prediction rang true. Despite her best efforts, she hadn't gone more than ten yards before her body started to feel sluggish. She felt like she was running through wet cement, and her legs did not want to respond to the desperation that was clawing like a cornered animal inside of her.

Her vision doubled and she stumbled again before she fell onto one of her knees on the hard ground, before the other followed suit almost immediately afterwards. She let out a pained cry from whatever penetrated her shoulder, although her hands remained firmly in place; unwilling to let anyone get to her son. She had to protect him; she had to.

Rushed footsteps sounded from behind her, and Natalia automatically draped herself over her son in her last attempt to keep him safe. She couldn't do much else in her rapidly deteriorating state, and she wished somehow some way that Vanya would save them. Vanya would know what to do; he always did. That's why he was Lukin's favorite.

"Drop it; don't make me say it again." The man said from above her.

"Hurt…don't…" she slurred weakly, and heard her son scream at the top of his lungs. "Don't..."

"Oh shit," the man muttered in obvious exasperation, but he sounded farther away than only moments ago. "Yo Bobbi, we have a problem here."

Natalia tried to keep herself upright; if she fell over then she would crush Alexei. But it was so hard to even keep her eyes open at this point. She was drugged. That much was clear now. The bastard had drugged her with whatever he shot her with.

"I am so not good with kids." The man, it must have been him, suddenly started to pull the quilt from around her head.

Soon Alexei was being taken away from her; his familiar weight and the sound of his cries were a million miles away now. She said his name (or maybe Vanya's), before she fell forward, and everything went terrifyingly black.

 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifteen :: A New Chapter Begins

 


 

 

The tendrils of sleep gradually ebbed away from Natalia's cotton-stuffed head. Her eyes cracked open only a fraction of an inch, before they closed again almost immediately due to the blinding light on the other end of her eyelids. But she didn't hesitate to try once more, and squinted against the fluorescent light that beat down onto her.

The Red Room had notoriously bad lighting; it was never this clean and crisp, instead it was yellowy and morose and gloomy. So at least she knew that the KGB hadn't gotten a hold of her of yet. However, it didn't mean she was in any way safe. Hell, she could be worse off than if she had been found by her former keepers.

It took some time before her eyes began to focus. As brilliantly bright as the lights were, the ceiling was equally so with its crisp white paint. There was a sterile smell to the vicinity, which led her to believe that she was in some kind of hospital or medical bay. Other than that though, she didn't know where she was.

Lifting her head, Natasha tried to ward away the vertigo that enveloped her. When it eventually subsided seconds later, she realized several things all at once. One being that her hands were restrained to the hospital bed that she was lying in, and the second that there was a lump of heat nestled on top of her.

She blinked several times, as she peered down, and recognized the small form curled against her chest. It was Alexei; her son was with her and unharmed. But she didn't understand how or even why. How had they gotten to this place unscathed?

"You're finally awake." Someone declared on the verge of being oddly casual. "I figured eighteen hours of sleep was more than enough, though."

Natalia craned her neck and caught sight of a dark-skinned man with an eyepatch on the other end of the room. He had a file spread out across his lap, and he was flipping through it as if he had read it more times than he could count. He didn't look intrigued by it; more than anything, he looked downright bored.

"Natalia Alianova Romanova," he announced. "Codename – Black Widow; the only girl who has graduated from the program in the last thirty years,"

The information hung heavily in the air. Somehow this man had gotten information on her; somehow he had infiltrated the KGB and stolen her personnel file. There wasn't any other way around it. Her codename was well-known, but her full name was not. If it had been, she wouldn't have been as valuable as she was to the KGB.

Warily, she stared at the man ahead of her. She was clearly at a disadvantage; she was tethered down and had her son on top of her. Not to mention, she still was experiencing the fogginess of whatever had taken her down in the first place. So there was little she could do besides take what this man had to give her.

"What? You should be proud." The man lifted an eyebrow.

"What do you want from me?"

"Now that's a tricky question, Widow."

"No, it really isn't." She bared her teeth; it seemed futile to try and be calm and collected right now.

The man shut the file without looking away from her. He had an aura of authority about him; Natalia suspected that men quivered in their boots when he stared them down. She wasn't a man, though. She had been bred to be unshakeable, even if the past few weeks had tested her greatly.

"I suppose you're right." He smiled thinly. "We've gotten quite a bit of intel on you and the KGB for the past few years. Sure, we didn't have as many specific details as I would have preferred. But it's better to have something instead of having nothing at all."

"So you had someone on the inside then."

"Until recently, yes. It was only several days ago we found out our informative was killed."

"Who was it?" Natalia couldn't help but ask out of sheer morbid curiosity.

The likely answer was undoubtedly Koltsova. She had proven herself a traitor already, so why wouldn't she sell the KGB's secrets to an outsider like the man across from her? He might have very well been supportive of the men who were in the midst of trying to bring down the current regime too.

The network of conspirators was broader and larger than anyone had suspected it would have been. Lukin probably hadn't even begun to unravel all the people involved in it. He probably had only focused his attention on the immediate threat, instead of the leader of the operation. It might have been the biggest misstep he could have taken.

"Well, you really can't kill a dead man." The man tapped the end of her file against his knee. "He was probably known to you as Dragomirov."

Natalia bit back a bark of laughter at the accusation. Dragomirov couldn't have been a double agent; he was one of Lukin's favorites. She had seen him kill men without any hesitation, and brutally so as well. He had been one of the KGB's finest agents; he was loyal to a fault.

Looks were obviously deceiving, however. Natalia hadn't suspected any disloyalty from Dragomirov; he had been obedient and a frequent comrade at the Winter Soldier's side. Which drew into question if Dragomirov had been funneling information about Vanya to this unknown organization and to the man with the eyepatch as well?

"You're surprised." The man said. "Well, that is what makes a good double agent – no one knows you're one."

"So you know everything."

"Not everything, but we know enough. We know that there's been a lot of political unrest in your country of late. None of it, unfortunately, of our own creation; but we'll be more than happy to take full advantage of it."

"What do you know then?" Natalia asked tersely, while pulling at her restraints.

The man looked thoughtful; he continued to tap the folder against his knee, an impulse that was maddening. Maybe that was the point of it, though. If she was on edge then she could easily fall victim to whatever ploy was up his sleeve.

"I do know about you. You've risen in the KGB's ranks ever since you've been given the title of Black Widow. I know you were six years old when you were introduced into the program. I know that it's highly peculiar that you would abandon the KGB during its darkest hour." The man ticked off. "I also know that you have a child, although that wasn't written in your file. So I guess your desertion isn't all that peculiar, after all."

Natalia shot him a sardonic smile. So he knew mostly clinical facts. Lukin had files on every single agent in the KGB; the only exception, from what she understood anyway, was Vanya. Or if he did have any paperwork on him, then it was a well hidden somewhere where the likes of Dragomirov would never be able to access it.

"Appearances are deceiving," she laughed, although she hadn't any confidence. "Women and children aren't always related."

"You know, I have a tendency to lean towards Latin based languages; Spanish, French, Portuguese, even a little Romanian. But the word mama has a tendency to cross all languages for the most part. So you can cut the bullshit." The man stood up, before tossing the file to his seat. "I have a proposition for you, and if you're smart enough to get away from the KGB and steal a Kamov Ka-60 on your way out, then I'd suspect you'd be smart enough to accept the deal I'm about to offer you."

Natalia felt her insides twist painfully. Of course, this man would know her greatest weakness. He seemed smarter than even Lukin was. And now he had the upper-hand, although he had had it from the very beginning.

He had captured her; she was cuffed to a hospital bed without any way to escape. He even let her son lie on top of her, as a reminder that he was the one in charge, and she hadn't any hope but to play into his hand.

"What do you want?"

"I shouldn't be so rude; my name is Nick Fury and I'm the director of the organization SHIELD. We're an international counter-terrorist agency. Our main goal is to keep this world safe, and you can help us do that Natalia Alianova Romanova." Nick Fury said as he sidled up beside her bed.

Once or twice Natalia had heard of SHIELD, but Lukin hadn't appeared very concerned with them. They seemed to work mostly in North and South America, far away from Eastern Europe. But maybe that wasn't a correct assessment because how else had they captured her?

"You want me to work for you." She said carefully. "Why is that?"

"You're the best in your field, aren't you? You have a cache of information that even our informant didn't have, which proves to me that you're worth a lot more alive than dead. Not to mention, you have something to protect and I'm willing to extend that protection to your son."

"How do I know that you aren't lying to me?"

"Well, you don't. You have my word and my word alone." Nick Fury shrugged. "I like to think I'm a man of my word. And unlike the Red Room, I don't have any desire to put your child into a super soldier program to fight for us once he comes of age."

There were so many reasons why Natalia shouldn't trust this Nick Fury or SHIELD. Men in power had a tendency to lie and scheme without a thought against it. They could manipulate the people around them with a snap of their fingers. And yet, Natalia believed she hadn't any choice but to confide in this man and take his word.

He didn't look earnest; he looked like a spy. He had a poker face and closed off body language. There wasn't anything trustworthy about him. But he might be her only hope at this point; this might be the only way that she could maintain her freedom or even stay alive.

"How did you capture me?" She asked instead of answering him; she wanted to give herself some more time, maybe to gauge his reactions better.

"One of our agents was working undercover. He happened to establish a connection with a man who connected him to you. Over the past year, he's been working with you. But when you mentioned having a military grade helicopter then we decided to make our move. Luckily, my agent happened to be in Bulgaria at the time of your call."

"He shot me."

"He did." Nick Fury agreed. "But he also made sure not to leave your son behind, even if the kid doesn't seem to like men very much."

"He wasn't raised with men." Natalia looked down at her son; he had been changed into something besides his stained pajamas. "You looked after him?"

Nick Fury smiled a small but genuine smile then. For that brief interlude, she knew almost instinctively that maybe he wasn't trying to double-cross her. Maybe he was sincere about his claims that he didn't want Alexei as a recruit for SHIELD, and that he wasn't about to hand them over to Lukin to deal with.

"Not personally, no. Agent Morse kept an eye on him; she has a way about her with kids. Barton not so much,"

"So if I agree to your terms, you will keep my son safe?"

"I promise you that."

"I don't want him mentioned on any report or personnel file. His existence will stay between you, me, this Agent Morse, and Barton. That's non-negotiable. If I don't have your word then we do not have a deal." She declared, even though a wave of fear washed over her almost immediately afterwards.

Nick Fury shook his head, although it wasn't in a dismissive way. Natalia could read people fairly well, and while Fury was difficult; she could see his shoulders loosen a tad and his movements become more relaxed as he walked away from her bedside.

"You drive a hard bargain, Romanova. Nevertheless it's a pretty fair one; your son stays off the records." He called back to her, while he made his way to the door tucked away in the corner. "I'll have someone around to take off those cuffs in a bit."

Natalia watched him go, although he stopped right as the door glided open with a soft whooshing sound. He turned and regarded her with an unreadable look, and for some reason she wasn't as worried about his poker face as she had been only moments before; not after she saw his smile.

"Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Romanova. Trust me, you won't regret it." He said, before he slipped out the door without another word.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Sixteen :: Counter Operations

 


 

 

Lukin had been captured, tortured, and killed. Natalia learned of this information in the middle of a mission for SHIELD. She had been scrolling endlessly through Tony Stark's personal files when her phone pinged from an unknown number.

'Lukin dead; KGB officially collapsed.'

There hadn't been any pleasure in that proclamation. She had had heard very little in terms of the KGB's movements once she had been taken in by Fury. Undoubtedly, her betrayal had spread far and wide in her former circles. It had been impossible to get in touch with any of her past contacts that hadn't been set in place by SHIELD.

She didn't know what had become of anyone that she formerly knew. She hadn't heard a word about Vanya, although she honestly hadn't expected to. Even SHIELD had only heard of the Winter Soldier, but hadn't any solid proof of his existence. And she hadn't provided any information that she had had.

Fury had asked before. He had interrogated her pretty frequently during her first few days with SHIELD. She had given him almost everything he wanted to know. But she was vague at best when it came to the rumors of the Winter Soldier. She had feigned stupid, and she suspected Fury knew she was intentionally doing so.

He could read her unlike anyone else could. Not even Vanya had been that finely in-tune with her; then again he hadn't really been a spy either. He had been a killer; his entire basis of living was to kill. Fury, on the other hand, had espionage running through his veins. He knew people's tells even if they tried their hardest to cover them up.

It had taken several moments for Natalia to fully absorb the message's connotations; it hadn't been sentimentality, though. Lukin meant very little to her while alive; he meant even less to her in death. But there was a finality to that chapter of her life with that information; the life she had known for so many years.

Even while being in service to SHIELD for close to three years at that point, Natalia had been tethered to the past. She had worried daily that she would somehow be taken in by Lukin, regardless of being under Fury's protection; no less officially changing her name from Natalia Alianova Romanova to Natasha Romanoff.

That threat had officially ended, however; it died along with Lukin. She should have been relieved of the burden; it should have given her the opportunity to breathe a little easier. But Natalia had never been the type to rest on her laurels; that would have only led her to getting herself killed in the end.

So she had read the message for what it was – the end of one chapter and the official beginning of another. Other than that, she hadn't had the opportunity to dwell on it much. After all, she had been on an undercover operation to infiltrate Stark Industries and get close to the flamboyant Tony Stark, billionaire turned superhero.

Once the dust had settled with that particular mission and Ivan Vanko had been killed; Natalia had reported back to Fury of her findings about Stark and his candidacy for the Avengers Initiative that was in the early phases of creation. She hadn't had much information on why the initiative was important beyond a clipped explanation via Barton, who'd been in New Mexico during her tenor with Stark.

Soon enough though, she had become the wiser. Fury had begun to trust her, and in exchange she too began to trust him. Because Fury had kept his word to her; he had done everything within his power to keep her child a secret from everyone besides Barton and Morse. Not even Hill, Fury's second in command, had any knowledge of Alexei's existence.

That had solidified her loyalty to Fury and by proxy to SHIELD. Natalia had even been given an apartment in Washington D. C. where she spent much of her time if she wasn't actively on duty. Alexei had a caregiver formerly of SHIELD, who'd been tripled check personally by Fury to ensure that she wouldn't betray them. And that's how they lived their lives now, which proved to be an adjustment to say the least.

Unsurprisingly, Alexei had had a terrible time adjusting to the changes. He had cried nightly for Babushka Irina and he had wanted to go home. He had taken to asking endlessly about Vanya too, which only led to further inconsolable tears.

Natalia had had a hard time of it as well. Not only had her loyalties been upturned, but she also had to get used to the idea of being a very present mother. It had been a challenge; it had been horribly difficult, but in the end it had all been worth it. They had made it work for the best.

Even with the unbelievable otherworldly attack by an alien army helmed by a golden horned god; the inclusion of Dr. Bruce Banner into the Avengers Initiative, who had the unfortunate (or possibly fortunate) ability to shift into an angry green monster, and the revival of an old wartime hero; things had been far better than they had been when Natalia had been with the Red Room. Her life had vastly improved, and her son was beginning to thrive within the American way of life.

They had made it, even if there were active threats on their doorstep at any given time. Natalia had managed, with Fury's help of course, to keep the danger away from Alexei. He had been given the opportunity to live like any other little boy, far removed from the life of espionage that Natalia still lived every day; but on a far smaller scale than before.

Hence why she hadn't been on many missions of late beside the one involving the Lemurian Star; which should have been fairly clean cut, had she'd not been paired with Captain Righteous. But things hadn't worked out as flawlessly as they should have; she took the blame for that, even if she was working under Fury's instructions.

That didn't mean she felt any better with Steve angry with her. Even her light ribbing about finding him a date didn't break his bad mood. So they flew in mostly silence, beyond the murmurs of the STRIKE team who helped secure the Lemurian Star but were unable to take Georges Batroc into custody.

"Listen, I'm sorry." Natalia murmured to the hulking red, white, and blue figure beside her. "Things aren't always going to go the right way."

"You jeopardized the entire mission, Romanoff." Steve barked back harshly. "What's the point of being on a team if we have different agendas?"

There wasn't any real argument Natalia could use to bring Steve onto her side. He had a point in a way. She understood where he was coming from, but he also was completely oblivious to the world that she came from. Double duty wasn't exactly an unheard of practice; in fact, she probably wouldn't have been assigned to the mission had it not been for the data retrieval.

"I can't trust you. I figured with our past experiences that we'd have a better understanding of one another. I guess I was wrong." Steve lamented, before he turned a distrustful look in her direction. "People could have died."

"I understand your righteousness, but everything was mostly under control."

"Mostly under control," he repeated with a sneer. "I was too busy trying to find you than keeping an eye on my surroundings. Batroc got away; we're lucky none of the hostages were killed."

"I take the blame for that. I doubt it makes you feel any better, though."

"It doesn't have anything to do with my feelings, Natasha. We're talking about people's lives."

"And like you said before – no one was killed." Natalia tried to sound light-hearted, but that did very little to make Steve any happier.

It was apparent that they would have to agree to disagree. Because neither of them were about to change the other's mind, and while Natasha understood Steve's perspective in things; she also knew he should be happy that everyone came out alive. Batroc might have fled, but she believed he would be tracked down in due time.

There were only so many places a modern day pirate could go, and SHIELD had worldwide access to every inch of civilized society. Batroc would be found. She didn't say that, though; it seemed counterproductive with how openly Steve was sulking.

She didn't take it personally. Steve's real problem was with Fury, and something told her that he would have some words for the director once they landed. But before then, she had to pass along the information she'd recovered, and then slip away to fulfill her motherly duties.

At that point, Natalia had been away from the KGB for almost seven years. Alexei would be ten come December, which was seemed unreal at times. Especially since now he had an independence that allowed him to be alone without a constant sitter, although Natalia didn't recommend it.

She leaned back against the interior of the quinjet, and closed her eyes in exhaustion. One of the most unsettling things about her son now was that he had a tendency to ask more questions than he used to. He was too young to question her comings and goings before. But nowadays that's all he seemed to like to do.

He also had a penchant to ask about her occupation pretty frequently. She still hadn't come up with a very convincing one. The flight attendant bit was fraying at the seams already; she could tell because of the sidelong looks she was on the receiving end of all the time.

Eventually, it would be harder to hide everything from him. News outlets all over the world had gotten some footage of her during the Battle of New York, and it would only take one little hunch for Alexei to stumble across it. He hadn't yet, but he was a smart kid with internet access; filtered internet access although he probably could find his way around it. He was her son, after all.

It was a disheartening situation, really. Alexei was bound to find out what she was. She couldn't shield him from the reality of it for much longer. And it seemed impossible that she would ever be out of the spy business altogether. She owed Fury a huge debt, and there was no way she could ever repay him back. Besides she didn't know any other skill but the ones she had honed while with the Red Room.

The STRIKE team continued to discuss the mission details amongst themselves. Steve seemed to be listening since he huffed every time he heard an unfavorable tidbit. She wanted to say something to him still, but realized he was far too gone in his own head to appreciate it.

Steve was the consummate soldier. He relied on order and continuity; Natalia supposed that wasn't a bad thing, once you considered how out of time he truly was. Steve had been violently wrenched from his former life, and now had to live an entirely new life on his own without the ones he loved.

They weren't so different in that respect. They both had lived lives far removed from their daily routines now. Natalia felt a kinship to Steve, and she had believed they were finding some even ground because of it. But the debacle that took place only hours ago, really put a damper on that.

Slowly, she opened her eyes to look at him. Steve had bent forward with his hands clasped between his knees. He had a daunting look on his face, as if he wanted to unleash his anger but didn't know where to take it out on.

"Life isn't always black and white, Steve." She said softly. "Fury does what he has to do. Maybe it's not the way you would handle things, but you also aren't in charge."

"I was in charge of the mission." Steve glanced at her. "How can I do my job effectively if there are counter-operations going on behind my back? How does Fury expect me to do anything efficiently?"

"You weren't supposed to find out."

"Obviously not,"

"Do you really want to know the dirty details of every mission? Can you handle that, Cap?" Natalia lifted her eyebrow, and didn't expect much of a response.

Steve reacted as she expected he would. He scowled and looked away, delving headfirst back into his broody mood. They both knew that ignorance was bliss, and maybe sometimes it would be better to remain ignorant about the finer details of things. But Natalia also suspected Steve might not take this lying down.

That was his agenda, though. Natalia might have made a misstep during the mission, but it wasn't a horrible one. Batroc would be captured in due time, and Steve would ultimately get over his tantrum. Her main concern at that point was trying to avoid a nine year old child's natural curiosity, and hoping Alexei hadn't inherited her skill for uncovering the truth.

Now that was a terrifying thought that even Steve couldn't imagine. But she was the only one for the job, and she wouldn't have had it any other way.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Seventeen :: Ghost Story

 


 

 

For a nine year old child, Alexei Vanya Romanoff was rather independent. He didn't mind being left to his own devices for several hours at a time. Nor did he fear being left alone at nighttime in the apartment he shared with his mother.

While he did have a consistent caregiver, Mrs. O'Brien couldn't always be there for him. Sometimes she had to go home as well, which left him to bear the possible horrors of the night alone. But honestly, he wasn't afraid; in fact, he liked those moments of solitude that were only punctuated by the traffic below the apartment's windows. He liked to stare at the twinkle of the skyline and envision stories of grandeur that all small boys did.

Tonight was no different in that respect. Mrs. O'Brien had left him at six o'clock sharp, but she had soon been replaced by Bobbi who had looked windswept and breathless. Bobbi had a very important job like his mother did, although neither usually expanded on it much. His mother was supposed to be an international flight attendant; he wasn't convinced that she was, however.

He didn't know much to disprove it, really. His mother was frequently gone for work, and sometimes she came back with bruises and scrapes that she couldn't explain away. She would just smile that rare and small smile of hers and reassure him that everything was okay; which seemed to be a running theme not only with her but with Bobbi and Clint too.

Bobbi usually dropped by in the evenings when she could. She had made him pancakes for dinner tonight and they had watched cartoons until his designated bedtime which was eight-thirty. He had been tucked in, and eventually left alone around ten. Because Bobbi couldn't stay all night like Mrs. O'Brien; she never had and she probably never would since she had to get home to watch Clint.

Once Bobbi had gone, Alexei had crawled out of bed with his favorite quilt around his narrow shoulders, alongside the sheathed knife that he wasn't supposed to touch, and sat onto the couch to wait. He knew his mother was bound to come home tonight, and he wanted to see her even if it was a school night. He missed her terribly, and he really didn't think he could go another night without seeing her even if it was only briefly.

She had been gone for four days this time around. It was a short separation in comparison to some of her other trips, but that didn't make him miss her any less, and he knew she felt the same. It was only the two of them, after all; mama and him. It had always been that way from as far back as he could remember.

A long time ago, he'd been told that he had had a grandmother - Babushka Irina. He couldn't remember her very well; he had been too little to remember much when they had lived in Russia. He also couldn't remember his father either. His mother didn't have a photo of him; all that he had that belonged to him was the bowie knife currently in his possession.

His mother never really spoke of his father. Alexei didn't know if he were alive or dead, although he suspected maybe he had been a bad man. Maybe he had done some awful things that his mother thought were too adult for him to know, which would explain a lot.

Regardless, Alexei liked to imagine that his father was a good man still. He imagined he would be brave and fearless like the heroes in many of the stories his mother told him. And there was always the possibility that he died while protecting them from some great danger. Why else would his father have had such a dangerous knife otherwise?

Curling his hands around the leather sheath, the edges of which were thick and impenetrable, he contemplated a person he would never know. He had only taken the knife out once; his mother had caught him and taken it away from him with a quiet but a firm scolding that it wasn't a toy. Afterwards, she had hidden it in her closet but that hadn't kept Alexei away and he had taken it back without detection of yet. Tonight might be the night, though.

Owlishly, Alexei continued to stare out onto the city. His mother could be there at anytime or maybe not at all. Mrs. O'Brien might come back instead with her tired eyes and calm demeanor. Clint could drop by even; sometimes he drove him to school when no one else could.

There was a whole network of adults that made sure he was taken care of, but Alexei only wanted his mama. She was his whole world, and he knew that the feeling was mutual. He knew that his mother didn't like to leave him behind. She had to, though. All adults had to work to make money.

Time eluded Alexei soon enough. His eyes grew heavy, yet he didn't see any reason to go back to bed. It was lonelier in there than in the wide, open space that made up the family room and the kitchen. And there was a lot more light here; he didn't feel so alone (if at all) knowing that there were so many other people out there in the very city he was looking at.

Just then the sound of the front door being opened broke through the silence of the apartment. Alexei jerked to full consciousness then. Quickly, he shoved the bowie knife in between the couch cushions, and pulled the quilt tightly around him like a second skin.

Shortly after the door had been opened, it closed with a soft snap. There wasn't any sound of footfall, however. Alexei knew his mother moved on light feet all the time. He swiveled around and couldn't help but smile as he saw her at long last.

