Red Dragon Inn
Dreamweaver's Lair => From the Dragon's Mouth => Crash and Burn => Topic started by: Aleksandra Biala on April 08, 2018, 09:00:13 AM
Two days passed and as promised, Maxim arranged to escort Aleksandra to the market to obtain the ingredients necessary for the meal she was planning on cooking for him. As far as their public encounter was concerned, they appeared to be just like any other young couple enjoying each other's company. An almost easy camaraderie was developing between them filled with conversation and laughter, which boded well for them, as they were constantly being watched and followed. Even as they marched up the stairs to his apartment, the sound of their laughter echoing through the stairway, he was aware of the shadow that was following not far behind.
Despite her nerves, Aleksandra was pleasantly surprised to find that Maxim was good company. She'd been terrified on their way out of the base, expecting to be summoned back at any moment, but all had gone well. As for playing out the gentle farce that was a trip to the market, she'd almost forgotten the purpose of this supposed date, but as they walked the stairs to his apartment, she, too, had become aware of the shadow following them, her nerves beginning to come back into play.
"I hope you have a pot big enough to cook all this in," she managed, hoping she didn't sound too awkward.
Maxim was either a very good actor or he was far more at ease with Aleksandra than even he realized. Some part of him knew this was all just a ruse to extract her from Hydra and get her out of the country, but he was still just a man and that part of him still had a heart, even if he didn't want to admit it. "We will make do," he said, juggling the bags of groceries in search of the keys to his apartment. "Hmm, I seem to have my hands full. If you could just search my pockets ..." he teased, more for their shadow's benefit than their own.
Tilting her head back to meet his eyes, her own eyes rolled above a smile that was not entirely feigned. "Do you care to tell me which pocket, or am I to rummage around until you decide to tell me they are not in your trousers?"
"I believe they are in my left trouser pocket," he said, waiting until she reached for said pocket before changing his mind. "Or it could be the right," he added in an amused tone of voice. It was getting harder to tell where the fake Maxim ended and the real Maxim began. He didn't want to like her or care about her, but the more time he spent in her presence, the more she intrigued him.
Despite herself, Aleksandra laughed as she drew her hand away from his left pocket, twisting to slide her hand past his wallet and rummage for what she hoped were the keys to his apartment. "I could simply have taken the bags, you realise."
"Da, well, that would be one solution," he agreed, making no visible effort to hand her the bags. Maybe there was a real gentleman somewhere inside him after all, despite his own doubts. The sound of footsteps behind them grew louder as their shadow neared, and he silently nodded his head at her to indicate they should get out of the way.
Concern flared in her eyes at his nod, her smaller frame crowding close to his to free the hallway as she dug about for his keys. Small fingers finally closed on them, pulling them free. "Aha! You cannot get me so easily, Maxim," she countered his tease, setting the key into the lock.
"We will see about that," he said, openly teasing her in return. He waited for her to open the door before pushing inside and out of the way of their shadow.
She followed him in, unable to resist glancing at the man passing by the door as she opened it. She hoped it seemed like natural passing curiosity, rather than bone-trembling terror.
Maxim pushed her up against the door just before she could get it closed, his head dipping down to press a kiss against her lips, though his eyes were lifting to follow the man as he passed by to get a good look at him.
What he got from his diminutive companion was a squeak of surprise, quickly muffled in the kiss he pressed to her mouth, her eyes falling closed quickly in a very natural response to being kissed by a man she rather liked. Thus Aleksandra did not see the man who passed them on the stairs, but Maxim did - Vladimir Olensky, his Hydra handler for the time being, catching his eye on the way past to nod in acknowledgement before continuing on up the stairs.
Maxim did not acknowledge the man except to meet his gaze before turning his attention back to Aleksandra and finishing the kiss. "Come," he whispered to her, letting her go so they could slip into his privacy and relative safety of his apartment. Once inside, he leaned close to whisper a warning in her ear, "Be careful what you say. They are listening."
A little wide-eyed and wild around the edges, Aleksandra closed the door, a part of her wishing the kisses weren't just a ruse. It was a fool's hope, though, as she well knew ... as his whisper against her ear made very plain. Swallowing, she nodded, almost afraid to speak at all for a moment. "I-I thought you were looking for golabki," she managed, proud of herself for the teasing tone in her voice.
"Golabki first, who knows what later?" he countered, offering a smile he hoped was reassuring, even if it wasn't terribly romantic. "Let me show you the kitchen," he told her, hoping to get rid of the bags he was still juggling.
"A man who knows his priorities, I see." She stepped aside for him to move past her, uncertain whether to remove her coat. Were they really going to make and eat a meal, knowing that his security people were right here, in the building, no doubt ready to pounce at the slightest sign of anything being amiss?
She was far more paranoid than he was, it seemed, or maybe he just had a plan. Either way, he seemed perfectly at ease as he led her through the small apartment to the kitchen, so he could at least set the bags of groceries on the table. "Please, make yourself at home," he told her as he started to unpack the bags.
"It has been a long time since I have been outside the facility," she commented, awkwardly undoing her coat. Inside the Arctic Circle, winter was definitely holding on tightly; there was no call for dressing sexy for a date when the temperatures were still in minus figures, which was why she had chosen to wear her thickest sweater over jeans. "I think I had almost forgotten what the sky looks like."
There were a dozen things he could have said to that, but knowing they were being listened to and knowing he had to pretend to be loyal to Hydra, he tried to reply in a way that offered comfort and yet, wouldn't raise any suspicion. "The sky is the same as it always is. It does not change, Aleksandra," he told her, going from a formal way of addressing her to a more casual way in the matter of the few hours they'd spent together in the market. This, too, would be something that was expected of a couple on a date.
Removing her coat, she turned to find somewhere to hang it. "Unlike you, it seems," she said, almost teasing again, though there was a faint accusation in her eyes. "The desire of every woman in the facility, and not a few men besides, and yet you decide to ask me on a date. Not predictable, are you?"
"Perhaps I found you a challenge," he replied as he set the groceries out on the counter, in anticipation of her cooking. The look in his eyes was almost teasing as well, but he quickly masked the look as he turned away to put a few things in the fridge. "So, tell me ... What happened to your brother?" he asked, not only because he needed to appear like he was getting to know her, but because he was genuinely interested. He had read her file, of course, but that hardly answered his question.
She hesitated, looking down at her hands. Of all the things he could have asked, she had not been expecting that. But then ... a man looking to get to know her would ask, wouldn't he? "A stupid accident," she sighed, shaking her head. "His own fault. Andrei liked to free-climb and ... he liked to do it alone. I told him many times it was stupid, but he never liked to be told. He was more than an hundred feet up when his foothold crumbled. I suppose I should be thankful that he died almost instantly."
"I see," he murmured quietly, as he closed the refrigerator, his eyes on her. One could almost hear the sympathy in his voice and if she looked up, he might see it in his eyes, if only for a moment. "I am sorry for your loss," he said, knowing how empty that sounded, but what else could he say?
"So am I." Three words, spoken with a very faint smile, that definitively closed that topic of conversation. Her brother was a loss she was still coming to terms with herself; he was not up for discussion. Still, she made the effort. "And what of you?" she asked curiously. "Do you have family?"
"Not anymore," he replied bluntly. It was hard to tell whether that response left the topic open or closed for discussion, but he didn't seem eager to talk about it. "So, how do we start?" he asked, regarding the golabki.
"Boil a pot of salted water, and we begin," she told him, moving to stand at his side. Golabki wasn't a difficult dish to make, and there was plenty for two pairs of hands to do. It certainly was likely to be rather boring for anyone listening in to hear the instructions and the laughter that came with the mistakes for the next hour or so.
It was almost as if they really were on a date, both to them and to anyone who might be listening. There was nothing interesting to hear, nothing that might seem suspicious, but Maxim knew this was all just part of a bigger plan to get her safely out of the country. He couldn't afford to become attached, even if she was starting to get under his skin.
As for herself, Aleksandra couldn't help being confused. She'd thought this was a ruse to get her out of the facility and then out of the country, but so far, all they'd done was buy food and prepare it. She couldn't even ask him about it, given his warning about anyone listening in on their odd little sojourn. "I take it you do not live on the base, then?" she asked. "I thought all facility personnel were lodged on base."
"I have a room on the base, but I come here when I'm off duty," he replied, making small talk again while they waited for their dinner to finish cooking. He paused a moment in thought, turning to look out the window for some reason, as if considering something. He reached out a hand as if to draw her to him. "Come. I want to show you something."
Her head tilted curiously, but she put her hand in his, letting him draw her from the table. "Something in particular, or something in general?"
"You will see," he replied. It was not really an answer, but she'd know soon enough. He drew her not toward the bedroom, but toward a window which opened on the fire escape. While it wasn't nearly as romantic as a balcony, it did offer a nice view of the sky and the surrounding area. He opened the window and stepped out onto the balcony before turning to give her a hand. "Do you trust me?"
"Is this where you whisk me away on a magic carpet?" she asked in amusement, taking his hand once again to step out onto the balcony and into the chill air to look at the dark city around them.
"If only," he replied, a little more quietly, as if that reply was meant only for her. "See, Miss Biala?" he asked, purposely raising his voice so that the agent listening would hear them and think they were only having a romantic moment. "The sun is still there. Even at night, the sun is shining somewhere."
"That is a very romantic notion, Maxim," she answered, uncertain quite what was going on here. "But I see only the moon, shining on the city. The moon has always seemed cold to me."
"Why is that, do you think?" he asked, seemingly sincerely interested. She had his complete attention, at least for the moment. He turned to face her, admiring her silhouette in the moonlight, despite his heart's warning to beware.
She sighed, forgetting for a moment the strangeness of the situation. Arms wrapped about herself, she looked up at the moon, barely aware of his eyes on her. "Because it is always dark when she shines," she said quietly. "And there is nothing but the cold when the world is a dark place."
"Perhaps you just need someone to keep you warm." He moved forward to wrap his arms around her, as if he wanted to keep her warm or maybe just hold her close. While those thoughts weren't far from his mind, what he really wanted was to tell her what to expect in the next few hours without worrying about anyone overhearing him. He lowered his voice to a whisper, his lips close to her ear. "We are going to leave tonight. You must follow my lead and do everything I say, da?"
Tucked close into his arms, Aleksandra knew he could feel the tension slipping from her body as he finally made things clearer for her. She nodded very slightly. "When?" she whispered back, unsure quite how long this moment of free speaking was going to last.
"Sometime in the night, when they believe we have gone to bed. We will have to be very quiet. Some friends will come to cover for us. You must be careful not to give us away," he whispered, knowing he was taking a risk in staying out here for so long, but with any luck, his handler would think they were smooching.
"So ... we must continue as we have been until ... until that time?" she asked, tilting her head further back. If anyone had a view of them, all they would see was a diminutive woman in the arms of a tall man, their faces so close as to be touching.
"Da," he whispered back. He knew it would be hard for her and that she was likely scared and nervous. "Do not worry. I won't let anyone hurt you," he whispered, drawing her close against him into his embrace. There was something about the way he was holding her that might make her think this was more than simply keeping up appearances.
