Red Dragon Inn
Dreamweaver's Lair => From the Dragon's Mouth => Crash and Burn => Topic started by: Alyona on December 08, 2016, 08:48:31 AM
It had been a few days since the Avengers - or whatever they were calling themselves - had rescued ex-KGB agent Nicholai Petrov from the Siberian Hydra facility and blown it up. Since then, he'd been debriefed as much as possible and given bits of information a little at a time to give him time to digest it. After all, one did not catch up on fifty years worth of history in one sitting. So far, he appeared to be handling things as well as could be expected. There hadn't been any more incidents, so long as Alyona was there to help calm him, but he was like a ticking timebomb that might go off any moment. The calm before the storm.
No one went through something like that without being at least a little angry, but so far - except for the initial incident with Steve - he'd been the epitome of calm. Post-traumatic stress, Lucy had called it. It was going to catch up with him at some point, but there was no way of telling when. Nights were the worst, when everything was quiet, when there was no Alyona to calm him or anyone else to distract him. He'd taken to staying up late and reading, until he couldn't stay awake anymore and then Jarvis would administer a sedative of some sort to help him sleep, but it wasn't really sleep so much as falling unconscious.
Tony had taken to prowling the sleeping floor before he went to bed, checking in on Alyona and Petrov personally before allowing himself to sleep. He'd taken the job of being responsible for both of them very seriously, but thus far, he'd missed the signs that were warning of a nighttime breakdown on the way.
Alyona, however, could not miss those signs. She had been allowed into Petrov's mind, helping to carefully chip away at the conditioning that clouded his thinking, and each time he allowed it, something else strengthened between them. It was a bond of sorts, something that told her from a distance, without needing to see him, that he was disturbed or frustrated. It kept her awake until he slept, though she allowed him that time alone. If he needed her, she thought she would sense it.
Thus, she was sleeping only a few short hours a night, letting herself relax to sleep only when Petrov passed out, waking up in the moments before he did. She knew Jarvis would tell on her at some point, but there was no need for concern just yet. She had lived with little sleep for years; she could continue like this a while longer. Petrov ... Nicholai ... needed her to watch over him, even if he didn't admit it aloud.
He'd hardly admit it either, though he wasn't sure what would have happened to him if it hadn't been for Alyona. He knew Hydra had programmed him to kill, and he was terrified that one day something inside him would snap, something would set off that trigger, and he'd try to kill the very people who were trying to help him. It had been worrying him for days now, ever since he'd attacked the Captain, but that wasn't who he was or who he wanted to be. The problem was he wasn't quite sure who he was anymore or what he was supposed to do with his life, and he was starting to wonder if it wouldn't have been better for everyone if they'd just killed him when they'd had the chance.
He hadn't spoken a word of this and had tried his best to keep his feelings to himself, but he wasn't sure just how much the girl sensed, how much she knew. If she could truly see inside his head, then she knew he was a monster. It was that monster he struggled with at night, that part of him that only knew pain and torment, anguish and hopelessness. It was that part of him that had him thrashing and screaming in the night, despite the sedative meant to relax him. It was not nightmares so much that tormented him, as it was memories of things he'd rather forget.
Only two doors away, Alyona knew the moment those torments began, snapping awake to roll onto her back. She did not rush to his aid in that instant, knowing that there was a chance, however small, that he might claw his way back by himself and wanting to give him that chance. But as the minutes ticked by, and the silent screams in his mind became vocal, then she rushed from her bed, red tendrils pulling open her door and then his, regardless of the locks. She ran to the bed, trying to dodge the flailing arms to touch her fingers to his temple, if she could just reach him.
Unaware of what he was doing and unable to distinguish between what was real and what was not, he lashed out at her blindly, shoving her away from him as soon as she came near, without recognizing who she was or what she was trying to do, and hardly aware of his own strength.
The sweep of his flesh arm caught her fully, knocking her from his side and heavily against the chest of drawers against the wall, knocking the breath from her.
"Miss Evchenko, do you require assistance?"
Coughing, Alyona shook her head in answer to Jarvis' query. "No, Jarvis, I can handle this," she promised the computer, studying the flailing man for a moment. With a flick of her hands, she slowed his arms for a brief moment, taking a running jump to leap up onto the bed, inside the protective sweep of his limbs. "Nicholai," she said his name, holding tightly onto his shoulder with one hand as the other fought to maintain her touch on his temple. "Nicholai, wake up!"
He hardly seemed to notice her, despite the fact that she was right there in front of him, staring blindly at some unseen enemy, his eyes wide with sheer terror, chest heaving for breath. He had stopped screaming at last, but his muscles were tense, his face pale, his pulse racing, as Jarvis likely could attest. He seemed to be going through some internal struggle, as if part of him was trying to hear her voice, trying to wake himself up, while the other part was fighting to hold on.
It was not the most dignified way to wake someone up, but Alyona had very little choice. He was trapped, and he couldn't see the help that was right there. Bracing herself, she swung her leg over his twitching thighs, pinning his lower half to the bed with her own body weight as best she could, and raised her other hand to his face, lowering her forehead to his to force her mind inside his own. Nicholai ... hear me ... She saw snatches of the torments that plagued him, flinching away from the violence he relived in his own mind, seeking something, anything, to relieve that pain and give him back to himself.
There were few good things in his head to latch onto - a few old memories of childhood, his friends and family and colleagues, and most importantly his Liliya, but even those memories were painful, knowing they were all gone. Knowing she had been taken from him, killed, murdered, for no other reason than that she had loved him. That rage was fighting against the programming, fighting to regain control and avenge her death and make those who had hurt them both pay.
At a loss for any memory to lighten him, knowing they all now came with some pain, Alyona scowled, concentrating fiercely as she dragged her own memories to the fore, pushing them into his mind to seek out the good in his mind that came from the very recent past. She used her own experience of the past few days to find the good in his perception of it, and was surprised to find her own face so prominent in those recollections. Surprised by the gentleness that he seemed attached to, by the odd way she seemed to be able to smile without actually cracking a smile. Surprised that he could recall her face in such vivid detail after only a few days.
There were few memories of the past that did not bring him pain, and so, it was the memories of the last few days that he clung to when she offered them to him - memories of quiet moments between them where nothing need be said and the peace and comfort they shared. After a time, he stilled at last, whispering her name as the terror passed and his mind was once again his. "Alyona?"
She felt it as his muscles relaxed, but dared not release her touch on his mind until he whispered her name. "Da," she confirmed for him in the Russian that came most easily to his lips. "Alyona." Her touch on his temples gentled, her hands falling to his chest to hold herself up as she met his eyes in the darkness. "You are safe, Nicholai. I promise you that."
He seemed to realize with a bit of shock that she was straddling his hips, her face very close to his, her hands on his chest. As intimate as it was, he wasn't embarrassed so much as worried what might have happened before he'd awoken. "Did-did I hurt you?" he asked, tentatively, almost afraid to ask.
She shook her head, that smile that wasn't he always seemed to recognize before it appeared in her eyes as she tried to reassure him. "Not so much," she said softly. "Bruises fade." It was then that she realized how she was draped over him, and she did blush, glancing away as apologies fell from her lips, moving to climb off him and stand awkwardly beside the bed.
Now that she had climbed off him, he could not reach her face to touch her cheek, but maybe it was better that way. He had asked her once not to leave him, and though he was tempted to ask her again, he had no right. She did not belong to him, and she was only trying to help. And yet, he knew there was no one else who understand him the way she did. She had heard his thoughts and felt his memories, knew what they had done and tried to do, and still here she was, right there beside him. "I'm sorry," he told her quietly, falling back on his native Russian."Prosti." His fingers reached for hers, almost of their own accord. "I do not wish to hurt you ever."
"Shh ..." Tangling her fingers gently with his, she perched on the very edge of the bed beside his hip, shaking her head to deny him his apology. "I will not let you apologize for something that is already forgotten," she told him, gently touching her fingertips to his lips to still the words on his tongue. "You have not hurt me, and I do not believe you ever will hurt me. I was not fast enough, that is all. It is my mistake, not yours."
Instead of comforted, her denial of his apology only made him look more sorry, knowing it was not her fault in any way. "You and your ... friends should have left me there, Alyona. I am a danger to you and to them. It would be better if I had died."
"Nyet." She shook her head more vehemently, refusing to let him think such a thing. "You have loss, but so have we all. You think yourself a danger ... but I am more dangerous than you. Hydra made me, Nicholai. I should never have been born." She looked down at his fingers wrapped about her own. "But I live, and I live free because they took a risk and saved my life. I will hurt the ones who hurt me, and it is my choice. You have that choice, too."
"They made you," he echoed, only partially understanding what she meant by that. She knew his thoughts and his mind, but he did not yet know hers. "The ones who hurt me are already dead. Your friends killed them, yes? What am I to do now, Alyona? I cannot even sleep in peace, and if it were not for you ... I do not wish to think what I might do."
With his hand between her own, she sighed softly, knowing he deserved this information about her. "My mother was part of an experiment, when she was carrying me," she explained quietly. "They injected her with something, exposed her to radiations, and I am the result. I could move things with my mind from the day I was born. I could see into their heads. They trained me for half my life before I escaped them. And they captured me again a little under a month ago, when I went looking for information about myself. They put me in the machine ... not to control my mind, but to punish me for going away. Steve and Natasha, all of them - they saved me, and they found my father. They did not have to do any of that, but they did. And because of them, I am able to help you, however you need me to."
His expression darkened at the mention of the "machine", knowing from experience exactly what she was talking about, but he held his tongue and heard her out. The thought of them having hurt her made him angry, but somehow he managed to maintain control, though he was clenching his jaw as well as one fist in an effort to keep his temper in check. "They will pay for what they've done," he murmured a little too quietly. He knew the Siberian facility had been destroyed, but he also knew Hydra was bigger than that. Hydra was, in fact, one of the reasons he'd become a double agent, working for the CIA, though that little tidbit was not in his file.
Her eyes met his in the gloom, aware that he had spoken but not sure of the words he might have used. All it took was the briefest touch of her mind to his to know for certain, and an incongruous smile rose on her face, pleasure mixed with hope as one hand left his to touch his chest. "You will stay, then?"
The anger faded a little as he met her gaze. He wasn't sure why his answer was so important to her, why he was so important to her. They hardly knew each other, after all, and yet, she had been inside his head and knew things about him no one else knew. "I have nowhere else to go," he admitted, all too aware of that touch against his chest, and the hope that he saw in her eyes. What was it she wanted from him exactly? Was she hoping for friendship or something more?
Her face fell just a little at that answer, strangely hurt by his implication that he was only staying at the mansion out of necessity. "May-may I show you something?" she asked him softly. "I can go, if you would rather sleep."
He had given her an honest answer, at least. He really did have nowhere else to go, and for now, he was as much a prisoner of the Avengers as he'd been of Hydra. "I can't sleep," he admitted, grateful for her company, even if he didn't say so.
Sympathizing with his difficulty, Alyona took his answer as permission to stay. She drew his hand up to her face, laying his fingers at her own temple, even as her other hand echoed the gesture against his skin. Looking into his eyes, she concentrated. This was something she had been working on with Natasha, a way to make sharing her own mind less painful for her. Instead of pushing her memories into his mind, she opened her own, drawing his mind's touch into hers. Letting him see the regimen of her childhood at Hydra's hands, her life with the roving family that had taken her in, her recapture and rescue. And him, through her eyes.
He wasn't sure at first what it was she was trying to do, until her eyes met his and he felt himself inexplicably drawn into her thoughts. He saw both the good and the bad, the joy and the heartache; the moments of pain and sorrow and the rare moments of happiness. He saw himself through her eyes and felt the ache of loneliness and the desire to make a connection. Though decades separated them, they shared a common bond that few others could ever understand - a bond that might go deeper someday, though all he could offer for the time being was friendship. "I am sorry, Alyona," he said after a while. "I wish I could help somehow."
"You do," she whispered, gently breaking the connection with a faint shudder. As her mind closed, she swayed wildly, a soft frown touching her brow. It was still a painful thing to attempt, but practice was making it easier.
He caught her as she swayed, worried she might faint because of him. "You should sit," he told her, though his hands remained where they were on her arms to steady her. There was a chair, but it was across the room, and he was making no move to put her in it, content, it seemed, to keep her close.
She clutched at him as he caught her, closing her eyes as her slight form leaned into the protective wrap of his arms. "Prosti," she apologized softly. "I ... it is not so easy for me, to show my mind. Not yet. But I wanted you to see. I see you, and now you see me. We are not so very different."
There were definite differences between them, but he understood what she meant. The things they had in common seemed to outweigh those they didn't - except that he was technically old enough to be her father, even if he only looked a little over thirty. He had another thought. "It seems I have much to catch up on. Perhaps you can help me with that."
"I would like that," she nodded carefully, opening her eyes as she raised her head to smile at him. "There are things that I do not know, but we could learn them together, da?" She didn't mean to push him toward anything he wasn't ready for; she didn't really know what it was she was groping toward. She just wanted to help him, to ease his way, and to be allowed to stay near him.
"Please, sit," he told her, patting the mattress with a hand to indicate that she was welcome to sit beside him. There was plenty of room, after all, and neither seemed ready to go back to sleep. "I'm sorry if I worried you," he added, knowing it was his screams that had woken her. "I do not think I will be ready to leave this place for some time," he said, knowing he had a lot of catching up to do first. He wasn't even sure where they were exactly.
Grateful for his offer, she laid herself down on the bed beside him, one hand propping up her head as she smiled once again. He might not have intended her to lie down, but she was there now, long legs and all. "If you could be anything," she asked curiously, "what would it be? Would you still be a soldier?"
"Is that a trick question?" he asked, arching both brows, not because she had made herself comfortable but because he wasn't sure how to answer the question. He frowned as he tucked the blanket around her to make her as comfortable as possible. "I am what they made me," he replied, though that didn't mean he liked what he'd become.
"No, you are not," she said softly, shaking her head. There was something deeply touching in the way he made sure she was covered and warm that made her smile soften in a hundred indescribable ways. "What you are is ... broken. Like me, I am broken. But we can be fixed. The ... the cracks will always be there, but they will not define you. Your life is yours, to make of it what you will."