"Mama," Alexei said softly; he only called her that when no one else was around. He was getting too big to refer to her as anything besides mom nowadays.

His mother looked tired and a little alarmed by his presence, although that soon let way to exasperation instead. They had had this conversation before; he was supposed to be in bed and not waiting up for her. But he was never punished for it; he knew his mother was happy to see him all the time.

"Единственная и неповторимая," His mother shook her head, before she shouldered her backpack off. "It's almost one o'clock in the morning; it's a school night. Or technically speaking a school morning, but that's beside the point."

"I wanted to see you."

"Even so,"

"It's been days." Alexei frowned. "I'm sick of Mrs. O'Brien already. Do I need a babysitter still?"

His mother sighed, while rounding the couch. She plopped down on it beside him with her backpack still in hand, as if she worried he might lurch forward and try to take it from her. He would never do that, though. He knew his mother's things were private, which was why he only looked for his father's knife and nothing more when he went into her closet.

"Maybe when you're twelve,"

"That's two years away."

"Two and a half,"

"Mama," Alexei groaned, and caught the soft curve of a smile on his mother's lips. It was strangely infectious and he couldn't help but smile too.

They sat in peaceable silence. The howl of the city seemed like a world away. But whenever they were together, it felt like it was only the two of them against the world. Alexei imagined it would always be that way, unless by some magical happening that his father came back for them (if he wasn't dead anyway).

Now that he thought of his absent father again, Alexei felt a compulsion to ask about him. It might not be the wisest of decisions, however his curiosity could be an unrelenting thing. And he had kept much of his curiosity pent-up inside of him because of fear of upsetting his mother.

Sure, he did ask a few times about her work; yet he never delved too deeply into it. He knew his mother was hiding something from him, and he imagined no amount of poking and prodding would change that.

"Mama,"

"Yeah,"

"Can you tell me about my papa?" He looked at her earnestly, and saw the open expression on her face suddenly morph into something guarded and steely.

"What brought this on?"

"Because,"

"That isn't an explanation, Alexei." His mother replied, although not harshly.

Alexei couldn't explain why he wanted to know, beyond the fact that he wondered quite frequently about who and where his father was. He hadn't gotten a solid answer of yet, and he wouldn't stop asking until he knew for certain who his father was.

"Mama, please,"

"Your father," His mother looked towards the windows and at the city. "He made it possible that you and I are here, in the States. If it wasn't for him then we'd probably be in Russia still."

"Where is he now?" He couldn't help but ask.

His mother turned her gaze back onto him. Her face was unreadable, but there was a deep-rooted sadness in her eyes that he hadn't seen before. That seemed to say everything that he needed to know and that was that his father must have died after all.

"No more questions. It's time for bed, Единственная и неповторимая. You still have to go to school in a few hours; you need your rest."

"Okay," Alexei scooted onto the edge of the couch cushion slowly; he hoped he could retrieve the knife before his mother became any the wiser that it was in his possession again. "I'm happy that you're home."

"Me too; I don't plan on leaving anytime soon. So I'll call Mrs. O'Brien tomorrow morning and let her know."

"I'm glad." He held out his hand, and his mother took it before she stood up and helped him to his feet as well.

"Come on, bed time." His mother held his hand in a firm grip, as she soon led him to the hallway and towards his bedroom.

When they entered the room, Alexei released his mother's hand and scrambled onto the mattress. He was soon being tucked underneath the covers, and the ghost of a lullaby murmured from his mother's mouth as she secured the sheets around him.

Things might not have been normal in terms of their family life, but Alexei counted himself lucky to have the mother that he had. Maybe she was away for extended periods of time without much explanation, and maybe he didn't have a father present in his life. However, he did have many people that cared for him and that would be enough for now.

He hoped one day that his mother would tell him more about his father. He knew there was more to the story than the minimal details he'd been told. And even if his father was dead, he would still like to know everything about him.

It would be nice to know his father wasn't a fantasy or a ghost story, after all.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Eighteen :: No One's Invincible

 


 

 

The telephone call had come unexpectedly during dinnertime. Natalia had been in the middle of straining a large pot of spaghetti while Alexei pored over his history homework at the table. They had had several nice days of uninterrupted family time with one another. The only time she had been taken away had been during school hours to discuss the details of the mission with Nick. But it hadn't impended unnecessarily on her time with Alexei which Natalia was grateful for.

Inevitably the world of espionage and alien life forms would always come back roaring. However, Natalia hadn't figured it would happen so soon, no less in the worst way imaginable. The telephone call had changed everything in the blink of the eye.

One moment she had been Natalia the mother, and the next when she answered the call from none other than Hill; she was thrown head-first into that cold-hearted spy and assassin that she truly was. Because she had been informed that Nick, one of her only allies in the world, had been killed by some unknown assailant.

Disbelief overwhelmed her initially. The idea that someone like Nick could be killed seemed unreal, even though she had learned early on how easily anyone could be killed. Nick was no more invincible than anyone else. Lukin had seemed almost untouchable in his own right, but he too had been killed.

Death hadn't had any prejudice; everyone could die. No matter how careful you were in this type of business, there was always a possibility that someone could come along and eliminate you. But still she felt a hollowness in the center of her chest that she hadn't felt in a very long time.

Sometimes the echo of it struck her at inopportune moments. Mostly when she looked at her son, she felt the ache of loss so deeply that it ran down into her bones. She remembered Vanya with the snow on his dark eyelashes, and the wind whipping his hair around his stoic, stately face. And the sorrow tried to eat away at her, until she shook herself out of that dizzying spell and shut it away.

In this case though, Natalia couldn't run away from the sadness she felt for Nick's passing. Somehow she managed to set the phone down, and go back to work with finishing dinner without interrupting the flow of the evening; although she was soon struck by the determination to find out what had happened, and if Steve had had gotten a good look at the assassin.

But until then, she had a role to play. Her child came first, even when one of their many saviors had met an untimely demise. Alexei still needed to eat his dinner, to finish homework, to read the tale-end of the third Harry Potter book, and to be tucked into bed.

Hill had expected her at the hospital immediately. That wasn't going to happen though, and Nick would have understood all too well why. There wasn't anything she could do now; not when all of SHIELD, no doubt, would be on high alert to find whoever was responsible already.

"What are you learning about in history?" Natalia managed to ask, even though her mind was working through the thick muck of grief; even her hands had automatically began the task of shoveling pasta, tomato sauce, and oddly shaped meatballs onto a plate for Alexei.

"About World War II," Alexei replied, almost distantly. "We're learning about Captain America."

Natalia paused in the middle of plopping a meatball on top of the tangle of spaghetti on Alexei's plate. Of course, Captain America would be on the curriculum for any American child. She supposed the cartoony parts of Steve's rise to heroism would be appealing to a younger audience. That was the type of knowledge she could hold over his head, however that was the least appealing thing to her now with everything that happened this evening.

"He's alive, you know." Alexei continued after a beat. "They thought he died, but he didn't."

"I heard about that."

"He was frozen in a block of ice."

"That's funny how things work out." Natalia picked the plate up and walked to the table; she set it down behind of her son's homework. "It's time for dinner now."

"I already finished my homework anyway. Tomorrow we're going to learn about his friends; they had a funny name, but I don't remember what it was."

"Beat's me; I never really heard of them before."

"They don't teach that in Russia?"

"No," she watched as Alexei started to shut his textbook. "Unless there was a Captain Soviet Union, it wasn't that important to learn for us."

Alexei laughed while he put everything into his backpack that had been leaning against his chair. At least it appeared that she was doing a fine job of hiding the fact that she had just gotten devastating news. She normally had wonderful control over her emotional responses, but sometimes she even had a moment of vulnerability like everyone else did. And being at home with her son could easily bring that out of her.

As Alexei scampered off to his bedroom to put away his things, Natalia turned back to fill her own plate with spaghetti. She let out a shaky breath, and tried to steel her nerves into iron. She had to have faith that Steve had gotten a good look at the person responsible, and they would be able to track whoever did it down.

But the first step to figuring out who was responsible was to try and find out why anyone would want Nick dead at all. SHIELD was a highly classified organization, whose reach was far more outspread than was publicly known. Even Natalia hadn't know how far it reached when she had first joined.

There were plenty of people who saw SHIELD as a threat, however very few would have the resources to actually get anywhere near Nick. The only type of person that could have pulled off something like this would be some kind of powerful politician or businessman. Even still though, why wouldn't have they gone after Secretary Pierce instead?

Filling her plate with a hearty amount of food, Natalia carried it to the table and set it down. She then went to the fridge and grabbed the gallon of milk out and poured herself and Alexei a glass, before finally sitting down. And by that time, Alexei returned with pink hands that proved he'd actually gone to wash up during his absence.

"I might have to call Mrs. O'Brien over tonight." She said, once Alexei pulled his plate towards him and stuck his fork into the mess of noodles and sauce. "I got a call from one of my coworkers; something bad happened and they need me to fill in."

The happiness that had been radiating off of Alexei seemed to flicker into disappointment. He looked at her in a way that always tugged at her heart strings. He looked devastatingly like his father; from his dark hair, to his wondrous blue eyes, and the cleft in his chin – he was all Vanya.

"Oh," he slouched in his seat.

"I wouldn't go if it wasn't important. I'm sure I could stay until bedtime, though."

"You don't need to call Mrs. O'Brien, I'll be okay by myself."

"Alexei, please," Natalia took in a deep, steadying breath. "We've talked about this before. You're too young to be left alone. I hate it when you're left alone for a few hours even. But sometimes that can't be helped, and I'm sure Mrs. O'Brien will be more than happy to watch you for at least tonight."

"What about Bobbi or Clint?"

"I think both of them are busy tonight."

"Oh," Alexei repeated.

Natalia knew Alexei preferred either Bobbi or Clint's company compared to Mrs. O'Brien's, but it couldn't be helped tonight. Both of them would be equally busy with what had happened with Nick. All of SHIELD would be on red alert, and Mrs. O'Brien would understand why. She had been a part of SHIELD during the mid-eighties and early nineties before she chose to retire.

She had known Nick like all of them had. Nick was, after all, the one who offered Mrs. O'Brien's services to Natalia in the beginning. He had trusted her, and that meant Natalia trusted her too.

"Trust me if it wasn't an emergency I wouldn't go either. But they need me for a couple of hours."

"I can stay alone for that long."

"I rather you not."

"I have something that can protect me, though." Alexei suddenly perked up. "I'll show you, but you can't get mad."

Before Natalia could even begin to process the quick succession of their conversation, her son had jumped up from his seat and was running to the couch. She watched him in confusion as he stuck his hand in between the couch cushions and began to rummage around.

Within moments, Alexei had unearthed whatever he deemed worthy of protecting him; although his previous vigor had become somber all of the sudden. He looked guilty, as if he had done something that would probably earn Natalia's ire. And once she saw what was in his hands, when he rounded the couch, she understood why.

It was the knife; the knife Vanya had thrown so haphazardly onto the helicopter's floor during their escape from Russia. She had all but forgotten about it during those initial days afterwards. Things had been terribly hectic then; she had managed to flee to Hungary, where she had ultimately been taken captive by Clint and Bobbi and taken into SHIELD.

Days after all those invasive interviews and interrogations, Nick had presented her with the sheathed knife and asked if it held any significance. She never understood why a knife would have caught his attention in a military grade helicopter, but it had and she had stupidly shed a few tears at seeing it.

Nick hadn't asked any questions about it after that. He had given it to her, and they had never spoken about it again. He also never asked about Alexei's father, even though that seemed like the natural thing to do. Especially since she was a notorious assassin and spy, who had become pregnant without detection; or maybe Nick had drawn to the conclusion that Lukin had fathered her son, which she supposed would have been a reasonable explanation.

"Did you take this from my bedroom?" Natalia asked slowly.

"I'm sorry, but it's mine."

"That is not a toy, Alexei. It is a weapon; I told you that a hundred times. And the reason it was taken away from you was because you were playing with it."

"But it's mine!"

"Give me it now." Natalia held out her hand.

Alexei stared at her like she was some kind of monster. He looked ready to protest, but instead he walked over to her and placed the knife and its sheath into her open hand. He looked far from happy to do it, though.

"It's mine and you know it. My papa wanted me to have it; you said so yourself."

"Yes, well he wasn't exactly very smart when it came to children." She retorted sharply. "In fact, I doubt he ever spent more than two minutes with one in his entire life."

That exclamation had been a misstep. Natalia realized that almost immediately after the words left her lips. The expression that passed over Alexei's face was one that she had never seen before; he looked like she had physically struck him. And in a way she had; maybe not physical, but she had hit him with a low blow all the same.

Without a word of anger, Alexei whirled away from her and ran towards the hallway. His footfall echoed like a stampede of elephants, so different in comparison to how she and his father moved. Then again, he was never raised to be a killer or a ghost. He was supposed to be loud and unapologetic in the way his feet hit the floor. That's why they were here, after all.

Natalia shut her eyes, and wrapped her fingers around the knife tightly. Vanya would have been a horrible father; she knew that and he did too. When he left her in that helicopter alone, she had been convinced otherwise. But he had known; he had always been intuitive to his own strengths and weaknesses, and parenthood would have not suited him well.

Maybe it was one of her weaknesses too. Natalia had made a grave mistake, and even if Alexei chose to forgive her within time; she would remember what she had said for a very long time. Because it was becoming more and more evident as Alexei grew that he was desperate for some kind of father figure. He wanted his father.

God only knew where Vanya was now. No one had circulated any intel about the Winter Soldier in nearly seven years time. He had disappeared in a plumb of smoke. Or maybe he had died alongside Lukin; the reality was possible. No one was invincible; not Lukin, not Nick, and not even the infamous Winter Soldier.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Nineteen :: The Flash Drive

  


 

 

The hospital was swarmed with SHIELD agents. Men and women in business attire, unassumingly flipping through newspapers and old copies of Better Homes and Gardens were placed strategically throughout the lobby, waiting rooms, cafeteria, and hallways. Further up, on the floor in which Nick had been taken, were members of STRIKE fully equipped for action.

Natalia bypassed them all. They hardly acknowledged one another. Rumlow had mumbled out a lame apology to her, but that was as far as it went. She hadn't expected any less, although admittedly even that kind of apology from the likes of the STRIKE leader's lips was surprising to say the least.

It didn't take very long to find herself in front of a hospital room guarded by Hill. Her expression was stoic and unreadable. She didn't even flinch when Natalia turned the corner, and clearly wanted access into the room where Nick's body was undoubtedly laid out for viewing.

"You're late." Hill reached for the doorknob, but she didn't turn it.

"Nick would understand why."

"In other words, you aren't about to tell me where you were."

"He wouldn't have expected me to." Natalia replied brusquely.

Hill looked unimpressed, however that didn't stop her from opening the door for her. Natalia took the opportunity without a second thought; she stepped into the sterile, white room and found Steve already there.

His large body stood sentry above the table in which a form was splayed out on. Natalia bit down onto her bottom lip, before she sidled up beside Steve who gave her a quick look; although his attention was dedicated to Nick, whose head and shoulders were uncovered by the death shawl that covered up the rest of his body.

That's when the true reality of the situation struck her. Words could be misconstrued and fabricated. But physical proof was hard to replicate unless someone really wanted to hide something. And unfortunately, that didn't seem to be the case in this situation. Nick Fury was dead; beaten and battered by some unknown assailant, and it was hard to hold back the dam of emotion that Natalia was feeling.

She never truly knew how deeply her affections for Nick ran until now. She would always be indebted to him for the risk he'd taken on her. He had accommodated a killer, maybe for his own devices; however, that didn't take away from all the things he had done for her while she was in his service.

As if he could tell he was intruding on a private moment, Steve stepped away and allowed Natalia to get closer to the prone body in front of her. Natalia reached out to touch the smooth skin of Nick's head. She studied every welt, bruise, and scar on his usually reserved face which was now slack and lifeless.

Tears prickled her eyes, and for once she allowed them to fall down her cheeks. Her greatest ally was gone; the protection he built so strongly for her might very well had fallen to the wayside as well. But she would persevere; she wasn't helpless. She had never been. But even people like her needed a helping hand to survive every once in a while. Real help and compassion that Nick had shown her, not like the help she received from Koltsova all those years ago.

"Thank you." Natalia murmured barely above a whisper, before she swiped her sleeve across her face and tried to destroy any trace of her sentimentality.

Nick wouldn't have wanted any tears from her. She knew that pretty much for a fact. What he would have wanted was for her to find whoever was responsible, and bring them to justice one way or another. And while he would have disapproved of her using her specific skills that the Red Room had taught her, Natalia intended on tracking down his murderer and making them pay.

"Tell me about the shooter." She demanded into the silent room.

Steve audibly shifted from one foot to the other. He was graceful in his own respect, but he never shied away from his humanity. He didn't mind using brutal force and stomping around, as if he was still getting the hang of his Adonis-like body.

Natalia had seen photos of him before Project Rebirth. Nick had shared them with her on a whim, as they discussed the Avengers Initiative. The transformation was pretty incredible; so incredible that Natalia couldn't believe that the pipsqueak in the photos was now the man who seamlessly jumped out of airplanes without any fear whatsoever.

"He's strong, fast," Steve eventually spoke up gravelly. "Had a metal arm,"

Steve's words hung like a guillotine blade over Natalia's neck, before they eventually dropped. Her eyes widened in terror and shock, and she struggled to breathe. He must have been mistaken; it had been dark when the attack transpired. And the mind did funny things to the eyes under those circumstances.

There wasn't any way that someone like the Winter Soldier could go undetected without the KGB's help. If Lukin was dead, the Winter Soldier had to have perished alongside him. Or maybe even beforehand with his betrayal that led to Natalia escaping the country.

Desperately, she wanted to refute what Steve had said. She wanted him to think and rethink about the incident that led to Nick's death. But she knew that he wouldn't have made up something so far-fetched. A metal arm was unique, undeniable even in nighttime; that was the only trademark that belonged solely to the Winter Soldier.

The intelligence community knew him only by that. Any other withstanding details about the Winter Soldier had been lost to time; no one seemed to remember his striking blue eyes (when he went without protective goggles) or his mane of wild brown hair. It was the metal arm; it was always the metal arm with a red star painted expertly on the upper portion of it that they remembered.

Opening her mouth, Natalia tried to form a sentence that wouldn't reveal her shock. But nothing came to mind, and she ended up shutting her mouth again and leaving her thoughts unsaid. It was better not to draw Steve into her past, although her past might be unwittingly catching up with her.

She wondered what would happen if she happened to come across the Winter Soldier. Would they come to blows? Or would he disappear into the proverbial shadows never to be seen again? However, the real question was if she could let him go after he had killed Nick?

Could she turn a blind eye to that indiscretion? Natalia didn't know for certain, although she also didn't want to provoke the man she had loved and lost. She couldn't make an attempt on her son's father whether it was justified or not.

Looking down at Nick once more, Natalia wondered if he would forgive her for letting his killer get away. Hell, could she forgive herself for doing it? She didn't know, but she also wasn't convinced that she could let the Winter Soldier go either. Maybe for more than one reason, even if she didn't want to think about her own selfish motivations in it.

"We'll find him." Steve spoke up at long last.

Natalia turned away from Nick's body, and attempted to invoke a sense of calm clarity that she always did. The tears that she had shed, probably still shone on her cheeks as a betrayal of her vulnerability. But she knew that Steve wouldn't hold it against her; he wasn't the type.

"It's late; we'll talk later." She made her way out of the room and back into the hallway.

Steve had followed shortly after, while Hill had slipped back into the room without a word. That's when Natalia was suddenly struck by another question unrelated to the Winter Soldier. She whipped around, which seemed to take Steve briefly by surprise.

"Why was Fury in your apartment anyway?" She asked, almost on the verge of being accusatory.

Steve clearly floundered; he opened his mouth, shut it again before he shrugged. Now that was suspicious; Nick didn't make social calls to anyone, particularly when he already had an agent surveying Steve twenty-four seven. Which meant that he had gone to Steve for a reason; something must have happened, and his closest ally had to have been Captain America himself.

What could have happened? Nick always did things for a reason; he was never sloppy or spontaneous. Even in a tough situation, he could work with a level-head and come up with the best resolution to the problem.

Nick clearly hadn't come to her for a reason. He probably understood if he went to her, he would ultimately be jeopardizing her son's safety. So the best candidate to help him had to have been Steve. And she should have figured that Steve wouldn't be forthcoming with any information with her now.

Ever since the Lemurian Star incident, their friendship had been strained. They had seen little of one another over the past week, which wasn't uncommon but Natalia knew Steve was holding her at an arm's length now.

He didn't trust her. So whatever he knew about the situation wouldn't be willingly offered up to her. Natalia could have kicked herself, even if her orders had come down from Nick himself. But now she had little to go on to solve who had really been behind his assassination.

The Winter Soldier didn't kill people for his own gain. Or at least he hadn't when she had known him. She couldn't even imagine a world where he would kill for his own benefit. Then again, he had killed at least a dozen people, maybe even more, to help her and their son.

Knowing how unlikely it would be to extract any feasible information from Steve, Natalia turned her back on him and started up the hallway. She heard Rumlow speak to Steve, although the words weren't clear by a long shot. The exchange didn't matter to her, though.

As she rounded the corner, she pressed her body against the wall and counted back from twenty. She then peeked around the corner back down the hallway. There were a number of people charging from one end of the floor to the other, and that's when she caught sight of Steve once more. He was alone and Rumlow and the rest of STRIKE were several feet away. That's when she saw him approach a nearby vending machine, whose door was swung open and unattended to.

Narrowing her eyes, Natalia watched as Steve pulled something out of the pocket of his jacket and slip it into the vending machine; before he shut the door with a click loud enough for Natalia to hear it from her position. He then quickly backpedaled away from the machine, and hurried towards Rumlow and the rest of his teammates.

For nearly a minute, Natalia waited to ensure that Steve and STRIKE were leaving; before she stepped back into the hallway and went directly to the vending machine. Lucky for her she had a few dollars in her pocket, one of which she pulled out as her eyes scanned the contents of the machine. And she couldn't help but smile at Steve's piss poor attempt at espionage.

Inserting her dollar into the machine, she selected the number that coincided with the pack of pink bubblegum. She watched as the slot pushed her selection out, before she quickly selected the same number and it soon dispensed a flash drive.

Natalia crouched down and scooped both her purchases out of the tray below. She pocketed the bubblegum without a second look, but she did study the flash drive and immediately recognized it as the one she had used to retrieve the information Nick wanted from the Lemurian Star.

Why would Nick have given Steve this? Clearly there was something on this that was confidential, and it might very well be the reason why Nick had been killed in the first place. Whatever the information was, it wouldn't do her any good to try and figure it out now. So she slipped it into her pocket as well, and decided to take the stairs rather than the elevator. She didn't want to take a chance with running into Steve or anyone else she knew somewhat.

Finding the stairwell was easy enough, and the longer commute from point A to point B afforded her the opportunity to try and analyze the situation. Nick must have found some damning information in the files she was sent to retrieve. In a stroke of genius (possibly desperation), he had gone to Steve with the information, and that's when he'd been attacked and ultimately killed by the Winter Soldier.

How the Winter Soldier tied into everything was still a mystery. His employers obviously saw Nick as some kind of threat, and they wanted to make sure he died. And the reason was now in her pocket; she had what someone out there wanted, which was reckless of her. Because she could have easily painted a target on her own back and by proxy her son's.

She wondered as he took the stairs two at a time, if the Winter Soldier would come for her next? Would he follow orders and try to kill her next? Time could only tell.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty :: Wanted Man

 


 

 

Sullen was the only word to describe Alexei over the past day and a half. Natalia felt similarly, although she tried not to show it as openly as her nine year old son did. She had to pull double duty as of right now, and she really couldn't allow herself to fall victim to her own emotions now.

She had to approach everything from an analytical standpoint. She also had to be on her guard more so than she usually was. After all, she was in possession of a flash drive that held unknown information on it that had gotten Nick killed. Which was why, Natalia had decided not to scour the files on her own computer just in case someone could trace them back to her location.

So until she could find a moment to confront Steve with the flash drive, Natalia chose to leave it untouched but still on her person during every waking hour. Soon enough she would track Steve down, no doubt when he returned to the hospital, and they would have a long chat about what had happened between him and Nick.

"Did you learn about Captain America's friends today?" Natalia asked as she walked beside Alexei on the street that led away from the elementary school he attended.

Alexei huffed in reply. He hadn't spoken to her since the night before. In a way she didn't blame him for it either. She had been out of line, but more so than ever she couldn't leave him unattended to. Not when the Winter Soldier could be anywhere in the city at any given moment.

