|Red Dawn: Part 6|
|What: Natalia Romanova was the young woman set on the path to becoming the Black Widow, but things are starting to look bleak for her fellow student Nikolai.|
Natalia is unhappy when Nikolai comes back hurt from his mission - she yells at him, of course. But she also tends to him, rebinding his broken wrist, and soothing his pain as best she could. She spends all night with him, watching over him as she sleeps - there for him when the nightmares wake him up. Ivan hears talk from the other instructors - a Black Widow shouldn't have such attachments...
Ivan welcomes Nikolai back too, in passing. He's relieved the young man made it...but increasingly worried by the rumblings he starts to hear from those who run this place. He tries, once, to caution Natalia.. to suggest she shouldn't let her affection show as much, the next time she stops by to dance.
Natalia blushes when Ivan tells her. "Oh, is it... really that obvious?" She laughs, unaware of the danger. "But poor Kolya needs someone to look after him." She plays with a lock of hair. "Welll, maybe I have been rather... sweet with him. But, it feels right with him." She seems almost carefree, even though she's been routinely on missions, now. "I'll try my best, Ivan."
Ivan still treasures the fact she even can.. and he has no illusions that Nikolai's influence has helped a lot with that. But this.. he smiles with a sigh, and says, "I know. Just...remember what you're here for. You could be the next Black Widow. And a lotta people don't think the Black Widow should have any distractions. I can help with him, if he needs it." he offers. He's not sure it'll get through, but...
He's still is trying to convince himself his fears for what might happen otherwise are unfounded. Nikolai isn't the cream of the crop, but he's a fully trained, capable agent. They wouldn't waste all that this late in the game over something so innocent...would they?
Natalia winks at Ivan, playfully almost. "I know. I stay focused during missions, even if Kolya is off on his own. He's a handful sometimes, but maybe he needs someone to kick his rump?" She smiles. "Don't worry Ivan, I'll make sure Kolya is more careful, so I don't have to worry after him."
He nods... and starts subtly doing his best to run interference with the staff, saying he doesn't think there's anything to worry about, that they'll both be credits to their training, etc. He spends more time with Nikolai himself, training him up. That's one less thing Natalia will feel she needs to do for Nikolai, anyhow.
For his part, Nikolai is grateful to be getting extra lessons from Ivan. He too seems unaware that the higher ups are displeased with him and his relationship with Natalia. He takes some time to confide in Ivan, trusting him. "Tasha - she's amazing. Just, everyone sees a strong and competent agent. But she's so much more. she's funny, charming, and so kind..."
Ivan smiles, and can't help but nod.. it's all true. "You're both kind." he notes. "Just.. be careful. There are those who would see it as softness."
Nikolai shrugs. "It makes her more beautiful." He looks sheepish, and rubs his healing wrist. "...I've fallen hard for her. And, well... I can't think of anything that I don't like about her. Does that make me a foolish man, Uchitel?"
Ivan snorts. "Just one with good taste." he confides wryly. "..But you're not a man, and she's not a woman..you're soldiers. We all are. That's all I'm trying to say."
Nikolai straightens up, something in Ivan's tone making him stand at attention. "I understand, sir." He sighs. "Maybe one day, she and I can be - but for now, we have to focus on our missions. Or try to, anyway..." He bites his lip. "...I think she needs me like I need her. She always seems happier after we... spend time together."
Ivan smiles faintly, "Yes.. I've noticed that too." he answers. "I.. think you're good for one another. I just.." he sighs, running his right hand through his hair. "We just..all need to remember the mission comes first, and we'll be alright." he says, trying to make himself believe it.
Maybe it's possible to be both.. A man and a woman.. and soldiers too. Couldn't it be? And the others will see that Nat's just as effective, maybe they'll even see she's more so, when she has someone to live for.
"I promise, Uchitel. Now, I really should get back to my quarters. My wrist is throbbing, I need to ice it again." The young man salutes, and departs.
Ivan stops by Natalia's room later, intending to ask if she and Nikolai have spoken, only to hear quiet voices through the door.
"Tasha, I... um, well..."
"Out with it Kolya." There's amusement in her voice.
"Well, I just wanted to let you know... you're amazing."
"What you mean to say is... you love me?"
"Yes. I do."
"...I love you too, Kolya."
Ivan stops with his hand half raised as if to knock on the door, but as a ghost of a laugh escapes him, he realizes he won't have to. And just as well..him being here means he's in a prime position to know that no one else was. Their secret will be safe...and maybe if they both take his advice, it will be kept secret long enough the other instructors will simmer down, and things can go back to normal. Nice to think that something truly good could flourish in this place that is a monument to the evils of necessity.