She couldn't hide her trembling from him, not when he held her close. And why was he holding her so close, she wondered. He didn't need to wrap her up quite so tightly if this was all for show, but then ... she didn't need to hold onto him the way she was, either. "I trust you," she whispered to him, tempted to kiss him for real. But any kiss here, tonight, would just be part of the ruse. It wouldn't mean anything.
He wanted to tell her how brave she was for doing this, for coming forward with information that was likely to save a lot of lives at risk to her own, but he couldn't. Not here, not now, not when the walls literally had ears. He might have been tempted to kiss her, too, had the circumstances been different, but he couldn't risk getting too close - not with what he had planned.
"Come, we should go back inside before you freeze," he told her, not bothering to keep his voice quiet as he wasn't saying anything he didn't mind his handler overhearing.
"I am sure you have more than one way to warm me up if I do," she countered, her voice warmer now she had been reassured - as it would be after a long slow kiss under the moonlight, too.
"Perhaps, but you will have to wait until after dinner to find out," he replied, a smile on his face, even though it was hardly necessary. To the best of his knowledge, no one was watching, only listening, so why was he smiling? He didn't give her the chance to ask, instead helping her back into the warmth of his apartment and closing the window behind them.
Her answering smile was shy but inviting, not an expression easily feigned, and certainly not by someone untrained in such things. "Oh, you monster, how will I ever survive?" Aleksandra responded, laughing to herself as he helped her back into the apartment. Her hands lingered for a moment against his arms, longer than perhaps they should have. Then she turned away, returning to the kitchen to inspect the golabki in the oven.
He chuckled a little at her question, wondering just how much of the flirting between them was real and how much was fake. Was he imagining some attraction between them or was it real? He tried to push those thoughts from his mind, unable to afford them to creep in when it could put them both in danger. He watched her a moment before following her into the kitchen. It wasn't hard to pretend to be attracted to her when he was starting to really feel that way, but it would only make things harder in the end.
"What do you like to drink, Aleksandra?" he asked as he joined her.
Bent to look into the oven, she glanced up at him through her lashes, apparently unable to keep herself from flirting with him, even knowing that it was none of it real. There was that small part of her, though, that couldn't help hoping a little piece might be real. She was going to need a friend in America, after all, wasn't she?
"What do you have?" she asked him in turn. "I am not such a big fan of vodka, but I will drink it."
"Perhaps cognac would be more to your liking?" he suggested, as he opened a cupboard and reached inside to withdraw a pair of glasses. Vodka might have been to his liking, but it was not his goal to get her drunk, so much as to relax her a little.
"I do not think I have ever had it," she admitted, closing the oven once again. "Another few minutes for our meal to cook, I think." Leaning back against the counter, she tried to take a deep breath as quietly as possible, pressing her fingers to the surface edge beside her hips in an attempt to hide the shaking that still hadn't fully calmed.
"Do not drink too much," he warned as he procured a bottle from some cupboard or other and poured out a small portion into each glass. "It can be strong, but it has a different flavor than vodka." Oh, he could just about hear his handler's snores at the mediocrity of their conversation.
"Somehow, I do not think you are boring enough for me to drown my sorrows in your alcohol while still in your company," she assured him. She, of course, didn't know that it was almost certain that every word was being followed somehow, but he had warned her. She might not be an award-winning actress, but she could do this.
"Take small sips," he told her as he handed her a glass, waiting to see what her reaction would be to the cognac before sipping his own. If she didn't like it, there was always wine.
Her fingers brushed his as she took the glass, sniffing the potent spirit for a moment before taking a tiny sip from the snifter. "Goodness ... that is very strong," she laughed. "Pleasant, though."
"It will help warm you," he told her. "But do not drink too much or it will go to your head," he warned, not taking his own advice it seemed, as he took a gulp of the amber-colored liquid.
"Ah." A sudden wicked glimmer of a smirk touched her face as she watched him gulp his cognac. "I see that I am the one who must take advantage of you tonight."
He chuckled, amused by her flirtation, but unsure if it was sincere or merely the part she was playing. "I doubt I would mind," he replied, before taking another swallow of the cognac. It would take more than one drink for him to get drunk, and their escape was still many hours away.
Sipping her own, Aleksandra blushed, tilting her gaze away once again. "You never answered my question," she pointed out, taking the opportunity to see if she could make him squirm a little. "Why would you choose me, over all the willing ladies we work with?"
"As I said, perhaps I like a challenge," he replied, matching the reply he had given her before, which was hardly an answer. The truth was he had chosen her because he had been instructed to by his A.E.G.I.S. contact, but he could hardly admit that openly.
"I do not see that I have presented much of a challenge, Maxim," she pointed out over the rim of her glass. "Unless you have a different challenge in mind. Do you, perhaps, fear that I may be fit enough to beat you in a race? Or strong enough to win in a wrestling match?"
"That is not what I mean," he said, as he refilled his glass, making sure he did not overdo it or he'd be no use to either of them. "You said it yourself ... Do you think I don't notice when someone is interested?" he asked. "But I prefer to choose for myself, and I chose you," he replied simply.
"Well, you would be blind indeed not to notice all the attention you get," she teased him a little wickedly. "All you have to do is walk through a busy room, and women's eyes follow you hopefully."
He shrugged nonchalantly as if he was aware but unimpressed by this knowledge. "But they do not know me, do they?" he asked, knowing he was something of a closed book - an enigma - but perhaps that was part of his charm, intentional or not.
"No, they do not," she conceded. "But neither do I, and yet here I stand." She wasn't quite on the cusp of admitting to having been one of the women who watched him whenever he passed through just yet, but she had a horrible feeling he already knew she was.
He paused, frowning a little as he contemplated a response. He knew his handler was listening; how much did he want to admit out loud for not only her ears, but his, too. He had to remember that this was supposed to just be a date - an opportunity to get to know each other better. As far as his handler was concerned, that was all this was. "Women are always complaining about being objectified," he pointed out. "Do you think it is any different for men?"
"No, I do not," she agreed easily enough, appreciating that he didn't seem to want to follow this conversation through, even if it was for the benefit of anyone listening in. "But people living and working in close proximity with one another have to find something to talk about. Do not think I do not know about the table the security staff put together of women in the facility, ranked by their best features."
He arched a brow, a little surprised to learn she knew of that, though that had not been his doing. He'd had to pretend to be part of the security staff, to blend in, to get along with his coworkers, but in all truth, he wasn't really one of them. That, too, was all part of the ruse. It was just a part he had to play in order to achieve a larger goal. Was this conversation part of that ruse or not? The line between what was genuine and real and not so real was starting to blur, and the cognac didn't help. "Would you rather I was attracted to your brain or your face?" he asked, as he refilled his glass for a third time, intending to slowly sip this one.
"Is it too much to hope for both?" she asked mildly, looking down into her glass. "Surely it is better to like the face and the mind, rather than one or the other. I know I do not look like Russian women; I stand out because of my heritage. But I hope not in a bad way."
He took a step forward, almost forgetting this was all part of a show they were putting on for their listener, to convince him that they were just a man and a woman who were attracted to each other and not a secret agent who was trying to help a woman escape Hydra. "Perhaps it was your face that first attracted me, but it is not all that you are," he told her quietly as he found himself reaching for her hands.
There was just the barest suspicion in her eyes as he took her hands, a knowledge that not everything said or done here or now could be taken as anything but a mask for what they were waiting for. "The same can be said for you, Maxim," she answered just as quietly. "Not every good man comes with a handsome face."
He lifted his brows again, a little startled at her description of him, but it wasn't the word "handsome" that surprised him so much as the word "good". "And vice versa, I suppose," he murmured. "But perhaps you should not think so much of me," he said, almost afraid she might truly be falling for the man she thought he was.
"A strange thing for a man to say when he has asked me on a date," she answered, an arch of her brow assuring him that she understood this wasn't real. However much she might want it to be - and in other circumstances, would have thoroughly enjoyed it being so - she knew this was all a facade. She wasn't foolish enough to think he had ever even noticed her before his orders came through.
It was not the time or place for him to be telling her whether he'd noticed her before he'd received his orders to extricate her from Hydra. He was still frowning at her, not forgetting they were being listened, but not really caring either. "Perhaps you should define good," he told her. He knew they were supposed to pretend not to know anything about Hydra, but neither of them was working for that organization - not really.
There were any number of things she could have said in answer, but none of them were precisely safe to speak aloud when they were certain of being overheard. So she went with an exaggeration, instead. "You could have had me in that office, and not bothered with the date," she told him almost teasingly. "But you didn't. Perhaps I have low standards for defining good."
"Perhaps my reputation is a little inflated," he replied, relieved she had not taken him too seriously. His head was starting to feel a little fuzzy, just when he needed to remain sharp. But they were on a date, and he couldn't very well switch to coffee now.
"Perhaps a little," she agreed, pushing herself out of her lean to check the golabki. "This looks about done. Shall we eat?"
He let go of her hands, feeling a little out of sorts for a moment, confused perhaps as to what he was feeling. This was a ruse and nothing more, wasn't it? She didn't really like him, did she? And just how did he feel about her? He rubbed at his temple as if to rub away the threat of a headache while she checked their dinner. "That is what dinner is all about, da?" he asked, with a faint smile.
"I do believe so, da," she told him, her smile brightening with the prospect of something far more normal than they'd enjoyed thus far this evening. Besides, escaping after a good meal was probably a very good idea. Taking the casserole dish from the oven, she turned toward the table. "Shall I be "mother" as well?"
"If that is what you wish," he replied, with the easy-going smile returning to his face, thankful she had lightened a mood that had been in danger of turning too serious. "What can I do to help?"
"Well, plates are always a good start," she teased, laughing quietly. "Unless we are attempting to eat this the way Italians eat spaghetti in the movies."
"And how is that?" he asked, as he turned toward the cupboards to fetch plates and stainless. The kitchen was a little bare, as if he didn't use it much, but there was the usual array of cook and dinnerware, like you might find in any ordinary kitchen.
"From the same plate," she chuckled, watching as he produced plates. "Though I do not believe golabki would result in an inadvertant kiss if we should happen to eat the same part at the same time."
"Ah, you are speaking of the old Disney dog movie, da?" he asked with a hint of amusement in his eyes. So he knew at least a little something about pop culture, even if it was pop culture of the past.
"The Trampy Dog, or whatever it was called," she agreed with a firm nod, dishing out servings onto the plates he provided. "I was not able to watch many Disney films when I was small, but that one was definitely not a favorite."
"That would make me the Trampy Dog, and you the Lady," Maxim pointed out with a smirk. "Why was it not a favorite?" he asked, genuinely curious. He'd never had much time or opportunity to enjoy Disney films growing up, but that was another story.
"I found it boring," she admitted, sliding into a seat to take up her knife and fork. It had been a long time since lunch, and home-cooked food always tasted better, anyway. "I suppose I was a strange child - I was not interested in the adventures of dogs."
He missed the opportunity to pull out her chair, instead going to refill their glasses, but this time with water, rather than cognac. Whoever was listening didn't need to know what they were drinking. "What were you interested in?" he asked, before claiming a chair across the table from her.
Aleksandra smiled at her own nostalgia. "I liked ... space films, future films," she told him. "Like The Flight of the Navigator, and Star Trek. Films where the technology was so much a part of the narrative. I wanted to know how it all worked, if it was possible."
