1965-03-24 - Project Ursa: Kochab Alpha
Summary: The past comes back to haunt Natasha Romanova. Choices stand before her — freedom to shape her future, or the option to reject it for another path.
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black-widow wanda 

.~{:----------: features=+views :-:}~.

0455 hours. Closed City 53.

Natasha is still reeling from hearing Alexei's voice, from seeing his face, from the fact he's alive. She's frozen in place, not looking at anything but Alexei. Steve and Bucky may well be executed in the background, and it seems like she wouldn't flinch a muscle. «Alexei…it's really you…?» It seems his questions just flew past her, because the heartbroken gaze she sets on him wouldn't allow to simply ignore his words. She clearly still harbors feelings for him, how could she not? He was the reason she became the best Black Widow ever, working mostly in conjunction with the Winter Soldier aside from some solo operations. It was his death that fuelled her resolve. Finding him alive nearly has all of her resolve shattering like fragile glass. «It can't be…the Americans, the Capitalist scum….I was told they murdered you, Alexei…» she breaks into to tears, for once her crying is genuine, not the sort she so often pulls on command to pull on heart strings. She's honestly been reduced to an emotional mess, all of her training to severe her from emotions be damned. She couldn't care any less about the Bucky clone on the ground, even if he were to rise and kill her where she stands.

She does finally move, taking cautious, hesitant steps towards the Red Guardian, and as her tears keep rolling, she tries to embrace him. Assuming he'd allow it, and not insist on reiterating his question.

With stillness comes a particular ability for focus, sharpening thoughts amplified in their clarity by the fugue of combat. Adrenaline hitting hard in the veins gives him an edgy quiver, but the arm holding the kite shield remains steady. Alexei licks his lips and tastes dry salt. He slowly approaches along the line guarding the civilians in the bay under the huge transport vehicle, as though somehow Natasha might bring the enormous metal hulk down all by herself. Dark eyes stand out in his paling face, surprise carved in a rough hand out of those familiar features. «Natalia,» he repeats himself, as though the word is a wonder taught by a cruel god of the Old Testament to see what trouble will fall on mortals' heads. «Murdered? Dead? I… no.» Struggling for words, the roughshod gaps in his answers shorten as he works around the proverbial blow to his chest. Crying somehow eases it. A human woman, crying. Like she must have when her feet hurt from dancing too hard, as anyone can.

Hugging her with the shield is obviously difficult, but he is used to balancing that. An ember of caution remains. «My spring sparrow.» More might be said, but he can offer some physical comfort. «Let me take you to rooms. But first, we must get him medical help.» A wave of the shield arm signals the guards on high.

They come, cautious, running from catwalks down to the concrete floor. On the ground, the fallen figure of James Barnes bleeds from the shots to the chest. Gory exit wounds remain only partly concealed. It may be too late for him, but shouted orders from a hero of the Soviet Union are orders: «Take him to the doctors! Now!»

It seems with Alexei's inexplicable return from the dead, Natasha doesn't care so much anymore about the Red Room, about SHIELD, about the Bucky clone that shoved that freezing ice blade from hell deep in her side. Heck, she's not that much concerned about what becomes of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. It seems like her life was frozen on pause for the last few decades, and all of a sudden, someone pressed play again.

She continues to cry as she wraps her arms tightly around Alexei, resting her head against him, and just stays close to him for as long as he'll let her. «That is what they said…I came back, there was blood…they showed me your uniform, all bloodied, but they wouldn't let me see the body. They said it was too gruesome, and I should not want to remember you like that…» it hasn't fully registered to her yet that what this means is that the KGB had lied to her, that pledging her life to the Red Room and the ruin of the Americans was all under a false premise.

She nods at the offer to take her to rooms, and doesn't get in the way when Red Guardian orders having the Bucky clone taken to medical. «W-w-who was he…?» Natasha asks, as if suddenly accepting there are no longer limits to what is possible, meaning that Bucky clone could well have been someone else. Not the one responsible for her biggest failure, just a hapless look-alike.