"I do not know if I can be fixed, Alyona," he admitted sadly. It had only been a few days since they'd brought him here, a few days since he'd been freed from Hydra's clutches. He'd hardly had much time yet to think about what he wanted to do with his life. "What of you? What would you do, if you could do anything?"
"I want to help people," she confessed in her quiet way, watching her fingers curl about the smooth metal that made up his left hand and the arm above it. "I do not know how yet, but ... I want to be kind. Kindness is something I did not know about until I left Hydra. Pietrovich ... he did not have to take me in, but he was kind, and his wife and his children, they were kind to me. I want to be like them."
He frowned as she curled her fingers around the fingers of that hand - the one he hated, the one they'd made for him and forced him to wear after they'd taken his arm - but he didn't want to think about that right now. "Have you contacted them? Told them you're safe?" he asked. Despite having seen into her head, he hadn't seen and understood everything.
She shook her head sadly. "We said our goodbyes when I left to find out who I am," she murmured, stroking her fingertip over that metal palm. Though he might hate it, it was a part of him, and she was not afraid of the strange limb he had been given. She hoped he could see that. "They asked me not to come back. Hydra is very present in the lands they travel through. It is better that they know nothing of me. They cannot be used against me, if no one knows of their connection with me."
"But I know," he remarked, and if he knew, he wondered who else she might have told. "I have no family left that I know of," he added - another thing they had in common. No family, no friends, no loved ones to have mourned him or welcome him home. "My wife ..." He paused, unsure if he should continue, though if she'd looked into his mind or read his file, she would know this already. Still, he needed to say it, if only to unburden himself of the grief. "Liliyana. They killed her." He shrugged. "There is no one else."
He was the only one who knew of her connection to that family. It was a secret she'd held close, not even sharing it with Steve. No one but Nicholai knew how she had spent the years between leaving Hydra and being recaptured by them. As he turned to the subject of his wife, her eyes grew wet, compassion touching her expression as her hand rose to touch his cheek. "You are not alone," she promised him. "You will never be alone again."
"I cannot promise anything but friendship, Alyona," he told her with a frown, worried she might be hoping for something he could not offer just yet. Perhaps someday, but at least friendship was a start, for now, and it was more than he thought he deserved or could have hoped for.
She jumped, surprised by his words, and blushed, embarrassed that she had somehow stepped over a line she had not even realized was there. "I didn't ... I ..." Drawing her hand back, she retreated from him, fighting not to curl up in a ball. "I did not mean to ask for anything," she managed, avoiding his eyes. "I ... I am sorry."
"There is no need to apologize. I do not think I am worthy of your friendship, but if you wish it, I will try to be your friend," he told her, hoping he hadn't scared her away. "I am not so good with words, Alyona, but I would be honored to be your friend."
She bit her lip, forcing herself to meet his gaze once again. "I have seen you," she told him softly. "All of you. All of your memories, and the things that torment your mind. I am not afraid of you, and I do not judge you for what you have seen and done. I have seen nothing in you that is unworthy of friendship. If ... if you will let me, I will stand with you, always." It wasn't the promise of friendship he might have hoped for, but something more open. He had seen her now, in the way she had seen him. He knew she didn't understand that clarity in her speech would make it easier to avoid misunderstandings.
He wasn't sure what to say to that. He had seen inside her head, but he still didn't feel as though he knew her, and yet, there was something about her that spoke to him - some connection he could not explain. Was he only imagining it? What was he afraid of exactly? "I have hurt people, Alyona." He held up his metal arm as if to make a point. "They took my humanity and gave me this. I did not have a choice. They made me a monster. I do not know what will become of me now. I do not know if ... if I can resist their programming. They are in my head still. I can feel them, and I ... I do not wish to hurt you. I would rather die than hurt you."
"You are not a monster," she told him firmly, wrapping her fingers about his metal palm. "This? This is a ... wound. A scar, nothing more. You are still a good man, no matter how you have been used. You are a man, not a weapon. And I will help you be rid of what they put in your mind. I am not afraid."
"You will help me?" he echoed, brows arching upwards. He knew she wanted to help and to be his friend, perhaps as much for her own sake as his, but to want to help him get rid of the things they put inside his head? He wasn't even sure it was possible.
She nodded shyly. "I do not just see with my mind," she tried to explain. "I can touch, I can ... It is hard to describe. When you first woke, I-I took the words that made you attack, I took them out of your head. I do not think you would attack Steve again."
"Steve," Nicholai echoed. "Captain Rogers," he clarified. He was able to say the name now, think the name without Hydra's programming making him want to kill someone. He frowned. There was something more he wanted to say, but he wasn't sure it was necessary since she'd been inside his head already.
Alyona smiled, glad he could say the name without pain or influence exerting itself on his mind. "I think, if I can do that, then we can clear your mind together," she suggested hopefully.
He drew a soft sigh, his gaze moving to the sight of her fingers wrapped around his metal hand. This was not who he was or who he wanted to be. Perhaps with her help, he could take back his life from Hydra and learn how to live again. "I would be ever grateful for your help," he told her quietly, afraid if he spoke any louder, she might hear the tremble in his voice.
She watched his gaze drop to where their hands were entwined, willing just a little of the crimson energy she could control to sparkle at her fingertips. Metal and energy, both of them forced to take on something by people who would make them a weapon. Hers, she had molded into an advantage. Perhaps there was hope for his, too. "I would help you, even if you did not wish it," she whispered to him. "Because you need it, and I can give it."
Was that the only reason, he wondered? Why had she taken so to him? Was it just the fact that they had Hydra in common or was it something more? They were both alone in the world, it seemed, with no family or friends to speak of - except, perhaps each other. He wondered if he should just ask her. "Is that the only reason, Alyona?" he asked, lifting his eyes to meet her gaze.
She bit her lip, forewarned now that he did not want everything that she could offer. Raising her eyes to his, she offered him a small smile, stroking her fingertips over his metal palm once again. "It is the only reason you want to hear, Nicholai."
"How do you know what I want to hear, Alyona?" he countered. And how did she know he did not want everything she had to offer if she was too afraid to ask him? "I have been a prisoner of Hydra for over fifty years, Alyona. Fifty years. All of this ..." he said, gesturing with a hand around them, "... is strange to me." He sighed, frowning. "I have a lot of catching up to do." And that was just for starters. He was old enough to be her father.
She flinched, her own clumsiness around people making it impossible to hide her own reaction to words that struck deeper when she could feel the mind behind them. "If all you want is my friendship, then my friendship is all I will offer you," she responded, surprised by the strength in her own voice. "Do not think you can scold me for offering more or less when you are not clear with me and demand to clarity in return for ... for ...." She swore in Romanian, groping for the right word and failing. "Mila byl prav, lyudi nichego o lyubyashchikh serdets ne znayu," she eventually came out with, frowning at her own inability to say it in any language but Russian.
"Ya ne ponimayu," he replied in Russian, brows furrowed in confusion. I do not understand. Whatever it was she was trying to tell him, he did not know what it was. She could not be trying to tell him she loved him, could she, when she hardly knew him. Even if she had seen inside his head, she did not know his heart.
She rolled her eyes, sighing in frustration. "How is it that you do not know what love is, what it truly is?" she asked him straight out. "Love is not ... I will love you only if you love me, or I will never speak again if you do not let me expect that someday you will do more than treat me like a child. Love is none of that. Love is ... love. It does not have expectations, and it does not demand to be answered. It just is. And I never said I loved you, but kindness is love and friendship is love, and even if you never showed me kindness and never gave me your friendship, you would still have mine because they are mine to give and I do not expect anything in return for them, and ..." As she grew more vehement, her eyes glowed with crimson, tendrils trailing over her fingers to exaggerate her words.
His eyes widened as he watched her, noting the change in her eyes and the tendrils of red about her fingers, like red smoke. He still wasn't sure what she wanted from him exactly. She spoke as if she was hoping for something more than friendship, and perhaps in time, she might have that, but he could not promise it just yet. "You are angry," he said, stating the obvious.
"No ... nyet, nu ..." It was touch and go as to whether or not Alyona was going to decide on a language to speak in, as Romanian, Sokovian, Russian, and English all waged a war over control of her tongue. Taking a breath, she narrowed her eyes at him, making an effort to pull her power back under her control. "You are frustrating," she informed him bluntly. "I give. I do not expect to receive. How is that difficult to understand?"
"Everyone wants someone in return, Alyona," Nicholai remarked, though he was careful to say "want" not "expect", as it held a very different meaning. "How can you receive anything in return if you do not say what it is you wish? What is your heart's desire, Alyona? It is not a difficult question," he countered.
"No, it is a cruel question, and the answer would be worse," she said firmly. "You may want to hear it, but you are not ready to, and you may never be. What you want, what anyone wants ... it is not always what is best for them. Don't ask me for something you will only reject. It is unkind."
"What makes you think I will reject it?" he asked, unsure what it was she wanted exactly, though he could make a pretty good guess. He'd had it once, but he'd lost it. Could she possibly be offering it to him again?
"Because you already have," she told him, shaking her head. "You don't believe that I know myself well enough to know what I am offering you, and you have already told me not to give it, though not in so many words. But it is like kindness. It is already there, already yours, and nothing you do or say will change that." Her voice quietened as she spoke. "I do not expect anything like it to be returned. How can it be? I am not her, and you should never forget her. So I will be your friend, and when you are happy, I will be happy for you."
He sighed and turned his head to stare at the ceiling, his eyes shining a little eerily in the dark before he closed them. "No matter what you think of me, I do not deserve such kindness. It is because of me that she is dead. Do you think I wish the same for you?"
"I think you do not have the right to make such a decision for anyone but yourself," she said softly. "And you do not know the why of her death. You only know that it happened. No one can say for certain that it was because of you. I have seen her, through you. She seems vibrant, strong. Whatever happened to her, it was her own decision to court that danger. Do not take that away from her."
"Take that away from her?" he echoed, turning his head to face her again, a hint of anger in his voice, though he was not angry with her. "She is dead, Alyona. They were very precise about that. Are you saying she is not? Even if she is alive, it has been fifty years. She would be old by now. She would have lived her life. I would be like a son to her now. No, there is no hope for us. Even if she still lives, the Liliyana I knew is no more."
"No, I am not saying ..." She huffed, rolling onto her own back to scowl at the ceiling in the darkness. "You do not listen," she informed him in annoyance. "You only hear what you want to hear. You want me to tell you that you are a monster? That everything bad that has ever happened to the people you love is your fault? You want me to punish you for sins you have never committed? Do you?"
"Yes!" he replied, turning to face her, eyes flashing in the dark, though in truth, hadn't he already suffered enough? And for what? Only because he could not abide Mother Russia allying herself with Hydra? "I have committed sins, Alyona. There is blood on my hands, and I do not mean figuratively. I would have killed Captain Rogers, if you had not intervened. Killing is what I was made for. Why do you think they took my arm and gave me this?" he asked, lifting his metal arm to emphasize his words.
"Why do you think they gave me this?" she demanded in return, pushing herself to kneel up. Her hands opened, and suddenly she was illuminated with crimson, coiling tendrils of that energy pulsing above her palms. "Why do you think I was trained by them for ten years? You think I have not killed at their command? But no, you see only your own pain, your own guilt, and you think nothing of what others have suffered. Even your own wife - you think of her death, and you take it away from her, you make it all about yourself! You are not the center of the world, Hydra was not created just to torment you! You are making yourself pathetic with this self-pitying of yours, and I will not help you to do it!" With a flick of her hands, she was off the bed, making a point of extinguishing the energy that had illuminated her so brightly as she landed.
"Is that what you think? That I only see my own pain? Of course, I could not possibly know what you have suffered or what Liliyana suffered or what anyone else has suffered because of Hydra. How could I when I am drowning in my own pain and self-pity? How could I when I only just awoke from this ... this nightmare existence to find that everything and everyone I ever loved is gone? You ask to be my friend, to help me. You do not know how much I crave this friendship or how much it terrifies me. You think I am only thinking of myself? I know that Liliyana's death was because of me. How can I not be to blame for this? Oh, you will say it was not my fault; it was Hydra, and that is true, but she died because of me. Because she loved me. And do you know, everything they have done to me is nothing compared to that pain. They took my arm, they warped my mind, they tried to steal my soul, but when they took my Liliyana from me, it is like they tore my heart out of my chest and crushed it, until there was nothing left," he said, squeezing his metal fingers together until they made a sickening crunching sound. "I do not know what will become of me now, but I know they will pay for everything they have done to you, to her, to me. I will make them pay, and then when I am finished, I can die in peace."
She stood and listened to everything he had to say, letting him pour it out, glad he'd found the words to express what was keenest in his heart ... until the last. Those last words struck home, deep in her heart, more so because she could see that he meant it, his whole mind bent upon that peaceful end he had decided upon. Tears shone in her eyes as she shook, fighting not to share with him the pain he had handed out with his decision not to live.
"Then what use do you have for my friendship?" she asked, her voice small in the stillness. "You have decided you are already a dead man. And I have given the only thing that was mine to the grave." Taking in a shaking breath, she shook her head, turning to leave.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, he was already dead, so what did it matter? No one cared what became of him, except perhaps her, and he wasn't even sure why she cared so much. He said nothing, letting her leave, if that's what she wanted. He needed time and silence to think, to grieve, to figure out where he was supposed to go from here, and he couldn't do that while she was there with him. Not now, not yet.
So, she left him there in the darkness, to return to her own dark room, to curl up tightly beneath her blanket, and to grieve for something she could not even put a name to. She barely noticed Tony peering in through the door, alerted by Jarvis to the raised voices coming from the other end of the floor. He looked in on Petrov, too, but there was nothing he could do for an angry ex-soldier and a tearful witch. But he knew people who might be able to help them, one way or the other. With a decisive nod, Tony left the strange pair to their separation. He had a call to make.
There was no going back to sleep now, and though he regretted his words, Nicholai had at least been honest. He had no intentions of living happily ever after. Happily ever afters were for normal, ordinary people who had husbands and wives and children who loved him. He no longer had any of those and didn't think he ever would. Why had they freed him, anyway? Was it pity or were they hoping he'd help them in their war against Hydra? Oh, he'd do that and more. They had made him into a weapon, a killing machine, but they had never considered how it might backfire on them. He had not wanted to say those words to Alyona, but they'd had the desired effect. She deserved so much more than he could ever give her, so much more.
