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Starting Over

 
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Aleksandra Biala
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:54 am    Post subject: Starting Over Reply with quote

The quinjet proved to be a surprisingly comfortable way to travel, and given the secrecy surrounding certain of the people on board, it was no wonder that they went stealthed and sonic at the first opportunity. With Natasha relaying information to A.E.G.I.S. headquarters concerning the two new faces she was bringing with her, it was left to the pair of enhanced also catching a lift home to entertain Maxim Ivanovich and Aleksandra Biala.

"You speak English, da?" Alyona asked as the jet turned to leave Russian airspace. "Mr. Stark does not speak Russian. Most Americans do not."

"Da," Maxim replied, switching abruptly from his native Russian to perfect English, but with the hint of a Russian accent. "Yes, I speak English," he assured her. He knew life in "America" would prove difficult without that knowledge.

"That will help." Alyona smiled, nodding her head. "We have not been introduced. I am Alyona Evchenko; the big one with the scowl is Nikolai Petrov. We are Avengers." This was pronounced with a certain degree of sunny pride.

Sat beside Maxim, Aleksandra found herself smiling in answer, unable to quite resist the sheer force of merry happiness rolling off the young Sokovian.

Beside her, Nikolai grunted a greeting, a look that was not quite a smile trying to make an appearance on his face. Well, they were Russian anyway, or close to it.

"Evchenko ... Petrov," Maxim murmured. "I know those names."

"Be glad you didn't know them twenty minutes ago," Natasha called from the cockpit. Even she had relaxed now they were in the air. "Settle in, we've got a coupla hours before we reach H.Q. and the happy wagon waiting for you."

Alyona giggled, pouring a hot drink for the Black Widow. Tendrils of crimson energy lifted another pair of cups, floating them over to Maxim and Aleksandra, while a third made its way over to Nikolai.

The engineer blinked, hesitantly taking the cup from the air. "Spasibo," she said, correcting herself almost immediately. "Thank you. You are enhanced? Both of you?"

"You could say that," Nikolai said, in answer to Aleksandra's question, but not bothering to add anything further.

A look of dawning understanding appeared on Maxim's face, as Alyona handed them both a cup of tea without using her hands. "You are Sokolovian," he said, realizing where he'd heard mention of her name. It wasn't a question. But the name Petrov was giving him more trouble.

"I am," Alyona agreed cheerfully. "But now I live in America." She tilted her head toward Maxim. "Don't chase the memory," she suggested softly. "It gets harder to find, the more you want it. And you may not like the answers to the questions it raises."

Max ticked a brow upwards, a little surprised to realize she had known what he was thinking, just as she had known he was "invested" in the mission they had just accomplished together. Did that mean she trusted him?

"Perhaps you should tell your friend that I am not out to get him," he said, with a glance at Nikolai.

"He knows," Alyona assured him, thumping down into a seat beside Nikolai. "He won't kill you unless you try to kill him."

Next to Maxim, Aleksandra caught the phrasing with a faint smile, glancing up to see if he had, as well. "What will happen to us, when we land?" she asked, perhaps as a way to change the subject.

"I am not here to kill anyone, except those loyal to Hydra," Max assured her. That was an enemy he sensed they all could agree on. He had yet to explain why he hated them so much, but perhaps it would come out in time.

As for his part, Nikolai said nothing, but quietly sipped his tea, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

"I would assume you will be given somewhere to sleep for a few hours," Alyona answered with a shrug, not at all perturbed by her partner's lack of conversation. Nikolai never seemed to talk much, except to her.

"That's the plan, little red," Natasha agreed, leaving the jet on autopilot to come back and join them for a little while. "We'll be getting into New York around five am local time, quarters are being sorted for you to get some sleep in. You'll be up around midday, and your orientation will begin. A.E.G.I.S. is working on integrating you with new identities, sorting out homes, bank balances, basic necessities."

"Giving us new lives," Maxim said, understanding what was about to take place. He didn't think it would deter Hydra or Russian Intelligence for long, but it might buy them some time. "How exactly do you propose to keep us safe?" he asked pointedly, coming right to the crux of the matter, at least where Aleksandra was concerned.

"They're still working on it, but new identities, plausible backstory, and you will, of course, both be offered work with A.E.G.I.S. in your respective fields," Nat explained. "We try to make the transition seem more like a natural change of locale for work reasons, rather than painting a big neon sign that declares both of you to be who you are. So you'll have a week or so to get settled in, explore a little if you want to, before you're expected to present yourselves for work at whichever facility you choose from the options given to you. You will, of course, be watched for your own protection - non-invasive observation."

Aleksandra blinked slowly as her tired mind tried to absorb this. "So we will be ... separated and expected to behave as though this is a normal sort of thing, to be alone?"

"We're not being separated," Maxim said, whether that was A.E.G.I.S.'s intention or not. He was bound and determined to stay with Aleksandra, or what was the point of defecting at all? Natasha knew that already. "I will not allow us to be separated."

"Well, you need to be sure of that," Natasha warned them, more for Aleksandra's sake than Maxim's. "Because staying together does mean that your new identities will be integrated."

Across the jet, Alyona snorted with a sudden gush of merry laughter, tilting her head to murmur something to Nikolai.

Aleksandra frowned curiously. "I don't know what this means, integrated," she said, looking to Maxim for an explanation.

Maxim glanced to Alyona and Nikolai a moment as the woman burst into ... Was she actually giggling? Her companion looked as if he was trying to hide his look of amusement behind his cup. Perhaps he was human, after all.

Max turned to Aleksandra, so he could explain. "It means they will create a history for us that puts us together. Siblings, lovers, spouses ... Something like that."

"Oh, I see." There was a pause as Aleksandra considered this. "But I don't want to be your sister."

Natasha grinned. "Trust me, siblings is not something you two could pull off," she promised.

"Yes, thank you for pointing that out, Natasha," Max said, his voice dripping sarcasm, though there was a hint of amusement in his eyes. He wished she would give them a moment alone to discuss this, but it seemed privacy would have to wait. "We do not have to have an integrated past, unless you wish it, Aleks," he assured her gently, his tone of voice noticeably different when it came to her.
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Aleksandra Biala
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:55 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"You know what? You two should talk about this," Natasha said, pushing herself to stand up. She gestured to the others. "Aly, Niko? Let's go and pretend to be interested in the view from the cockpit for a second. And shut the door behind us."

"I am not interested in the ..." Nik started, trailing off when he realized what Nat was up to. "Oh, I see," he murmured with a heavy long-suffering sigh. "Very well."

Giggling, Alyona rose to her feet, her hand gently curled into Nikolai's as she followed Nat out of sight and into the cockpit, which was swiftly shut up behind them.

Aleksandra rolled her eyes at the lack of subtlety, twisting in her seat to look at Maxim. "I am not sure I understand quite what is going on here."

Maxim waited, remaining silent until they were alone, trusting Nat not to eavesdrop on them. He turned to Aleksandra then, just barely stopping himself for reaching for her hand. "I know. I'm sorry for all this. It is because of me, Aleks. I am going to defect, and Russian Intelligence will not look kindly on that." It wasn't entirely about or because of him, but it had become obvious at least to at least one person on board the quinjet that he was doing it because of Aleksandra.

"But I have defect - wait, you defected?" She frowned, confusion overwhelming a mind that had been awake and busy for more than twenty-four hours now. "I thought you were A.E.G.I.S."

"Me?" he said in obvious surprise. Had she really thought he belonged to A.E.G.I.S.? "No, I am ... was Russian Intelligence. Russia does not like Hydra setting up shop inside her borders. My mission was to infiltrate the facility and inform them of Hydra's purpose there." She had never been part of his mission, not until she had contacted A.E.G.I.S., and he'd been ordered to help extricate her. "Are you disappointed?" he asked, the hint of a smile on his face.

She blinked, fighting a yawn even as a slow smile touched her weary face. "I ... no, I-I am not disappointed," she promised him quietly. "But you are defecting now. Did something happen to make you decide this?"

He noted her yawn with a smile. Perhaps this was not the time for this conversation, after all. "Perhaps you should sleep and we can speak on this later," he told her, unsure if she'd even remember this conversation later, as weary as she was now.

"In a little while," she said, shaking her head. "Agent Romanoff said we should ... that we should talk about this ... identity integration. Perhaps it would make things easier for the people in America to have things ready if they know in advance what we would prefer?"