"You prefer Star Trek over Star Wars then," he said, assuming rather than asking. "Star Trek is an ideal of what the world - the universe - could be," he said, as he cut into his golabki. "But I assume it is the science that captivated you."
"The warp drive is possible, theoretically," she enthused. "But there are many other applications of science that would make our world a better place. I am not so good at the concept, the science behind it, but I can take a scientist's idea and make it real. I enjoy the challenge." She smiled around a mouthful, relaxing into eating food that was rehydrated for once. "And what of you? What did you wish to do as a child, what did you enjoy?"
"Me?" he asked, with a shrug of his shoulders, turning quickly back to his dinner in hopes she'd miss the slightly dismayed expression on his face. He couldn't very well answer that honestly, not when the walls had ears. Or could he? "Promise you won't laugh."
She raised a brow, made curious by his display of odd discomfort with the question. "You did not laugh at me," she pointed out. "I would be no kind of friend if I chose to laugh at you."
"I wanted to be a cosmonaut," he replied, as he brought a forkful of stuffed cabbage to his mouth. That confessed, he made an appreciative sound at the taste of her cooking. "Good! Better than good. Delicious," he told her, once he'd chewed and swallowed his first bite. "Perhaps you should have been a chef."
"Why would I laugh at that?" Aleksandra asked in confusion, though she smiled as he complimented her cooking. "My mama liked to cook, and she taught me. She had very traditional ideas about what a girl should be interested in, but my papa convinced her to let me study engineering."
"A pretty woman with a brain who knows how to cook. It sounds like a perfect package," he said, smiling warmly, which made it hard to tell if he was being sincere or just playing the game.
She snorted with laughter, groping for her glass before she choked on her mouthful. "Perfect is a long way from what I am," she assured him, once her throat was clear. "But it is nice you think so."
"No one is perfect, Aleksandra," he pointed out. "But some are closer to perfect than others," he said, gesturing to the quickly-disappearing food on his plate with a fork. "This is perfect."
"Ah, then I have earned my night out of the facility," she laughed teasingly. "Your requirements were only for good golabki. So what are you going to give me for providing perfect golabki?" It was perfect date-night type teasing; the fact that it came very easily in his company was just a side-benefit his Hydra colleague upstairs would no doubt be enjoying if he was even listening anymore.
"Hmm, that is a very good question," he mused aloud. "Do you have anything in mind?" he asked. He had something in mind himself, but he wasn't too sure what the man listening might think of it. Then again, this was supposed to be a date and he had a reputation to uphold.
"I'm sure we can think of something." To a listening ear, that must have sounded decidedly suggestive. It was getting easier to play the part assigned to her. Aleksandra told herself it was because she was growing more comfortable in his company.
"I'm sure we can," he agreed with a smile. "But first, I need to do the dishes." It was only fair since she had done all the cooking, and they still had a few more hours to kill until it was time for them to make their escape.
"I can help with that," she offered easily. It was better than giving into the urge to admire his backside while he was washing up, after all.
"You don't have to," he told her, though he wasn't going to refuse her help. "Do you like music?" he asked, out of the blue. His apartment was a little sparsely furnished, but he did have a small music collection.
"I do, though there is not much call for it in the facility," she admitted, rising to help clear the table. "I work, I eat, I sleep, I occasionally get nudged into gossiping for a little while. Entertainment is a little scarce below ground."
He frowned a little for some reason as he moved to his feet to gather up the dishes. He didn't like to think about the kind of life she was being forced to lead, but with any luck, she would be free of it soon. It also reminded him that she was not the only one there who needed saving, but he couldn't very well talk about that now. "What kind of music do you like?" he asked further, leaving the rest of what she'd said alone for now.
She shrugged. "I like everything, really," she admitted. "Well, apart from jazz. I do not understand why I should have to listen to someone expertly play their instrument badly for their own amusement."
"Badly?" he echoed, with a chuckle. "Perhaps you have only heard bad jazz," he pointed out as he set the dishes on the counter and turned on the water to fill the sink. Though the sound of the water running might muffle their voices a little, he couldn't make that assumption.
"It is musical masturbation, and I do not see why I should have to listen to it," she countered, flashing him a warm smirk as she brought the rest of the dishes to the counter.
"Mastur ..." he broke off, for the first time since they'd met actually laughing. It was the only thing to be heard for a long moment while he tried to recover from his fit of laughter. "That is the first time I have ever heard anyone compare jazz to, well ... that."
She raised her brows, quietly delighted to have elicited what seemed to be a genuine laughing response to her silly opinion about one genre of music. "They do it for their own pleasure," she pointed out with a grin.
"Is that what you think?" he asked, not disagreeing with her, but not entirely agreeing either. He had his own opinion about music, just as she did, but it seemed he did not quite agree with her regarding jazz.
"I do," she nodded. "Surely part of the joy in music is in sharing it - in playing a tune, a melody, that your audience enjoys, can follow. I do not like being forced to listen to something I cannot even begin to predict, and even when I have seen jazz played live, it does not seem to be for the audience. Jazz musicians play for themselves."
"They play for the sheer joy they feel while playing, Aleksandra. Do you not hear it and feel it in their music?" he asked, turning to face her, as he tried to explain this to her. It seemed she had accidentally stumbled on something that interested him.
She shook her head slowly, tilting her chin to meet his eyes as he faced her. He really was very tall, and she wasn't exactly average height herself. "No, I have never ... never felt included in jazz music," she tried to explain herself. "I feel as though my only purpose is to be there. As though I am not even required to listen. What is the point of music if it does not invite others to enjoy it with you?"
He could not help but be aware of how tall he was compared to her. Some had even accused him of being a giant, but tall though he was, he did not try to lord it over her. "Well," he said, turning back toward the sink to get started on the dishes. "What kind of music do you like then?" he asked, giving up on his argument regarding jazz.
"It is your turn to try not to laugh at me," she warned, taking up a cloth to dry the dishes as he was done with them. "I like ... I like music with a happy beat, but I like music that makes me cry as well. It does not have to be any specific genre. If I feel something, I like it."
"And you feel nothing when you hear jazz?" he assumed, circling back around to that topic again. For some reason, he seemed determined to prove her wrong.
She shook her head, smiling at his stubborn refusal to admit that she might have a point, at least about some jazz musicians. "No, I have never felt anything but annoyance when I try to listen to jazz."
"Is that a challenge?" he asked, with a grin. Now, this was more the stuff of dates, although it might not seem particularly romantic. Jazz wasn't the kind of music you slow danced to, after all, but he seemed determined to change her mind.
Tilting her head, she met his grin with a wary smirk of her own. "If you think I can be persuaded otherwise, by all means ... try." Now that was a challenge.
"Perhaps I shall," he admitted, tilting his head down to smile back at her. It was a warm, genuine kind of smile that was hard to fake. Either he was starting to enjoy her companionship or he was a very good actor.
Actor or not, he was encouraging enough to help her relax over the long few hours before they could feasibly make a play of retiring to the bedroom. After all, what seduction takes place over washing dishes immediately after eating? But after a couple of drinks, and a session of listening to music that started a spirited debate over whether or not he had tried to pass off swing as jazz, the moment would have been perfect for a seduction to begin.
It was a moment that started with another song. He knew he was taking a chance in letting his handler listen, but if listening to American music was the worst they could accuse him of, he'd consider himself lucky. It was Nat King Cole he put on the turntable, the record old and scratchy, but the smooth voice still shining through. When I fall in love, it will be forever ... Maxim held out a hand to her, an expectant look on his face. "May I?"
"Are you asking me to dance, Maxim?" she asked, her smile bright in response. She'd almost forgotten the whole purpose of the evening, her attention caught up in this man who was so much easier to talk to and be comfortable with than she had imagined he might be.
"Would you mind if I am?" he asked, something about the look on his face and the way he was asking that seemed too sincere to be merely an act. "Pozhaluysta," he told her quietly. Please.
Setting her glass aside, she slid her hand into his, touched by the quiet "please" more than anything. "I have not danced with anyone for years," she warned him with a smile. Her sweater had been discarded more than an hour ago, her top thin enough that she could feel his hand plainly through the soft fabric.
Despite his reputation, he had not danced with anyone in a very long time either. And he had never shared his love of music with anyone either, since his parents had passed away many years before. "Well, then, it is about time you did," he told her, taking her hand and drawing her close. He held her in the classic style, one arm around her waist, the other hand in hand as he moved her slowly about the small space to the voice of Nat King Cole.
The first minute or so was spent with her eyes downcast between them, careful not to step on his toes. Despite the ruse, this felt strangely intimate, and she couldn't help wondering about that reputation of his; wondering how many times he had done this with other women, and how successful it had been. Lifting her eyes to his, she found herself smiling, nonetheless, at a loss for anything to say.
She might be surprised to know that he had not done this as often as she and others might think. There was no necessity for conversation as they slowly moved together, the words speaking for him, even if he didn't dare say them himself. And yet, he knew it was useless. His job - his duty - was to get her to safety; nothing more, nothing less. For the first time in a long time, he found himself wishing for something more, something that could never be.
But, at last, came the sound only he was listening for, a sound only he would take any notice of. The sound of the window in the bedroom almost silently sliding up, as two A.E.G.I.S. agents entered the apartment to take up the deception.
He leaned close as he heard the agents almost silently enter the room, his voice close to her ear. "It's time," he whispered, gently breaking away from her to turn the music off before taking her by the hand and leading her toward the bedroom. The next few minutes would determine whether they were successful or not.
Instantly, Aleksandra's calm deserted her, the tension she had almost rid herself of returning to set her heart pounding. She nodded, trembling once again as he took her by the hand to lead her into the bedroom. What she found there were a pair of strangers, similar in build and complexion to herself and Maxim. For a long, painfully uncertain moment, there was silence as one of those agents handed Maxim an electronic pad, on which was displayed the address he had to get her to before anything else could be done. Then, with the message passed on, the pair began to provide the appropriate background noise for the handler listening in.
Maxim laid a finger against his lips to indicate that they needed to be as quiet as possible, even though the other pair of agents was there to cover for them. Having an eidetic memory, there was no need for him to write the address down. Time was of the essence, and so, he led Aleksandra once again toward the fire escape, this time with the intention of taking her to freedom.
Thank goodness Aleksandra had chosen soft-soled shoes for the evening. She made barely a sound climbing out onto the fire escape, despite the sudden bite of the Arctic chill against her body from the warmth of the apartment, brutally suppressing any sound that wanted to make itself known from her throat as she picked her way down the metal staircase in Maxim's wake.
His training made itself obvious in the way he took her hand and quietly led her down the stairs and into the darkness. One last glance at the apartment building ensure they had not been followed. He touched a finger to her lips to indicate she maintain her silence a while longer, before leading her away from the building to melt into the shadows of night.
Shivering as much with terror as with the cold, Aleksandra nodded to acknowledge his instruction to stay silently, feeling the fingers beginning to burn in the cold as they hurried away through the shadows of the city at night. She wasn't even paying attention to their location or destination, blessedly relieved when a door opened to invite them inside and down into a basement that was, thankfully, well heated. Two sets of clothing were laid out, male and female - complete sets, she noted with a suddenly flush of embarrassment, turning to find an elderly woman talking to Maxim.