The likelihood that the Winter Soldier would try to track Natalia down was probably slim to none. She really didn't play a role in whatever had led to Nick's death. Sure, she had gotten the information but it had been on Nick's behest. And it would be hard to trace her back to the information without any solid proof until she actually accessed the files.

"What were they called?" She tried again to get Alexei to talk.

Like her first attempt, the second one didn't take either. Alexei hung his head, staring at the cracked and broken sidewalk as they continued towards their apartment building. The elementary school was only a ten minute walk away, but Natalia never allowed Alexei to walk alone.

"Are you going to be mad at me forever?"

"Why won't you let me have my knife? It's mine; my papa wanted me to have it." Alexei spoke at long last, and Natalia had to bite her bottom lip so she wouldn't resort to raising her voice.

There had been many times when her patience had been tested with her son. It was something that went hand-in-hand with motherhood. However, she had always managed to keep her temper, even when she wanted to let loose her frustration.

It was becoming especially hard to keep her temper in check now. She was under several tons of stress and worry at the moment, and recycling a finished conversation wasn't doing anything for her patience.

"We've had this conversation already, Alexei."

"But it's not fair!"

"What's unfair is that you explicitly disobeyed me and invaded my privacy by taking that knife back. I took it from you because you were playing with it. So long as you left it alone on your shelf then you would still have it." Natalia explained as calmly as she could. "Yes, your father wanted you to have it. But I also know he wouldn't want you to hurt yourself with it. And it isn't a replacement for a babysitter either."

Shooting a stern look down at her son, Natalia wasn't surprised to see his hands curled into fists. It was a trademark of his whenever he was angry or upset. Of course, she understood why he would want a piece of his father. But that didn't mean she could permit him to run around with a deadly weapon either.

"You have to know why I don't feel comfortable with you carrying it around. I didn't take it away to punish you. I took it away because I'm scared you might get hurt. And I do trust you, but I'm your mother and I have a right to worry whether you like it or not."

Alexei's shoulders hunched up around his ears, but he didn't try to argue with her. He was normally obedient, despite his ongoing curiosity. He was also very smart and self-aware, and most of all lovable. Natalia couldn't ask for anymore than that.

This was just a bump in the road, made worse by the events transpiring around them. Natalia knew she could have approached the situation better, had she not been under pressure. Losing Nick, combined with the knowledge that the Winter Soldier had done it were things that would test any normal person. But even the Black Widow had limits and she couldn't always be level-headed.

"The Howling Commandos," her son mumbled without preamble.

"What?"

"Captain America's friends, they were called the Howling Commandos."

"Why were they called the Howling Commandos?" Natalia asked, and felt a sense of relief wash over her that some of the tension in between them had lifted.

Alexei's body language shifted from closed off to conversational within moments, which was a good sign to say the least. She just hoped that he wouldn't fall back into his unhappy mood once he realized that he still wasn't going to get the bowie knife back.

"They were called that because they were bad singers." He said with a touch of amusement. "They were in a bar in England, and they were singing and the bartender called them the Howling Commandos because they sang so bad."

"They must have been really bad singers to get that kind of a nickname." Natalia placed a hand on top of her son's head and ruffled his hair a little. "I'm sorry about what I said about your father."

There were a few moments of peaceable quiet between them. Natalia felt like they would be okay, despite all the unknowns revolving around them. They would be safe, so long as they played their cards right. So long as Natalia played her cards right that is. And she played this game many times over; she knew the rules, and she knew how to manipulate them.

"Was he a bad man?" Alexei looked up at her then. "Papa, was he a bad man?"

" Единственная и неповторимая,"

"If he was a good man, you'd tell me about him. But you won't,"

"That isn't true. I told you how he helped us leave Russia."

"Why won't you tell me about him?"

"Because," Natalia began cautiously. "When I think about him it makes me sad. Before I had you, he was the most important person in my life. And it's sad to know that he isn't here; he couldn't be here. Those reasons are too delicate to tell you about now, though. Some day I will; I promise."

Alexei frowned, but he bobbed his head in understanding all the same. Natalia suspected he didn't understand entirely because she didn't necessarily understand it either. Things were complicated; they had always been complicated between her and Vanya. And that was because they were complicated, almost verging on simple, people.

Now especially things could turn even more complicated than before. Who knew what the Winter Soldier was bound to do if he wasn't kept on a tight leash. Lukin had managed to control him rather effectively up until a point. But now, god only knew who was keeping an eye on him.

Dread reared its ugly head inside of Natalia once more. Due to the fact that she hadn't any solid and definitive proof that the Winter Soldier had killed Nick, beyond Steve's word, she was trying not to let it get to her. But all signs pointed to the Winter Soldier anyway.

"Yo, Nat," a familiar voice abruptly cut through her thoughts.

Natalia turned her head to see Clint in a nondescript silver vehicle. He had pulled up illegally to the curb, and was practically hanging out of the passenger side window. Both she and Alexei came to a halt and stared inquisitively at him.

"Some serious shit's happening." Clint said, not even thinking to apologize for cussing in front of her son.

Usually, Natalia would have scolded him but today was already strenuous enough that she didn't need to hound Clint over something so unimportant. Reaching for Alexei's hand, she pulled him towards the car and leaned into the window.

"What's going on?"

"Fury-"

"I already know about that."

"Then you must have heard about Cap being a wanted man too." Clint lowered his voice a decibel. "I imagine you know where he might be."

Steve could be anywhere really, but Natasha already figured out where he could be without much trouble. He would go back for the flash drive, even if he was a wanted man. And while Natalia didn't know what led to that coming about, she could definitely take a few choice guesses without any problem whatsoever.

"Do me a favor,"

"Why do you think I'm here?" Clint smiled knowingly at her. "I've come to pick up my favorite nine year old. And we're going to order a huge pepperoni pizza, and maybe watch a scary movie until Mrs. O'Brien gets there and scolds us."

"Mom," Alexei whipped around to look at her, as if betrayed by this sudden turn of events.

Natalia squeezed her son's hand, before she opened up the car door. Even though they had barely gotten back on track, she knew they were veering back into an unhappy place again. Unfortunately, duty called and she was the one who could help Steve now. The details would fall into place soon enough.

"Please, Единственная и неповторимая,"

"I want my knife back." He retorted fiercely, as he yanked his hand free of hers, and shouldered off his backpack; before he clambered into the passenger seat beside Clint.

"I'll consider it. But you have to listen to Clint or Bobbi and especially Mrs. O'Brien. Do you understand me?"

"He will; he's a good kid." Clint provided with a sympathetic look. "Keep me posted,"

"Likewise," Natalia leaned into the car, and kissed Alexei's temple despite him jerking away a second later. "I love you."

She didn't expect an answer, and Alexei didn't provide her with one as she shut the car door. Clint gave her a quick wave, before he turned the steering wheel and eventually merged back into the afternoon traffic. He would probably make an illegal U-turn at the light ahead. He wasn't a very good driver.

Grimly, Natalia watched the car disappear from sight. She knew she had done the right thing, even if it didn't feel like it now. Clint would keep Alexei safe, and Mrs. O'Brien would do the same; they knew the stakes were high now that Nick had been killed.

Backtracking the way she came, Natalia hurried towards a parking garage several blocks away where she kept several different vehicles. The flashier ones would not be appropriate now, but she did have an old Taurus that would get her to the hospital. She might end up abandoning it afterwards. It wasn't a loss, though. She just needed to find Steve before anyone else did and fast.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-one :: Something's Wrong

 


 

 

Much of the time that Clint had been with Alexei, he'd been on the phone. The pizza had come as promised and Clint had even switched on some old black and white scary movie, but he'd been preoccupied otherwise. Alexei didn't know what was so important that he couldn't shut off his phone, but words like fury, cap, and fugitive frequented the conversation.

Alexei barely touched his pizza. He was equal parts angry and curious, and neither emotion seemed to spell out hunger any. All he had wanted today was to be with his mother. He had stopped being upset with her when she had made the promise to tell him about his father eventually. But now, he was mad because she had run off again without much of an explanation.

He knew for certain now that she wasn't a flight attendant. It was pretty obvious that she worked in some way with Clint, and he had to believe the same could be said about Bobbi too. And one way or the other, he was going to find out what they did. He had a computer; he could find out somehow.

"Sitwell made the call?" Clint sounded surprised. "Pierce did too,"

That meant nothing to Alexei, which frustrated him. He wanted to know what was happening instead of watching some dumb scary movie. The old ones weren't even that scary, but Clint wouldn't let him watch anything else. He said his mother would kill him if he put on something newer.

Huffing, Alexei briefly considered abandoning the living room in search of his knife. But he knew that it wouldn't be as accessible as it had been before. His mother probably had hidden it somewhere outside of the apartment since he couldn't be trusted.

Intellectually, Alexei did know he was being difficult on purpose. He wasn't usually this bad, except he'd been more and more bothered by the fact that he didn't have a present father. Lots of the kids at school were bragging about their dads, and even the teacher had asked about his on one occasion and he didn't know how to answer.

He had a father; everyone did. But even the kids without their dads in their lives at least knew their names. He didn't even know that. He didn't understand why everything had to be a secret. It wasn't fair, and his mother didn't seem to care.

"There's no way that's true." Clint suddenly barked fiercely into his phone. "Some sick fuck like Rumlow could probably do something like that, but Cap never would."

Turning around in his position on the couch, Alexei stared at Clint who was leaning against the kitchen counter with his legs crossed at the ankles. He hadn't bothered to take off his jacket since both of them knew that he wouldn't be staying long. Mrs. O'Brien would take over until further notice.

When Alexei asked about what time his mother would come back, Clint didn't have an answer. All he said that it was important business, and there wasn't a guarantee on when she would come back. And that answer only made him angrier than he already was.

"Listen, I can't do anything right now. Tell Sitwell to cool his heels." Clint's voice dropped back to its usual tone. "I'll be there soon. I'm in the middle of something. And no it can't wait, so he's just going to have to live without me for at least another hour longer. Bobbi will vouch for me."

The conversation continued in the same fashion. Clint shifted from reasonable to outraged and back again, and still Alexei couldn't piece together what was going on. Whatever it was, it sounded urgent and it was making Clint madder and madder.

Looking away, Alexei reached for the remote control and switched the channel. He was going to watch some cartoons if he could find them. The only way those old scary movies were tolerable was when Clint actually watched them with him. At least he would have something funny to say when he wasn't distracted.

As he flipped from one channel to the next, Alexei went by a news station. In the brief glimpse that he'd gotten, he had seen a familiar face that littered much of his history book nowadays. So curiously, he turned back onto the news station and saw Captain America's smiling face in the hovering square beside the news anchor's head.

The pretty, dark-skinned woman looked serious in mid-broadcast. Her fellow anchor, a middle aged white man looked even more serious than she did. Alexei wondered if that was the cap Clint had been talking about.

"If anyone has any information about the whereabouts of Captain America aka Steve Rogers, the authorities are urging you to get in contact with them. It's been advised that you do not approach him; he is considered armed and dangerous." The woman explained.

Just as the image of Captain America was minimized into one side of the square, and joined by a mean looking man with an eye patch; the remote control was being ripped unceremoniously from Alexei's hand before the TV screen suddenly went black.

"Hey," he cried out, and looked up at Clint who was now in possession of the remote.

"Really kid," Clint tried to sound lighthearted, but it wasn't very convincing. "You really want to watch the news instead of something like a scary movie?"

"What's going on?"

"Politics is all," Clint shrugged, but he didn't relinquish the TV remote still. "Hey, I bet your mom would want you to do your homework before you watch TV anyway."

"My homework's on Captain America!"

"Back in the good ol' forties, I imagine."

"What's happening with Captain America?" Alexei asked, although it sounded far more like a demand as he hoped it would.

Clint shook his head with an annoyed look on his face. Alexei had seen it many times while Clint watched him. He had a penchant for muttering under his breath that he wasn't good with kids, and Alexei could see that pretty well sometimes.

"Here's the deal, kid. Some things aren't meant for you to know. And what's going on with Captain America right now is a whole cluster fuck of political bullshit. I couldn't even begin to explain it to you if I tried. And you aren't going to understand it, even if I let you watch the news. In fact, I bet you'd be more confused by all that crap they're spewing right now."

"Then why does it matter if I watch it?"

"Because a lot of people are trying to convince you that Captain America is a bad guy; they're doing it for ratings. They want to keep their jobs and scare the entire country, and when people are scared they become stupid, and when people are stupid then they go along with whatever those babbling morons have to say." Clint explained, despite how annoyed he sounded.

Alexei glowered up at him, but he knew better than to argue. He was never going to win an argument with an adult, no matter how hard he tried. Not to mention, Clint would probably fight him point for point since he really didn't have a way with kids.

Deciding he rather stay in his room than listen to Clint complain on the phone, Alexei climbed off the couch and headed down the hallway. He felt compelled to make a beeline into his mother's room, yet he was smart enough to let that compulsion go. He would be good as he could be, and maybe his mother would just give him the knife back.

When he was mostly out of ear shot, he heard Clint grumble something gruffly under his breath. Alexei imagined it was a curse word. He didn't really care, though. He had better things to worry about, and he figured he might as well actually do his homework after all.

It wasn't like he was going to get any solid answers on what had gotten everyone riled up over. He probably was too young to understand it anyhow. He wasn't even ten years old yet. So politics made absolutely no sense to him whatsoever.

"I hate being a kid. I don't understand anything." He whispered under his breath, before he collapsed into his chair situated in front of his desk.

Normally, he would have taken his homework to the kitchen table and done it in there. Today though, he would do it here that way he could avoid Clint and eventually Mrs. O'Brien. He was mad at all of them, but more than them – he was angry with his mother. And he would stay angry until she came back; he didn't even need the knife that bad either.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-two :: Regaining Trust

 


 

 

Unlike days ago, the hospital was no longer crawling with SHIELD personnel. Nurses, doctors, and patients wandered the hallways, oblivious to the familiar bulk of a man that stood dumbfounded in front of the vending machine on the twelfth floor.

How anyone could walk by Captain America without realizing it was him was beyond Natalia. She could spot him in a crowded room easily. Even with baggy clothes and a hood pulled over his head, Steve was a beacon of hope and the epitome of the American dream.

Natalia had gotten there only minutes before he had. She sidestepped until she stood behind him and popped her bubblegum loudly and obnoxiously in order to get his attention. What she hadn't bargained for was the look of pure fury on Steve's face, followed by him lashing out at her and manhandling her into an empty hospital room and up against the nearest wall.

"Where is it?" He demanded.

"Safe,"

"Do better!"

"Where did you get it?" Natalia snapped in retort.

"Why would I tell you?"

"Fury gave it to you. Why?"

"What's on it?" Steve volleyed back fiercely.

Natalia only wished she knew the contents of the flash drive. However, her natural born curiosity had taken a backseat to other engaging situations. One being trying to keep her child as safe as humanly possible. And even still she knew it wouldn't be enough; it would never be enough when it came to the Winter Soldier.

"I don't know." She admitted.

The risk was far too great for her to examine the contents of the flash drive when it first came into her possession. She needed to access them somewhere safe, maybe a spot where no one would suspect her to be at. But her apartment was out of the question.

"Stop lying!"

"I only act like I know everything, Rogers!"

"I bet you knew Fury hired the pirates, didn't you?"

"Well, it makes sense. The ship was dirty, Fury needed a way in, so do you."

"I'm not going to ask you again." Steve snarled, which put everything into perspective for Natalia.

Steve wasn't the wholesome American hero that right-wing conservatives made him out to be. He had a dark side, possibly even darker than hers. The only difference was that she had been forced to tap into it while working with the Red Room. Steve probably hadn't explored that side of himself since World War II, and he probably really needed to.

There was a dangerous glint in Steve's eyes that put Natalia on edge. She knew better than to test someone who was on the brink. And it honestly wouldn't serve much of a purpose to antagonize him and string him along, even if she didn't know what was on the flash drive. It would be worse to make Steve her enemy.

"I know who killed Fury. Most of the intelligence community doesn't believe he exists, the ones who do call him the Winter Soldier. He's credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last fifty years."

"So he's a ghost story." Steve muttered, as his hands slipped away from her shoulders; he looked apprehensive, but there was no way that Natalia would elaborate any further.

Quite frankly, she wasn't entirely convinced the Winter Soldier was responsible for many of the assassinations that he'd been credited with. Vanya had been a young man when they had met; even Lukin couldn't fool space and time for his own convenience. But she knew of many of the important dignitaries and leaders that the Winter Soldier had killed during her time with the Red Room.

The smell of blood and gunpowder were synonymous with Vanya. Sometimes Natalia missed that most of all, and something like yearning threatened to suffocate her. Unfortunately, if she did come across the Winter Soldier, it would not be a happy reunion. One of them might end up dead; it was more than likely, actually.

"You know it'll be impossible to find him. Like you said – he's a ghost story."

"Well, let's see what the ghost wants." Steve stepped away from her and moved towards the door. "Come on, we need to figure out what's on that flash drive."

There wasn't any arguing that point. They did need to explore the contents of the flash drive, and unravel whatever it was that made Nick a target in the first place. And maybe then Natalia could figure out who was behind the assassination, and who the Winter Soldier was now working for.

Pushing away from the wall, she followed Steve from the hospital room and back into the hallway. She had already begun to formulate a plan in which they could access the flash drive's files without putting themselves into too much jeopardy. Of course, they would be in danger that was inevitable. But they wouldn't be sitting ducks either.

Without needing to tell Steve to follow her, Natalia took the lead and headed for the stairway again. She didn't want to be confined into a small place with abrupt stops right now. What they needed was space to move around if they were followed by anyone.

They crossed vertically across the hallway, and went down an adjoining one before the door to the stairway appeared. Natalia shoved it open and peered up then down. No one was in the immediate vicinity, which meant she could ask Steve on why he was now a wanted man instead of guessing for herself.

Once they both on the cement platform and headed downstairs, Natalia shot Steve an inquisitive look. He caught her eye without any trouble; he smiled grimly and her suspicions were ultimately proven true.

"They think I have something to do with Fury's murder." He explained. "One minute I was talking to Secretary Pierce, and the next I was being attacked by Rumlow and his boys in an elevator."

"Were you as evasive with Pierce as you were with me?"

"I told him everything that I knew."

"So in other words, you were as evasive with him as you were with me." Natalia raised her eyebrow in a challenge, but Steve didn't rise to the bait.

Instead they continued down the twelve flights of stairs in silence. It was obvious that Steve knew more than he was letting onto. Nick had probably told him something before his death, which he didn't deem necessary to share with anyone else. And it must have been important due to the fact that he was now on the run from SHIELD.

Whatever Nick had told Steve must have been crucially important. He wasn't the type of man who would promote insubordination so much, unless it served a purpose. Stark's way of handling things was enough to make Nick crazy since he believed in order. Which meant that if he was willing to call on the perfect soldier to keep his mouth shut even while dealing with someone like Pierce then that meant it was of the utmost importance.

"I heard they teach about you in elementary schools." Natalia said casually as they stepped on the third floor landing and continued onward.

Steve snorted in response as if the idea was ludicrous. It probably was; he had been gone for seventy years, and he still didn't know the impact that he clearly had on the country, no less history. For god's sake, they had a Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian that would stay up for two more months. Suddenly, she wondered if maybe Alexei's class would go on a field trip to see it.

"You're a big deal, Cap."

"Not after this, I'm sure."

"I haven't turned on the news. But I imagine you're getting reamed by Fox News for your unpatriotic, murderous ways right now."

"I don't want anything to do with politics."

"Unfortunately, the country's made you a poster boy for wholesomeness. You're pure apple pie to those people."

"Then they don't know anything." Steve scoffed, and stopped to look at her. "If you believe that then you don't know anything either."

There was a challenging tone to Steve's exclamation. Natalia frowned, but she didn't argue the point. She didn't think he was what the world made him out to be. Steve was more than Captain America and the virtue of the American people. He was human, and that meant he was flawed and messy just like the rest of them.

It had only been too easy to make him a figure-head when everyone thought he was dead. Now that Steve was alive and well, it was obviously harder to keep him balanced on such a high pedestal.

"There's more to you than the shield." She said softly, before she took the last few steps down to the ground level, and headed for the exit. "Speaking of which, where is it exactly?"

"I have a car, you know."

"A horse and buggy aren't considered a car, Rogers."

"Ha-ha, you are hilarious."

"Give the horse some water, we'll be taking my car."

"And that will be undetectable?" Steve followed her into the hospital lobby that was filled with people. "I've seen the cars you drive."

"I have a crappy alternative. Now hurry, I know where we can look at the flash drive. It'll still be dangerous, but when is it not?" She shot him a cheeky smile, which made him roll his eyes.

Hopefully her plan would pan out. They really didn't have many options at their disposal, and it was imperative that they find out what was on that flash drive one way or another. And eventually, Natalia hoped anyway, Steve would give her some insight on Nick's last few moments.

She needed to regain Steve's trust, and things would fall into place after that. Because the sooner they found out who hired the Winter Soldier the better; and maybe they would be able to avoid him too. After all, Nick was now dead so there really wasn't any further use for the Winter Soldier. Or that's what she prayed for.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-three :: Public Displays of Affection

 


 

 

Coverage was ample in a busy shopping mall. Natalia had chosen a public place to not only shield them from detection, but also to make any attempts at apprehension nearly impossible without causing an obvious scene.

She stalked side-by-side with Steve, although they said little. She had already given him the 101 on how to be on the run without literally being on the run. Any sudden movements or paranoid second glances would only draw suspicion and attention, neither of which they could afford to have spotlighted on them now.

Soon enough, Natalia could only believe, they would have SHIELD agents zeroing in on them. Once they accessed the files on the flash drive, all bets were off. Something that classified had to have several safety precautions set in place, that was a given. So they had to work fast and effectively.

"Where are we going exactly?" Steve said barely above a whisper, as if there were bugs planted in every nook and cranny of the vicinity.

Natalia shot him a quick glance. Steve was trying his damnedest not to look suspicious, however it wasn't working all too well. He looked like he might jump out of his skin at any moment, and he was scouring the afternoon crowd of teenagers and families as if they were master assassins in disguise.

"Have you heard of the Apple Store? And no they are not a produce store."

"I own an Apple computer, thanks." Steve deadpanned.

"So long as you know I'm not going to insert the flash drive into a piece of fruit."

"These old man jokes are getting stale, you know."

"I'm only getting started." She returned distractedly, once she saw the Apple Store around the upcoming bend.

She braced herself mentally. One of Natalia's greatest strengths was her ability to work well under pressure, while also appearing cool and collected on the outside. It was up to her to hack into the files and to find the significance in them, and then they'd work together to evade capture. It was all pretty simple in theory, but in execution – well, there left much to be desired.

Outside factors would ultimately complicate things. She didn't know how quickly their location would be revealed to SHIELD. All she knew for certain, it might very well be instantaneous; SHIELD didn't work slowly if they could help it.

Despite the unease that Natalia felt on the inside, her outward appearance was completely natural. No one spared her a second glance, and thankfully the same could be said about the bespectacled Steve as well. They might actually pull this off. Then again they didn't have any other choice.

Within moments, they crossed over the threshold into sleek design of the store. A dozen or so people were meandering around the displays and the computers lined up neatly in two rows. Natalia bypassed the iPhone displays, and moved towards a computer that was unoccupied on either side. Even though they were accessing the flash drive in public, they didn't need some passer-by catching a glimpse of what they were looking at.

Slipping the flash drive from her back pocket, Natalia waited until Steve sidled up beside her in front of the computer, before she pushed it into the port. It took a second before the computer recognized the flash drive, and a pop-up appeared with a prompt on what to do next.

However, after the initial prompts, there were a series of security protocols thrown up to dissuade anyone from viewing the files. No one could view the files, unless they had some kind of computer hacking background, and well Natalia had learned quite a few tricks in her service with SHIELD and Stark as well.

"The drive has a level six homing program," Natalia cracked through the first of many security precautions. "So as soon as we boot up, SHIELD will know exactly where we are."

"How much time do we have?"

"Uh, about nine minutes, now," she muttered absently, and was unsurprised the first level of security wasn't actually the strongest. "Fury was right about that ship, somebody's trying to hide something. This drive is protected by some sort of AI, it keeps rewriting itself to counter my commands."

"Can you override it?" Steve sounded tense.

"The person who developed this is slightly smarter than me. Slightly," she glanced towards him, while her fingers flew across the keyboard to access the files.

Every attempt seemed to be in vain, though. She couldn't seem to get the upper-hand over the AI. Maybe if Stark had been here, he would have figured it out within a snap of his fingers. But unfortunately he wasn't within reach, and time was of the essence so trying to contact him was out of the question.

"I'm going to try running a tracer. This is a program that SHIELD developed to track hostile malware, so if we can't read the file, maybe we can find out where it came from." Natalia said in frustration, once she realized there wasn't any viable way to hack the flash drive within the time frame she'd been given.