"Perhaps," he said, though he didn't think there was any rush. After all, Natasha had said it would be a week or so before they were expected to show up for work. They'd have to sort out their new living arrangements long before that, though. "Aleks," he started, unsure just how to explain all this to her. "Russian Intelligence wants me to infiltrate A.E.G.I.S. ... to spy for them, to become a double agent. I love my country, but that is something I cannot do."

She frowned uncertainly. "You think they will come after you?" she asked, still biting down on the urge to yawn again. "They will come after me, too. At least you can defend yourself."

"That is not what concerns me," he told her, though it did, but that was not why he was telling her this - not entirely, anyway. She was making this very hard for him, and he wondered if he should just come right out and say it. "I promised to protect you, and I intend to keep that promise," he told her. "But if you do not wish me to, I understand."

It was a little too late for him to turn back now, though Mother Russia would probably take him back in an instant and then pick his brain for everything he knew about A.E.G.I.S.

Aleksandra watched him struggle for a moment, a slow look of comprehension touching her own expression, touched with the barest suggestion of wonder. She raised her hand, gently touching his lips with her fingertips. "Yes," she said simply. "Yes, I will be your pretend wife. I like you, Maxim. I trust you. And as selfish as it seems, I would very much like to stay with you. Perhaps, after a while, it won't be pretending anymore."

He wouldn't have asked her to pretend to be his wife, but here she was proposing it. Natasha had said they could not pretend to be siblings, and maybe she was right. He didn't want to be Aleksandra's brother any more than it seemed she wanted to be his sister. "Is that what you want, Aleksandra?" he asked, taking her hand in his and looking expectantly to her for an answer.

If he'd asked her that when she wasn't operating on no sleep, he would not have had a satisfactory answer. As it was, she couldn't muster even a lie to protect herself from being humiliated. "I would like the whole thing not to have been pretend," she admitted with a resigned laugh. "I like you, I wasn't lying about that. I ... I've had a schoolgirl's crush on you for months, and then you asked me out. But it was on orders, and for a mission, and I played along because it was nice to pretend for a little while, and because I knew that was what you needed me to do so I could get out. I enjoyed our strange little date. I wish it had been real."

"It was real enough, da?" he asked, slipping back into his native Russian. It hardly seemed appropriate to tell her what he was about to tell her in English. He had only been speaking it for the sake of the others, and they were no longer listening - or so he hoped. "It had been a long time since I have cared for anyone, Aleksandra," he told her, his voice quiet, his expression serious. Why her, he didn't know, but there was something about her that had made him care. Her vulnerability, perhaps, or perhaps, something more. Whatever it was, it seemed she had gotten under his skin. Did he really have to say it?

"It was real for me," she confessed softly, smiling as though she was expecting him to reject her, however gently. His words surprised her, but in the best way, raising a sweeter smile to her face. "Maybe not your wife, then," she suggested. "Your girlfriend?"

The hint of an amused smile tugged at his mouth. "You are too much a woman to be called girlfriend," he replied, lifting her hand again to his lips so that he could touch a kiss against her fingers. They weren't children indulging a crush, after all, but full-grown adults just starting to realize that they had feelings for each other.

Perhaps, if she had been less tired, she might have followed that gesture of affection with something more, but finally the yawn she had been fighting broke free, making her jaw click with its intensity. She laughed through it, her eyes full of apology for her lack of romance. "I am so sorry."

He only smiled, not blaming her for being tired. "It will be a few hours before we reach New York. You should get some rest," he told her, not offended at all that she was falling asleep on him. There would be time to talk when they got to New York - or so he hoped.

"So should you," she pointed out, but it didn't prevent her from resting her head on his shoulder as she relaxed against the startingly comfortable seat she was buckled into.

"Da, I suppose I should," he replied, making no promises, as he glanced down at the pretty face that was resting on his shoulder. "Słodkie sny," he whispered in her own native Polish, touching a kiss to the top of her head. Sweet dreams. So, it seemed he was fluent in more than just Russian and English.

She smiled at the words that were so familiar, yet so rarely heard, nestling a little more comfortably against him. Despite the tension and terror of the last twenty hours or so, she felt safe, protected. She knew Maxim would look after her in the new life they were winging their way toward.

He hoped he could do just that. It was why he was here, after all - in good part, why he had agreed to leave the familiarity of his homeland for the streets of New York, a place he'd never been. But it wasn't just about Aleksandra. Like some of the others he was joining, he had a deep abiding hatred for Hydra, and joining A.E.G.I.S. seemed the most promising way of destroying them.

If everything Nat had told him was true, A.E.G.I.S. was the only agency in direct opposition to Hydra, and what reason did she have to lie to him about that? She'd worked for too many agencies gone bad to be drawn in again. But any questions could wait for a few hours, at least until they'd landed on American soil. Their companions on the quinjet didn't disturb them as they slept away the remaining hours of the journey, not until the jet began its descent on the cusp of dawn, down onto an airfield in upstate New York.
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Aleksandra Biala
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:55 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Alyona's gentle hand touched each knee. "It is time to wake up," she urged them softly. "We have arrived."

Maxim groaned, as he awoke, feeling groggy and lethargic. "I would kill for a cup of coffee right now," he murmured, stifling a yawn as he shifted in his seat. He glanced over at Aleksandra to find her just waking, too, and found himself wondering what kind of reception they were going to get at A.E.G.I.S. H.Q.

"Ixnay on the killingsay," Natasha suggested. She was still behind the controls, but the door to the cockpit was open once again.

Alyona pushed a cup of coffee into Maxim's hand, gently curling Aleksandra's fingers around a cup of her own.

"You're gonna need that," the redhead added as they circled the airfield. "Looks like you're getting the royal treatment."

"Is that a good thing?" Max asked, taking a small sip of the coffee, as if to test whether it tasted as good as it smelled. His question, however, wasn't about the coffee at all, but about how they were going to be received.

"Depends what kind of mood they're in," Nat told him, turning her full attention to landing.

Alyona smiled. "I will put them in a good mood," she promised easily, moving to take her seat beside Nikolai and buckle in again.

At Maxim's side, Aleksandra groaned quietly as she sipped her own coffee. "I feel like my eyes are made of grit."

"Maybe you should put him in a good mood," Maxim remarked with a nod of his head toward Nikolai, who seemed interminably cranky. "No, dorogoya, your eyes feel like they are full of grit, not made of grit," he quietly corrected.

"He is in a good mood," Alyona quipped impishly. Nikolai took a while to warm up to most people.

Aleksandra straightened, trying to stretch an awkward ache out of her back as she considered the correction. "Ah, yes," she nodded. "My English is not so good as yours."

"You will be fine," Maxim assured her with a smile he seemed to reserve only for her. He might have patted her hand, if they both weren't more interested in getting a caffeine fix.

"You do not want to see me in a bad mood," Nikolai remarked, though he doubted anyone really cared.

"I want a meal and a bed and no interruptions until I have slept properly," Aleksandra declared a little abruptly, downing half her coffee in one gulp. It wasn't helping. She tensed at the gentle bump as the jet landed, glancing at Maxim. "I suppose we are here."

"I suppose you are right," Max replied, glad he had already drained most of his cup or he might have risked spilling some at that unexpected bump. It was too late to turn back now, even if he'd wanted to.

A new voice crackled over the comm. "Hey, Romanoff, you gonna open the door, or do I have to get the Capsicle to knock politely first?"

Shutting down the plane, Natasha rolled her eyes. "Patience is a virtue, shellhead."

This exchange definitely confused Aleksandra. "Who is ... shell head?"

"Tony Stark," Nikolai replied, without further explanation, as he thought that explained enough. If they hadn't heard of Tony Stark by now, they'd been living under a very big rock.

"Ironman," Max murmured, partly for Aleksandra's benefit. Though he might not have known Stark by the nickname, he did know who it was that wore the red metal suit.

Worry lit up the engineer's face. "I-Iron-ironman is waiting for us?" she asked, suddenly very concerned about just about everything that was going to happen in the next few minutes. "He sounds irritation."

"No, he causes irritation," Nikolai said, putting together more words in that moment that he had during the whole time they'd been in flight. "He is like a tick, constantly biting and trying to get under your skin, until you throw him away and ignore him, and then he leaves you alone."

Aleks hesitated, glancing at the other. "I do not think I followed that."

Natasha chuckled, rising to her feet as the loading bay door began to lower, letting in the dawn breeze from the outside. "Just don't rise to him," she suggested. "He likes to have the last word, and to show off."