"You take the tunnel to the docks, you take the Austin parked by the exit from the underground, you drive to the freight station and straight onto the last carriage of the train due to leave at ten," the woman was saying. "It is an express, you will be in Nellim by midnight. The Widow is meeting you there. Change your clothes, I will dispose of them."
"Austin?" Maxim echoed. "An Austin isn't very discreet," he pointed out as he started to strip down right in front of the two women. He had more important things to worry about than modesty. He peeled his coat off, followed by his shirt, a few old scars riddling a toned torso that was more athletic than muscular.
"Exactly," the woman pointed out, pausing to encourage Aleksandra to change her clothes before returning her gaze to Maxim. "You think you are the first people I have helped to get out of this city? Trust me, darling, I know what I am doing."
"I don't have much choice," he replied, pausing as his hands fell to unfasten his pants. He furrowed his brows at the woman before turning around, showing at least a small amount of modesty. He knew this had to be perfectly planned, executed, and timed, or they'd be dead or worse. If it had only been his own life at stake, he might not have worried so much, but he had Aleksandra to think of.
"You are not alone in this," the old woman assured him. "There are friendly eyes on you. Now, change, drink your coffee, and I will open the tunnel." She nodded to them both, slipping out of the basement.
Aleksandra bit her lip, turning her attention to changing her clothes. By far the most embarrassing part of this was changing her underwear, but she had to trust that Maxim would not stare at her. She'd inherited her shape and complexion from her mother, a Spaniard who had fallen for a Pole and brought her genetics into the bloodline; it made for finding clothing that fit something of a challenge, but whoever had provided these had done their homework well.
It was hard for him to stare at her when he had his back turned, peeling off his clothing and changing into fresh shirt and pants and jacket. He had a gun, too - something small he could easily hide upon his person. It was the only weapon he needed really, being a weapon himself. Once he was ready, he remained with his back turned, waiting for her to let him know when she was finished changing.
The clothing was Western manufacture, but clearly chosen to help her fend off the Arctic chill in layers that were surprisingly comfortable. Even her hair barrette was set aside; she wasn't entirely sure quite why everything had to be left behind, but she wasn't going to argue. The only things she kept were her locket and watch, but she could be certain of those - they never left her, even when she was sleeping.
Perching on the edge of the couch to lace the boots, she cleared her throat, the coat, scarf, and gloves still laying beside her. "What is wrong with our clothes?"
"They will not keep us warm enough where we are going," he told her. That was the simplest explanation he could offer. There was, of course, the matter of being recognized, but with any luck, their disappearance wouldn't be discovered for some time yet. Even so, he intended to return, one way or another, to see to the destruction of the facility.
She frowned, glancing at the pile of discarded clothing. "We are going to Finland?" she queried, tilting her head. "Who is the Widow?" It was an unsettling sort of code-name for someone who had never heard it before.
"Da," he replied, confirming their destination. She had heard the old woman's instructions as clearly as he had, after all. "The Widow is ..." He paused, trailing off a moment. How to explain? "She is my contact and a friend. I would trust her with my life." No, she wasn't a lover, but Aleksandra had no way of knowing that.
"A friend," she repeated, nodding. She paused, looking around the room. "I-I do not know how to fight," she heard herself say. "I cannot even run very fast. This is dangerous, isn't it?"
He turned to face her, his face hard to see in the dim light. The laughter they had shared only a short time earlier was gone, replaced by an undeniably serious expression. He did not look grim, but he needed her to understand that more than their lives was at risk if they failed. "Da, it is dangerous, but you must not think on that. Think instead on what it will mean if we are successful. Think of the lives that will be saved, including your own."
She nodded, drawing in a deep breath. "I will try not be a problem," she managed quietly, turning to pull on the provided coat and scarf. She wasn't going to be able to stomach coffee, not now.
He sighed a little, stepping toward her to turn her gently to face him. "If you have changed your mind, say so now, but I cannot make any promises as to your safety if I take you back there," he told her. What she did next was up to her - she could continue to put her trust in him and escape with her freedom or return to Hydra and likely wind up dead.
"I am not going back," she insisted swiftly. "I ... I can't. I sabotaged Overmind twenty minutes before we walked out of the facility. No one will notice it until tomorrow morning." The guilt on her face was perhaps a little startling at this confession, but she was the engineer that had helped to make Overmind a real possibility. Breaking it cost a lot more than pride.
"You what?" he asked, his grip tightening on her arm, only because he was so shocked by her admission. She had no choice now but to flee the country, with or without his help. And then, just as suddenly, he let go of her and started to laugh.
Aleksandra stared at him, only vaguely aware of a slight ache in her arm where his grip had increased for that short moment. Of all the reactions to her confession, she had not expected laughter. "What?"
"Nothing ..." he said, pressing a hand against his side as he tried to catch his breath. He knew he shouldn't be laughing, but he just couldn't help himself. "Nothing. It's just ... I was going to go back ..." he started. "To destroy the project." He gave her a hard look, wondering just how she'd accomplished what she claimed. "Are you sure you got all of it? There could be back-ups."
"There won't be after they load up the computers in the morning," she assured him. "I uploaded a virus into their system - it will wipe all stored information, corrupt hard-drives, and destroy the cloud. The project itself ... I corrupted the power source. When it overloads, it will destroy the precision circuitry that I created and somehow forgot to adjust the blueprints to reflect." She shrugged, eyeing him in concern. "You were going to go back?"
"You should have told me," he scolded her, but the scolding was mild. He actually appeared relieved she'd accomplished one of his objectives with little to no trouble, but he still had to be sure. "Da, to destroy the facility," he admitted, though that might still have to be accomplished, just to be eliminate them from starting again in the location. "They will want to know what you know," he warned, referring to A.E.G.I.S.
"And how would you do that?" she asked. "It is beneath the city. You would have to sacrifice part of Murmansk to destroy the whole facility." His warning brougth her brows together. "I will give them the blueprints," she told him. "But I won't tell them how I changed them in practice. No one should have the ability to link minds on a battlefield. It is a terrible thing to contemplate."
"I would not have any innocents harmed," he assured her, furrowing his brows as if the very thought of doing such a thing pained him. He hadn't been privy to all of A.E.G.I.S.'s plans, but he at least knew that the research information had to be destroyed.
"Maxim ... thank you," she said quickly. "You - you put yourself in danger to do this. I will not forget it." She would likely never forget him, even in the midst of beginning a new life in America. And she had no doubt she would be taken to America, rather than integrated anywhere in Europe. She did not think her employers would let her go so very easily.
"I -" he broke off, unsure what to say in response to her statement. He hadn't done it expecting any thanks. He had only done what he'd been ordered to do, what it had been his duty to do. And yet, he couldn't help but admit he had grown fond of her and would be glad when she was safe. At a complete lack for what to say next, he merely reminded her that they weren't safe yet. "Come, it is nearly time to go."
She nodded, turning to collect the gloves and slip them onto her hands. She was as bundled against the chill as she could hope to get, black hair loose but tucked in by the wrap of her scarf. A casual glance wouldn't show anything more than a woman dressed for the weather.
As she opened her mouth to ask what came next, the door opened, and their elderly host admitted herself once again. She looked them over with a critical eye.
"You will do," she announced. "Come, this way."
If there'd been time, he might have said more, but there wasn't much point. He wasn't sure what was going to happen once they arrived in Finland and met with the Widow. He knew it was likely Aleksandra would be taken to America, where she could share her knowledge with A.E.G.I.S. in relative safety, but he did not think it likely he'd share her fate. He gave the old woman a nod of his head and turned to follow, taking the rear behind the two women.
Glancing back to be certain he was with her, Aleksandra fell in behind the old woman, letting her lead the way to a seemingly flawless wall. But one hidden switch later, and the wall slid back to reveal a dry, dark tunnel. The old woman handed them torches. "Take the second right and continue until you reach the third left turn. Take the stairs up, and you will be at the docks." She pressed the car key into Maxim's hand.
"Spasibo," he told the woman, gripping the woman's hand momentarily as she handed him the keys. He did not even know her name to thank her properly, but it hardly mattered. What followed would be the most dangerous part of their journey. He didn't wait for her reply, but reached for Aleksandra's hand to drew her with him into the tunnel.
No doubt he could feel his little engineer trembling once again as the wall slid shut behind them, plunging them into pitch black for a few moments before the torches were flicked on. But even that light made the space seem small and intimidating. "And no one else will be down here?"
"I do not think so," he replied, his face an eerie mix of torchlight and shadow that gave him a ghost-like quality. "Are you ready?" he asked, feeling her trembling with fear and needing her to be brave.
"I have no choice but to be," she pointed out, swallowing down her fear as best she could. She took a deep breath, settling her grip on the torch she held. "Let's go."
He nodded, satisfied she was ready or at least as ready as she was going to be. He let go of her hand so that they could manuever their way through the maze of tunnels, remembering when to turn right and left until they reached the stairs. This would be the most dangerous part of the journey - coming out of the darkness of the tunnel into the darkness of night.
Aleksandra walked close beside him all the way, trying not to think about bullets in the dark, or the imaged thought of footsteps from the opening they passed on the way. It was probably just as well she didn't know which part of their journey was the most dangerous. The pause by the door to extinguish torches was nerve-wracking enough.
Thankfully, the Austin was right where the woman said it would be - parked close enough to the exit that it was easy to find, even in the dark. "Come," he urged Aleksandra, once they'd emerged and extinguished their torches, so as not to draw any unwanted attention to themselves. He reached for her hand to lead the way to the car, hardly waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dark.
The door they emerged from was marked with a sign that declared it to be a public toilet and out of order, the street light above it broken to cast the door into shadow. Wrapping her gloved fingers through Maxim's, Aleksandra swallowed, forcing herself to walk at a measured pace by his side. "And we just ... drive?"
"We drive to the freight station, like the old woman told us, and onto the last car. The train is leaving at ten ..." He trailed off a moment to glance at his watch. "We'd better hurry," he told her, seeing as it was already almost half past nine. With that in mind, he pulled the keys from his pants pocket and unlocked the door to let her in before going around to do the same, taking the driver's seat.
Dropping into the old car, she tugged the door shut and pulled the belt on, huddling gratefully inside the warm coat she had been given for her escape. "And we stay in the car while it is on the train?" she asked. "I am not trying to be annoying, I am simply trying to understand."
"Da," he replied, fitting the key into the ignition and turning over the engine. In his mind, he was secretly praying the car started, but he had no reason to think it wouldn't, other than bad luck. "We are sneaking across the border, Aleksandra. If we are careful, no one will know. We will meet our contact there."
"Of course." Aware that even her breathing was shaking in the quiet before the engine started, she hunched in the seat, unconsciously raising her knees to her chest in an old habit that really wasn't very safe in a moving vehicle. It had been a very long time since she'd been frightened enough to curl into a ball and hope the world went away, but some habits died very hard indeed.
"Aleks," he said, shortening her name without realizing it, as he glanced at her from the driver's seat. "You must trust me. It will be all right," he promised, a serious look on his face, blue eyes shining in the darkness. It was all he said, and then the car was moving, and he was driving as quickly as safety would allow in the direction of the station.