A cassette jammed up sometimes suddenly breaks through the resistance, snapping into action as the teeth catch the spin. A record needles skips acros an imperfect groove to find the melody again, a track long ago or far ahead. Alexei directs the guards in their neat uniforms with short, specific instructions. «As you were. The situation is contained.» Foremen in the bays herd the huddled masses back to their jobs, labourers no longer required to gawk and stare. Jobs wait to be done, deadlines to be met, for the good of the people of the Soviet Union.

Older, wiser men know to turn their attention to the personal once business is done. He smells faintly of cologne, one not altogether different from what he preferred years ago, clean and mellow. Lines mark his brow as he lets Natasha speak, possibly lost to the prospect of hearing a voice out of her dreams. «There was an accident,» he says slowly, loathe to even interrupt if she wants to say more. «A bad one. This is not the right place.» He trails off, gesturing helplessly at the side. If she allows him, he takes past the hangar bays to the top of the facility, the huge scale of those three transports clearly laid out. His final destination is an elevator, or rather, a bank of three of them concealed behind a wired cage acting as protection from any falling spars or sparks. No tools here to see.

Mesmerized by the mere sight and sound of him, Natasha follows Alexei without question. Wondering if it was possible to pretend that time could be wound back, and her concerns could go back to a happy life with Alexei in between different shows at the Bolshoi. She was so proud of his acheivement when he was selected for a special program, but she never imagined he would be killed for it. She would have never imagined that would be the end of her ballet career. Though she's sure to be all the more shocked if she ever were to learn the whole truth, which likely doesn't really exist in the world of spycraft. Better assets or worse, in the end all tend to be pawns.

«What have they told you of me…?» She asks, suddenly realizing that if he was alive and not dead, he must have been given a reason why she disappeared all of a sudden. Someone has been playing both of them, and that fact alone keeps a sliver of connection between Natasha and reality. Perhaps there is yet an unkown entity she would like to escort unto death.

The elevator ushers the pair upstairs in a coffin of steel and wood attempting to dampen sound. They come out at the left, the lobby decorated by a map of the Soviet Union, a picture of Lenin, and several potted plants doing reasonably well in the absence of sunshine. Their leathery tropical leaves somehow glisten, lightly oiled. Navigating this area is rather easy, considering one follows a corridor floored in linoleum through streams of particularly plain flats. Doors are set close together with a formally planned regularity, at least on this floor. A fire exit is visible, and he takes her that way.

By now she might dimly recall another similar corridor, a number of occupants therein: the young lady across the hall, a diminutive blond, and her father. A brunet musician at the end. Not entirely the same in the place she sees, but if they descend three more floors, the corridor is nigh exactly the same. Alexei guides her through the physical place of a vision, to a corridor with only four entrances. Larger places, then.

«I had an accident,» he tells her on that quiet descent. «Test vehicle went out of control, aileron issue. I spent weeks in the hospital. Our flat was empty when I returned.» A hint of tightening in his jaw accompanies the statement, memory encroaching too close. «You left before the accident. I do not know why, Natalia. A dancer with the most promising career, a husband maybe too wedded to his job. Three other girls from your company vanished in the months around you. Defected to the West, it seemed. Had you wanted another life? It was verboten to ask much and I pushed as far as I could until the Major said to stop. For my career, for the reputation you had left. I thought… Maybe, if I found you, I might convince you. Maybe. That they would overlook that accident, they might take you back in to the Soviet Union.»

As she follows Alexei to the elevator and they descend, thoughts run wild in Natasha's mind, but she eases herself by keeps close to Alexei. Making up for lost time, in just having her hand wrapped around him, feeling his body against hers, it was the most comforting sensation she's had in years. But once they head out of the elevator, and the place starts to give her a sense of deja vu, she pays closer attention to it. She's been here before. Perhaps not 'here' here, but most definitely -here-.

What makes everything worse, is when she finally gets to hear the story forom Alexei's side…and the shivering returns. Her fingers at first, then her hand, her arm, legs, it spreads all over her body. Rage seething, flooding, taking on every pore. Her life was stolen from her, her husband was stolen from her, her career was stolen from her…and all the while he was made to believe she defected to the West!? Such insult could not be left alone to mire her name and reputation….