Time dragged on, into the sunrise and beyond, across the day that followed it. Jarvis took his temperature; breakfast was provided to him. He was allowed access to the rest of the mansion, but he did not seem inclined to make use of it and, indeed, it wasn't until the early afternoon that someone knocked on his door. That someone was a redhead with a sardonic smile and a covered tray, who didn't bother to be invited in, but made herself comfortable.
"Lunch," she informed him, nodding to the tray, from which rose enticing smells. "I'm Natasha. And you're an idiot. Nice to meet you."
"Not hungry," he replied. It wasn't that he was stubbornly sulking or maybe it was. He just didn't feel like eating, no matter how enticing the smell that was emanating from that tray. He was sitting at the window, watching the world go by, deeply lost in thought. An idiot was probably putting it mildly.
"Don't much care," Nat informed him. "Wanna tell me why we've got a witch who can't form a sentence without crying today, or are you just going to hide in here until she completely gives up on ever being loved ever again?" She tilted her head, leaning back in her chosen seat. The message was clear enough; she wasn't going anywhere until she at least knew what was going on.
"Loved?" Nicholai echoed, turning his glance to the redhead, who he did not recall meeting at yet. "What has love to do with anything? What does she care? What do any of you care? You should have just killed me. Why did you free me?"
"Defensive." It was just a single word, but it was her summation of him in that moment. "Look, you don't know me, and that's cool. It's your choice whether you get to know me or not. I don't much care about words; I've heard it all. But hurting a kid who's been nothing but good to you? That's not something that's forgivable in this place. So you better have a damn good reason for why she made you solyanka for lunch but absolutely refused to bring it up here herself."
He arched a curious brow and glanced at the tray. Well, maybe he was a little hungry. "She made me solyanka?" he asked, still wondering why the girl was being so nice to him, other than the obvious. "She thinks I am pathetic, which I am. Why would she care about someone like me?"
Nat raised her brow. "Obviously she doesn't think you're that pathetic," she pointed out. "If she thought that, she wouldn't have made you lunch. She certainly wouldn't be wasting tears over you." She was quiet for a moment, studying him. "She won't talk to me," she told him in a quiet tone. "She won't talk to any of us. All we know is that there were raised voices in here last night. We can't help you - both of you - get past this without one of you telling us what happened."
"I told you," he insisted, rising from the chair and going over to lift the tray and take a peek at his lunch. "She thinks I'm pathetic. She thinks I am feeling sorry for myself. Perhaps I am. I think I have earned a little self-pity. I told her I would not rest until Hydra is destroyed and then I can die in peace. She took me literally, I suppose, but what else do I have to live for, but revenge?" He leaned in to inhale the soup, and the growling of his stomach gave his hunger away.
Natasha watched him for a long moment. "You know, you're the second person to tell me that," she said thoughtfully. "That you won't rest until Hydra is destroyed. But you know what the difference between the two of you is? He has a wife and children. He knows that revenge is not a good enough reason to do what he does." She let this sink in before adding something more. "That man is Steve Rogers. The man who went into the ice in the 1940's, losing everyone he knew and the woman he loved. He didn't think he had much to live for but his duty when we brought him back. But he met Lucy - the doctor - and he found something in her that gave him more to live for. You can choose not to believe me, but the information is in his file if you want to read it. He knows more about what you're going through than anyone."
He took a sip of the soup, finding it more than to his liking, impressed actually by how good it was, though he made no mention of it, while listening to Natasha. It wasn't until she mentioned Captain Rogers that he quirked a dark brow at her from his lean over the soup. He could have easily pointed out the differences between them. Though they both had reasons for hating Hydra, those reasons were different ... or were they? Rogers had never been captured and tortured by Hydra, but he had lost everyone he'd loved because of them, including over half a century. They were both men out of time, awoken to a world that was very different and without a single familiar face to greet them.
"I believe you," he replied, taking a seat at the table and drawing the bowl closer. "He is lucky. He is also a hero," he pointed out.
"He's no hero," Nat smiled, shaking her head. "And he'd be the first one to say that, too. No one here is a hero; no one acts solely for the greater good. We all have our own reasons for being a part of this team, and they're not all noble. But we're a team, and there's a place for you on that team, if you want it."
"Me?" Nicholai asked, looking surprised. "You would ask me to join your team in your fight against Hydra?" he asked, unsure what exactly their goals were, but assuming that was at least one of them. He'd been on ice too long to have heard of the Avengers, but he did know about S.H.I.E.L.D. and he had obviously heard of Captain America.
"It's not just Hydra, but ... yeah." She nodded, her sardonic smile apparently just what was needed to get through to this man when all other approaches had failed. "World's a dangerous place these days - worse than it was when you were active. We got put on the galactic map a few years back, and this team came together to defend the Earth. We won, but we didn't know about Hydra back then. They only resurfaced recently, and we've already hit them where it hurts. We could still use the help."
"Defend the Earth," Nicholai echoed curiously, wondering what that meant exactly. "I am not sure what you mean. Galactic map? What are you defending the Earth against, besides Hydra?"
"This one takes some explaining." Leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, Natasha laid out for him all the events that had lead to the Battle of New York. She explained about the Tesseract, Asgard, the Chi'tauri. She described how they had been played by Loki, only to come together as a team and defeat him, and did not flinch from sharing the cost of that battle as well. "I was never intended to be a part of this team," she added. "I was intended as support. But I have a specific skill-set, and I'm not going to stand by and let someone else fight for me when I am just as capable as they are. So I'm on the team, too, and believe me, my reason for being here is not noble at all."
He thought he might as well eat his lunch while she explained. There was no point in letting it get cold or go to waste, after all, especially after Alyona had gone to so much trouble to make it for him. He might not think of himself as a hero, but before Hydra had gotten their hooks in him, he'd been a Russian espionage agent and had been planning on defecting to the West. He knew the difference between good and evil, and Hydra was definitely evil, but aliens? That was the stuff of science fiction in his day. "What is your reason, then?" he asked, with continued curiosity.
Her expression didn't change, but there was suddenly a closed off feeling about the way she looked at him. "I was trained in the Red Room," she said, knowing he would know exactly what she was talking about. "The best of the best. I made a name for myself; I told their lies, I killed their enemies, and I never asked questions. Until the man who had been sent to kill me made a different call." She sat back, holding his gaze. "I got red in my ledger. I'd like to wipe it out."
"But that is not the only reason you do this," he said, drawing his own conclusion. It didn't really surprise him that they had a common past. He had recognized how her name was Russian, but her English was impressively even more perfect than his. Then again, if she was not lying about having been trained in the Red Room, she was more assassin than spy.
"No, it's not," she agreed, but she didn't elaborate any further than that. Some things were too personal, and Nat played an awful lot close to her chest. "You were a legend when I was in training. You were held up as an example of what we should try to be. I nearly broke your record - just under four hundred missions successfully completed. Then I defected, I joined S.H.I.E.L.D., and I thought I was going straight. Only it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. is full of Hydra, and the lies I've been telling for them have done more harm than all of those missions for the KGB. I trust this team to keep me straight, and no one else."
The part about himself being a legend made him chuckle a little. "Lies," he said, as he divided his attention between her and the soup. "And what did they say happened to me? Did they say I was killed? Lost? Missing in action? They turned me over to Hydra before I had a chance to defect. Such a legend am I," he nearly snorted.
"They never said anything about you planning to defect," she said quietly. "They told us that you were killed in action. What reason did we have to disbelieve them? They'd already weeded out the breakable ones. Everyone in that room was marble."
"Of course, they didn't! I found out that they were allied with Hydra. This was during the days of the Cold War, you see, when everyone was worried about nuclear war, and everyone who was Russian was considered a Communist. The KGB were no better than your S.H.I.E.L.D., I think. Nothing changes so much as it stays the same, I suppose," he said, leaning back in his chair as he finished the solyanka.
"Hate to break it to you, but the Cold War never really ended," Nat shrugged. "They just took a break for a few decades. They're gearing up to go at it again, any time now." She considered him for a long moment. "Look, what it comes down to is this ... We can help you. You can help us. On our team, you'll have resources and equipment, not to mention support and back up. Hell, you might even have friends if you let it happen."
That didn't really surprise him either, all things considered. It did sadden him, though. He would have hoped that the powers that be would have learned a few things and become a little wiser over the last fifty years. "And what about this?" he asked, lifting that metal arm of his to make his point. It wasn't a problem exactly, but he didn't think it was his best feature. He thought it made him less than human.
"What about it?" She shrugged. "So Hydra took something from you and gave something in return. It gives you an edge, an advantage. If you really want it gone, the doc could probably work out a way to do it. She worked out how to get her sister pregnant, and that was no easy fix, either."
"It gives me an advantage in a fight, da, but it is not very practical otherwise, and those are two very different procedures," he said, folding the metal arm against his chest, almost protectively.
She eyed him, one brow raised above her uncomfortably knowing smile. "So is that yes, you do want the doc to look into exchanging it for something a little more real, or no, you're keeping it?"
"I would not be opposed to exchanging it for something more realistic," he replied, though the thought of using that very arm against Hydra was a tempting one. But did he want to go down the road that led only to hatred and violence and vengeance or take a different road? "What exactly is it you are offering me, Natasha? A place on this team? A chance at revenge?"
"A chance to live again?" she suggested, moving to her feet. "The choice is yours and no one will force you. But think about this for a second. There's someone down there who has seen every nasty little thing you've ever done, or helped with, or thought, and she still thinks you're worth crying over. You really want to push that away? I had the same choice as you there. And you know what? She sees me, and she's not afraid of what she's seen. I'd rather protect that myself than hurt her because I was too scared to accept it for what it is."
But that was the question. What was it exactly? What was Alyona offering? What did she want? Was it merely friendship or something more? "It is not easy for me, you know. Waking up in a world where nothing is as it was, where there are no familiar faces. Do not mistake me, Natasha. I am grateful to be here. May I ask you something?" he ventured, though it was a question she might not be able to answer.
"If I can give you answers, I will," she nodded to him, pausing to lean on the back of the chair she had just vacated. "I know it's not easy. But you're not alone."
"I need to know what happened to my wife. I know she is ... gone, but I need to say goodbye." He was talking about her body, as he'd already been told that the KGB had killed her. Maybe once he did that, he could somehow process his grief and eventually move on.
She held his gaze for a moment. "Her family claimed her body," she told him. "She was buried in an unmarked grave outside Vyshny Volochyok, to keep anyone from desecrating her remains. We haven't been able to pinpoint it, and her last living relative died two years ago. No one knows where she is, for certain."
"I suppose it would be impossible to go there," he mused aloud, though nothing was impossible, given the right resources. Difficult, perhaps. It had only been a few days since he'd been told of his wife's death, and he had not really had time to process that yet, to let it sink in. Even if she had lived, she'd have been very old by now. Either way, they had been robbed of a life together by both the KGB and Hydra. "She did not deserve to die because of me. I do not wish anyone else to suffer as she did."
"Difficult, not impossible," Nat told him. "Unwise right now. With luck, Hydra will assume you're dead, but the second they get a glimpse of you, they'll want to reclaim you. You and Alyona both." She considered him thoughtfully. "She didn't die because of you. She loved you. And the reason she was executed was because she refused to swear allegiance to Hydra. Not because they wanted to use her as leverage against you. It was her choice, and you know better than me how she'd feel about you holding onto guilt that isn't even yours to claim."
"Yes, well ... We were planning on moving to the United States and settling down and starting a family," he said, his gaze settling on the empty bowl of soup, as he idly toyed with the spoon. It didn't much matter now what their plans might have been. His happiness and hope for the future had died with Liliyana, or so he believed.
There was silence as Nat inwardly cursed ending up in a conversation she thought was better suited to someone else. Still, she was here now, and she couldn't leave it like that. "Let me ask you this," she suggested. "If it were Lilyana sitting in front of me now, and you were long dead ... what would you want her to do?"
"That is easy," he replied without hesitation. "I would want her to ..." He broke off as he realized what it was she was trying to get at. Had it been Liliyana who'd survived, he'd have wanted her to move on, to start over, to find someone else to spend her life with, to be happy. "I see your point," he admitted grudgingly.
"It's worth thinking about." She nodded, straightening up. "But ... fix whatever this is with Alyona," she added, and this time, Nat was stern. "Despite everything she's been through, there isn't a shred of cruelty in her, and she's hurting because she thinks whatever happened between you two is her fault. So fix it, or prepare to get your ass beaten by at least four different people when you start sparring."
"And you will be one of them," he presumed, the slightest hint of a smirk on his face - perhaps the first since he'd arrived. "Very well," he said, moving to his feet. "Where is she at the moment? I might want seconds," he added, picking up the bowl.
"I'll be first in line," she warned, but that smirk was enough to assure her that he'd got the message. "Last I saw, she was in the library. Stark's in the city, Sam's in the lab. You've got a clear run, so long as you don't leave the grounds."
"Am I being held here, then?" he asked, his expression suddenly darkening. For his own protection, no doubt, though Hydra might have said the same.
"Not exactly," she admitted. "Look, you can leave anytime. But is it really wise for you to go wandering around a city you don't know, in an age you aren't familiar with, when we all know Hydra will take you back in an instant? This isn't a prison, but a little common sense would be a good start."
"You realize Hydra will want revenge, and Russia will not be pleased about what they will perceive as an invasion of their country." It was not a question, so much as a statement of fact. For some reason, he felt more comfortable saying these things to her than to Alyona, who seemed so much younger, so much more innocent than the two of them.
"Russia have their own problems right now," Nat smirked. She had her own contacts. "They're far more concerned that Hydra still exists and maintains bases within their borders. Trust me, by the time they stop worrying about that, they won't have the momentum to bring any charges against us for violating those borders."
"That still leaves Hydra," he said, though he wasn't sure if they'd know who had attached the base and freed him or if they would even know he'd been freed. As she'd said, they might assume he was dead, in which case, it would be better to maintain a low profile for a while. "I would be interested in doing as you are doing. I, too, have some red in my ledger," he told her.
