Chapter 1: Prologue: GHOST
It began like all tragic stories did; with the destruction of a family, with a betrayal, with a theft, with tears and screaming and blood.
It began in the middle of the night; it began a mere two days after the Romanovs welcomed their darling daughter; healthy and perfect in every way. Perfect – but, unlucky.
Unlucky enough to be selected from a random lottery that had selected families and gathered children from across the Soviet Union. Unlucky enough to be ripped away from her family before she even knew them.
Perhaps it was for the best.
There was, at least, nothing to miss – nothing to tie her to the outside world. She didn’t remember her childhood – or perhaps, adolescence was a more apt word, devoid of the warmth that the term ‘childhood’ inspired. She didn’t remember anything but pain.
Dramatic, and yet, accurate.
She used to be one of many; she knew that much. There used to be others with her, other children, before what made her destroyed them. Why she survived and the others did not was anyone’s guess – and yet, it was always made clear that they still held her life in the balance. A scare tactic, perhaps – though disobedience never crossed her mind – there was nothing but service. Nothing but the mission.
Nothing but the mission.
It was branded on her in every way except physically. In every language she knew, in the bruises she gained and the blood she spilt, in the shadows at night, in the shifting of her body, in every breath she took.
There was nothing but the mission – until he came.
Chapter 2: Algeria, 1956
Algeria, 1st April, 1956.
The Rue Larbi Alik, Holiday Residence of Jacques Dupuy.
Even in the airless transport vehicle, she could smell the delicate scent of the blooming peonies that lined the manicured streets of the Algerian capital’s streets. The Rue Larbi was a particularly rich area of Algeria; though Algiers was already considered the home of the upper 10%. That had factored into their briefing. Private security was a dime a dozen, and the political climate’s turbulence as of late meant that the rich and famous were getting antsy.
Her partner was still in the midst of his pre-service, silver arm glimmering under the light of the technician’s torch. He, as always, seemed unaware of the work upon him, despite the discomfort she knew he felt if they weren’t careful. And they usually weren’t. The faint buzzing of her collar and cuffs was barely audible over the quiet rumble of the truck engine, but she could still feel it – just on the edge of pain, keeping her in place. Their handlers were talking quietly, but she didn’t care to listen in. If she needed to know, she would know. Anything else was irrelevant to her, to the mission. And there was nothing but the mission.
“мы прибыли.” We’re here. Her partner’s handler spoke in Russian, casting his eyes over both of them.
Her handler approached her. His usual cold stare was firmly in place, tempered with the warning he always instilled in his watery blue eyes before a mission. He was getting towards his midlife. She could see the weakness in him, even if his rank belied it. He greyed at his temples, and she suspected he was developing a cataract in his left eye. But she did not care, and the information was merely filed away, like everything else.
“Это должно выглядеть грязно.” It must look messy. He reminded her, taking out the master key for her cuffs. The back door of the van was opened, and in one smooth movement, her partner stood, taking his weaponry and jumped to the ground. He stood, waiting. “Нет пощады.” No mercy.
“Никогда.” Never. She agreed lowly and got to her feet. It was only after she joined her partner on the road, that she felt the sudden freedom, the electric current running through her absent.
It was 03:11. They had until 06:00 to complete their objective and meet back at their rendezvous point. Time was ticking.
The holiday home of their target was as opulent as the rest of his lifestyle. Jacques Dupuy wasn’t overly qualified for the role of French Defence Minister; his father was the one who had served in the military, and it was his vast influence and presence in Algeria that was the most likely clause for his election. Considering the discontent within the lower classes of Algeria, and the general dislike of French rule; it was more than likely that the French government had elected someone who knew the lay of the land. Though from what their intelligence suggested, Dupuy spent more time indoors than truly exploring and experiencing Algeria. His holiday home received an exorbitant amount of… female visitors, and other unsavoury company.
She wondered briefly if his wife and children knew the extent of his debauchery. It was likely his wife knew – though rather than risk the loss of her lifestyle, she probably kept it to herself.
The rumble of their transport faded into the warm night, and they were alone on the dark street.
Her partner had his eyes on the windows and the balconies; no doubt calculating how many guards were active, what their watch pattern looked like. She kept her eyes on the tall wall ahead of them, and the security cameras lining the impressive structure. The first obstacle.
It was second nature, ingrained in her now, like muscle memory; to reach out for him, fingers making contact with the cool metal of his arm – and phase them both out of sight, out of touch.
It used to be difficult; already straining to keep herself invisible, and or, intangible – she had to then take him with her too, all his hulking frame and gear and hide them both. The first time she had done it with any acceptable level of success, she had been out of action for days – body pushed beyond its limit.
Now – it was a distant exhaustion, a dull pain, like running a marathon on a sprained ankle.
She stretched her awareness to all of him, to every fibre of his being, down to his muscles, his bones, his marrow, his blood, his cells. And she took every inch of him, and pulled it into her own field of strange energy that she didn’t understand – and phased them out of awareness of the world around them.
It was a strange sensation. It was cold, and everything went shades of grey when she phased – like she truly wasn’t in the mortal realm; just some sad imitation of it. But it was peaceful. Sounds and scents dulled, making everything just that little bit easier.
It was like being put into cyrosleep – but she could control this.
They melted through the wall, past the entrance camera, and through the front door before she had to release him. She came back to visibility and tangibility, looking to him, catching her breath and staying the faint dizziness. His eyes were hidden beneath his visor, but she knew he was analysing her, considering her state of ability.
It was second nature to her as well. If he wasn’t functioning then he was a liability, and she had to adjust accordingly.
She straightened, and gave him a small nod. He turned from her, and gestured to the stairs. “Найди его, я разберусь с остальными.” Find him, I'll deal with the rest. It would split the time in half – still giving them the ability to stage a vicious attack, rather than an assassination orchestrated by an outside party. The followers of the Algerian Nationalist Movement were the people, the middle and lower class without access to the kind of killing they specialised in. It had to look a certain way – and after the doctored footage would be released, there would be no uncertainty about the nature of the attack.
She phased out of sight, ghosting past him with the faintest brush against his right arm to let him know she was on her way. He moved behind her, splitting off to clear the nearest room, as she moved swiftly towards the staircase. The blueprints of the house indicated the master bedroom was on the top floor, and she bypassed several guards on her journey upwards.
The hallway lights were down low, the artificial chandelier candles setting off a soft glow. It was clearly having an effect on the guards posted outside the bedroom door. One of which was yawning widely, the other’s eyes closed, cheap earphones spilling the rendition of a French pop song into the hall.
There was always something that flared in her whenever she appeared so suddenly in front of someone that they reacted. It was in the way they shrieked, or flinched, or jumped away. The yawning guard gave a strangled scream, reaching hastily for his jacket pocket as she flickered into sight.
She didn’t give him time to aim – disappearing again as his pistol came out, his shaking hands holding the weapon as he scanned the corridor with wide, fearful eyes. She moved towards the other man, waiting.
The other guard blinked awake slowly, taking in his friend’s position with confusion. “Que se passe-t-il?” What’s going on? He asked, pulling out his earphones and standing. She held her breath, no more than an inch away from him.
“Il y avait un-” There was a- She didn’t let the man finish, unsheathing her favoured hunting knife – and slashing viciously at the still-sleepy guard. His friend screamed as he buckled beside him – seemingly struck from nothing, his throat gaping open.
She stepped back dispassionately as he keeled forwards, clutching desperately at his throat. Then, she turned visible again, the sudden flux of sensation flooding her with adrenaline as the man fired at her wildly – but she was already dropping to her knees, rolling towards him with the ease and grace of a thousand hours of practice, and stabbing him in the kneecap. He dropped his pistol as he fell, howling so loud she winced beneath her face mask.
She caught the weapon as it fell, bringing it up swiftly to fire a single, silencing shot under his jaw. She stood, the corpse falling with a dull thud. She could hear commotion beneath her now, the odd scream of pain and near constant gunfire and pounding feet. She paid it no mind. Her partner had it under control.
She moved towards the large oak door, ornately carved, with gold and crystal handles. Beautifully impractical. She phased right through, and entered the quiet room. Soundproofed – both ways. Of course.
The bed was huge, taking up a third of the massive room; four posted and done up in emerald silk covers. A lump of a body was slumbering – and she took a silent step closer, close enough to make up the spread of long blonde hair splayed across the plump pillow. A woman. She scanned the room for the actual target – eyes catching on the strip of light under the discrete en-suite bathroom door in the corner.
She made no noise as she crossed the room, and pressed her ear to the door for a moment. There was masculine humming, the sound of liquid splashing, and her hand crept for the handle.
There was a moment of stillness in between her bursting through the door and the realisation of Dupuy that there was a stranger in his home. He was urinating, striped boxers around his ankles, and his eyes went wide – mouth falling open in a sudden and unexpected shriek. She scowled, and leapt for him, bringing up her knife in the same motion, and slamming it into his sternum. All it did was make him scream louder, and she drew back the knife again, stabbing it into his lungs this time – making him wheeze in shock, blood bubbling at the corner of his lips.
The momentary chaos had been enough to distract her – and as something pierced her outer uniform and ripped through her shoulder; the main sensation she felt was not pain – though that was very evident as whatever had stabbed her, went right through what felt like her axillary nerve and into her deltoid – but instead, a burning irritation. Foolish. She thought, dropping Dupuy bodily, knife still stuck in his torso – and turning to grab at the blonde woman who had stabbed her.
She was already shrieking and wailing at an unimaginable volume before she had reached her – fleeing back into the bedroom, stark naked and crazed. She caught up to her quickly, fisting her good hand in her bleached blonde hair, and dragging her harshly to a stop. She clenched her jaw, fighting the warring anger and pain to find her cool. Nothing but the mission.
She kept her grip on the woman’s hair, and slammed her head into one of the bed’s posters hard enough to knock the woman unconscious, slumping over onto the floor as she released her.
She took a moment, gritting her teeth and breathing hard through her nose. She was bleeding through her uniform; though it was ruined the moment the weapon stabbed through it. She’d hear about it from her handler later. She turned, lumbering back towards the dying man in the bathroom.
She stabbed him a few more times for good measure, with different blades. The more people looked involved, the better. She turned him over, preserving just a little of his modesty and dignity, and stood.
The dulled gunshots had stopped, and she turned – and as if on cue, the bedroom door opened; her partner stepping through. “Законченный?” Finished? He asked, approaching the unconscious woman and crouching beside her, looking her over. “Женщина?” The woman? He cast her a look, stilling slightly at the sight of her wound.
She shook her head. “Никто. Осложнение.” Nobody. A complication. She responded, and he stood, pulling out his gun – firing one shot without looking. The woman twitched, blood blooming across the carpet.
“Вы не очистили комнату?” You didn’t clear the room? He asked her, and she could practically see his frown behind his face mask. She hoped he could sense her own scowl as he approached her, turning her roughly around to examine her shoulder. She didn’t flinch, though his probing made pain flare white hot down her arm.
“Конечно я сделал. Она не была угрозой.” Of course I did. She wasn't a threat. She spat, and wrenched herself out of his grip.
He let her go, but moved to the bathroom, stepping over Dupuy as if he was a carpet and rummaging through the cabinets, emerging with a bandage. “Вы должны были нейтрализовать ее.” You should have neutralised her.
She was already undoing her uniform as he approached her, and she shrugged it off her shoulder violently, the fabric tearing further. His hands weren’t gentle, but they were careful as he eased the weapon out of her shoulder, dropping it into her waiting hand. She eyed the ornate hairpin covered in her blood. It was made of gems, and covered in gold leaf. She pocketed it.
He wrapped the bandage tight, both hands ghosting over her skin and under and around her arm. The differing temperatures between the metal and his flesh made goose bumps rise on the back of her neck. They were both silent as she redid her uniform, watching him go through the room one last time, staging the scene.
The rest of the house looked like the aftermath of a horror film – bullets, bodies and blood strewn through the otherwise immaculate rooms. She examined the work critically, and he waited behind her, until she nodded and they kept moving. They left out the back – him with one hand on the back of her neck squeezing her slightly, keeping her focussed, her with one arm dangling uselessly and her other hand clenched into a fist.
It was a struggle to get them both out and away unseen – and as soon as they crossed the back wall out into the parkland behind the property, she released the phase, nearly collapsing into the grass, gasping for breath. She swayed unsteadily, folded in half. Her heart was pounding behind her eyes, the edges of her vision grey.
Her partner waited.
Eventually, she straightened. She was glad, suddenly, irrationally, for the trees around them, sparse and thin though they were – they gave her an odd sense of security, like it had hidden her weakness.
“У нас сорок пять минут.” We have forty-five minutes. He said quietly, turning to the stretch of road just visible through the parkland. “Мы должны бежать.” We’ll have to run.
She clenched her jaw in frustration. If not for the woman, they’d be on schedule. She nodded once, letting him lead the way out of the trees, picking up speed as they approached the road.
He was faster than her. It was just… the way it was. Just like she phased, he was impossibly strong and fast – a by-product of whatever they had done to him, along with his metal arm. She sometimes wondered if he had been one-armed all of his life, or if they’d taken it. She supposed it didn’t really matter. Nothing really mattered but the mission.
He had to slow for her, hanging back on corners to make sure she was still following, casting quick looks over his shoulder on the straights. Returning without her wasn’t an option. And she couldn’t ever leave him behind either. They weren’t just partners – they were each other’s guarantees. They’d been trained to keep each other in line; with extreme prejudice. She wasn’t sure what he knew about her, just as he didn’t know how she’d been taught to take him in.
But they made it – they always made it.
Her handler moved to her quickly, casting a cursory look at her bound injury before strapping her collar back on and powering up her cuffs. She held his disapproving gaze as the sudden flux on electricity made her tired limbs twitch. “Слоппи.” Sloppy. He hissed distastefully, and jerked his head in the direction of the van. She clambered in slowly, struggling to find her balance in her exhausted state.
The medic moved to her, shoving her roughly around to gain access to the wound. She grunted, biting down on her bottom lip to prevent any other sounds to escape. Her partner took a seat next to her, and she stared hard at the red outline of the star on his shoulder, blinking away tears welling up in her eyes automatically. The image of it was already so familiar, but now it imprinted itself behind her eyelids as she sat through their debriefing silently, forcing herself to stay conscious.
Chapter 3: Paris, 1956
11th May, 1956.
HYDRA Holding Facility #13
She used to have no concept of time, before him.
It used to be indeterminate periods of time spent in her room, training or sleeping. The only time she would get an idea of it all was on missions. There she would catch glimpses of the world outside; woman in skirts, and then in pants, and then skirts again, buildings and automobiles changing and evolving, the sun or the moon in the heavens, though once it had been neither of them, and a single black expanse of sky.
But apart from those moments, time slipped and stuck by; she was syrup in a jar, sometimes slowly trickling by; other times advancing in leaps and bounds depending on the needs of her superiors. She was four blank walls, electricity, mindless pain and missions.
When he had come, she became something else too, she became the waiting; impatient and patient. She became the watcher, the pacer, the stirring of something that could have been anticipation – but she’d never considered emotion before, so she wasn’t sure.
When he came, she was able to understand that time was there, that the gaps between when she saw him and when she didn’t meant great leaps of time were passing. When she saw him, she knew that there was a mission. When she saw him, she knew that time would start again.
Her room was designed to keep her in – concrete from walls to floor to ceiling, reinforced with metal running a constant electric current, a door with a lock and handle on only one side, a basin with no faucet, and a bunk bed with no railing. It was here she spent every minute not spent on the practice mat or out in the field, alone. It was only after he had come that it began to change.
She stood as the door began to click, the notification that someone was opening it from the other side. She turned – as per her training – and put her hands on the wall above her head in a traditional surrender. The door opened, and there was a stumbling crash the next, and a harsh voice; “выспаться.” Sleep it off.
She waited until the door closed before she turned to look at the person sprawled on her floor. Her partner was still blue-tinged with the frost of the sleep-chamber, his eyes half-shut, limbs weak. It was a familiar sight. The first time he’d been delivered to her like this, she hadn’t known what to do. Now, it was habit to roll her partner onto his back, ignoring his faint attempt to fight her off, and scoop up handful of water and sprinkle it onto his face. It always roused him enough to stop seeing her as a threat, and allow her to bundle him over onto the lower bunk. He would stay in the bed until it was time to leave, leaving her plenty of time to ready herself.