«Who…? Who told you this Alexei!?» Her question is demanding, she needs that answer, her voice sounds at the same time cracking on the threshold of a full fledged harrowing cry of pain, and at the same time as if a demon from the depth of hell wishes to wash the entire world with fire and brimestone. Her hands latch onto Alexei's suit, tightly, as she looks into his eyes, her blue eyes vibrant and wild, «did you believe such terrible tales!? That I would leave ballet behind? I would leave my husband behind? I would…leave the CCCP behind?» She's shivering, nearly thrashing at the very thought. She has to let it out, and for fear of hurting the man she loves, the man who was her husband, the man who apparently came back from the dead, she lets out a terrible shriek, before collapsing to her knees, and rolling into the fetal position on the ground. To think Alexei thought that lowly of her is too much. At least she was told he was assassinated, nobody hurt his character in her eyes, but it seems whoever was behind this manipulation saw fit to assassinate her character before Alexei. It makes her feel violated, and it makes her thirsty for blood, once she finds the name of the poor bastard. The way she feels right now, it may well be Arkady Rossovich, and she will go after him till she draws her last breath.

By Russian standards, especially those attuned to Muscovite limitations of insufficient housing, the flat is substantial and rather lovely. A proper little foyer splits immediately into three rooms: the kitchen and its appliances squats to the right, filtering heat through the furnace along a rather oblong living room decorated by absolutely glorious woven carpets atop a wood floor. Low couches face built-in cabinets filled by the collections of a life. There are books and few unnecessary art pieces, a record player — a luxury! — and a proper tea set. The other large room is clearly a bedroom with a closed door, and everything sports a certain air of propriety. There may not be a television but the fridge and cupboards are probably stocked. In lieu of windows are potted plants, many of them, the varietals that thrive in artificial light.

Exactly the sort of place they might have aspired to, the hero pilot and the prima ballerina, given time and fortunes continuing to rise with the party smiling down. He shuts the door to the flat, shield still heavy on his forearm, when she starts to shriek. No one must come in. Until she is silenced, and the tears replacing howls, he is quiet and there by her side, or more in front of her, to weather the worst.

Only then, he tries to talk. A nod to the tea set. «Do you want something to drink?> Almost laughable, how natural he sounds asking the question, and his cheeks flush a little. The armour on him, her odd attire. «We could be coming home from a show.» An attempt at levity may fall completely flat as a souffle banged in the oven but he tries, oh he tries. «Men came when I was at work. Privately, no one wanted to make me talk. They had questions if I knew where you were. Of course I did, you practiced for hours at the ballet. What could I do, I told them everything. You were not there. They grilled me with so many questions, so many, and I asked them to call Karpov. He knew your character, he knew mine.» He breathes out through his nose, a long sigh. «That did the trick. You weren't at home. After that, I talked to everyone who could be reached. The Bolshoi, the neighbours. Enough the KGB sent one of its paper pushers to insist this was not my place. The Major reiterated that. Only so far I could go trying to track you down. Either way. You did not want to be found or you had gone. Gone from me. I had nothing left. Went like a ghost through the motions. Then the accident was almost a blessing.» It's the lamest of words at the end, deflated from a hundred shrapnel wounds opened back up.

«Natalia,» he says after long minutes. Talk through a scream, ripped to pieces. They are confetti on the floor.

It's a good thing Alexei has the sense to let her have her release, as Natalia is shrieking and writhing on the ground, curling into herself after getting the full picture. She was played like a pawn, and so was Alexei, or so she hopes. She clearly loves the man dearly not to suspect he may have been in on it. A true player in the game of spycraft would not leave any option unconsidered, but she has to give him this courtesy at the very least. Her precious moments with him where the only truly peaceful ones in her life. «Did you believe those stories…?» She asks again through the tears which she now starts to dry up on her sleeves, «tea,» she answers when asked if she'll have something to drink.