Aleks. In all her life, only one person had ever called her that - her brother. Andrei had delighted in shortening her name to annoy their mother when they were children, and it had eventually stuck long after their parents' deaths. He was the only person she had ever allowed to give her a nickname ... and yet now she was allowing Maxim Ivanovich the same privilege, without even a moment of concern. She had no doubt that he would do everything he could to get her safely out of danger tonight. Step one was getting to the station and onto the freight car that awaited them.
Was he scared or even nervous? It was hard to tell. In truth, he didn't have much time to be scared. Fear was the enemy, and if he let himself give into fear, he had already failed. Fortunately, luck was on their side, it seemed, as they reached the freight station without incident. Now it was a matter of finding the right train.
Even in that arena, however, there were agents placed strategically to assist them. At the gate to the station, they were waved through with subtle signals toward the right track; the right train was made clear when a pair of workers slid a ramp down from the last car apparently at random as Maxim drove toward it. Everything was slick and tight, suggesting that more was riding on this than a mere extraction, if only to the trained agent behind the wheel.
Maxim had noticed how smoothly things were going, how simple it had all been. Almost too simple. It wasn't just A.E.G.I.S. who was interested in extracting the engineer from the Hydra facility, it seemed. Maxim was betting Mother Russia was on their side, too. He followed the instructions they were being given, driving straight to the ramp and onto the freight car, where they finally came to a halt.
"That was easy," he mused aloud. A little too easy.
The rumble of the ramp being removed and the door closed behind them not withstanding, it was no surprise when this second plunge into darkness elicited a small squeak from his terrified companion. Something about the way he'd commented on the ease of their journey thus far had turned her stomach to ice. Then, in the darkness, there was the crackle of a radio - the car radio - and a female voice spoke to them in their shared Russian.
"What, you were expecting a moonlight car chase, big guy?"
Maxim reached upwards and flicked on the car's interior lights, a smirk on his face at the sound of a familiar female voice coming from the radio. "You never know," he replied back in his native Russian. "Where are you? Are you moonlighting as a disc jockey now?" he teased, knowing she had to be close. But how close?
The smile was audible in the voice that answered. "Turn the headlights on, I can't see a damned thing in here."
In confusion, Aleksandra squinted into the darkness, trying to work out what was going on here.
"Ah, that close," Maxim muttered, as he reached to flick on the car's headlights. He wasn't sure what Aleksandra was going to think of their contact, but he was about to find out.
There wasn't much to see with the headlights on ... just the stark interior of the freight carriage, and a redhead dressed in black, lounging against one of the walls. She was smirking at Maxim as the light illuminated her, pushing off to crook her finger and invite them both out of the car.
"Who is that?" Aleksandra whispered, still uncertain quite what was happening here.
"That is the Widow," Maxim replied, that smirk still on his face. He was obviously glad to see the redhead dressed in black, not because they were lovers, but because they were friends. "Come, I will introduce you," he promised Aleksandra, though the redhead would already know who she was. He pushed open the driver's side door and stepped out to his full height, towering over both women.
Undoing her belt, the engineer slipped cautiously from the car herself, eyeing this Widow person warily. The redhead had about one inch on her in height, though that was likely because of her shoes, moving forward to greet them.
"Ivanovich, you gotta stop eating borscht before you're too big to fit through doors," she said with easy camaraderie, turning to offer her wry smile to his companion. "Miss Biala, my name is Natasha Romanoff, and I'm with A.E.G.I.S. In about half an hour, you'll be in a safe house, and we'll debrief you both."
"So much for introductions," Maxim murmured, unable to hide a grin. "Who's we?" he asked, coming around to the front of the car and taking an easy-going lean against the hood, arms crossed against his chest. There was no kiss or hug offered the redhead, not even on the cheek. It wasn't that kind of friendship, it seemed.
"Thank you, Miss Romanoff." A little reassured, Aleksandra tucked her hands into her pockets, bracing herself against the car as the train began to move.
Natasha grinned at Maxim, crossing her own arms. "We would be high level agents from A.E.G.I.S. and a liaison team from Russian Intelligence," she told him. "R.I. reached out for help a couple of months ago. They knew Hydra had hold of the Murmansk facility, and they want to take it back. We've brokered a deal with them, but we didn't have an in until Miss Biala put out her call for help."
Aleksandra's hand rose as she glanced between them. "Excuse me ... did you say Hydra?"
Maxim hadn't forgotten that Aleksandra was there, but he'd been too busy trying to follow everything Natasha was telling them to interrupt with an explanation. "Da, Hydra," he replied, furrowing his brows at her curiously. "Do you know them?"
Aleksandra's eyes ticked back and forth between the agents, though her focus centered on Maxim. "As ... as a fairy story from the Second World War," she protested. "Some goblin-like organization that is trying to take over the world - have I been working for Hydra?"
Natasha swallowed her faint smirk, tilting her eyes toward Maxim. "She doesn't know?"
"Nyet," Maxim replied, his own expression sober now. "I have not told her yet. There was no time," he said, though the truth was that he simply hadn't wanted to take a chance on them being overheard and discovered by Hydra.
"Huh." Natasha raised a brow at him, crossing her arms as she leaned more comfortably against the wall of the freight carriage. "Miss Biala, Hydra is real. It's a subversive organisation with access to advanced technology, and it's ultimate goal is the subjugation of this world and probably as many others as it can find. S.H.I.E.L.D. was corrupted by Hydra. A.E.G.I.S. was formed specifically to combat Hydra. We've known Project Overmind was a Hydra project for months now. Who did you think you were working for?"
Aleksandra stared at her in horror. "I-I ... I was, I was working for Russian Intelligence," she quavered. "I was recruited by Russian Intelligence, how did they lose control of our work?"
"Do not blame yourself," Maxim interjected, recognizing her horror at having been duped by Hydra, as so many others had been. "It is what Hydra does. They infiltrated Russian Intelligence and took over the project. I am not really a security agent, Aleks. I work for Russian Intelligence. I was placed at the facility to look into things and when you reached out to A.E.G.I.S., I was ordered to extricate you," he explained, gesturing between them with his hands. What he didn't say was that over the last few days since they'd started working together, he had started to care about her in a way that was personal, rather than professional.
"But there are other projects under way in the Murmansk facility," the engineer objected, fear giving way to horrified concern about the hands those projects were in. "I've been involved with most of them - some are very close to completion; if Hydra were to make use of the new nerve agents, or the aerial distribution system -"
Natasha held up a hand. "Easy there," she warned. "We've got this. Hydra won't be in Murmansk by midday tomorrow."
Which was, in part, why Maxim had told her that he had to go back, though he wasn't entirely sure what A.E.G.I.S. had planned. "What is the plan?" he asked of Natasha. He didn't have to tell her of his loyalty to Mother Russia; even if she felt differently, she would know this about him already.
"A.E.G.I.S. will neutralize the facility, and remove any sensitive hardware and computer data, as well as known Hydra operatives, for further investigation," Natasha told him. "Russian Intelligence will then take control of the facility, and put it to their own use again. We need your access codes and knowledge of the facility, and we'll need you, Miss Biala, to accompany us on the initial sweep to identify the technology and data that should be removed."
There was no response from Aleksandra; she was ever so slightly slack-jawed, in awe of the smoothness with which all this had been arranged.
"Natasha, with all due respect, I did not extricate Alek ... Miss Biala ... only to send her back into the lion's den," Maxim protested, with a sour look on his face. What was the point of all the cloak and dagger if they were only going to be sent back?
"Oh, she won't be going in covert," Natasha said with a shrug. "She'll be with the first team. We probably don't have any gear that'll fit you, but you'll have a gas mask," she added to Aleksandra.
The engineer frowned. "A gas mask? Why would I need one?"
"Because we're going to release sedative gas into the air vents to neutralize the facility," the Black Widow informed her easily. She glanced at her watch. "Okay, I gotta step outside for a couple of minutes. Talk amongst yourselves."
Flashing Maxim a faint smirk that suggested she'd picked up more from his sour expression than he might have liked, she pulled open the door just far enough and swung herself onto the outside of the freight car as the countryside sped by.
Maxim's expression hadn't changed much, despite Natasha's smirk. He was obviously not pleased about the thought of Aleksandra having to return to the facility, no matter the seeming necessity of it. "How convenient," he muttered to himself as Natasha swung herself out of the freight car. How like her not to stick around to explain further, leaving the dirty work for him. Well, what should they talk about, he wondered, sarcastically.
There was silence for a long moment, broken only by the whistling of the wind as the train moved speedily along. Then Aleksandra spoke. "I've been working for Hydra." It was not a question, but the next part definitely was. "Andrei's fall was not an accident, was it?"
Maxim frowned, as he turned to Aleksandra. He knew she must be confused, feeling a mixture of guilt and fear and maybe a little anger to have been used in such a way. "I am sorry," he found himself apologizing for some reason. "I was not able to explain. Da, Hydra has been ..." He paused a moment as if searching for a word that wasn't too harsh. "... eliminating people once they are no longer needed. It is good you came to us when you did."
"They killed my brother so that nobody would even notice I was gone," she said, her voice dull in the strangely deafening quiet. "He died because of me. And now how many people will your A.E.G.I.S. kill, because of me? I wanted to make the world better. And just by doing that, I've killed my own brother!"
From the look on Maxim's face, he didn't look too surprised at her reaction, and yet, his eyes betrayed his sympathy and even concern. He reached for her, turning her to face him, hoping she would listen to what he had to say. "Listen to me, Aleksandra," he pleaded, "It is not your fault. If you want to blame anyone, blame Hydra. They are pure evil, and I will not rest until they are purged from Russia ... from the world!" he said, with a little more passion that he'd meant to show her.
Raising her eyes to him as he spoke, Aleksandra was not ashamed of the way her own eyes glistened with tears, revisiting the grief she'd felt on her brother's death with an unhealthy dose of guilt. "Neither will I," she vowed with Maxim. "I will help your A.E.G.I.S. break them. They killed my little brother. I will kill them."
"I will be there to kill them with you," he promised, his voice gentling, as he pulled her into his embrace. Was it so very hard to believe that he might actually care for her, even if he knew he shouldn't? "I promise you, we will avenge your brother's death ... together."
She nodded, pressing into his arms. They might only have actually become aware of each other as more than names and faces a few days ago, but the sheer pressure of what they had done tonight was more than enough to make some connection between them. "But ... you will be here," she pointed out. "I cannot stay in Russia. I have reached out to another agency - Russian Intelligence would never allow me the freedom to do anything but work for them and only them for the rest of my days."
While all that might be true, he had not thought that far ahead. He'd been thinking about the Murmansk facility, not what might become of them afterwards. "Perhaps we should ... How does the saying go? Cross that bridge when we reach it?" he asked, pulled back a little so he could brush the tears from her face.
Again, she nodded, trying to force a faint smile onto her face as he dried her cheeks. "I think you are the best friend I have ever had," she admitted softly, vaguely aware that the train seemed to be slowing down. "Strange to think so, isn't it?"
He tried not to let her see the disappointment he felt at being dubbed a friend, and yet, there were worse things to be. "You have only known me a few days," he admitted, a faint smile on his face. He, too, seemed to notice that the train was slowly, and he turned his head briefly in the direction of the door, which remained closed. "We are slowing," he said, assuming they must be arriving in Nellim, though they hadn't been traveling very long.