But today, she only made it halfway through her usual stretches when he sat up suddenly. “Deine schulter.” Your shoulder. He said lowly, in German.
She turned to look at him slowly, still folded in half at her waist. “Was ist damit?” What about it? She asked warily. When he had first come, he hadn’t known Russian, but could speak more German than she had. It was still strange, however, that he was speaking it now – let alone the fact he was asking about her shoulder.
“Es ... war – ist verletzt?” It... was – is injured? He asked hesitantly, seemingly even more confused about his sudden line of questioning than she was. She straightened, looking uncomfortably at the door, idly wondering if this was some kind of test.
“Ja. Es war.” Yes. It was. She looked at him properly, noting the faintly hazy look to his normally laser-focussed eyes. It was a little disconcerting. “Aber es wurde behandelt. Du hast es selbst verbunden.” But it was treated. You bandaged it yourself.
They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, both of them unwilling, unable, to look away. Finally though, he slumped back down, eyes shutting as he rolled to face to wall. His breathing evened out not long after, but she remained where she was.
This had never happened before. Not in all the time they’d been together.
There was no time to consider it, as not long after, the door opened again – and her handler entered, affixing her collar and cuffs, and leading her from her room. The door slammed behind her with an air of finality, though she knew she would see him soon.
She didn’t actually see him until the middle of their mission.
Paris was almost as warm as Algeria this time of year, and the streets were bustling. It made things more difficult; considering they had a whole envoy of targets, and the destination was the centre of the city, in broad daylight.
The Algerian Government had deemed it necessary to send the envoy to the Peace Conference, in light of the tragic events and growing civil war – to beg for protection, for reason, for resources. In short, they were sending their best weasels, their richest and brightest – the only ones who truly desired French occupancy within Algeria.
She and her partner had vastly different roles; he was to be controlling the explosion that would flip and hopefully destroy the limousine the weasels were travelling in, whilst she would be responsible for stopping their hearts before the crash. They didn’t have any room for error – if one survived the explosion, then it was a failed mission.
Which was why she had been curled in the admittedly large trunk of the limousine, mourning the lack of fresh air, counting seconds in her head, as her partner intermittently grunted out street names as the limousine continued its journey. From a crack above the bumper, she could see the blue lights of the police escort that followed the envoy closely. It was likely that they would be affected by the explosion.
“Avenue de l’Europe.”
She rolled, phasing into nothing – through the car seat, through two bodies, until she had a spot to crouch on, right in the centre of the limousine. Around her, the men – only men, though that was no surprise – were laughing, notes discarded, ties loosened, hands clutching champagne glasses, looking careless. They were careless.
“Пару минут.” Two minutes .
Her partner drawled a warning, and she snapped into action without another thought. She reached for the man nearest her, intangible and invisible – hand disappearing into his chest, until she found what she was looking for.
Consider; the sensation of arm wrestling – the way you squeeze against the firm fleshiness of your opponent’s hand, feeling the way their muscles move as you attempt to slam their hand down.
Squeezing the life out of a human heart felt much the same. She had to strain, but only just – fingers tightening a deadly vice around the wet throbbing organ. There was; as always, the faint flip of nausea she only got when ending a life like this. It was different, somehow, to using a gun, a knife, a garrotte. Being so close, feeling the pulse of human life, and directly stopping it – watching their eyes as fear drained away to horrible understanding and then to nothing as the life left them.
She was already moving to the next man, before they realised their colleague wasn’t simply slumping in his seat – reaching through the side of his rib-cage, clutching at his heart and stilling it. The limousine erupted into chaos in the next minute, and the sudden flare of noise and movement startled her, even in the grey-drained world of her invisible intangibility. It made it even harder to stay hidden, and for a moment, she caught a glimpse of herself in another man’s irises; ghoulish mask glowing unnervingly. He didn’t have time to scream.
When she would give her report, she would say that it happened quickly and methodically. She would say that she exerted control over the situation and made it to the rendezvous point on time.
She wouldn’t mention the exhaustion that set in, the way she had to grapple with two of them, one foot on the steering wheel to keep the car steady. She wouldn’t mention slamming her face into one of them until he stopped moving, thermal goggles so splattered with blood she could only feel her way around to the last of them – putting her hands around his fat neck and squeezing until he was dead. She wouldn’t say that she had to put all her energy into phasing out of the car just as the explosion flipped and destroyed the limousine – shockwaves sending her flying. She wouldn’t mention her pathetic crawl out of sight and off the road, praying that the chaos was enough to hide her figure as she dragged herself into the bushes of the hotel garden that overlooked the street.
She lay there, panting, trembling. Everything ached, and her head throbbed under her mask. Suddenly, her uniform was far too heavy, and even the prospect of sitting upright seemed an impossibility. New sirens were approaching the scene, and she could hear voices, bystanders and law-enforcement alike, far too close for comfort.
She rolled over, bringing up her hand to wipe away the blood that was beginning to congeal over her goggle ports. Her gloves were still wet with the slick bright arterial blood of her target’s hearts, and she only managed to clear some of the gore. At least she had more range of vision. Her own breath was loud in her ears, and it was only after she focussed on regulating it did she realise the other audial anomaly; the faint hum of her broken communication unit.
Her head felt as foggy as her goggles, and it took her longer than it should have to fall back into protocol. Where was the rendezvous point?
She still had time. She had to have time.
They were supposed to monitor the scene and report from the rendezvous until the next dawn. 06:14. Yes, she still had time. She levered herself upright and, sticking low to the ground, broke into a stumbling run away from the sirens. Parc Balbi was almost a straight line directly south from her current position. She could only hope she wasn’t seen. She wasn’t sure she had the energy to hide herself.
Finally, she made it – scaring a group of pigeons as she emerged from a bush. There was a park bench that looked tempting, but a burst of laughter from a group of women walking across the lake made her change course.
The public bathroom stunk; even through her air-filtration system. But it was dark and quiet, and with the last of her energy, she slammed the door shut, jamming the handle shut as best as she could. She lent back against the wall, and focussed on her breathing. She was tired.
Far away, she could still hear the sirens, could hear the chirping of birds, the wet noises of the plumbing and lake. The stall opposite her was tiled in green, and through the mess of her mask, she could just make out a line of the black scrawled graffiti. Nourrir les sans-abri. Feed the homeless.
The sound of the handle jiggling made her startle, heart kicking back into high gear as the door creaked ominously. She propelled herself forwards and into the stall, clambering up onto the seat as the door opened. It was almost painful to disappear, like dancing upon broken toes and strained muscles. She held her position, held her invisibility as footsteps approached her position.
In the grey world of her invisibility, her vision was even further impeded – and for a moment, she didn’t recognise the hulking figure that had paused at the mirrors, just in front of her stall. It was the dull gleam of his fingers as he turned slightly – almost as if hearing something. She let out her breath in something like relief, and his movement was just as sudden, masked eyes staring unseeingly at her position.
For a second she panicked, unable to reappear – like a muscle cramped in one painful position. She pushed, and as she came back into being – making her partner twitch in faint surprise – she began to fall forwards out of her crouch.
He was already underneath her, saving her from faceplanting, and the sudden gravity shift made her head swim again.
“Вы не были ясны.” You weren’t clear. It wasn’t a question. He sat her down beside the sink, pushing her head back to rest against the wall.
“Я видел?” Was I seen? She asked quietly. He had turned on the faucet, and was unzipping the small first aid kit.
He turned back to her, holding a wet bandage. “Нет. Твой костюм.” No. Your suit. He said by way of explanation, and for the first time since the explosion, she became aware of the faint air-flow against her knees and thighs. Her collision with the ground must have scraped right through the tough leather. The touch of the bandage to her exposed flesh made her grit her teeth. It stung, and he wasn’t gentle as he dug out the dirt and gravel that had collected in and on her skin. “Что случилось?” What happened?
They couldn’t see each other’s faces – and for that she was glad. She knew the face of the man behind his mask, just as he knew hers – and yet the physical distance between them had never been so small, or so evident as it was now – in the light of her failure. If she told him, actually told him, that she’d felt so weak that she’d resorted to messy violence, that she had barely made it out, that she had jeopardised their mission with her own shortcomings – there was nothing to say that he wouldn’t report it directly to their superiors.
They were weapons, and a faulty weapon had no place in an arsenal.
“Мы в безопасности.” We’re secure. It was a phrase she’d heard from him many times, had said herself on almost every mission. They were safe, they were out of range, they were successful. Now – she thought it might have meant that they were alone, that this… this was private.
Her uniform made a faint creaking noise as she raised her head slightly to align her goggles with the dark glass of his mask’s eyes. “Я не мог удержать это.” I couldn’t hold it. He said nothing, but after a moment, he lifted the now red stained bandage to her goggles and began to clear off the glass. “Я был слабым.” I was weak.
“Не слабость. Они просят слишком много.” Not weakness. They ask too much.
They both stilled, and she felt her eyes go wide, muscles tensing as if anticipating a blow. That was insubordination, and they both knew it. Slowly, he lowered his hand, and she tracked its movement to the knife at his hip. He was just as wary as she was. She’d never heard him say such a thing, had never even considered thinking such a thing. It had always been made clear to her, for as long as she could remember; what was commanded was to be done, what was desired was to be given. There were no exceptions, no excuses, and no exclusions.
“Мы в безопасности.” We’re secure. She parroted him quietly. There was another long silence, before he nodded once, almost imperceptibly.
Over his shoulder, she could make out another line of graffiti.
Seulement ensemble nous sommes forts.
Only together we are strong.
Chapter 4: Texas, 1963
November 20th, 1963.
Hydra Holding Facility #13
His hand caught her around the throat in mid-air, the shock of it more disorientating than the sharp loss of breath. He threw her mercilessly, and she slipped back into visibility as she went, saving the energy and focus for her landing, using her own momentum to flip herself before she crashed gracelessly, landing lightly on the balls of her feet and one hand instead.
He didn’t give her anytime to recover, already advancing. The practice mat was damp and slippery from their combined sweat, and there were a few drops of blood from his nose; which she had crushed earlier. She waited for him, straightening and feinting a defensive pose as he swung. The odd sensation of his fist passing straight through her was familiar, as was the way he automatically over-corrected his posture to save his loss of balance as his punch went nowhere. She was already moving, though, stepping through him and dancing around him – still intangible. She knew what he would do next, and ducked under his roundhouse, solidifying and jabbing at the side of his head, catching his ear sharply. He shook his head just once, but she knew his ear was probably ringing, and disappeared, taking advantage of his slight hearing loss to run a few paces backwards to catch her breath.
Whilst she wasn’t mortally weak, with strength that beat the other men on the base, and a quickness that was far from average, he was stronger and faster than her, and his stamina was more impressive. In a one-on-one fight, they weren’t matched. The advantage of her abilities gave her an edge that allowed them to combat each other on a relatively even field. Most training matches ended in draws, though she had been known to catch him off guard, and he had overpowered her more than a few times.
When they first trained together, they hadn’t held back – unsure what the line was, unsure of the other’s abilities, him still unsure of his arm’s limits, and her unsure just what threat he posed. They’d seriously damaged each other before they’d been separated. She could still remember the visceral snap of her femur between his metal fingers, the dangerous blue his face had gone and the wheezy breaths he had taken after she’d crushed his windpipe.
Now, of course, there was a faint air of relaxation to the mindless exercise. Years of fighting the same fight tended to do that – and she knew his movements and limits just as well as she knew her own.
They ended up locked in a stalemate, her with one hand inside his chest, him with his metal hand around her throat. They could both crush the other.
“Солдаты. Дух.” Soldier. Ghost.
Separated, she took a quiet, steadying breath. She was tired, despite her body’s rigid at-attention stance. One of their senior joint handlers was waiting in the doorway. “Готовьтесь к миссии. Вы переезжаете в 18:00.” Prepare for the mission. You move at 18:00. He was holding a familiar manilla file, which she knew would contain only two things; a mission brief, no more than a paragraph, which include their emergency rendezvous, drop-off and pick-up, and a singular high resolution image of their target.
He held it out to her with the tips of his fingers, retracting his hands immediately when she touched it. She could read his disgust in the slight wrinkle of his nose, in the condescension in his eyes. His uniform told her he was a commander of something. She – more so than her more human partner – received the bulk of revulsion. Her partner attracted, at times, a certain smugness along with the usual disdain, which she didn’t understand. She could hear him approach, soundless to the untrained ear – and opened it wide for his benefit.
She was sure her immediate surprise at seeing the all-too familiar face of their target was echoed, as he gave a small intake of breath, that only she could hear. Of course, they both knew the man smiling out from the page; President John Fitzgerald Kennedy of the United States of America was hardly an unknown figure.
She looked up to meet the hard eyes of her partner. He gave her a knowing look; this would most likely be one of, if not, the most prolific and difficult missions in their service.
“Понял, сэр.” Understood, sir.
The crowd was loud, loud enough that she could even hear it through her partner’s communication unit from where he was positioned at the knoll overlooking the road, and hear it herself, despite being above street level in the Book Depository. It created a weird feedback loop. The man next to her, despite the death sentence on his head, looked calm. Lee Harvey Oswald had volunteered to be Hydra’s scapegoat with little to no hesitance. In this high-profile assignation, it was a necessity for the Americans to have someone to blame. But – there would be no loose ends. Oswald would be dead before the week ended.
The shot would be taken by Oswald, as would the fall – she and her partner were security, back-up if Oswald failed. She could foresee the outcome; no man shot with the accuracy of the Winter Soldier – and it was more than likely that he would have to finish the mission. She was only to oversee Oswald’s position before meeting up with her partner to get them out unseen.
Still – her nerves were singing in a way she was unused to. She tapped lightly at the hilt of her knife on her belt, counting down the last sixty-seven seconds, before standing. Her sudden movement made Oswald jump, eyes going wide.
Not as calm as he appeared.
She could respect his poker face. “Are you prepared?” she asked him. English felt uncomfortable on her tongue, and she knew she had an accent. He blinked at her, and she saw the flicker of fear there. “Comrade. You do the Soviet Union a great service. You will be welcomed as a hero.” He swallowed thickly, but nodded, fingers moving unsteadily to the rifle already angled at the street. She nodded, and left as silently as she had come.
The chaos erupted as she was winding through the crowd. The first gunshot went too wild – not a killing shot, as she’d suspected. The second shot that came from her partner followed shortly – and the crowd was in such a disarray that she lost sight of his position, caught up in avoiding the panicked civilians. Americans were a loud bunch; self-centred, she thought idly, watching as a group of men scrambled away from the road, abandoning a stroller and a young mother in their desire to save their own skins. Couldn’t they see it wasn’t about them? They were hardly important enough to think to fear for their lives in such a targeted attack. She stepped over a balling woman, and began her walk up the slope. In her grey-realm, she couldn’t see the fine blue of the sky, nor the sweet green of the grass. She imagined they were quite vivid.
Her partner was waiting for her, back pressed tight against the knoll, gun at the ready – almost flat in his defensive position. She was, she could admit, a little aghast at their command’s faith in the pair of them, or perhaps their audacity to leave her partner open and vulnerable, in clear visibility of the light of day.
Not that vulnerable was a word she would ever use to describe her partner.
She bent over him.
Perhaps he too was feeling the pressure, as he gave no evidence of noticing or sensing her arrival as he usually did. It was impossible to tell behind his mask, but she pictured his sharp eyes roaming the street in front of him, his ears perked for any noise from behind. The sirens of police backup were getting closer, and she bent – reaching out and laying her hand over his flesh hand.
He startled, beginning to stand, even as she wrapped him in the grey-realm and he understood she was there.
It was just in time, as the first of the civilians began to spill over the knoll, running from the carnage on the road behind. He slowed with her, and they slipped in and out of the crowd sedately. His rifle was hot, and one-handed, he began to stow it away. Despite it being of American make, he seemed just as comfortable with it as he did with his customary Russian made weapon. They were to wait, to ascertain that Oswald had been taken into custody. Then they could go.
She wasn’t sure she liked America – it was too loud and too hot – and for the first time in a while, felt the echoing of impatience. She wanted to go back, back to what she knew.
Her partner, surprisingly, seemed unaffected. In fact, as they began to wind through more residential streets, he began to pull ahead slightly, until she was just half a step behind, trying to match his elongated stride.
She frowned behind her mask, as he slowed suddenly, in the middle of a crossing, head turning to track the movement of three children playing in the nature strip on the sidewalk. She stilled with him, unable to let him go.