At least if they knew the origins of the files, maybe they could find who possibly wrote them. They still had a lead, even if it wasn't the one she'd ultimately hoped for. One way or another though, they would find out what was on the drive, and they would go from there.

Before she could delve entirely into what she was doing, Natalia noticed an employee of the store sidle up beside Steve with a goofy smile on his face. That was the last thing they needed at the moment. Anyone who had the potential to interfere with what they were doing was a threat, and although Natalia knew she couldn't eliminate the interference like she would have in the Red Room; it didn't mean she didn't entertain the idea.

"Can I help you guys with anything?"

"Oh, no. My fiancé was just helping me with some honeymoon destinations." Natalia lied seamlessly, before she grabbed Steve by the upper arms, and hoped he would play along accordingly.

"Right; we're married!"

"Congratulations," the Apple employee smiled. "Where are you guys thinking of going?"

Steve jerked slightly in her grasp, and his head swiveled to the side before he blurted out a location that no one would honeymoon in ever – New Jersey. Natalia shot the laptop a quick look, only to see that the tracker had been traced back to the location in question.

"You know, I have the exact same glasses." The Apple employee spoke again.

"Wow, you two are practically twins."

"Yeah, I wish. Specimen; uh, if you guys need anything, I'm Aaron."

"Thank you." Steve replied, and visibly sagged once Aaron had stepped away to help someone else instead; which also gave Natalia the opportunity to refocus her attention on the screen.

Unlike Stark technology, Apple's wasn't as advanced or even that fast for that matter. So it came as no surprise that it was taking longer than Natalia would have preferred for the tracker to pinpoint exactly where the files had been made.

"You said nine minutes. Come on."

"Relax," Natalia's eyes were glued onto the screen, as the tracker finally zeroed in on Wheaton, New Jersey. "I got it."

Steve's eyes widened a fraction behind the ridiculous frames he wore. It was apparent that he recognized the location.

"You know it?"

"I used to. Let's go." He said in a rush as if he suspected the Apple employee would reveal himself as a secret agent.

Without further ado, Steve reached out and yanked the flash drive free. Natasha gave the computer they perused a brief once-over, before she followed Steve towards the entrance of the store and back into the hustle and bustle of afternoon shoppers.

They walked at a measured pace, although they had only nine minutes, probably less now, to make it out of the vicinity without potential discovery. She had full confidence that they would get away; SHIELD might have hired some of the best men and women at their disposal, but the two of them were a greater force to be reckoned with.

"Standard tac-team; two behind, to across, two coming straight at us. If they make us, I'll engage. You hit the south escalator to the metro." Steve piped up in an authoritative tone that left no room for argument.

Unfortunately for him, Natalia wasn't a run-of-the-mill agent. She didn't always listen to his military drivel nor did she think that he was right with his assessments all the time either. Knowing human behavior outside of combat strategies was an invaluable skill to have.

"Shut up and put your arm around me. Laugh at something I said."

"What?"

"Do it!" She demanded, which led to Steve throwing his arm around her.

In union they let out a bellow of laughter, as they leaned in towards one another almost naturally. The agents bypassed them without any interest, which Natalia knew would happen. Not many military trained government officials would zero in on a happy couple enjoying a day out at the mall. Which Natalia supposed was a failing in SHIELD's training, since they didn't realize how many international spies could easily blend into a crowd without any trouble whatsoever.

The minutes that followed were tense. They weaved their way through the carefree crowd, and they were soon within walking distance of the escalator that would take them to the ground level and out of the building. Even with this knowledge in mind, neither of them tried to bustle the last few yards towards their destination.

Natalia felt Steve grow taut beside her. He was strung tighter than a bow-string, and she suspected that his stance reflected that as well. But she didn't try and point it out to him, not when they were so close to getting out of here. He just needed to hold it together a bit longer.

Soon they were lining up with other shoppers to climb onto the escalator. Steve's arm dropped from around her, and Natalia quickly stepped forward to mount one of the steps moving downwards. She knew he was behind her; she could feel his solid presence behind her, and it was strangely relieving that he had her back when she usually worked alone.

Surveying the vicinity as subtly as she could, Natalia eventually saw a familiar face on escalator beside them. Brock Rumlow was on the ascent, and in a matter of seconds their paths would intersect in a hail bullets, no doubt. Or at least there would be half a dozen STRIKE members on top of them if they were spotted by him.

With a natural ease, Natalia turned to face Steve. His body had grown even more tense with the sight of Rumlow. He looked like he might stupidly leap onto the other escalator to neutralize the threat that their former colleague possibly posed.

"Kiss me," she demanded.

"What?"

"Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable."

"Yes, they do." Steve looked bewildered, and Natalia took advantage of it to pull him down rather abruptly so their lips could meet.

Their mouths slotted together almost naturally. Natalia felt a split-second of déjà vu; a memory buried under rumble and stubbornness shone through, and she remembered the way Vanya bore down on her with a ferocity that this current kiss lacked. But it was niggling recollection that only subsided when she withdrew from Steve's lips.

They had evaded detection. Natalia shifted her eyes to follow Rumlow. Once she was certain they were in the clear, she moved to face forward with the minty, wholesome taste of Steve on her lips. Vanya had tasted gritty in comparison.

"You still uncomfortable?" She asked in a light tone, even though she still felt locked into that memory of her naivete.

"It's not exactly the word I would use." Steve muttered in reply.

With a ghost of a smile on her lips, Natalia stepped off the escalator and Steve soon followed suit. They made their way towards the exit without any SHIELD agents in sight. And now they had a way's to go to uncover what was on the flash drive.

The situation was far from ideal, but Natalia could always rely on Clint and Bobbi and Mrs. O'Brien to look after Alexei in her stead. And she needed all of them to work together in order to protect Alexei from a potentially lethal situation.

The Winter Soldier couldn't get anywhere near him. She would kill himself if he did. And she hoped, for his sake, that Vanya knew that.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-four :: For Your Mother

 


 

 

 

The knife's blade shone menacingly in the moonlight. Alexei marveled at it, as he sat cross-legged on his mother's bedroom floor. He had been wrong – she hadn't moved it outside of the apartment. In fact, she had only stuffed underneath her mattress which was kind of sloppy on her part. But she did seem to be in a hurry of late, so that could explain why.

Either way, Alexei was happy to have his knife back. He was especially happy that he'd been left alone for the rest of evening without supervision. Mrs. O'Brien had had an emergency at home, and she hadn't even thought of contacting Clint or Bobbi to come over to watch him in her place.

So he had the apartment all to himself, although he really didn't know what it would entail. Sure he found his knife, and he could stay up until an unacceptable hour – but other than that it wasn't entirely exciting. He would have preferred to have his mother home instead.

Clambering to his socked feet, Alexei sheathed the knife. He carried it out of his mother's bedroom and down the short hallway to the open space that served as the living room, kitchen, and dining space. The lights were off in here too, albeit the glow from the city's skyline illuminated the room quite nicely.

Alexei set the knife and its sheath onto the sleek glass-topped coffee table, before he took possession of the remote control and got onto the couch. It was only eleven-thirty and since it was a Friday night, he didn't see why he couldn't stay up later than usual. He knew there had to be cartoons on TV somewhere, and he would find them one way or another.

He switched on the TV and found the channel he'd previously viewed was still on the screen. Several displeased commentators were seated around a table, and they were in the middle of a heated debate. One of the oldest men on the panel had turned an ugly shade of red, and was in the middle of wagging his finger like an angry grandfather would at his naughty grandchildren.

"What has America become when it's greatest national hero becomes a fugitive of justice?" The old man yelled above the other commentators. "Have we been deceived this entire time by the liberal agenda? Or is this Captain America an imposture, after all?"

Protests and shouts of agreement broke out from the old man's contemporaries, although Alexei didn't understand anything that was being discussed. Maybe Clint had had a point; even now without anyone barring him from watching the news, he still didn't know what on earth they were talking about.

"When did we lose our way?" Another commentator asked above the shouting match.

Alexei frowned. All he knew for certain was that Captain America was in trouble. He also knew that some man with an eye-patch had something to do with it. And a lot of people were angry about it, especially old men like the ones who were crowing on the screen right now.

After a few minutes of the continued back and forth, Alexei switched the channel in search of cartoons instead. He wished he understood what was happening, but it would be years before he could grasp any kind of adult concept at all. And maybe it was for the better overall; he didn't want to grow up too soon.

It was clear to him already that he might be light-years ahead of his classmates in terms of independence. He didn't need to be constantly watched; he could stay alone without causing any kind of destruction. Sure it wasn't an ideal situation, but he could manage without anyone for several hours at a time and without breaking anything or setting anything on fire.

Having a mother who oftentimes wasn't around because of work and having no father meant Alexei had to be independent. He didn't have any brothers or sister either, so it could be lonely. But it was also the only thing he really knew. And well, he did have Bobbi and Mrs. O'Brien and even Clint, despite how awful he was with kids. So at least he wasn't truly alone all the time.

Pouting slightly, Alexei continued to flip through the channels. He had hit a block of news stations that were plastered with headlines about Captain America. Everyone seemed angry and confused, and everyone seemed to want to argue over what was going on.

Soon enough though, he broke away from the confusion and found old sitcoms and black and white movies across the channels. He stopped on a TV show with a lady in pink pajamas and a man in military clothes. The man called the lady Jeannie, which would explain why she was wearing such weird clothes.

The laugh track erupted quite a bit while Alexei watched the show. But he grew bored with it right away and he continued his pursuit of some cartoons, which he did find a few channels higher up. The brilliant colors quickly grabbed his attention, and a smile overtook his lips as he listened to the high-pitched back and forth between the characters.

Alexei became fully immersed in the TV show. He had all but forgotten the confusing matter with Captain America, and he had even forgotten about the undulating anger he had towards his mother. At that moment, he couldn't stop laughing at the comedic antics of the characters on screen.

Much too quickly though, the cartoon went on a commercial break. Only a handful of toy advertisements aired, replaced mostly by food products and car insurance ones instead. Alexei soon found his attention wavering once more, and his eyes flickered towards the knife in front of him.

Scooting to the edge of the couch cushion, he reached for the knife but he paused when something blocked out the light from the windows. Confused, he lifted his head and gaped at the shadowy figure right outside of them.

There was a sudden crash then, and glass flew every which way. Alexei let out a terrified cry and he quickly slid off the end of the cushion, and grabbed the knife from the coffee table. He heard another crash and another as he cowered on the ground, and struggled to unsheathe the knife.

His hands fumbled wildly on the leather for several moments, before he managed to yank the knife out with a jerky motion of his hand. But it proved to be too late. The shadow loomed over him like a monster about to tear him to pieces.

Another cry erupted from Alexei's mouth, and he held up the blade as if that would ward away the shadow above him. Unfortunately, that didn't prove to be the case. The only thing that the shadow did was tilt its head to the side in a curious way.

"Stay back! Or I'll cut you!" He exclaimed in a trembling voice.

The shadow said nothing in reply, though. Instead it continued to stare at him for several long moments, before it finally backed away and moved towards the kitchen. There weren't any disruptive sounds; only the TV drawled in the background, which convinced Alexei that the shadow had to be some kind of monster.

It was a ridiculous notion even for a nine year old to have. He knew that monsters didn't exist. His mother hadn't filled his head with any kind of fantastical thoughts. He knew there wasn't an Easter bunny or a tooth fairy or even Santa Claus. So there most definitely was not monsters.

Trembling hard, Alexei managed to climb onto his feet with the knife still extended in front of him. The monster turned out to be human by all intents and purposes. It was a tall man in all black, whose feet didn't make a sound on the floorboards as he surveyed the scene.

"M-My dad's here and he'll kill you!" He bellowed out the lie. "He's big and he's strong and he's scary!"

The man still was non-responsive. In fact, it appeared as if he was intentionally ignoring him. Because the man bypassed him entirely, and moved down the hallway on silent feet. But before Alexei could even think about running to the front door in order to scream for help, the man returned just as quickly as he had left. He barely even gave the rest of the apartment a cursory look, as if he knew already that Alexei was home alone.

On the man's return, that was when Alexei noticed the light catch on the man's arm. What should have been a normal, boring arm was anything but. The man had a metal arm like he was some kind of robot. Maybe he even was a robot too. Because how else could a normal person get up six stories without a ladder or even a staircase?

Cowering, Alexei tried to make himself look smaller than he already was. This time around though, the man or robot or whatever he was didn't ignore him. He walked right towards him, even when Alexei begun to swing the knife haphazardly in front of him. He tried to look threatening, but he already knew a nine year old with a knife was hardly scary.

With an inhuman-like speed, the man shot forward and snatched the knife away from Alexei's grasp. He nearly screamed and staggered backwards from the sheer force in which the man used to disarm him.

"No," he cried out, although his eyes remained dry despite his terror. "Go away! Leave me alone!"

The man had ceased his advancement, however. He was now staring at the knife in a calculated fashion. Or at least that's what Alexei assumed since his eyes were dark and unreadable in the shadows of the room. It was hard to tell, although they were ringed in greasy paint which made him ten time scarier than he already was.

Slowly and methodically, the man flipped the knife in a wide arc before he caught it. He then scanned the immediate vicinity, before he crouched to pick up the sheath. He put the knife back into its rightful place, and looked at Alexei again.

The man's eyes were blue. And the lower half of his face was covered by some kind of mask.

Alexei dropped his stare only to see the knife being extended towards him. Shakily, he snatched it from the man's hand and held it close to his body. He didn't know why he'd been given it back, but he wasn't going to let it be taken away from him again.

"Where is the Widow?" The man said in a gravelly, unused voice.

"I-I don't know who that is." Alexei stammered, before taking a step back.

"The Widow," the man repeated. "The Black Widow, Romanova,"

"I don't know who that is!"

"твоя мать (Your mother)," the man snarled like a wild animal.

Frozen in place, Alexei could only stare up at the man. His mind went completely blank out of fear, and maybe out of confusion too. He didn't know what to say. He knew he needed to say something in order to protect himself, but nothing would come out of him.

"You've become too Americanized. Do you not even understand your mother tongue?"

"Нет, я понимаю (No, I understand)," he managed to say. "Я не знаю, где она (I don't know where she is)."

The man considered Alexei closely, before he reached to his side and pulled out a gun from the holster on his hip. Terror gripped Alexei once more, although he couldn't move. His feet wouldn't cooperate with him; he was going to be shot by this man right now. And he didn't want to die.

But instead of firing the weapon, the man ejected the cartridge and pulled out a stray bullet. Once he shoved the cartridge back inside and returned the gun to his hip, the man held out the bullet for Alexei to see.

"для матери (For your mother)," the man explained harshly, before he placed it on the coffee table. "Tell her that she should stay out of my way. If she does not, the next one will be in her head."

Without another word, the man with the blue eyes and the metal arm disappeared like a shadow as quickly as he appeared. Alexei couldn't move to see how he left the apartment, although he suspected he jumped out of the window.

Eventually his legs went out from underneath him, and he let out a pathetic cry. He wanted his mama and he wanted her now.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-five :: Cut Off One Head, Two More Take Its Place

 


 

 

Things had literally and figuratively, blown up in their faces. Natalia had only begun to regain consciousness now. The smell of smoke and soot filled the stolen truck's cab, and her body screamed in protest to her upright position she was currently in.

Slowly, her eyes rolled to the side and she noticed Steve beside her. He was dirty and clutching the steering wheel with two bone-white hands. He looked on the verge of a mental breakdown, although he seemed far more in-control of his facilities than anyone truly gave him credit for. He was a soldier, after all.

"Would you like to play a game?" She murmured, although it sounded more like a croak.

Steve jolted from the sound her voice. He glanced towards her with a visible wash of relief on his features. Soot was smeared across his cheeks, his forehead, and colored his blond hair almost comically.

The reality of the situation wasn't very funny, though. They both could have been killed, and it was only because of Steve's fast thinking that saved them from an early grave. Natalia owned him her life, and she would never be able to repay that debt either.

"So our former colleagues are trying to kill us." She spoke again.

"HYDRA," Steve corrected in a tone that was almost homicidal.

To be honest, American history hadn't been one of Natalia's strong suits. Having grown up during the Cold War had quite a bit to do with her limited knowledge. But she did know more less about HYDRA and their role in the Second World War.

HYDRA had been a branch of the Nazi party, whose leader Johann Schmidt had gone toe to toe with Captain America. Neither had lived to see another day. Or at least that had been the reports after the fact. Because who honestly would have believed that Captain America would have been resurrected from a block of ice fully preserved anyway?

With the death of Schmidt, it had reportedly led to the dissolution of HYDRA. But throughout all these decades, the organization had clearly been growing like a cancer underneath the foundation of SHIELD. And no one had been any the wiser to it either. Nick hadn't known, and he knew almost everything.

"Well, where do we go from here?"

"We can't trust anyone at this point." Steve glanced through the rear-view mirror, as if to illustrate that point. "Anyone with a connection to SHIELD might be in cohorts with HYDRA."

"I don't think that's necessarily true." Natalia said faintly, before she raked her fingers through her hair to push it away from her face. "But I think you have a point anyway. It would be in our best interest to stay away from anyone who is a SHIELD operative."

Steve's brow furrowed in thought, although he didn't share what was on his mind. Natalia elected not to prod him into laying out all his cards of yet. As of right now, she had quite a bit of thinking to do as well and how this would correlate when it came to her child.

Without a doubt, she believed Clint was trustworthy. He had voluntarily put himself on the line to bring her to Nick without any unnecessary harm done to her and Alexei. He could have killed her right then and there, but he had the foresight and the humanity to see why that was an unreasonable option.

So for the time being, Natalia believed her child was safe. However, that didn't mean it was a permanent state either. In which case, she needed to find a way to ensure Alexei's safety from here on out. And unfortunately, she couldn't flee with him again; not with the current state of affairs anyway.

It would be cowardly, despite being justified, for her to slip away into the night undetected. She had connections throughout much of the world, and she could disappear without a trace. But where would that leave Steve or Clint or anyone else for that matter?

"I know some place we can lay low for a while." Steve finally spoke again.

"Is it some kind of safe house?"

"Not necessarily, no. But I trust this person not to be involved in any of this."

"You do realize there are double agents everywhere, Steve."

"You mean like my neighbor?" He sounded terse, as his large hands tightened with a groan on the steering wheel.

Natalia opened her mouth; she had a witty retort on her lips, but she stopped herself. Steve was right in being angry about being spied on. She would have been furious if there was a mole around her too.

"I'm sorry; I did know about Agent 13. But it wasn't my place to say anything." She admitted, before her gaze darted outside where early dawn had started to reveal itself.

Concern gripped her once more; she wondered about how her son was. She hoped he was tucked away in bed, oblivious to her not being there for the time being. She knew Mrs. O'Brien would be with him until Bobbi could get away; if she could get away, that is.

Despite how hard she tried to stifle her worry, Natalia couldn't neutralize it. It was impossible for her not to worry; Alexei had become the only reason worth living for. Ever since she had given birth to him, her entire world had been transferred onto his little shoulders. And well, everything else and everyone else had always been expendable in comparison.

Chewing on her bottom lip, Natalia easily drew to the conclusion that Vanya was in cohorts with that underground faction of HYDRA. Maybe when the Soviet Union fell and Lukin along with it, Vanya had somehow gotten involved with the underground channels that Lukin always so breezily navigated through.

So it was safe to assume that Secretary Pierce was the one who called the hit on Nick. But did that mean Vanya was no longer of use to HYDRA now? Or would he be dispatched once more to handle both her and Steve?

There weren't any forthcoming answers, of course. However, Natalia didn't need any; she could only assume the worst, especially since Captain America had become a problem. It would in HYDRA's best interest to eliminate their greatest threat and oldest enemy. And well, she was just a simple nuisance in comparison that needed to be neutralized.

"Where are we going?" Natalia dared to ask again, although she didn't expect an answer.

From the little she could see of their environment, she suspected they were en route back into the country's capital. That was unexpected, and in a way she supposed it might have been the smart thing to do. Who would have thought they'd return to D. C. with the man-hunt in full swing?

Then again there were highly trained agents in pursuit of them. Natalia could only imagine that there were hundreds, if not thousands, posted in the city and the surrounding areas just waiting to take them into custody or shoot them dead where they stood.

"Are you not talking to me?"

"You'll see." Steve replied within half a beat, and accelerated so that they were roaring up the mostly abandoned road.

"We need to have some kind of communication, you know. And I can only imagine how shocking it is to hear that from me. But we're in between a rock and a hard place. I need to know what you're thinking for prosperity's sake."

"You don't want to go down that road right now, Romanoff."

"I think I do." She challenged.

Steve's jaw visibly went rigid, and his shoulders squared off as if he was about to run head-first into enemy fire. Even with the countless hours they spent together on and off the battlefield, Natalia knew very little about Steve. And he, of course, knew very little about her which she preferred for obvious reasons.

Maybe they weren't so unlike one another in that way. Steve willingly lived an isolated life; Natalia knew that, which was why she had been so persistent on finding him some kind companionship, even if temporarily.

"I'm angry as hell." Steve spoke in a steely tone. "It's like my entire life has been for nothing. I gave everything up to make sure that HYDRA was destroyed, and the world would be a safer place. But now I've found out that they've been thriving in secret; they've been infecting the world with their poison, and the people I was supposed to be able to trust were actually a part of everything I sacrificed my life for. My best friend..."

The incomplete sentence hung heavily in the air, and Natalia understood why. While she wasn't anywhere near a historian on Captain America, she had heard from reliable sources that Steve's best friend had died during a mission to intercept Arnim Zola. The same Zola whose brain had been stored in that ancient computer in New Jersey.

"War isn't pretty, Steve. You know that more than anyone. And I bet you would have still made that sacrifice, even if you knew that seventy years later HYDRA would be around. I don't know you all that well, but I know you enough to know that's true." Natalia observed him, and she noticed him deflate a little despite his obvious fury.

Both of them knew that Steve would have flown that plane into the water regardless of the consequences in the future. He had saved at least two generations from the horror of an obvious HYDRA reign, and he effectively killed their leader in the process. It was a sacrifice worth making.

"Cut off one head, two more take its place." Steve frowned.

"Then we won't make that mistake again. We won't cut off the heads." Natalia's eyes hardened as she looked out the windshield. "We'll blow them to pieces, and we'll make sure that they stay dead this time around."

They didn't speak again, but Natalia did see a small smile touch Steve's chapped lips. Maybe the stakes were insurmountably high now, and maybe the people they once trusted were now their enemies, yet Natalia believed they would be able to overcome this obstacle. They could make things right again. All they needed to do was to trust one another.

She trusted very few people, but she did trust Steve and she had to rely on that to get her through this.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-six :: Winter's Child

 


 

 

Sam Wilson appeared to be a reliable ally. After her initial encounter with Wilson, although brief, Natalia had taken the opportunity to perform an extensive background check on him. And lucky for him, the results hadn't unearthed anything to be concerned about.

That, however, did not dissuade Natalia from poring over the room in which she was in for any bugs or cameras. She had reason to be concerned, and it was becoming significantly clearer that no one was to be trusted without proof of their loyalty first. But that had always been her motto from the beginning anyway.

Her first and second sweep didn't lead to any incriminating evidence. They were evidently dealing with a man without any criminal history, and one who hadn't any ties to any secret government organization or terror group. Sam Wilson was clean, almost too clean. And in a way, Natalia felt unworthy to be within arm's length of the man.

As they converged around Wilson's kitchen table, Steve had quickly launched into the tangled web of events that led to them nearly being killed. Wilson, for his part, was oddly understanding about the whole thing and never questioned the validity of any of the details in which Steve so readily conveyed to him.

Natalia only half-listened, although her eyes followed Wilson around his quaint kitchen as he prepared breakfast for the three of them. He moved with fluidity, but there was obvious habits of his military service still in the way in which he held himself. He seemed more than trustworthy and loyal too.

Once that was settled in her mind, Natalia slowly slipped her mobile phone from her pocket. There was a large crack across the touch screen, but it was still functional. She would have to thank Stark, considering he was nearly emphatic when he had heard she owned an iPhone as opposed to a Stark Phone and shipped her one to SHIELD's headquarters right away.

What was especially valuable about this phone was that it was untraceable. Natalia made sure of that since she was fed up with constantly switching out phones in order to maintain contact with anyone. And it was imperative that she had a reliable line with a child so young in her care.

Unlocking the phone from underneath the table, Natalia dropped her eyes long enough to find Clint's number and sent him a quick note about Winter's Child. It was not only a code name for Alexei, but it was also a TV show with critical acclaim. So if anyone happened to get in possession of her phone, they wouldn't be any the wiser to the undertones of the conversation.

Almost instantly, her phone pinged with a reply. Neither Steve nor Wilson seemed to have heard it since they were deep in conversation still. Which freed her to open the message and read its contents without being questioned about her motives, although even if she had, she would have spun a lie to throw them of her tracks.