She winds up sat on the floor, looking up at her dead-not-dead husband, feeling powerless and sick to the core. «KGB…» she looks like a ghost when Alexei mentions every Soviet's favorite specter. «KGB told me Americans assassinated you, because they were afraid…afraid great Alexei Shoshtakov will beat them in space race…» she now stares at the ground as she speaks, instead of the room they're at she's once again seeing their apartment, drenched in what she was made to think was her husband's blood. «I was given choice, be sad widow, or be Black Widow, avenge the death of my husband and crush the aspirations of the Murderous Capitalist Dogs who stole my husband from me…» she sniffles as she stares into nothingness, clearly not entirely in the very room they're at this very instance, reliving some harrowing memory or other, «I was taken to Red Room, you ever hear of Red Room…?» She stops short of telling him all about the Red Room without Alexei already being privy to that, there are some thing that can bring death anywhere on the planet, some secrets that are poisonous to the lips that utter them. If need be, she'd leave it at that.

She chokes on a few more tears, before shaking her head, «all that doesn't matter, what matters is they lied to us. Lied to you. Lied to me. Made you…Red Guardian,» she knows the Winter Guard, she trained Darkstar, through her she met some of them as well, she knew of Red Guardian, she never knew all this time he was her husband. «Me? They made me Black Widow.» If Alexei was involved with the KGB at the very least, he may also realize that his long persumed missing wife was someone he had heard of in another guise. If anything, if he has knowledge of the Black Widow, at the very least he'd realize blaming her of defection is the most ludicrous accusation possible.

Going over to collect fresh water from the kitchen in a pitcher, Alexei straps the shield to his back. Magnets in the armoured inclusions to his suit pick on the metallic structure and make for a comfortable fit a little like a turtle shell. He will transfer the water to the samovar, performing the task with the rote ease of a dancer going through her positions as part of the warm-up.

«What could I believe?» He has not removed the helmet, the face mask open. Wounds burn in his dark eyes, pain wrought in the stiff lines. «I was testing an orbital craft, Natalia. Something experimental that was supposed to send Yuri» Gagarin, of course «hurtling to the highest reaches ever tested by man. Imagine! Our own hero seeing the stars clear and perfect. It was meant to be very good. But the aileron was badly designed. Not known until after the launch, the technical failures… Bad damage.» He shrugs, making light of the free fall. «It was touch and go for a time. The Major — he brought the best doctors and physicians for me. It wasn't right to use such resources so badly needed elsewhere, but he said I made such a sacrifice for the CCCP. He would not let me die, the Politburo would not. They did their best. I limped for months. But my heart? It was gone with you, my spring sparrow, flying wherever you had been.» Stroking the ragged line of his face mask covering his chin, he clearly struggles to keep his composure.

«Red Guardian. This was my life's purpose. The country trusted in me and brought me back from such burns. I would give them reason for pride. No man left here, but they see a hero. They see the heroes that keep a peace for children, families, men and women. No need for another great patriotic war, but we can sleep safe in our own borders.» Is it lies, is it truth? His eyes are wet, shut tight. Too proud to cry openly, Alexei clenches his fist. «Even for my sweet sparrow — wherever she might dance over the green meadows. You did dance, then, in your way. We stood in the same place for the same reason? You to protect the CCCP as I have?»

«I would hope you'd know I wouldn't defect…» Natalia whispers, once more sounding broken, if only at the thought of what Alexei must have thought of her. «<I knew you were doing secret, important mission for the CCCP, I knew I would be proud, as would all of us…» she recalls as they continue their little walk down memory lane. «They didn't want their Iron Man to have a heart…» Natalia finally stumbles into what is a very likely reasoning by means of a children's story. They needed a champion who had no concern of family life. What better way to remove his wife, than making her an asset as well? It makes too much sense for Natasha to let these details fade into the ether. She just needs the person behind it. Screw SHIELD. Screw the Red Room. For the first time in a long time, she has a mission all her own. If she gets out of here alive, the man, woman, or people behind this ploy will all suffer by her hands. Preferably slowly.

«Do you remember name of person in KGB that told you not to look for me…?» She insists, hoping to get at least the first breadcrumb in the newly found focus she could cling to. The one thing that made sense and wasn't an inexplicable affection or phantom memory. «Yes. I presume we both wound up protecting the CCCP, you as Red Guardian, and I as Black Widow. But at a steep, steep price…you know this is no accident, don't you Alexei? Deep in your heart…you know they planned this don't you?» Natasha certainly seen enough to know how events are pre-planned to achieve a desired end goal. She cannot forgive this. They could have asked…they didn't need this theatre of horrors. «I only take comfort, that we were still together in what we did after we were forced apart. So something inside of us, was still connected…do you not feel the same, Alexei?»

