1965-01-07 - Court of Nevers: Story II - Natasha: Savior
Summary: Do you believe that you are a good person or just doing the job you were assigned?
Related: If there are no related logs, put 'None', — please don't leave blank!
Theme Song: None
rogue black-widow wanda 

SHIELD shows greater tolerance for failure than the Red Room ever did. A lapse in judgment might earn paperwork and reconnaissance on a dull run, rather than hanging from her wrists in a statue of sleep deprivation, beatings dispensed among other special tortures reserved for recalcitrant soldiers.

Information on her mark is sparing, conveyed in an eagle-marked folder after reaching the Netherlands: slim, skin a bit darker than the norm, short brown-hair, and sorrowful in that Ukrainian or Georgian way. Alia Popova. 31. Just the right age to weep over her best friend's wedding, if she were not the asset. Slouched up against the bar, she nurses sake in a corner where she can see the room and use the glass surrounding the sushi-making station to watch reflections. Nitrogen crystals sprinkle around the freezing cold pipes. She presses her wrist up to the glass, the way she shields her glass. A ceramic dish holds a few rolls, a bowl of rice in hand.

There's no doubt SHIELD has it's perks, as it were, but old habits die hard and concerns and expectations deeply ingrained are difficult to lose. Her drive, first and foremost is to succeed. Even if right now the odds are most certainly not in her favor. That's what she gets for not doing solo work.

But her distaste for failure is what makes spotting the woman she was tipped about from the cabbie such a great pleasure. Maybe not all was for naught. She casually approaches the woman, asking as she draws near, and addresses the woman in Ukrainian, "would you mind sharing your misery? I could use a drink myself…was just on my way to a wedding, when things went awry, you know the feeling…?" Natasha asks as if sharing some anectode from her day, on the one hand not wanting Alia to freak out, and on the other, offering sufficent hint that she is aware of her cover story. Hopefully the asset has good instincts, if not, she might need to be more explicit.

Alia nurses the alcohol. Now and then she slips rice into her mouth, chopsticks ignored in favour of a fork. No matter how swanky Sushi King is, they supply cutlery to make life easier for the Estonians and other visitors. A mouthful of alcohol goes down easily when Natasha approaches. Already the tired young woman is sitting up straight, pushing her seat a little further back. Room to the side allows her space, she isn't penned in exactly. Smudges under her eyes speak to weariness. Or bruises. Hard to say.

«Maybe this is a good day.» She grits out the Ukrainian with a curious accent. Crimean. Tatar, maybe, on a better day. She pushes over the short sake menu. Prices are cheaper than they'd be in New York, by a long shot.

«Well…if you don't lose your stage coach driver along the way, I'm sure the ball is most splendifurous, however…even when lost, I hear you might find a new one. A better one. If you only have faith…» Natasha offers while studying Alia, or more closely the signs of what she's been through, because whatever it was, it wound up being better than what her getaway driver found in the Luga.

A short browse of the sake menu, and Natasha orders herself a Gekkeikan Silver. «Do you know anything about people going swimming in the Luga?» Natasha asks in a way of curiosity, did Alia witness what happened to her hapless driver, or was she already on the run?

The server glides up from Natasha's side. In Estonian - then Russian and Finnish if need be - he asks, "Would you like to order anything else?" Otherwise one drink accompanied by a small cup coming up. The sushi if she wants any will take longer for the chefs to prepare. An hour from closing means the last rush comes through with those final cheques.

Bowing her head, Alia licks her lips of the salty beverage. Her injuries if any are fairly well hidden. No mistaking the wear on her boots, the absence of a mobile phone. Must have a wallet. Favours her right side, not the left. Arm being chilled on the cold glass. «Who swims in the winter?» asks the woman wearily. «Only crazy people and Finns. Same thing, Finns are crazy. You marrying one?»