Aleksandra sniffled softly, raising her own hand to wipe her face dry. "We cannot be across the border yet," she pointed out in concern. "You ... you are sure your Widow is trustworthy?"
"Da, I trust her with my life," he confirmed, looking a little puzzled, but not terribly worried. As much as he trusted Natasha, it would have been nice to know what was going on. "Perhaps I should take a look," he murmured.
"We are trapped in a box with only a car for company," Aleksandra said warily. "You are the expert. If you think you should look, then look."
Maxim did trust Natasha, but at the same time, he needed to know what was going on and why they had stopped. It didn't seem as if the train had stopped. If that was the case, they would have heard the brakes; the car would have slowed along with the rest of the train. No, something else had happened. It had felt almost like they had slowed of their own accord. "I do not think we are attached to the train," he said, as he pulled away from her to take a very careful peek out the door.
He was right in his assumption. By the time Maxim reached the door to look outside, the freight carriage in which they were standing was already a hundred feet up in the air and rising still, swinging gently from a harness held by a large black helicopter.
Natasha's head appeared over the edge of the roof of the car. "Hey, big guy," she called to him. "Ten minutes, tops, and we'll be on the ground. Don't fall out."
Maxim muttered something in Russian that Natasha, at least, would recognize as vulgarity. "You are insane, you know this," he remarked to Natasha, partly teasing and partly serious. "I am going back inside now. I am not suicidal," he told her before ducking his head back into the train car. He made sure the door was secure before returning to Aleksandra and pulling her as far away from the door as possible. "Stay here. You do not want to know where we are," he warned her.
Natasha's laughter followed him back into the car as he shut the door firmly. Aleksandra, on the other hand, gave him a bemused look as he commented on her not wanting to know. She raised a brow. "I can feel the motion of the carriage," she said, almost gently. "I would guess that we are suspended somehow, perhaps from an aircraft?"
"I said you don't want to know," he repeated, or maybe he didn't want to know. He was no coward, but he wasn't quite as foolhardy as the Widow either. "Ten minutes, she said," he told her, echoing Natasha's words. And it had better not be a minute more.
Aleksandra considered him with an almost amused expression. "Are you afraid of heights, Maxim?" she asked, very nearly teasing him.
"I am not afraid of anything," he insisted, almost but not quite puffing out his chest in indignation. Of course, everyone was afraid of something, but it seemed Maxim Ivanovich was not going to openly admit what it was he was afraid of.
"Everyone is afraid of something," she countered, shaking her head. "But they do not have to say it out loud." She patted his arm, moving to lean against the hood of the car, her arms wrapped about herself as her thoughts turned back toward her brother, and the lie she seemed to have been living for the last four years of her life.
"What is it you are afraid of, Aleksandra?" he asked curiously, perhaps only to make conversation and distract himself from the knowledge that they were flying hundreds of feet above the ground, tethered only by a chain that attached to a helicopter. If he sensed her mood, he said nothing of it, as yet.
Being alone. But she couldn't say that aloud, not to him. Not yet, if ever. So she offered up a phobia that he could smile at. "Spiders," she told him with a vague smile of her own.
He did smile, a flash of white teeth in the darkness. "Rats," he countered, admitting to at least one of his fears. "Most women I know are afraid of spiders ... except Natasha," he pointed out. It was unlikely a woman whose code name was Black Widow was afraid of spiders, after all.
Aleksandra found herself laughing quietly. "You walked me through a sewer tunnel in the dark, and you are afraid of rats?" she asked, impressed that he hadn't given even a hint of that at the time.
"I did not have much choice," he told her, with a frown. Heights and rats, all in one night. He was either a very good actor or he was braver than even he gave himself credit for.
"I never would have guessed," she assured him quietly, her laughter fading to a faint smile. She glanced toward the door of the freight car, feeling the motion of the box they were inside change slightly. "It feels as though we might be stopping."
"Natasha said ten minutes," he told her, following her gaze toward the door. Could it have been ten minutes already? He didn't really want to think about being carried through the sky hundreds of feet from the ground.
"The motion of the carriage doesn't seem to reflect forward impetus any longer," Aleksandra told him, betraying her more technical mind. She couldn't just turn off being an engineer, after all.
He furrowed his brows at her, not irritated exactly, but a little uneasy at their current mode of transportation. "Is that a good thing?" he asked, bracing himself against the hood of the car, just in case.
"It would appear that we've reached our destination, and are being lowered to the ground, by the feel of the carriage," she mused thoughtfully. "Where do you suppose we are?"
"I do not think we have gone far enough to have left Russia yet," he replied. They couldn't have gone very far in ten minutes. Where exactly they were, he couldn't say for sure. "I am sure wherever we are is safe," he assured her. As he'd said, he trusted Natasha with his life - even if he wasn't too happy about this mode of transportation.
"This ... return she spoke of," Aleks said warily. "Will you be there? Or ... or is this the last I will ever see of you?" Strange, how the mind turns toward goodbyes when faced with the unknown.
He blinked, as if he was a little surprised at her question or maybe at the way she was asking it. "Do you really think I would let you go back there alone?" he asked. Though Natasha had mentioned that Aleks would be part of a team, he wasn't going to let her go back there without him.
"I do not know if you will have the choice," she said, her voice quiet with her discomfort. "I ... I am scared, Max. I don't know what they expect of me. What Russian Intelligence will do to me for reaching out to the West."
"They won't do anything, Aleks. I won't let them," he assured her, pulling her into his arms again and telling himself he was only doing it for her - to offer her a little comfort. It hadn't missed his attention that she'd called him Max, shortening his name to a more familiar version.
She sighed, laughing a little helplessly as he drew her into his arms again, unwilling to admit just how comforting that closeness was. No doubt he could feel her shaking again; they weren't out of the woods yet. "I don't want you to put yourself in the firing line for me," she told him. "I made this decision. I should take the consequences for it."
"I am not in the firing line," he said, though he had no real way of knowing that. "A.E.G.I.S. and Russian Intelligence seem to be working together on this, just as you and I are working together. The important thing is that you are safe." And that they eradicate Hydra from the Murmansk facility, but he thought that went without saying.
But no country liked to allow defection, even if it was warranted. It would be a surprise if Russia gave up one of its most talented engineers without a fight. Aleksandra drew in a slow breath, hiding her face against Maxim's coat as the freight car lurched ever so slightly, settling onto solid ground with a hollow boom.
He could feel her trembling in his arms, even as the freight car seemed to touch ground, and he wished for a way to reassure her. "Aleks, I promise you, I will not let anything happen to you," he told her quietly, but just how far was he willing to go to keep that promise?
"I trust you," she whispered in answer, as the sound of voices outside the freight car grew louder. "I don't know who else I can trust."
The door of the car was slid aside, and a knot of black-clad men and women entered, shouting orders to one another that didn't seem to have any real use. Natasha was in their midst, tucking a hat onto Aleksandra's head.
"Keep your head down, Miss Biala, and stay with Agent Cooper here," she told her. "Max, you're with me. Do not mention that you arrived with anyone but me."
Max let go of Aleks as they were joined by other agents, some of them Russian Intelligence. He arched a brow at Natasha's instructions, lowering his voice to Aleks. "It's all right. Do as she says. You can trust her," he assured her again, getting a sense of what Natasha might be up to.
In the mix of agents, it was A.E.G.I.S. who spirited Aleksandra away, the tall shape of Agent Cooper pushing a gun into her hand to make her at least look the part as he steered her away before the Russian Intelligence agents could break up the group.
"All right, you got this?" Natasha asked Maxim quickly. "She'll be checked over and kept out of sight. You never saw her, you got that?"
Maxim nodded his head in reply, not bothering to speak, in case they might be overheard. So long as Aleksandra was safe, he would do nothing to blow her cover.
"All right, this way."
She lead the way out of the freight car, not even glancing at the departing Aleksandra and her own escort. The freight car had been set down in an abandoned quarry outside Murmansk, which was now alive with intelligence agents preparing for a covert operation. Natasha led the way toward what must have been the former foreman's offices, lit up from within and made into mission central.
"Quarry's cloaked, Hydra have no way of knowing we're here," she explained to him. "We can't insert you back into the facility without compromising your safety, so you'll need to brief a couple of familiar faces on how they can get into the central environmental controls. But first ... you gotta say hi to your boss."
Max came to a sudden halt, turning to face his old friend and ally, despite or because of what she was telling him. "I told ..." He looked quickly around to make sure no one was listening, before turning back to her and lowering his voice almost to that of a whisper. From the look on his face, he was not happy with what she was telling him so far. "I promised her I'd be there and that I'd keep her safe."
Natasha turned to look up at him, frowning as she considered this. "So you'll be there," she said after a moment's thought. "I'll think of something to tell the Russians." His insistence actually worked out rather well for the last part of A.E.G.I.S.'s deal with Russian Intelligence, but she wasn't permitted to share that with him yet.
"Spasibo, Natasha," he said, sounding relieved. What exactly was going on between him and Aleksandra, anyway? He wasn't even too sure himself, but he'd promised to keep her safe, and that was exactly what he intended to do. He turned to continue on, following her lead.
"Hey, I learned the hard way - personal loyalty trumps national pride," she shrugged, jerking her head for him to follow. "Seems like you two have the personal bit moving along at quite the lick."
One brow ticked upward at her mention of his growing relationship with Aleksandra. "Does that worry you?" he asked, knowing she had his best interests at heart, though she might not agree what those best interests were.
"Take it where you can find it." She flashed him a smile, pausing at the door to the office. "Okay, in there are the A.E.G.I.S. operatives in charge, and the Director of Russian Intelligence for Murmansk Oblast. You ready?"
He might have asked if she was talking about a purely physical relationship or something more long-lasting, but there was no time. "How does the saying go?" he asked, with a smirk and a gleam in his eyes. "I was born ready?"
Rolling her eyes, she chuckled, pushing open the door. The room beyond was small but oddly crowded with three people in it - two men and a woman. One of the men was instantly recognisable to Maxim as his ultimate superior, Gregori Yelenko; the others were quickly introduced.
"Max, this is Operative AJ Doyle and Operative Margaret Miller, A.E.G.I.S. Intelligence. I believe you know the Director."
"Of course," Maxim replied, offering each of them in turn a shake of his head. "A pleasure to meet you," he told the operatives before turning to greet his "boss" as Natasha had named him. "Director."
"Ivanovich." The Director nodded to him. "You have been briefed on the situation?"
"I have been briefed by Agent Romanov," Max confirmed, though he hadn't been given all the details. "It is my understanding that we are going to retake the Murmansk facility from Hydra," he added, looking between the small group for confirmation.
"Technically speaking, our allies in A.E.G.I.S. will take the facility and strip it before we are allowed entry," the Director said a little bitterly.
Meg raised a hand to still any further argument. "As we said before, this is a Hydra facility at present, director," she repeated, in a tone that suggested she had said this too many times already today. "We will remove only the sensitive and dangerous hardware and data, and only the known Hydra associates. The rest is your problem."
Nat bit down on a faint grin, glancing at Maxim. Clearly this partnership was not the easiest.
