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London, 1954

 

Natasha swears the boy isn’t even trying to keep up. She can hear how far he’s fallen behind by the increasingly distant sounds of his gasping inhalations, faint beneath the wailing of the fire alarm. His footfalls are gradually slowing as they slap against the steps and echo through the stairwell. It occurs to her that he isn’t even trying to be quiet either. Fool.

 

She waits for him, grabs him by the wrist, and pulls him along beside her. Where her fingers grip, his shirtsleeve is unpleasantly tacky. Drying blood from raw, abraded skin. She knows her grip must be hurting him, but he has enough sense not to struggle. For the first time, she thinks he might survive in his career long enough to grow some calluses. 

 

They whip around the final corner. She lets his arm drop and kicks open the door to the roof. Her teachers might have preferred that she pick the lock-- she can almost hear Madam Vostokova, chiding her. Subtlety, Romanova. Natasha’s running assignments on her own now though, and she’s found so far that she can handle almost anything with the proper application of force. The trick is in knowing where to put the pressure. Anyway, they’re running out of time.

 

There’s a klieg light on the roof. The lamp’s probably been rusting up there since the last German bomber turned around, but tonight it’s illuminated. A distress beacon of some kind? A warning signal? The boy moans and squints against the dazzling brightness. When Natasha shoots out the bulbs, it’s not for his benefit. If he didn’t feel up to traversing the rooftops, he should have thought about that before he made a smoking ruin of the ground floor.

 

Natasha slips through the newborn darkness to the roof’s edge. She sizes up a building across the square. A bank, she thinks. Heavy stone façade, with a crenelated parapet just a few feet lower than the roof Natasha’s standing on. It may be a hollow temple to the false god of capital, but it’s perfect for her present purposes.

 

She catches movement in the corner of her eye, a flash of something bright. Natasha turns, and it’s the kid, suddenly beside her. Apparently he can move quietly, when he cares to. He’s lying on his belly, looking down over the edge. She follows his gaze and watches a gout of flame billow out of a window six stories below them. He’s wearing a private little smile. It makes him look younger. According to his file, he’s actually Natasha’s elder, if only by a scant eight months. Looking at him now, he could be a Young Pioneer, proud of his small campfire. Albeit a Pioneer who’d gotten drastically turned around on his last scouting expedition.

 

It’s not entirely the boy’s fault. Everyone she sees seems young to her: little kids with sticky fingers in their mothers’ skirts; university students, her alleged peers, with nothing more than ink staining their hands; even adults, soldiers once, probably, but grown soft and self-satisfied since. In their own ways, they’re all children.

 

Natasha levels her pistol. The grappling hook catches with a satisfying thunk. Natasha pulls a length of cord out of her belt, begins wrapping it around her hands. The young man rises to a crouch, watching her through wary, though unfocused, blue eyes. One hand drifts absently to his neck, and she rolls her own eyes, tilting her head meaningfully toward the impromptu zip line. If she was going to garrote him, why would she bother with dragging him up to the roof to do so. Gaze still vague, he drops his hands to his waist, poking his finger through an empty loop, as though that will bring back the vanished belt. He kneels again, seems to realize for the first time that he’s barefoot. Natasha doesn’t have time for this.

 

The kid’s light at least. Her thighs are clenched around his waist, and there’s no softness there. His boney elbows jab into her back. She smells old blood in his hair. His face, what she can see of it, at least, goes very, very pale as they pick up speed. “If you vomit on me,” she tells him, “I’ll drop you.”

 

Thankfully, their flight is over in just a few heartbeats. It’s a delicate operation, getting over the parapet on the other side, and her burden doesn’t seem inclined to make himself useful. Still, it’s not until after she’s released him from their strange embrace that he slides to his knees and retches, so, she supposes, he must have some kind of survival instinct after all. 

 

Leaving him to it, she spools in her grappling wire.

 

“I suppose I should thank you.”

 

His voice is hoarse, rougher than it had been in the recording they’d played for her that afternoon. On the tape, his speech had had a wandering, dreamy quality, fading in and out.

 

Please… I have an urgent report. Like the Americans say, ‘little bird told me’. Britain plans to start a new war, to bomb the CCCP.  By order of the queen, I think. Because she doesn’t like us. I don’t much like her either. I like the Queen of Puddings though. With raspberry jam. For tea. I’d like to rest before teatime… I’m not feeling very well.  

 

She hadn’t been able to tell from the recording, how much of it had been for show. Act loopy enough, and you can hope no one will notice when you use a glaringly obvious code word in the middle of an entirely unrelated statement. Malina this week, ‘raspberry,’ meaning ‘this statement is being made under duress.’ Idiotic. She supposes the boy had done his best with what he had. It remains to be seen however, just how well that was.  

 

“What did you tell them?” she asks.

 

He’s been trying to rise, but hasn’t yet managed it. Hearing her question, he freezes, crouched against the roof. He looks up at her, fear in his eyes. She’s been here before, and she waits for the expected, frantic denial.

 

“Who are you?” he surprises her. “How do I know you’re not with them? Some kind of diabolical double ploy?”

 

He must realize how ridiculous he sounds, because he takes on the expression of a student who’s made a slip up during an oral examination. He is a student, she remembers, at least nominally, embedded in some department in Cambridge.