"That would be all," Natasha answers the server in Russian, a close derivative of the Ukrainian she is speaking with Alia, before turning to the other woman, and repeating a safe code SHIELD would have introduced to recognize a friendly, «the sun is warm, the grass is green,» easily taken for an idiom or an otherwise attempt to cheer the woman up. «I would not recommending swimming at winter, one could easily get sick.»

As she enjoys a sip of her sake, she levels her gaze with the woman and offers «I seem to have lost the address to my party, if you got some time, I would love to spend some time with you…I do so hate being alone, and it is getting late. I hear this place will be closing soon…»

The slope of her neck visible through her pixie cut, Alia lowers her head. She is not shoveling rice into her mouth and the gesture is more than a bit wooden. The fork clanks on the bowl. «Not going anywhere fast.» They probably gave her a code back. She doesn't use it though, leaning on the bar heavily. Purple light washes over both of them from the embedded bulbs. «Got what, an hour? They can kick me out then. Maybe I'll go across the street to that Chinese buffet.» No smile even shows up there. Sake washes down her mouthful of sticky rice, filmed by starch by going cool. «Unless you have a better place.»

«I have the best place…» Natasha answers without pause, very much dismayed at finding the asset was so thoroughly dissuaded. «I think you could use a friendly ear before we agree to stick together, you and I…» curious, it seems Natasha isn't going to force Alia to go out with her. She's letting her have a chance to open up about what has her so spooked, if the girl would choose to take it. «I can tell you I sometimes have my doubts.»

Tongue running over her teeth, Alia pours the last of the dark brown alcohol into the cup. No more sake. It's cheap enough for her think about another bottle. «Where's that? And suit yourself about talking. Talk is cheap as grain in Egypt.» A single swallow takes the last of the Japanese alcohol. She looks over at the roll that she hasn't touch, the squirt of wasabi and sad fold of miserable ginger. Nope, not very appetizing for all that it probably tastes just fine. «Don't mind listening. You were heading somewhere, you said. Big party after might not be bad.»

«I was heading somewhere lively, where people just live through the night, you know?» Natasha offers, as she casually sips from her sake, «some places are just dead and gloomy, and lack spirit.» She takes another cursory look about the place. Just how alone are they? Anyone besides the pleasant man tending the bar listening in, anyone has closed in since she entered?

«I was thinking Sweden is mighty beautiful this time of year…ever been to Are? There's a wonderful ski scene around there. Do you like skiing? I have spectacular lodging I can share with a friend.»

The place is busy enough, half full in the seats settled around square IKEA-like tables. Not many others sit at the bar, and the servers circulate around. All in all, maybe twenty people in the place. The tired Ukrainian stirs her finger around the rim of the cup in hopes of a few more flavours, and sticks her pinkie in her mouth. «Not real exciting here, is it? Looks all fancy but no music.» The napkin is rubbed over her hand awkwardly, hiding the torn sleeve. Not many are cocming in, it's late, and they are slow to come out. At 11 PM, they're either where they need to be or in no hurry. Subjects for or to eavesdrop, really.

«Are? Never heard of it. Far away?» Must be, if it's in Sweden. «I like the cold. The snow is good for thinking and hearing.»

«You noticed as well, huh» Natasha offers, pushing the last third of her cup towards Alia, «would you like to finish mine? I've had enough.» Regardless of whether Allia takes the offer or not, Natasha nods in the affirmative at her question, «there's snow, it's cold, and very tranquil and pretty. Care to join me? We'll have fun you and I, promise.»

The third cup of sake atop a small ceramic vessel of sake probably constitutes the upper limit for most people. An ethnic Russian in Eastern Ukraine, this isn't too much. But Alia glances at the drink, then the redhead. «You don't mind?» She works her nails into her short hair, scratching the back of her scalp. Dried blood mats the tresses, not overtly obvious. Goose egg makes her inhale shortly. «Yeah. I guess it sounds better than holing up over winter holiday here.» Her hand lowers to the cup and she knocks it back. Hurts, but tastes fine enough. The sushi goes unnoticed. «So, Are. How we gettin' there?»

