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Open Road

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The thing about a diesel is it’ll run on practically anything, at least for a while. Thus it is in a 1984 Mercedes 240D – stick, mechanical locks, mechanical windows, brought over straight from the old country without any enhancements for the American market – that Natasha pulls even with the hitchhiker and comes to a stop. She keeps her right hand on the wheel, her left easy and ready to aim should need arise. Her widow bites still have a little bite left.

“Where you headed?” she calls out.

The man bends over to peer into the passenger widow. Another super, of course – a corner of his diamond mask has been torn off. Metal glints dully through his tattered left sleeve. He scans the interior of Natasha’s car with a skill she can appreciate, and then his gaze comes back to rest on her. “Where are you going?” His accent is blandly, indeterminately American.

There aren’t many places a person can get to from here. Especially now. “Chicago,” she says.

He gives that a moment’s thought, perhaps to compare it to the many other offers he’s received while walking along the side of a two-lane highway in the heart of Iowa farmland. “Okay.”

She leans over and unlocks the passenger door, watches him climb in and adjust the seat to give himself some leg room. He doesn’t make any move to overpower her or manhandle the steering wheel away, and that will have to be good enough. She turns forward and restarts the car. The smell of soil and dried sweat begins to fill it, and Natasha rolls her window a little farther down. He rolls his down, too, whether for comfort or courtesy it’s impossible to say. He watches the hills roll by, the occasional lonely herds of cattle.

He keeps on doing that for the next three hours. As dusk falls and Natasha starts looking for a turnoff, her passenger hasn’t said another word. She pulls onto a dirt road into an abandoned cornfield, many of the stalks flattened by rain and their ears rotting against the ground.

“I’ve got a blanket,” she says.

The man turns and searches her face far more intently than the offer warrants. “What about you?” he asks.

“I’ve been sleeping on top of it. My suit keeps me warm.” She pats the temperature-adjusted material gently. Never has she been so grateful for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s myriad high-tech upgrades as she has this last few months.

He eyes her hand – her wrist, she realizes, still armed – and then her suit, now that she’s given him permission, more or less. She knows that look. He’s assessing her, and she lets him. An opponent who assumes her menace is in her weaponry is an opponent she can take by surprise. “I sleep hot,” he says finally.

“Fair enough. Are you hungry?” She hasn’t seen another living soul in three days. Food is the best bribe she knows.

“I could eat,” he allows.

As the last light fails, Natasha sets a glow lamp out on the ground – one of Tony’s inventions, powered by some arcane energy she knew better than to question – and set out her box of cans. “Tuna, pork and beans, refried beans, diced tomatoes, beets.”

He takes two cans of tuna and two of beans, one of beets, and the can opener she offers. When he passes it back, she begins to open her own. After her first can of tuna, she glances up to see him making a skeptical face into his can. “I don’t like beets,” he says.

Natasha blinks at him. She laughs. Then she keeps laughing, because even through the mask, the baffled disgust on his face is the most human thing she’s seen in, well. A while. His expression twists into irritation, and Natasha calms herself down. “Why did you take them, then?”

“I didn’t remember.”

“Well, now you know. Here.” She holds out a hand and he gives her the mostly-full can. The beets mainly make her wish for a decent borscht. A few moments later, she asks, “And how are your pork and beans?”

“Fine,” he says through a mouthful.

She wonders if she’d recognize his name, if he’s a hero or a henchman. The mask tells her he’s covert somehow, in any case, not just some beefed-up security guard.

There are two kinds of people in the world now: those who want to hash out every detail of where you were, who you were when the blast came, and those who don’t. Natasha is firmly in the latter category and prefers the company of others who feel the same, and yet. There’s something in the set of this man’s shoulders that feels like kinship.

“Story for your supper,” she says. The man looks at her a moment and then carefully sets his can of pork and beans on the ground. “Only if you’re feeling sociable,” she adds.

After another moment’s consideration, the man resumes eating. Eventually he says, “I’d listen to yours.”

“Black ops. Before.”

“Government?”

“Sometimes.” Maria Hill is gone, of course. Coulson. Both Furys.

Silence draws out. Natasha eats through a can of diced tomatoes. She offers the last quarter of the can to the man, and he takes it.

“I was an assassin,” he says. His posture hasn’t changed. The tension in his hands is no tighter than before. He lifts his gaze to meet hers and sets his chin, a defendant awaiting judgment.

“It pays well,” Natasha says mildly. “In the private sector, anyway.”

He snorts. He thumbs around the rim of his open can. The torn edges scrape against the metal alloy of his hand. Then he gently sets the can down and lifts his fingers to his face. Natasha waits while he peels away his mask. His head stays bowed for a moment, his dark tangle of hair obscuring his features, and then he straightens and she sees his face.

Natasha swallows most of her surprise, but her breath still catches.

“Do you recognize me?” he demands, her Red Room compatriot, her solace in a time when she could find precious little. “Do you know who I am?”

“I have not forgotten,” she says softly.

“Tell me what you know.”

Something in the tone, in the brittle command of the words gives her pause. “You don’t remember me,” she says. His eyes – brown eyes that could laugh even then, though it looks like he’s since forgotten that, too – narrow. “Did they...” She’d known there was trouble, those last months before she was set loose on the world. “Did they make you forget me?”

She sees the minute hesitation. “How would I know if they had?”

“Fair enough,” she says. Another lurking suspicion surfaces. Casually she asks, “When did you see them last?” He scowls, and she knows she’s guessed right. “You don’t know who I’m talking about. You don’t remember who you are.”

He stands stock-still, assessing. “So tell me.”

Carefully she measures her words. “They called you the American,” she begins. She tells him about Department X and the Red Room. The memories are written in very old ink, indelible but faded somewhat with time. She can’t describe them so clearly as she once might have.

“My name?” he asks.

“I never knew it. I called you Sanja.”

“Why?”

“I had to call you something.”

“Did you,” he says, not quite asking.

“Yes.”

The word hangs between them. He drops his eyes first. “I woke up in a warehouse in Kansas City a few days ago, and I had a sniper rifle and a half a dozen IDs, and the entire city was empty. And I didn’t remember anything.”

“We’re all that’s left,” she tells him.

“Assassins?”

“Heroes. Supervillains. The magically and scientifically enhanced.”

He thinks about this for a while. “Are you really going to Chicago?”

“More or less.”

“I don’t know who I am,” he tells her. “Or who you are. Or whether the world is anything like what you say.”

“Come and see,” she says, like a promise.

End