Maxim kept his mouth shut this once, both brows arching curiously upwards as he looked from one to the other at their appraisal of the famous - or perhaps infamous - Tony Stark.

For some reason, Nikolai choose to speak again, his voice quieter this time. "He is like a dog - his bark is worse than his bite," he told him as he moved to his feet.

"He likes to be petted," Alyona added with a grin. Of everyone there, she seemed to be the only one who wasn't too concerned about coming face to face with Ironman. "Steve will be nice to you. Steve is nice to everyone."

Natasha chuckled, gesturing for them to unbuckle and stand. "Aly, you're getting more chipper by the day. Are you sure you're not pregnant?"

Nikolai jerked his head at Natasha at that remark and narrowed his eyes in warning. If Alyona was pregnant, he thought it only right he be the first to know, and as of right now, he didn't know. "Perhaps there are other reasons for her cheerfulness," he said, offering Alyona a hand.

Maxim looked between them again, wondering how this oddball collection of very different people got along. He supposed he was about to find out.

"C'mon, then, up and at 'em." Natasha chivvied them along, leading the way out of the jet and into the pre-dawn light onto the landing strip, where two figures were waiting for them. One dark-haired and expensively suited, the other tall and blonde and very broad in the shoulders.

Aleksandra frowned in confusion. "Isn't that the man who was in charge in Murmansk?"

Max narrowed his eyes as he took a closer look at the pair of men. "Nyet, I do not think so," he said, remembering how the American agent had almost quietly bragged that he bore a striking resemblance to Captain America. "There is a similarity, though," he added thoughtfully, quietly noting that there were some differences, too. This man was clean-shaven and blonder and dressed in civilian clothing - just a plain blue t-shirt that did very little to hide his physique and a pair of ordinary-looking track pants and sneakers.

"To what do we owe the pleasure of a formal greeting?" Natasha asked as they came up on the pair.

The dark-haired man shrugged. "Oh, you know, thought we'd take a look at the newbies, see if they pass muster," he commented. "Looking kind of tired there, Romanoff. Found someone to keep you up at nights?"

"In your dreams, Stark."

"Oh, always."

Everyone present knew Tony's dreams was about as close as he was ever going to get to sleeping with the Widow, so Steve didn't bother to point that out. "Just ignore him," Steve warned the newcomers regarding Tony, echoing Nikolai's recent advice. "Everyone else does."
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Maxim Ivanovich, Aleksandra Biala, meet Captain Steve Rogers and Tony Stark," Natasha introduced them. "Founders of A.E.G.I.S. but not in charge of it."

"What, not even teensy orders?" Stark objected. "Not even to get coffee?"

Nikolai muttered something in Russian under his breath. Maxim only caught part of it. Although, he didn't say a word, a brief smirk flickered across Steve's face, betraying not only his understanding of the language, but his heightened sense of hearing.

"Pleased to meet you both," Steve said instead, stepping forward to offer them each a hand in greeting. "First things first. You must be tired and hungry. Tony, think you can rustle up some grub?"

"Hold on, why am I on kitchen duty?" Tony protested, fully aware that the ones who knew him were smirking at this.

Aleksandra shook Steve's hand, still a little uncertain, and yelped as Alyona quite suddenly came running out of the quinjet to throw her arms around Steve's neck and kiss his cheek. Then she leaped down and did the same to Stark, who grimaced, but didn't actually stop her.

"C'mon, Tinkerbell, you're killing my image here."

Tony had mentioned something about coffee, after all, but it was Alyona's greeting that made Steve laugh. "Which image is that?" he asked. "The genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist?" he quoted with an easy-going grin, seemingly far more at ease with Stark these days than he had been in the past.

"You forgot extremely intimidating," Tony reminded him, although this was ever so slightly undermined by the fact that he had Alyona still hanging off him and grinning. He even cracked a smile as she smacked a kiss to his cheek.

Aleksandra laughed very quietly. "These are the famous, terrifying Avengers?"

"He was not this friendly a few months ago," Nikolai remarked, unsure how he felt about his girl hanging off Stark like a piece of jewelry. "He had to learn how to play nice with others."

Steve chuckled at Aleksandra's comment. "Only if you're Hydra," he said. "Come on, let's get you inside and get something in your stomachs. You must be starving."

"Oh, look at that, Cap's giving orders," Tony declared, handing Alyona off his side and onto Nikolai's arm. "Love you, Tinkerbell, but you're gonna get me shot one of these days. JARVIS, you awake?"

A electronic voice answered from an unknown source. "I am not programmed to sleep, sir."

"Great," Stark responded. "Some sort of breakfast for the newbies, think you can handle that?"

"Yes, sir."

"Newbies?" Maxim echoed. He got the gist of the word, though he wasn't too familiar with it. He arched a curious brow at the disembodied male voice, assuming it was a computer program of some kind from the context of its speech. "A robot?" he guessed.

"Virtual Intelligence," Natasha told him. "JARVIS pretty much runs this place, and a couple of others."

"Come inside, I can smell bread baking," Alyona enthused, pulling Nikolai by the hand as she gestured for Maxim and Aleksandra to follow them.

"Nat, a word?" Steve said, gesturing for Nat to stay behind a moment or two. They had spoken while the quinjet had been in flight, but he had waited for her to arrive to be filled in completely.

Trained or not, Maxim couldn't hide the rumbling sound coming from his stomach. He was feeling a little more at ease now that they were there. Despite their disagreements, he got the feeling these people were good friends.

Natasha nodded to him, stepping aside as Alyona and Nikolai escorted their newest recruits into the facility with Tony complaining all the way. As soon as they were out of sight, she finally let her shoulders relax, yawning as she stretched. "Long night, old man."

"At least you didn't have to listen to Tony complaining all night about how bored he was and how he wished he'd gone along," Steve said. "He's worried we're letting the Russians take over A.E.G.I.S.," Steve said with a smirk, seeing how Nat was one of those Russians.

She snorted with laughter. "Does he have any idea how many people work for A.E.G.I.S.?" she asked in amusement. "Seriously, without getting these guys to join up, our Russian representation was starting to look a little thin. Did the tech plane get in okay?"

"Yeah, but it's gonna take some time to go through it all," Steve confirmed, frowning a moment as he debated whether or not to confess something he'd been recently thinking.

"Well, that's something Aleksandra can help with, at least," Nat commented. She paused, stretching out her back again as she looked up at a familiar frown. "Spit it out, Rogers."

"It's nothing," Steve shrugged, though nothing that put a frown on his face was ever really nothing. "Just realizing that we're never really gonna get rid of Hydra. They're like a disease without a cure. We can try and keep it under control, but we can never iradicate it entirely. All we can do is hope to stay one step ahead of them."

"Well, that's what I've been telling you," she pointed out with a shrug. "That's why you took a step back. It'll never truly be gone - we're just setting up the infrastructure to make it impossible for them to get to any position of power in the future."

"You don't think we're fighting a losing battle?" he asked, uncertainly. It was hard to remember sometimes that Steve wasn't really the old man of the bunch, unless you measured age by years. He'd spent seventy of those years in suspended animation at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

Nat met his gaze. "Someone very wise said once that so long as there's one person still fighting, the war isn't lost," she reminded him. That someone had been him, and she'd needed to hear it at the time. "He was right. I've been on the wrong side too many times, Steve. I'm on the right side for once. Hydra can't win so long as our people are still fighting them, and we will fight them. It just won't be us doing the fighting in a few years' time. It'll be them."

This, she said with a nod toward the training facility, where several new enhanced individuals would be starting their new education in the not so distant future.

Steve followed her gaze, knowing what she meant and then some. Though he wasn't getting any younger, he wasn't showing any signs of aging either, but none of them would live forever. "We need to start recruiting and training the next generation," he said, only saying what it was she had been hinting at.

"And we will," she assured him. "Croft's got the dossiers, intel is working on sourcing identities. Anyone who passes the psych eval gets an offer. We've got this, Steve. Now why don't you tell me why you decided to greet our defectors personally?"