Well, the two operatives do stop walking side by side in the halls, mostly. But the damage has been done. The higer ups know that Natalia is in love with a fellow operative. And while normally it wouldn't cause too much issue - after all, her record is flawless - she is destined to be a Black Widow. And so, the machinations start, to lead the man to death with no one the wiser. Of course, they don't yet realize just how strong a bond a student and teacher can have...
Ivan still can't quite bring himself to believe that the higher ups are actively plotting Nikolai's death so much as perhaps trying to test him by fire since he's the most expendable of their current operatives.. so he starts taking it upon himself to try to be on those same missions; not difficult since they're often very dangerous, and he's one of their most reliable. He watches over the youth whenever he can. They both take their share of injuries, but that's the nature of the job. Besides, Ivan always did heal strangely quickly, and Nikolai hopefully takes less injury than he would have..
Ivan has most likely saved Nikolai's life at least twice, but he can't shield the young man from everything. He starts becoming more withdrawn, not quite shoving Natalia away, but no longer going to her room. Nat for her part seems extremely worried for Nikolai, especially since his health is starting to worsen. She still performs without flaw on her own missions, but spends more time with Nikolai now, trying to bolster his spirit.
It's not difficult to see the change.. Ivan knows Nikolai has taken more than his share of injuries, but. He heads towards their rooms, intending to speak to the first one he comes across.
Natalia is just about to knock on Nikolai's door when she sees Ivan. There's a flash of guilt, before she looks away. "...Nikolai's been too quiet..." she says, trying to hide her worry. "I just want to make sure he's okay."
Ivan nods, "I was noticing that too." he agrees. And then wonders, giving her the choice, "Talk to him together?"
"Okay." Natalia looks like she hopes Ivan can somehow fix thing... "Kolya, Ivan and I are here. May we come in?"
"...Sure." comes the man's reply.
Natalia takes a breath, before opening the door.
Nikolai is in bed, hidden under blankets. "Uchitel?" he asks, confused as to why Ivan is there.
"Kolya, you haven't finished your dinner!"
"...Sorry, not that hungry, is all."
Ivan sits on the chair by the bed, crossing his arms and putting on his best frowny instructor face. "You've been moping. You're not eating, not talking. Care to fill us in, Uchenik?" he replies, not hesitating to pull rank, as it were.
"I am not moping." Nikolai grumbles, as Natalia sits on the bed, taking a hold of his hand.
"Sulking, then. Kolya, what's wrong? I know you must ache, but this goes beyond some pain."
Nikolai sighs, and Ivan would know the sound of a wounded spirit. He's seen too many young people broken by this place. "It's nothing, Tasha. Just give me time."
Ivan already has his suspicions.. Nikolai's been given so many missions, and the worst ones available without ample time between to heal. There may be nothing he can do, same as before, but. Well, he never did give up easy. Stubborn, someone used to tell him that. Or was it the other way around..?
Ivan shakes that thought off. He looks between the two instead.. is Nikolai looking away from both of them equally, or is his avoidance fixed only on Natalia?
Nikolai is avoiding Natalia's gaze, although he lets her hold his hand. He tries to turn a steady gaze on Ivan, but it turns downcast. "Please, Uchitel... I know I can do this. You've seen me in action. They trust me to get the hard missions done." there's something almost like pleading in the man's tone.
Ivan blinks. "What're you talking about?" he asks. Whatever he expected, this request wasn't it.. he wants to do more? And why does he think Ivan is stopping him? Is he asking him to stop coming along?
Nikolai sighs. "The other instructors - They seem to look past me. Is it because I'm not good enough to not get hurt?"
Natalia shakes her head. "You're over thinking things again, Kolya." she complains.
Ivan however, is not so immediately dismissive. They likely both can see how he tenses. "Look past you? How so?"
"Well, in group class, they don't call on me, not unless no one else volunteers. And even then..." Nikolai coughs a bit, and winces.
"Koyla, here..." Natalia helps Nikolai get into a more comfortable position, obviously worried for him.
Ivan hasn't been present for other classes, of course.. and as instructors go, it's an open secret that he's not consulted on many matters... most instructors no longer go in the field, if they ever did. He's here simply to share the fighting abilities that are still frequently utilized on missions. Still. "..I don't know about that. I'll..I'll ask around." he says, still acting as if Nikolai's concerns are just that; concerning.
"Thanks, Uchitel. Maybe they're just letting me take things easy, but I don't like that." In truth, Ivan probably knows why the young man is being quietly excluded.
Natalia on the other hand, is still just naive enough to not realize that the ones she is loyal to will gladly kill the ones she loves.