 

She kneels to his level, raises her arm so he can see her bracelet, extends it towards him until she’s sure he can feel the faint hum of its electricity. “I’m not with them.”

 

He scuttles backward, not taking his eyes off Natasha until the back of his head bumps against the edge of the parapet. Of course he recognizes the Widow’s Bite; KGB apparatchiks are worse than babushkas when it comes to ghost stories and gossip, and Natasha is the subject of both. Who hasn’t heard about the witch-girls from the Red Room?

 

You came, for me?” his tone is somewhere between fear and wonder. Natasha can’t blame him. She knows, better than he does, what kind of prey it usually takes to draw a Black Widow from her web.

 

“Don’t flatter yourself. Someone had to take care of you; I happened to be in the area.”

 

“Oh.” he says, “You know, I didn’t think you were real.”  

 

“I’m not. Haven’t you noticed you’ve been drugged and hit on the head? You’re hallucinating.”

 

"All the stories I've heard about you can't be true. You'd never have survived." The dreamy note is slipping back into his voice, paired with something like pity. That would have to go. 

 

"It's all right. They made me strong."

 

“You are that,” he says, “I think you cracked my ribs.”

 

“Maybe you’d rather I'd dropped you?”

 

“No, but you could apologize.” She doesn’t have time for this. She readies the Bite.

 

“Are you going to kill me now?” he asks. She’s heard that question many times, but never with such a tone of petulance.

 

“That depends. What did you tell them?”

 

“I didn’t tell them anything.”

 

“Really, you’re such a tough guy?”

 

“No, it’s just that they didn’t ask me anything. They told me things. They gave me something, used needles.” He rubbed at the inside of one arm as he continued. “They showed me lots of pictures, and films, from the war, mostly. Bombed out buildings, rubble,” he shivered, “other things. And there were these lights that hurt my head. The voices said that Britain would destroy us, but we could stop them if we bombed them first. And then they told me I had to make a phone call, so I did. Then they locked me up, but I got out. Then I might have made a few tactical errors. You know everything after that. Can’t I rest now?”

 

“No, not yet. Do you know who they were? Were they English?”

 

“Some of them, I think, but not all. Some of them had uniforms with, I can draw, with little birds on the pocket.” He sketches an invisible picture, dragging a fingertip across the dark stone of the rooftop.

 

“Could you recognize them, if you saw them again?” He nods, a little too vigorously, and nearly tips forward.

 

Natasha looks back the way they came; the street is clogged with fire engines. “Good. Your handler has photos. You can help identify them later.”

 

The boy closes his eyes and leans back into the wall behind him. He shouldn’t let his guard down like that, not at any time and never in the field. Privately though, Natasha understands his relief. Assassin or no, she’s as good as confirmed that she’s not going to kill him.  To be needed another day, that’s the best assurance of safety.

 

Her rendezvous is nearby, but not scheduled for another hour. That’s good, since she needs to find her way off this roof. By herself, it would be no problem. If she tries to take the boy down the way she would ordinarily go, she’s fairly certain he’ll end up as a pink smear on the pavement. She circumnavigates the rooftop, thinking.

 

When she gets back, the boy’s asleep, head on his knees.

 

“Hey, malchick, wake up!”

 

He twitches, and whimpers, but doesn’t lift his head. She tips his head back with her hand, congratulating herself for taking care not to crack his skull against the wall. Beneath their lids, his eyes move rapidly back and forth. His breathing is labored again, worse than it’s been since the stairs, and where she touches his forehead, his skin is damp with sweat.

 

“Illya Nikolayevich!”

 

Of course she knows his name. She’s read his file. It’s easier though, usually, when she gets files, to pretend that the people in them don’t have names. That they’re not real, either.

 

He blinks at her, and she’s surprised by the warm jolt of relief she feels when she sees his drowsy, bloodshot eyes. “Chto? What do you want?”

 

“Stay focused. This is my first extraction. Don’t die in your sleep and mess it up for me.”

 

“Yes,” he yawns, “I can see how that would be problematic for you.”

 

Natasha stands, “I’m going to scout out our way down. Stay alert, and don’t go anywhere.” She unclips a bug from her belt and puts it into his hand. “This only goes one way, but I’ll be able to hear you. If you see anyone coming, signal me.”

 

He agrees, but his head is already nodding, dropping to his chest even as he grips the little transmitter tightly.

 

She kneels again. Illya straightens, “You’re back? How does it look?”

 

“It looks like I asked you to watch my back and you decided to take a nap instead.”

 

“Oh, sorry.”

 

“And I thought you were supposed to be smart. What is it you’re studying again, at that fancy English school?”

 

“Quantum physics.”

 

“Alright, Einstein, here’s what’s going to happen now: I’m going to go scout out our way down, and you are going to stay on that line, and you’re going tell me everything you know about quantum physics.”

 

As she rappels down the roof, edges along the façade, coaxes open a window, Illya comes with her, a quiet murmur in her headset. The signal fades away after a few blocks. When she comes back for him, he’s out cold. He doesn’t even stir when she lifts him. At the rendezvous, they tell her she’s needed in Berlin. She deposits Illya in the back of their car, and leaves within the hour.

 

When he wakes up, he’ll probably think she was just a dream. After all, the Black Widows don’t exist. In Berlin, she assassinates a professor and two of his lab assistants. They never send her on another rescue mission.