"You think it's because I don't trust Tony to do it right?" he asked, hoping she didn't think that. As irritating as Tony could be, he understood the importance of what they were trying to do here. Steve sighed. "I don't know. I want to keep my family safe, but ... I swore I would never give up fighting Hydra, and it's hard to do from Rhy'Din. Besides, I think they need to see me, meet me, know I'm part of this. It's not about being Captain America anymore, Nat. The world has gotten too small for that. We're recruiting people from all over the world who hate Hydra as much as we do. Who want to make a difference. It's about being a leader, about having someone to follow, to look up to. God, that sounds lame and egotistical, doesn't it?"
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"No, it sounds right," she assured him. "No matter who is the Director of A.E.G.I.S., you're the leader we look to when we're up for a mission. You're the one most of our active agents consider themselves as working for. It makes sense."

"Croft is the right guy for the job," Steve said, reaffirming his confidence in the new Director, at least as far as A.E.G.I.S. was concerned. "But we're fighting a war, and he's not a soldier."

"Exactly." Nat shook her head. "I know it's tough, sitting back and letting someone else do the searching, but that's what we need to do right now. There is no great battle to fight, and our fights have to be picked. We can't afford to alienate the general populace, and each time we have a fight in a populated area forced on us, they trust us a little less. So let Croft and his people do the searching, let them find us the targets and secure the area. We're still fighting, Steve. You're still fighting."

"I just finished illustrating a children's book, Nat!" Steve confessed with a bit of a chuckle, at his own expense. Then again, there had been a time when all he'd wanted was to be an artist with a with and kids, not a soldier trying to win a war.

"Don't forget, you said I could read it to the twins," she reminded him with a grin. "You seem happy. Everything's balanced. Isn't that what you want out of life?"

"Yeah, I guess. I mean, I am happy, and nothing's more important than my family, but sometimes I feel like I'm ... I don't know ... useless," he admitted with another shrug. He was clearly torn between his love for his family and his sense of duty.

"Who are you comparing yourself to?" she asked curiously. "No one is full time focused on mission. Everyone has their days off, their absences. Stark meddles, but spends more time in New York than at the manor or here. Clint has Laura and the kids, he only comes out when we need him. Same with Johnny and Sue, and Sam. Hell, even Aly and Niko have more downtime than on-time. So where is this unattainable standard coming from?"

"Uh-huh," Steve remarked, with a bit of a chuckle. "Says the woman who's on duty twenty-four to seven. When was the last time you took a day off?" he countered. "Get your nails done, go on a date, or whatever it is women do on their downtime."

She rolled her eyes, looking away. "Well, I'm a special case," she defended herself. "I don't have anything outside work. Just my friends. And they have their families."

"You're part of that family, Aunt Nat," Steve reminded her, but he caught her meaning. He knew she could have had something outside work, if she wanted to, if she allowed herself to. Maybe someday she would; he hadn't given up hope for her yet. "Thing is, I was created for this. I have a certain obligation to uphold. People expect more from me than just illustrating a kid's book." He held up a hand before she scolded him again. "I know, I know ... I can't be everywhere at once. Just ... keep me in the loop, okay?"

"I always do." She smiled at him, hugging her arms about her waist. "And Steve? Erskine didn't ask you to be a good soldier. He asked you to be a good man. That's what he created. The military just got hold of you through him. And a good man has more than just his work to keep him going."

Steve smiled at what Natasha had to say, not only because she always seemed to know what he needed to hear, but for another reason. "You're a good friend, Nat. Thanks," he told her, a little too awkward for a hug or a kiss on the cheek, unless she initiated it, but oozing warmth and affection for a woman he had come to think of almost as a sister.

"Well, I knew you didn't keep me around for my smouldering good looks," she teased, but the warmth was in her, too. It had taken a long time for Steve to realise that Natasha Romanoff considered him one of her closest friends, because she never used the word, but all the signs were there. She patted his arm. "You think this breakfast is going to be edible?"

He chuckled, his mood lightening now that he'd gotten all that off his chest. Though he rarely if ever said so, Natasha Romanoff had somehow become one of his closest friends. "That depends on who's cooking," he said, alluding to the reservations he had for Tony's cooking.

"I'd put money on Aly taking over," she grinned back at him. The Sokovian telepath did not trust Tony anywhere near the oven or hob. "I take it everything will be in place for them by midday?"

"Yeah, I assume Alyona cleared Ivanovich," Steve said, though she would have told him if that had not been the case. They couldn't risk bringing a Russian double agent into Avengers H.Q. or A.E.G.I.S., even if they were supposed to be allied with Russia.

"She didn't have to, he told me the second we were in the air." Nat nudged him in the ribs. "I told you we could trust him. But it does mean he'll need protection as much as she does, and they don't want to separated."

Steve arched a brow, not at the nudge but at the knowledge that the pair didn't want to be separated. "Okay, are you telling me they're a couple?" he asked. He'd read both their files, and as far as he could tell, neither was romantically attached.

"They're ... complicated," she told him. "Look, they only met this week, they played out the farce of being on a first date to get out of Murmansk. But Max likes her. He really likes her, and he doesn't let himself get attached. She trusts him. They had a heart to heart on the jet, and Alyona seems pretty sure they'll be a real couple before too long. They're just not there yet."

"Okay," he said, taking all that in. "You realize that if we link their backgrounds and set them up in the same living space, we're forcing them to be together and encouraging a relationship," he pointed out, though if they were well on their way there already, it hardly mattered.

"Trust me, they're already there," Nat said with a faint smirk. "They might not have admitted it yet, but she's going to be on maternity leave by this time next year. I'd put money on it."

"You might not want to say that around Tony. I'm pretty sure he'd take you up on that," Steve smirked. Then again, Steve didn't really mind if Nat won that bet. She'd been right about Niko and Alyona, too.

"I'm sure he would, and he'd lose," she predicted in amusement. "Because he can't leave it alone. We're not going to be forcing them into anything they're not already moving toward."

"Fair enough. This team has enough drama without relationship drama," Steve pointed out. "C'mon, comrade. I can hear your stomach growling," he said, goodnaturedly. He was probably the only person who could address her in such a way, mostly because for him the word was synonymous with "friend".

He still got a slap in the stomach for it, but without force. Still, it was probably reassuring for Maxim and Aleksandra to see them enter the big kitchen with smiles rather than frowns.

As far as Maxim could tell, the people they'd here met so far seemed friendly enough, but they had just arrived and he wasn't naive enough to think A.E.G.I.S. - and by extension, the Avengers - only had his and Aleksandra's best interests in mind. There was only one reason they were here - because they were not only enemies of Hydra, but possessed critical information regarding the operation at Murmansk.

Still, the meal was freshly cooked and very welcome after their incredibly long night, as was the bedroom suite they were shown to. With assurances from JARVIS that they would not be allowed to sleep too long, to enable them to get onto local time more easily, it wasn't so difficult to fall asleep. At midday, the curtains were opened to wake them gently, and it wasn't until they were both ambulatory that a knock came on the door to summon them to the office of the Director of A.E.G.I.S.
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

By that time, Maxim was pacing the floor, obviously restless and wondering why they'd been left alone for so long. He had showered, dressed, and eaten, leaving him a few hours to kill during which there was nothing to do but flip through channels on the TV set.

Aleksandra had slept longer than Maxim, a civilian to her toes with less awareness of dawn and day. The opening of the curtains to let light spill over her was what woke her to the embarrassing realisation that she'd probably been snoring while Max was awake, swift to disappear into the bathroom with her own provided change of clothes and make use of the facilities.

Maxim answered the knock at the door, already cranky from having been kept waiting for so long. As exhausted as he'd been, he'd been too anxious to sleep very long, until he knew better what was expected of them.

A familiar face was waiting behind the door - Natasha, proof that A.E.G.I.S. wasn't just going to cast aside what little familiarity they had already established. "Sleep well, big guy?"

"Not really," Max replied. He had slept, yes, but his sleep had been broken and restless. He moved back from the door so that she could step inside. "Aleks is the bathroom," he explained, regarding the engineer's disappearance.

"Well, you should sleep well tonight, then," Nat commented, stepping into the room. "Your identities have been generated and inserted into the national databases, your shared home has been furnished, bank accounts and social security numbers have been formalized. Director Croft will give you your dossiers and answer any questions you have. He's ready to see you at your nearest convenience."

"I assume he wants to see us together, da?" he asked, with a glance toward the bathroom into which Aleks had disappeared not more than a few minutes ago. He was still feeling a little cranky, either from lack of sleep or caffeine or worry, or a combination thereof.