She didn’t recognize the children, didn’t recognize the scene of friendship – after all, she had nothing to compare it to – but even so, she knew that children playing was normal. Her partner, however, was staring as if he’d never seen a child in his life.
One of them, the smallest, with bright blue eyes and a mop of curly straw-coloured hair was shouting something about Nazis, clutching what she recognized to be a dustbin lid, painted in a strange pattern; circles of red and white, and a spot of blue in the centre, with a white star that was slightly lop-sided. The other two held sticks and were hitting at him mercilessly, but the laughter between all three assured her that the interaction was positive.
Her partner wavered, a full-body shudder that she could feel under her hand and she tensed, unsure what was about to happen. She took a breath, opening to her mouth to speak-
The sudden roar of a car’s engine from behind them made her startle, clutching at her partner with both hands and just in time – pulled them both into intangibility. The car roared through them, and beeped at the children as it pulled into the house’s driveway, making them drop their toys and run eagerly towards the vehicle.
She shoved him forwards, forcibly propelling him out of the middle of the road, and kept pushing him until he began to walk again. He shook his head once, and she scowled.
“Что это было?” What was that? She hissed, holding a hand over the mic on her chest, and hoping the sound was muffled enough.
“I don’t- I don’t know.” He responded, in English. For the first time, she really noticed how perfect his accent was; like he was truly an American. Something flipped uneasily in her stomach, and she dropped her hand from her mic, propelling him forwards instead.
The quicker they got out of here, the better.
“Отчет о миссии.” Mission report.
Her partner’s handler sounded almost bored, eyes not on them, but on a pile of documents in front of him. Her own handler had sent them through, on the phone to what she presumed was higher command. She could make out Chinese characters and German on some of the papers. Idly, she wondered just what Hydra wanted with China and Germany. She stopped herself quickly. Idle thoughts were not hers to have.
He looked up, frowning – and even as she dropped her eyes hurriedly – she realised why he was confused. There had been no response. She chanced a look at her partner, noting that the odd glaze over his eyes was still present. There was nothing in their training to suggest that one of them was more dominant than the other, that one held a higher position of command than the other. She may have been active for longer than her partner, but it meant nothing – just as it meant nothing that he was the one to report, he had always just seemed to speak first.
Something told her, though, that this sudden silence from him meant something. It meant something she didn’t understand – and though she went through her service knowing near nothing, her partner had never been a variable. She thought she knew him as well as she knew herself. That is to say – not well, but still better than she knew anything else. It made her stomach turn, both at the abnormality of his behaviour and the sudden realisation that if she could sense it, then perhaps their handlers could too.
“Отчет миссии; 22 ноября 1963 г.” Mission report; 22 November 1963. She spoke suddenly and almost loudly into the building tension. “Цель ликвидируется в соответствии с параметрами миссии.” Target liquidated according to mission parameters. She hesitated, gauging the room. Her partner’s handler was looking at her now, eyes narrowed. “Президент Джон Фицджеральд Кеннеди. Умер в 14:30. Центральное поясное время в Далласе, штат Техас. Активы были извлечены по графику.” President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Deceased at 2:30 p.m. Central Standard Time in Dallas, Texas. Assets were extracted on schedule.
There was a long silence.
“Очень хорошо. Сообщить в казарму.” Very well. Report to the barracks.
She relaxed minutely at his dismissal, suddenly aware of the way her muscles had been aching, held at the ready – on the defensive. Her partner lurched out of the room, jerkily. She followed him with her customary silent step, but instead of watching her surroundings, she couldn’t help but keep her eyes on the back of his head.
It was lowered, and there was a heaviness to his step she didn’t recognize.
She didn’t recognize him.
Chapter 5: New Mexico/New York 1973
March 12th, 1973
Hydra Holding Facility #13
It had been a long time since she’d seen her partner.
Perhaps some of his odd dissonance had disturbed his handler, and they’d seen fit to condition him further. It seemed to be a mark of their difference; how little she needed reconditioning, and how much he did. Of course, she had always suspected – he had not been born to Hydra like she had been – it showed sometimes, in his initially rough Russian, in his unique sniper’s eye, in the strength of his body that didn’t belong to the serum; it was the mark of someone who had not known hunger, or at least had not known hunger like the Russian people had. No, her partner had been re-formed by Hydra. From what – she did not know. She suspected she never would.
Not that it mattered.
It couldn’t matter to her – and it didn’t for Hydra.
They had means and methods of subjecting control over their weapons that were beyond her understanding. Her own conditioning had been – from what she remembered – mostly non-invasive. However, she knew what the Chair meant. She’d heard her partner scream in the Chair before.
But she hadn’t heard him scream since their last mission. Maybe there just hadn’t been use for them. Thinking… positively, if that was what it was, seemed to make the time go just a little faster.
Just a little.
There was a saying, or maybe it was a passage, perhaps just a tangle of conversation she had heard – she wasn’t sure – but a few words seemed to stand out to her; golden hours are hours spent hoping. She didn’t know what it meant, didn’t know where it had come from, but something about it held warm in her stomach, and she murmured the words to herself when time began to drag her down, when every passing moment seemed an age – and when something like longing began to build in her.
The endless stretch of things, as always, came to a grinding halt when her door opened, and he was thrust into her monotony.
She went through the motions, cupping her hands around the freezing water that was not much cooler than her, rousing him, and dragging him to her bunk. This time though, she broke her own routine, with something like guilt – like a child stealing from the cookie jar, she knew it was wrong – and yet this time, she hovered over him.
She bent over him, so close to his sleeping face that she could near feel the warmth of his skin on her lips. She studied him, running her eyes over the planes of a face she knew more intimately than her own.
He was symmetrical, cold looking with his eyes open – they were like little chips of ice, little patches of a stormy sky – his jaw strong, marred by stubble they only ever seemed to trim, hair a few inches longer than their last mission. He was thinner now than he had been when she’d first met him – cheekbones sharp and chin strong. They didn’t eat – at least, she didn’t – and perhaps that was why.
He was… nice to look at.
She could separate the reason why from what she had ascertained from studying the reactions of others. The female officers sometimes lingered on his face, on his body – longer than they did with her. That was what something she had been taught about; attraction, an animal reaction to the physicality of another. It was something she had never been given leave to have. Which is why she didn’t linger on his face the same way – because though she couldn’t deny that sometimes a tiny flare of something would occur after their periods of separation – it certainly wasn’t attraction. And he must have been attractive, for those female officers to linger so. Attraction had been described to her, so long ago now that she couldn’t be sure she completely remembered it – but what was said of the 'heat' and 'passion' that she did remember wasn’t what she felt when she looked at him.
It was… comfort.
It was the knowledge of his utter reliability, the reminder she wasn’t alone, it was the selfish knowledge that she could depend upon him and be depended on in return.
She would never say so out loud – couldn’t – because she knew sentiment was the one thing, the one thing, she could never have. It endangered the mission, endangered her life, endangered her position, endangered her service.
Still – the little tug of unease didn’t settle.
Because, how could she be sure the man lying here was her partner? There had been something in his eyes the last time she had seen him that had unsettled her.
She couldn’t risk it.
She had been right to worry.
Electricity – both literal and metaphorical – was racing through her. The yelling from coming from her handler and her- her- her partner’s-
– her lips drew away from her teeth involuntarily, a silent snarl making her shudder –
Her partner’s handler had not stopped. They were furious, near frantic.
Because this had never happened before, because it should never have happened.
For the first time, The Winter Soldier had failed to make the extraction point. For the first time, Ghost had showed up alone, and without explanation – because she had none.
She had nothing.
There’d been no warning, no signs – but for her own suspicion she’d carried from the last mission – but suddenly she had been on her own, and he had disappeared with no warning, and she’d been forced to return by herself or risk failing extraction herself. Her face still stung from the blows delivered by her handler, his fear and fury making him lash out, and a small trickle of blood from her split lip was tickling the skin of her neck.
It had been routine – all of it – the drop off, the mission itself, the clean-up.
New Mexico had been sweltering, a dry heat that she could sense through her uniform, and their target’s house was in the desert, surrounded by nothing but sand, sparse plantation and the glare of the sun. Senator Harry Baxton lived in a house with many windows, and they had reflected sunlight into her goggles with force. Her partner had seemed unshaken, seemed normal as he went through the motions. She cleared the perimeter, secured the documents needed, and had returned to the roof of the house in time to see her partner take the shot, to see the Senator topple into his large pool. It was only as she had set about destroying the security footage did she realise that she was alone, that her partner had disappeared.
The day’s still heat had seemed to coalesce, and sweat had begun to roll down her back, made her palms itch. She had searched the house twice, and perhaps that had been a mistake, that had only have given him another few minutes head start. She ranged as far from the house as she’d dared, following the secondary tracks of their vehicle in the direction he must have driven before she had faltered, too afraid to follow, too afraid to return without him.
“Бесполезное существо.” Useless creature.
Her handler’s voice cut through her useless rumination with the same sharpness as his sudden slap. Her head jerked awkwardly to the side, caught painfully with her thick collar. “Ты позволил ему уйти.” You let him go. It wasn’t a question, because she had let him go – or at least she’d failed to stop him, which was essentially the same thing.
She protested her incontestable failure anyway. “Нет, командир.” No, commander. It only served to stoke his ire, and his fist slammed into her head again. She let her head hang, knowing any eye contact would further enrage him.
“Вы знаете гарантии. Вы не наняли их. Ты позволил ему уйти.” You know the safeguards. You did not employ them. You let him go. His voice brokered her truth. It was true, she knew the safeguards. There was no sense trying to protest her innocence, because surely he was right. She had failed the mission. She had failed; and her consequences were clear. “Вы вернете актив обратно.” You will bring the asset back. He told her shortly, and turned in place. Her head sagged a little further, in relief, in exhaustion. It was hardly a guarantee of mercy – but some part of her hoped for it, hoped for redemption.
She would bring him back.
She had to bring him back
If it had been anybody else, she thought she would have found him easier.
But if she had been anybody else, she thought that they wouldn’t have found him at all.
It was clear that her partner was not in his right mind. Of course, he was still as careful and methodical as always, but there was a randomness to his movements she didn’t recognise, a speed and dedication to his strange drive north-east that she didn’t understand. He was moving by night, and that meant she was able to catch him up, despite his speed – unlike her, he could not move entirely unnoticed during the day – but he didn’t tire like she did.
She lost his trail, for an entire day in Kentucky, took a wrong turn – assuming he would cut a path through a patch of national forest. She had been wrong, and it was only by luck that she had picked up his trail again, as she stumbled, invisible, into an empty diner right on the border of West Virginia.
The woman wearing a little yellow dress and white apron was talking, gushing really, to the unimpressed looking cook, about the ‘handsome hobo,’ who had called her ‘doll’ and then ‘got all shy, and kinda spacey.’ She stayed only long enough to gulp down several desperate mouthfuls of water from their sink before she was on the move again. She wasn’t used to being so long outside – out in the world.
It was strange.
Just once, on the third day, she’d taken a glove off – and touched the bark of a tree, the rough but smooth road beneath her, felt the sunlight on the pale skin of her palm. It had made her head light, and she’d pulled her glove on quickly and kept moving.
The world seemed to be moving quickly; the cars were different, faster. The women were louder, bolder, with short hair and wide smiles and quick anger. The younger ones were calling for change, she had been reading signs, reading news articles, despite the headache that English gave her. She saw people of different cultures together; eating, laughing, some even holding hands – together. There was anger in some parts, there was grief in others; they were asking for love not war, they were asking for reparations, for our lost boys in Nam. Music and noise seemed ever present; America was bursting with noise – they were really tryin', baby, tryin' to hold back this feeling for so long, they never knew me a better time and I guess I never will, oh Lawdy mama those Friday nights-
America was dizzying and bright, and nothing like her tiny room – which in the face of the big wide spaces and brilliant dazzling beauty around her, really was tiny – and here, time was marked evenly, the sun rose and set at the same time, the minutes ticked by steadily – in fact she could even watch them go, round and round with the hands of a clock. She stole – from the wrist of a man reading a paper – a small clock he had on a leather band around his wrist. She’d never seen such a thing before.
It was with her new-found time that she noticed that she had been dawdling. Her handler noticed too.
He wasn’t in the room with her, but it didn’t stop her from hurriedly stowing the little clock in her boot, feeling its body tick against her ankle. “Дух.” Ghost.
An emotion she’d seen on the face of a young teen facing down her belligerent boyfriend made her heart beat a little faster. Fear.
“Вы прогрессируете слишком медленно.” You are progressing too slowly. His voice was far away, and yet too close in her ear. “Есть проблема?” Is there a problem?
Her eyes closed, wincing at her verbal hesitation, at her foolish admission of her guilt, her acknowledgement of her failure. Her handler knew her, knew the infliction in her voice was as good as an affirmative.
“Вы знаете, что вас ждет. Не думайте, что отсрочка неизбежного еще больше поразит вас.” You know what awaits you. Do not think delaying the inevitable will endear you any further.
With an audible click, he disconnected from the line. She trembled in place, awash with a sudden cold dread. Yes, she knew what awaited her for her failure. She did not linger another beat of her tiny clock’s body – and flew from her temporary hideout like a bat from hell.
It was filthy and rampant with the worst of America’s citizens. Nothing endeared it to her – though it was in part due to the icy dread that was still coursing through her, that would fill her until her punishment was over. It was so dirty, so congested with the undesirables that they had been taught to blend with that it was hard to find his path through the underbelly of the city. Here, many a man fit the description she could give; unkempt, a wild look in his eyes, a tendency towards violence. Not that there was anyone to give a description to, none that would talk, and none that would forget their talk without substantial payoff. She couldn’t risk mingling – she knew she stood out in the worst of ways; here where a foreigner’s accent was cause for upset, where every person knew their neighbourhood.
She had to resort now to picking through the trash and rubble of the streets, like the children did on the way to school, like the homeless did looking for scraps of life.
She couldn’t understand what had driven him here, of all places.
Here though – one thing was certain – here, his accent was placeable, here she could hear the difference that roughened his words.
It set her teeth on edge.
She passed a group of prostitutes gossiping on the corner, silently traversing through their fake-furred, cheaply-perfumed cloud of desperate adultery. It was all they could do to attempt to lift themselves from the slum-like accommodations she was currently investigating. No doubt many of them took their businesses into the flophouses, and she was hoping the dosshouses would host her partner – she couldn’t think where else he would be – the street was too dangerous for him; not literally, more in the sense that a homeless man with an arm of metal and superhuman strength would attract more attention than just one other poor soul occupying one of countless rooms would. Recluses tended to make more sense and draw less attention than highly trained street-fighters.
She didn’t bother searching the rooms nearest to the busy street, nor any of the rooms cut off from easy exit points. No – she knew her partner – and no matter what had happened to disturb him so, she knew he would never surrender a vantage point or an escape route.
Her third house of the night provided results.
She was tired; she’d been in her grey realm all night, passing soundlessly and invisibly through walls and doors on her endless search. It took a considerable amount of energy, and she had been running on fumes since she’d hit New York. She’d never been in the field so long. Self-care wasn’t something she’d been taught to practice, and she hadn’t the first clue what to do with the pangs of pain that were gnawing on her belly, nor the tight burn of her throat, or her chafing heels. She was filthy and exhausted, but she was on a mission.
She spotted the hidden pistol on the inside of the bathroom door first, and it prevented any surprise she may have felt when she spotted a familiar form in the tiny room beyond, huddled on a paper-thin mattress, matted hair hanging in front of still awake eyes. He looked thinner, the grime of travel and New York just as thick upon him as it was on her. There was no mistaking the faint gleam of reflected light off the tips of his left hand’s fingers.
She had found him.
She spoke aloud into the room, and his head whipped up. His eyes were bright – but not with the sharpness she knew, with some other light she didn’t recognize. “Who’s there?” His voice was rough, suspicious, the English disturbing.
“Вы должны сообщить в команду. Я здесь, чтобы вернуть тебя...” You must report to command. I'm here to return you... she trailed off, confused by the way he was shaking his head vehemently.
“I’ve got so many- so many- голоса,” Voices, he stood unsteadily, “In my head. You’re in my head. You’re always in my head.” He was almost muttering, eyes roving the room. “Zeige dich!” Show yourself!