To Ivan's mind, it's a clear sign; they don't want to waste any more effort on him. They're sending him on suicide runs, getting some use out of him before he is eventually run into the ground and planted there. Ivan's metal hand creaks faintly.. he hadn't realized how tightly his fists were clenched. He stands up. "..I'll see what I can do." he says, and heads from the room.
He doesn't know how, but he's got to convince them-- he's been on more missions with Nikolai than anyone now, and the boy's not bad. And there's something worthwhile in letting the young pair protect one another, he knows it on an instinctive level, if he could just get it across... he grimaces as he's reminded again that somehow he always seems to have more trouble expressing his thoughts in his native tongue. He tells himself it's because when he was undercover as an American, like he's been told about, he didn't recognize the authority he 'served', that it must have been easier because it didn't matter, wasn't real...but he's not sure that's how it works. No time to waste on such thoughts for now. He goes to the others and makes his case.
The other instructors shake their heads at Ivan. A Black Widow had to be uattached, they say. Even if they work well together now, it would only create complications down the line. What if he were captured, for example? And anyway, it wasn't Ivan's place to judge. And so Nikolai is sent out again, and again, and Ivan can see it breaking Natalia, she tending to Nikolai as best she can. She didn't understand, didn't want to understand.
"Sorry, Tasha. Guess we were both stupid."
"No, I have to do something - make them listen!"
"Tasha, Uchitel Ivan tried. If they don't listen to him, why would they listen to you?"
"Shh. I love you, Tasha. Be strong for me?"
Ivan tries to accept the ruling, but increasingly he discovers he can't handle it.
He's been turned inward for years..carefully toeing the line, trying to prove to everyone that thought him unstable that he was reliable, that he could handle himself, the job, maybe eventually prove that he could handle the memories everyone seemed to walk on eggshells to avoid. But now these two come along.. this fearless girl who welcomes the pain of being a killer over the numbness of being a weapon, and this boy.. clinging stubbornly to hope, striving so hard to stand strong even when he's scared, even when it's horribly obvious he's in far over his head.
It shakes Ivan in ways he doesn't even entirely understand.. but he's done watching him be slowly killed, along with her heart. After the latest mission sees Nikolai returned with the latest in his series of injuries Ivan storms over to the other instructors accusing them of underestimating both Natalia and Nikolai. He warns them that if they keep trying to treat him like the dead walking, it's going to slowly destroy two agents. "You can't keep doing this! You'll lose them both at this rate!"
"She needs to learn that attachment can only bring pain, Ivan." one says. The others eye him cautiously. "If she can't withstand this, then she won't be a Black Widow."The others nod, and one adds, "In any case, that boy is a weakness to us as well. He's too soft, too trusting. It would be too easy for an enemy operative to charm him into lowering his guard." A third one speaks quietly to Ivan. "Know your place, as the children do."
Ivan exhales forcefully.. he's known to be a calm, cold, efficient force of death on missions, but right now he can't hide how his blood is boiling. "Then I'll teach him. He's not some civilian, tying her down; he knows the game. Don't send them on missions together if you're worried, but I'm telling you, they'd be outstanding together."
The others murmur, somewhat in resigned agreement, but they're just placating Ivan. They've made up their minds. And, Ivan's outburst hasn't gone unremarked upon, either. Ivan's told that they'll consider his suggestions. A few days later, Nikolai is told he'll be going on a mission again. When Ivan gets to his room that night, Natalia is waiting for him sitting on his cot with an almost vacant look in her eyes.
Ivan is angry and disgruntled and furiously trying to think some way, some angle, some better way to convince the others..only to find Natalia in his room. He actually stares for a beat, then blows out a breath, closing the door.
"Christ," he goes automatically into English in this setting now, "Look at me; you could have taken my head off for how much I was paying attention.." he flops into a chair nearby, shaking his head. "..Never mind me. What is it..? The new mission?" Not like whose needs clarifying.
"...What did I do wrong, Ivan?" Natalia asks timidly, reflexively speaking English back to her teacher. "They're hurting Kolya to punish me for falling in love." There's a sad bitterness to her voice, and she draws her knees to her chest. I'm sorry. I didn't listen in time." She wipes at her eyes.
Ivan ..is silent for some time, his mismatched hands clasped between his knees as he looks down. "..Yeah." he finally admits, quiet, though the anger still bleeds through in his voice, "Something like that. I..I'm trying to talk to them, I just gotta.." he shakes his head in frustration. "..You didn't do anything wrong." he insists stubbornly.