"Yes, your wishes are going to be respected," Nat assured him with a nod. "She'll have to go through basic training for A.E.G.I.S., but that doesn't mean she will ever be going out in the field. We learned the hard way with S.H.I.E.L.D. that all the good will in the world won't protect a scientist if they can't use a weapon to defend themselves."

Maxim seemed to relax as soon as Nat assured him that his wishes - their wishes - were going to be respected. He had promised Aleks he'd protect her, and for him, that promise hadn't ended when they'd reached New York. He nodded his head, agreeing with her. As much as Aleks might not like it, she needed to learn how to defend herself. He dropped into a chair, suddenly feeling exhausted. "She's not going to like it, but it's for the best."

"What am I not going to like?" Nat glanced up as Aleks walked out of the bathroom, dressed in the t-shirt and sweats she'd been provided with, still towelling her damp hair. The engineer looked between them in concern. "What has been decided about me without my consent?"

Maxim looked between the two women, almost as if he was waiting for Nat to answer Aleksandra's question. When that didn't happen fast enough for him, he took it upon himself to answer instead. "They want you to learn how to defend yourself, and I agree," he told her.

"What do you mean, defend myself?" Aleks asked warily.

Nat smiled faintly. "Basic AEGIS training," she explained. "Team-work, psych eval, weapons and hand-to-hand combat. Just to cover the bases."

Aleks' frown did not lessen as her eyes turned to Max, clearly needing his input to reassure her here. "I am not a ... a combat person."

"Nyet, you are not. You will not be going into combat, Aleks. It is only a precaution. You should know how to defend yourself," he said, not bothering to explain why, since he thought it went without saying. He could not follow her around like her shadow, and they would both feel better knowing she was not entirely helpless when it came to her own safety. But he did not say this either. "For your own safety."

"How long does this training take?" she asked, lowering herself to perch on the arm of the chair Max was sitting in.

Nat bit down another smile, making a mental note of the unconscious decision to stay as close as possible without crowding him. "It's a week, and it's office hours, nine to five, five days," she said. "Max will have to go through something similar on the same week, so you might as well look at it as orientation."

It took everything he had to resist sliding an arm around her and even drawing her into his lap. He wanted to soothe her, to console her, to tell her he'd always keep her safe, but that was a promise he couldn't really keep. He'd had no business even making that promise. He would most certainly try, but he couldn't be with her twenty-four to seven. There were bound to be times when they weren't together.

"It would make me feel better if you knew how to defend yourself, Aleks," he told her gently.

Aleks sighed, letting the damp towel fall into her lap as she held his eyes for a long moment. "But I will not have to carry a weapon?" she asked, more hopeful for a negative answer than she had expected to be.

"A weapon is the best means of protecting yourself, Aleks," Maxim pointed out, though it was not for him to say what kind of training she'd have to endure. "I will teach you," he told her suddenly, though that might not be what A.E.G.I.S. had in mind.

"Out of hours, what you do is your business," Nat said, stepping in to head this off. "But this is official A.E.G.I.S. basic training. You won't be alone - there's a group of new hires who'll be going through it with you."

Aleks bit her lip. "Then ... it is decided that I have skills you wish to use for more than just this debriefing period?" she asked.

Nat nodded a little reluctantly. "At this moment in time? The safest place for you to work is with us. Both of you."

"What if we decide we would like to retire or change jobs?" Max asked, as unlikely as it was. She was a scientific engineer by trade, and he was a field operative. It was highly unlikely she was going to decide to be a waitress and him a bus driver or some such thing.

Nat met his gaze for a moment, knowing perfectly well how unlikely that was, but answered the question, nonetheless. "After a grace period, once we're sure that you're no longer in danger of retaliation from your former state, you'll be free to change career paths if you choose. You're not prisoners."

He knew how unlikely it was, too. If anyone knew how all this worked, it was Nat. Even if Russian Intelligence had forced him into become a spy, this was who he was now. He was quiet a moment, remembering his excitement at the prospect of becoming a cosmonaut, but he had given up on that dream a long time ago. "I made a promise to destroy Hydra. I can do that better with A.E.G.I.S. than without them."

"You're in a much better position to work against Hydra with us than with anyone else," Nat agreed, glancing up at the clock. "I'd suggest getting yourselves ready to meet the Director - you'll be spending the evening in your new home tonight."

Maxim nodded in agreement. Though he knew nothing about this Director Croft, he would find out soon enough what he - or she - was like. One thing he couldn't deny was that A.E.G.I.S. certainly didn't mess around. "Are you okay with that, dorogoya?" he asked, looking to Aleksandra, at his side, referring to sharing living quarters with him.

The endearment was not lost on their companion, but Aleks didn't bother glancing to see if that was the case. Her expression softened trustingly as she looked down at Max. "I-I want to stay with you," she told him, a little nervous of saying it aloud. "Please?"
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Then you will stay with me," he assured her, a soft smile on his face that betrayed his feelings more than he might know. He lifted a hand to touch her face, but thought better of it, remembering they weren't alone. Funny, they'd been alone for hours and he'd done nothing but sleep and pace the floor when he couldn't sleep anymore, watching her now and then as she slept.

It took a moment, but Aleks finally remembered to look away. "Give me just a few minutes," she said. "I will find those shoes and do something with my hair."

As she stepped away, Nat watched Max, squirreling away a faint sense of envy at what was developing before her eyes.

He watched her go, not even aware of the way his eyes followed her as she stepped away before he pulled his gaze back to Nat. "Chto?" he asked her, wondering what it was she was staring at. What? What it was she had noticed about him that maybe he hadn't wanted her to notice? Was he really than transparent?

There was a moment of knowing silence before Natasha spoke. "Do I get to be best man?" she asked quietly as Aleks disappeared back into the bathroom to do something with her damp hair.

He blinked in obvious surprise at her question. "I'm sorry?" he said, unsure if he'd heard her right, though he was not hard of hearing. She was talking about a wedding - his? "I don't know what you are talking about," he lied.

"When the penny drops, let me know," she answered, allowing him the lie. After all, it wasn't hurting anyone apart from himself right now. She glanced up as Aleksandra came back into the room, damp hair now braided and soft sneakers on her feet. "All ready to go?"

Penny drop? What was she talking about? He only looked confused. And then Aleks was there, and his expression changed again, brightening, even if he didn't realize it. "Da, I am ready," he assured her, moving to his feet. He still felt tired, but a little coffee and he'd be fine.

"I have ready, too," Aleks agreed, not quite as fluent as Max, but close enough to pass.

Nat smiled at them both, rising to her feet to lead them out of their temporary quarters and into the bustle of the A.E.G.I.S. facility. She pointed out the training areas, the combat arenas, the labs, the computer rooms, all before drawing them into the relative quiet of the intelligence center.

Though the facility was bustling, it was not a crowded, urgent sort of bustle. These were people with a shared purpose and, for the moment, no pressing issue clouding their minds. It felt like a comfortable sort of place, which was a surprise to Aleksandra. She had always thought spy facilities were hushed whispers sort of places. Natasha brought them to the door of an office, on which was set a brass plate bearing the name R. Croft, Director. Neither Maxim nor Aleksandra said a word while Natasha led them through the facility, quietly observing and taking it all in, until they reached the Director's door.

"Just knock and go in when he calls you," Nat told them. "He's new at being in charge, play nice."

"I always play nice," Max insisted, before turning to Aleks, that questioning look on his face again. "Ready?" he asked her.

Tossing her damp braid back over her shoulder, Aleksandra visibly steeled herself. "It is too late to say no, is it not?" she said, her smile wry. Her fingers twitched toward his hand, wanting to hold on but fairly sure he didn't want to be seen holding hands with her. "The sooner we knock, the sooner we will know what is expected of us."

If it wasn't for Aleksandra, he'd have already knocked, but he knew she wasn't used to this sort of thing and needed a little more time to prepare. Hopefully, this Director Croft would understand that she was a scientist, not a soldier or spy. "Now or never," Maxim agreed, lifting a hand to rap his knuckles against the door.

Of course, neither one of them quite understood why Natasha was grinning to herself, but then, neither one of them had met the Director yet. It was a matter of seconds before a warm voice called, "Come in!", and the redhead nodded to them both.

"In you go, then," she encouraged them. "Welcome to A.E.G.I.S."

Maxim narrowed his eyes at Natasha, not because he was angry but because he was trying to sort out why she was grinning. But before he had a chance to ask why, they were being ushered into the office by both Natasha and Director Croft. "We will see," he told her, though they both already knew he and Aleks didn't have much choice but to accept a position with A.E.G.I.S. There were worth fates than this. Maxim pushed open the door, letting Aleks step inside first with a quiet, "After you."