"But a Hydra that can't function openly in Russia anymore," she pointed out with a sardonic smirk. "Like I said, there's a place for you on the team, when you're ready to take it. It's a good way of wiping out some of that red."
"I will consider it," he told her, though he had already decided, so long as they'd have him. What else was he supposed to do, after all? And being part of the team was his best chance at wiping Hydra off the planet.
"Then you've got the run of the place," Nat told him. "Jarvis probably won't let you in the lab, but he doesn't let most of us in the lab. We're not scientists, and we don't have equipment that needs software upgrades, so we don't get a free pass in there." She nodded to him pleasantly. "And the name's Romanoff, two F's. Just in case you wanted to look me up, too."
"Spasibo, Natasha," he replied, as politely as he could. "Perhaps I will." Thanking her was the least he could do. At least, this conversation had not gone as badly as the one with Alyona, but perhaps that was because Natasha was not so very different from him and understood why he'd been reluctant to let Alyona get close.
"If you need directions, Jarvis will help you," Nat assured him. "I assume you two have already met by now." She offered him a wry smile. "I'm around if you need me, too. No hitting." She wiggled a vaguely threatening finger in his direction, smirked, and headed out through the door.
He might have said more, but somehow he sensed the conversation was over. Of course, the fact that she'd just stepped out the door was a pretty good clue. "Why do I get the feeling she is playing matchmaker?" he mused aloud, not so much to Jarvis as to himself.
"Ms. Romanoff is not in the habit of playing games, Mr. Petrov," the computer answered, whether the question was aimed at him or not. "I have observed that if she intends for something to happen, it usually does."
"I'm not sure I find that very comforting," Nicholai replied, his gaze still fixed on the door. He set the bowl and spoon down with a sigh. He wasn't going to find a second helping in the kitchen. "Would you be so kind as to direct me to the library, Jarvis?" he asked as he, too, moved toward the door. It was now or never, he supposed.
"Certainly, sir. Take the stairs between your suite and Miss Evchenko's down one floor to the kitchen, and proceed through the main corridor to the far side of the building. The library is in the north-west corner of the building."
Realizing he'd be passing the kitchen, he went back for the empty bowl before turning back for the door. "Just how big is this place?" he asked the disembodied voice curiously. Thus far, he hadn't seen anything more than the inside of his room, which seemed to him like not much more than a comfortable, spacious prison cell.
"The mansion has a square footage of over 109,000, and 127 rooms, 20 of which are sleeping quarters for staff and guests," Jarvis informed him. "It was built by Mr. Stark's father, after the end of the Second World War, and used as his tertiary residence for much of his lifetime."
"Mansion," he echoed. Well, that was certainly better than a prison. "Howard Stark?" Nicholai inquired curiously. He had, after all, been essentially asleep for the last fifty years and had a lot of catching up to do. He'd heard of Howard Stark, but he had never met the man personally.
"Yes, sir. Mr. Howard Stark is the father of Mr. Tony Stark, and has lately been revealed to be the father of Mrs Lucy Rogers and Mrs Olivia Storm, also. It is not a familial connection that has been advertised - I would not recommend repeating it."
"And you are telling me because?" Nicholai asked as he made his way into the hallway and down the stairs to the first floor. He wasn't sure why the A.I. was spilling the beans on his host, but he could use all the help he could get.
"I am given to understand that you intend to remain with us, and thought to provide you with some information that may explain the interactions between Mr. Stark and his colleagues." That, or Jarvis was just gossiping for the sake of it.
"So, Captain Rogers is married to Tony Stark's sister," Nic mused aloud. That was interesting, though it had little bearing on his own life. "You realize that you are the stuff of science fiction, yes?" he asked the A.I., or whatever Jarvis was, further.
"I would argue, sir, that my presence in reality makes me science fact over fiction. You yourself, sir, may well be considered a being born of fiction, as would many others who frequent this place."
"How so?" he asked, as he proceeded through the mansion, following Jarvis' instructions. He stopped off briefly at the kitchen to drop off his bowl and spoon, making a mental note of its whereabouts. He was about to continue on, when he decided it might be nice to put together a peace offering for Alyona. "Jarvis, can you tell me where the tea fixings are?"
"One moment please." There was a faint whirring sound, and several of the cupboards opened themselves for his convenience. "Please note that in order to boil water, you need only fill the kettle and set the switch below the handle to the downward position. Please do not place it on the stove."
"Yes, I am familiar with electrical appliances," Nicholai replied, though he had never come across an electric kettle before. "I know this is cheating, but do you know how Miss Evchenko likes her tea?"
There was a very slight pause, as though Jarvis was weighing up whether or not to tell him. "I have observed Miss Evchenko's preference to be for black tea with a slice of lemon," he told Nicholai. "Do you require physical assistance?"
"Physical assistance?" Nicholai echoed, brows arching upwards. He might have a metal arm, but he wasn't handicapped. "I believe I can handle tea," he replied in almost perfect English. "Tell me, Jarvis, how you came to be," he said as he moved about the kitchen to put together his peace offering.
"Certainly, sir. I was created by Mr. Tony Stark initially as a household program, intended to oversee the maintenance and function of his home in Malibu. Over time, I have been expanded and upgraded, and am now as close to artificial intelligence as is likely to be achieved within the next hundred years. I am networked throughout Mr. Stark's private holdings and residences, and have been integral to several missions performed by this team. My personality was created as a form of homage to the original Mr. Edwin Jarvis, butler and personal valet to Mr. Howard Stark."
Well, that explained that, without getting into the scientific mumbo jumbo anyway. "I was not expecting to wake up to this," Nicholai remarked. The truth was he had not expected to have been woken up at all. "Natasha mentioned something of a team, as well. She said they were affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D., but that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra. If that is so, would Hydra not know of this place?" he asked further.
"It is possible that S.H.I.E.L.D. is aware of the mansion, and that the enhanced team has been using it as a base of operations," Jarvis acknowledged. "However, Mr. Stark has never granted access to his private property to any member of S.H.I.E.L.D., and therefore Hydra. In addition, I have been deployed a number of times to infiltrate both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra security networks. To my knowledge, there is an attempt from servers known to belong to those organizations to break into my network every 7.84 minutes, none of which have thus far come to within a fraction of causing me anything more than a momentary annoyance."
"Seven point eight four," Nicholai repeated, duly impressed. "Are you certain? That's rather precise," he remarked as he found what he was looking for and put together a decent little tea tray, complete with what he assumed were cookies. The kitchen in itself was impressively stocked with a variety of food stuffs, which suggested the place was frequently occupied by more than just its owner. "Might I ask who is living here right now?" At least, he didn't think he'd have to worry about Hydra coming for him here anytime soon, if Jarvis was to be believed.
"I am calibrated for accuracy in all things, sir." Coming from anyone else, that might have been a joke. From Jarvis, it was reassuring smugness. "Mr. Stark maintains his primary residence at Stark Tower in New York City, but spends an average of twenty nights in each month here at the mansion. The only permanent residents at this point in time are yourself and Miss Evchenko, though there is little danger of your being left alone together. Agents Romanoff and Barton are regular visitors, as are Captain Rogers, Mr. Storm, and Dr. Richards."
"Hmm ..." he mused aloud, as he searched the refrigerator for a lemon. "Can you send a dossier to my room so I can familiarize myself with the team?" he asked, as yet unfamiliar with the advances in modern computer technology. "If I am going to join this team, I should familiarize myself with them, don't you think?"
"Certainly, Mr. Petrov. I shall have dossiers compiled with skills, abilities, and basic timelines delivered to your suite within the hour."
"Spasibo, Jarvis," Nicholai replied as he finished up slicing the lemon and set everything on the tray. He sighed as he looked it over. "Am I forgetting anything?" he asked aloud, not to Jarvis so much as to himself.
"I have no way in which to calculate the effectiveness of your memory, Mr. Petrov." As Jarvis offered this, the cupboards all began to close once again.
"I mean as far as the tea is concerned," Nicholai clarified. "Well, it's now or never," he said with a sigh as he hoisted the tray, easily done with the help of his metal arm, and started back down the main corridor toward the library, as Jarvis had directed.
The door to the library was open, though perhaps not intended as an invitation. It was rich sort of space, lined with leather-bound books, abundant with comfortable chairs and couches, and dominated by a large fireplace, in which a couple of logs were merrily blazing. Alyona was ensconced in the corner of a deep couch, wrapped up in a shawl, with a book of poetry open on her knees. She wasn't reading, however. She was staring into the flames, lost in thought, oblivious to movement around her.
He took a brief look around before making his way quietly into the library, not wanting to disturb her reverie, but hoping to somehow make up for their argument of the night before. He set the tray down on a table, not far from the fireplace and went about pouring her a cup of tea, with a slice of lemon. "I hope I'm not disturbing you," he said, just loud enough for her to hear him. "Jarvis tells me you like lemon in your tea."
She drew in a surprised breath, blinking out of her thoughts to look at him with wide eyes. The wariness in her expression was almost painful to behold as she glanced between his face, and the tea tray he had brought in with him. "Nu," she shook her head, making an effort to speak English. "No, you ... I am not disturbed. Thank you."
"I'm told I have been a ... How do the Americans say it? An ass? You can hit me if you want," he added, for good measure, the hint of a smile on his face as he stirred her tea before handing her the cup from the hand that was still human.
"Natasha told me no hitting," she offered shyly, taking the cup he offered her in vague confusion. She didn't understand what was happening here. The last time they'd spoken, they had argued about something really quite fundamental, and yet here he was, making her tea and almost smiling at her. What had happened?
"Da, she told me the same thing, but I probably deserve it," he replied, the smile fading a little. "I'm afraid I am not very good with words or apologies, Alyona, but I am sorry if I hurt you. It has been over fifty years since I have had a meaningful conversation with anyone," he told her, though she knew that already. She had seen into his mind and knew the horrors he'd suffered through, and knew first hand what some of those horrors were like.
"You do not have to apologize," she said in her quiet way, wrapping both hands about the teacup as she looked down into the steaming liquid. "I said too much, and I was not clear, and I made you angry. I should not have snapped at you. I am sorry."
"I am sorry, too. Perhaps we can start over," he suggested, rather than mull over what had happened and try to point the finger. He took up a mug of tea for himself, gesturing to another chair near the fireplace. "May I?"
She nodded, not daring to look at him, just in case she met his gaze and knew his mind. Alyona was pretty sure she didn't want to look into his mind right now, or perhaps ever again. If he was lying to make her feel better, she would rather hold onto that lie than know the truth.
If she dared look into his eyes, she'd know he wasn't lying. Perhaps the Captain was right in that she needed to learn how to control her abilities so that she could interact with people without always knowing what they were thinking. He frowned as he looked over at her, wondering if he had done more damage with his heartless words than he'd thought. "I am not sure where to begin. You have seen inside my mind, but how much about me do you really know?"
"I ... I see pictures, not thoughts," she explained softly. "I am not so all-seeing as people think. Pictures without context ... they mean nothing." And perhaps that was a lie, too - a lie to ease him away from believing that there was no need for words between them. "I know you are a good man, but I do not know what makes you a good man."
"I am what they made me, Alyona, but I was not always this way," he told her, though he knew she must know that already, too. He wasn't only talking about Hydra now, but the KGB, too. They had done their own brand of brainwashing, in a way. "It almost feels like another lifetime, you know," he mused aloud, following her gaze to the flames in the fireplace.
"Perhaps it was," she murmured. "You have already decided that you are the walking dead, your time with us cut short by revenge. If you are no longer living, then your life was, indeed, another lifetime entirely."
He winced as she used his words against him, hoping they could have started over and not had to go over this again. "Perhaps I spoke prematurely," he said.
It was difficult not to bring it up. After all, what was the point of pretending friendship with her if he intended to kill himself as soon as he was able to? All it could possibly achieve would be to extend the pain she already felt at living in a world without him. "I do not mean to be petty," she told him. "But I do not understand. Why do you want to hurt me? I will grieve when you go, but if you let me believe that you truly want my friendship or ... If you let me hope, then your loss will hurt me more."
Perhaps he could answer her question with a question and help her understand. "Have you ever loved someone so much that losing them makes you wish you were dead?"
She was silent for a long moment, sipping her tea as she looked into the fire. "I am sorry," she apologized again. "I will try not to bother you again." Whether what she was feeling was love or not, it still stung to know that she was putting him under so much pressure. It was not her intention to ask him to forget Liliyana so quickly. But she didn't know how to make him understand that.
He sighed, studying her a moment. If he could not make her understand, then they were once again at an impasse. "For one who can see into another's mind, you do not understand at all," he told her as gently as he could, without any accusation in his voice, merely observation.
"What am I supposed to understand?" she asked, her voice still soft, bereft of any inflection at all. "That everyone thinks I am a child who has to be protected against everything and everyone? Or that cruelty is something I should expect, because of what I am? I do not understand because no one explains anything to me. They assume - you assume - that because I can touch your mind, I must know what you mean even when you do not say it. And when I try to explain myself, no one understands me."
"I am trying to explain, if you will let me," he told her, trying to remain patient and calm. "I met Liliyana years ago, when we were young and idealistic. We thought we could change the world in those days. Russia in those days was a very different place. You lived for the motherland. You grew up wanting to do whatever she asked of you. I joined the military, as any good Russian would do, and was recruited into the KGB. We were taught that America was the enemy. We were indoctrinated with it, that Western civilization is evil, and that America wanted to destroy us. It is not easy to be the wife of a KGB agent. There was so much I could not tell her, so much I could not share. We were married three years when she became pregnant. She was so happy, so happy in those days," he told her, losing himself to the memories as he stared into the flames. She must have seen all of this in his head already, but she had not heard it from his lips.
"She was five months pregnant when something went wrong. She lost the baby while I was away on a mission," he said, with a hint of bitterness and grief in his voice. "I did not find out until I came home, and by then, there was nothing I could do. I tried to console her, tried to tell her there would be another, but the doctors had told her it was unlikely she'd ever be able to carry a baby to term. That was when Hydra stepped in. They offered us a chance to have a child, but in return they owned us. We had heard some of the horror stories told of Hydra, but Lili wanted a child so badly. We argued and she said that I did not love her enough, but selling my soul to Hydra, even for the chance of having a child ... the price was too high.