«Not at all, I insist, enjoy,» Natasha offers without reservation, «I feel you deserve it more than I do, especially today.» She studies all the signs of injuries she can spot on the woman, who seems to have done a meticulous work at hiding them. There's no doubt she's the woman she'll need to get to Sweden, at least not all is lost. Good thing she decided to act rather than wait until announcing failure. «We'll go by car to Tallinn, a ferry to Helsinki, from there we can drive over the boder to Sweden, we'll make it within a day. Don't worry, I'll drive.» Seems like Natasha is quite serious, despite the obvious challenge of such a long drive, «only rule is we don't stop along the way unless absolutely a necessity. People who join me, get to where they're going.»

|ROLL| Black Widow +rolls 1d20 for: 18

2215 hours. 22 hours later. Sweden.

Doesn't it seem like the twinkling of an eye for someone so used to arranging difficult passage? It is.

Later, she may remember details. A shot across Estonia comes in a grey-black blur of nightfall. The ferry rides — to Helsinki and out of Vaasa to Umea — become a splash of white snow and the flat grey Baltic. Endless pine forests over twelve hundred kilometers accompanied by traffic changes, the careful checking of mirrors. Cars that sweep after them vary.

Now they're into the hilly upcountry closer to the Norwegian border. Nerves strung like wires rattle to the presence of an anonymous dusty silver Volvo. Pacing them since outside of Ornskoldsvik, the car zips along the E14 along Swedish lakehouses capped in steep roofs, shallow slops clothed in pines and silver, leafless birches.

Alia doesn't stay awake much. Anxiety finally runs out and she crashes into stiff sleep. Curled up on the passenger side, the rising bruises all over her body — mostly covered by her hoodie — mean she doesn't rest easy.

Throughout the journey, Natasha is only making sure that Alia is by her side, and that they are not being followed. The scenery and such matter not, the hours behind the wheel matter not, though she does have the added advantage of the sort of training no truly free country can allow, and a super soldier serum to boost her a fair bit beyond peak human, when it comes to stressing that much sleepless awareness out of her system. It's like clockwork, in day to day routine, she grows tired as everyone, has her downtime as everyone. When it is go time, her alertness shoots off the scale, and her focus and sharpness of execution only seem to increase.

So far she managed to lose everyone who seemed to be tracking them, at least seemingly so, as tracking teams may well have switched shifts along their considerable route. The one vehicle most alarming to her, proves that silver Volvo, tenaciously on their tail for well over an hour now.

Natasha takes the briefest of glances at Alia who seems fast asleep, a good thing, the woman has been through quite an ordeal. She'll gladly get a concrete answer of what she's been through once they make their safe house in Are. For now she readies a pistol at her thigh holster, just in case she'll need to be more proactive in losing their trailer. She tests them, slowing down considerably to see if they'll follow suit, and similarly speeding to check for the same.

If she's able to confirm they are set on not losing them, she'll bide her time and wait for the road to clear enough to take them by surprise.

Small blue signs point the way. 'Are, 12' and 'Jarpen, 13.' Smaller ones mark the dual-lane highway that slaloms through the rolling countryside. To American eyes, the absence of an interstate is a strange place. Snow clots the lowland slopes in patches that won't melt until April. Large trucks don't pass this way and most hardy vehicles belong to Swedes headed for the slopes. Rail tracks parallel the iced-over lake. It's night and hard to see, the sun gone hours ago. Headlights flash in her rearview. Headlights strobe from the opposite side as a rickety Land Rover wobbles into her lane and straightens out after crossing the dashed white line.

Alia doesn't even notice this other than to mutter and pull her hood lower, wincing even involuntarily in her sleep. Ten clicks out, now. Traffic behind her is gaining.

The Rover prepares to pass. Behind it, some squat sedan — probably a Saab — swings right into their path.