Max noticed the expression on Nat's face and wondered what she was thinking. Though she had once been a Russian agent, her loyalty now was obviously to A.E.G.I.S. What he wondered, though, was what would become of Aleksandra's research. Would it be safe in Russian hands or safer in the hands of A.E.G.I.S.? Or was it something that should, perhaps, be destroyed all together? These were not questions for a loyal Russian agent to ask, at least, not when his boss was present.
"What will you do with it and with them?" he asked, addressing his question to the A.E.G.I.S. agents.
"The hardware will be studied enough for us to design and build counter-measures against any deployment in the field, before being destroyed," Meg assured him confidently. "The Hydra associates will be interrogated, and likely imprisoned under the Internation Treaty Laws. We're not monsters, Mr. Ivanovich."
"They probably deserve worse," the other agent who'd been introduced as Operative AJ Doyle murmured under his breath.
Maxim swung his gaze to Agent Miller's male counterpart, furrowing his brows thoughtfully. "I'm sorry. Do I know you? You look familiar."
Doyle grinned back. "Yeah, I get that a lot."
At Maxim's side, Natasha snorted with laughter, rolling her eyes.
Director Yelenko tapped the table in front of him. "Ivanovich, you are to brief the A.E.G.I.S. team on the location of the environmental controls and access codes to enter the facility," he ordered, interrupted when Natasha stepped forward.
"With respect, we'll need him once we're inside, too," she pointed out. "Given the decision you came to earlier today, I feel this would be an excellent opportunity for a dry run."
Max's gaze lingered on Doyle a moment longer before turning back to the director. He was just about to open his mouth when Natasha spoke for him, which only made his frown deepen. It seemed they knew something he didn't.
"I'm sorry," he found himself apologizing again. "What decision?" If this was about him, he at least had a right to know what it was about.
"The details have yet to be formalized, but a proposal has been made that you leave Russian Intelligence and join A.E.G.I.S.," the Director said, his tone and expression hardly encouraging. "You and I, we shall talk on this after you return from this mission. I think this is a wise idea, this ... dry run."
Meg glanced at AJ, one brow raised. They knew each other more than well enough for her to ask for his confirmation without words by now. AJ nodded in silent confirmation, but really it was what the prospective new A.E.G.I.S. had to say about it that really mattered.
"Am I being dismissed from Russian Intelligence?" Max asked, wondering if he'd done something wrong, or if this was some sort of deal the Russians had made with A.E.G.I.S.
The look the Director gave him was significant, as well as warning him not to pursue this line of questioning in mixed company. "The decision has not been formalized," was all he would say in answer. "You will accompany the A.E.G.I.S. team on this mission, Ivanovich. We will talk, when it is done."
None of the A.E.G.I.S. operatives so much as blinked. "You'd better get him checked out and suited up, Nat," Meg suggested. "Transport leaves in one hour."
With that said, it seemed like they were being dismissed. AJ was the first to make a move, tapping the newbie who wasn't really a newbie on the shoulder. "Steve Rogers. That's who I look like. We're related ... kinda sorta. Except I'm better looking," he added with a grin.
Maxim only glared back at the man before tossing a questioning glance to Nat, as if to ask if the guy - and all of this - was for real.
What he got for his trouble was a nod, and a jerk of her head toward the door. "C'mon, big guy, let's get you kitted out." She patted his arm, pushing open the door to lead the way out into the quarry, where helicopter transports were beginning to assemble among the bustling teams.
Maxim followed without another word, wondering just what the hell was going on. It didn't bother him that he was going to be part of this operation - he had insisted on as much already - but what he didn't understand was just how he had ended up being traded to A.E.G.I.S. "Perhaps you would care to explain?" he asked, once they were alone enough to talk openly, if quietly.
"We believe that Russian Intelligence wants to insert you into A.E.G.I.S. as a double agent." Nat never minded obliging with explanations, setting a firm pace across the quarry toward what looked like a munitions bunker. "If you do take the A.E.G.I.S. job, though, it had better be on the up and up. We have the means to be absolutely secure in our agents - if you're reporting back to Russia, we'll know, and it won't be pretty."
"Are you threatening me, Natasha? I thought we are friends," he said, understanding where her loyalties were and why. It seemed he was going to have to choose between one agency or the other. It was not such an easy choice for a man who had always been loyal to Mother Russia.
She stopped, turning to look up at him with a very serious look in her eyes. "I'm giving you fair warning against trying to infiltrate an agency that is independent of any nation," she told him. "We're a phoenix, Max. S.H.I.E.L.D. was infiltrated by Hydra, and we're what rose out of the ashes. We will not let that happen again. You will not be able to keep it a secret if you choose to be a double agent without divulging that fact to us openly. And I can't tell you how, not unless you're one of us."
"I thought you knew me better than that, Natasha," he said, sounding just a little pained by the knowledge that she might not trust him. "We will talk about this later," he promised, knowing there wasn't much time to talk about it now, and he needed some time to consider his choices.
"I know R.I. will put pressure on you, and I don't want you to make the wrong decision," she told him, turning to lead him once again. "You're a good fit for A.E.G.I.S., but no one should make that decision but you."
She paused, tapping in a complex code at the door that allowed them entry into an almost deserted ante-room. Almost deserted - two figures were there, dressed in the tactical black of the covert ops; one tall and broad and male, the other short and slender and female.
Natasha nodded to them. "Hold still a second, Max, they've gotta check you over."
He frowned and sighed and might have protested if he didn't understand the necessity of it. He was a Russian secret agent, after all. "You know what they are going to say," he said, lifting his arms so that the other pair could do their worst. He had nothing to hide.
The smaller figure handed the taller the bug scanning equipment, but she herself didn't seem to be carrying anything to scan Maxim with. She glanced warily to Natasha for a moment.
Nat nodded to her again, her expression surprisingly soft for another agent, even as she answered Maxim. "Who are we talking about here, yours or mine?"
"Mine," he clarified, though he wasn't sure he wanted to say too much in case someone was listening.
The larger of the two agents in black stepped forward to scan the Russian agent for listening devices, even those he might not be aware of. Maxim looked a little perturbed, but didn't bother to protest. He knew he was going to have to make a choice, and he didn't really like thinking about what that choice might mean.
Natasha nodded. "It's pretty obvious what they want," she assured him. "Even if it wasn't, I know how they operate. It's an obvious ploy, and it's one we can't allow to be successful."
A small hand touched Maxim's chin, drawing his face to tilt downward so that the little female operative could shine a pen-torch into his eyes. Only ... she didn't actually touch his eyes with the light, instead peering into his eyes for a long, slightly uncomfortable moment before stepping back to murmur to her colleague.
Again, Maxim didn't bother to protest, knowing if he did, he might risk not being able to join them on their journey back to Murmansk, despite how much they claimed to need his help. He looked back at the woman, still looking slightly perturbed, but curious, as well. "What was that about?" he asked, the question aimed at Natasha.
"Checking you over," was all she said in return. She turned her head toward the two operatives. "All clear?"
"He's clean," the man confirmed with a distinctly Russian accent.
Maxim arched a questioning brow at Natasha again, but didn't bother to ask.
"He's invested," the woman said, her own Russian accented just enough to identify her as Sokovian. "The engineer is clear - Newt took her to the armory."
Natasha nodded to them, a warm smile showing itself. "Good to go, then. Stay out of sight. C'mon, Max, let's see if we've got any boots that'll fit you."
Once again, Max followed Natasha's lead, knowing the necessity of all this, despite his annoyance. This was his country and it was supposed to have been his mission. He was the one who cared about Aleksandra and was trying to get her out of harm's way, and he didn't much like A.E.G.I.S. or Russian Intelligence using her in any way.
"What did she mean by that? Invested?" he asked, as soon as they were out of earshot of the other two agents.
"I don't actually know," Natasha told him - honest to a point. She did sort of know what Alyona had meant, but being honest with Maxim at this point put the telepath in danger this close to Russian Intelligence operatives. "I could make a guess."
"She obviously wasn't interested in the color of my eyes," he pointed out. "What is your guess?" he asked, his attitude lightening a little now that he had passed muster.
"My guess? She means you have a reason to want this mission to succeed," Nat offered with a shrug. "Don't go poking for answers. Right now, you only suspect. If you put it together and R.I. tries to take her, those deaths will be on your head, Max."
"I am not going to blab to R.I.," he insisted, looking almost insulted she'd think such a thing. Of course, they would probably order him to file a full report, but he had no compunctions about lying, when necessary. "You realize they are not going to let me go easily," he told her, as if he'd already decided.
"I don't think you would tell them willingly," Nat told him, her voice quiet for a moment. "But they have methods to extract information, and I don't want to see you subjected to them." His comment about being let go, however, made her sigh. "Well, we're good at protection. Besides, someone's going to have to keep an eye on your little engineer, too. I doubt they're going to just quietly accept her disappearance."
"They aren't going to quietly accept any of this," Maxim remarked, just as quietly. It was dangerous talking about such things with R.I. close at hand, but Natasha needed to know. It wasn't Russian Intelligence that Max felt so devoted to as it was Mother Russia. He truly loved his country, but more than that, he hated Hydra.
"The way I see it, you have four options," she told him, sacrificing a little time to try and lay it out for him. He'd have to make a big decision in the not so very distant future; more than that, he was her friend. She didn't want him going into this blind. "One, you decline to join A.E.G.I.S. and continue as you are in Russia for however long you choose to; two, you join A.E.G.I.S. as a double agent for the Russians, and end up imprisoned for it; three, you join A.E.G.I.S. under the pretext of being a double agent for the Russians, but tell us about it when you get to H.Q. Then the higher ups kick it all the way up to the UN Oversight Committee, and Russia gets told off officially for trying to compromise an independent agency."
"That is three," he said, counting in his head. "Four," he went on, adding a fourth option that she had not yet stated, but was probably thinking. "I defect to A.E.G.I.S. and am seen as a traitor to Russia." From the look on his face, he wasn't liking any of these options, but sooner or later, he was going to have to choose one.
"All right, five options, then." Natasha rolled her eyes. "Number five, you stay in Russia as a double agent for A.E.G.I.S." She shrugged. "It's all crap, but some of them are less crap than others. We're good at protecting our own if we need to, Max. Just ... I just needed you to know what the real options are."
"I know what the options are, Natasha, but thank you," he said. He knew she was trying to be a good friend, but there was no easy way out of this. "Do you know why I became an agent?" he asked, unsure if he'd ever told her or not.
She hesitated, not wanting to derail his query if she could help it. When she spoke, it was very carefully. "Not ... many people ... become high level agents out of choice in Russia," she commented, leaving it open for him to correct her.
"Hm, perhaps we should leave it at that," he whispered back, knowing that even if he wasn't bugged, the walls had ears here. This was a discussion better left for later.
She nodded. "Got it. Anyway, we have to find gear for a giant. C'mon."
With a reassuring flash of her smile, the redhead pushed open the next door, leading him into a hastily convened field armory, where the male agent she'd identified as Cooper earlier was helping Aleksandra to fit a gas mask securely before undoing it again. The engineer had been kitted out in black tactical gear, none of which actually fitted her small frame, but the mask was necessary.
For some reason, Max found himself frowning at the sight of Aleksandra in tactical gear and trying to be fitted with a gas mask. "She should not be here," he muttered, almost forgetting he was speaking out loud and not just in his head.