"That was when I was approached by the CIA. I do not know if they had a spy inside the KGB, but they knew everything, and they offered an alternative. If we ... if I ... would obtain certain information from Hydra, they would allow us to defect and give Liliyana her wish. We would have the best doctors, the newest techniques. I did not trust them either, but I was desperate, and my Lili, she was devastated. What could I do but say yes? At least, we would be going to the West. We would be free, or so I thought. I still do not know who it was that betrayed us, but it wasn't long after I was arrested and ..." He sighed again, frowning sadly. "You know the rest. To you, this seems like a long time ago. Over fifty years. To me, it is like yesterday."
Alyona felt her horror mount as he told her his story. She knew, intimately, what might have happened to Liliyana and any child they conceived under Hydra's care, and she could not blame him for mistrusting an offer that was too good to be true. "I am sorry," she murmured to him. "For your losses, and for your pain. For her suffering. But I believe you made the right choice. Any child Hydra gave you could have become like me, and I was not raised by my parents. I wish I could make you understand ... I do not expect anything from you, but I hope for your friendship. I would not ask you for anything more. But I cannot prevent myself from giving you more, and I do not want you to believe that I am trying to force you to forget someone who loved you." She shook her head. "I do not even know how to say it so you will understand me."
"I know," he replied sadly. "I did not have much choice, and here we are. Things would have gone badly no matter what choice we made." He paused a moment himself to draw a slow breath, dashing an errant tear away from his eyes with the back of his flesh and blood hand before turning to face her again. "I do not know what it is you see in me. Perhaps it is only pity or compassion. I hope it is not. As I told you before, I would welcome your friendship, but I need time to grieve, to say good-bye, to heal, if I can. More than anything, I want to destroy Hydra. I want to wipe them from the face of the Earth so they cannot hurt anyone else the way they hurt us. After that? I do not know. I do not know what to make of my life now."
He glanced at his metal arm and curled the metal fingers together. "I am not entirely human, but I still have a human heart and soul. I do not know if I can ever love again. There is an emptiness in my heart, a black hole where love used to be. But I do not want to become like them. I do not want to be consumed by hatred and revenge. I will need friends to help me remember that I am human, to help me remember that there is still hope in the world. If you can do this for me, I would be grateful. I will not ask more of you than this."
Finally, Alyona looked into his eyes, to see for herself and to know that he was being truthful with her. "You do not need to ask it of me," she told him softly. "It is already yours. I do not pity you, any more than I would pity anyone who has fallen foul of people with grand schemes and terrible methods. I will be your friend, always."
"Then drink your tea," he said with an almost amused-looking smile, as he met her gaze. "And thank you for the soup," he added for good measure, not wanting her to think he was ungrateful for her own gesture of good will and peace.
She blushed, raising her cup to her lips to satisfy his amused reminder of what she was holding in her hands. "I ... Well, I am not so used to American food yet, and I-I thought you might like something familiar," she excused her choice of lunch. "Natasha said she liked it, but Tony ... he cooked hot dogs and put them in it. He has no taste."
"He is American. I am told they subsist on coffee and hamburgers," he remarked, his smile warming, before taking a sip of his own tea, sweetened with just a hint of sugar. He wasn't quite sure where to take the conversation from there, but then he hadn't really carried on much of a conversation in over five decades.
"He is sweet, in a strange way," she mused thoughtfully. "He calls me Tinkerbell, and I do not have the heart to tell him not to. I think he is very lonely, inside." She frowned as she considered this, knowing what it was to be lonely and surrounded by people.
Weren't they all, he wondered silently. "We are a bunch of misfits, da?" he asked her aloud, also wondering what about the depth of her feelings for their host. Did she care for him, too? Was he not as special to her as he had first thought, and more importantly, why did he feel a stab of jealousy when she spoke of Stark that way?
She smiled at his turn of phrase, her eyes straying to the fire once again, missing the flash of jealousy that colored this thoughts for a moment. "We are all different from the world that made us," she said, picking her way through her words with care. "I think we are a family, in a strange way. I do not feel as though I do not belong here, where the fantastic is everyday. I do not feel dangerous here."
"Natasha ..." he started, wondering if he should refer to her in such a familiar way. "She has explained some things to me. She has invited me to stay, to join the team. I am thinking I will accept her invitation. What do you think? Will I be welcome here, too?" he asked, already knowing how she felt about that, but unsure about the rest of her teammates. He had not been exactly friendly so far.
Alyona's gaze flickered to his, curiously bemused by his uncertainty. "They risked their lives to save yours, to give you this chance," she reminded him gently. "The offer would not have been made if they did not believe you would be a good match to them." The way she spoke made it clear that she was not entirely sure whether she was on the team or not.
"What of you?" he asked curiously, once he'd taken another sip of his tea. "Will you be staying here, too?" He was guessing that, like him, she had no other place to go, but he wasn't sure if that was true.
"I would like to," she admitted almost shyly. "I have nowhere else I can go. My father says that it is not safe to even meet him yet, and it may not be safe for years to come. I like it here. I like the place, and Jarvis, and the people. I like helping. I hope they want me to stay."
"I see no reason why they wouldn't," he said, knowing he was far more dangerous and a possible liability than she was. "What is it you were reading?" he asked, trying hard to make idle and friendly conversation. Conversation that would not make either of them angry.
"Mm? Oh." She looked down at the book on her lap with a smile. "I have been reading in English," she told him, rather proud of herself for that achievement on its own. "I did not understand Shakespeare or Chaucer, but I found these poems. This man, he wrote beautifully. I understand, I think, what he meant to say. Have you ever heard of Robert Frost?"
He arched a brow at the mention of poetry, pausing a moment to drag the words he had memorized out of the mothballs of his mind. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler, long I stood. And looked down one ..." He trailed off as his memory failed him, frowning.
Alyona smiled warmly, delighted that he knew not only the poet, but also one of the poems that had captured her imagination. Her fingers tapped on the leatherbound book on her thighs. "I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence; Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." She tilted her head, resting her cheek on her hand. "I like it, very much. It makes sense to me. And you know it!"
"It was not taught in school," he replied, but it seemed despite that, he had somehow stumbled across it. The words, especially those of the last stanza, seemed oddly appropriate. "He has quite a library," he said, shifting in his chair to take a look around at the many shelves of books. "Does he have any Dostoyevsky, do you think?" he teased, smirking lightly.
She giggled softly, looking around at the walls of books. "If he does not, I am sure he would go out of his way to find some," she predicted in amusement. "They are all first editions. I have never seen so much wealth of humanity in one place, and yet they seem almost forgotten. It is my favorite room here."
"You like to read, then," he presumed, resting the cup of tea against the arm of the chair and finding he was enjoying the quiet and the warmth of the fire, as well as her companionship. It reminded him a little of better days, happier days long ago. Though he had seen a little of her thoughts, they had in no way told him everything about her.
"I have never had the opportunity," she admitted with charming innocence. "In Sokovia, I was not permitted to read anything that was not for my training, and in Romania, we did not have any books. And then I came here and ... all this. I like the quiet and the warmth, and seeing the snow outside and the fire in the hearth, and having a book full of friends to teach me a little more about myself. Do-do you like to read?"
"I used to. Long ago and far away," he replied quietly. It felt like another lifetime to him now, and this new one was more like a dream. "The reading of Western literature was discouraged, but sometimes I would read it in secret. Books were hard to come by, unless they were written by Russian authors. We were taught to believe that Russian literature - Russian everything - was superior to that of the West. I am not so sure that is true. I believe every writer has something to offer, though Russian literature has certainly made its mark on the world. Is there anything you recommend?" he asked, having no knowledge of the last fifty years.
She bit her lip, looking around once again. "I have barely even begun," she said in a shy tone. "I do not know where to begin. Jarvis recommended that I try poetry. He seemed to think that I would appreciate it, and my English reading would improve so that I can try something harder."
"I shall have to ask Jarvis for recommendations, as well," he replied, though that could wait until later. "Have you tried Keats?" he asked, though Keats was a bit older than Frost. He thought if she was looking for English poets, there wasn't much point in recommending Russian poetry.
She shook her head. "Is Keats good? I do not want to scare myself with things. I tried someone called Poe, and it gave me nightmares." She was ashamed of herself for admitting to that, but they all suffered with nightmares one way or the other.
He actually chuckled. "Poetry is a matter of taste, but Keats was one of the English Romantics. A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness; but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing," he recited quietly. "Lili was rather fond of Keats," he said, ducking his head, unsure if he should even mention her name. "Poe is far too dark for you."
"Oh, that is lovely," she breathed, enchanted by the quotation he offered her as an example. She didn't flinch or pass comment on the way he mentioned his wife, only smiling that Liliyana had inspired him to remember a poet fondly. "I tried to read something about a cat, but ... it was horrible. Cats are not so frightening! They are small and soft and they know to look after themselves and their families."
"Poe wrote about nightmares. It is too dark for you," he reiterated. Too dark for him, too, perhaps. He glanced at the window to find snow drifting lighting from the sky and frowned. "I was told not to go outside."
"Not outside the gates, perhaps," Alyona suggested with a faint smile. "There are vast gardens here. Tony owns it all. He has so much, and yet the family who cared for me lived in a small caravan - eight of us, in one small caravan. I do not understand how that can be."
He took another sip of his tea before moving to his feet and offering her his human hand. "I have not seen snow in fifty years," he told her. "Jarvis, is there a coat I can borrow?" he asked, assuming Alyona had her own. Once he had made a decision, it seemed, he wasted no time acting on it.
"There is a collection of overcoats and assorted accessories located behind the blue door close to the entrance to the gardens in the solarium, Mr. Petrov."
Alyona giggled softly. Jarvis was a source of constant wonder to her. She wasn't sure the computer knew how funny he was, either.
"You may use any of them, though I would recommend that you choose from the left-hand rail. Feminine clothing is not cut to flatter a man of your stature."
"Thank you for the advice, Jarvis," he replied with a wink to Alyona and an amused look on his face. "I will make a note of it," he added as he waited for her to get up and take his hand. For some reason, he seemed an entirely different person today than he had been just a day ago, which boded well for him, if he didn't give in to the darkness.
Laughing, Alyona slipped her hand into Nicholai's without a second thought, rising from her comfortable curl on the couch to stand with him. "Perhaps I should put some pants on," she considered thoughtfully, looking down at her bare knees. "It is a little cold for my backside with just my underwear to cover it."
"That is a good idea," he replied, gaze drifting briefly to her bare legs. Thankfully, he didn't have to worry about such things as he'd been given some ordinary but boring shirts and pants and shoes to wear. "While you change, I will look for a coat. Directions, Jarvis?" he asked, ready to start off toward the solarium, wherever that was located. He tried not to let his gaze linger too long on her legs, even if he did appreciate the view.
Smiling, Alyona rushed off, all flying hair and trailing shawl, leaving Nicholai to the tender mercies of the computer. Jarvis was ahead of him, however. "Turn left as you leave the library, Mr. Petrov, and the solarium is the first door on your right. I have unlocked the garden doors, and opened the closet, for your convenience."
"Spasibo, Jarvis," Nicolai thanked the A.I. again as he made his way from the library, leaving the tea tray behind. They could always return it to the kitchen later. It wasn't long before he was dressed in a parka, a single glove covering his hand, his metal hand uncovered as it wasn't really affected by the cold.
It wasn't more than a few minutes before Alyona came back into sight, her dress replaced with pants and a sweater, already bundled into the coat that Clint Barton had insisted Tony should buy for her. It had been a good call - she was in love with that coat already. Still pulling the belt tight about her waist as she entered the solarium, she smiled at Nicholai, genuinely excited about going outside, even if it was only a few meters away from the house.
He actually smiled as she joined him, unable to resist looking her over again. "You look very nice, Alyona," he told her, trying hard to say something nice without being too forward. She looked beautiful, in fact, but he didn't think he should go quite that far.
She preened, unused to compliments, and rubbed her cheek against the soft fur that lined her coat. "Spasibo, Nic," she thanked him softly, unconsciously shortening his name to something more familiar. "I have gloves, too, see?" She pulled out a pair of red gloves from her pocket, almost childlike in her enthusiasm to be seen as prepared for the weather.
He smiled, noticing the almost childlike excitement in expectation of their outdoor excursion. "It is only a little snow," he assured her, reaching for the door to pull it open. Winters in Mother Russia were long and bitterly cold. A little late autumn snow was nothing compared to that, but the fresh air would do them both good.
"But there is a difference," she pointed out, pulling up her hood as she all but skipped out through the door and into the falling snow. "I have never been able to enjoy snow. It has always been an enemy, something that makes my life cold and hard and unhappy. But here I have a warm room to return to, and so, I can enjoy it!"
He remembered what she'd told him about the caravan, living life like a gypsy and frowned. His life had not been easy either, but he had always managed to come home to a woman and house to keep him warm. And here she had people who were who friends. A team that was like a family, Natasha had said. He blinked out of his thoughts and took a deep breath of the cold, crisp air. "It is good to be free," he murmured to himself.
Alyona watched him as he breathed in the air - not so fresh here as it had been in her home, where pollution was not such a problem, but still fresh and clean, and a welcome relief after being stuck indoors for a long time. She seized his hand excitedly. "Come, I want to show you something."
It wasn't so much that it was fresh, clean air as the fact that it was free - that he was free. That if he decided to walk away from all this right now, as foolish as that might seem, no one would try to stop him. He arched both brows at her, curious what it was she wanted to show him and a little startled when she'd grabbed hold of his hand. "What is it?" he asked curiously, though it seemed he was about to find out.
Cheerfully tugging on his hand to pull him along, Alyona skipped down the terraced lawn to where the gardens had been laid out in random styles, ducking into a walled garden that seemed much like any other. Inside, however, seemed much colder than the rest of the gardens - cold enough that ice crept over the walls in delicate patterns, and steam rose from the fountain set in its center. It was markedly silent, too, but for the sizzle of the snow as it hit the water. She beamed, breathing in the silence. "Isn't it lovely?"