'Missed the latest episode; old lady downstairs promised to record it for me.'

Natalia read and reread the message. Something didn't bode well with her; call it mother's intuition if you will, but something felt awry. She couldn't pinpoint why exactly, and nothing in the message could have been interpreted poorly either. All the same though, she knew she needed to slip away to see her son.

Slipping her phone back into her pocket, Natalia mulled over any and all reasons for concern. Not many things when it came to motherhood was logical, though. She found out the hard way that her rationale was severely compromised whenever Alexei was involved.

Some way or another, she needed to get back to her son. It might prove to be a difficult feat now, however. Steve probably wouldn't want her very far out of his sight, which was understandable. But she would figure out something in order to explain away her absence for a few hours. She really didn't have a choice.

There was an obvious lull in conversation now. Wilson was absorbed with scrambling some eggs on the stove-top, while Steve appeared lost in thought beside her. The silence was thick, but it was surprisingly not unpleasant and Natalia was grateful for it.

"We'll figure something out." She eventually spoke. "We're both resourceful."

"They know we aren't dead."

"Of course, they do. So that does make our lives a lot harder, since they will be looking for us."

"I never thought my life would be this way." Steve admitted almost sheepishly. "I'm just some kid from Brooklyn. Didn't even think I'd make it through my childhood, and now I'm here in the twenty-first century."

"Cool it, grandpa. You wouldn't want to break a hip, you know with how fast you're running down memory lane." She quipped in reply.

Steve snorted back a laugh, before he shook his head. At least when everything looked so grim, Natalia could still make him laugh even if it was at his expense. But Steve always was a good sport about it, even if he told her how unfunny she was most of the time.

"Are we telling grandpa jokes? I love grandpa jokes." Wilson sidled up beside the table then with two plates of steaming hot food in his hands.

The promise of food made Natalia's stomach clench. She couldn't remember when her last real meal had been. She remembered having a granola bar the day before, but otherwise she had been running on empty all this time, and regardless of the harsh conditions in which she was trained - she didn't see a reason to go without food for any longer than she had to.

Steve looked to be on the same boat as her. His eyes had suddenly become transfixed on the food heaped onto each plate. Hell, he didn't even seem to hear Wilson's statement at all. But that didn't seem to perturb Wilson any; in fact, he just shot both of them a toothy grin before presenting them with their breakfast.

Once it was within her reach, Natalia took possession of the fork already placed on the tabletop and sunk its prongs into the fluffy pile of eggs that took up a third of the plate. The rest of the meal consisted of sausage links and a few small pancakes that Wilson had fanned out along one edge of the plate.

As they quickly dug into their food, Wilson went back into the kitchen and poured them glasses of milk since the orange juice had supposedly been tainted by him drinking directly out of the bottle. And he soon joined them as they ate with single-minded focus, although he did make an attempt at conversation all the same.

"You know, I figured I'd be more surprised by all of this." Wilson began in between bites of his own meal. "But I guess after a giant alien army almost destroyed New York City, well you have to put things into perspective."

"Only the aliens made you suspend your disbelief?" Natalia asked. "Not your greatest American hero being thawed out and reanimated a few years ago?"

"Hey-"

"Listen, the miracles of modern science. And to be honest, I was never much for the extraterrestrial thing; I mean I loved The X-Files, but I was always more Scully than Mulder."

"Clearly you missed the point – the truth is out there, Wilson." Natalia smirked in reply.

Wilson guffawed before he looked to Steve, who quickly announced far too loudly that he had, in fact seen The X-Files after all. Natalia never took Steve for the sci-fi type, but there was a lot more dimension behind the red, white, and blue than anybody gave him credit for.

When everyone had eaten more than their fair share, things turned somber once more. The conversation picked up on what would be their best way to approach the threat of not only HYDRA but SHIELD too. Until Natalia received any intel from Clint, they would have to assume the worst out of most of their former colleagues. And it had already been made clear to them that STRIKE was working against them.

What Natalia hadn't expected as they conversed was that Wilson eagerly wanted to help them. The idea had been almost ludicrous to her until Wilson revealed his credentials that exceeded a regular soldier's call to duty. And he would ultimately be an asset to the cause as well much to her relief.

Not to mention this opened up the perfect excuse for Natalia to slip away. After, of course, they made a quick visit to Fort Meade to retrieve the only set of wings left from the EXO-7 Falcon project. Which Natalia knew wouldn't be that hard to do; she had fetched far more valuable things before working with both KGB and SHIELD, so this task was practically a cake walk for her.

"So it's settled." Wilson announced, before he started to collect the plates from the table. "You mosey on over to Fort Meade, and I guess I'll be stuck with the dirty dishes. Unless you'd like to trade places, Cap."

"The great thing about the twenty-first century is the technology, Sam." Steve offered up a small smile. "Dish washers,"

Wilson squawked in surprise by the quip, before he devolved into an infectious chuckle that made even Natalia smile. But she soon fell back into that pit of uncertainty once more. Every alarm bell was beginning to sound off in her head, and her concern for her son became more and more unbearable to deal with as time dragged on.

Unfortunately, she could do nothing but to agonize silently about it. Within a few short hours, she would be home, even if it was briefly, and at least she would know Alexei was safe and sound. She had to believe he was one way or another.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-seven :: He Had a Metal Arm

 


 

 

Slipping away proved to be far more complicated than Natalia would have liked. Steve hadn't wanted to let her go off on her own, and it took quite a lot of convincing to finally assure him that the business she needed to finish wasn't any of his concern, but also that it wasn't something dangerous either.

They parted on a tense note, but it couldn't be helped. She would be back, and they would start to tread through the trouble ahead of them. And that would lead to them exposing themselves out in public, which was something they really couldn't avoid at this point.

Any and all thought about business soon took a backseat to Natalia's motherly concerns. But she was far from sloppy as she went from one route to the next, backtracking up one street at least twice before she ultimately came to the old factory that now served as some mid-priced apartment suites that young professionals vied for.

The building was filled with young people with chunky black eyeglass frames, reusable grocery bags, and an odd wave of entitlement. There weren't many children that lived there. Or maybe Alexei was the only one who did. Natalia hadn't checked that fact too closely, although maybe she should just for safety reasons in the future.

Since it was midday on a Saturday, there weren't many tenants mulling about. They probably had flea markets and coffee dates to be at, so Natalia easily climbed into the oversized elevator without being intercepted by chance. But even with a short ride in her future, she still couldn't help but pace back and forth in worry.

That motherly instinct of hers wouldn't shut up. It only became louder and far more prominent with every rickety jerk from the elevator underneath her feet. Even though she knew that nothing had happened, she couldn't bring herself to believe it.

By the time the elevator finally came to an abrupt halt, Natalia had nearly driven herself to the point of madness. Her heart had jumped into her throat, and she tasted a coppery undertone on her tongue; which she ended up realizing was the direct cause of her biting down hard on her bottom lip until it began to bleed.

Swiping the back of her hand over her mouth, Natalia quickly bolted out of the elevator and headed down the hallway where her unit was located. Nothing looked remotely disturbed, and that lessened her worry a fraction. But she knew only when she stepped over the threshold that all her troubles would be put to rest at long last.

Coyly, she pressed her thumb underneath the front door's lock. Nick had made sure she was completely protected, and he had employed Stark Industries for a few minor security measures. Tony never knew that, though. Product orders never really concerned Tony or even the CEO of his company; not small ones anyway and under an assumed name either.

The lock clicked, which caused the door to pop open a fraction. Natalia glanced over her shoulder, before she pushed it in and slipped into the apartment. She quickly turned the lock back into place, before her eyes surveyed the large room in front of her.

For a fraction of a second, everything appeared normal. There weren't any dirty dishes in the sink or any junk food contraband on the kitchen table. There weren't any toys strewn across the floor or a pillow fort erected in front of the TV set.

Everything was in place and orderly. Or at least she thought it was until she saw the large windows whose glass had been broken, and the pieces littered over the floorboards like tiny shards of crystal.

Panic seized Natalia in an unshakable hold, and any semblance of control crumbled into rumble around her feet. Not many people would have recognized Natalia then. Her many years with the Red Room had wiped her clean of explosive emotional outbreaks, but they couldn't wipe away the bond that she shared with her only child. No amount of training, brutal or otherwise, could do that.

"Alexei," Natalia yelled at the top of her lungs. "Единственная и неповторимая,"

When there wasn't any forthcoming answer, complete and utter hysteria kicked in for her. She sped from her spot at the front entryway, and headed across the room towards the hallway. Her heart was threatening to come out of her body, and terrified tears already started to burn her eyes.

Why had she left him in the first place? Why had she stupidly chosen her work over her child? And why hadn't she run like hell once she knew Vanya was behind Nick's death? That would have been the smart thing to do – to run the hell away.

She hadn't, though. And Natalia knew she would never forgive herself for it. She'd never be able to live with herself if Alexei was harmed. Or worse yet, so much worse, if he had been killed.

That thought alone broke the dam built up inside of her. Tears welled up in her eyes and blinded her, although she knew the layout of the apartment well enough to not bump into any wayward piece of furniture or to even run smack-dab into a wall. Even if she had, she would have continued like a woman possessed and in hysterics like she currently was now.

"Alexei, baby," Natalia wailed as she hurried down the hallway, and through the first door which happened to be her son's bedroom.

He wasn't there, and there wasn't any obvious disruption. Yes, the linens were pushed to the foot of the bed but that was a given. She didn't always make him make his bed on the weekends. But at least there wasn't any sign of a struggle either. Maybe Mrs. O'Brien had gotten him away before anything bad could happen. She was a former SHIELD agent, after all.

That didn't stop Natalia's progression through apartment any, however. She glanced into the only bathroom and the linen closet, before she came into the last room that made up their home. Her bedroom door was thrown open, and lumped in the center of the bed was a familiar figure wrapped in an old quilt that was sewn together by an old woman from Russia.

The shoddy but colorful patchwork was like a beacon of light to Natalia. She cried harder than before and rushed the last few feet ahead of her, and scrambled onto the bed which finally roused Alexei whose face was puffy and red from what could only have been a very long crying session.

"Mama," he wailed as his arms shot out from underneath the quilt to reach across the short distance between them.

Natalia scooped her son into an unbreakable embrace. She didn't know why he hadn't answered her yells beforehand, but that seemed entirely irrelevant now that she had him safely in her arms. All that mattered was that he was okay; he was alive, and she was never going to let him out of her sight again.

Their combined sobs enveloped the bedroom for some time. Natalia hadn't cried like this since her defection from the Soviet Union. And while she had shed a few tears over Nick's passing, it could hardly be considered crying in comparison to what was transpiring now.

By the time some semblance of control came back to Natalia, her whole body ached from the sheer ferocity of her emotional breakdown. Her throat felt raw and her stomach ached from how deep-seated her crying had been. Every part of her relief had been thrown into her hysterics.

Alexei had since stopped crying too, although he hiccuped softly every few moments from the lack of oxygen he'd experienced. Natalia rocked him to and fro, before planting kisses to his messy and clearly unwashed hair. Mrs. O'Brien should have advised him to bathe the night before...

"Where is Mrs. O'Brien?" She asked in alarm. "Did something happen to her? Is that why you're alone?"

It took a moment or so before Alexei lifted his head. His eyes were red and watery, but he looked much too tired to fall back into a crying fit. Natalia could relate; she had cried her heart out and then some within that short period of time.

"Emergency," Alexei sniffled. "She had to go home early. So I was here alone."

"You were what...?"

"Left alone," Alexei repeated, before another hiccup seized up his body.

Rage threatened to swallow Natalia whole then. How could Mrs. O'Brien leave Alexei unattended, especially when she knew the state of affairs with SHIELD? In the very least, she should have tried to get a hold of Bobbi or even her. That way her only child wouldn't be left vulnerable. And something had happened the previous night on top of that too. It was evident from the broken windows.

"Alexei, what happened? I want the whole truth. Don't even think about lying to me because I will find out." She warned.

Alexei looked hesitant to speak, but he soon withdrew from her embrace long enough to rummage around the cover of his quilt. He pulled out the point of contention between them, the knife, and he looked openly guilty over having it in his possession.

Without a word, he handed it to her and diverted his eyes. He knew he'd done wrong; he wasn't allowed to rummage through her things for a variety of reasons. Mostly the reason was because Natalia did have weapons scattered around the room in case an enemy came into their home. But there was also the issue of boundaries as well.

"I wanted my knife, I'm sorry." Alexei hiccuped again. "So I found it, and then I took it into the living room. And I started to watch TV, and then I saw a big shadow before the windows were being broken open."

The flicker of frustration Natalia had felt about Alexei's single-minded approach to the knife soon dissipated with his retelling of what happened last night. She listened raptly, and felt that bloom of fear for her child reappear in the middle of her chest.

Abruptly, Alexei scrambled off the bed. He left the quilt in a rumpled mess in front of Natalia, as he reached for something on the other end of the bedside table. He curled his hand around it, and clambered back onto the bed. Whatever it was, it was small enough to be hidden in the cradle of his fingers.

"I tried to protect myself with my papa's knife." He explained with downcast eyes. "But he was a big man, Mama. He was scary and big and he didn't make any noise when he walked."

"No," she shook her head.

"He took the knife away from me, Mama."

"No, no, no,"

"But he gave it back to me." Alexei continued. "He was looking for you."

Natalia continued to shake her head. She refused to believe the conclusion her mind was rapidly coming to. No one in SHIELD had been able to find out where she resided. Nick had forged all her paperwork to look authentic, and even someone like Hill had been none the wiser. So that only left one person...

"Mama, are you the Black Widow?"

"What did this man look like, Единственная и неповторимая?" Natalia sidestepped the question quickly.

Alexei scrunched up his eyes, which was a quirk of his when he was thinking hard. His features soon smoothed out, and he looked wiser beyond his years. That was unsettling for Natalia; she had seen that look all too frequently on her own face when she was a child. She had also seen it perpetually on Vanya's too.

"I didn't see his face; it was covered by a mask. But he had blue eyes and," Alexei lifted his gaze to look at her. "He was like a robot; he had a metal arm."

The description reinforced Natalia's worst fears. No one had a metal arm besides the Winter Soldier. There was no doubt about it – Vanya had been in their home. He knew where she lived, and he had been in contact with their child.

It took all of her willpower not to allow a tremor to envelope her body. Natalia couldn't allow her emotions to get the better of her now, especially in front of Alexei. Alexei didn't need to know how much she feared the Winter Soldier. That would only cause him to panic even more.

"Mama," Alexei chimed in once more. "He told me to give this to you."

Glancing down, Natalia saw Alexei thrust his closed fist towards her. Automatically, she held out her unoccupied hand, palm up, for whatever Vanya had left for her. And the item that dropped into her hand did not disappoint. It was an unspent bullet.

"He said to stay out of his way. Or...or the next one would be in your head." Alexei let out a small cry.

Natalia was temporarily dazed by the threat. So Vanya knew she was involved in everything, and he had so callously wanted their son to send her the message. It was beyond cruel. But she knew he could have done so much worse. He let their son live to tell this message, instead of letting his tiny, mangled body convey it instead.

Biting down onto her already mangled bottom lip, she tried not to scream. She was the Black Widow of the Red Room; she trained underneath the legendary Winter Soldier. This was a test – her teacher, her former lover, and the father of her child was testing her. And she would rise to the occasion; she wouldn't let him get the best of her.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-eight :: I Do

  


 

 

Hill was nowhere to be found. Natalia tried every number she had for Nick's second in command, but every single one had been disconnected. That wasn't entirely unusual in their field of work, however it still proved to be an inconvenience.

Ultimately, Hill had been Natalia's only hope. She could have relied on her to find a resolution for the problem she was now faced with. And that happened to be what on earth was she supposed to do with her son in the middle of such a nasty upheaval.

There wasn't another Babushka Irina to keep a watchful eye on Alexei anymore. Hell, Mrs. O'Brien proved that she wasn't a very good caregiver either. So that left Natalia in between a rock and a hard place. It was also out of the question to leave Alexei by himself too.

Both Clint and Bobbi had been otherwise preoccupied with chaos at SHIELD, which made the whole situation that much more desperate. No one trustworthy could watch Alexei while she tried to aid Steve and Wilson.

Maybe this was a sign within itself. Vanya had specifically warned her to stay out of his way, although she didn't know what that entailed. Her greatest ally had been killed too. And to top it off, Vanya had had direct contact with his only child.

Staring blankly at her phone, Natalia heard shuffling behind her. After she had gotten a hold of herself, she had ordered Alexei into the bath and she had tried to contact Hill to no avail. But she was currently running out of time, and she had to figure out what her next move would be. Steve and Wilson were counting her, and yet so was her son.

"What if that scary man comes back?" Alexei asked from behind her.

Natalia turned around and tried to smile at her son. Alexei's hair had been smoothed down against his head, and he wore a pair of blue jeans and a sky blue shirt that made his eyes amazingly vibrant. He was his father's son, and even with what Vanya had done – it still pulled at her heart strings.

"Well, you won't be here if he does."

"Are you sending me to stay with Mrs. O'Brien?"

"I wasn't planning to, no." Natalia shook her head. "I just don't have an alternative plan right now. Which means that you'll be coming with me,"

Alexei looked genuinely alarmed by that revelation. But his alarm soon melted away to pleasure instead. There was no way that she could continue to hide her vocation from him anymore. This was a turning point for them, and she could only hope that she was making the right decision by bringing him along.

"I really get to go with you?"

"Yeah, I figured you might want to know what I do for a living."

"The man, he called you Black Widow." Alexei looked suddenly uneasy.

Natalia didn't know what to say in return. Whether she liked it or not, her entire identity would end up being exposed to her son. There wasn't any way that she could hide it anymore. Vanya had ended that in one far swoop. He made the truth impossible to bury underneath white lies.

So rather than leave everything in limbo, Natalia knew it was her duty to explain everything to him. Maybe he was too young to understand it all, but unanswered questions were no longer an option now. Alexei wouldn't stand for it anymore; she could already see the determination in his eyes.

"I'm sure you already know I'm not a flight attendant."

"Well, yeah." Alexei rolled his eyes. "I figured it's something dangerous, though."

"That's a bit of an understatement." Natalia sighed, before she walked up to him and laid her hands on his shoulders. "Sit, we need to have this conversation now. I'm on a tight schedule, and I'm working with two military men. So you have to figure they're all about punctuality."

Slowly, Natalia maneuvered Alexei to the kitchen table and sat him down at his designated spot. She then took the seat beside him, and tried to think of the best way to explain the truth of the situation. But time was of the essence, and she really didn't have the luxury to spin a tale that would be satisfactory to him.

To be honest, she hadn't really thought too much on how she would explain her past to her son. She had always assumed, distantly even, that she would be out of the spy game by the time he was a teenager and that they'd live a simple life somewhere. Now though, she realized how foolish that notion had been.

There was no way that Natalia could be anything but a spy. She only knew how to lurk in the shadows, and how to kill a human being in a hundred different ways without detection. How could she work in an office and own a mini-van?

"I work with a government agency that deals with a lot of bad people." Natalia began and looked to her son seriously. "I have to leave the country a lot to stop awful things from happening. And recently things have gotten really bad here; a good friend of my was killed, and he was the director of the agency. So now we have to find whose responsible for his death."

Alexei listened, although his expression gave nothing away immediately. He seemed to be churning over this latest information with caution, although he soon looked unhappy.

"Your friend died...?" He asked.

"He did. He's the one who actually kept us safe after we left Russia."

"Who killed him? Was it the man with the metal arm?"

"Yeah, it was him." Natalia admitted reluctantly, before she dropped her eyes to the table. "I don't know how he found our apartment, though. My friend made sure that this place was well-hidden from anyone who'd want to hurt me. So it isn't safe here anymore."

The truth sounded misplaced in their apartment. This was supposed to be a safe haven for them where nothing bad could happen besides a failed grade or a bloody knee. But Vanya had ruined that by his abrupt reappearance, and she hated him for it.

Ever since her departure from Russia, Natalia had managed to keep Vanya away from her heart. Or at least she had convinced herself of that on more than one occasion, but she could never seem to forget him entirely. And any attempts on pointless one-night stands had all been for naught because all she could fantasize about in the heat of the moment was him.

Now that he was back though, she wished him dead. She wished that he had gone the same way as Lukin and the KGB. He deserved to die with the man he'd been so loyal to. But instead he was working with HYDRA and he had killed Nick, and he had the audacity to send a macabre warning through their son to her.

"Does Clint and Bobbi work with you too?" Alexei asked.

"They do. Clint was the one who found us in Budapest after we left Russia. He made sure we weren't hurt."

"Why did we live Russia?"

"Because it was too dangerous there," she smiled sadly at him. "I worked with bad people in Russia. They were very bad, and they couldn't find out about you. So when you were born, you stayed with Babushka Irina; I think you remember her."

Alexei bobbed his head a little uncertainly. They had spoken about Babushka Irina from time to time, although there hadn't been any extensive conversation about her. All that Alexei seemed to know was that the old woman had taken care of him when he was a baby, and that he cherished the quilt that she made.

"In the end, the bad people were close to finding out about you. That's when we had to leave the country."

"What were they going to do if they found me?"

"I don't know, but I knew it wouldn't be good."

"Mama," Alexei leaned towards her with a serious expression. "You said Papa helped us leave the country. Why didn't he come with us to make sure we were safe?"

Natalia had expected question, although she still didn't know what to say. There wasn't any way in hell that she was going to admit that the man with the metal arm was Alexei's father. Some things were better off left unsaid, and the man who fathered her son was one of them.

Vanya was not a hero by any stretch of the imagination. She still didn't know why he had gone through the trouble of rescuing them, especially when he showed up seven years later with a willingness to kill them both. But then again she never truly understood him anyway.

"Your papa," Natalia breathed deeply, before she touched her son's cheek. "He isn't a very good man, Alexei. He worked with the bad people too. That's how we met."

"Why would he save us if he was bad?" Alexei looked suddenly despondent. "If he was bad, why would he let us go?"

Like most children, Natalia knew that Alexei had idolized his absent father. She never asked him what his fantasy was about Vanya, but she had to believe it was something fantastical. He had probably envisioned Vanya as some kind of gallant knight who had saved his family, which couldn't be any further from the truth.

"I don't know why, sweetheart." She admitted. "He was always a mystery to me. But all that counts is that we are here, and I'll do anything to keep you safe."

"Did you love him, Mama?" Alexei looked increasingly upset. "Did you love my papa at all?"

The question struck Natalia hard. No matter how she currently felt, she had always known that Vanya had taken a piece of her. He had taken the most important part; he had her heart in his hand, and no matter how frequently she tried to steal it back; the bastard wouldn't let her go.

She hated him. She wanted him dead. And yet she loved him too; he had given her the greatest gift in her whole life, and she never thanked him for it either.

"Yes, I loved him." Natalia patted her son's cheek. "He was not a good man, but he took care of me and watched out for me. And he gave you to me, which I'll always be grateful for."

"What was his name, Mama? Tell me and I'll stop asking about him. Please," Alexei begged, before he grabbed her wrist to keep her hand in place. "I promise I'll do everything you say. I'll never touch the knife again if you tell me."

A lump began to form in Natalia's throat. Her son looked desperate to know, and she didn't know if she could say it out loud. No matter how frequently Vanya's name resonated through her head, she hadn't said it in so long that the reality of his existence might become too much for her to bear.

Swallowing hard, Natalia looked away from her son's face. She needed to get a handle on herself; she had already shown too much emotion to last her a lifetime today. And she needed to be fully in control when she met up with Steve and Wilson again.

"His name," she breathed out heavily. "His name is Vanya."

Alexei's hand slowly slipped away from her wrist then, which drew Natalia's attention back onto him. There was a small, sad smile on her son's lips. It hurt to see it.

"My papa's name is Vanya." He murmured. "That's my middle name."

"Yes,"

"You really did love him."

"I do." Natalia replied, although she didn't realize what she said until much later on.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-nine :: Agent 9

 


 

 

The route to the rendezvous point had taken exceptionally longer that it should have. Natalia wasn't used to company when she moved, and well it certainly came with complications. Mostly because a nine year old that she knew had too many questions that demanded to be answered one way or another whether she liked it or not.

After deflecting what might have been the hundredth question in less than an hour, Natalia had finally pulled up to the curb several blocks away from Wilson's residence. Both of her cohorts were already in position, although Wilson was the first to spy the car.

Confidently, Wilson had started for the car before he was followed by Steve. They were probably going to ditch this vehicle for another in due time. Or so Natalia assumed that would be the plan if she had any input in it, which she ultimately did.

Chewing on her bottom lip, Natalia glanced to the passenger seat. Alexei was buckled in with a Stark tablet in hand. He'd been playing some game with brightly colored birds in between interrogating her. But now his attention drifted towards the approaching men with curiosity; although it was hard to tell by the wide-rimmed sunglasses that were perched on his nose.