The sudden German made her reappear almost involuntarily. His eyes fell upon her instantly, but there was only the dimmest flicker of recognition there, more confusion than anything. She took a slow step forward. She didn’t know what to do, didn’t know who was standing in front of her. “Солдат ... пойдем со мной.” Soldier... come with me. He swayed, still erratic. She swallowed thickly, and extended her hand. “Please.” Her voice was shaky, and she coughed – clearing her throat of the sudden tightness. She didn’t know what to do.
“I know you – I know you.” He told her, adamantly. “But I don’t-” like a rabid dog, his head snapped to the side as he snarled at himself. She flinched. “Где я?” Where am I? his sudden vivid focus was on her, the chill in his eyes her partner again. She still couldn’t relax.
“Нью-Йорк. Я следил за тобой здесь - ты покинул середину миссии, помнишь?” New York. I tracked you here - you left mid mission, remember? She was almost begging, she needed him to remember.
He shook his head again, angry. “I remember- a face. A home, I think – no – Миссия?” A mission? That clouding was back in his eyes, and she took another step towards him. His head jerked towards her again. “Stay back.”
“Солдат, иди со мной. Вы должны пойти со мной.” Soldier, come with me. You must come with me. She said again. He took a step away – eyes darting to the window beside him. Panic flared, and she spat out the first of the safeguards that she had known as long as she had known him. “Желание.” Longing.
He leapt at her, teeth bared, eyes alight in panic that was both her partner’s and the cloudy-eyed man she’d cornered.
They went tumbling to the ground, his full weight landing on her chest. “Ржавый.” Rusted. She wheezed out, trying to free her left hand from under him. If she could just reach his arm –
He growled, rolling them over, and throwing her away from him. She crashed through the thin plaster that separated the bathroom from the main room. Her head was swimming slightly, but she knew she had no time to lie and lick her wounds, forcing herself to her feet and sprinting back towards him, dripping plaster and dust. He was nearly at the window, and she leapt, bringing her legs up to wrap around his neck – twisting her weight around to bring him half to his knees with the momentum. “Печь!” Furnace! She spat, slamming her fist into the side of his head to bring him the rest of the way down, with a dull crack that made him groan.
His left hand gripped her knee with enough force to make her kneecap slide out of place as he dragged her leg out of its locked position. She grunted, and let go, letting him pull her away. “Стоп-please!” Stop-
The unexpected plea almost worked, as she momentarily forgot the pain in her knee at his voice. She shook her head, trying to clear her own head. “Рассвет.” Daybreak. She told him definitively. He was at the windowsill, and she could see herself reflected in the glass, and half his face – which was crumpled. “Семнадцать.” Seventeen. She took a limping step towards him. His head twitched, all the warning she got before he swiped at her. It was half-hearted at best, and she let it pass through her, head throbbing with exhaustion as she slipped in and out of the grey realm. “Доброкачественный.” Benign. Her voice wavered, and she moved closer still, slowly reaching up to unclip her helmet. “Девять.” Nine. Her face was as pale as the moon in the reflection, marred by the thin lines of dried and fresh blood. She watched his eyes roaming her face, trying to find her partner in his reflection too. “Возвращение на родину.” Homecoming. Her voice was a mere whisper now, and slowly, her hands moved to his shoulders, which were shuddering gently. She pressed upon him, and he folded beneath her touch, knees hitting the ground again with a thud. “Один.” One. She told him softly, fingers dancing down over his left shoulder, looking for the panel only she knew about. He flinched as she numbly exposed a portion of his arm, his weapon, a piece of him. “Товарный вагон…” freight car… the faint whine of machinery powering down mirrored the sudden duck of his head, the tension that suddenly left his frame. His metal arm hung limp beside him, useless underneath the dirty cloth he’d wrapped around it.
Her voice seemed so loud in the silent room, making her flinch – but the way his voice echoed made her stomach turn;
“Я жду приказаний.” Ready to comply.
April 20th, 1973
Red Room Training Academy, Belarus
She stilled at the commanding voice of The Matron, dropping the near limp body of the young girl she had in a chokehold. It was the only title the grey-haired and impossibly ageless woman had given her, and as she was only here in a temporary instructor’s position, there was not an option to ask for more.
She knew she was on thin ice as it was. This position at the Academy wasn’t any sort of reward or experience she was meant to benefit from. This was, for want of a better term, a storage solution. Hydra were still reeling from the mess of her last field mission, and she was near certain they were still dealing with her partner.
They had dealt with her far more swiftly.
The taste of her own blood and bile in her mouth still lingered, just as the screams of her partner bounced around in her skull in every quiet moment.
They’d bound them both immediately during extraction; harshly and tighter than necessary. Her handler; red with anger and the embarrassment of his asset’s failures and subsequent disapproval from his higher-ups, started in on her near immediately.
She supposed it had been somewhat cathartic for him – to rain pain upon her until she couldn’t howl for ripped vocal chords, couldn’t think for the agony she was in, couldn’t see for the blinding sting of sweat and blood, couldn’t hear for the screams from her partner as he was put into the Chair.
And then, after tears she couldn’t control began to fall, he had started to recite the Poem, the one that made her seize and dull, the one that made her mind blank – and she forgot to move, to breath, slipping into the fatigued chill of her mind as they preferred it.
It had been spat at her in disgust – and then they’d spirited her away. Away from his screams, halfway across the nation, and they had dumped her here.
She’d been in recovery until a few weeks ago.
The faces of the girls there were still imprinted in her feverish, pained memories – little pale curious things, looking in on her through the dim window of her new room. Now, of course, that curiosity had faded. Most regarded her with a faint awed fear she was unused to – the older girls’ cold calculated speculative glances far easier to deal with. She knew what these trained killers were wondering; sizing her up, considering her as an opponent. Though she was taller than most of them, she was thinner and still recovering from the punishment of her handler. Often, they seemed to come to the wrong conclusion.
It gave her a certain satisfaction to pin the ones that had doubted, to bruise the ones that had sneered, to shatter the ones that had been too confident. It would only serve to teach them. It would only serve to keep them alive.
It had become her new reality, her new march of time; children, girls, women – their blood on her hands more often than not as she melded and reshaped them as The Matron commanded. The Red Room was still recovering from the devastation dealt by some American agents some forty years ago, and their satisfaction with the girls was waning with every body bag that was returned to the Academy. The Matron kept her close, like a shadow, and it took her some time to realise that the woman wanted security. The girls grew more tenacious with every generation; she could understand The Matron’s caution. It only took one wrong break to destroy the body.
And break them, she did.
The Black Widow program was harsh and unyielding. The methods employed by the Academy were intense, and not dissimilar to the things Hydra had required of her, back when she’d first started training. She’d been younger than the girls here – but it made their sacrifice no less remarkable. Self-mutilation was expected, limits were pushed every day, and the casual violence of it all managed to catch her off guard more than once; forced to supervise eight-year-olds pressing lighters to their skin, ten-year-olds snapping their own bones, eleven-year-olds ripping out teeth, flesh, hair – pain was a language here.
After months of it, she came to a breaking point, lying awake after disposing of a thirteen-year-old who had refused to eliminate a similarly disappointing candidate. The girl’s cries about her friend, still crying out for her friend, even with her fingers around her throat. Sentiment. It thrived, even here.
And she realised all at once, what the pit in her gut was; she missed her quiet, little, timeless room. She missed the objective of a mission. Most of all – she realised, with a sickening sense of horror – she missed him.
Steady and quick. Reliable and calm. Familiar and allied.
God – she missed him.
It was an ache, a dull ache that drew moisture to her eyes. It frightened her – crying, crying for something that was not hers to want. She had been outside of Hydra’s frozen stasis for too long; here, in this bloody red real world, she had gotten too involved.
And she realised she hated it; hated the Academy, hated hurting the candidates, hated shadowing The Matron like a glorified guard dog, hated the blood on her hands day after day, hated the way it was making her weak.
December 15th, 1991
Red Room Training Academy, Belarus
It was jamais vu, having a manila folder in her hand after so long.
Even her handler, with his familiar watery cold stare – like melting ice, seemed a stranger. It had been eighteen years since she had seen him in person. He looked old. Old and weak. The realisation that she saw him as weak was another unfamiliar jolt in her gut. The Academy had become a home in the last few decades, and with each passing year, Hydra had seemed to fall further and further away. They still checked up on her, of course, she would never cease to be their asset, their weapon, their property; but the Red Room operated under a different power, and here she had grown.
Even his voice was feeble. Her name seemed to hold a lighter weight than it used to, when it fell from his lips. She met his gaze full on – and he twitched. It was near imperceptible, but she caught it. Her training had not failed her, it would never fail her. He was afraid. She could smell it on him, under his anaemic powdery scent; the smell of an ordinary elderly man. “Сэр.” Sir.
Perhaps her voice had been a touch too mocking, because his eyes went to The Matron, who was still sitting at her desk. “Оставь нас.” Leave us. He dismissed her coldly, an edge to his voice that she remembered well. The Matron brokered no disagreement, though she knew The Matron would rankle at her authority being undermined here, within her dominion. The door shut behind her with a soft click, and they were alone.
For a moment, her eyes strayed to his vulnerable throat, to his stiff leg, to his pulse point, to his weak heart. It would be far too easy to kill him, to put a hand on his heart and end him quickly. She could make him suffer too, she thought. She’d grown angry here, in her isolation, in her mock time-out. She’d grown stronger, too.
It was only for a moment; and in the next, he was hastening towards her. His grip was still firm, and she felt a pang of fear in her gut as he grasped her chin and jerked her face down to his. He spat; a glob of warm saliva landing on her cheek. “Вы забыли себя, собака.” You forget yourself, dog. She jerked in his grasp, fists clenching at her sides, suddenly fighting the restrictions of training she’d long forgotten. To put a hand on a superior officer was to be punished. To speak out of turn was to be punished. “Вы забыли своего хозяина.” You forget your master. She flinched, almost pulled out of his grip, but then he began to speak;
“Солнце погасло, Месяца нет, Заревом алым,” She knew the words, and once she had only known the words, as they had used to fill her head every moment, keeping her cold and steady – keeping her on the mission, under their thumb. Now, she recognised the numb feeling as it came, and shook within his grip. “Запад блестит, Птицы на гнездах, В кущах стада.”
She slid, near boneless, and knelt – knelt as instructed, as expected.
Her voice came from miles away, the words she spoke dredged up from deep within herself, as innate as the poem that brought her back to herself, the poem that turned her into the ghost she was.
“Я жду приказаний.” Ready to comply.
It was a little like watching a moving-picture, the ones that were shown on big screens for people to enjoy.
The sensation of watching and experiencing the world as she moved on near autopilot was a phenomenon she had forgotten. Underneath the artificial compliant chill over her, nausea was roiling in her gut. She did not like this sensation of being powerless, of being a passive observer to herself. The active part of her brain, the bit trying to fight through the fog, was powerless. A bigger part of her just wanted to comply; it would be so much easier to just comply.
Still – she fought it, though the urge to be sick grew stronger, and her hands trembled.
In the jet, she was strapped back into her uniform, and something about the click of the collar around her neck and the weight of the electric cuffs around her wrists just made her sink deeper. She gagged on nothing as the electricity began to buzz through her. It was unnecessary; for her body was not her own, and she would not have run if she could have. No – this was her handler’s influence. It was dark in the hold, and the lack of light made her helplessness all the more apparent.
And then he appeared, stark against the bright light from the cabins beyond.
She recognised the lines of his body at once; and something like relief flooded her system. He was muzzled and masked, but she could feel the weight of his eyes on her, and knew he could feel her gaze through her own mask. He moved with his usual silent grace, and she tracked his movements as he went first to the technician standing by, presenting his arm to the tired looking man – but keeping his stance open, keeping his face in view, almost facing her.
It was as close to a warm greeting as they could get; and at the faint warmth that flared in her stomach – her nausea doubled two-fold.
“Солдаты. Отведи свой взгляд.” Soldier. Avert your gaze.
The sharp unfamiliar voice made her partner freeze, and slowly turn from her.
She didn’t recognize the hook-nosed man in the doorway. But her partner’s immediate defensive posturing – unconscious or not – told her that he was very familiar with the man.
“Вы оба получили параметры своей миссии,” You've both received your mission parameters. This man spoke with the vigour of a man with passion. He was young – younger than her handler by more than a few decades, but his face was hard, and his stance was confident. “Призрак, я понимаю, что ты был вдали от своего дома некоторое время - но я должен произвести на тебя впечатление;” Ghost, I understand you have been away from your home for some time - but I must impress upon you; he moved towards her, fingering a red, leather-bound book. She had never seen it before, but the star emblazoned on the cover made her look towards her partner, towards the red star on his arm. At her movement, he stepped closer still, crouching in front of her, with a deadly smile on his face. With his movement, what looked to be a chain that seemed to be functioning as a bookmark dangled from the spine swung, its brilliant silver catching the little light in the hold. The five-pointed star on the end of the charm was just as iconic, and she shivered at its brilliance as he gently tugged it free from the book.
“Любые ошибки, любые промахи, любое неповиновение будут встречены адским огнем и наказанием, от которого вы никогда не оправитесь. Понимаешь?” Any mistakes, any slips, any defiance will be met with hellfire and a punishment you will never recover from. Do you understand?
She swallowed, eyes tracking the movement of the silver star as he moved it towards her. His voice was chilling; the tone more threatening than the actual words.
“Понял.” Understood. She replied lowly, muscles tensing involuntarily as he drew her left hand away from her side. On the back of her glove, a new feature was sparking slightly; a hollow divot in her suit that she had not seen before. With deft fingers, he pressed the star charm into place, and the sudden quiet voice that began to echo within her mask made her still.
“Светлое море, С небом слилось, С тихостью волны, Плещут на брег, Кроткие зыби, Чуть-чуть дрожат. Солнце погасло, Месяца нет, Заревом алым,Запад блестит, Птицы на гнездах, В кущах стада.”
The last thing she was aware of was this new handler’s chuckle, and his voice from far away; “Я буду в этом уверен.” I will make sure of it.
Всё вдруг умолкло, Все по местам…
Everything suddenly shushed, everything in its place.
The world faded away.
Chapter 7: Siberia/Belarus 1992
January 2nd, 1992
Hydra Holding and Training Facility, Siberia
They’d become too strong.
She watched the Winter Soldiers as they trained together. Her partner was in the ring; in the centre of the space that served as both an enclosed training ground, and protection for the impossibly mortal and vulnerable Hydra agents beyond.
The Winter Soldier Program had not been born with her; she had come to learn. No – she was the only surviving subject of the Ghost Initiative, back when there was no serum, but there was radiation trialling and genetic manipulation that wasn’t prohibited by the government. She was the product of now-illegal experimental biotechnology that had exposed women and children alike to currents and electromagnetic radiation that deformed and mutated. Her birth-mother had survived, and so had she – despite the lethality of the experiments.
The Winter Soldier Program had made her partner; and now it had transformed Hydra’s best kill squad into super-powered individuals with far too much strength and far too little discipline. The Soviet Union had fallen barely a week before, and she – and every person in the facility – knew that they were running on borrowed time. Soon, the government would come down upon their heads, and at this moment in time – she could see nothing suitable to support and contain this new and virtually untested group of enhanced.
Still - Colonel Vasily Karpov was desperate to press on with the Program, and so her and her partner were reaping the worst of what the undisciplined Soldiers were dishing out. She was still nursing her broken arm, shattered in three places from the brute that her partner was currently engaging. Karpov sat, seemingly uninterested, behind his desk – scribbling notes into the little accursed red book. She couldn’t deny that he still frightened her; as she was conditioned to be, but she was also scornful. He was a fool to think that any of these unconditioned agents would be useful. They had been murderous savages before the serum – now, all that they had been was amplified. They were dangerous because they did not obey – and Karpov seemed unwilling to understand that.
Her nostrils flared at the scent of the mutated testosterone coursing through the sweating men and woman inside the cage; watching as her partner was slammed painfully into the ground, his arm screaming in mechanical protest as it was wrenched up and around by the Winter Soldier pinning him down. Then, so quickly it was hard to follow – her partner was dragged upright again, and the force of the kick that the other Soldier gave to his chest sent him crashing into the bullet proof glass of the observatory door.
Karpov stood up, with a smile. “Молодец, солдат.” Well done, Soldier. He motioned the nearest doctor over, to take the victor’s vitals. It must have been the visible pain on her partner’s face that spurred him into action, a sign of a momentary weakness – as the Soldier grasped the man in the lab coat by the back of the neck, slamming him viciously into the ground – the resulting wet cracking sound made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. In response, one of the guards slammed his baton down upon the Soldier’s neck. Any other man would have crumpled – but the Winter Soldiers were not just men. Slowly, the others stood, and alarm rang through her.