«I never knew, Natalia.» Alexei wheels around to face her, his hands clenched at his sides. «How could I know? Three other dancers, girls of exceptional talent, fell away within a six month window. They left their apartments and families behind with no word. I talked to the parents of one — Olga, remember, she had the tabby? Nothing. She did not come home. They had no letters, nothing. Then the search turned up a passport under a bad name, not a real name of a living woman, tickets to the Baltic coast for a performance. Whatever leads went cold. Why leave her family?» His voice is thinner, wrought by pain, so much pain. When hasn't pain been at the center of it all? He goes down on the chair, the weight creaking, falling under him.

«People, they sometimes do things from a bad place of mind. Wanted to die, Natya, after you were gone. To burn up. The jet fuel feeding the flames, so I wouldn't go home to an empty house, an empty bed, where ghosts of my wife were.» She may have to strain to hear him, hear that whisper ripped out from the deepest corner of the self, the guarded piece protected from everything who could hear it or find it and abuse the precious knowledge. «So be it, I was weak, but at least there — there, the pain stopped, the whole world stopped hurting so much. This is… I don't know. You say planned. Planned? I was suicidal. They had to guess I would not kill myself? The KGB people, it's… all in the house in Moskva. Years, Natya. I could show you their faces but never remember them straight. The Major and Karpov can't have known this. Or they were silenced. Silenced by someone more powerful.»

Olga…she remembers Olga from the Bolshoi. Yet, she also remembers an Olga from the Red Room, she killed that Olga to advance in a lethal one on one testing. After all, there was no need to waste further resources on failures. The testing was always harrowing at the Red Room, and it didn't take the girls long to realize there were no friends there. Why befriend someone you might kill within a week or a month? She shares nothing of those concerns with Alexei, he has enough on his mind, and has been through enough on his own. She, on the other hand, already has her mind running wild that even the accident on his experimental flight was preplanned. A lot between Yuri and Alexei, played by men hidden in shadows, and Alexei happened to 'win' it all. Of course this is all in her mind, but she was given a very specific set of skills, and she will find the men or women behind this plot.

«I didn't know about Olga…I'm sorry to hear of all that happened, but most, I am sorry you were lying in hospital bed, thinking I didn't come to see you…» she finally gets back on her feet, and once more approaches Alexei to embrace him tightly, «you know I would have come, don't you? Tell me you know!» It's important for her to hear him say it, if he doesn't have faith in her, their marriage truly is dead. She'll have nothing but what she's been made into: Chyornaya Vdova.

She remains now close to him, her head pressed into his chest, getting as much as she can of feeling him close by. The close distance allows her to pick on the soft whispered words, those who do not wish to be uttered. «I know it was planned. Because I was trained to operate as they do. Someone like me could have been the one who executed their plan, but someone else made the order.» She falls into silence, thinking, before eventually asking, «would you go back with me to the house, in Moskva? Would you look into this with me…? If you can't, I'll understand, the Red Guardian is a heavy mantle to bear…but me? I have no life, it died when they told me you died. I need to find them. I need to know why. I know you would serve as Red Guardian even if I was with you, there was no need to remove me from your life, or remove you from my life…» aside from the fact that a Black Widow doesn't have relations to care for, because that's the make of a truly ruthless agent, without felial flaws.

«I thought you gone.» He cannot make the truth plainer without walking through hot coals and long brambles. Pouring black tea from the samovar is difficult without removing his gloves. Alexei spends time loosening the gauntlets and his armour-reinforced gloves land with a pair of clanks on the tabletop, disrupting a mug that chatters on a plate. Regret to have mistreated the objects so, but they are quantifiably elegant and beautiful. «I did not want to think you were dead, Natalia, I could not ever come to that. I knew you would return home. Always. If I could just find you, we could talk. Nothing could be so bad, yes? Even giving you your name and freedom, supposing that it was too hard to live as the wife of Alexei Shostakov. Every flower needs its sunlight.»