"Do you remember what I told you?" She asked as the distance rapidly closed between them and Wilson.

"Uh-huh," Alexei replied with a bob of his head, although she suspected he was more interested in the one and only Captain America than whatever she had to say.

Wilson soon sidled up beside the car, and he visibly reached out to try the door. Natalia pressed onto the button to roll down the window, while offering Wilson a coy almost flirtatious smile. And it looked like he was about to return the favor until he noticed the occupant in the passenger seat.

The expression on Wilson's face was downright comical. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open into an 'O', before he took a step back and turned to Steve for some kind of guidance. Steve lifted an eyebrow and stopped short from approaching; he looked curious but he didn't bowl over Wilson to find out what caused that reaction.

"Tick-tock, boys," Natalia said as casually as she could. "Sitwell's not going to stay in one place forever."

After much deliberation and consideration between the three of them, they had elected to find Sitwell. He had a high enough clearance level to be well-informed by what was currently happening in SHIELD. But he was also non-threatening as opposed to someone like Rumlow or Rollins.

"Uh, yeah," Wilson looked in between Steve and the car, before he opened up the back door on the passenger side.

Steve watched Wilson slip into the backseat, and looked increasingly confused. Natalia suspected from his vantage point that he couldn't see Alexei. But he surprisingly didn't ask any questions still, and he instead rounded the vehicle to get in the seat behind her.

Once they were both situated in the backseat, Natalia rolled up the window and glanced into the rear-view mirror. Several cars drove by in quick succession, before she managed to pull out onto the street and pressed down on the gas pedal.

They zoomed down the street about ten miles above the speed limit. Sitwell was projected to be nearly half an hour away from their current location. He had a meeting with Senator Stern; the same senator that wasn't too sweet on Stark. Everyone had witnessed that unfortunate senate hearing, which ended with Stark dancing on top of a table and Senator Stern cursing him out.

So the likelihood that some top-notch government officials were closely aligned with HYDRA seemed pretty certain now. The web spread a lot wider than SHIELD. Natalia wasn't exactly surprised by this revelation either. She had come from a country with a corrupt government with ties to a shady organization like the Red Room.

"Are we going to talk about the elephant in the room already?" Wilson spoke up then. "Or the, uh, car?"

"What's that Wilson?" Natalia switched lanes, and she felt her heart skip a beat.

"There's a kid with you." He said lamely. "On a top secret mission,"

At that, Alexei turned in his seat to look back at both Wilson and Steve. Natalia wished she could see their reactions, but she had to keep her eyes on the road. So she could only wait for the conversation to progress further or maybe she should be the one that directed it.

"Oh, you mean my fellow agent here." She tried to smile. "This is Agent 9; he's a highly trained operative. He's totally trustworthy. Say hello, Agent 9."

"Hi," Alexei murmured shyly.

There was an immediate lull in conversation. Natalia hadn't expected any less, though. She knew both Steve and Wilson would have a slew of questions for her. Honestly, she wasn't about to go down that road with them at that moment. Alexei might have been present, but that didn't mean she was about to expose him and reveal his identity of yet.

Ultimately, Natalia knew that Alexei could no longer be a secret. Or at least he wouldn't remain one to some of her closest of allies. She intended on telling Hill, and well Steve and Wilson would find out in the end when she decided to tell them.

"You're Captain America." Alexei broke the silence. "I know because we're learning about you in school."

"Is that so?" Steve sounded equal parts surprised and uncomfortable.

"We're learning about your friends right now; the Howling Commandos."

"Who knew your friends were bad singers?" Natalia added in with a forced smirk. "Especially when you told me you were a part of a barber shop quartet,"

"That was a joke, obviously."

"Hey," Wilson raised his voice. "Are we really going to overlook the fact that a kid's coming on a top secret mission with us?"

Natalia took a sharp turn then, which jostled everyone. It would buy her a few moments longer, although she knew it was only just that. Wilson was like a dog with a bone; he wasn't about to accept the fact that a child was tagging along with them. And well she could understand why. She didn't have to like it, though.

"I told you Wilson, this is Agent 9; he's a highly trained operative. He also, I know for a fact, does not work with HYDRA."

"Yeah, cute joke." Wilson scoffed. "Cap, you can't think this is a good idea."

"Well-"

"Who said this was up for discussion?" Natalia asked sharply, maybe too sharply.

If she had it her way, Natalia wouldn't have brought Alexei along if she could help it. But this was the only feasible option now. Alexei would be safe with her; she'd do everything in her power to keep him protected, and while their current mission was bound to have an element of danger to it; it wasn't anywhere near as dangerous as going toe to toe with the Winter Soldier or anything.

Sitwell was a glorified pencil pusher that somehow gotten a higher access level than either her or Steve. Otherwise though, he wasn't going to be violent; even if he tried to lash out at them, he would have easily been disarmed in a matter of seconds. So this wasn't a situation where things could get entirely out of hand; they could handle this. And she could keep Alexei safe too.

That's what she told herself anyway. She had plenty of time to tweak their plan, in order for her to be proactive on helping detain Sitwell while also keeping a watchful eye on her son. It would be a piece of cake as far as she was concerned.

"Natasha," Steve pulled her from her thoughts. "I have to agree with Sam. We can't bring a kid along with us; it's too dangerous."

"It's Sitwell, Steve."

"And he could easily be a member of HYDRA. Hell, he probably is."

"I think I can handle Sitwell, thank you very much." Natalia caught Steve's eye in the rear-view mirror.

Before Steve could reply, the sound of Natalia's cellphone cut through the growing tension with ease. Quickly, she reached down to grab it from the cup holder but Alexei grabbed it first. He glanced at the screen, before he held it out to her.

"It's Bobbi, Widow." He explained; he sounded proud to have remembered to call her by her code name instead of either mom or mama.

Natalia took the phone and pressed the glowing green icon on the touch screen. She held it to her ear, and slowed down the car as they came across a busy intersection. The traffic was heavy that afternoon and the sidewalks were packed with pedestrians.

"Are you caught up in this whole mess?" She asked, bypassing idle chit-chat altogether.

"Everyone is." Bobbi returned. "I also know you're on the lam with Cap. Secretary Pierce hasn't been too kind when it's come to you two."

"Do you agree with him?"

"Do you think I'd call you if I did?" Bobbi sounded tired. "I was loyal to Fury. I'm not Pierce's lap-dog. You know Clint isn't either; we're a package deal."

Natalia hadn't any reason to be suspicious of either Clint or Bobbi. They had proven time and time again that they were trustworthy. But still there was plenty of reasons why she shouldn't trust anyone so readily either.

"What's up?" Natalia stopped the car at the red light.

"I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe Alice O'Brien isn't really on our side. So I hope you haven't left you-know-who with her."

"No, he's with me. But what do you mean?"

"Call it a sixth sense; Clint's trying to find some information on her." Bobbi explained. "But is it really safe to have him with you right now?"

"What are my other options?"

"I could take him. I've been in touch with Hill."

"You've spoken to Hill?" Natalia glanced over to Alexei.

"I have and I know somewhere to take you-know-who that even Pierce wouldn't know about. But you're going to have to trust me and Hill too." Bobbi sounded nothing but sincere.

Natalia felt suddenly conflicted. Could she really trust Bobbi? Even with the sincerity in her voice, Natalia knew she had to flex some kind of caution. This was her child she was talking about, and if there was any chance that Bobbi had some kind of tie to the Winter Soldier; well, she couldn't take that kind of risk. But really what choice did she have?

"I'll kill you if you're lying to me. But before then, I'd kill Clint first. And in the worst way imaginable."

"I wouldn't expect any less from you." Bobbi laughed and then gave Natalia her location, which happened to be on the way to find Sitwell.

Ending the call, Natalia dropped the phone back into the cup holder. The light turned green moments later, and she pressed onto the gas and began to weave in between lanes. No one but Wilson seemed to be jarred by her driving style, though.

Alexei peered in between his tablet towards Steve for much of the ride. And well, no one seemed up for continuing any form of conversation. Steve and Wilson probably recognized the futility of trying to ask any questions about Alexei. Because Natalia would not budge; she wasn't about to explain to them that she had a secret child whose father happened to be the man who killed Fury and was working with HYDRA.

The silence continued for nearly fifteen minutes until Bobbi's position came into view. Bobbi, for whatever reason had chosen to take refuge inside of a Korean barbecue restaurant with a bold red and white sign plastered above the establishment.

Natalia managed to pull to the curb, and she scorned the crowd for a flash dirty blonde hair. Luckily, it wasn't very hard to spot her from her perch inside the restaurant; although it appeared that she had dyed her hair a chestnut brown recently.

"This isn't where that SHIELD agent's supposed to be meeting Senator Stern." Wilson surveyed.

"Agent 9 has another mission with Mockingbird."

"Clint's fiancée," Steve added in unnecessarily.

Bobbi appeared to have already noticed their arrival. But she didn't get up as quickly as Natalia would have preferred. Instead she polished off whatever she'd been drinking, and tossed a wad of dollar bills onto the tabletop she was seated at; before she stood and headed for the door.

Natalia watched her progress from inside the restaurant onto the street. She moved casually with her hands pushed into her pockets, as she walked up to the side of the car. She didn't offer any kind of smile once the window rolled down, but she did lean in conspiratorially into it.

With a quick sideways glance, Bobbi looked into the car and seemed taken aback by seeing Steve in the backseat. She didn't even to bother to hide it any, even if she already knew that Natalia was on the run with the guy.

"You remember Agent 9, don't you?" Natalia nodded towards Alexei.

"Oh, yeah of course I do. Agent 9, it's a pleasure to see you again."

"They call you Mockingbird, Bobbi?" Alexei asked curiously.

Bobbi winked before she reached down to pop open the door. That was enough of a hint for Alexei to know that he wasn't going to be staying with Natalia after all. And Natalia wasn't entirely surprised by the look of betrayal that flashed over his face either.

"I thought I was going with you."

"Please, Agent 9," Natalia shot her son a subtly pleading look. "I'm looking for someone; I think you know who it is."

Alexei frowned, before he glanced in between her, Bobbi, and even Steve and Wilson. They hadn't spoken explicitly on what Natalia was intending on doing, but he was a smart enough kid to draw to the right conclusion. He knew that she was after the man with the metal arm; she was after his father.

With a weary sigh, similarly to what an old man would have made, Alexei turned off his tablet and shoved it into his backpack that was at his feet. He then unbuckled himself and looked over the top of his sunglasses at her. He didn't look happy, and yet there was a level of understanding there that surprised Natalia quite a bit.

"будьте осторожны (Be careful)," Alexei said sternly. "я люблю тебя (I love you)."

"я люблю тебя (I love you)." Natalia reached out to tousle her son's hair.

Alexei offered her a small smile, only for him to turn around to look back at Steve. His smile had grown into a toothy one. Natalia supposed any American child would have some fondness for Captain America, even if they barely began to study about him in school recently.

"Everyone's mad at you. But I think you're a hero still."

"What...who...?" Steve sounded suddenly alarmed and stammered over his words, although Alexei was soon clambering out of the car to go with Bobbi without a goodbye.

As the door closed and Natalia watched Alexei slip his hand into Bobbi's, she swore that Steve had said something breathlessly under his breath that sounded a lot like Bucky.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty :: Fear Him, For He Is Death

 


 

 

Wilson had played a pivotal role on apprehending Sitwell. It had played out far better than Natalia had expected it to. But with the threat of potential bodily injury, Sitwell had been almost too compliant to save his own hide; which she supposed shouldn't have exactly been a surprise.

By all intents and purposes, Sitwell was a coward. He might have worked his way through the ranks within SHIELD, but it had been solely on the bureaucratic side of things. He hadn't much field experience from what Natalia could ascertain, and well his willingness to turn on HYDRA was quite inspired turn of events to say the least.

Sure, it had taken some coercion but he had given them everything that they needed. And if he hadn't then he would have already been a distant memory on the sidewalk. Lucky for him though, he was sitting comfortably right beside her in the vehicle she acquired after dumping the last one.

The atmosphere was tense. Steve had taken the revelation of Zola's algorithm like he should have, which happened to be righteous indignation. Honestly, who could blame the guy over it though? He had taken a plane into the ocean in order to save the world from HYDRA, and yet they were still alive and well, and up to no good.

Glancing towards Sitwell, Natalia wondered for the umpteenth time if she happened to be on the list of potential risks to HYDRA's ideology. She assumed that was an affirmative, and she suspected if anyone had known about the child that she had and who his father ultimately was that he too would be on the list.

Not for the first time, and probably not the last one either, Natalia was relieved that she had had Nick's protection. Without him, she would have either been dragged back to Russia by Lukin when he was still alive. Or she would have had her child taken away from her by some nefarious force that could have either been Lukin or Secretary Pierce.

"What?" Sitwell nearly spat, once he noticed her eyes were on him.

"Nothing," she returned with a quirk of her lips. "I was just thinking that it's funny you were recruited by a Nazi organization that's all. I mean I can understand why someone like, say, Rumlow was chosen; he's the type of guy you'd want on your team. But not so much Jasper Sitwell; poor, pathetic, sniveling Jasper Sitwell."

Sitwell visibly bristled from the insult. He already had an obvious inferiority complex, and she'd predicted that any comparison between him and the definition of an alpha male like Rumlow would get him angry. And that was a part of her strategy; the angrier he got, the looser his mouth would probably be when they started to grill him for more information.

"An organization like HYDRA requires brain power more than brawn."

"So are you calling your fellow Nazi Rumlow an idiot?" Natalia asked innocently, which only seemed to incense Sitwell even more.

"What do you think of Secretary Pierce then? He's been single-handedly keeping the ideology of a new world order alive after Zola's death."

"What do I think of Pierce?" She leaned inward, before lowering her voice. "I think he's every wet dream that you've ever had. He's what you want to be, Jasper. But unfortunately for you, he has some integrity; he would have let me kick him over the ledge of that building with all his Aryan race bullshit still intact. Heil HYDRA,"

For several glorious moments, Natalia watched Sitwell blanch with the acknowledgment that his loyalties lied only with himself and instead of with the organization that he worked for. Secretary Pierce would have executed him on the spot if he knew that, and they were both aware of that fact now too.

Sitwell wasn't some mindless foot soldier. He was smart enough to look out for his own well-being, and that probably wasn't very desired in HYDRA. Because just like in the Red Room, the survival of the entire unit was more important than one individual; unless, of course, it was the leader who was in jeopardy and Sitwell was no leader.

Smirking at Sitwell's internal crisis, Natalia shifted her eyes forward to where Wilson sat behind the wheel of the car and Steve who was sitting next to him. They hadn't spoken much since they'd retrieved Sitwell, but she suspected they would have a lengthy conversation about it soon enough.

Meanwhile though, Steve was in the middle of a maudlin introspective that needed to get out of the way before they attempted to derail Project Insight. She didn't begrudge the guy, although he'd been acting curiously ever since she'd picked up him and Wilson several hours ago. But she lent that to the fact that he'd been surprised by Alexei's presence.

Thankfully, neither Steve nor Wilson had tried to revive that conversation about Alexei. They'd been too focused on Sitwell's retrieval and that out-trumped something so small as a child riding shotgun on a super, secret mission. She just hoped they wouldn't try and corner her about that later, though.

Until that happened, Natalia pushed that to the back of her mind. They all had bigger fish to fry, and they needed to stop Project Insight from launching right away. Because if they didn't, the likelihood that either her or Steve, or more than likely both of them would end up dead; alongside hundreds of thousands of other people as well.

"HYDRA doesn't like leaks." Sitwell spoke up then.

"So why don't you try sticking a cork in it." Wilson volleyed back, as he merged into the lane on his left.

"Insight's launching in sixteen hours, we're cutting it a little bit close here." She added in.

"I know. We'll use him to bypass the DNA scans and access the Helicarriers directly." Steve finally chimed in his all too-familiar leader voice.

"What? Are you crazy? That is a terrible, terrible idea!" Sitwell lurched forward in his seat, as if that would somehow change Steve's mind.

Natalia had the compulsion to shove him back. But that thought barely formed in her head, before a loud, foreboding thud erupted above all of their heads. The sound was enough to make her stomach drop, and even then she wasn't prepared for what happened next.

The whole thing felt like it transpired at an accelerated rate. One moment Sitwell was seated beside her, belted securely into place, and the next the window was being punched in and sending shards of glass into the backseat. And that's when a hand reached in and literally ripped Sitwell from the car.

An aborted sound came out of Sitwell, but that was all before he was flung like a rag doll out into other side of the causeway. Natalia flinched from the morbid sight of Sitwell's body practically exploding in pieces as he was struck by first a sixteen wheeler, and several other vehicles in abrupt succession.

Wilson and Steve both yelled out unintelligible babble. No one seemed to know what had happened, and yet Wilson was of sound enough mind to slam hard onto the brakes; which probably saved their lives in the end. Because that quick thinking sent Sitwell's assailant, flying unceremoniously from the top of the car and careening into the back of a hatch-back at least fifteen feet ahead of him.

The assailant had a bulky form, entirely clothed in black. But their most telling characteristic was nearly indiscernible unless you knew what you were looking for, and Natalia knew what to look for. They had a metal arm; he had a metal arm.

"Jesus Christ," Wilson hollered as he spun the wheel, and he stepped on the gas again.

"Drive, drive, drive," Natalia lurched forward in her seat akin to Sitwell only moments beforehand.

"I'm going, I'm going!"

"But-" Steve spun around to face at her.

"Not here, not now! Drive, Wilson!" She shot Steve a fierce, almost wild look which made him falter for a split-second.

Thankfully, Wilson had taken her seriously and he was quick about it too. Because she was almost certain that Steve would have done something very stupid if he'd gotten any leeway to do so. She knew he would have wanted to face the threat head-on, and that was probably the worst idea right now. She couldn't say why exactly, but she felt it instinctively.

Wilson sped up and weaved into the next lane. The hatch-back that had been where the Winter Soldier had flown into had come to a halt and the driver had fled with a face white as a sheet. The Winter Soldier was nowhere to be seen, but that didn't mean he actually retreated.

Even with the hatch-back rapidly disappearing behind them, Natalia grabbed for the Glock 19 she'd armed herself with. She took several shaky breaths in order to ground herself, while also trying to ignore the rapid-fire questions that Wilson and Steve were shooting out at one another and then at her.

"What the hell just happened?" Wilson nearly yelled, while somehow driving with a skill that most shaken individuals could not. He really was a soldier.

"HYDRA," Steve swiveled back and forth in his seat, obviously looking for any hostiles around them.

Natalia bit her bottom lip. She had nothing to contribute to the conversation of yet. Not until they were far away from the causeway. And even then, she doubted that they would be safe. The Winter Soldier had them in his sights now, and if they eluded him at the moment; well, he would track them down sooner rather than later.

That thought unearthed an unwelcome memory. It reminded her of Sergei Petrov, and how he had fled Moscow before the Winter Soldier could catch him. And that was one of the only times she had seen him angry. That was the night that everything had changed.

A shiver ran down Natalia's spine, before she dared to glance back. The causeway was in utter chaos now, which meant that HYDRA might have had their own team on the ground in pursuit of them. But at this rate, they probably had a good chance of evading capture; so long as the Winter Soldier did not catch up to them.

"What have I gotten myself into?" Wilson rapidly sped up, moving from one lane to the next still.

Both she and Steve knew it was a rhetorical question. Maybe they shouldn't have gone to Wilson, after all. They were only putting him into the cross-hairs. And well, he really didn't know what he'd gotten himself into. Steve didn't either.

They didn't know the Winter Soldier like she did. They didn't know how brutal and unforgiving and cruel he could be. They didn't know he would stop at nothing until his mission was fulfilled. And more importantly, they didn't know that he'd already threatened her if she happened to get in the way of whatever his mission was currently.

"That was him. That was the man who killed Fury." Steve reached out to hold onto the dashboard when Wilson swerved around a commercial vehicle in the way. "I saw the metal arm."

"It was him." Natalia confirmed.

"Some dude with a metal arm," Sam sounded more resigned than shocked. "Well, I've seen aliens attack New York City and the God of Thunder; so some dude with a metal arm is pretty believable if you ask me."

The conversation lulled at that point. Natalia continued to warily look behind them for any sign of the Winter Soldier, although she started to believe that they did actually avoid him for now. In the future, maybe even several hours from now, well that was debatable. But at that particular point in time, they were safe.

Even so, Natalia held on tighter to the Glock 19. The Winter Soldier had appeared so suddenly that even she hadn't detected him. She didn't know how he'd been dropped onto their car, and how he'd gotten such accurate intel. Unless, of course, Sitwell had some kind of tracker on him from the get-go, which made a lot of sense to her.

"бойтесь его, Он является смерть." She recited under her breath.

Lukin had coined the phrase by chance. Natalia couldn't remember when she had heard it, but she could recall Lukin's handsome, albeit stern, face as he spoke those words to one of his closest of confidants. He looked almost terrified by that admission. And he should have been; all of them should have been scared by it.

"Fear him, for he is death."

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-one :: The Man, The Monster

 


 

 And I wonder
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I'll ever ask of you
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when 

"Everlong" - Foo Fighters

 


 

 

The legendary Black Widow felt no fear. She had been trained to disconnect from any and all emotional reactions as a child. She had mostly been successful in it too; it was one of the key reasons why she'd been so successful as both an assassin and as a spy. But unfortunately, even the Red Room could not fully change human nature.

Natalia felt fear rather prominently at the moment. Her stomach clenched and a tremor ran through her body, as she feigned casualty while walking through her apartment building's lobby. She shouldn't have chosen this course of action, and yet she knew this was the only way.

After the events on the causeway, she had decided to part ways temporarily with Steve and Wilson. They had been vehemently against the idea, but she vowed that she would be back after she dealt with the business that needed to be handled.

The whole thing had felt reminiscent to earlier that day. The only difference was that Natalia was intentionally putting herself in harm's way. Because something told her, the side that knew the Winter Soldier so well, that he would possibly come to find her if she were alone.

She shouldn't have wanted that, especially with the threat of death hanging over her head. But this was a risk she was willing take; it wasn't about securing her well-being, though. It also wasn't about Project Insight either. No, everything always came back to Alexei.

Years had a way of muddling memories. Natalia remembered Vanya's cruelty and strength, and yet it still shocked her once she saw what had happened to Sitwell. He'd been ripped out of a moving vehicle, and thrown carelessly into oncoming traffic. There hadn't been any hesitation; there hadn't been any struggle. Vanya had killed him with accuracy and brutality.

The man was a force to be reckoned with. He was not a ghost story; he ceased to be a legend in the intelligence community even. What he was was death, and Natalia couldn't allow him to get any closer to their son as he already had.

This was a truce on their child's behalf. She would do what needed to be done, in order for Vanya to leave them alone for good; even if that meant abandoning her call of duty for the time being. But she would have to explain the ramifications of doing just that to Vanya, and hope that he would somehow understand why she was doing what she was doing.

Shakily, Natalia entered the business-grade elevator that would take her upstairs. Her hands had steadied by the time she touched the button to her floor, although she felt anything but calm. Her nerves were frayed, especially since she couldn't risk contacting Bobbi at the moment.

She had to have faith in Bobbi now. She couldn't afford to lower her guard, not when she knew she'd see the Winter Soldier at any given moment. So she steeled herself, and breathed deeply in and out to try and recapture her normally cool and calculated demeanor.

The exercise was a familiar one. As a child, she had to mask her emotions once in the presence of her teachers. Crying or shaking or uneven breathing was not an acceptable response to drills, particularly the hand-to-hand combat ones that could easily result in killing one's opponent.

Vanya was a very strict teacher. He had no patience for silly girls. While he might have left the punishment to others, his word was deadly. The dismissive shake of his head as he walked away was something that was scarier than death itself. So they had to learn to come off as fearless, even if they weren't.

Slowly, the elevator rose underneath Natalia's feet. Her eyes lifted to watch the numbers tick up, which caused her stomach to knot up even more aggressively than before. She breathed in deeply for the umpteenth time, although she still felt unprepared when the elevator lurched to a stop onto her floor.

She felt even less prepared once the doors slid open to reveal the empty hallway. But she didn't hesitate any much to her own surprise. She still stepped out of the compartment, and automatically turned to the right and headed towards the direction of her apartment.

With each step, Natalia became more and more convinced that Vanya would be waiting for her. She hadn't any basis for that belief, aside from an intimate knowledge of him that had long since been ingrained into her memory. And even then intuition was a shoddy tool at best; it was something that could only take you so far.

Her apartment door loomed only a few feet away. It was undisturbed; no one had kicked it in or probably even fiddled with the doorknob. But she highly doubted Vanya would have used this method to get in. He had, after all, scaled the building like any good assassin would the previous night.