Tugged along behind her, his gaze took in the view as she led the way, unable to remember when he'd seen anything quite so pleasing to the eye - and it wasn't just the gardens he was appreciating. Coming to a halt inside the walled garden, he turned to look around, appreciating the beauty of the place, preserved in ice, at least until it warmed enough for it to melt. It reminded him of himself, in a strange way, of how he'd been forced into a cold, deep sleep only to be awakened to a strange, new world. "It's ... cold," he replied with a short chuckle.
"It is so quiet," she breathed, releasing his hand to walk further into the walled garden, smiling at the silence. And for a moment, perhaps, he had a chance to glimpse at something she had never told anyone. In a world where anyone's mind was open to hers, this was the closest she could get to silence in her own mind, this hidden away spot where the noise of the world outside was pushed away behind walls of stone.
"That, too," he said, following her as she wandered further into the garden. He reached out to tap his metal fingers against a chunk of ice, as gently as he could, frowning as it splintered like glass beneath his touch. How could he ever hope to touch a woman with a hand that had been made to kill? "You like it here," he observed, realizing it was the quiet that she liked about the place more than anything else.
She nodded, turning at the tinkle of ice breaking. "Here." Taking that metal hand in hers, she turned it palm up, and gently released her power. Tendrils of crimson lifted water from the fountain, shaping it even as it froze in the cold air, until a delicate rose lay in his metal palm, colored only by the metallic glint beneath it. She smiled up at him, her eyes sparkling in the strangely silver-touched light. "Ice is brittle. Diamond is not."
He watched, somewhat in awe of her abilities, which could be used for far more than a weapon. "I am not sure what you mean," he said, gazing down at the delicate rose she had placed in the palm of his metal hand, as fragile as glass. All he'd have to do is close his fingers around it to crush and destroy it.
"On the outside, they look the same," she tried to explain, catching a drop of water from the fountain to fashion it into what looked like a perfect diamond, its clarity stunning as the light reflected off those many faceted surfaces. "But ice ... it melts, it transforms, it changes its very being to suit the world around it. Diamond is constant, unchanging, and valued for that very reason. Is one more precious than the other? I do not know. But I know neither would be afraid of you. Ice clings to you, that part of you that you hate; it lingers on your hand, where it would melt and escape in another's grasp. And diamond would not be afraid of your strength, able to withstand the mistakes that might be made in frustration or pain."
"That's very ... deep, Alyona," Nic replied, that frown still in place, but more thoughtful than troubled. He handed her back the rose, afraid he might crush it if he held it too long. What was it she was trying to tell him, exactly? That she wasn't afraid of him, no matter how fragile she was? "I hate it ... what they did to me. I hate this," he said, lifting his arm to indicate the object of his hatred. "Natasha said Doctor Rogers might know how to replace it, but I will never be whole."
Crimson wrapped about the rose, gently transporting it to lie on the surface of the steaming fountain, to melt away in the new warmth. Then she turned, stroking her gloved fingers over his metallic palm. "This ... this is not a measure of the man you are," she reminded him softly. "It is a scar of the horrors you have suffered, yes, but it does not define you. What is in here ..." Her hand rose to touch lightly over his heart. "That is where you can be found. Not in your fingertips, but in your heart. And they cannot take that from you."
She was wrong. They had ripped his heart from his chest when they had killed his Liliyana, but perhaps they had not broken him completely. Though Lili was gone, he yet lived, and when he looked into Alyona's eyes, what he saw wasn't fear or disgust at what he'd become, but hope. He lifted his good hand to trace the curve of her cheek, to feel the warmth of her skin, the softness of her hair. "You are so young," he said quietly, more to himself again than to her.
How strange it was, she wondered, that she had shown him his own self seen through her eyes, and yet he still did not understand that she didn't see him as broken or half a man. She saw the pain in his eyes, the anger that could be ignited in a moment, but it was not frightening. It haunted him, in the same way her own memories haunted her. And then there was that word again ... young. Her smile faded a little, her head shaking just a little, just enough to deny that truth without shaking his touch from her skin. "I am not a child."
"No, not a child," he agreed, cupping her cheek with a hand that was surprisingly gentle, considering what they had done to him, what they had made him. She was certainly young, but more woman than child, and ripe for the taking. The thought of that made him frown a little as he drew back his hand, afraid once again that she was too young, too innocent, too pure for one such as him. It wasn't the memory of his wife that troubled him so much as the fear that he might hurt her.
Lucky for him that she saw those thoughts flash through his mind, and understood that his retreat was no rejection of her. Her smile softened again as she wrapped her hand into his. "There is so much more to see," she told him. "But I wanted you to see this place. To hear it."
"To hear the quiet of this place," he said, understanding what it was she'd wanted to share with him. "Is there any way you can shield yourself from others' thoughts?" he asked, curiously, as the moment seemed to pass between them, though she had retaken his hand.
She shook her head. "Not that I know of," she admitted, falling into step beside him to explore the gardens together. "Once I have made that connection with someone's mind, they are always there. I can always hear them, like ... like a crowded room, you know? The sound of voices in my head but I can't understand them unless I concentrate on them."
"You hear everything I am thinking?" he asked, mortal fingers twined with hers as they roamed the gardens. It seemed a strange thing to be doing - surreal almost - after the nightmare of the last fifty or so years.
"Only if I focus my mind on yours," she assured him. "When you have my attention. I am trying very hard not to see everything when I am talking to people. Steve did not like it, and ... some things are hard to forget. I still remember a time when doing anything that was not wanted would bring me pain. So now I know that seeing a mind when the person is talking to me is not welcome, I am trying not to do it. I am learning to lie to make people feel less ... afraid of me."
"I'm not afraid of you, Alyona," he assured her. That was not the problem at all. He was only afraid of what he might do to her, if he let her get too close, of how he might hurt her, without meaning to.
"You are, a little," she told him. "But not in the way that most people are. I like that." Her fingers squeezed his as she glanced at him, her smile assuring him that she did understand the low lying fear that colored his mind, even if she was trying not to look too deeply into it. "I like spending time with you. Despite everything, I feel calm with you."
Not as calm as she felt when she was with Captain Rogers, he reckoned, though he knew theirs was a different relationship. He wasn't even sure what kind of relationship was blossoming between the two of them. Was it friendship or something more? Perhaps only time would tell. "I feel calm when I am with you, too. Peaceful," he agreed, but then it had only been a few days.
It was strange to think that only a few miles away loomed the busy metropolis that was New York City. Out here, it was quiet, peaceful, the greenery around them obscured by the softly falling snow. It was a picture-book world, a place where dreams and fantasies might take flight, appealing to the child in Alyona as they walked along.
"Oh!" Her face lit up suddenly, and she pointed ahead, to where a long, narrow, stone-clad pool stood, frozen solid in the chill. Abandoning his hand, she ran to it and, quite deliberately, jumped straight onto its surface, cackling with glee as she slid over the smooth ice, arms flailing to keep her balance.
Startled when she broke away from him, he laughed as slid across the ice, as happy as a child. It was nice to see her smile, to hear her laughter. It was almost normal, almost easy to forget how not-normal they or their lives were. "It works better with ice skates, Alyona!" he called after her, as he made his way closer, remaining a few feet from the ice, happy just to watch.
"But I have no ice skates!" she called back, flailing wildly to turn around and face him. She was cheating a little, though - a crimson flash at her heel betrayed just how she was managing to push off the smooth surface and change direction, slithering back toward him where he had decided to stay. "Don't you want to try it?"
"Nyet," he replied with a chuckle, waving her off. "I am sure I would just fall and break the ice," he told her, not quite as adventurous as he might seem, though the ice seemed to be frozen solid.
"But it is fun," she pointed out, twirling without much grace and stumbling as she fought to keep her balance, laughing all the while. Or perhaps it was a sham. When she stood upright, it was with a snowball in her hand. She gave him the barest glimpse of her grin before throwing it at him.
He was not the telepath and was taken completely off guard by the snowball as it thumped against his chest leaving a splat of snow. "You are going to start something you can't finish," he warned as he brushed the snow from the front of his coat, the hint of a smirk on his face.
"I thought I already did," she offered innocently. If he wasn't paying attention to her fingers, he was about to get an interesting surprise. A snowball was headed for his back, aimed by those crimson tendrils of energy she was becoming more and more adept with.
But there was something about him that seemed to sense that snowball, even though it was behind him, and he ducked just in time for it to miss him and go clear over his head. He scooped up a handful of snow while he was at it, packing it into a ball, careful not to pack it too tightly before straightening and throwing it her way. "Don't say I didn't warn you!" he called.
She squealed with laughter, batting at the advancing snowball even as she slipped on the ice, arms and legs pinwheeling to stay upright. This was normal, this was ... it was fun. And something so simple, so pleasing, was what they both desperately needed. No expectations apart from the sheer silliness of the game, and the excessive amount of cheating Alyona could get away with through being so sweet most of the rest of the time.
He was about to throw another snowball her way when he saw her feet slip and her arms flail, his heart racing with unexpected alarm. Before he had a chance to think about what he was doing, he flicked a hand at her to catch her before she could fall without so much as touching her, the snowballs headed his way wavering in mid-air before dropping to the ground.
Cut off in mid-squeal by the sensation of a firm grip keeping her upright, Alyona's eyes widened. She knew she must have presented a comical figure in that moment - arms wide apart, one leg in the air, the other foot in the process of sliding over the ice. But here she was, not falling. Her head turned toward Nic with a strangely delighted smile. "I did not know you could do that!"
He motioned with that same hand to lower her back down onto the ice, frowning a little in dismay. "I didn't either," he remarked, glancing at his human hand and flexing his fingers. It certainly wasn't his hand that had done it so much as his mind. He had willed her not to fall and she hadn't. He was as surprised as she was as this newfound ability.
Gently lowered to the ice, the foot that had been sliding already decided to go the whole hog, whipping the other one out from underneath her as well. In a split second, Alyona was, essentially, a laughing snowdrift with legs. "Help me up!"
Well, that didn't go so well, he thought. What good was such an ability if it was so likely to backfire? He made his way forward, carefully picking his way over the ice, until he was close enough to reach her. Just as he was about to lean down and haul her to her feet, his own feet went out from under him and he slipped, just barely catching himself so that he didn't land on her and crush her.
It was his turn to be caught by unseen hands, though her power always came touched with crimson. Giggling, she gently eased him down into the snow next to her. "That was new," she commented warmly.
"I'm not sure how I did that," he said, looking more than a little perplexed. Shouldn't he have remembered if they'd tampered with his brain? But all he really remembered was indescribable torment and pain. "Can-can you find memories that are buried?" he asked tentatively, almost fearfully, unsure if he wanted to unlock that door.
"I found Liliyana in your mind when you didn't even know your own name," she reminded him gently. "I can try. Do you know what I would be looking for?" It was an intriguing idea, but probably not something to follow through on while sitting in two feet of snow.
"Not now," he told her. Not there, not when they'd been having so much fun. It was a strange word, fun. It sounded foreign to his mind, so long unused and forgotten. "I need to know what they did to me," he told her. Need, not want. He'd just as soon forget the whole horrific ordeal, but he needed to know what else he'd forgotten, what else they had done that he couldn't remember.
"We will look," she promised him, one hand capturing his. "Together." Gently, she squeezed, a reassuring insistence that he was stuck with her, whether she was welcome or not. "But first ... how are we going to stand up without falling over again?"
He smiled faintly at her reassurance, his smile warming at her question. "Very carefully," he replied, alluding to a sense of humor beneath the dark, brooding exterior. "Together," he echoed, as he gave her hand a gentle squeeze in return.
Her smile was bright as she looked back at him, briefly shining for just a moment before she turned her attention to standing up. Neither one of them seemed to have noticed the redhead watching them from the solarium, evidently enjoying the sight of two troubled souls just having fun.
Climbing to his feet was a little harder than he'd thought, given the ice, and it took three tries of slipping and sliding before he actually accomplished it, both of them laughing as they caught hold of each other and finally made it, arms tangled together, unaware of the lurker in the window.
Getting up was funnier than falling could possibly have been, judging by the way Alyona outright cackled at every slip and tangle. By the time they were upright, she was breathless, holding onto him more to stop herself from doubling over with giggles than to prevent herself from falling again. And there was the trust - she trusted him to keep her from falling, without even needing to ask him if he minded her giving that trust. How was that for friendship?
He found himself with one arm - thankfully, it was his normal, flesh and blood, human arm - wrapped around her waist, the metal arm clutching her elbow, practically nose to nose. He was smiling, heartened by her giggles, if a little embarrassed to find her so close. He stilled for a moment, as if contemplating kissing her, unsure if he should dare take that plunge.
Gazing up at him, Alyona felt something change. Some butterfly deep inside woke up and started clamoring to get out, filling her with a strange sense of nervous energy that she was not accustomed to. He was so close, and he was so warm, and ...
"Warning. Intruder detected. Please leave the premises or prepare for the consequences."
A moment later, Tony's voice emerged from behind the hedgerow near them. "Oh, come on, Jarvis, you know it's me!"
Like a scene in a movie, they seemed to be moving slowly closer together, inch by agonizing inch, until ... Jarvis' voice was heard issuing a warning and Nicholai quickly broke the embrace and stepped back far enough that there was no longer any danger of taking that first plunge with her. Confused at first to find their host - who he had not yet formally met - stalking them, his first reaction was torn between throttling the man and introducing himself. "You are Tony Stark?" he asked, uncertainly.
Alyona's reaction was torn between embarrassment and laughter at Tony's indignant response to being ratted out by his own computer.
"Oh, laugh it up, Tinkerbell," Ironman complained, coming out of hiding. "My sister put me in charge of protecting your virginity, I'm more scared of her than I am of you." He looked at Nicholai. "Hi, Tony Stark, nice to meet you. Big fan of the way you tried to throttle the Capsicle, very cool."
It was probably a good thing that the metal arm was the left and not the right or Nicholai's handshake might have crushed Tony's Stark hand. "I'm sorry ... Capsicle?" he echoed, obviously taken aback. "You mean Captain Rogers? I am sorry for that. It was ... part of my indoctrination, I suppose," he tried to explain, having a little trouble following the man's rambling way of speaking.