Natasha has lived a longer life than her youthful appearance suggests, and since a very early age it's been spent doing field work, most of it wetwork, much in extremely hostile territories. She knows how to read a maneuver as it takes place, she looks briefly at her mirrors, the road ahead, to the side, every vehicle is a potential piece of a gambit. As long as the enemy hasn't reached 'check', she's okay, and from the looks of it now is the time to stop being passive. At first she slows down, to appear unnerved by the tactical play to box her on the road, and hey…it's a female agent at the wheel. No one nearly as dangerous seeming as the Winter Soldier charging Checkpoint Charlie for instance. Heck, they could probably have her and the asset in minutes.

Only Natasha has a gameplan of her own, she casts a very brief glance at Alia, to ensure she's buckled firmly, and then starts to roll her window down. She raises one hand in the air out of the window, unarmed, and continues to slow down. Only her hand soon goes back in, and out again, this time a pistol drawn, two shots for the tire of the Saab advancing right at her in her own lane, before simultaneously speeding and drawing the wheel to ram into the Rover, hoping it'll be enough of a surprise to make it spin into the American vehicle. If her shot strikes true, which she has no doubt, annnd she manages to cause the Rover to spin, something she's assuming should work but really depends on the skill of the driver, she has a chance to eliminate her pursuiters in one fell swoop.

At worst, she assumes at least one will be taken care of, and one or two will remain in pursuit. But hey, if you don't like live on the razor's edge, sometimes you don't live at all.

Should Alia be jarred awake, she'll reassure her in Ukrainian, «best you close your eyes and relax, I'm working on getting us there alive…it's a scheduled part of the trip.»

Gravel leads to the rail tracks on the lakeside shoulder, whereas houses hang against the steep, short up-slope. Effective tactics to pin her between a chunk of aged granite and driving into the icy lake. The car behind her adjusts to Natasha slowing, tail-lights red bright on the silver hood.

Meanwhile, the Land Rover swerves a little closer and out again, a fish tail feint or because the driver's looking at a text message. When they collide, it's already in a duet because the wobble has the two cars turn. That slowdown behind her leaves a widening opening, but hey, American-made has no problem accelerating afterwards to use the Land Rover as a battering ram to shove Natasha in the opposition direction. Shattering glass and squealing steel and popped plastic are all sufficient to jolt Alia from her sleep and she reflexively shrieks. «No! No, not the black hole!» She scrabbles at the window, feeling around for the button to force it down. Her hand takes the lock.

Saab is out, but the other two aren't quite. Well, it wouldn't be worthwhile if it were easy.

«Do me a favor dear…don't open the door…stay with me, you live, jump out…they may just run you over. They don't want you to make it, if the stop at Luga wasn't hint enough…» Natasha stammers at Alia, her attention constantly shifting between all vehicles to check the result of her maneuver. Seems only the Saab is out. Damned American made cars…they build them like tanks! Time for a speed up, can't bluff'em twice with a slow down. The pistol goes back for now, into the thigh holster, she needs both hands on the wheel to avoid losing control on this icy road. She does shift a quick look at the frozen lake…is it thick enough to support a vehicle? If she can get the Rover to test it, then it's either getting rid of one more vehicle, or providing a solid proof it's a safe getaway option.

First, there's trying to regain control after the unexpected battering ram maneuver, which helped keep the Rover in this pursuit, while also sending Natasha swerving a bit. Luckily she is a crack driver, and Hollywood would die to have her for movie stunt driving. Rather than oppose the direction of the swerve, she goes with it, adjusting her speed a bit, and eventually uses another slight ramming into the Rover to help straighten out of the spin and speed up in her original lane.

One she'll get a better idea of the positioning she'll decide whether to test her theory with the lake. Should the Rover speed up again once in control, she'll slow down tremendously just to offer a final speed up into a ramming against the Rover's back wheels, if she's lucky it might swirl towards the frozen lake for her little experiment.