Once she crossed the remaining distance, Natalia pressed her thumb underneath the doorknob and heard the lock give way. She used her shoulder to push in the door, while her hand quickly found purchase on her glock and pulled it free from its shoulder holster hidden underneath her jacket.

The apartment was shrouded in darkness. The only source of light was the skyline beyond the broken windows. But it proved to be enough to illuminate the familiar figure that she had only seen that afternoon that flew into a Japanese modeled hatch-back.

Natalia simultaneously shut the door behind her and raised her gun to level it with the Winter Soldier's shadowy outline that was perched almost casually on the kitchen counter. She could see that he came armed as well, although his weapon of choice was not currently pointed at her; not yet anyway.

Neither of them spoke; in fact neither of them had moved beyond Natalia's intentional entry into the apartment. Now that she was in his presence after so long, Natalia didn't know what to say. She didn't even know what to think.

If she had been half as brave as she projected herself to be, she would have already been on the attack by now. She would have given him a fight worthy of his simplistic praise. But instead, she could only stand with her weapon pointed at him, yet no closer to actually pulling the trigger despite the sudden desire to do just that.

This man, this monster, had sullied the sanctity of her home. He had traumatized her only child out of some perverse need to instill his power. He had wanted to send her a message about his dominance, and he deserved to die for that alone. His connection to HYDRA be damned for all that she cared.

"I should kill you for what you've done." Natalia said evenly, although there was a thin veil of disgust in her voice all the same. "How dare you threaten me through a child."

Vanya said nothing. He remained equally motionless too, as if the conversation was an exhaustive one that he hadn't any desire to participate in. That wouldn't have surprised Natalia any. He was always a strangely simple man in his own right.

"A real man wouldn't have done what you have." She slid one foot forward, temporarily forgetting about the fear that had consumed her since Nick's untimely death. "I never knew you to be a coward, Vanya."

"I'm not a man; I'm a soldier." Vanya spoke, although his voice was gruff and enough to make the knot in her stomach twist painfully again.

It had been years since she had heard his voice. As much as his deadly accuracy on missions had been eroded with time, so had the memory of his voice. She had nearly forgotten it, which caused a fresh wave of emotion to develop inside of her abruptly.

He was the only man she had ever loved. She had given herself to him in mind, body, and soul. And despite her disconnected physical encounters with nameless men, some even within SHIELD; she hadn't forgotten Vanya. She could never forget him; her heart was a treacherous bastard.

"So you're here to kill me." She said without any inflection.

"You would have already been dead, Widow."

"I'm not your student anymore. Don't belittle me."

"I told you to stay out of my way." He slipped easily off the counter, which caused every muscle in Natalia's body to tense up.

Vanya moved deliberately slow towards her. His weapon, Soviet grade no doubt, was pointed to the floorboards which left him vulnerable; although Natalia found that her resolve had begun to waver even with what he had done.

"You have your mission, and I have mine."

"I could find him." Vanya paused several feet away. "I could find your child without any difficulty, Widow."

The threat hung in the air like a thick storm cloud. For a moment, Natalia could only stand there without any true reaction. She was shocked by it, but the shock melted away rather quickly and it was soon replaced by red-hot rage.

Something inhuman came out of her, almost like a lioness's roar and she pulled the gun's trigger. Once, twice, three times the bullets struck and ricocheted off of Vanya's metal arm. He moved without hesitation; a fluidity that had always marveled her, even though he was far slower than her.

Sparks flew when the bullets bounced off the metal plates. They illuminated his face briefly, which didn't appear to have changed any despite their years apart. He looked the same; he always seemed to look the same even when she was only a girl.

Just as he started to lower his arm, Natalia moved quickly on her feet. She launched herself forward in an attack. She tried to kick him squarely in the knee cap, but he seemed to have predicted the movement and jerked backwards without any clear intention to engage her at the moment.

Every punch she threw or kick she made, Vanya deflected with either his metal arm or the width of the assault rifle he was currently in position of. Even when she managed to kick him in the flank, he didn't try and launch a counter-attack which only confused and enraged her further.

It felt too reminiscent of their sparring days when she was a child. He'd allow her to come at him with everything that she had. All the fancy foot-work and ill-advised sneakiness that children were known for she would throw at him, before he'd strike her down and immediately put her back in her place.

But she wasn't a child anymore. She had earned her title; she had upheld it more times than she could count. He might have been the Winter Soldier, however she was the Black Widow and he had invoked a hatred in her that she had never felt before, and she wanted him dead.

They weaved around the kitchen on silent feet. The momentum of each strike Natalia threw was the only sound resonating off the walls beside the hurried breaths that they both took. Soon enough though, it was punctuated by the grotesque sound of metal hitting flesh when Natalia managed to pistol-whip Vanya across the cheek with enough force to send his head snapping to the side.

There wasn't any satisfaction in it. He was still alive, and he was still a very present threat to the child that belonged to them both. This man would kill his own child to destroy her. And she would destroy him to protect the only good thing that either of them had done in their lives.

With sudden agility and aggression, Vanya grabbed her by the throat. The hold was by no means gentle; in fact his artificial fingers tightened like a vice around her airway until she was gasping hopelessly for breath. But that didn't mean she didn't try and fight back.

Wrapping one hand around his wrist, Natalia managed to kick out her feet while also raising her hand and firing off a shot from her glock. The bullet, unfortunately, only grazed his cheek and the shell of his ear. However, it was enough to provoke a level of anger in him that had been dormant since they'd come into contact with one another only minutes beforehand.

The brutality well-established with the Winter Soldier finally reared its ugly head. His grasp tightened a tenfold, to the point where black spots formed in Natalia's vision and the pressure in her head became nearly unbearable. But that was only the beginning; he was never so gentle if he could help it.

He suddenly slammed her down onto the wooden floorboards, which awakened every nerve in her body with pain. Still, he hadn't finished and he was soon perched on top of her with the assault rifle pointed directly in her face.

His metal hand eventually released her throat, in order for him to properly aim the rifle directly in her face. That threat proved only to be a secondary concern to Natalia though, since her body was now in desperate need of oxygen and it responded in kind.

She gasped loudly and tried to swallow up as many breaths as she could. Her body convulsed underneath him, and that's when she realized that her glock was no longer in her hand. She must have dropped it when he threw her to the ground.

"Emotion is a burden and a weakness against an enemy." Vanya recited, as if he was reading it from some kind of manual. "You've been trained better than that."

"He's my child!" She retorted in between desperate inhalations. "You've threatened my child!"

"I told you stay out of my way."

"He's my child!" Natalia almost screamed. "He's your child, Vanya! He's your flesh and blood!"

There wasn't any visible reaction from him to her exclamation. His face remained perfectly stoic and cold. And it was enough to infuriate her further. She didn't know what she expected; in fact, this was the only feasible reaction from someone like Vanya. And yet she had hoped for something more, for some kind of acceptance of the fact that they shared a child.

Compassion would have been far-fetched, though. Someone like Vanya probably had never felt that in his whole life. He couldn't possibly feel a connection to a child that he didn't know. Alexei was a stranger to him; they might have shared the same blood, but it made no difference whatsoever.

"I have a mission to complete." He said simply.

"Do you understand what HYDRA is doing? Do you even know about Project Insight?"

"Politics,"

"You could be killed too!" She jerked her head up from the floorboards, although a sharp pain flared up behind her eyes.

The corner of Vanya's mouth ticked down from its neutral line then. It only lasted a second or two, though; before he leveled the barrel of the rifle right between her eyes, which caused Natalia's pulse to speed up. But she tried her hardest not to panic.

"I'll repeat this – stay out of my way. Don't put your child in harm's way out of blind loyalty, Natalia."

"And your loyalty isn't blind?"

"I have no loyalty; I have a mission. Don't misunderstand my motivations."

"But Lukin-"

"Is dead," he stated almost tightly. "He has been dead for years."

Natalia could only stare up at him. Despite her many years of intense training, she couldn't think of any way to get herself out of this situation; not against someone like Vanya anyway. And she wasn't sure she wanted to incite his violence anymore than she already had.

"This is your final warning."

"Why are you giving me any warnings?" Natalia licked her lips. "Why haven't you killed me already? Better yet, why didn't you kill our son?"

Another flicker of emotion flashed across Vanya's face. Instead of jutting the barrel into her face any further, he slowly lowered the rifle and stared down at her intensely. His hand, the real one, slowly reached out and lightly touched the apple of her cheek and trailed down to the corner of her mouth.

Swallowing hard, Natalia tried to desperately hold onto the hatred that fueled their confrontation in the first place. Vanya was a monster; he had threatened a nine year old boy in so little words. What's worse, it was his own child that he had done that to.

Even with that in the forefront of his mind, the gentle caress of his hand broke down her defenses. She had yearned for his touch, and that single-minded attention that only happened moments before he took her apart one piece at a time when they were alone.

Despite the question looming in between them, Vanya didn't reply. His thumb glanced over Natalia's bottom lip and down to the point of her chin. His expression didn't hold any adoration or softness, although it never had even their most intimate of moments with one another.

"He is not like us." He murmured, as he tilted her chin up and stared into her eyes.

"No," she admitted.

"Good," Vanya gradually leaned into her and seamlessly slotted his lips against hers.

The contact was unexpected, but painfully familiar. His lips were dry but plush, and the scratch of his stubble glossed across her skin like a promise of more to come. She remembered how their first kiss seared through her, and how it made her weak-kneed and vulnerable. And it surprised her that it still had the same effect on her.

She kissed him back, timid and self-conscious; even as he bore down on her with some kind of feral desire that he probably hadn't expressed since their last time together. And even though she should have hated him, tried to neutralize him, Natalia could only fervently match him kiss for kiss even when the threat of suffocation became more of a reality than a concept.

Vanya dragged himself away from her first. His eyes were dark and predatory, which ignited desire deep down in the pit of Natalia's stomach. She yearned for every part of him, no matter the years and the heartache and uncertainty. She loved him and only him.

"Vanya," she breathed out huskily.

Her only response was a guttural sound. He sounded unsure but tortured; it was so much like the first time, and yet she knew he would cave. He was a strong man, but he was a man all the same. He might have been a monster too, but the man portion of him was weak like all his counterparts.

Carelessly, Vanya dropped his assault rifle and got to his feet. He then reached down to pull her up beside him, and hoist her up like she weighed absolutely nothing. Natalia wrapped her arms and legs around him, which could either be sensual or deadly. But for now it proved to only be the former.

Their mouths reconnected, even as he carried her towards the hallway. She hadn't any fear that he'd topple over the coffee table or run into an adjoining wall. No, she had full confidence in him despite how ill-advised that was. After all, this could have been a ploy to kill her and she already had readily dropped her defenses.

Because she loved him; she had always loved him. She would always love him. And he would probably be the death of her in the end.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-two :: Reignited in Washington D. C.

 


 

 

It had started in Uzbekistan, and it had ended in Latvia. Natalia never held out hope to have Vanya again. Love was for children; the only love that she had had been for her child, and yet she still held on desperately to the past.

She was unaware of it until that very moment, though. Or at least she hadn't been aware of the level of yearning she had harbored for Vanya, until she was sprawled across her bedspread that smelled faintly of laundry soap, gunpowder, and unwashed boy hair.

Vanya hovered above her; his expression was blank, even as his large hands roved across her body. He hadn't wasted any time on ripping away her clothes, although he hadn't been as generous with himself. He was still fully clothed and fully armed on top of that as well. It should have concerned Natalia more than it did.

This could have been an elaborate ploy to lower her defenses. Even though she felt fairly confident in Vanya's methods, it had been a very long time since they'd seen one another. Things could have changed just as drastically on his side as they had on hers.

They weren't the same people as they once were, after all. Natalia had had to re-adapt, to learn to be a mother. She had matured to the point where she sometimes felt far too old for her body. And Vanya, well it was hard to say what had happened to him once Lukin had died. Or for that matter, she wondered what happened to him after he allowed her and their son to escape Russia.

Her mouth opened, suddenly curious but instead of an inquiry she moaned instead. The pad of Vanya's metal finger had brushed over her breast, and caused her body to tighten like a bow; which seemed to spur him on even further. Because he soon had both her breasts balanced in his big hands, and fondled them in a way that pulled even more moans out of her.

It had been a while since Natalia had been intimate with anyone. The last time wasn't anything she was proud of. Hell, she would probably take it to her grave if she could. Simply because she had been a little tipsy and pumped full of adrenaline, and Brock Rumlow had looked mighty irresistible in his combat gear with a streak of blood and soot across his cheek and throat.

In retrospect, there were small similarities between Rumlow and Vanya. They both could be deadly and were effective leaders out in the field. And the combat gear they wore, in the right light, was alike. But that was as far as the similarities ran, and it only heightened her regret ten times more when she thought back on it.

"Where are you?" Vanya asked in a deep baritone, while his hands pressed her breasts together and leaned in until they shared the same air.

"With you, of course," Natalia replied breathlessly.

It was hard to say if he believed her or not. Regardless, he bowed his head and pressed firm kisses over the top of one breast to the other. His mouth moved seamlessly across her skin, until the very tip of his tongue flicked out against her nipple. It hardened more so than it already was, and the sensation found its way between her thighs.

Her arousal was stronger than normal. Every touch and caress from Vanya had her writhing helplessly underneath him. Her whole body was on fire; it was thrumming with the need for more. And Vanya was quick to deliver as his tongue circled around her areola, while his hands released her breasts and stroked her rib cage in a self-assured way.

He knew exactly how to play her. It seemed to almost be instinctual for him. Or maybe he was simply well-versed in how to pleasure women in general; although Natalia had never seen Vanya spend much time in the company of women. She happened to be one of the only women who he had actively partnered up with on missions. But that didn't mean he hadn't spent his time in brothels or villages filled with doe-eyed beauties that wanted to be taken away.

Jealousy rolled in her stomach at the thought, even if she hadn't any basis for it. Vanya was not hers, and she wasn't his in all the ways that mattered. At least for now though, she was his and he could be hers. Hell, she'd pretend in that moment that he belonged to her.

Slowly, Vanya wrapped his lips around her nipple and sucked on it gently. Natalia bit down onto her bottom lip, as pleasure overtook her and became her singular concern. All that mattered in that moment was Vanya; his mouth, his hands, and his looming presence above her. Everything else was insignificant in comparison.

The hot wetness of Vanya's mouth made Natalia want to simultaneously close her legs and spread them apart further. She was already in desperate need to be touched, and yet she wanted this moment to last for as long as she could have it.

Vanya nipped and suckled on her nipple with practiced ease, before he pulled away long enough to treat the other with the same treatment. The cooling saliva on her breast was an additional stimulant that was driving Natalia to the brink of insanity.

She needed him inside of her. She longed for the ache of him rutting in between her thighs, and the labored grunts that infrequently came out of him. The memory of it, although grainy, was still one of her greatest pleasures to date.

Men were easy to break. Vanya was unlike them in nearly all ways. Even his pleasure was muted in comparison, but that was what made it so much more rewarding for Natalia when she could pull a sound out of him. She basked in the opportunity to make him lose all semblance of control, and allow him the simpler desires that normal people experienced daily.

His mouth began to withdrawal from her nipple then, and it soon traveled down her sternum that was speckled with perspiration and goose bumps. The stubble on his chin scratched maddeningly at her skin, as he pressed firm and reverent kisses down her body.

"Vanya," Natalia gasped, as her hands shot up to hold onto his head in a feeble attempt to control his movements.

Her fingers curled in his hair, which felt newly washed although somewhat damp from the physical exertion that transpired between them. It was a far cry from some of their previous encounters, when both of them were dirty from stakeouts and bloodied from missions that were far more difficult than they anticipated for. But the stimulation was the same; the desire was equally as powerful as beforehand.

Breathless moans punctuated the space between them, as Vanya kissed over Natalia's taunt belly and upward towards the underside of her breasts, and back down again. Natalia desperately attempted to press herself against him, despite the many hard edges of his tactical apparel and the weapons nicely tucked out of sight on his person.

Even with her obvious need, Vanya denied her and instead nipped lightly at the skin around her belly button. He was closer than ever to where she wanted him to be, but he proved how unlikely he was to permit her any release currently. No, he wanted to take her apart like he always did.

As his mouth nipped, kissed, and licked her skin; his hands moved down along her hips and across the outside of her thighs. His blunt nails on his real hand scrapped nicely down her leg, which only planted another seed of pleasure deep in her loins.

She wanted him; she needed him. While the whole world proved to be mostly expendable (their child excluded), Vanya was the exception to the rule for Natalia. She had never needed someone like she did with him. Not only in the physical sense either; she needed him for the unshakable presence he exuded. She needed him in spite of his violence and stoicism. She wanted him by every definition of the word.

"Please," Natalia shuddered as Vanya kissed over her lower stomach.

He didn't acknowledge the plea any. She hadn't any delusion, even through pleasurable fog that overtook her mind, that he would. Vanya had always dictated his movements by his desires; although when he did comply when he was ready to, the ecstasy was overpowering and mind-numbing.

For a man of such prestige, Vanya was a generous lover. Even before Natalia understood the mechanics of sex, she had known he had performed things only for her enjoyment instead of his own. And he seemed unchanged in that respect, once he shifted his body further down the bed so he was lying between her outstretched thighs.

His hands splayed over her inner thighs, before he glanced up towards her from beneath hooded eyelids. He looked like a predator; the light that normally was absent from his eyes was now alive and threatening to burn her from the inside-out.

Continuing to hold her gaze, Vanya lowered his head a fraction in order to press a gentle kiss to her pubic mound. Her hips jerked in response, before she bit down onto her bottom lip in hopes of stifling the needy whimper that tried to escape her. It was futile, though; her vulnerability was already on full display to him.

Every nerve in Natalia's body was overstimulated, and her arousal ached to be satiated finally. She waited with growing anticipation for Vanya's next move, and to her relief she was given some sort of payoff for her patience. Vanya flicked out his tongue, and gradually traced a line down the center of her sex and back up again.

Natalia's back arched away from the bed, as blinding pleasure overtook her. Her eyes screwed closed as Vanya repeated the action several times in a row. But with each consequent lick, he begun to poke at her swollen folds, already wet with arousal.

"Vanya," she moaned out his name once more, as she tangled her fingers into his hair.

Now that he was in the position to pleasure her, she didn't want him to get away. She was desperate for him, and the methodical way in which he licked her open as addictive. His tongue traced over her outer lips, before returning in between them, and finally finding its way towards her clitoris.

The tip of his tongue barely grazed over Natalia's clit, but it was enough to pull out an even louder noise from her than before. She tried and failed, due to Vanya's hands on her thighs, to close her legs around his head. The stimulation was too much, but in the best way imaginable.

Several pleas for more rippled out of Natalia. She could barely contain herself as Vanya flattened his tongue against in her clit, and lapped gently over it. But what truly heightened the already exhilarating sensation was the sudden appearance of Vanya's flesh and blood fingers rubbing at her folds.

Her hold tightened in his hair, in a feeble attempt to keep her grounded. She knew she was spiraling out of control, and she knew how easily it would be to give Vanya the upper-hand. Yet, she couldn't reel herself back in now; all she wanted was his mouth on her, and for him to continue driving her wild like he was.

Vanya's fingers drifted inward towards her center, while his tongue remained preoccupied on her clit. With smooth precision, the tip of one of his fingers slipped inside of her; which drew out further breathy cries and garbled words for some kind of release from her throat.

Just when Vanya closed his lips around her clit, he slid his finger further inside of her and shallowly began to pump it in and out of her. Natalia heaved and jerked her hips upward, even if she hadn't much mobility with the iron-clad grip still holding her down. But her body wouldn't accept that; it was emphatic about chasing that sensation to the very end.

A second finger soon joined Vanya's first, and then eventually a third. His mouth alternated between sucking on her clit and licking it with the flat of his tongue. Natalia was swept away in the pleasure; her mind shut down completely, and her base instincts continued to prevail ever since he had laid his hands on her.

Ripples of ecstasy spread throughout Natalia's body to an almost unbearable degree. The ache between her thighs thrummed, even pulsed against Vanya's mouth. She twisted her upper body, desperately trying to find the perfect angle that would make her climax.

She bore her hips down as much as she could onto Vanya's fingers, until he suddenly hooked them in just the right spot. What overtook her next was like a tidal wave, a lightning bolt to the system. Natalia's back bowed off the bed almost unnaturally, and a loud cry exploded from her lips.

She came hard enough to cause her vision to darken around the edges. Her climax wracked her whole body; it made her muscles tighten from the onslaught, and her fingers and toes tingled from intensity of it.

It seemed like Natalia came for an extraordinarily long period of time, before she collapsed limply back onto the bed. Vanya had worked her through it, and he only pulled away when he was certain that she was more than satiated for now.

Weakly, she disentangled her hands from Vanya's hair and dropped them to her sides. Her breathing was labored and uneven, and she continued to feel the flicker of her climax as her body began to calm down.

"Vanya," she managed to say; it felt like a mantra that she couldn't stop whispering over and over again.

His looming figure shifted above her, although his features were shrouded in shadow. She murmured out his name once more; it was slurred this time around. She realized then that she was exhausted; not only from the physical exertion she'd just been subjected to, but what had recently transpired of late.

The last time she had felt this unnervingly tired was during her escape from Russia. And well, she'd slept quite a long time after Clint and Bobbi tracked her down in Budapest. She highly doubted she'd have that kind of luxury now.

"Sleep," Vanya ordered, although he really didn't have to.

Natalia was already being pulled into unconsciousness. But before she had fallen into a deep and impenetrable sleep, she swore she felt Vanya press a kiss to her forehead and say her name with a tenderness that was uncharacteristic of him.

 

 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-three :: The Kid

  


 

 

 

Phantom lips traveled across Natalia's skin still. No matter how furiously she had scrubbed her body, determined to wash away her vulnerability; it remained etched down to the marrow of her bones. Even as she strode purposefully in the dark morning hours, it followed her and mocked her.

Vanya had been gone once she had woken up. She hadn't expected anything less from him. And for her own peace of mind, she needed him to be the ghost that he had become. Because to believe the lie, to believe the intimacy, and touch of lips to her forehead, would have led her astray entirely.

She had already made several misdirected, emotional fueled mistakes; and she couldn't allow herself to repeat those instances again. After all, there was a lot at stake now; her child had already been threatened, and she too had been on the receiving end of a warning that she couldn't fully overlook.

Further still, Project Insight was something that she needed to help stop. There wasn't any which way about it. She had joined SHIELD for one reason, but her purpose had shifted from pure survival to a deep-seated desire to do something good for once. And if she could assist Steve in protecting innocent lives as she had in the past, then she had an obligation to follow through with it again.

Slipping silently in between several poorly maintained apartment complexes, Natalia surveyed the shadows. No one had followed her. She knew that for certain. She hadn't been anywhere near as careless as she had been only hours beforehand. And she would not repeat it.

Anger simmered inside of her just thinking about it. She had been trained to withstand emotional outbursts. She had been taught that camaraderie was a weakness. But love, now that would be her true undoing if she allowed herself to feel it.

The love she harbored for Vanya had unequivocally led to the existential crisis she was feeling for the umpteenth time since it had first turned physical. She hated herself for it, especially when she could have had killed him in such a compromising position.

It would have been easy; child's play, really. When he'd been between her legs, she could have done an innumerable amount of things to kill him. And at least one of the threats in between her helping to flush out HYDRA would have been out of her way.

Instead she had allowed her weakness to take hold. She allowed her desire for Vanya to cloud her better judgment. And she could feel him all over her body, as if he branded her like livestock; forever marking her as his, even if she so fervently didn't want that designation.

Clenching her hands into fists, Natalia paused outside a chipped door of a ground level apartment unit. The tarnished number four was barely held into place, albeit none of the other units looked in any better condition. They were bound for demolition soon enough.

Before she could slip the unit's key out of her pocket, the door inched open to reveal an annoyed inhabitant behind it. Steely blue eyes glowered at her, but all the same she was permitted entrance across the threshold.

Natalia hurried into the unwelcoming interior, followed by the sound of the door shutting with a heavy hand. She gave the small open space a quick once-over. There was an old shabby couch in the center of the room, and several milk crates were scattered around to emphasize the squalor of the safe house they were now in.

"Well, beggars can't be choosers," she announced in an unconscious attempt to break the mounting tension behind her.

"Where were you?" Steve asked harshly.

"Where's Wilson?"

"In the other room trying to sleep," he slowly walked into her line of sight. "But that's beside the point. Where were you?"

A spike of annoyance shot through Natalia for a split-second, although she managed to squelch it just as quickly. The last thing she needed was to rise to the bait. And she needed to be on the same page as Steve. They didn't need to have a pissing match over something stupid.

"I would be an awful spy if I told you that." She said with a shrug. "We needed a new car and some supplies. It doesn't matter where I went. I got what we needed."