She stepped directly through the bars – ignoring the sudden up cry from the guards positioned within the prison-like practice yard, as their handler pulled out his pistol, and her partner stood up warily. “Солдаты. Вытащи меня отсюда.” Soldier. Get me out of here.
For the first time, Karpov sounded afraid.
She could have smiled. Instead – weaving through the chaos as the Winter Soldiers set upon the guards – she reached for her partner, meeting his searching gaze. His small nod – of gratitude, of recognition, of warning, she didn’t quite know – pre-empted his step to the side, allowing her to reach Karpov. Karpov’s wide eyed look as she grasped the nape of his neck was near comical.
It was easy, to pull her partner with her into her grey realm, but to assess Karpov’s body mass took a moment too long. Her partner, however, was still sharp, and intercepted the attack of one of the Soldiers as they swiped at them. They walked together, her hand firm on the back of Karpov’s neck, her partner firm in his stride – silver arm flashing spectacularly in the artificial lighting. She and Karpov stepped through the gate, her partner just a beat behind, slamming the door locked behind them.
Karpov shook her off, sending her a killing look.
Obedient, she dropped her head. Her partner kept his eyes on the training-cell, as the Winter Soldiers began to try out the metal bars, trying to break loose.
“Газ их! Заправьте их газом и положите под них!” Gas them! Gas them, and put them under!
Karpov sounded positively frantic, and she raised her gaze to meet her partner’s as he turned. She swore she could see the faint light of amusement dancing in his grey-blue eyes. They fell into step again, turning away from each other, but the shared moment remained between them – as behind them, gas began to pour in from the ceiling.
May 8th, 1992
Red Room Training Academy, Belarus
The armed security officer’s voice was respectful, and she nodded at him in acknowledgement, allowing him to fall into step with her. “Матрона хотела бы, чтобы вы оценили новобранцев.” The Matron would like you to assess the newest recruits. The man was low-ranking, and clearly affected by whatever mythology surrounded her here – new enough to speak to her so politely. He was trying not to stare at her, but she could practically taste his curious admiration on her tongue, sickeningly sweet.
She turned to look at him, meeting one of his side-eyes with the full force of her own – and he made an unfortunate squeaking sound, dropping his gaze immediately. She felt her mouth purse in disapproval. He would not last long here. “Понял.” Understood. She hesitated, pausing at the corridor’s turnoff. As she suspected, he lingered with her, eagerly. “Ты бы хорошо помнил свою станцию, солдат.” You'd do well to remember your station, soldier. She spoke with gravity, trying to instil some sense of warning within him, but even as he nodded his head, he had a slightly glazed look to his eyes. She chewed on the inside of her cheek, debating whether or not she should report the man, and pre-empt any consequence.
As he saluted, a little clumsily, and walked away from her, her eyes caught on a little ducktail formed by his improperly tucked uniform shirt. Something in her chest panged painfully. He was just a boy. She turned herself on her heel sharply – forcing her mind off him. Sentiment. She thought scornfully, pushing herself faster – ghosting through the doors of the ballet studio that all of their recruits waited within.
Immediately, her eyes picked out the girls that had jumped in fright at her sudden appearance, making note of their faces. Most of them had jumped – most likely already on edge at the strange coldness of the Academy. The girls were lined up according to age; with their names and ages pinned to the front of their new uniform, the grey shifts making it hard for her to assess their physical shape.
This group of recruits was the smallest she’d seen, though the number of new girls admitted had been falling since she had begun her placement here. They were all too skinny; waifish and under-fed, a few with visible defects. Russia’s current economic status after the Soviet Union’s dissolvement was in decline, and the nation’s health was also on the downwards spiral. Hydra had made it very clear that its involvement and position within the Russian nation was nearing an end. She had been instructed to be on the alert for her marching orders since April, and could sense The Matron’s developing resentment and despair with every passing day. Even she, so resolute and sure of her power, seemed to sense that the Red Room Academy’s time was growing to a close, with the KGB in the process of withdrawing their funding.
Her eyes fell upon the girl standing on the far end of the line – her tag said she was only eight, and she was the youngest that the Academy, and she, had seen in a long time. Her family must have been desperate for the benefits the Red Room allocated to successful candidates.
Something about the determined set to the young girl’s jaw told her that the girl knew what rode on her shoulders. She was undersized for her age, no doubt malnourished, but her hair was a brilliant ginger – such a colour she hadn’t seen before in such richness. She’d long made peace with the Soviet Union as a place bled of colour, but for the red of blood and her partner’s starry adornment. Her eyes too, were a rich green – and it was clear she was destined for beauty. There was something else about her face though, something that made her eyes linger. Something about it that was familiar – though how or why she felt such an odd recognition was beyond her, and ultimately, unimportant.
She drew her eyes from the girl’s face, and turned to The Matron, who was hovering in the corner with an assistant, ever watchful. The Matron nodded to her; giving her the go ahead. She looked back at the girls – some of the ones that had frightened at her entry stiffening their postures at her attention. “Покажи мне свои силы.” Show me your strength. She told them, adopting her at-attention stance, and folding her hands behind her back.
The girls looked between themselves, uncertain.
Two of the eldest dropped slowly to the floor, and began self-conscious push-ups, looking between themselves and at the rest of the line for cues. After another moment, the majority of the line began to copy them. But – as the second last in line started to kneel – the little red-head gripped onto her sleeve, stopping the other girl from dropping to the floor.
The red-head looked once at her, before turning back to the other girl. In one fast, slightly sloppy move, dirty – but no doubt learnt from street scraps – she punched the elder girl square in the face, and as she recoiled, clutching her nose with a cry, the red-head brought her knee up, catching and winding the girl, sending her toppling to the floor.
The other girls fell still and silent – freezing in place as the felled recruit cried on the floor. The red-head – almost defiantly, she thought in amazement – turned to her.
Slowly – slow enough that it made the red-head uncertain, and cower in her uncertainty – she approached her. She crouched before the little thing, and gripped her wrist tightly. Wordlessly, she corrected her fist, feeling the way the girl was trembling beneath her, bringing her thumb out of her clenched hand. She could tell the little thing had dislocated, perhaps even fractured, her thumb, and her knuckles and wrist were probably smarting from the impact. It had been, a technically incorrect, but powerful hit from someone so small.
“Хороший.” Good. She said, standing and regarding the rest of the recruits. “Я увижу тех из вас, кто готов тренироваться завтра.” I will see those of you that are fit to train tomorrow.
She crossed to The Matron, who beckoned her to look at her assistant’s clip board, where the names of the girls were written neatly. She took the proffered red marker, and highlighted the few that could continue on. She paused before leaving, and circled a name twice.
Natalia Alianovna Romanoff, age eight.
7th July, 1995
Red Room Training Academy, Belarus
“Again – you are being deliberately careless.”
English still tasted wrong on her tongue, but the KGB required their agents to sound near native – and as a result, she had been forced into speaking the language whenever she instructed.
She didn’t miss the faint look of irritation on the eleven-year-old’s face as she stepped away from the other recruit she had been grappling with.
“Is there a problem, Natalia?”
The other recruits drew a collective breath at her tone – but Natalia, as she always did, seemed unafraid. “No, ma’am.” The red-head was already growing into her beauty, as she had suspected, and the high-performance nutrition and care that the Academy provided had done her well.
She was able to say with absolute confidence that Natalia was the best they had ever had, and perhaps, the best they ever would. Which was why she could see right through the girl’s flimsy engagement with the other recruit. No doubt, the little-thing – as she referred near affectionately to the girl in her head – could not be bothered to continue with the mock round robin; wherein the winner of each fight would stay on the mat until defeated. Natalia was as such, at this point in the session, undefeated.
She quirked an eyebrow at Natalia, who ducked her head slightly, aware she’d been caught out – but no less unapologetic. “I will not tolerate laziness. Letting your opponent best you, is unacceptable. Again.”
Suitably chastised, Natalia and her partner moved to face one another – the other recruit’s face glowing both with exertion, and the embarrassment of a false victory. This time, Natalia’s performance had enough vigour that when there was a knock on the door, she felt confident enough to turn and face whoever thought it pertinent to interrupt the session.
She was glad she had turned from the recruits as her heart stuttered unexpectedly at the face of the man in the doorway.
Her tone had enough surprise within it to make her recruits shift behind her. She could hear the faint grunt of the recruit that Natalia had no doubt pinned still. He met her gaze, and she saw an acknowledgement that was usually hidden behind his mask. She was even more stunned at the faint warmth she saw there too. It was gone the next second, as the small form of The Matron appeared beside him.
“The Winter Soldier has been sent to temporarily assist in your instruction, Ghost.” The Matron said, and the lack of acknowledgement of Hydra’s involvement – when it was usually so boasted about – made a curiosity, long dormant, stir in her.
“Yes, Matron.” She bowed her head to the woman, keeping her head lowered until the woman left the room again. She turned back to the girls – who had all stilled at The Matron’s entrance, the girl in Natalia’s grip turning a shade of blue. She didn’t need to look to know her partner had moved to flank her. She could feel him beside her, the faint scent of him as familiar as her own; metallic like the edge of blood, and warm – his heart beating a pulse she knew. “Recruits, this is my partner – you will address him with the same gravity of station I am afforded here.”
The chorus was uniform, as they had been taught, and at the faint shift beside her that indicated, however minutely, her partner’s surprise – she felt a dull sense of pride. She nodded once. “You may continue.”
She turned to look at her partner over the thick binder of recruit information she was reading, where he sat in the only other chair in the room. She’d been afforded a small set of rooms; a simple room where she slept on a mat, and a tiny office where she was expected to write and receive reports and orders. The rooms were near bare, and yet, she could see marks of herself through out – in the set of watches she slowly collected, lining the wall beside her bookcase that was near sagging under the weight of all the files she had stuffed there. She wasn’t surprised that her partner fit in, that he seemed to have belonged there all along. Perhaps that was why she had requested the other chair after all – just because it was easy to see him there, with her.
She nodded, “They are well-disciplined. They do their country proud.” English wasn’t strange to her now, but the context of speaking it with him was – and for a moment she was back in that flophouse, begging him to come home. The memory was sour in her mouth, and she turned away from him again. Sentiment.
“You’re proud of them.” He pointed out. She didn’t respond – there was no need to, he knew what she felt. They sat in silence again, comfortable and usual. She knew her room was bugged, no doubt he did too, and their understanding was near absolute anyway.
He looked different; bigger. She knew he had come from America, and wondered about their nutrition system there. They were both upkept intravenously – nutrition, hydration and even their REM cycles had been controlled since they’d gone into operation, and for her ever since she could remember. Perhaps the American Hydra division preferred a more visible strength. She felt an odd sense of smallness against him. “How is American command?” she asked him, trying to stave off the sensation.
He tilted his head, a mirth dancing in his eyes she recognised. “Они любят говорить.” They love to talk. He said, and she near smiled. Characteristic, then. “Они любят говорить с тобой. Вам нужно будет подготовиться к этому.” They like to talk to you. You'll need to prepare for it.
She shifted uneasily, eyes going to her row of watches. “So, they intend to move me soon?”
Her partner inclined his head. “Hydra is moving past Russia – you know this, Ghost.”
“Я нашел место здесь.” I have found a place here. She hadn’t meant to say it, it had fallen from her lips unbidden. Her upset must have shown, because her partner stood, moving silently towards her. She let him take the binder from her, and place it back into her bookcase.
“Ваше место с Гидрой.” Your place is with Hydra. He said loud enough for whatever microphones that were active to pick up. He stilled behind her, so close she could feel his breath upon the nape of her neck. “Мы в безопасности.” We’re secure. The old words made her shudder, and knew he could see it.
“Я не хочу идти к ним.” I don't want to go to them. She admitted near soundlessly, below human hearing. He loomed over her, silent and listening. “Я бы хотел, чтобы ты был здесь со мной.” I would have you with me here.
His intake of breath at her admission made her shut her mouth tight, cursing herself. But he spoke, the metal of his left hand brushing the underside of her wrist once. “И я бы остался.” And I would stay. He said shortly. “Мне ... неудобно друг от друга.” I am... uncomfortable apart. He said hesitantly.
She had not felt so vulnerable – never, despite the lack of weaponry aimed at her, at the lack of hostility. Yet she felt as if her insides were splayed, that blood and words were pouring from her at a pace she couldn’t control. “Как и я.” As am I. She felt her gut twist with a sudden nausea. “Они наказывают такие чувства.” They punish such sentiment.
“Они создали наше партнерство сами.” They created our partnership themselves. He said, almost bitterly. “Они должны были ожидать зависимую связь.” They should have expected a codependent bond.
Something white hot and angry was tempering the sickness in her belly. “Но для них мы не люди.” But to them, we are not human.
“You are human to me.”
It was as if he could sense her own self-revulsion. Because truly, she thought herself sub-human. What she was, what she did, what she had done; it was inhuman. She couldn’t respond to him. “Мы в безопасности.” We’re secure. She said hurriedly, and stepped away from him, ending the hushed confessional. She felt dirty – and yet more at peace than she had since 1973.
He let her go, but that night – before their respective sleep cycles began – she could sense his thoughtful consideration on her from his pallet mattress they’d laid on the floor next to hers. It made her skin prickle uncomfortably – and she turned away from him, facing the wall and curling her knees to her chest, just for the illusion of protection. Eventually though, the heavy artificial blanket of sleep fell upon her, and she felt herself slacken before the night claimed her.
Her partner was unforgiving. Perhaps it was just another mark of his strength, that he gave no evidence of pity, even as he moved at a human pace, hit with a human strength. She knew he could have torn through them like they were paper. She supervised his training sessions with the recruits, more a formality than anything else. He could do the instructing himself, if he felt so inclined, but she appreciated that he wanted her there.
Natalia, as she had expected, had lasted the longest against him.
It had been strange; just for a moment, right before he had tried to pin her the first time, he’d frozen. Just for a moment, not long enough for Natalia to do anything more than free herself from his grip – but she’d noticed it. She noticed it, and when they were sent to her room again, she asked him about it.
“What happened?” She folded her legs beneath her on her thin sleep mat, watching him undress at the sink. She didn’t need to specify, it was clear he was still thinking about it too, eyebrows furrowed. He looked at her, pulling his rest-shirt over his head.
“She looks like you.” He said simply, half-collapsing onto his own pallet.
She shook her head, almost smiling. “Did you hit your head? She doesn’t look like me.”
He rolled, fixing her with that frown again. “No – she really looks like you. Just different…” he made a faint gesture with his flesh hand at her.
She tilted her head. “So, she looks different to me?”
He snarled faintly at her, lips curling. “You know what I mean.” He said impatiently. “She does look like you.”
She curled her knees to her chest automatically as the faint prickling of her approaching sleep began to make her limbs heavy. From the way her partner had begun to blink slowly, she knew that the night was almost upon him as well. “She doesn’t look like me; she looks alive.” She told him sleepily, voice slurred with artificial exhaustion.
Chapter 8: Belarus 1999/Washington D.C. 2003
December 31st, 1999
Red Room Training Academy, Belarus
She was silent as she watched the young woman responsible for data monitoring erase the last 26 years of her life.
The Matron hovered near by, frown etched deep in her face from where it had settled a few hours earlier, when she had received the news of her departure. Hydra didn’t want any loose ends, didn’t want the utter secrecy breached, which meant that any information, reports, surveillance footage – any scrap of evidence that she had ever stepped foot into the Academy had to be permanently lost.
She was still trying to come to terms with the last half of her orders. The half that had been encrypted, the half that had made her drag her feet just a little longer.
Her rooms had already been dismantled, everything that she could have perhaps laid claim to; the chair, the worn desk, the sagging bookshelves, the thin pallet she slept on, her watches – all destroyed. She’d managed to squirrel away one of the watches; the one she had stolen in America, the one that meant the most.
She knew she couldn’t keep it, but as she was coming to discover; sentiment could be applied to inanimate as well as the living.
“Законченный, Matron.” Finished.
She eyed the screen, caught the eye of the woman in her reflection on the computer monitor. She was pretty; in a plain sort of way, full of life.
In a smooth movement, she unholstered her gun, and fired one clean shot straight through the young woman’s head, shattering the computer and splattering the desk with gore. The woman’s body sagged with a thump out of the chair to the floor, and she stepped over her. The Matron made no noise as she turned the weapon on her, and she looked almost unsurprised.