He holds out the tea to her, first, not so very hard a distance to manage. Looping his arm around her is going to be uncomfortable with the armour in place, the uniform stiff and thick, but hopefully something she can forget. Just her red hair being there is fascinating. No degree of difficulty to bridge that burden. «To Moskva? Of course I would go. Yes, yes, as soon as we can.» The first weak shoots of hope burst through the winter soil, proof of a season's turn. «I would need a few hours at least to get everything in order here. Can you grant that much? I would leave right now, run out for the first truck we could find, but the perimeter breach shook up the guards. Let me allay their fears, it's under control. But home and with you. You'll think I live like a bachelor again. Practically out of the kitchen and the couch.»

Natalia finally lets go of Alexei so he can go about pouring them some tea, and moves instead to sit by the table, it's almost surreal that they should be able to share such a quiet moment, as if nothing ever was wrong. «Did they show you a fake passport? When they claimed I defected? What name was there?» She muses, whatever detail she can muster might help with the oncoming investigation, she supposes.

«Those are lies and you know it, a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi has her own commitments, we were both busy for much of the day, I never felt anything but pride being the wife of Alexei Shostakov…and hearing you call me Shostakova, that I haven't heard…I can't quantify in how long…»

As she sits down, tea in hand, she takes a cautious sip. Indeed, a special taste of home. She takes a moment to savor the moment itself before asking, hesitantly, «your suit of armor…considering the injuries you described from the accident…is that the only thing keeping you alive?» The question is dipped with concern, she cares about him still.

She chuckles as he mentions the way he is living on his own, and shakes her head, «I can help with that…and I promise not to judge.» She is more than ready to leave at a moment's notice, Peggy Carter nowhere near to overpower her base desires. Besides, allegiances be damned, this was the most personal matter of her life, all countries in the world matter not when compared with this matter. A fresh wound bursting open, even though it was inflicted many years ago.

Then again, there was the matter of the Americans, why is Alexei not in the least concerned…? He is willing to go with her, he doesn't press any blame on her for being found alongside Captain America. Was it her attack on the traitor? Reflecting over tea give Natasha a moment to consider the fact the game is ever played. Is Alexei here to lead her to a trap? Food for thought.

The black tea is solid in flavour, the thick, bitter taste so essentially Russian. The table has little else on it, though the kitchen has the staples in their varieties and some fresh enough vegetables to pass muster. In the winter, fruit is near to impossible. Stocked with plenty of the basics, though, oats in particular a heavy presence on the menu. Alexei thinks not even to offer those comforts, heavily seated enough. He reaches up to pull free the helmet, revealing a thick rim of padding around his neck as a gorget of sorts, something more for comfort than sheer defense. Not many people garroting him except the woman in front of him, if she chose.

Would she? The question might be there, but not heavily. «They showed me only some details, Natya. On that front it was understood I was searching under all the logs in the forest. The KGB gave no evidence of your passport, no. They asked a thousand questions about your schedule, your commitment to the country, what we read, where we ate, what music we listened to. Whether we had ever had meetings in the morning, the park, the night, phone calls that went too long or were always for the wrong person.» He sighs heavily, staring at her instead of into his cup, as though she might vanish from Natasha into a pillow if he dares to look away.

«My armour? Part of the uniform to keep me protected. The burns were mostly gone thanks to the doctors. They did wonders. After I … when they had me in, it looked bad. No photographs from then,» he confesses quietly. «They shredded them in case any spies reported what happened. Imagine the damage to morale, and with Yuri and the others training. The space program is already under so much stress after the losses in orbit to the… the aliens.» He barely believes that, spitting the words out. Those strings of terrified men, dying over their planet, witnessing the impossible shapes of Kree and Skrull craft in fights while the world was blind never ceases to leave a mark. «What kept me alive was the debt to the country. That forced a foot ahead when the rest of me would've died seeing the sky and stars. Now? I am glad. I see there is purpose in the world and the way of things. We are together again on Russian soil.»

He can't help but smile, rusty and unpracticed, but the movement of a much younger man. «How can I judge? You chose with the best information you had at the time.»