«Alia, dear, keep your head low…» she advices, having no doubt bullets might fly soon.

Alia's eyes are wild and sunken into her head, the lack of sleep or much to drink apparent. Her mouth is a wide circle. «I don't want to die!» she bleats, half-yell and half-croak. Her hands cease their wooden scrabbling. The roar of engines and squeal of rubber hurts. A shove forces them forward as the driver rams the back of the sedan Natasha procured and the seatbelt seizes on the woman's bruised body. She cries out again in pain and braces, her hands behind her head, body rolled inwards. That much she knows how to do.

The lake's been frozen for weeks in Scandinavian temperatures. It could probably take an entire festival at this point. No hints of water peer through the snowy, irregular surface past the raised railroad bed. The Rover's driver knows enough on how to execute and the driver of the slowed Saab keeps his eye on the road. His passenger pokes down the window and fires, shots blossoming on the Widow's hood, deflecting off her bumper. That poor stretch of road is covered in smoking rubber. More metal crashes and her back bumper takes a crunch as she accelerates away. Rover pointing northwest with the road now, the Saab in stuck in the same lane as a diversion for them to swerve around and the American-made vehicle continuing to use it as a screen until it's safe to break out. Alas, the swirling duets of a ballroom floor apply on the car chase, too….

|ROLL| Wanda +rolls 1d20 for: 10

|ROLL| Black Widow +rolls 1d20 for: 7

Natasha takes her own head down moments before she recognizes a prospective shot, just grazing off her hood, and then another ram from behind. She can't afford this prolonged physical damage to the hapless sedan, it's not a tactical vehicle, it's not spiced up to spec, and while she has no doubt she'll take all parties should she must, she cannot assure Alia's safety if the vehicle comes to a stop. Her first intuition was the lake, but the damned Ministry of Transporation saw to people's safety. How nice of them!

That means Plan B, «keep your head down just like that, you're doing fine, dear, we're almost out of it…» almost because some people have to die first. She takes her foot entirely out of the gas, both hands now reaching for her pistol and driver side window, as soon as the Rover catches up, she means to take down the driver, and shooter, assuming there are two in the vehicle. She figures she has enough time for a quick one-two before the American car rams her to the point where coming to a curve, her sedan will press the Rover tight against the safety railing. If she fires true, there's an off chance the Rover breaks through to allow her to stick to it and join along, or at the very least, swerve into the trailer, with no driver control. So her plans is to drop the gun in her lap and take the wheel with both hands after she shoots.

She'll need her best driving for the next part.

The Ministry of Transportation is sure the pitfalls of rail guards include Swedes not drowning and preventing moose from gamboling around crazily into traffic. See, useful design!

Alia remains in the seat. She prays no god, she instead shakes and rocks a little in trying to protect her body from a hit. «I don't want to die, I don't. Not for this. I'm not important like that!»

Her shaking is still violent, even as she throws the words back at Natasha. As long as the driver knows what she does, all the better. The cracks of gunfire force her to jump and she mutters, «You're one of them. How do you shoot…» The thought derails as the car shimmies on a rumble strip meant for warning of another intersection ahead, those country roads intersecting the highway. Arrows flash in the headlights, grim and blue, marking 8 km now to pretty Are. It's not visible yet around the bend in the lake, another village glowing sodium bright orange in the distance.

The first shot goes through the bumper and hits the Rover, but the deflating tire is not enough to completely stop. The driver keeps alternating gunning and shifting down to wobble the sedan away. It might let her get past but he's not offroading onto a track. But he is neither making headway or speeding at 60 clicks on that tire.

The American sedan has better luck, cutting onto the inland shoulder and trying to roar up on the inside. He'll presumably bonk her aside like a pinball.

If. If..

«Alia…, a moment,» Natasha says sternly. Sure, she's cool as frigid Stalingrad when welcoming Nazi invaders, but there are time full concentrating and focus are better than trying to show you can multitask to the Nth degree. If all goes well, she'll have the rest of the trip to explain everything to Alia.