Whatever Aleks had been expecting of the Director, it hadn't been a middle-aged white man in a suit that looked more comfortable than smart, standing awkwardly in the middle of his own office with a tray of tea and coffee in his hands. No wonder Natasha had been smiling - this was not exactly an intimidating head of office.

"Miss Biala, Mr. Ivanovich, hello! I'm Robin Croft, please have a seat. Coffee?"

Oddly put at her ease by the sheer nervousness radiating from the man, Aleks slid into a seat at the desk with a smile. "Thank you, coffee would be lovely."

Maxim, too, was not expecting such an amicable welcome from the new A.E.G.I.S. Director, but he had never heard of Director Croft before and didn't know what to expect. He knew they wanted them to jump on board and give up as much information on Hydra and the Overlord Project as they could, but he had been expecting an interrogation, not a welcome.

"Da, coffee, please," he said, as he slipped into a seat beside Aleks. If nothing else, the coffee would help keep him awake.

"Coffee, yes, I expect you would." Croft nodded to himself, setting the tray down on the desk in front of them. "Help yourselves." He hesitated for a moment, then reluctantly sat in his own seat across the desk from them. "How are you both? I understand the night was a little ... fraught."

In the process of pouring coffee, Aleks glanced at Max. "I am sorry, I do not understand this word ... fraught?"

Maxim offered the Polish equivalent of the word so that Aleks might understand better, before turning to regard the man sitting across the desk from them. "We are here and we are alive," he said with a shrug. "I have no complaints."

As Aleksandra nodded, handing Max a cup of coffee before sitting back with her own, Croft drew in a slow breath.

"I'm glad to hear that," he admitted. "Well, it is my pleasure to offer you both positions within A.E.G.I.S., which are not a condition of your remaining in the U.S. We would prefer you to join our organisation, but it is your choice. All details put in place for your protection are not conditional upon your acceptance."

Maxim arched a single brow, revealing his surprise at the Director's offer. He had expected an offer to join A.E.G.I.S. - Natasha had mentioned as much - but he had not expected to be offered protection with nothing offered in return. "You would let us go free, to live our lives, and ask for nothing in return?" he asked, dubiously.

Croft looked a little wary. "I'm guessing this isn't the way it's done in conventional espionage circles," he said. "A.E.G.I.S. is not an espionage organization. We're a peacekeeping organization. And you have already given us a huge amount - between the information you have already provided, and the technology liberated from the Murmansk facility, you've allowed us an enormous boost in the fight against Hydra. That doesn't mean we wouldn't welcome your presence in our ranks, but we won't force it on you."
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Maxim exchanged glances with Aleksandra. He couldn't and wouldn't tell her what to do, but before they decided, they needed to know what exactly the Director was offering. "What would be expected of us if we joined your organization?" he asked, curiously.

"Well, you would be offered a place in the intelligence center, Mr. Ivanovich, as a member of the covert ops team, on active duty," Croft explained. "As and when a target is identified by our intelligence operatives, the covert ops teams go in to neutralise that target, either alone or in a support role to the enhanced team. Miss Biala, we would be delighted to have you join our R&D team in the labs here; with your advanced understanding of technical engineering, your insight into the technology our active teams deploy in the field would be invaluable."

Aleks tilted her head, a curious gleam in her eyes. "When you say technology ... would this be for both the covert and enhanced teams?"

Croft blinked in surprise. "Ah ... there are additional security checks before an allowance is made to become involved in the tech used by the Captain and his team, but, uh ... yes. Yes, I believe you would be trusted with both teams' tech."

Maxim said nothing while Aleks and the Director discussed the possibilities of her position with A.E.G.I.S. He didn't know if she'd accept the position or not, but where else was she going to find a job doing what she did best? As for himself, he just wanted to get on with taking down Hydra.

"What kind of targets?" he asked, unsure what kind of ops missions he'd be ordered to undertake. Croft claimed they were a peacekeeping organization, but how exactly did they intend to keep the peace?

"Our targets are always Hydra, or Hydra associates," Croft informed him. "Most covert ops involve the shutting down of businesses identified as fronts for Hydra, or the retaking of facilities in conjunction with international governments. There have also been instances where we have been required to liberate towns or regions under covert Hydra control. We maintain a presence in those regions until such time as the local government is able to take over that task."

There was nothing Maxim would rather do than help eradicate Hydra from the face of the Earth, but he wasn't sure he should look too eager, and he wanted a chance to discuss it with Aleks before either or both of them signed on the dotted line. "I will need a few days to consider it," he told Croft.

"Oh, of course," the director assured him, looking shocked at the idea of making them decide at that moment. "I'm not going to present you with contracts to sign here and now. No, the purpose of this meeting is to provide you with your new identities, new dossiers, and the keys to your new home." As he spoke, he pushed two folders across the desk toward them.

Maxim furrowed his brows, looking a little confused. This was too easy; what was the catch? But he said nothing, instead, reaching for the folder that was being pushed his way. He tapped a finger against the folder a moment, before flipping it open, sipping at his coffee while he looked it over.

Taking her cue from Max, Aleks set her coffee down to pick up the other folder, opening it to take a look. And immediately came up against a personal irritation. "That is not how you spell Aleksandra," she informed Croft, who looked uncomfortable.

"No, Miss Biala, but it is the Western spelling, and is less likely to draw attention on official documentation," he explained. "Alexandra Solova is your established identity on American soil."

Maxim's name had been shortened to Max, his last name changed to Kuryev - still Russian, but different from his given name. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," he murmured, under his breath, remembering a Western film he'd once seen about married assassins. Well, at least they weren't that.

Unimpressed with this new spelling of her own name, Aleks considered the folder a while longer, glancing curiously to Max as he murmured to himself. Then a thought occurred to her. "Ah ... Agent Romanoff said something about non-invasive observation," she said thoughtfully. "What does that mean, for us? I see we are to share a house, but I am not familiar with such terms."

Director Croft nodded once again. "In this instance, it doesn't refer to any form of organized surveillance," he explained. "Your new home is in a suburb that is totally inhabited by agents of A.E.G.I.S. and their families. It's more ... protective surveillance by coincidence."

"And if we don't join A.E.G.I.S.?" Max asked, looking up from his study of his dossier, with a questioning look on his face. What would happen then? Would they be relocated elsewhere? Or was Croft gambling that they were going to join?

"You will still be asked to stay in the housing provided until such time as it is proved safe for you to move away from our direct influence," the director said awkwardly. So there was the catch.

"Hmm," Maxim murmured thoughtfully to himself. He had already decided, but he could not and would not decide for Aleks. They would have to discuss it in private ... unless she, too, had already made up her mind. "I suppose I could get a job as a security guard," he said, with a smirk at Aleksandra, as if it was some sort of inside joke.

Aleks snorted softly with laughter, rolling her eyes at him. Given that she'd spent the last four years lusting after him in his role as security guard in Murmansk, that just sounded absurd now she knew what he really did. "If you do that, I will become a car mechanic," she threatened.

Across the desk, Croft's expression relaxed. If they could tease one another, this was not going down as uncomfortably as he had first thought it might. "By all means, take a few days to think it over," he told them. "You'll be provided with the means to contact this facility as and when the decision is made. You will also need to memorize the contents of those folders, your social security numbers, and whichever backstory you agree upon for your relationship. I recommend you spend a little time acclimatising to your new home and settling in before making any decision."

"Da, spasibo, Director," Maxim agreed, a small smile touching his lips. "But if you do not mind, I would like very much to finish my coffee," he said, lifting his cup for emphasis. And that meant small talk, or whatever small talk the Director might like to make.

With the official business apparently out of the way, Aleks felt herself relax a little, taking up her own cup as she set the folder aside. "What is this, um ... neighbourhood? Yes, neighbourhood - what is it like?"

Croft shrugged. "It's a typical suburban American neighborhood," he told them, though he likely didn't realize how little that actually explained. "Kids playing on lawns, dogs, local wildlife. There's a couple of convenience stores and coffee shops. My wife wanders along the main street at least once a day, so she tells me. It's just ... homely."

"We will be living nearby?" Maxim asked, a little surprised. He knew the Director had told them they'd be living in an area with other A.E.G.I.S. employees, but he wasn't expecting one of them to be the Director and his family. Who else might they run into there, he wondered? Certainly not any of the Avengers, he assumed.