“Make it quick, girl.” The Matron squared her shoulders, and again, she marvelled at the sheer iron will of the woman.
“It’s not personal.” She felt compelled to say.
The Matron’s lips quirked. “Of course, it isn’t personal. You do your country proud.” She kept her almost-smile even as she pulled the trigger, eyes fluttering shut as red painted the white wall behind her and she collapsed.
For a long moment, she lingered in the silence of the office, watching without seeing as the carpet soak up the scarlet from both bodies. Then, she mechanically dismantled the hard drive within the computer, extracting it and smashing it to pieces.
She lifted a hand to her ear, activating the small communication piece. “It is done.”
“Very good. The Matron’s replacement will deal with clean-up. Report to the rendezvous point for extraction.”
She did not report to the rendezvous point.
There was one last thing she had to do first.
“Ты уезжаешь.” You’re leaving.
She eyed Natalia’s hard expression with pride. Natalia was the best of all of them, smart and quick and strong and ruthless. Perhaps she would even grow to surpass herself.
“Ты забудешь меня.” You will forget me. It was as much an order as it was a farewell, and Natalia nodded once. She hesitated for a moment, and the girl caught it, eyes tracking the movement of her hand to her pocket. She beckoned the girl, and Natalia went willingly. They were alone in this dorm; there were not enough girls to fill the rooms, and so the small luxury of a little privacy was allotted to the elder girls. Natalia would be sixteen soon. She presented the small worn timepiece to the red-head with no reverence, and yet the girl took it humbly, head bowed and eyes downcast. “Держать его в безопасности.” Keep it safe. She told the girl.
Natalia nodded, already tucking it into her waistband, hiding it away. “Вы будете гордиться.” You’ll be proud. She promised, as solemn as she had ever spoken, and she almost smiled at the earnest girl.
“I’ve never had any doubt of that.” She told the girl and turned to go.
January 1st, 2000
The Ritz-Carlton, Washington D.C.
They liked this; she realised. They liked being so close to the epicentre of freedom and American democracy. They liked the teasing and insulting thrill of existing right under the noses of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It served to make the American Hydra cells even more arrogant. Such arrogance she had already associated with Americans in general, the shallow, Hollywood flavoured society that placed such importance on social representation that they were effectively ignoring anything unsavoury below the surface.
She and her partner were practically on display now; further contributing to their game of appearance.
Hydra was toasting in the new millennium, toasting the acquisition of their newest assets, and toasting the newest brainchild of their highest command. She’d been listening to the guards, politicians, and agents alike tossing around statements about Hydra’s bright future. She did not care to listen further.
Beside her, her partner shifted. It could hardly be out of discomfort: she and him could both hold more uncomfortable positions for hours if need be. Standing against the far wall of a large and incredibly ornate ballroom was hardly a stretch of willpower. It was a move to get her attention, and she shifted her own hands, brushing against his flesh arm as she arranged herself into parade rest.
“Как прошло путешествие?” How was the journey? His voice was quiet, and she eyed him in her periphery, wondering if his own eyes were on her underneath his mask. The second she’d been escorted off the plane, she’d been dressed in her uniform and driven to this event, where her partner had been already watching and waiting. Security detail had been their official mission, but they could both tell what they were truly there for.
She hadn’t realised how much she had missed his voice until he spoke, and it took some effort not to turn to him fully. “Хорошо.” Fine. She eyed the room, the glittering women on the arms of suited men, the champagne, the laughter, the sheer opulence of it all. “Это всегда так?” Is it always like this?
He let out a soft breath; and shifted a little closer, so now she could just dimly feel the heat of him through the thick material of her sleeves. “Нет, это особый случай.” No. This is a special occasion. He was quiet for a beat. “Я надеюсь.” I hope. She felt her lips quirk beneath her own mask, and leant into him for a moment, a brief touch of solidarity and amusement.
“There they are!” The loud voice drew both of their attentions immediately, and they both reacted to the finger being jabbed at them, drawing up and away from each other. The man pointing at them had his arm around the shoulders of another, slightly elder, with sharp eyes that were looking at them too. “The infamous Soldiers! Pierce, you dog – I didn’t think you’d ever get a hold of them.”
Pierce – the man with the sharp eyes – smiled delicately. “Lower your voice, Stern. Officially – I haven’t.” Stern looked suitably apologetic, and whatever eyes his cries had drawn were already wandering, moving past the two anonymous guards against the wall. The two men, however, continued their approach. “Only the male is the Soldier – the female came from a different initiative.”
She felt a sudden odd sense of detachment as he referred to them. It was easy to slip into a mindset she was used to; the feeling of being owned. Of being nothing more than a trained animal. He spoke as if they were guard dogs; trained and obedient submissive.
“Hmmm… incredibly eerie!” Stern had moved closer as she swirled within herself and was examining both of their headpieces. Pierce stood back, simply observing, as the fat man began to poke and prod at her. “Looks very… European, Alex, tell me you’ll upgrade this.” He ran his hands down the front of her vest, and then back up, hands lingering over her chest, eyes alight with an unfamiliar curiosity. “Is it really a woman?”
Pierce chuckled. “I am assured.”
She felt an odd discomfit as Stern began to regard her with an intensity, hands moving down over her hips. “Well – not much of one.” He laughed with Pierce. “The Commies must’ve starved you over there, huh?” She stilled further, unsure whether or not to reply. “Hm? You mute, deaf or stupid?” his hand tapped none too gently on the side of her head.
Her partner moved beside her, head turning slowly and deliberately to regard the man, silver fingers twitching and catching the light enough to catch attention. Fear pumped through her. Insubordination was punishable, and if he was punished because-
She took a sharp breath of surprise, as the two men laughed. Stern slapped his friend on the back. “Possessive bastard, is he?”
Pierce sobered slightly, regarding them. “I suppose so.”
Stern just laughed again. “Well, I’d better leave his bitch alone then. I’ll see you when I leave, old friend. Best return to the missus before she sends a search party.”
Pierce waved him off, and Stern lumbered back through the crowds and out of sight. Her partner had returned to his previous stillness, but Pierce’s eyes were alight with something menacing and she felt a foreboding resignation begin to weigh her limbs down. But he said nothing; just looked between the two of them again, and then smiled. “Interesting. Welcome to the United States of America.”
Then he was gone, and she swallowed around a lump in her throat and resisted the urge to look at her partner.
June 20th, 2003
HYDRA Base Holding Facility, Washington D.C.
They were housed together now.
It seemed that Hydra had a more current and pressing need for them; because her partner hadn’t been put into cryostasis since her arrival. But they hadn’t been out, not truly; because a few simple intelligence gatherings, and some casual surveillance was hardly a mission.
Yet, they spent the days and nights together; just as they had during the peak of the Soviet Hydra activity.
It was a blessing.
He was, once again, the only familiar thing in this unfamiliar landscape they had found themselves in. The strangest thing was the constant encouragement of their cooperation. They had always worked together, always trained with each other, assisted where absolutely needed. Now, it seemed that Hydra wanted them together, where once they had not – and it was jarring.
Near as jarring as seeing the single, large cot in their room had been.
It had been a strange first few nights, sleeping so close to her partner, but it hadn’t taken long to adjust. After all, she knew her partner just as she knew herself, knew him as the weapon they both were – now knew him as the single unit that Hydra seemed to desire. Besides – they both slept their artificial sleep so deeply that it wouldn’t have mattered if they were on top of each other or continents apart.
She had been right too, about the American’s nutritional change.
She sat now, beside her partner, as they were given their second bi-weekly nutrition. Her partner was also being worked on; a bespectacled technician bent over his arm, working on cleaning some of the most delicate parts of machinery. She felt stronger than she had before she had arrived here; though the extra energy she had received had taken a little work to get used to. The Americans wanted to devote more of her training to her abilities, rather than upkeep of her combat skills, and she very quickly learnt that the extra energy the adjusted diet gave her was required for the constant demands of her new command.
Her partner suddenly flinched, mouth going tight, and her eyes flew to the technician as he cursed quietly. “Careful.” She told him sharply, and he looked up at her. She held his gaze.
Command was different here. She could almost say they had autonomy – if she compared the distinct differences between her Russian command and this new one. Here, they reported only to ranking officers. Here, technicians and other lower-level operatives were deferential to her. It was new, and unexpected – and though her partner had taken to his new status with some ease, she was still unused to it.
However, it took no thought to chastises such carelessness. Her partner’s arm was precious, and it could very easily cause him physical grief if handled improperly, deliberately or otherwise.
The technician ducked his head, cheeks pink. Her partner turned to her, an eyebrow raised. “Это было только мгновенно.” It was only momentary. He said, of the pain.
“Это не важно.” It doesn't matter. She told him, gently adjusting the position of the IV in the crook of her elbow. “Они должны заботиться лучше.” They should take better care.
His lips twitched, and he regarded her for another moment. She looked away first, feeling his eyes lingering on her. Feeling a surge of self-consciousness, she phased out of sight reflexively, twitching at a surge of electricity at her wrist cuffs.
Strangely enough, though the pain was the same, the effect was not. In the past; a warning current would halt the process, would return her to visibility. Now – though she flickered momentarily – there was no excruciating need to release her hold.
More curious than repentant, she returned to visibility. Her partner was looking at her again, this time with a question in his eyes.
Then, the door flew open, and another of the technicians – one she recognised as being assigned to her – stepped through, flanked by two armed agents. She straightened, her partner uncomfortably edging into a defensive position as best he could with his arm out of commission.
“Leave it.” The technician barked at the man attending her partner’s arm. He put his hands up in mild surrender, dropping his tools and standing up. The technician looked at her, and motioned for her to stand. She did as he asked, muscles trembling from the need to act – adrenaline flooding her system. He crossed the room to her, the agents shadowing him closely, and it took her a second to comprehend that one of the weapons was levelled at her, and the other at her partner. The technician lifted her wrists, examining the cuffs that usually governed her movements. “What did you do to these?” he asked her, equal parts furious and worried.
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
He hit her. “Don’t lie to me!” Her partner rose to his feet, and both guns rose with him. The technician looked scared, but only for a moment.
She regarded him coolly. It hadn’t hurt; she was used to much larger and heavy-handed men dealing out punishment. But it rankled. “I haven’t touched them.” Something was rising in her. He was afraid of her, and though she expected that, for once, he was afraid of her and she seemed to be unchecked. If the cuffs couldn’t hold her… what could?
She took a step forwards, and the man panicked, reeling backwards. “Gas them!” He squawked, and the two agents fired at her uselessly. The bullets passed through her, and as though it was a signal – her partner darted for them.
He was still lethal even without his arm, and even as the room began to fill with clouds of nitrous oxide – the technicians sprinting for the exit – he had the two agents downed. She started for the door, the something that had sparked the rebellion flowing through her, powering her onwards. She could phase right through, and then she could-
A thud behind her, and she turned to see her partner unconscious, sprawled where he had fallen. What was she thinking? She couldn’t leave him. She moved back towards him. If she could just drag him out of the room, then they could-
The room swirled rapidly and then went dark.
“She’s waking up-”
“Continue with the operation.”
Pain. White hot and wet, down her back. Restriction around her body, straps, holding her tight and down. Then she was screaming as she became aware of the sudden obtrusion in her body, cold and metal and unnatural and then-
Back to darkness.
She woke screaming again, pain still radiating down her spine, sparking through her body. There were restraints again, but they were gentle, warm, arms holding her down.
He was whispering, sounding a few shades more frantic than he ever had, and as she arched her back involuntarily, her body trying to get away from sensations with nowhere to go, he let her go with his flesh hand, and stroked gently over her head once before he tightened his hold and forced her head down onto the mattress he held her on, his metal arm immovable where he was clutching her hips.
He held her still as she attempted to thrash and shriek, blood, sweat, and tears wetting the mattress. It felt like hours before sleep claimed her, and despite the fog that must have descended upon her partner, she didn’t feel him waver, didn’t know if he slept or not.
Her body was rejecting whatever they had done to her.
She was fevered and delirious when she was conscious, weak and shaking when she slept. She had never felt so close to death before; and she was scared. She would have healed by now, but the devices in her body were being accepted, and she was being ravaged by her antibodies effectively trying to rid her of the metal inside her, whilst the outer surgery site was also mildly infected. It had been about a month, and each day had seemed to stretch for years.
On the twenty-ninth day since the operation, her head felt a little less heavy, her vision a little clearer, and when she moved for the first time without a pained noise; he was there.
When she reached for him, he came to her, bending so they were near face to face. She opened her mouth, tried to speak – but with her throat so dry and wrecked, all she could manage was a whimper. He disappeared from view for a moment, before reappearing with a dripping rag, placing the end in her mouth. She sucked greedily at the moisture, and he repeated the process twice for her.
“You’re awake.” He stated quietly, crouching beside her and gently wiping over her face with the rag. The fresh coolness felt like heaven. She could smell her own musty sweat, dried on her skin.
“You’re here.” She said – and she must have still been fevered – for her voice sounded like a stranger’s; soft and wondering.
He sat properly. “I never left.” He told her, matter of fact. And yes, he was telling the truth. Some of her frenzied memories, distorted by fever and agony, returned to her – his cool hands on her face, hands holding her still, voice soothing. He looked hesitant, shadows under his eyes she had never seen before. “Я волновался.” I was worried. He said finally.
Her hand seemed to have a mind of its own, as it grasped his metal wrist. His eyes strayed to where she gripped him, but he didn’t lose his disconcerted look. “Вам не нужно иметь.” You needn’t have. She said quietly. “Они бы не позволили мне умереть.” They wouldn’t have let me die.
“It doesn’t matter. They should take better care.” He said gruffly, meeting her eyes – echoing her own statement from weeks ago. She closed her eyes. “Do you want to sit up?” She still ached, still felt heated and wrong, but also stronger than she had in far too long now. Dully, she nodded, cheek still mashed against the mattress. He manipulated her body, turned her so she would face him, and gently – his hands under her arms – sat her up.
For a moment, there was nothing – and then a flare of pain so great she cried out. The muscles in her back spasmed, and she fell forwards, into him, choking back more sound into his shoulder. He let her rest there, despite his awkward position beside the bed, his flesh hand coming up to secure her head where she slumped weakly into him. “Где болит?” Where does it hurt?
“Everywhere.” She whispered, tears building in her eyes again. Briefly, his hand flexed on her skull, and she sighed against him. The movement left her dizzy, and she couldn’t resist as he lifted her again, climbing into the bed with her, and positioning her against him in his lap as he leant against the wall.
She didn’t think she would have protested if she could have.
The pain was receding from its flare, and he was familiar and warm. She kept her face against his shoulder, reassuring herself with his scent, with his heartbeat, each breath she could feel. She wouldn’t have heard him speak, either, if she hadn’t been so close;
“I’ll make it right, маленький дух.” Little ghost.
She shivered a little, and his arms tightened around her.
Chapter 9: Odessa, 2009
February 5th, 2009
She hovered above him, balancing herself with one careful hand between his shoulder blades, invisible and privately enjoying the wind on her face as they looked out over the winding road below them.
Ukraine was as close as she had been to Russia in sometime, and she couldn’t help but relish the familiar landscape. Her partner was less enthused, but he hadn’t said anything to the way she was sticking her nose into the air like a dog. She’d have to replace her mask soon enough, but tried to drink in the crisp breeze whilst she could.
The road they were monitoring was typical of Ukraine’s mountain passes. Relatively unkempt, dangerous, and essentially empty. It was not a populated stretch of highway – and it was for that reason, their target had taken the route. Under American command, they were afforded even less information on their targets than they had been in Russia. She herself was not even sure of his first name; just that he was an Iranian-born American physicist and was working on some nuclear engineering that Hydra wanted him to permanently stop doing.
“Vehicle approaching.” Her partner said quietly, hunkering down a little more over his rifle. She stepped back, replacing her mask, and crouching beside him – and phased them both out of sight. A small black jeep appeared from around the bend, and her partner took a breath and held it – she could feel the peak of it under her hand, the way his body stilled.
He took the shot.
The jeep swerved wildly, and though the driver attempted to keep the vehicle straight, they couldn’t fight gravity and as the shot-out tire forced the car to slide left, it hung just a little too far over the edge of the mountainous road. For one trembling moment, it clung, then with a loud groan of the engine, it slid and flipped out of sight.