Steve furrowed his brows. For being a revered American icon, he had a nasty disposition sometimes. Then again, maybe that's why she had a fondness for him. He wasn't like what people had assumed he was. He wasn't wholesome and aw shucks, ma'am; instead he was sarcastic, quick to annoy, and genuinely funny. He was a real person.

Natalia would have probably killed him early on if he hadn't been. Or at least, she would have begged Nick to reassign her instead of putting up with America's sweetheart and his sanctimonious patriotism.

"This isn't a game, Natasha. We were almost killed."

"I agree with you, this isn't a game, Steve."

"I need you to be honest with me. You know that, right?"

"And I gave you a honest reply." She shot back, a thread of her aggravation coloring her tone. "I got us some supplies that we needed. Since Wilson's car was destroyed, we kind of needed some other transportation; unless you want to be a sore thumb in a city that's marked you as enemy number one then be my guest."

Steve's expression contorted, before his face smoothed into a semblance of calm. Natalia knew better, though. This was only the calm before the storm. The only fortunate thing was that his abysmal mood would come out when the true enemy raised its ugly head.

"There's more to this that you aren't telling me."

"Steve,"

"Who was that kid, Natasha?" He planted his hands on his hips, casual in a way that only alpha males could be. "And I don't want you to feed me any bullshit."

The expletive that came out of Steve would have normally sent Natalia into a prolonged outburst about Steve's family friendly reputation going down the drain. But she couldn't muster up any humor now. She had reached her limit.

It was inevitable that Steve would finally ask about Alexei. In fact, Natalia was surprised that he hadn't asked earlier on. Then again, they had watched Sitwell die a painfully macabre death at the hands of Nick's assassin. And they were trying to stop Project Insight from becoming a reality; he had a lot on his plate. Some kid was inconsequential in the long run. Or at least she had hoped that would be the case.

"Do you really want to poke your nose into things that aren't your business?" She asked seriously. "Do you really want to open up that door?"

"He wasn't kidnapped was he? He isn't related to Pierce or anything?"

"I'm not a kidnapper, Rogers. I take offense to that."

"That's the only thing you take offense to?" Steve nearly sneered.

"And if you know who the kid is, will that get you off my back?"

"I'm on your back for a reason!" He suddenly shouted, his temper blazing. "Dammit, Natasha; we have Fury's killer out on the loose. We have HYDRA trying to track us both down! They nearly killed us back at Camp Leigh! That's why I'm on your back!"

Honestly, Natalia had drawn to that conclusion early on. Steve only had her safety in mind, even if he was fully aware of the fact that she could take care of herself. But to hear those words spoken aloud made her stomach clench with guilt. Guilt because she had done so many things to undermine him, and because she had put herself in harm's way out of sheer stupidity more than once of late.

Vanya had been her Achilles heel for over a decade now, and she had forgotten herself too many times to count. She couldn't allow him to dictate her reactions anymore. Not when there was so much at stake; he'd become an enemy once he threatened their son. She had to remind herself of that over and over again.

"You know I can take care of myself. I know what I'm doing, Steve."

"This is HYDRA, Natasha." Steve made a frustrated noise. "You don't know what they're capable of. But I do."

"And do you know a damn thing about the Winter Soldier?" She shot back, her guilt set aside temporarily. "Sure, you saw him kill Nick and Sitwell. But have you ever seen him slowly and methodically kill a man for an insignificant piece of intel? Or have you seen him kill a child because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

Frustration and annoyance rippled out of Natalia like a typhoon to match his. It wasn't only directed at Steve, though; she felt it on a personal level towards herself. She could still feel Vanya's hands and his mouth; she could smell gunmetal and something distinctly him all over her body. And she was angry, incensed even that she let him get the better of her again.

"Then you know him." Steve said. "You know him better then you've let on."

"I know enough about him. And I have people I want to protect too, Steve. You aren't the only one."

"That kid,"

"That kid," she repeated, before she turned away and edged towards the heavy, moth eaten, drapes that covered the front window.

Hooking two fingers around the thick material, Natalia glanced out into the empty courtyard. No one was lurking around; not even common criminals had taken refuge here to conduct their business. It was the perfect place for a safe house. No one would suspect hero turn fugitive Captain America to be here of all places.

"We need to wake up Wilson; Project Insight's scheduled to launch whether we like it or not."

"I know,"

"This is bigger than both of us, Steve."

"But is it bigger than that kid?" Steve asked without any heat behind it.

Natalia was momentarily taken aback by the question. Steve was like a dog with a bone; he wasn't about to drop the topic until he got answers. But she didn't understand why. There was more to this than obnoxious curiosity.

Turning back to face him, Natalia gave him a critical look. Steve looked equal parts curious and frustrated; his jaw was clenched and his hands were still planted on his narrow hips. She had seen this stance before, and it lacked any Cap attributes and was purely Steve.

"Why are you so hung up on this kid?"

"Why are you?" He retorted petulantly.

"Do you really want to argue about something so stupid right now, Rogers?"

"Clearly you do,"

"No, you brought this up. So maybe if you tell me why this kid's so interesting to you then I'll share what I know." She snapped back, feeling heat arch its way through her body in undulating anger.

For several daunting moments, the two of them glared at one another. Neither appeared ready to back down, which was leading them to lose precious time. They couldn't be at odds when they had to stop Project Insight. And yet Natalia couldn't bring herself to say anything that would put Alexei in jeopardy; not again.

"He looks like someone I used to know." Steve admitted abruptly, finally breaking their stand-off. "Eerily similar, actually,"

"That's all?"

"He was very important to me, okay. It was like looking at a ghost."

"Mistaken identity, Rogers," Natalia looked away; she felt resigned but also indignant. "The only resemblance you've probably seen was between us."

"What are you talking about?"

"The kid, he's mine; he's my son." She said, although her throat tightened as if to keep the secret to herself. "Now get Wilson up; we need to get on the road. We've already lost a lot of time."

Before Natalia could properly gauge Steve's reaction to her confession, she headed for the door. She yanked it open and stepped out into the awaiting morning. She couldn't bear to see how he'd take the news, but mostly she felt like she exposed herself again. But she had to believe that confiding in Steve wouldn't come back and bite her in the ass later on.

Right now, she needed to focus though; not on Vanya or even Alexei. She had to be the Black Widow; she needed to be impenetrable and methodical. She needed to be what the Red Room had made her into. It was the only way she could help prevent HYDRA from launching Project Insight.

It was time to save the world again.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-four :: The Causeway

 


 

 

The causeway was filled by early morning commuters. The steady stream bypassed the stolen 2004 Toyota Corolla that Natalia had nabbed outside of a grocery store. It had been the perfect find; functional but nondescript, and highly unlikely to be reported missing.

Wilson was at the wheel, none the wiser that he was piloting a stolen vehicle. Then again, he probably wouldn't have any qualms about it now; not after what had happened to Sitwell only the day before. He was in too deep to have a sanctimonious attitude about any of this.

"Got any plans about stopping these assholes?" Wilson asked above din of seventies R & B on the radio. "Or are we running in gung-ho?"

"Improvisation," Steve chimed in; his eyes steadied ahead of him.

"Some of the best laid plans are built on spontaneity,"

"Or we could try and come up with a plan,"

"We could, but the likelihood they'd actually be of use is slim." Natalia murmured as she watched the traffic. "There's too many unknowns at this point."

There was an immediate lull in conversation after that. Natalia assumed both Steve and Wilson were probably churning over any potential strategy that they could implement to help them. She, on the other hand, knew without any help from current or former SHIELD operatives that they'd be running in blindly to try and disable Project Insight.

Barton and Hill were still out in the wind. Bobbi had said she had had contact with Hill, albeit Natalia was wary about contacting her now. But ultimately she would have to; the threat to Alexei was already apparent, and she could only protect him so much.

With Nick, the anonymity of Alexei's existence had died. Hell, it might have had been compromised from beginning if Mrs. O'Brien had had any ties to HYDRA. In which case, Natalia figured it was only suitable for her to take matters into her own hands once she finished on this specific mission.

Shifting in her seat, Natalia slipped her cellphone out of her pocket. She quickly unlocked it, before composing an ambiguous text message to Bobbi. She'd understand the meaning behind it, and she'd send an equally innocuous response if all was well.

Despite her normally bleak outlook, Natalia had to believe that Bobbi had control of the situation. She had to put her faith in someone else. But she also couldn't dwell too much on it, even her motherly instincts tried to convince her otherwise.

The Black Widow part of her; the unforgiving, cold, and calculated side of her had to be fully present now. She needed to tune out any outside distractions. And when everything was said and done, then she could worry about everything else.

"This isn't good; this isn't any good." Wilson suddenly said. "Son of a bitch,"

Natalia slipped her phone back into her pocket, before she glanced up to see what caused Wilson's outburst. Positioned in the middle of the causeway was a black Humvee; armed men with military grade guns stood around it, some directing traffic while others were simply there for intimidation tactics.

"There's no way we're getting around them without a fight." Steve tensed.

"You know time is ticking, Cap." Wilson sounded uncertain. "And can we really do much in our position?"

Before Steve could reply to the question posed to him, the loud rumble of an engine roared to life behind them. Natalia whipped around to see an identical Humvee to the one ahead of them, speeding through traffic.

Cars swerved every which way to avoid being mowed over. Some weren't so lucky; they were clipped and sent into a tailspin, causing an unfortunate chain reaction of warped metal against warped metal.

"Son of a bitch," Wilson yelled this time, as he wildly spun the wheel in his hands.

They narrowly avoided a collision with a mid-size SUV and a work van. But Wilson somehow had turned them around in a U-turn. And the sight that awaited them made Natalia's stomach lurch. Because crouched atop of the high speed Humvee was none other than the Winter Soldier.

Steve and Wilson were both shouting, although Natalia couldn't seem to discern any of it. Her attention was focused on the approaching Humvee, and the man dressed in top-grade tactical gear. While his face was obscured, his highly recognizable arm was not. But even if it was, Natalia would have known that stance anywhere.

The severe line of the Winter Soldier's body stood in contrast with pale blue sky. He personified every bad thing in the world, and she knew that his mission was clear: he was going to stop them at any cost.

"Watch out," Natalia managed to say, although it was too late.

Even as Wilson hit the gas, the obstacle of the other vehicles across the causeway was too hard to weave through. It had easily given the Winter Soldier an upper-hand, and he had used it. He would have had to been inept if he hadn't.

The Humvee barreled forward still, far too bulky to follow them. The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, had the mobility to reach them. He took a leaping jump off of the Humvee, followed shortly by the heavy impact of his body on top of the car's roof.

Metal screeched and caved in above their heads, which only caused Wilson and Steve to yell louder and more urgently. Wilson's attempt to maneuver around the oncoming vehicles was for naught. Not after the abrupt impact that sent the car askew or the sight of a fist slamming through the windshield.

The glass gave way, shattering into a million pieces; before a metal hand violently grabbed for the steering wheel and ripped it out of Wilson's grip. That was enough to cause further shouts of confusion and shock, albeit Wilson had had the foresight to launch a counter attack nonetheless.

As soon as the wheel had been yanked out of his grip, Wilson slammed his foot onto the brake. The whole car jerked violently forward from motion, and in the process sent the Winter Soldier flying off the roof of the Corolla.

Natalia watched in something between surprise and horror, as the Soldier flipped through the air until he somehow managed to fall into a crouch onto the causeway. His metal hand shot out, slowing down what could have led to serious bodily injury on his part if he hadn't been trained to withstand such extreme circumstances.

"What the hell, man?" Wilson hollered, as he struggled with his seat belt.

Steve had already ripped his belt off, and spun around in his seat to grab his shield behind his seat. Natalia was quick to follow his lead, although her attention was torn between the Soldier ahead of them and the two Humvees that were now speeding towards them.

"Get out of the car!" Steve bellowed, obviously catching sight of the Humvees too.

No one needed to be told twice. Natalia shoved the back door open, and launched herself out of the car. She saw Wilson do the same from the corner of her eye. And just in the nick of time too; no more than fifteen seconds later, one of the Humvees barreled into the Corolla, sending it careening into several already vacated vehicles.

She lost sight of the Winter Soldier then. But that soon became a secondary concern, when men spilled out from the Humvee that screeched to a halt behind them. Men climbed out with guns at the ready, and they proved willing to use them despite the potential innocent bystanders on the road.

Jumping behind an abandoned vehicle, Natalia avoided an onslaught of bullets. She quickly pulled out her pair of Glock 26 pistols, and returned the gunfire. She picked off several men within minutes. Many others had been incapacitated by the whiz of Steve's trademark shield.

The gunfight continued as Natalia moved out into the open. She picked off another grunt, before a steady steam of gunfire ignited right behind her. Ducking behind another abandoned car, she noticed a familiar dark figure advancing with a Colt M4A1 in hand.

Ice cold fear clawed its way up her spine, as she wildly looked around her for any sight of either Steve or Wilson. Wilson was the first she caught sight of. He had somehow gotten his hands on a gun, and was shooting at their oncoming assailants with military precision.

Steve shot into her line of sight. He sprinted across the causeway, before he disappeared behind a barrier of vehicles. Bullets tailed him, although it seemed unlikely that any had made contact. Or at least Natalia hoped he'd gotten away unscathed.

Several more gunmen were picked off one by one; although their good luck didn't extend for much longer. Someone, the Soldier or otherwise, unleashed a powerful explosion that sent a nearby vehicle flying right off the causeway and down to the street below. But not only that, Natalia saw a figure much like Steve's, undoubtedly Steve honestly, being thrown into a free fall.

For a split-second, dread seized Natalia. She knew in theory that Steve could taken quite a bit of abuse; nevertheless, she feared for his well-being. The drop could easily kill a normal man; maybe an enhanced one in the right circumstances. And yet, she couldn't allow herself to dwell on the what-ifs; not when there were still enemies in the immediate vicinity.

Before her fears could best her, the Black Widow mindset snapped firmly into place in Natalia's mind. She needed to assess the situation below, while simultaneously ensuring that Steve had survived the fall. It was also the best route to take the melee onto solid ground; the causeway could, and more than likely would, collapse with further fire power like the explosion that had erupted moments ago.

Surveying her surroundings, Natalia made a quick dash in between the fiery debris left in the grenade launcher's wake. The smoke covered her movements, albeit temporarily. Once she made it to the side of the causeway, she gleaned the mayhem below; a city bus had wrecked alongside several other cars, although she didn't see any immediate sign of Steve.

Without a thought against the contrary, she quickly clambered onto the causeway's partition. She didn't have the opportunity to overthink her next action, and simply leapt over the edge. But her jump was methodical; she twisted her body with precision, before releasing the grappling device embedded in the widow bite around her right wrist.

The grappling device found purchase on the underside of the bridge, which slowed down her trajectory. The jerk of being tethered was unpleasant, but she anticipated it and managed to right herself within seconds; while unleashing the hold when she positioned herself several feet from the asphalt below.

There wasn't any time to find her equilibrium, though. Bullets rained down on her from the causeway and the men who lowered themselves on cables with guns blazing, and it sent Natalia into a full-blown dash. Only when she felt safe enough to, she spun around and saw that the Soldier was also one of the many behind the assault.

Automatically, detached even, Natalia lifted her Glock and shot off one round then another. The first missed its intended mark, even if it did hit one of the HYDRA goon's in the shoulder. The second one, however, honed home, striking the Soldier and sending him stumbling backwards and out of sight.

The shot hadn't been fatal. Natalia already knew as much. But it was enough to give her some leeway to move out. And she didn't take her advantage for granted. She rushed down the busy avenue, where flustered passer-bys were floundering for any type of guidance.

Crowd control was hardly Natalia's specialty. That, however, didn't stop her from waving her arms and yelling at the panicked people in her wake to run. Most were smart enough to disperse. They ran every which way, looking desperately for cover. And it wasn't soon enough.

Despite her head-start, the Soldier hadn't been deterred much. She could hear the loud crunch of mangled metal and shattered glass, before she turned to see him striding down the hood of a demolished vehicle and onto the street.

People scattered every which way, but none of them seemed to hold the Soldier's attention. Natalia knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was coming for her. He had warned her to stay out of his way; he had given her every opportunity to stay out of his cross-hairs, and yet she couldn't do it. She wouldn't do it.

Rushing towards a deadlock of abandoned cars, Natalia pressed her back to the passenger side of a full-size Sedan. Her heart skipped a beat, as she strained her ears to listen for the heavy footed stride of the Soldier.

In instances of combat, the Soldier lost any semblance of subtlety. He wasn't built for espionage anyway; he was sheer force and violence. And when a target was within sight, he would do everything within his power to disassemble and maim. He was a killer, after all.

It took infinite concentration for Natalia to dissect the chaotic sound of the fleeing crowd, in order to track the Soldier's footfall. But it came naturally to her; she picked up on the thunk-thunk of his military grade combat boots on the street, the dense weight of him, and the impending unease that followed him like a black cloud.

Crouching low, she shuffled towards the front of the car. She caught a glimpse of him. He too was surveying the scene, and it was only a matter of time before he struck. She would just have to strike first. She was faster and far more agile than him; that's why they had always worked so well as a team. He was the brute force, while she was the speed.

The Soldier moved forward with methodical steps, positioning himself perfectly for her attack. Natalia leapt onto the hood of the Sedan while tossing her guns aside, before taking several long strides, and throwing herself at the Soldier.

The impact was solid and stinging. But Natalia nailed the landing impeccably and kicked his M4A1 out of his hand; she found herself on the Soldier's broad shoulders with her legs wrapped around him like a vice. Quickly, she yanked out the garrote on her person, and wrapped it around his neck.

As fast as she was, the Soldier was unfortunately equally as swift. He threw up one hand, keeping the wire from his throat enough to make strangulation a difficult feat. Natalia wasn't about to let that deter her, though. She had him in a vulnerable position, and her objective was to stop him at all costs.

The Soldier tried to buck her off, while keeping the garrote away from his neck. Natalia pulled back harder on the garrote's ends, and grit her teeth. She was nearly seeing red, overwhelmed by a level of desperation that she never felt in this sort of situation before.

She had felt fear and uncertainty in the past. She had even felt horror in some extreme cases. But she never felt like the weight of the world was solely on her shoulders, and Vanya was the obstacle in her way.

She loved him and she hated him. Only the night before he had touched her, pressed his mouth all over her body. He meant more to her than she willingly wanted to admit. Not only because he was her child's father, but because he was her first and only love. And she hated him for it; she would always harbor an irrational hatred towards him. But more than anything – she loved him, madly and unequivocally.

That thought, much like so many times before, seemed to be Natalia's undoing. Her grip lessened for a fraction, but it was enough to give Vanya the upper-hand. He made quick use of his sudden advantage and used his hold on the garrote to upend Natalia right off his back and directly into the broadside of a sports car.

The blow was enough to take her breath away. Natalia let out a grunt, as she crumpled to the ground in a heap. Her head throbbed from the unexpected impact, and her ears rang not only from the pain but the chaotic howls of the crowd that was still looking for shelter.

"Разве я не сказал тебе (Didn't I tell you)," Vanya snarled like a rabid dog. "будете держаться подальше от меня (To stay out of my way)."

Natalia weakly lifted herself into a seated position. Vanya stood only a matter of feet from her. He looked foreboding; his normally icy eyes appeared stormy. She could remember only one instance in which they looked that way, and it had been on that night in which she had fled with Alexei. It was the night he had helped them escape.

Sentimentality threatened to undo her then. But she forced it down, as she pulled out a thin disk from her innermost jacket pocket and threw it at him. The disk hit its mark, landing on Vanya's metal arm, before administrating a spark of electricity that temporarily powered it down.

The whine of Vanya's arm sent Natalia back to her feet. She ran into another cluster of confused civilians, which she managed to yell at to flee. Once she broke through them, she looked wildly around her for either Steve or Wilson; she need backup, she needed someone to cover her-

A bolt of pain suddenly enveloped Natalia; it punched a gasp out of her, as she staggered a few steps and caused her to collapse against a car. Her hand reached up to where the pain was most prevalent, specifically her left shoulder, and felt the tacky gush of blood coat her fingers.

Shock overwrote all of her thoughts. She had been shot; Vanya had shot her.

Her breathing became rapid and erratic. The wound wasn't fatal, but it could be if she lost enough blood. And the probability that he would let her go this time around was slim. He would kill her, and where would that leave their child?

"No," she rasped as she looked around her; only to spot him striding her way. "Ваня, Пожалуйста, наш сын (Vanya, please, our son),"

Vanya stopped several feet away from her. He had taken up his M4A1 again, although the barrel was pointed downward and not on her. But the hysteria was still there; Natalia could feel it bubble up in her throat, and yet it refused to spill out of her completely.

His eyes were still stormy; a tempest too perilous to navigate. She could never tell what was on his mind. His words were infrequent, and his actions were sometimes contradictory. Yet for one fleeting moment, Natalia swore he might let her go. He might let her flee with her tail between her legs, so long as she stayed away.

The thought, the hope, barely started to form before a familiar figure ran full speed into view. Steve appeared bewildered and wide-eyed, and he was on Vanya in a matter of seconds. And just as fast as she had been plunged head-first into the melee, Natalia was soon forgotten as Vanya met Steve blow for blow.

It was difficult to keep track of the fight. Natalia was losing too much blood, and her thoughts began to blank out. When she did grasp onto some level of lucidity, it bounced in between Alexei and the many arduous lessons she had been subjected to in the Red Room.

No matter the circumstance, a Black Widow overcame adversity. Emotional ties were obsolete; men were only good for manipulation. Bodily injury while capable of compromising one's functionality wasn't something that one could not overcome.

Pressing her palm harder against her bleeding shoulder, Natalia shook her head. She needed to focus; regardless of her injury, she needed to have Steve's back. He was treading into unknown territory, and that very well could be his undoing if she didn't assist him in some way.

The fight was yards away from her. But from the bits and pieces that she managed to follow, it appeared evenly matched. Vanya gave as much as Steve did. Their movements while crudely clashing, almost created a synchronized and complimentary sort of dance.

Both moved rapidly and precisely; each of their hits falling with a startling impact, and both of them somehow managed to dodge quite a few blows which would have been impossible to block by most people including her. That knowledge alone was what seemed to fuel Natalia to her feet.

The world shifted around her, and she swore she was bound to upend the little that was in her stomach. She heaved on instinct, but by some miracle she managed to keep everything down. Her vision wavered and blackened around the edges; she knew she was losing too much blood too quickly.

Her next movements were laborious and stunted. Natalia could barely lift her feet; her willpower was the only thing that kept her moving the short distance to where she needed to be. It was only a foot away, but it took minutes instead of seconds to cross the distance.

The hardest part ended up being for Natalia to crouch down, and support the weight of the M4A1 in her arms. It felt like it weighed a ton, and it sent her tethering sideways into an abandoned Bronco; albeit, she needed the cover anyway.

Steve and Vanya were entwined in battle still. Neither was holding anything back, and it was evident that Vanya's incentive was to kill; Steve's was by far more offensive. But anyone on the receiving of the Winter Soldier's attack would need to reevaluate their prerogative. It was best to go at him for the kill.

Vanya made very few missteps in hand to hand combat. It was only when he was fatigued or careless that he'd open himself up to vulnerability. And Natalia picked up the brief opening right away; Steve too saw it, and took advantage of it.

Steve managed to grab Vanya by his metal arm, and to use his shield it hit the underside of it. Vanya appeared temporarily stunned, which gave Steve the opportunity to hook his arm behind him and around Vanya's neck; before he threw him right over his shoulder and sending him crashing into the asphalt.

Vanya rolled as he hit the ground, before he staggered onto his feet. He spun around with a cold, calculated expression on his face. His mask had fallen off his face during the fall.

"Bucky...?" Steve blurted out in a tone that was a mixture of confusion and disbelief.

"Who the hell is Bucky?" Vanya retorted, before he lifted up the pistol in his hand and leveled it on Steve.

Before Vanya could get a shot out on Steve's prone form, Wilson swooped out of nowhere and kicked him hard from behind. The impact sent Vanya rolling back to the ground, while Wilson dropped to the ground and struggled to slow himself down.

Still, Steve remained prone as if he was in shock. Vanya, on the other hand, was quick to get back onto his feet and raise his weapon again. That's when Natalia reacted at long last; Steve was clearly in no position to defend himself. So she had to take matters into her own hands.

She used the grenade launcher, and watched its trajectory. Vanya looked oddly bewildered, stunned, betrayed even when he realized what Natalia had done. He burst into a run, and was only narrowly avoided by the blast that struck a car close to where he had once stood.

The blast shook Natalia enough that she ended up dropping the weapon. In a split second, she had irreversibly changed everything in between them. But she hadn't the opportunity to dwell on it; not when STRIKE rushed out to apprehend them and take them into custody. But Vanya's expression stayed with her, even as she was cuffed and pushed into the back of a armored van alongside Steve and Wilson.