"Certainly," Croft assured them. "A.E.G.I.S. employs a considerable staff and, as such, we have several neighborhoods discreetly populated with our own people in the nearest towns to this facility."
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Which makes it safer for people like us," Maxim said, repeating something Croft had said earlier, mostly for Aleksandra's sake. They would be safer living in a neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other than in a place where Hydra might come looking for them.

"I suppose you could see it as an added layer of protection," Croft conceded. "If something were to happen, there would be backup close at hand at all hours of the day and night. Not that we expect there will be trouble," he added hastily.

Aleksandra glanced at Max, tilting her head curiously. Would living among other A.E.G.I.S. households be a problem for them?

If Hydra found out where they were - or even Russian Intelligence - there would be trouble, but Maxim didn't want to say that just yet. As far as he was concerned, it was more "when", rather than "if". "I do not have a problem with that," he said, once again more for Aleksandra's benefit than for Croft's.

The Director seemed to understand why Max was the one responding to his assurances, especially when Aleks nodded once again, setting down her empty cup. "What do we do about bills?" she asked. "Paying for food and essentials?"

Croft perked up a little at this; he had an answer. "You both have bank accounts already set up, and your access to them is already verified," he said. "The balances within are the converted balance of your accounts back in Russia - those, we will empty ourselves, but we are not robbing you. We're just passing the money over without taking a commission."

"You realize Russian Intelligence expects me to apprise them of A.E.G.I.S. activities," Maxim told the man point-blank. "I do not intend to do that, but ..." He frowned, more worried for Aleksandra's safety in connection with him than his own. "They will not like it."

"Ah, yes, Mr ... Kuryev, that is why you have been given a new identity," he was told. "If we were, theoretically, unaware of your agreement with Russian Intelligence, you would have been permitted to keep your own name and operate under it in society. Another reason to remain in the provided housing for the time being."

Maxim nodded his understanding, but continued to frown, the Director's explanation prompting another question. It was something he'd been wondering about since their arrival, and he didn't think it was just Nat putting in a good word for them.

"How do you know you can trust us?" he asked, though he knew it was mostly his own loyalties that might come into question.

"You risked your lives to come here," Croft told him, then seemed to consider what came next. "And I'm sure you're aware by now that we have other means of being certain. You spent three hours in close quarters with the world's only known telepath. If you couldn't be trusted, we would know."

Aleks started in shock. "Excuse me?"

Maxim remained quiet a moment while he went over the last twenty-four hours or so in his head. The only time they'd been in the company of anyone for three hours or more was when they'd been on the quinjet, and that's when something clicked in his head, and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

"Alyona," he said. It wasn't a guess, so much as an observation. She had assured Nat he was "invested", and the only way she could possibly have known that was if she had poked at his mind.

Aleks shook her head. "I do not care who it is, are we not going to discuss the violation of personal privacy that is allowing a telepath to sift through our minds without prior consent?" she demanded, more than a little unsettled by this revelation.

"They had to make sure they could trust us," Maxim pointed out. It seemed to bother him less than it bothered Aleks, but that didn't mean he wanted Alyona making a habit of poking around in his head.

"I understand that," she objected. "What I do not understand is why we are only learning this now!"

Croft held up his hands peaceably. "I can assure you, Miss Bia- Miss Solova, that nothing has been passed on to us by Miss Evchenko," he promised firmly. "Her brief was to make certain neither one of you was conditioned in any way to betray A.E.G.I.S., that is all."

Maxim lapsed into Russian, hoping Aleks would find that language more comforting than English, though he realized Croft probably understood every word of it. "It is all right, dorogaya," he assured her as gently as he could, gesturing with a hand but not touching her. "It will not happen again."

She was clearly agitated, deeply unsettled by the news of what had been done without her consent. "My mind is all I have, Max," she protested unhappily. "Everything else is gone. And now not even my mind is my own?"

"It is me they were unsure of, Aleks," he pointed out. He wasn't saying Alyona hadn't poked at Aleks' mind, too, but he knew it was more than likely his loyalties that had been in question.

To his credit, despite understanding every word, Croft did his best to at least pretend he wasn't listening to this.

Aleks frowned, reaching out to lay her hand tentatively over Maxim's, still speaking in Russian. "But you told them," she said in concern. "You told Agent Romanoff the moment we took off that you had been asked to be a double agent. Why would they not trust you, after you volunteered the information?"

"Because they had to be sure," he explained, turning his hand over so that he could link his fingers to hers. He offered a small smile, hoping to reassure her, if he could. He would take this up with Natasha in private later. For now, he needed Aleks to think it was nothing to be concerned about. "What if Hydra had re-programmed our minds? How would they know if they did not read our thoughts?" he pointed out, which was entirely plausible.

She didn't like to admit it, but he was right. She hadn't even known she was working for Hydra; it was entirely possible they could have conditioned her somehow, even without her being aware of it. Aleks squirmed a little. "I ... I do not like it."

"It's all right, Aleks," he assured her further, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. "They would not have helped us and offered us a position with the agency if they did not trust us. Okay?" He asked, arching his brows upwards and hoping she understood. He turned back to Croft. "We will not be spied on, yes? No bugs, no hidden cameras in our home."

Aleks nodded slowly, relaxing a little when he squeezed her hand.

Croft looked surprised to have been asked that question at all. "I have not authorised the use of monitoring equipment anywhere within the boundary of your property," he assured Max. "If you have concerns about such things, you are more than welcome to scan the house and surrounding garden yourselves."

"I have your word?" Maxim pressed further. If he found out otherwise, it was Croft he'd hold responsible.

"That I have not ordered surveillance on you in your own home? You have my word." Croft might have been new at this, but he'd been an agent for years. He knew the implication behind Max's question.

Maxim nodded again, taking the man at his word. He finished his coffee, which was quickly getting cold. At least, it helped him wake up a little. He didn't think there was much more to say, until they had a few days to make their decision. "Thank you, Director," he said, all in English. "We do appreciate your help." He then turned to Aleks, "Do you have any more questions for the Director?"
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Still looking a little unnerved by the whole experience now she was awake enough to absorb it, Aleks turned her eyes to Croft. "How did you get our clothing sizes?" she asked suspiciously.

To her surprise, Croft blushed, no doubt guessing she was referring to the bra that fitted perfectly. "It was in your Hydra file."

Maxim grunted at that. "Perhaps we could see those files?" he asked, assuming Hydra had a file on him, too. It was not quite a demand, but more than a request. He needed to know how much Hydra - and perhaps even Russian Intelligence - knew about him.

"Of course." Croft nodded, gesturing to the folders they each had. "We included those in your dossiers. It was felt you have a right to know what Hydra considered to be valuable information on you both."

"May we take these with us?" Maxim asked further. They hardly had time to look them over while they'd been sitting there, and they weren't going anywhere, so there wasn't much risk in sharing the information. It was their lives, after all.

"Naturally. We do expect you to destroy those dossiers when you have finished with them."

Aleksandra nodded, lifting her own folder onto her lap and sealing it once again. "After we have memorised the lives you have given us," she stated, needing clarification.

Croft nodded himself. "Yes."

Maxim had another question, but it was a question that he deemed might be better left for later. It wasn't that he didn't trust Croft or A.E.G.I.S., but it was just too soon to be sharing all his personal secrets just yet. "Give us a few days and we will give you our decision," he promised, securing his own dossier for later review.

"Of course," Croft assured him. "You're experiencing a great many changes, decisions like this take a little time. If you are comfortable with the information you have been given, and have no more questions, I can arrange for your car to be brought around to the entrance. There is a map in your dossier to your home address," he added, in case this was a concern. "You are both fully qualified to drive."

Seeing as how neither had ever driven a car on American soil, this was going to be interesting. Thankfully, they could presumably both speak and read English. It wouldn't hurt if the car was equipped with GPS either. "Thank you again, Director," Maxim said as he rose to his full height, towering over both his companions.

"It's a pleasure, Mr. Kuryev," Croft answered, deliberately using the pseudonym he was going to have to get used to sooner rather than later. He offered a hand to shake theirs, one at a time. "Welcome to America."

Maxim was accustomed enough to working undercover and using assumed names that he didn't so much as blink in reaction. Instead, he reached across the short distance between them to return the director's hand shake. He wasn't going to thank the man a third time in a row, but he did smile. "We will give you our decision in our few days," he promsied again.