"We don't have a choice," Nat told him, opening lockers to pull out pants, shirt, jacket. "We don't have the luxury of the time our own scientists would need to pick over everything and identify the projects that present the greatest risk to us. She knows the projects; she can point us at them and everything we need to take with us. Suit up."
"Da, I know. That does not mean I have to like it," Max replied, still frowning, even as he grabbed his gear and started to dress. He wouldn't be going in as a security guard this time, but as part of the team primarily comprised of A.E.G.I.S. agents. "I promised to keep her safe," he confessed to Nat quietly. If Max was anything, he was a man of his word.
She handed him a pair of boots, lowering her voice for the benefit of his peace of mind. "That's why you're coming along, remember? You wouldn't be a part of this if I hadn't just told the bosses I need you." She winked at him, glancing over at the other pair in the room. "You like her, don't you? I mean, really like her."
Max narrowed his eyes at her as he snatched the boots from her hand. "This is not school, Natasha," he reminded her a bit testily, as she teased him about what she might have deemed a crush. Yes, they'd shared a kiss, but it had not been a romantic one, and yes, he had feelings for the engineer, but he had not had time to sort those feelings out yet.
His reaction did not make that teasing smile fade - if anything, it grew in size for a moment. "She's pretty, smart, brave, brings out the growly protective bear in a guy who didn't even blink when I tried to seduce him a few years ago," she listed in amusement. "No, this isn't school. She's gonna be a big part in your decision, isn't she?"
He wanted to protest, to tell her that none of this was about Aleksandra, but it would be a lie. He was good at lying, but for some reason, he found himself not wanting to lie about that. "I promised to keep her safe," he reiterated, as if that was at the crux of his impending decision. He had promised a lot of things, including his loyalty to Russian Intelligence, but sometimes things changed.
Natasha's smile faded as she looked at him, reading more in the lack of expression on his face than others might have done. "When it comes to it, Max, you do you," she told him. "Regimes change all the time; policies change. What works politically today, won't work tomorrow. So you do what matters to you."
His expression changed, a brief look of surprise flickering across his features at Natasha's advice. It was advice a past Max might have ignored, but he had changed and was no longer that man. He glanced briefly at Aleksandra, his eyes meeting hers for only half a second before he turned his attention back to his boots. "I will consider it," he murmured in reply to Natasha. No promises made, so that he wouldn't break them, but he would take her words to heart.
The redhead nodded, dropping gloves onto the bench beside him before producing weapons. "Okay, standard issue, you're trained with all of them, but the ammo isn't fatal unless the subject is hit five times. This is a no-death situation - anyone dies, we messed up."
"Right," Max replied with a quick nod of his head, as he looked over the array of weapons. He choose two firearms he could carry concealed on his body, no blades. He wanted to travel as light as possible, and he was a weapon in himself. There wasn't much point in bringing assault rifles when they were going to stealth and hoping to leave everyone breathing.
A nervous laugh drew their attention to Aleksandra, who was being kitted with weapons as well. She was holding the rifle nervously out from herself as the agent with her fitted holsters to her hips.
Max scowled at the sight of Aleks with a rifle. "What does she need that for?" he asked, none too quietly. "That is why we are here," he pointed out. Hadn't they promised - or at least he - promised to keep her safe? She was a scientist, not a spy or soldier.
"She has to blend in with the team," Nat reminded him. "We don't want your guys taking too close a look at her, or there'll be trouble. Don't worry so much, the weapons aren't loaded. She's not going to shoot anyone."
How could he not worry? He hated almost every aspect of this plan, but the thing he hated most was Aleksandra's involvement, but it couldn't be helped. She was key to obtaining the information they needed, if only to keep it in safe hands.
"This ... project she was working on," he started, turning back to Natasha. "It is dangerous. I am not sure I trust even A.E.G.I.S. with the information."
"We already know about the sabotage she enacted before you guys left the facility," Nat promised him. "Trust me, we don't want anything to do with that. We're going to let it run its course, destroy the hardware and data, and chalk it up as a tragic accident. If she's got any copies, I suggest you find them and lose them."
Only the copies in her head, as far as he knew. That alone made him nervous. It was reason for both Russian Intelligence and Hydra to want to hang onto her. He wasn't so sure about A.E.G.I.S. yet, but he trusted Natasha. They had been through too much together in the past for him not to trust her. "And if it is all in her head?" he queried, his voice barely more than a whisper as he made the final adjustments to his suit and weapons.
Again, Natasha seemed to hesitate. But then she gave him the biggest gift of all ... proof that she trusted him. "Only one other person will ever know it's there," she told him in a voice barely above a breath. "And she already knows about it. She knows better than anyone the lengths Hydra will go to; she won't let that information be disseminated to anyone, no matter how good their intentions."
"That is exactly what I am afraid of," he said, though it wasn't really. What he was afraid of was Hydra or the Russians getting their hands on the engineer and torturing the information out of her. It seemed he had already made up his mind, even if he didn't realize it yet.
"We'll protect her," Natasha promised him, finishing up her own tactical gear as they spoke. "Only problem there is that she doesn't trust us yet. Any ideas, big guy?"
He frowned down at her, his brows furrowing a little at her insistence on drawing attention to his size. He wasn't sure how she'd react to him calling her "little woman", so he refrained. "She came to you for help, so help her. That, I'm afraid, is all you can do for now."
Her eyes narrowed for a moment, wondering what he meant by that. "Done." Stepping back, she looked him over, turning her head toward the others. "Cooper, you all good there?"
Cooper raised his head. "Good as we'll ever be," he answered.
"Good, you're on escort detail for Miss Biala and Mr. Ivanovich here," Nat told him. "Take them up top, get the briefing done for our guys going in covert. I'll meet you at the chopper."
Maxim noticed her look but said nothing about it, knowing what she was thinking without asking, knowing she thought he had feelings for Aleksandra. Whether he did or didn't was not for her to say. "Natasha," he said, taking her arm to turn her back toward him a moment. "I do trust you," he told her.
She paused, looking up at him. "I'm not an agent anymore, Max," she told him quietly. "I'm an Avenger." Which was the gentlest way she knew to tell him that if he really wanted to be certain of Aleksandra's safety, he was going to have to see to it himself. The friend he trusted didn't deal at low level anymore.
"Understood," he replied bluntly. While it was true she no longer worked for Russian Intelligence or the KGB or whoever it was she had once worked for, she was still his friend, and he trusted her as such. He would not call her loyalties into question, but he knew she would be there for him, if he needed her. He couldn't help but smirk a little at her claim as to belonging to the Avengers. If he kept going the way he was going, he might end up working with them, too.
He gave a nod to Cooper to let him know he was ready and moved over to join Aleksandra, with a quiet whisper, "Are you all right?"
The look Aleksandra gave him suggested that she was equal parts terrified and embarrassed. "I feel like a child playing dress up," she answered. Unfortunately, she looked a little like that, in her oversized gear.
"I wish I could tell you this is all pretend, but it's not," he said, not trying to scare her but needing her to be prepared for the worst. "I will keep my promise, Aleks," he assured her quietly, not feeling the need to repeat that promise.
She raised her eyes to his. Though her face was hidden behind goggles and mask, the fear was visible as she nodded to him.
Cooper cleared his throat. "This way, agents," he said, gesturing for them to follow him. "Ivanovich, you need to brief a couple of folks before we get boarded."
"Of course," Max replied, tearing himself away from Aleks, but staying close. Nat had told him flat out that he was going to have to be responsible for Aleksandra's safety, and he intended to stick to her like glue, if he could.
And they gave him plenty of opportunity to do so. She was present for his quick briefing with two colleagues from the facility he had likely never suspected as being part of A.E.G.I.S.; she was inserted into the team on the chopper between him and Cooper; she was dropped into Murmansk with him and given orders to stay with him, no matter what. As the teams waited in the shadows near the various entry points, listening to the commentary from the agents already inside via the comms, Aleksandra crouched beside Maxim, huddled close against him.
Maxim felt a mix of adrenaline and trepidation. Despite being a trained operative, he was always a little jumpy before missions. Anyone who was mortal would be, but this time he was more worried about the trembling woman at his side than his own safety. Still, they had no choice but to see this thing through. It wasn't just about them, after all, but about hurting Hydra.
They seemed to wait a long time for the all-clear. As the clocks of the city struck five, the voices crackled on the radio. "All clear. Masks on, entrances open."
A moment later, Natasha's voice came over the comms. "In and out, people, we're on the clock here. Pay attention to our mole, she knows what's what."
There were two people who technically knew what was what, but this was about destroying the project's data, and Aleksandra knew that best. "We cannot leave any traces of the data behind," Maxim reiterated in a whispered voice, for Aleksandra's ears alone. He hoped she knew that already, but he needed to make it clear. With that said, he pulled his mask on and waited for the doors to open.
Aleksandra nodded, wanting to hold his hand as Cooper settled her mask in place for her before seeing to his own. A moment later, the concealed door not ten feet from their position opened, and A.E.G.I.S. entered the facility. The gas had done its work - those who were not asleep in their beds had been sedated where they stood. The security offices were littered with sleeping forms.
"All right, A-team to the labs," Natasha ordered. "B-team, spread out and round up the list. We've got to be out of here by eight."
All the agents fell into step and went to work, knowing what needed to be done. Max and Aleks had been assigned to A-team, the one going to the lab to destroy every scrap of information regarding Project Overmind, as well as stealing anything else they might find useful. That was where Aleksandra's expertise came in - she was the only one among them who knew what information was worth taking and how to access it.
Not that there weren't a few arguments whenever she dismissed one piece of hardware, or insisted on wiping another project's notes. Each time the arguments came up, though, Nat's voice lashed down the comms, only once having to invoke Iron Man and Captain America's names to still the objections. But it was still a close-run thing - as the A.E.G.I.S. teams left the premises, the Russian Intelligence teams were starting to move in.
Normally, Max would have been among them - part of Russian Intelligence. He had friend among them, colleagues he had known for years. None of them eyed him suspiciously, not yet anyway, but he knew the time was quickly approaching when he was going to have to make a choice. It was a good thing they had trained him so well to be a good liar.
Back on the chopper, back to the quarry, and Aleksandra was whisked away to the bunker once again by Agent Cooper with a quiet promise to keep her safe. Natasha added her own promise to Maxim as well, even as she took his weapons from him.
"The Director wants to see you," she told him, her expression grave. "We're setting up to leave. Your government wants us out of here by the end of the day."
"I will be there," he told her quietly. He had already decided, but he would have to be careful how he handled it with the director. His life and Aleksandra's might depend on it.
Nat's brow rose, but she said nothing at this clear indication that he had made his decision. "See that?" she said, looking over at the impressive shape of the quinjet, nestled in the middle of the quarry. "That's our ride. We'll be waiting."
He knew he couldn't ask her to wait for him, but he had promised to be there and that was what he intended, so long as he could somehow convince his superiors to let him go. He nodded to indicate he understood before turning to report to the director.
It took little more than an hour, and Agent Ivanovich was making his way back toward the quarry in the direction of the quinjet. It seemed he had made his decision, indeed, but what that decision had been was anyone's guess but his own. For now, anyway.