The bumper that almost caused her to lose control while dual hand wielding the pistol was sign enough for upcoming intersection. She can stall with no set time to make it to the safe house, after all she only need making it. The Rover will have to switch a tire before continued pursuit, he's as good as taken care off…the American sedan will need a more personal treatment to stop. The driver is too good, his vehicle too sturdy. She makes sure to duck from potential shots, keeping an eye to make a sharp turn to the intersection the moment she can, utilizing the handbrake to catch the others on as much of a suprise as possible. With the perfect timing, the American car attempting to pinball her might just help her make the sharp turn in time. Too bad she won't be getting a recording of it if it works, it would be nice to show off the male agents for once what with the jokes on female drivers running rampant.

Alia might be more like the doughty Russian woman, unflappable unless ten sheets to the vodka wind, but the past few days have exceeded her capacity for tolerating the unusual. She isn't going to stand and fight. Sorry to disappoint. Widened eyes and clamped lips give her an edged hint of terror and fear.

The vehicle spins and she hisses, «What are you doing? We can't go back!» She has no idea. Oh, one can.

But something about that sharp turn means ice. Ice on the edges does not help the American car. His breaks squeal when she spins around, the sedan bumping off the other battered American sedan likely to be problem enough. He adjusts, but too late, careening up the road as Natasha gets a short, brief window to flee or do a vaudeville dance.

«Keeping us alive,» is the only reply that Natasha gives to Alia, as she waits patiently until the right moment to take that sharp turn, the fact the one who tried to pinball her didn't expect it all the more assists in giving her a superior position on him. She takes the side country road the first instance she can, full pedal to the metal. The car might not survive for much longer, but it doesn't need to. She'll make a trade with the first secluded country side dwelling she finds, it may not be for their best benefit but she's here on a task that outweighs the comforts of a family in a Swedish country side.

Assuming the gambit pays off, and due to the surprise of it all no steady shots are fired, she'll give it a few minutes to make sure they are clear, before telling Alia, «I'll have you know I'm the one they put in charge when they need God to come out alive…so you are important, and I will not allow you to die.» Sure sounds like a promise, and a threat at the same time, almost like Natasha is warning Alia against trying to take her own life in despair.

That country road proves a stroke of luck, cutting at a curve and gaining elevation sharply before it swings to the north and begins weaving up to the lake district. Her car's console features a compass obliging details. Scrub prohibits the trailing sedan from correcting and roaring up the side off the road, though the silver vehicle slides onwards over a short difference, and the signs of occupation thicken.

She'll negotiate two s-curves before reaching a junction, another road pointing back to the E-14 highway. The other arm, the route she is on, continues on a hundred meters and splits again, north and northeast. Either way, she has routes to choose from. Are's ski hills make an excellent landmark, though these route spiderweb around the town into the backcountry forests, lakes, and hamlets.

Alia is silent, white-knuckled.

The E-14 is easy, but the E-14 is a potential revisit with the American sedan. Question…does he continue on the off chance that Natasha will have to resurface on E-14, or does he cut back to set chase? If Natasha had to choose, E-14 is surest bet, seeing how she caught him off guard and won herself a nice advantage. She'll risky the weaving curves, proceeding with the country road for now, she'll just keep northwards until she can break to the west. She studied a map before setting out, it shouldn't be long before she'll find another way into E-14 should she keep the general direction. East is something to avoid for sure.

But this relatively more lesuirely drive, what with lack of ramming and shots fired, does give a moment to speak with Alia and reassure her, «I am not one of them, I am the one who appears in their nightmares…I keep people like you safe from them, Alia. Cheer up, we're almost there…you'll be safe…»

She looks for a moment to Alia, «see me? I am here for you, I am not against you. You are surviving, you are doing very well…I'm very impressed you made it out of Luga, but the rest of the way there will be no accidents.»