Interesting that even when reunited, and learning of the deception each of them was served, they've eached experienced such a dark life that doubt must always be present. Would a wife garrote her husband? Would a husband lead his wife into her doom? One would like to think not, but there are worse thing that have happened in this murky world where objectives matter more than lives. But at least for now, as they sit and share tea, Natalia makes no move to harm Alexei. Truth be told, she has been so shaken by the news that he's alive still, she has looked at him mostly with love, pain, and regret for what had come to pass.

For now she enjoys the finest tea she's had in years, the hand that made it affecting the experience a great deal. This very moment in time should never be, and yet here they both are. Funny how the world turns, and even a wetwork agent notorious and feared across the globe by the best intelligence agencies, can be surprised and outplayed, to the point her own emotional outburst debilitated her from acting.

She sits in utter silence, listening to his experiences, and knowing how harsh and unpleasant those investigations can be, sorry that he's been treated to them. Particularly when she's no doubt the branch conducting the investigation may well have contained the hand who made the entire affair take place in the first place. Good thing no missionary attempted to convert her to this religion or that, she knows there is no benevolent god. A god would not allow such travesties if he was benevolent.

She listens calmly, the fact she doesn't jump out of her seat at the mention of aliens, suggested her own line of work introduced her to those shocking disoveries. There were moments she worked with Laynia Petrovna after all, while Darkstar was assigned to that silly experiement in the form of ACT-F.

«It is a miracle, is it not? No matter who it was that tore us apart, that sucked all hope and life out of us, we still made it through to sit together over tea…» she muses, «we beat Romeo and Juliet.» A smile spreads on her face, happy to hear him state he will not judge her. «At least know that much. You are so dear to me, Alexei Shostakov, that news of your assassination made me throw away my one passion in life, in ballet. Whoever planned this, that was someone who knew how much I loved you…did anyone from your military friends take too much interest in your married life?» A silly question, she knows the moment she asks it. A prima ballerina and an ace pilot, if they were Americans, they'd be all over the television and tabloids.

Speak of god, speak of angels, and get a quick visit from the KGB for re-education and correction. No such powers exist in Communist Russia. Only the camaraderie of the people, the faith in the system, the system's service to them: these are the linchpins of an ideal, one that breaks bodies and erases history to exist as a living, breathing entity. How much another project of the system knows, Alexei has to believe in a higher sanctioned goal. He says as much when raked over and submerged in his own dour emotions. Who is unaware of the political prisoners and the hunger, the empty shelves and the rattle of progress?

He listens to Natasha in turn, for his wife is owed that much, worthy of his full regard. Not that she is in any way hard to look at, else she would be an ineffective Widow. Not that she gives any reason to squelch conversation. The simple act of discussion is a marvel, that much is clear when he keeps sneaking looks at her.

«Juliet was a mere girl. We at least had a little time on our sides as adults.» He gives that rusted-out chuckle, eased a bit by the tea. «Too much time and here you are as beautiful as the day we met. Russian women are truly blessed.» The teacup put aside has hardly any liquid left in it, though he can pour more for her, and then himself, if the offer will not be deemed too forward, some kind of threat. «Who did not know we were in love? I made no secret. I wore the ring.» He still does, actually. «Any unmarried man pokes fun at the ones who are, they think we are all bloodless and lacking spirit, courage. They like to think we're dull, unlike the idiot hotheads they are. I came back to a warm house, they go off to their couches and mother's apron-strings. Of course they were envious. Some were curious. Others… it is men's talk, crude, and you were never rightly subject to speculation. I didn't entertain that. The Major, my other captains, they didn't ask except when we went to functions or someone heard about your performances. 'What's it like being married to the ballerina?' Different to have someone a household name like your own, and always a little worrisome. Worrisome because I know I reflect on you, and others will think things that are not true. People like to have their heroes on pedestals and grumble when they frown. Years ago, Natya. I would need to see the diaries, the papers. I kept most of them, the people talked to and the calls, you know? In case you came back, I could show… you see, you were not a mistake, that something happened. I don't know. Your return needed to be true."