Perhaps they hadn't noticed yet, but Croft had definitely noticed that Maxim was speaking already as though he were married to his diminutive companion. Aleksandra shook the director's hand with a small smile on her face. "Thank you, Director."

Croft nodded to them. "If you have any further questions, don't hesitate to get in touch. I'm pretty sure Natasha is still waiting outside for you."

Maxim knew he was speaking for both of them, but this wasn't just about him or Aleks anymore, but about both of them - or at least, so he believed. "Yes, Natasha," Maxim murmured. He had a few questions for his old friend.

Who was, indeed, waiting for them as they left the office, pulling her phone from her ear as she pushed out of her lean against the opposite wall. "Look at that, you survived and I didn't hear any screaming," she teased mildly.

Aleks let out a soft huff of amusement. "We are being released to find this house that is ours," she explained.

Nat grinned, jerking her head for them to fall into step with her. "First, let me show you to your car."

But Maxim came to a halt, needing to know the answer to a question that had been niggling at both him and Aleksandra before they went any further. "First, explain about Alyona," he said, not really feeling the need to go into any more detail than that. He wanted to hear what she had to say first.

Natasha glanced between them, rolling her eyes. "What do you want to know?" she countered. "Until you sign on the dotted line, I can't tell you everything."

"She is a telepath, yes?" he asked, though Croft had already told them as much. "I want to know what she saw in our heads," he said bluntly, remembering what the woman had said about him already being "invested".

"Yeah, she's a telepath," Natasha confirmed. "But she doesn't see what she isn't looking for, if that makes sense. She was looking for very specific conditioning or secrets pertaining to your being a double-agent. She didn't find anything like that, and anything else she touched, she won't tell anyone. Trust me on that one - she's seen everything in my head, and she hasn't told a soul."

"And what about Aleksandra?" he asked, wondering what, if anything, the telepath had seen in her head. It was Aleks, after all, who had seemed disturbed by what had happened. He wasn't sure if she had anything to hide, but he had a few secrets of his own.

Nat met Aleks' worried eyes. "The same thing," she said confidently. "We had to be sure, and in our line of work, not everything is above board at first. There is no harm done, and nothing will be passed on that doesn't directly affect A.E.G.I.S. and our operations."

The engineer seemed a little reassured by that. "I see."

Max wasn't sure what it was that Aleks didn't want Alyona or anyone else to know about, but he had one big secret he needed to be sure was protected. It was a secret that probably wasn't even in his dossier. "Do you trust her?" he asked Nat point-blank, as if that made all the difference.

Nat looked him dead in the eye, her expression utterly raw for a split second. He knew some of the things she had done in her tenure in Russia, after all; he would understand how important her answer was. "With my life," she told him firmly.

"That is good enough for me," he replied, looking expectantly to Aleks to see if it was good enough for her. She did not have the same history with Natasha, after all, and might not trust her the way he did.

Despite not knowing Natasha, or much about this world she had inadvertantly wandered into, Aleks did trust Max. If it was good enough for him, then she was content. "And it will not happen again?" she asked, just to be sure.

Natasha smiled ruefully. "Not unless you make contact with a known Hydra associate," she told them. "And I sincerely doubt you will."

"They will be looking for us, you know," he pointed out as he waved her onward, to follow wherever it was she was leading. He wasn't saying that to scare Aleks so much as to be realistic. New names might keep them safe for a while, but that didn't mean Hydra and Russian Intelligence wouldn't stop looking.
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2018 8:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"You're right, they will," Nat agreed as they continued on. "But we have experience in keeping them from finding you. There are several scientists in A.E.G.I.S. who were originally part of Hydra, or other intelligence organisations, and we've kept them and their families safe so far. There's no reason to believe it won't be the same for you."

Maxim didn't say so, but it was Aleksandra's safety more than his own that worried him. "It's a big world," he murmured, lost in thought for a moment, if only a moment. They might be safer not joining A.E.G.I.S., but then they were the only people really capable of protecting them.

"Oh, before I forget ..." Natasha paused inside the door to the outside, turning to press a piece of paper into Maxim's hand. "Codes to the two safes in your house," she told him. "One with weapons, one with ammo. You have a license to covertly carry, Aleksandra does not."

He nodded his head, closing his fingers around the piece of paper before shoving it into the safety of his pants pocket. "Let us hope I never need to use them," he said, at least, not while he was off-duty.

"I thought you might feel better to have something to hand," Nat pointed out, glancing at Aleks, who did not look too happy about a safe full of weapons in her home.

Maxim sighed, at the look on Aleksandra's face. "Do not worry, Aleks. They are only a precaution," he told her. He didn't plan on using them unless he had to, but he felt better having them there.

"Before last night, I had not even seen a gun up close," she told him warily. "Is it so strange that they frighten me?"

"I would be more worried if guns did not frighten you," Maxim assured her. Whether guns frightened Nat or not was irrelevant. Nat was not Aleks; Nat was definitely not afraid of guns or much of anything, as far as Max knew.

"But since today is about settling you into your new home, I suggest you shelve the upsetting conversation for after the sex," Natasha interjected with surprising mischief in her tone. Her years as part of the Avengers had clearly brightened her disposition somewhat.

Aleks spluttered out a half-baked protest, gave up, and fell silent, blushing bright as she lowered her eyes.

"And that, comrade, is none of your business," Maxim teased back, using the word in a teasing tone so that she wouldn't become offended. It was just another word for friend, after all.

Nat just smirked at him, pushing open the door to the outside world. It was just a little chilly, spring finally having arrived, and parked in the waiting bay close to the doors was a nondescript dark sedan. "Your chariot," she declared, waving a hand at it.

He held the door open for Aleks before following her out, looking over at the sedan parked near the doors. "Hmm, well, at least, it is not too flashy," he said, holding out an expectant hand to Natasha. "Keys."

"What's the magic word?" the redhead countered, amused when Aleks actually laughed finally, letting out a little of that tension she was carrying in a mirthful reaction to the way this large man couldn't win every conversation with another diminuitive woman.

Maxim couldn't help but grin. He knew what word she was looking for, but couldn't help teasing her back. "The magic word is 'now'," he replied. Who said he couldn't win or that he even wanted to win?

Nat snorted. "Pick a different magic word," she suggested. "Because that one just leads to a world of pain happening in front of your girlfriend."

Max scowled, looking slightly annoyed, not so much because Nat was trying to coerce him into saying "Please", but because of the other word she'd mentioned. "Grown men do not have girlfriends, Natasha," he pointed out, making a swipe for the keys.

"Grown women do, what's wrong with grown men having them?" she asked, ducking away to keep the keys out of his reach. Of course, she did nothing to keep Aleks from taking the keys out of her fingers, because this was all about teasing Max.

"Grown women have girlfriends?" he asked, that scowl on his face again as she ducked away from his grasp. For a guy who was claiming to be too mature for a girlfriend, he wasn't really acting it.

Nat hesitated, remembering which country he had come from. "Oh, you're in for a few rude awakenings over here," she chuckled, shaking her head as she let Aleks take the keys from her. "But enough about that. Go home and shag, you know you want to!"

Maxim scowled at her again, grumbling a little beneath his breath, too quiet for either of his companions to hear. Whether he wanted to or not, he wasn't going to admit it to her. He was a little old fashioned that way. "Come, Aleks. Do you think this car has GPS?" he asked, purposely ignoring Natasha.

"Is that a sex position?"

There was a moment of exquisite silence, and Natasha burst out laughing, not so much at the question as that the near perfect layer of innocence Aleks had infused into her reply. Only the glimmer of Aleks' dark eyes betrayed to Max that she was teasing him as well, the barest upturn at the corners of her mouth suggesting a smile held barely in check.

"Perhaps we will find out," he said, ushering her toward the car with a hand at the small of her back. "Proshchay, Natasha," he told his friend, as he plucked the keys from Aleksandra's hand so that he could unlock the doors. It wasn't a true goodbye; he knew they were probably going to be seeing a lot of each other in the near future.

"Naslazhdaytes," was Nat's parting shot - an order to enjoy themselves in the Russian she rarely used outside missions these days. She waved them into the car, heading back into the building herself to allow them the leisure of working out the sat-nav and the map for themselves without an audience. They were as on their own as they could get from here on in ... but A.E.G.I.S. would keep an eye on them. For their own safety.
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