Natalia looks over to Ivan, and there's sorrow in her eyes. "..." Suddenly she's grasping his hands between her own, looking up into his face askance. "Ivan, promise me you won't let him suffer anymore." she whispers, tears threatening to fall. She blinks them away. "Please, I can't stand watching him come back beaten and broken anymore. I'm being so selfish!" She turns away. "I'm sorry. He should never have been here to begin with..."
Ivan is startled at her sudden entreaty..."Nattie..you know I can't.." he swallows. "I'll try." though he nods to her last statement.. "He should never have been here." he agrees.
Natalia finds herself leaning on Ivan's legs, her head on his knees. It's a remarkably childlike pose, and it makes her look vulnerable. She doesn't care. "Ivan... I don't think I can dance tonight." Ever since Nikolai's condition's gotten worse, Nat hasn't been showing up for their dances as much. Mostly, it was because she was tending Nikolai. But she always came to dance if she could, because of how much she enjoyed it.
"Hey." he says, and squeezes her hands in his own, the metal one just as gentle as the other. "Hey.. we're gonna figure this out. Okay..?" he says. "We just need to show them they don't gotta fix what ain't broke."
"They won't listen." Natalia says, sounding resigned. "I just wish poor Kolya didn't have to suffer." She closes her eyes, relaxing against Ivan. "Please... when you go with him tomorrow, make sure - don't let the pain..." she can't finish the words, and she lets out a cry. "Oh Koyla, my Koyla...!"
Ivan was never really the best with eloquent words..but at this point he isn't sure they have any place anyhow. He pulls Natalia a bit closer, and hugs her. "Hey, hey, shh. Come on.." He can't bring himself to say yes...not to what it's becoming increasingly clear she's trying to ask him to do. But he's also becoming very much aware that if he can't find a better option, that may be the more merciful route compared to letting the rest of the school slowly murder him.
He supposes he has until the mission to figure something out.
Natalia lets Ivan hold her and hugs him back, tears trickling down her face "I, I... It's true, huh? *sniff* Black Widows kill who they love. But I can't I couldn't do it... I'm such a fool." She throws her arms around her teacher, her best friend. "Forgive me."
Ivan feels a chill. "Hey, where would you get an idea like that?" he exclaims, still holding her. "It's just a name. D'you hear me? When the chips are down, nobody decides who you kill but you." he tells her with finality, for all that it seems entirely out of place in their situation.
"...That's not true, Ivan. I don't pick who I kill." She pulls her arms back, looking at her hands. "I kill who they order me to kill." She gives a short, cold bark of a laugh. "I'm just a finely crafted weapon."
Ivan heys, crouching down in front of her to meet her eye. "Look at me; we..we chose this. And we choose to keep doing it every time. They may give the orders, but it doesn't mean we stop having a choice. You get me..? I..told you once this job, it gets easier. You said you didn't want it to..I think you knew what I'm talking about when you said that. That's why it's not easy."
"Did you choose, Ivan?" Natalia asks, pointedly. Because she couldn't remember ever choosing. She couldn't remember a life other than training, day in and out. If she thought hard, maybe she remembered a kichen table, and patterned dishes. She reaches out, and touches Ivan's cheek. "When did we choose?" Her tears are drying now. "Just like we don't choose who we love..."
Ivan hesitates, but after a moment or two all he can say is, "They..they told me I did." he answers, but it sounds hollow to them both. He raises a hand to hers on his cheek, having no arguments to offer to the rest.
Natalia leans forward, and kisses the hand on her hand. She doesn't care if it's his steel hand. "I love you, Ivan. I don't have words in Russian or English, but... I love you." She smiles faintly but a true smile. "And I trust you."
Ivan looked a little haunted at the question of his coming here..but it flickers to a small grin when she kisses his hand. "Hey..I. ..Me too." he shakes his head a little. "Guess you're right; I never woulda saw it coming. Either of you getting under my skin like that." he sighs.. "Don't..don't do anything crazy. ..if you trust me, gimme a chance to think of something."
A flicker of crafy amusement makes Natalia smile a bit more. She seems reassured now, that Ivan will make everything okay again. "Let me... do one crazy thing." she says with a wink. And then she kisses him, a gentle and sweet kiss that demands nothing.
Ivan blinks slowly.. but after all that was just said-- all the questions and bluntness and uncertainty, there's nothing left for worrying about implications. They're both wrung, and they both care, so for just one moment, what the hell. He kisses her back, equally light, and ends it with a smile. "..Think I can live with that." he answers quietly.
But he worries about that look in her eye. He's already tried talking to the others twice, and he has little hope that third time will prove the charm on this one. And Nikolai may not have many more missions left in him