They waited out the loud crashes and booming noises, watching as smoke began to rise from the wreckage they knew they would find. Her partner took his time tidying his things, and she waited for him at the lip of the ridge, mentally plotting their way down. She would have an easier time of it than him; who would be burdened not only by his rifle, but his own bulk. She was more built for balance and the delicate picking down an unstable rocky path.
Still, she let him go first as they made their way down to the road. The path of destruction the car had left as it had tumbled down the sheer slope looked to be far more complicated and she listened to her partner’s sigh with a faint smile. “I’ll meet you down there.” She told him.
They were both required to assess the death of a target, both required to assist in any clean-up required at the scene. Two sets of eyes are better than one, as their unofficial handler was so fond of saying. She began to make her way down the debris, nearly losing her footing more than once as she approached the smoking wreckage.
The car was scratched, dented and twisted up beyond belief – and she had to admire the efficiency of a single shot. It was a believable scene, and she circled the smoking vehicle twice to try and spot where the bullet had travelled. She couldn’t find it. She phased through the tipped up bottom, and into the vehicle.
For a moment, she didn’t comprehend the scene in front of her.
Somehow, the radio was still working, and a woman was crooning about ‘telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song’. The softness of her voice just made the rest of the devastation look even more horrible. There was woman, curled around the body of their target – both conscious, though the woman was obviously woozy – tucked in the back seat of the car, sparkling with the shattered glass of the windows above and below them. A woman. A woman with a long head of brilliantly red curls, a stunningly symmetrical face, and brilliant green eyes.
In her surprise, she dropped the phase, and flickered into visibility – making the man scream, and the woman flinch.
She just stared. It was impossible. Entirely impossible. How could she be here?
The last time she had seen the face in front of her, it had been much thinner and much younger. But it was the same face.
The car was ripped open, and she instinctively phased out of sight again as her partner stepped through the opening he had made. The woman – Natalia – Natalia recoiled, and even in her weakened state, attempted to shield the man under her further. Her partner raised his pistol uncaringly, and she panicked.
She reappeared, making him look at her, even as his finger tightened on the trigger. “Не надо!” Don’t! she cried, slapping his hand down as he fired.
The bullet went wild – instead of pegging the both of them in a kill shot; her through the heart, him through the head – it ripped through Natalia’s abdomen and into the chest of the target behind her. He went limp near immediately, but Natalia gasped, her foreign, adult hands going to clutch at her wound.
Her partner grabbed her around the waist, and hauled her out of the wreck. “Что, черт побери, это было?” What the hell was that? He hissed at her.
She stared at his faceless mask, still in shock. Of course, how would he recognise her? No doubt Hydra had wiped his mind of his time in the Red Room, as the Russians were wont to do every so often. They should have done the same to her, but the Russian Hydra cells had lost her to the Americans before they could.
She had no words – and fell in behind him numbly as he began to stalk away from the scene – trying to process the ghost of a different life she had just confronted.
Natalia would be about twenty-six now. She would be twenty-six, and she should have been in Russia with the KGB, or perhaps in America, undercover. Not here. Not driving a Hydra target across the border. Not directly involved in the mission. She should have never seen Natalia again.
She felt sick.
The electrode implants in her spine activated as they approached the rendezvous point, the internal current shutting down her ability, and making her hands shake. Her partner was silent, but she could feel his rebuke, see it in his stiff shoulders, in the way he refused to look at her. They went compliantly into the mission report, into the cooldown check-ups, but she couldn’t stop seeing Natalia in her mind’s eye.
How was this possible?
She couldn’t stop the drumming beat of the question in her mind, fuelling her unease, fuelling a growing nervousness that she couldn’t explain, but was making her head hurt.
It didn’t stop.
Not when they landed, not when they debriefed, not when they were cleaned, not when the door shut behind her with a bang, not when she lay numbly on the thin sheets and tried to slow her racing heart.
She startled at his voice, despite him being only inches away.
“Nothing.” A lie – they both knew that he could hear her heartbeat and sense her tumultuous emotions. To seal the fact, to call her out in her falsity, he reached over, and rested his fingers against her neck, over her racing pulse point.
“Why are you lying?” he asked quietly. “It was the woman, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” She admitted. “I knew her. You did too – but not anymore.”
He was silent. She didn’t have to explain it to him further; whilst his memories would leave him, the sensation of losing them never did. He knew just as well as her what the Chair was for – even if he could never figure out why he was put in it. “How long?”
“For seven years.”
God, she ached suddenly. She ached for her little room at the Academy, full of things that had been hers, she wanted to feel the pride she had when she watched Natalia, the confidence the deferential treatment of the staff had given her. She wanted to have her self back. She was more a ghost now than she had ever been – whatever she was, tied to an organization that wanted her invisible, and the rest of her tied to a man who had just as little as she. All they were was the sum of each other, a growing kill-list, the overflowing red in their ledger, the ever present pressure of being owned.
“Do you ever think about leaving?”
It slipped out, and she knew instinctively that it would be the tipping point. She wished she hadn’t said it the moment she vocalised the ache – but he was already nodding, fingers dancing down her neck and arm until they were holding hands. They were still linked like that when their door burst open and immobilising pain shot down her spine, and her partner was hit with tranquillisers.
The way they were wrenched apart only added to the ache of everything, and she realised she was crying as she was slammed into the Chair.
He was still screaming when she came to – head heavy, and her hands bound – and Pierce was sitting opposite her.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty.” He smiled, but it was a flat dangerous thing, and she squirmed, as she realised she had no idea why she was where she was. The sudden wave of disorientation paired with her partner’s bloodcurdling sounds made her breathing pick-up. He leant towards her, and pointed vaguely at the ceiling. “Want that to stop?” She was unsure what he meant for a moment – but as a faint whimper echoed around them during a break in the screams – she gulped down a surge of nausea. Pierce seemed to take that as a yes, and he crossed his arms. “If you want him back – in one piece, that is – you’re going to have to promise me something? Can you do that?”
She just looked at him, trying not to flinch as the noises started again. He stood, and in a moment faster than she expected from a man of his age, slapped her hard across the face. The silver band on his ring finger split her lip, and he gripped her chin as she sagged. “I’m going to need something better than a blank stare, sweetheart, okay?”
“Okay…” she whispered weakly, and nodded, satisfied – dropping her head and returning to his seat.
“I have been…lenient, thus far.” Pierce began. “With the two of you. It’s obvious you care for each other-” she made a desperate sound of dissent, heart leaping into her throat, but he just scoffed, waving her off. “Obvious.” He repeated slowly. “And so, I’ll make you a promise in return. If you reaffirm your loyalty, if you keep toes inside the line, if you just do your fucking job – I’ll make sure he comes back. I’ll make sure the two of you can continue your tortured little woe-is-me act. Understand?”
Inside, she was screaming with him.
It banged around loudly, shrieking and thrashing, and laid bare like this – her partner’s life on the line – how could she deny it? She cared for him. She wanted his safety, his health, more than – she realised – her own.
Because what was she without him?
Nothing. Less than nothing.
She was returned to him hours later.
By that time, she was bleeding as much as he was, and she fell into the bed next to him helplessly. He hadn’t raised his head at her entry, but his only opening eye fixed on her with intensity. His face was swollen with bruises and shallow wounds, and as she listened, she could hear an unnerving rattle in his chest as he breathed.
“Настроения.” Sentiment. She told him, unwilling to admit that the burning behind her eyes were the beginnings of tears. She put her hand on his chest, and he groaned. “Мы не были в безопасности.” We weren’t secure.
“Мне жаль.” I’m sorry. He managed, hoarse and weak. She let her head fall beside his, dizzy. He put his hand over hers, metal cool to the touch. There was nothing else to say.
For what could they do?
There was no sense in pretending that the connection between them didn’t exist, and there was no sense pretending that they weren’t compromised. She felt tears finally begin to trickle down her the sides of her face, cutting a path through the blood drying there.
Hydra had taken one final thing from her; the thing she thought they never would. They had taken it, and they were using it against her beautifully.
Chapter 10: Washington D.C., 2014
January 9th, 2014
They were worried; or at least, whoever had given the order to rouse them was.
It reflected in the haste of the technicians as they were suited up, the barely there check of her partner’s arm, the lack of tests on her implants, the way they were shown the mission statement as they were heading towards the location, in the way they were left to their own devices by their agents as Hydra launched their own attack on this 'Nicholas J. Fury.'
It was broad daylight, and Washington D.C. was hardly a quiet city.
Her partner, however, went about the mechanics of testing his arsenal as calmly as he always did, and she tried to mimic his level-headedness. “Who do you think he is?” she asked, eyeing him out of the corner of her eye.
He tilted his head, considering. “Someone who knows something that he shouldn’t.” he said finally. There was a note of amusement in his voice and she smiled beneath her mask. Wasn’t that everyone?
“What if he is… a biochemist with the cure for the common cold.” she said idly. It was a game, and he indulged her, standing and offering her the hilt of her smallest knife she hadn’t realised he’d taken. It shone, freshly sharpened.
She took it, pleased, and he hummed, the sound reverberating oddly in her ear. “Maybe he’s a secret agent.”
She smiled again. “For who?”
He shrugged. “The enemy.”
Ah, yes. The enemy. That faceless, nameless foe they were always vanquishing and struggling against. Hydra’s enemies, which became their enemies, their targets, the newest addition to their body count.
In the distance, she could hear the booming noises of explosions, the rattle of gunfire. So, subtlety had obviously failed, and it appeared brute force was failing too – as their communication units crackled. “Move in. Execute with extreme prejudice.”
Whoever had given the order was out of breath, and she looked at her partner.
He was already looking at her, angling his body towards her, ready for her. She stretched out to touch him, winding her fingers around his wrist, and pulled them both into the Grey.
The bullet-riddled car shouldn’t have been moving, and the man inside – their target – shouldn’t have been living, but where the others had failed, they would succeed. It was their purpose.
She could see him now, their target, frantic and slightly bloodied.
As they stepped out into the road, she let her partner go, and was rewarded by the sight of the man’s sudden fear as they appeared before him in the road. Her partner fired; the neat effectiveness of many years of training, and the disc grenade did its job, even as the car bore down on them.
With a great billowing explosion, the vehicle went flipping and spinning out of control. Her partner stepped neatly to the side as it roared past them, and she held her own ground, phasing out of tangibility and letting it pass through her. It came to a skidding stop down the road, and she straightened from her crouch as her partner shouldered the launcher and began to stalk towards the vehicle.
She followed silently, trying to ignore the skin-crawling feeling of being so exposed. The pedestrians were still scattering in panic, but it didn’t mean that they were invisible to them. It made her nervous. Between one step and the next, she disappeared from sight, and quickened her pace to hide her partner too. As she reached him, he tore the door from the car, tossing it carelessly away. She put a hand on his shoulder as they looked into the car.
They both stilled.
The man was gone.
It was more embarrassment that was fuelling her own irritation as they scoured the streets.
She didn’t like the sensation of failure.
It carried too many connotations of punishment, and besides – she knew she was better than letting a man simply slip away. Whoever he was, he was certainly capable.
Her partner had dissolved into his quiet chill that he adopted on a hunt, and though she hadn’t seen him focussed in such a manner in a long time, she didn’t mind the silence between them as they tracked the man. She was half monitoring some surveillance footage as she followed her partner, though she knew in the back of her mind that she was unlikely to find any leads. Their target seemed to have – innate or trained – a sense of reconnaissance as he seemingly dropped off the grid.
But Washington wasn’t the largest city they’d hunted someone through, and she got the sense they were closing in, as they began to canvass the more residential areas.
“Здесь.” Up here.
She looked up, up to where her partner had disappeared up a fire escape a few minutes ago, whilst she had lingered at street level. It was dark, but she was able to see a momentary glint of silver as he beckoned her once before disappearing over the lip of the apartment block again.
“Вы видите его?” Do you see him? She asked, hauling herself quickly up the building. He was crouched atop the opposite edge of the flat roof, rifle trained onto another building. She trusted his eyes; she couldn’t make out anything noteworthy through any of the windows.
“Не чисто.” Not cleanly. He said, referring to the shot he would take.
A movement on the side of the building caught her eye, and she lowered herself to his level cautiously. She wasn’t so hard of sight to miss the man that had easily scaled the apartment block and was edging open a window to an apartment level with the window her partner had his eye on. “Там другая вечеринка.” There’s another party. She warned him quietly, as the man slid through the small opening. He was clearly more dexterous than his larger build indicated.
Her partner shifted, a little uneasily. He knew as well as she, the risks of an assassination with another witness present. But what could one man do? They looked at each other, both clearly having the same thought. By the time the shot was taken, they would already be ready to leave. And there wasn’t anything to stop them. “Мы в безопасности.” We’re secure. Her partner decided, and hunkered back down over the rifle. “Приготовьтесь очистить.” Prepare to clear. He said lowly, and she stood, waiting on near baited breath, for the quiet shot that would mark the end of the mission.
A light flickered on and off in the apartment, and even she could see the two figures outlined for a moment, before it went dark again. Her partner breathed a breath of frustration, and retrained his scope.
She could hear the man’s cry of pain from here, and her partner quickly pulled the rifle up and off the stand. She squinted, at the sudden motion in the apartment, and resisted the urge to tell her partner to hurry. When he finally stood, rifle slung over his shoulder, she turned and headed for the fire escape. The sudden crashing, tinkling sound of a window smashing behind them made them both turn – and she just caught the edge of a body crashing through the building below them. Pursuit. She broke into a run.
“Он ниже нас.” He’s below us. Her partner bit out, voice tight, and she picked up her pace, as she heard the sounds of chaos in the building below them.
This shouldn’t be happening.
Who was this guy?
Her partner cleared the jump from their building to the next, and as she jumped after him, the heart clenching sound of more glass shattering behind her made her turn – to the sight of a circular metal object speeding towards her. She phased, and her partner’s arm shot directly through her, catching what she recognised with an odd sense of surprise, was a shield.
The man who had thrown it at her had stopped there, seemingly shocked at their reaction.
She melted back, through her partner, dropping out of sight as she went, uncomfortable under the man’s clear-eyed gaze. He was oddly familiar; handsome in an all-American way, blond and blue-eyed, and built much the same as her partner.
But there was no more time to linger, and she put a warning hand to the nape of her partner’s neck. Savagely, he threw back the shield, and she blinked as the man caught it.
He shouldn’t have been able to do that either.
She pulled her partner into the Grey as the man looked down at the shield in his hands, and her partner turned, catching her up in his arms, and throwing them from the roof. The stomach flipping fall was broken hard, but her partner had always been more resilient than her, and he straightened from the tough landing without reaction. He set her down carefully, and she adjusted her grip on him, linking her fingers with his as they ran from the scene.
She looked over her shoulder as they went, catching sight of the man; peering over the building, looking for them.
January 10th, 2014
Home of Alexander Pierce, Washington D.C.
Her mission statement read Natasha Romanoff in bold font. The picture of her target was a technically unflattering one; an ID picture – yet the woman still looked beautiful. She would stand out in a crowd, and she had to re-read the section that described the woman’s exceptional espionage skills. She was, according to the file, incredibly dangerous, and a traitor. Both of the files were the longest she’d ever seen, perhaps due to the fact that these two were not ordinary people. For the first time, she felt a twinge of trepidation. She already recognized her partner’s target. It was the man with the shield. Her partner had read the report once, made a low confused noise, and then put it away.
They dropped noiselessly into the backyard of Pierce’s house.
He’d wanted to see them, for some reason, before they set off. Just another element that added to the foreboding in her gut.
Maybe it was spite that made them let themselves in without alerting the man. A subtle undermining of the position of authority he continuously tortured them with.
Her partner was more brazen than her, and sat at the man’s small dining table, placing his gun almost carelessly on the surface. She lingered behind him instead, still uneasy, hiding herself in the darkness. Without her mask, she felt barrierless – and despite the fact Pierce had seen her face before – she was still tingling with adrenaline, still on duty, and she wasn’t used to hunting without it.
Footsteps sounded from the hallway, and she stilled in a patch of shadow, shifting out of sight, as her partner sat forwards slightly – a stream of moonlight falling across his eyes.
Pierce didn’t notice her partner until he had turned back around, a carton of milk in his grip. He didn’t jump but his eyes widened warily.
“I’m going to go, Mr. Pierce.” A female voice called from the other room, and they all stiffened. Pierce looked the most unsettled she’d seen him, and it eased something to see him so off-guard. Easier to kill, the cold inside her whispered. “You need anything before I leave?”