"Yeah, Mr. Star-Spangled Man with a Plan," Tony nodded cheerfully. "Like a popsicle, but Captain America shaped." He looked between the two of them with a wry expression. "Am I interrupting something?"
Alyona rolled her eyes. "You know you are," she informed him, though she had made no attempt to move away as Nic had done. "Go away."
As for Nicholai, he looking both confused and annoyed, not wanting to insult their host, but clearly annoyed by the interruption. "Is there something you need, Mr. Stark?" he asked, wondering if the man was actually there for a reason or was having fun at their expense. "I can assure you Miss Evchenko's virginity is safe with me."
"You gonna put it in a little box?" Tony asked.
"Um ..." Alyona attempted to interrupt, but he was on a roll.
"Lock it up tight with a pretty little ribbon so no one gets near it? 'Cos that's a good plan, provided you don't have the key. Don't get me wrong, Frosty, I'm all for a little romance, but she's just a kid."
"Frosty?" Nicholai echoed, eyes narrowing. It probably wasn't a good idea to wind up a man who was likely to snap over the slightest provocation, but maybe that was the point. Maybe he was purposely trying to wind him up to see how much he could take before he'd snap. "Are you finished?" he asked, metal fingers clenching into a fist.
Tony opened his mouth, but quite suddenly didn't have the ability to speak. Something crimson was holding his tongue down. He turned accusing eyes onto Alyona, who smiled sweetly, and gestured again, closing his mouth.
"Go away, Tony," she told him. "Or I won't let you speak ever again."
Inside the house, Natasha snorted with laughter as Jarvis relayed this threat to her, moving out of the line of sight while Tony reluctantly backed off, scowling at having his fun cut short.
Well, it was better than getting his face smashed in by a metal fist, anyway. The interruption had just about killed the mood, though, and had reinforced Nic's opinion that Alyona was too young for him. "I have to wonder which of us is really the immature one," he murmured quietly to himself once the man had departed.
"He is." There really was no other way to look at it in Alyona's mind, but she could feel Nic pulling away. Tucking her hands into her pockets, she cast about for something else to say, anything else. "Do you want to see some more of the garden? Or we could go back inside?"
"How old are you?" he blurted, not because he was worried she really was a kid, but because he needed to know. He was pretty sure she was somewhere in her early twenties, but now that Stark had once again reminded him of her youth, he needed to know. Then again, Stark would never understand what they had been through and how it had aged them.
She took a step back, pretty sure he wasn't going to like the answer to that question. "I-I will be twenty-two in ... in two weeks," she told him almost nervously as the hood on her head fell back onto her shoulders once again.
He turned, almost nervously, reaching out to touch the branch of a nearby tree with cold, metal fingers. "I was thirty-one when I was arrested. That was in 1962. You were not even born yet. Some might say I am old enough to be your father, but physically, I am not much older than I was when I was arrested. So, you are young, but you are no child, no matter what Tony Stark says. Do you find me old?"
She shook her head, half-afraid to hope that he wasn't going to agree with everyone else here about her age and innocence. "Nyet," she told him quietly. "You are not old. Old is like ... babushka, you know? But even if you were of such an age, I would not find you old."
"You would if I was bald and had gray hair growing out of my ears," he pointed out, painting a less than idealist picture of aging, but more realistic than romantic. All of this was Stark's fault. If he hadn't interrupted ... Nicholai wasn't sure he wanted to think about that right now. "Why is Doctor Storm worried about your virginity?" Or more importantly, why was Tony Stark worried about it? "Do you think I am going to take advantage of you?"
"I would not," she insisted, shaking her head. As he demanded to know why Lucy had terrorized her brother into keeping an eye out for the girl standing in front of him. Alyona backed up another step, her smile completely gone as she looked away, over the gardens and away from the house. "She thinks I am a child, that I need to be protected from everyone and everything. I don't have any virginity to protect. And you couldn't take advantage of me. I would hurt you if you hurt me like that. I would hurt anyone who tried to hurt me like that."
He blinked in surprise to find out that she wasn't a virgin, that everyone had been assuming something that wasn't even true. Still, she was someone to protect, even if she was more than capable of taking care of herself. "I do not want to hurt you," he told her quietly.
"I know you don't," she assured him. "I know. And Doctor Lucy doesn't mean for Tony to be so horrible to you. He ... he thinks of himself like father to me, da? Only he did not have such a good time with his own father, and he thinks this is how you do it. He is an ass. And he treats everyone like that, he wasn't making an exception for you. He holds everyone at arms' length, and mocks everyone, so that they won't see how lonely he is, how unhappy he is. It doesn't excuse his behavior. It only makes it easier to understand."
"And this is freedom," Nicholai muttered, wondering again if he'd exchanged one kind of prison for another. "To live in a place where we are monitored and watched by a computer program, mocked by the person who is supposed to be our host, and poked and prodded by those who want to know what makes us tick. All so that we can vanquish Hydra and aliens and whatever else threatens the world. I cannot live in a place where I am treated like, like ... a science experiment."
"So you are going to leave, then," she said softly, turning back to look at him. "They will let you go. They will argue against it, but they will let you go if you want it. I don't think they would let me do the same, and I would miss you."
"Nyet, I ..." he sighed. "I do not know what I am going to do, but I do not like being watched. I know they do not know me, and they have no reason to trust me. The truth is, I have nowhere else to go, and there's this to consider ..." he said, holding up that hated metal arm of his again. "What am I to do, Alyona? Natasha speaks of friendship, but Stark does not trust me, and the truth? The truth is somewhere in the middle. I am neither friend nor enemy. I am an unknown."
"It has been only a few days," she said gently. "Tony does not trust anyone, even himself, but he has not turned you out. Natasha believes you to be a good man; Steve and Lucy do, too. When you meet Sam and Clint, I am sure they will give you a chance to make friendship." She was quiet for a long moment, before adding softly, "I trust you."
"What about Jarvis?" Nicholai added, glancing around at the unseen presence that seemed to be ever present, ever watchful. "What do you think, Jarvis? Am I to be trusted, or will I lose myself again and attack the people who are supposed to be my friends?" he asked, with just a hint of sarcasm, not really expecting an answer. He wasn't even sure if he trusted himself either, but he knew he'd rather leave than hurt any of them, especially her.
"In order to alleviate your suspicions, Mr. Petrov, I feel I should tell you that my monitoring of your whereabouts is no more or less than my monitoring of anyone else who enters the mansion," the computer answered. It was a little muffled, suggesting that the speaker, wherever it was, was buried under the snow. "Had I not intervened earlier, I believe Mr. Stark would have done something ill-advised and held it against you when it did not work. He has a somewhat immature sense of the appropriate, but he is not distrustful of you. He is merely wary of upsetting Doctor Rogers, who has, I should inform you, told him not to tease, mock, or otherwise antagonize either yourself or Miss Evchenko."
"It's a little too late for that," Nicholai murmured regarding Doctor Rogers' warning that Tony not antagonize him. He was already antagonized. The question now was what should he do about it, if anything? He wondered if perhaps Alyona should make that choice, instead of him. "What happens between myself and Miss Evchenko is no one's business but ours," he said aloud, looking to Alyona to see what her reaction to that would be.
"Unless it involves bloodshed, indeed, Mr. Petrov, I am in complete agreement with you," Jarvis assured him.
Alyona's lips curved into a smile, but it didn't touch her eyes. Something felt off to her, be it the renewed uncertainty, or Tony's behavior. Whatever it was, it had stolen the joy she'd found in the cold and the snow, and in Nic's presence. "Perhaps I should go back to my room," she said quietly. "It seems I am the cause of whatever this problem is."
Nic's expression darkened at her suggestion. This was Stark's fault. Everything was fine, until he'd interrupted. Alyona's virtue or lack thereof had never been at risk and there was no worry about her safety so long as he was around. "You are not the cause of it," he pointed out, and neither was he, but if she wasn't willing to fight for what she wanted, maybe he shouldn't either. "You said you trust me, Alyona," he said, offering her his hand. "Look into my mind. Tell me if I should be trusted."
For the first time in her life, she had been asked to look into someone's mind. Raising her eyes to his, she focused on him, on the soft murmur of his voice in her mind, and saw what he needed her to see, what he wanted her to see. That what she felt around him was real; that sense of safety and security, the odd hope that surged, the desire for more than friendship mingled with the fear of what could happen if it went wrong somehow. Her fingers smoothed over his palm as she breathed in the fresh air around them. "I trust you," she promised him, stepping close to curl her hand to his cheek, drawing him closer than ever. Perhaps there were unspoken words, and perhaps not. But words weren't necessary when the next thing to touch her lips was a kiss, offered freely to his own as she breathed him in.
If he'd expected anything from her, it hadn't been that. He hadn't expected her to kiss him, only to see inside his head and judge for herself whether he could be trusted and whether he deserved her trust. Even if he had something to say to that, she hadn't given him a chance before her lips were touching his, unexpectedly, but not unwelcome. There was wonder in that kiss, some spark of feeling shared between them, the blossoming of something that felt like a lot more than friendship as his arm wound around her waist and pulled her close. Her kiss was different from Lili's, but no less tender or passionate, special in its own way as it tugged at his heartstrings.
Her fingers curled through his hair as she lingered against him in the chilly air, feeling the snow brush her cheeks as she dared to be brave and do this one thing that she had been trying not to do since they had argued the night before. She was glad she had waited, that she hadn't done it when she was angry, when he was hurting. She'd chosen her moment wisely, for the first time in her life, and he wasn't pushing her away. Her lips curved in a soft smile as she gently drew away, that smile illuminating her eyes as she looked up at him. "Spasibo, Nic," she whispered to him. "Thank you, for trusting me, too."
Thank you. Somehow that wasn't what he'd been expecting to hear, anymore than he'd been expecting Tony Stark to interrupt their moment, or to ask her to look into his head, or for her to kiss him. None of anything that had happened in the last few days had been expected. If anything, he'd expected to die in a research facility in Siberia, but ever since he'd been rescued and brought here, everything had changed. But what now? Where did he go from here? Where did they go from here? And suddenly thank you was exactly what he needed to hear and what he needed to say. "Spasibo, Alyona," he echoed back at her. "Thank you for reminding me what it is to ... to live."
Her smile warmed, her thumb stroking over his cheekbone for a brief moment before she retreated, curling her fingers through his. That was it; she really didn't expect anything more. She offered her affection, but she didn't push for anything beyond what they had shared. One kiss was enough, for now. "I think I saw a volume of Pushkin in the library," she offered shyly. "I could make chocolate."
"Pushkin," Nicholai echoed with a brief chuckle. "You realize Onegin did not have a happy ending, but chocolate sounds good." What better way to follow up a walk in the snow but with some hot chocolate? And maybe a book or two and a good friend. It still didn't feel real, his fingers tangled with hers.
"I only know Pushkin's poems," she admitted, falling into step with him. "I have never read Onegin. Is it a good story?" One kiss, and the damage done by Tony's poorly timed attempt at humor seemed to have been swept away. It was a good sign.
"A good story? I suppose it is that. A lesson of sorts," he said, wondering what lesson he should take from that story. To not wait too long, perhaps? To accept the love that is offered you before it is too late?
"The stories Pietrovich told me always had a lesson in them," she offered conversationally. "He called them ... morality? Morality tales. Mama Pietrovich called them fairy stories." She giggled a little, remembering the vaguely contentious, but loving, relationship those two had shared so openly.
"You miss them," he said, not having to look into her head to know that, fingers linked as they strolled back toward the house. Russian folklore was full of fairy stories, but that wasn't what he wanted to talk about now. What he wanted was to get to know her better, if he could.
"They did not have to take me in," she said softly. "They chose to. They could have left me. I was just another child on the road through Sokovia, but something made them stop and ask my name, where I came from. As soon as I told them about where I had come from, they took me into their caravan, hid me away until we reached Romania once again. They taught me their language, made me the big sister to their children. They gave me a family when I had none. They are good people. If I can ever go back to them without putting them at risk, I will. Just to say thank you for everything they did for me."
There was something worth fighting for right there. "You will go back to them someday, Alyona," he assured her quietly. "Obeshchayu." I promise. Once they had destroyed Hydra and made the world safe again. It might take years, but they would do it. Together.
She smiled, wrapping his hand in both her own as she stepped closer, brushing her cheek against his shoulder. For so many years, she had struggled, knowing she was different, knowing she did not fit in. Even here, where there were so many amazing people, she had still seemed out of place. Until Nicholai woke up. Now she felt as though she had a place, somewhere to belong. So long as he was there, so would she be. "Obeschayu," she echoed softly, not knowing quite what she was promising him in return. But whatever it was, she would hold to it for as long as she had breath.
One way or another, he'd make sure that promise was kept, even if it took the rest of his life to wipe Hydra off the map. "Shall we face the music, as they say?" he asked as they reached the door. The music being Tony Stark. Without any way of knowing what was going on inside, it was hard to tell what the man might say or do next in his misguided attempt to keep Alyona safe.
She nodded, gently tightening her grip on his hand as the door opened for them. But there was no music to face. Tony was nowhere to be seen, though given the noises coming from the gymnasium, he might have been facing a different kind of music at the hands of another team member. Still, it gave them a clear run to the kitchen, where Alyona wasted no time in working on creating real hot chocolate. "I do not like the powder they use," she explained as she melted chocolate into a bowl, keeping an eye on the milk as it heated. "This is much nicer."
"Powder?" Nicholai echoed, shrugging off his coat and laying it across the back of a chair before moving over to see what she was doing. Westerners might have had instant hot chocolate in the 1960s, but it wasn't something he'd had much experience with back home in Russia. Besides, there was nothing like the real thing, in his opinion.
Alyona nodded, using her power to use the whisk as she poured the melted chocolate into the warming milk. "They have something made with cocoa powder," she explained. "It does not taste like real chocolate, but they seem to think it does. They can be very strange here."
"If that is what you are accustomed to, I suppose," he admitted with a shrug, though he didn't see the point in giving up the taste of real chocolate just for convenience. "What was life with the caravan like?"
