She lowers into the wooden chair in the barren apartment – really, more of an abandoned loft in an old warehouse that she had taken up as an off-the-grid safehouse. Like most women, she preferred to surround herself with beautiful things, but unlike most women – she was accustomed to going without such luxuries as ornament and muted paint tones. She flips on the laptop laid on the folding table in front of her, instinctively reaching to wipe a fresh stream of blood that flows from her lower lip and brushing it away. A simple glance down at her red stained fingertips is enough to pull her back to the battle only a few hours previous…
The past had caught up with him.
She had caught up with him. The Widow.
You could spend your entire life heading somewhere without ever reaching it. Ever since he found himself with the opportunity to reflect upon his life - what little he knew of it - that seemed to be true of him. He wanted to know himself, and he wanted to know freedom. Both things were the great ambitions of life for almost every living thing; almost everyone found themselves fettered in by something or other, bound irreconcilably until the moment they died, always trying to work their way free of their chains. Almost everyone spent their whole life searching for meaning, their cause and purpose, the reason they were placed on this world or simply their reason for being themselves.
They weren’t easy questions, that much was certain, but most at least had some idea of where they were coming from, if not where they were headed. That eluded James, and until he knew himself, he would never truly know freedom, but he had achieved freedom of body at least, and that wasn’t something he would be quick to give up. With it, he hoped to find freedom of mind, and the answer to his other great question, but just as he was about to leave again and take the next step in his search for those very answers, familiarity and precedent caught up to him.
That much he had been expecting, sooner or later, otherwise he wouldn’t have felt the need to be so careful. What he hadn’t been expecting, however, was the form it took. You could spend your entire life heading somewhere without ever reaching it… James glanced to Natalia, and although he was surprised – how could he not be – it didn’t once cross his features.
She addressed him with a name. Not a title, not an identifier, but a name. It was impossible for most people to miss something as obvious as that, let alone someone with his training; but perception and realisation were occasionally far removed, and it was easy to look past things when there was something tugging at all of you immediate thoughts. Something like, say, your past colliding with your present.
He didn’t remember Steve. He didn’t remember the handful of girls across France and Germany in the few scattered, brief reprieves during the war. He didn’t remember anyone from the street he grew up on, he didn’t remember the Colonel bailing him out on his birthday after he got too exuberant in the local bar, never mind the fact that he hadn’t been old enough to drink, he didn’t remember anyone in the camp he practically grew up in. What he did have was as slender as a tight-rope and far easier to snap. A redhead’s face and the name Natalia Romanova; the only person he remembered letting in.
His first thought was that they had found him and she was their agent in this matter. Betrayal had a brutal flavour to it, but it didn’t matter, because it was better to know… than to face someone with delusions about who they were and what play they would make with you. Of course, it wouldn’t have even been betrayal when it came down to it, because she was their agent, it was with them that her should have lain, but it didn’t matter what logic and reason dictated; that didn’t change how it felt.
The first thought fell aside quickly, otherwise he would have already taken up arms – after all, the crumbs and unwinding threads of the past weren’t worth as much as your identity was; if you didn’t have your identity, then you didn’t have anything at all, and he refused to go back to them empty handed if he did have to go back. It didn’t matter who you were, everyone was the sum of their parts. When you taught someone much of what they knew, it was that much easier to know the person themselves.
She might have found other teachers since then. She might have been educated since by the sternest of those teachers; life, experience and entropy’s grinding edge. The sum of her parts might have amounted to more than he knew – more than he could anticipate… but James had always been able to tell when she was getting ready to fight, because above all else that was what he had taught her. And he was willing to bet that at least, hadn’t changed; now wasn’t the time to turn his back on instinct.
Reason finally made itself heard once more and came to instinct’s side, supporting its assumptions and assertions - if she was here to fight, the smart call would have been to attack him before his attentions were on her, and when Natalia had her sights on something, she would always make the smart call. James stood a little easier… but not that much easier. There were too many questions unanswered with more arising with every corner her turned, it seemed, and this was too conveniently timed for him to suspend all of his suspicions and the potential for disbelief.
”Natalia…” he responded slowly as he regarded her, his tone remaining level. Even now he was unwilling to surrender footing, even to her, although it seemed that all of his caution had gone to waste. Once your cover was blown, there wasn’t much else that could be said for the care you placed in your stride. “You’re… a very long way from home… how did you find me?” It wasn’t the most important question… but that would probably answer itself before too long.
It hadn’t been easy, she scoured reports and files for hours, unable to pull herself away and allow some rest – even a small break, a nap or a shot of expensive vodka, could give the men from her past the head start they needed to catch up with the only one that mattered.
Finally though, just as the sun began to peek over the horizon, she found the connection she needed to put the final piece of that puzzle in place. She had his trail but now she had even more reason to rush. Her abductors from the previous night seem to have been on the right path – on paper at least, he seemed to be heading directly towards her. A fact that both touched her and terrified her but more than anything, motivated her.
Within minutes she’s on her motorcycle, speeding down the freeway out of New York. By lunchtime she’s arrived in Wheeling, Ohio just west of the the Pennsylvania border. She knows the routine – hunker down by day and move at night. There was only two unused safehouses in this area, but if she was correct about his destination, whether intentional on his behalf or not, then this was the safest bet.
She leaves her helmet behind, her skill making it easy (or so she thinks), even in a well defended fortress, for her to make her way inside the seemingly condemned and empty house. Yet, despite her training, she isn’t prepared for her internal reaction when she finally steps into the room where he’s standing, obviously prepared and aware of her presence despite her stealth (not surprising, given he’d taught her). Her heart thumps, loud enough that she’s certain he could hear, the relief that sweeps over her at the sight of him unharmed and safe momentarily makes her knees feel shaky, a sensation she’s not accustomed to. Not since she last saw him, anyway.
Her voice is breathless when she finally speaks his name, as if she’d been saving the words for precisely this moment. She pauses in the doorway, giving them both a chance to adjust to the presence of the other. She knows the inner battle he’s having with his mind, questioning whether she’s here as friend or foe – and she takes no offense to him considering the latter. It was what they’d been taught, what he’d taught her.
She doesn’t answer him immediately, his words almost an invitation that convinces her to step forward, moving around the mattress that lay on the floor to serve as a bed and standing inches in front of him, her head tilted slightly to lift her eyes and keep them locked on his. Her hand lifts slowly to reach out and touch him, partially as a sign of reassurance but partially, selfishly, to convince herself that he’s really there.
“You taught me well” she says finally, answering his question with an ever slight smile on her lips as her fingertips brush lightly against his cheek. “We need to go.” her eyes finally peel away from his, scanning the simple room for any belongings that may need to be gathered, not surprised when she spots nearly nothing “Now.”