“No. It’s fine, Renata, you can go home.” Pierce called, eyes still locked on her partner.
“Okay, night-night.” Renata said cheerfully, and she listened to the woman disappear down the hallway, to the door shut.
Pierce moved then, “Want some milk?” he asked, a little mockingly. Without waiting for any response, he collected a single glass, and set about pouring the milk. “The timetable has moved. Our window is limited.” Our, the collective noun, the inclusive, near-patriotic reminder that all of Hydra were united. She flickered into being, and he flinched slightly. “Your two targets are level six. They already cost me Zola.” The name was familiar, and she’d heard it before. Her partner evidentially knew it; she watched the faint hitch in his breathing with interest. Pierce took a seat opposite her partner. “I want confirmed death in ten hours.”
The sound of footsteps made her look up, but it was already too late, and Renata appeared in the room. “Sorry, Mr. Pierce, I forgot my…phone…” She trailed off, eyes wide, looking between the three of them.
They were still, waiting for the order, but to her shock, Pierce turned and grabbed the gun himself. “Oh, Renata, I wish you would have knocked.” He fired, and Renata stumbled back with a scream. Pierce didn’t let up until she had stopped moving, sprawled against the glass.
Pierce was more dangerous than she had assumed.
He turned back around, and dropped the gun back on the table. “You’ll deal with that.” He said, sounding a little bored, and stood. “Ten hours.” He said again, and chugged the rest of his milk before turning to leave. They both waited until he had returned to his room before they moved.
Her partner met her solemn eyes with a hard face.
Ten hours was cutting it very, very fine.
Chapter 11: Washington D.C., 2014
January 11th, 2014
Downtown, Washington D.C.
There had been a change of plans.
Instead of having to track them down, their targets seemed to have swapped secrecy for blatant abandon. One of the higher ranked agents had been kidnapped, and at this point, it was unlikely their targets were uninformed now. Sitwell wasn’t known for being particularly resilient and no one had any doubt that Sitwell had spilled what information he knew.
What ‘Project Insight’ exactly was, was still a little vague to her – all she knew was that it was Pierce’s end-all plan – Hydra’s final move. And now their targets, whom she was growing to realise were the antithesis to her and her partner, would move to stop it. Superheroes – that was the word she had been looking for – individuals who believed themselves on the right side of history, who worked to save others, enhanced with skills and abilities civilians could only hope to possess.
Did that make her and her partner villains?
All her life, she’d had a job to do. All her life, she had been told she was bettering the future. All her life, she had never considered different.
Her eyes strayed to her partner, who was currently briefing the strike team they’d been allotted. Considering different meant leaving him. Which wasn’t an option. It hadn’t been an option for years now.
She clenched her fists, feeling the tight grip of the leather gloves of her uniform and trying not to think about the antithesis of anything, as the van took a tight turn and she swayed in place.
“Дух.” She looked up at her name, and found her partner standing. “Я возьму на себя инициативу.” I’ll take the lead. He told her, and she nodded. “Следите за бродячими.” Watch for strays. She nodded again. She’d had enough of wriggly targets. She wouldn’t let them get away again. He moved past her, and disappeared out of the hatch, and for a moment, she heard the thump of his feet on the roof, and then he was gone.
She stood herself, and clicked once to gain the attention of the head of the squad. “Сохраняйте остроту и стреляйте, чтобы убить.” Keep sharp, and shoot to kill. She told them, as the van began to speed up, heading to ram the car belonging to the targets. “Они не могут уйти.” They can’t get away.
“Понял.” Understood. The man inclined his head, and turned to bark out orders. The van rocked suddenly, with the force of their impact with the car, and she clutched at the wall to regain her balance. Her partner had returned to their truck, balanced on the front, and she watched through the windshield as the smaller vehicle spun out of control – flipping and crashing to a halt.
But the targets had already ejected themselves, and she watched as they drove past them. There was a third man with them now, and her eyes narrowed. “Солдат?” Soldier? She reached for his grenade launcher, considering the benefits of knocking them off long distance.
“Я вижу их.” I see them. He replied tightly. “заниматься.” Engage.
She jumped out of the truck, and handed him the weapon. He took it and fired in one stride, as the strike team emerged from the vehicle.
The man with the shield went flying, but in the flare of the explosion, she watched the red-head and the new man duck out of the way. “Открытый огонь.” Open fire. She told the agents, and began to stalk towards them under the cover of bullets. The woman was returning fire, and she had to phase as three well-aimed shots went through her. She scowled and quickened her pace, her partner keeping stride.
The next grenade should have wiped her out, but the woman was faster than she had expected and was gone from the bridge before the smoke had cleared. Her partner jumped the barricade, and headed to finish the job as she headed towards the direction that the man with the shield had flown.
A sudden loud cracking shot made her turn, and for a moment, her heart was in her throat as she watched her partner sink back from the edge of the bridge. But he reached up, merely discarding his now-ruined goggles, and met her gaze. He was fine. He stood, and opened fire on the ground.
She tracked the woman as she ducked away and out of sight – and looked to her partner. He nodded, and she turned – leaping from the bridge, and phasing out of sight as she fell.
Her partner could handle the other two.
The red-head was fast, but she was faster, and she was able to track her path quickly – an explosion behind her alerting her to her partner’s movements.
The street she turned down was distinctly quieter, and she stilled, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. She phased back into tangibility and sight. It was far easier to track prey out of the Grey realm, and the sounds of the world sharpened immediately.
“-I repeat, civilians threatened.”
She turned in the direction of the voice, the odd phrasing, and unholstered her handgun. She tracked the voice as best she could, crouching to try and see under the car two down from her position. Silently, she unclipped a small grenade, and rolled it gently towards her target.
That should end things. She stood as the explosion sent the car and surrounding curb up in flames and turned to leave. Her partner-
The sudden weight around her shoulders and neck made her grunt, almost toppling as she registered the abrupt attack, the gun going skittering out of her grip. The red-head was well-trained, and she was only just able to get a hand in-between the thighs that had closed with a vice grip around her neck. But the red head was still only human, and she wrenched her thighs open, phasing out of tangibility and spinning away from her. The woman went toppling to the ground at the sudden lack of support under her, rolling to her feet.
The woman – Natasha – she was reminded suddenly, turned on her, eyes going wide, and mouth opening as if to speak.
But she wasn’t inclined to give her the chance, not when she had a job to do – and she stooped, picking up the gun and lifting it. Natasha was already moving, her hand darting out – flicking a small disc at her – and as she pulled the trigger, it hit her square in the chest.
The sudden incapacitating burst of electricity made her shot go wide, and horrifyingly, made her implants go haywire, and she crumpled as pain made her vision go white. Then, just as suddenly, it was gone, and she opened her eyes to see her partner standing over her. He wordlessly crushed the small device and tossed it to the side before offering her a hand. He hauled her up, and without so much as a word, they started after Natasha. She was smarting, small bolts of electricity still sparking through her, and the irritation of being beaten made her power forwards.
Natasha was screaming, thrusting civilians out of the way desperately, and though she broke into a sprint after the red-head – it was her partner who took the shot that made Natasha duck out of sight. She followed the woman’s path, and disappeared, leaping atop the bonnet of the car she was hiding behind – but as another faulty jolt of electricity coursed through her, she was forced out of the Grey. Natasha made a startled sound as she appeared, her own weapon in her grip, and she raised the gun again, ignoring her faintly seizing limbs.
Then she was knocked off of her feet, sent crashing to the ground, as something hit her in the face with all the force of one of her partner’s punches. She was woozy, but she rolled to her feet anyway, in time to see her partner engage his own target, who had caught the rebounding shield just in time to deflect her partner’s fist. She growled below her mask, shaking her head and trying to see through blurry, doubled vision, and the faulty eyeholes in her goggles. Natasha was getting to her feet, and she knew that if she didn’t strike now, she never could, and she impatiently unclipped the fastenings, and slid her helmet off of her head.
“Дух…” Ghost. Natasha looked as if she had been slapped, and she shook her head again, trying to get rid of the fuzziness. “Я знал, что это был ты.” I knew it was you.
She made another wordless noise, confusion further spinning her head. “Я тебя не знаю.” I don’t know you. She told the woman, and lurched at her.
Natasha was off-guard, foolishly staring still, and she landed a solid hit to the other woman’s chest that left her stumbling and winded. She spun, kicking out, and Natasha ducked away, mirroring her movement with a series of punches that she deflected. Rolling, she unsheathed a knife, and got to her feet. “Ты не помнишь?” Don’t you remember? Natasha’s Russian was perfect. Her head throbbed again, and she lashed out at the red-head, who attempted to deflect her stab. She gripped the woman’s wrist with her free hand, and pushed it away, the other woman forced to her knees in Natasha attempted to keep the knife away from her throat. “Ты не помнишь, Наталью?” Don’t you remember, Natalia? She panted, and for a moment, she wasn’t a woman, but a young girl, skinny and doe-eyed and ferocious, and better than any of the other candidates-
She snarled at Natalia – Natasha – and bore down harder.
Phantoms and ghosts and imagination.
She had a mission. She was her mission.
“У меня все еще есть твои часы.” I still have your watch.
Burnished, but still shining, the watch had been with her for years – but she couldn’t keep it, it would be safe with her favourite, the little-thing that hadn’t known how to throw a punch, her малыш-
Natasha took advantage of her distraction to slam her forehead into her face, and she felt her nose crunch painfully, blood spurting down her chin, and she tore herself free from the dizzying-confusing-mess in her head, as the woman rolled them over, and attempted to wrench the knife from her grip.
She had a mission. She was her mission.
She phased out of sight, out of touch, and left Natasha scrabbling for nothing on the ground before she reappeared and kicked the woman back, catching her sharply under her chin and sending her sprawling. Natasha was dazed, and as she crouched over her and raised the knife, her dull eyes triggered another surge of memory; a car-wreck at the bottom of a cliff, Natalia curled around her target, blood spilling over her hands, leaving her to die-
She stabbed at her blindly, unable to see or sense for the pounding, splitting pain in her head.
Natasha keened, and then she was sent flying again – literally – as something plucked her from where she loomed over Natalia and rocketed skywards with her. By the time she regained any sense, realising it was that third man, holding her, winged and flying, she was already too high – but she phased out of his grip anyway and plummeted, and sensing his sudden descent after her, disappeared from sight as the ground rose to meet her, his grip missing her by inches.
She hit the ground hard, and it was all she could do to hold herself in the Grey, as she heard, more than felt, a sickening crack, and her vision wavered again.
She could just see her partner, raising a gun to his target, then knocked off course by the winged-man, then thwarted again by her own, bleeding target who had obtained his grenade launcher. He had ducked out of sight by the time the smoke had cleared – just in time – as a helicopter appeared.
The three still standing were surrounded by agents she dimly recognised, and knowing there was nothing more she could do just lying there, forced herself to roll over.
She nearly screamed as her broken ribs radiated white-hot pain down her side, and the kneecap she’d landed on slid around wetly.
Her partner’s voice in her ear; blessed salvation.
She gritted her teeth. “Я не могу идти. Просто иди, на улице не безопасно.” I can't walk. Just go, it's not safe in the street. She said shortly. As long as he made it back to base…
“Не вариант.” Not an option. His voice was quiet, but furious – and close. She turned her head to see him hurrying towards her, unmasked and scowling. “Не без вас.” Not without you. He said, just as he reached her position, and gripped her outstretched invisible hand with unnerving accuracy, and she pulled him out of sight with her. Even in the Grey realm, his stare was enough to make her shiver.
He lifted her carefully, and broke into a run, away from the scene behind them. They had failed, and all they could do was face the consequences.
They bound her ribs tight enough to stop them moving when she breathed, shot her up with enough painkiller to stand, even on her recently dislocated knee, and then she was bundled into one of the many technician rooms on base.
Her partner was already there, and she realised with horror, that he was sitting on the Chair as they inspected his arm.
Her eyes went to him, and he avoided her gaze, eyes distraught and far away. She looked to the other inhabitants of the room, as if they would explain. They didn’t, and when she was forced onto the stool next to him, her shirt hiked up to expose her implants she realised they weren’t looking at her, or him, but at the door. Waiting. Whatever the technician did to her main implant, the one just below the nape of her neck, at the centre of her spinal cord, made the faint, faulty pulses stop, and she relaxed muscles she hadn’t realised were tense.
Then her partner groaned, suddenly flinging himself forwards, face going slack. “Bucky.” He muttered to himself, and stood. She stiffened all over again, scrambling to tug her shirt down and get up off the stool, as he took a lurching step forwards. She grabbed him by the shoulders, and slammed him back down.
She recognised that look; it brought her back years, brought her back to a dingy flophouse, brought her back to begging him to come with her, begging him to stop-
He tossed her aside like she was a doll, and she crashed into another technician. The guards on high alert turned on him, raising their weapons, and she got to her feet painfully.
“Don’t!” She told them. “I can calm him down-”
“Shut up.” The guard nearest her told her, and took a step towards her partner, who had stilled again and was muttering to himself. She moved between them, despite the unpredictability of her partner’s state of mind, she would still rather stand between him and a gun than leave him defenceless in that state.
But footsteps outside the cell sounded, preceding the entry of the man they had all been waiting for. The crisp click of dress shoes made her hackles raise, and she took a step back, trying to cover her partner further, as Alexander Pierce entered the cell.
“S-sir? They’re unstable, he’s erratic-”
Pierce waved off the man speaking, and turned his eyes on her. She held his gaze unwaveringly. There were still too many guns on them, and her desperation was rising by the second. Pierce lifted his hands. “Stand down.” The guns dropped, and she let out a little of the breath she hadn’t realised she had been holding. “You too. Or I just save some time, and kill him now.” One of the guards that had come in with him raised his gun, and she wavered. “Three. Two-” She stepped aside, letting them manhandle her away from the Chair. Pierce stepped closer to her partner, and slowly folded up his glasses, and stowed them away. “Mission report.” Her partner was silent.
“Targets escaped neutralisation, however-” she tried desperately, and one of the men holding her hit her broken ribs and she broke off, trying to hold back a cry.
Pierce ignored both her attempt, and the guard. “Mission report. Now.” He crouched slightly before her partner searching his face, before back-handing him savagely, her partner's head snapping around from the force of the slap. The wave of rage that rose in her at the contact surprised her, and she clenched her fists. Her partner blinked, eyes still lost, as he slowly turned his head back to face Pierce.
“The man on the bridge.” He looked confused, the same confused he had been back in New York, and her heart broke all over again. “Who was he?”
“You met him earlier this week, on another assignment.” Pierce said.
Her partner was silent for a moment, and then he looked at her. “I knew him.” He told her, and she nodded slightly. She believed him. God, she believed him. She had known that woman, that Natasha, Natalia – whoever she was – she had known her too; somehow, someway. She had known her.
Pierce’s jaw worked, and he picked up the stool she had sat on, and seated himself in front of her partner. “Your work has been a gift to mankind. You and your partner have shaped the century.” Pierce told him, “and I need you do to it, one more time.” His voice was gentle, gentle in a way she was unused to – and yet – it somehow made the confusion worse. How was anything they had done a gift?
“Society is at a tipping point, between order and chaos. Tomorrow morning, we’re going to give it a push.” Pierce said, almost smiling. “But, if you don’t do your part – I can’t do mine. And Hydra can’t give the world the freedom it deserves.”
Her head hurt, trying to make sense of everything. This was all she had known. This was all she had known-
“But I knew him.” Her partner said softly, brokenly.
Pierce just sighed, and stood. “Prep him.”
“He’s been out of Cryo too long.” One of the technicians piped up nervously.
Pierce fixed the man with an exasperated look. “Then wipe him. And start over.”
“No.” It came out of her like a cry, and Pierce turned to look at her, incredulous. “It’ll hurt him like that – you promised-”
“Make her watch.” Pierce said, face suddenly hard, and turned to go.
She struggled against the sudden vice grip of the men holding her, and phased out of their grip – but her implants were already activating – and she was hauled to her feet again and shoved onto the stool directly in front of the Chair. Her partner lay back, near compliant, and took the bit into his mouth as they began to hook him up. His eyes met hers, and she struggled again at the destroyed look there, tears building in her eyes as they held her still.
She had to watch him scream, watch the light fade from his eyes, watch him forget whatever precious thing he had regained, watch him break again.