«True. She was also a fiction wrought by a foolish British author, in real life there would be no such story.» Natalia remarks with conviction, after all, she and Alexei were not star-crossed in the least. Just the very likely of a show in honor of the military at the Bolshoi, and the post show formalities, which the prima ballerina was expected to attend. The fact Alexei was a fetching man, is no duplicitious machiniation, but rather a charm all of his own. At least that's how Nat remembers it, what a bitter bitter thing it would be to find that even that much was pre-planned by an etheral hand of a mastermind. She smiles warmly at Alexei, beautiful indeed as the day they met, what with her particular blessing involving a particular super soldier serum. «You flatter me, my Lyosha,» she says while admiring his look in that impressive armored suit. While it warms her heart to learn he would not allow any 'men talk' to be had about her, as she very well know happens, particularly amongst the likes of soldiers. Officers or not. But then one thing, which sounds better fit in an American soap opera, is suddenly flagged as a potential petty reasoning. Did Alexei had a jealous friend with connections at the KGB? Could something that pathetic be behind what happened to them? It's a thought. Not everything in life is a grand conspiracy after all.

Her visage seems to have settled, the tea, the conversation, Alexei's presence relaxed her enough to get her head back in order. There's much more self control across her expression, as she maintains her warm smile at her husband. «I still have the ring, but I am forbidden to wear it,» true enough, what Widow would ensnare a target on her web of deceit while wearing a wedding ring. But it is a prized possession at her bedside. Whenever she gets to sleep at whatever happens to be the place she happens to call home, at any given time.

«I am back now. We can be together. We can find the one or ones responsible for our suffering and lost time.» No doubt Natalia has changed, the ballerina once only concerned with any minute perceived imperfection in her performances, and for the safety of her pilot husband, is now clearly very much concerned with revenge. So much so, that she's yet to even ask about who sent for Red Guardian, who else is present…the entire Winter Guard perhaps? And more importantly, why has Omega Red been deployed. The bastard slaughtered a hapless village needlessly. Some agent of the Motherland.

If any incident occurs from the ancient collusion of masterminds and strategists, it's well beyond Alexei's capacity to know. The star-studded events, the placement of women in his path to correspond to his ideals of beauty and feminine grace, they would be his right as a skilled pilot in service to an air force that prized vitality and skill. Same as the reverse image, a rising star of the ballet receiving her dues from civil society for her, the reverence of an esteemed age and those stiff bishops and cardinals in their civilian clothes applauding the pursuit of perfection. The same might have condemned her at the stroke of a pen, the press of a stamp, and a sickly smile from a dusty corner of the Kremlin. No one is safe, whether in the spotlight of the public's love or submerged beneath the weight of their collective disapproval.

«I do not flatter you. How can you not be beautiful with your poise? Even in a burlap sack you would shine. Maturity and wisdom have only grown.» He spares no expense in compliments, in part because that acount is dusty and gaining interest at a level suitable only for capitalist economies and not his. The smile fades at that hard truth about the ring, but he lowers his head, schooling his expression if he much. «Ah. We are required different things. Neither can machinists, did you know? It would risk the safety of their hands.» His, which inflict blows and punches, apparently can endure so much.» A quiet measure of respect restrains him from saying anything else, other than nodding. Understand, it is the life path.

«We can. I am afraid to leave you here for fear you could disappear,» he says again. Tea only satiates so much, and he reaches for his hand. «I can conduct a few meetings from the hall or here if I must. Do you need anything? Food, rest, a bath? We can use all we need here.»

Natasha drinks the compliments that Alexei has to give her, it's been long overdue, and before long as they share in conversation and rather dark reminiscing, she finishes her tea and places the empty cup on the table. «Indeed, different requirements of different roles, I was unaware about the machinists though. Interesting.»

Offered the luxury of food and a bath, while she has to wait for Alexei to finish a meeting or two, Natasha decides to take it. «It would be a most welcome diversion…when we first met, you looked so impressive, and important. I felt out of place when I was told you asked to see me, but I am glad you did. You are a wonderful, honest, and supportive man, and you make a great Soviet Hero,» she has heard of the Red Guardian's exploits when meeting with his fellow Winter Guard members, she just never knew who he was until now. Plus, it is better to part on a good note, if she must take a shower to refresh. Perhaps it would increase the odds it really would be Alexei waiting for her when she's done, rather than some Red Room or otherwise KGB welcoming committee.

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