"Crowded," she laughed. As she worked, she used her own version of telekinesis to perform tasks that were out of her reach, opening cupboards and collecting cups, keeping the chocolate mixture whisking, shaking the can of cream. "There were eight of us by the time I left, but when they first took me in, they had only three children. I shared a bed with the youngest, Sylvie, but it was not so much a bed as a shelf with blankets on it. We were poor, but we got by. Pietrovich was a bard; he would sell his stories for food or money, and Mama Pietrovich made shawls and scarves and snoods which they would sell, too. She taught me how to do it. It was ... a hard life, I suppose, but it was happy. I do not think they would change their ways, even if they could."
"A hard, but simple life," Nicholai pointed out, a little enviously, as his life had been anything but simple. "Do you miss it?" he asked further, unsure if she would have preferred that life or this one.
"I miss them," she told him, easily able to answer that question. "I do not miss the icy cold water we had to wash with, or the bad food, or gathering wood every day just so we could heat enough water so that the horses could drink in the middle of winter." She smiled. "It was a difficult way to live, but it was better than anything Hydra had given me."
"Why did you go back?" he asked, watching as she used telekinesis to gather the cups and spoons and whisk the hot chocolate mixture. He wasn't quite sure how to make use of that ability yet, or at least, how to control it.
"To find out who I am?" she suggested with a shrug that was almost helpless. As she turned away to rinse out the pot and set it in the dishwasher, crimson coils shook the can of cream and sprayed a neat spiral of it on top of each steaming cup. "I did not know anything about myself. I thought I could break in, that they would not be able to stop me from learning what I wanted to know. I ... I was wrong. And I paid the price for it."
"You are never going back," he told her, leaving no room for argument. "We are never going back," he insisted further, as he picked up one of the cups and handed it to her before taking one for himself. "Obeshchayu," he repeated, making a second promise to make sure neither of them ever returned to Hydra. In truth, he would rather die first than return to Hydra.
Wrapping her hands about the cup, she managed a small smile for his promise, still haunted by those few days she had spent at Hydra's mercy only a month before. "It is strange," she said quietly, "that I never had nightmares about them until after I came here. They filled my childhood with pain and I did not dream about it. But three days of that machine, and ... sometimes I wake up screaming, the way I did there. I don't want to be so weak."
He frowned, trying hard not to lose himself to the rage he felt at the knowledge of what Hydra had done to her, giving in to the sadness instead. "You are not weak, Alyona. You are brave. I know what that pain is like. It is torture. No one could suffer such pain and not have nightmares." He paused a moment, as if considering something before he continued. "Your room is next to mine, yes? If it would make you feel better, call me the next time you wake with a nightmare, and I will stay with you until you aren't afraid anymore."
"Thank you. I-I think that would help." What she didn't tell him was that she was always afraid at some level. Now she had realized just what lengths Hydra would go to in order to have some control over her, over him, she would never stop being afraid. But she felt it would be unfair to share this with him, at least not yet. "Where shall we go?" she asked, purposely moving away from that topic. "It is not very comfortable in here."
It had been him who had woken screaming just the night before, and he was likely to do so again. Whichever of them awoke with nightmares, it seemed clear that both of them was willing to be there for the other. "The library?" he asked, where they had been before. He didn't really know he was around very well yet, but the library seemed a safe place. It didn't hurt that there was a fireplace, and she seemed rather fond ot the books.
"I agree." Smiling, she took one hand from her cup, sliding her fingers between his once again to draw him out of the kitchen and into the long corridor that traversed the width of the mansion. "It took me a long time to learn my way around," she offered, trying to be helpful. "Jarvis is always helpful when I get lost."
He left his coat in the kitchen, but he wasn't too worried about it walking away. They'd left the tea tray in the library, as well, but there would be time later to pick up after themselves. For now, he was more concerned with getting acquainted and getting acclimated. "Yes, I've noticed how helpful Jarvis is." How someone with such an irascible personality had managed to create such a helpful and polite program, he wasn't quite sure, and although it was a little unsettling to know Jarvis was always watching and listening, it was comforting in a way, too. "How long have you been here?"
The first room they passed on their left was the gymnasium, which was still ringing with the sound of Natasha "sparring" with Tony. Then was the main foyer to the front door, and then the laboratory, which seemed large but was actually rather cramped for the multiple people who used it. Alyona walked along at Nic's side, happy to share what little she knew about the place as they went. "I think ... a little under a month," she told him thoughtfully. "A lot has happened since I came here, but I think most has been good. I spoke to my father for the first time; they arranged it for me. And we saved you, which is a very good thing."
"I will not argue with that," he said with a faint smile that slowly faded as another thought came to mind. "I hope they do not regret it," he mused aloud. "I suppose I should say thank you." So far, he had not really had much of a chance to show his gratitude and had even attacked Captain Rogers and argued with Tony Stark. "I'm afraid I am not an ideal guest." Or whatever he was there.
"I attacked them, too," she said softly. "Natasha and Steve, when they turned off the machine and saved me, I used my power against them. You are not alone in your actions, Nic, and they do not hold it against you."
He didn't ask how she knew what he'd been thinking. Even without the ability to see into his mind, it wouldn't have been difficult to deduce what he'd been thinking. "I am only worried it might happen again," he admitted. Something inside his mind had triggered his attack on Captain Rogers, and he wasn't entirely sure it wouldn't happen again. "They didn't program me to kill Captain America, but to subdue him, capture him. I am not sure what they want with him, but I am sure it is not good."
This, Alyona did know, but she had promised Steve that his children would be safe from her speaking of them. That left only a narrow piece of information she could give Nic, but she was prepared to try. "They want to use his blood," she offered. "To make the serum that enhanced him again. And ... they want to turn him, make him theirs, so that he can lead the army they hope to create."
"Then we must make sure they never succeed," Nicholai said with a grim expression on his face. He wasn't quite sure how to do that, except to stay one step ahead of Hydra and eliminate their bases, as well as their operatives one by one, if necessary. He was not yet aware Hydra was interested in the Captain's children, but if he were, he would have insisted they do everything in their power to keep them safe, too.
"We will help them do that," she nodded in agreement, reluctantly releasing his hand to open the library door and allowed them both access inside. "I want them to end as much as anyone."
"And what do we do until then?" he asked, waiting for her to step into the library before following her inside. Though he had only been there a few days, he was already feeling a little useless and wasn't quite sure what was expected of him.
"We ... we could train?" she suggested a little nervously. "There are things that we can do, that we can help each other to learn. Natasha says I need to learn how to fight with my hands, not just with my power. She says I should be ready for anything to happen."
"Things like learning poetry?" he teased, sensing her nervousness, a small smirk on his face. "I do not think you and I would be a fair match, Alyona," he admitted. She had already seen him once in action, and if it hadn't been for her intervention, there was no telling what he might have done.
"But you know how to fight," she pointed out to him, easing down onto one of the couches before the fire. bent almost double, she picked the laces of her boots undone before making herself comfortable. "I do not. I do not even have the sense to run away."
"It was not Hydra who taught me that," Nicholai pointed out, taking a seat on that same couch, but leaving a respectful space between them. He took a sip of his cocoa and stretched his legs out to warm them in front of the fire. As accustomed to winter as he might be, he appreciated the warmth as much as anyone.
"Does that matter?" she asked curiously. "If you taught me something, would it not harm them because they are Hydra?" She frowned in concern. "Because Natasha was not trained by Hydra, either. I was trained by them, but not to fight."
A dark brow lifted at her question. "Are you asking me to train you to fight, Alyona?" he asked. Though that seemed to be what she was saying, he had not expected it.
She nodded, drawing her feet up onto the couch with them. "I think that I am, da," she confirmed softly. "And there are things I can teach you in return. Now that we know you have some power like my own, I can help you learn to control it."
"I'm not sure what they did to me, Alyona," he admitted with a frown. Other than for the metal arm, he had no idea what abilities he might have now or how he might have obtained them. "They injected me with something," he told her. "They said it would change me."
"They were wrong," she told him firmly. "They did not change you, the man that you are. You have simply been given abilities that they do not understand and cannot have known would be the result. I can help, Nic. They trained me in how to use it; I can train you. And I will not hurt you when you do not progress."
He clearly did not look happy to have had Hydra change him in any way, even if those changes might eventually be used to his advantage. "I suppose there is no way to reverse what was done," he mused aloud. The arm was one thing, but whatever had happened to his DNA was another.
"There may be, but it would take many years of trial and error to succeed," Alyona said quietly. "Lucy is very honest. She is not a genetics doctor, or a biology scientist. She is a medical doctor, and everything she does is from that viewpoint."
He'd be happy just to get rid of the arm, since it seemed he was stuck with whatever else they'd done to him. "How am I to know what abilities I have?" he asked, unsure whether Hydra had programmed him to have certain abilities or whether they just developed at random.
"I do not know," she told him, her expression sad that she couldn't simply pick it out of his mind. "They develop, over time. I could not hear another's mind until I was seven years old, but I was moving things with my red mist from the age of two. And it is only recently that I have even attempted to put my mind into another's."
"What is the red mist?" he asked curiously, now that she'd mentioned it. It seemed he had a similar talent for telekinesis, but there was no red mist or anything else visibly evident to aid him.
"Lucy thinks it is a side effect of the radiation treatment my mother had when she was pregnant," she said thoughtfully, raising one hand to roll her fingers, crimson coils passing about her fingertips easily. "That it affected me so that when I use the telekinesis, the forces that I am harnessing take on a visible spectrum."
"It is very confusing," Nicholai complained, rubbing two fingers against his temple, as though he was getting a headache. They had only freed him from Hydra a few days ago, and it was a lot to take in. "But if anyone is to teach me, I would like it to be you."
She smiled, reaching over to gently touch his temple - just a touch, no power involved at all. "Then we will do that," she promised him. "Whatever I can do to help you, I will."
"You are helping me, Alyona," he replied with a soft smile as he drew her hand away from his temple and linked his fingers with hers, resisting the urge to touch a kiss to her fingertips for fear someone might be watching. The last time he'd tried to kiss her, they'd been very rudely interrupted.
Her smile deepened at the sight of his, feeling the warmth of his fingers curling about her own. With easy grace, she closed the distance between them, settling down comfortably at his side, her head resting against his shoulder as a single gesture with her fingers brought the book she had been reading earlier over to their laps. "I am glad of that."
"Are you going to read me poems?" he asked, with a hint of amusement crinkling his eyes, his gaze darting to the book to try and catch the title and author on the cover. He didn't move or discourage her from resting her head on his shoulder, but only took a sip of his hot chocolate before setting the cup aside.
"Just one," she giggled softly. "You said you knew the poet, but I like this one. It is easy to see myself in the last stanza." Sipping her own chocolate, she turned the pages with a glimmer of crimson, finding the appropriate page before she began to read aloud. "Whose wood these are, I think I know; his house is in the village, though ..."
He smiled as he recognized the words. "He will not see me stopping here, to watch his woods fill up with snow," he recited from memory. Whatever it was Hydra had done to him, it didn't seem to have erased his memory, at least as far as Robert Frost was concerned.
She almost laughed as he recited from memory the words in front of her, her smile coloring her voice as she went on, enjoying the warm comfort of leaning against him as she read aloud, her voice entwining with his through each line and stanza until they reached the last. "... The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep; and miles to go before I sleep ..."
"And miles to go before I sleep," he finished, one brow arching as he wondered why she saw herself in that stanza of that particular poem. "I do not understand," he told her quietly, looking puzzled.
"It is ... it is the feeling, in the words," she tried to explain. "To find somewhere, in all the world, where there is peace and gentleness, a sense of belonging that does not happen anywhere else. And to know that, no matter how much I want to hide away there for the rest of my life, I have promised myself to something that will take me away from it, something that may take a very long time to complete. But for just a moment, everything is still and peaceful, and I am home."
"Hmm," he murmured, taking a different meaning from the poem, though he was not sure what meaning Frost had intended. "I think he realizes that if he tarries too long in the woods, he may not make it home alive. What are the promises he has to keep? Promises to a loved one, perhaps? The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but as peaceful as they are, he cannot stay."
"You think the snow and the woods are a danger to him?" she asked curiously. "I had not thought of it like that. I suppose, to a man like him, they would not be a safe place in his mind or heart. I spent much of the last ten years in snowy forests. Trees and snow ... they will always be linked in my mind with the family who cared for me. They will always be safety. But I was talking about being here. Jarvis says it is something called a metty-for."
"A metaphor, da," Nicolai agreed. "Something which symbolizes something else. So, the question is what do the snow and woods symbolize to you? To some, it might be peace. I believe Frost meant for it to invoke a feeling of peace, but could sleep not also symbolize death?"
"I read sleep as meaning rest, the end of the journey," she mused thoughtfully. "Not death, but freedom from duties and responsibilities that keep you from simply being." She shrugged, tilting her head to look up at him. "I think, perhaps, it is because I have been hunted for a long time, and finding somewhere that is safe, with you, who will help to keep me safe ... That is my wood, my lovely dark, deep place. And it will always be here, for me to return to when my promises are kept."
"Which promises are those?" he asked, wondering if those were promises she had to keep or promises that had been made to her. He had made his own promises, whether spoken or unspoken, but he thought he'd slept long enough. The woods dark and deep didn't sound particularly comforting to one who'd been asleep for too long, but he understood how she might find it so.
"Promises to myself, I think," she said softly. "That Hydra will never be able to hurt anyone again the way they hurt me, or the way they hurt you. That I will help you, any way that I can, to find peace. That, one day, I will have a home, and a family, and we will not be afraid."
"I would like to help you keep those promises, if I may," he told her, reaching over to take her hand and give it a soft squeeze.
It was unclear just which promises he was hoping to help her keep, if not all of them, but time would certainly tell. Whether they were in her woods, or on his journey, they had already made one promise to one another that both seemed determined to keep. That whatever happened, whatever they did ... they would do it, together.
[size=9]((Bloody hell, that was long! Fun, though ... anyone who gets all the way through it deserves a prize of some kind. Once again, any discrepancies in Tony and Natasha's characters can be laid firmly at my door. Hugely enormous thanks to my partner in crime!))[/size]