It's the long way around, the scenic way residents escape the choking traffic in town. Mind that Are sits on a lake, choices are a bit limited. Drifting in and out of pine forests makes for a picturesque drive, were one not risking violent death in the snowy dark. Alia keeps staring out the window, rabbiting at any headlights — few — or branches getting too close — more common. She sinks into her seat and tries to stay out of range of stray shots, but none come.

«How are you not them? You have guns. Car. Different stamp on the passport.» Her hands clutched in her lap speak to her destitution, hope a very low thing. «You say I am safe. How can you promise that?»

«I am not them…because I am unique, I am different, I don't belong to them…» Natasha muses, the girl has a point, for a while she was them. While working for the Red Room all she needed was to be given a name, and that target was dead, zero concern to who they were and what was their purpose. She's given more leeway with SHIELD. Her clearance is certainly higher than it was with the Red Room, she's allowed details of a given mission, and while they may not be all there is to say, they are usually enough for her to use her own web of contacts to ascertain various aspects and motives. Peggy Carter has allowed her to work with a clean conscience, such as it is, after all she's done. But she's got red in her ledger, and she's doing her best to balance it. Alia is a step in the right direction.

«They are machines. Killing machines. They want you dead, because they were told to kill you.» She then looks aside at Alia, and gives her a warm smile, «I am seeking to protect you, because they want to kill you. I'll give you one tip, don't ever judge by a stamp on passport, the whole passport is likely fake to begin with. What matters is what you are…an asset, or a human being? We shared a drink, Alia, I am from Russia…when we share a drink, it's a holy bond, okay? We drink to health, your health is not being dead, trust that much. If it helps, I think we're clear…branches would be the most dangerous thing. I'll warn you before we meet the highway again…but the closer we get to home, the cleaner the area should be. We are expected after all…»

It never occured to Natasha, but this moment, is something that would never happen before Peggy Carter. She never cared for an asset's well being, at times she'd subdue them herself for easier transport. Alia would no doubt appreciate it much less of she was carried sedated in the trunk for the duration of the trip. Could her twist of fate running into Peggy Carter served to reknidle something she long thought dead? Emotions? Empathy? A conscience…? Could it be she's more than a killing machine to point at a target and launch? She would like to think so…

«How do you see a future? I don't know how. I will always be looking back over my shoulder. Luck, right place at the right time, now.» Her voice is flat, exhausted. «Next time, what then?» Alia squeezes her eyes shut and she huddles in her hoodie, unable to find the privilege to believe in much. «They want me. I am not that important. You have the time of your life and I get to watch. Always watch.»

Her throat works and she rubs her face on her sleeve, then curls down. «I'm Russian. Da is Russian. Mama was Russian enough. It is not like I am Turkmen or Chechen, you know? So I know what it means. The country never stops. It never stops. No noose or trap outwitting us. You think you got free but did you? You think your new friends will fight that down when the grudges of Russia are on the line?» The taste of sour lemon is in her mouth, ripe and hard. «Russians are bad at forgetting. We really begrudge anyone trying to flip their middle finger at the system.»

«Alia…once you provide the information, there's no reason to kill you…that's how it works. You're a threat while the info you have can be protected, once it's in the open, it doesn't matter. Then they have to deal with countermeasure, and that's not you,» Natasha tries to explain, but the words do reach her. A weird thing, to care so much about someone who in the past she used to consider as a vessel to transport information, soon to be discarded once it's been used. «Let me tell you one thing, Alia, I used to be their best…now I am no longer theirs. You think they care for that? They haven't killed me yet, I won't let them…but what I can do for you…?» She muses aloud, and then offers, «I can offer regular visits, if you want, I will give you lessons…how to protect yourself, if I can manage, I will also so to regular watch over you…if you like.»

Another awkward pause, and as they reach Are, Natasha smiling at Alia, she concludes, «if you will allow it, I should like to be your friend…keep in touch, help you build a life from this trauma…»

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