Wet fog rolls across the ground, boot steps approach at a run, and Natasha Romanoff lies unconscious at Yelena’s feet. Blood curls from a cut at Natasha’s temple and down into her ear. Her leg is bent unnaturally at the knee. Her breath is shallow.
Thirteen graying, uniformed men also lie at Yelena’s feet, also unconscious, but she ignores them like so many uprooted weeds. She heaves Natasha up over her shoulder, and she runs.
“Do you so easily forget, Widow? You think what interests your government doesn’t also interest Russia?”
“Not this time. So tell me why you’re here.”
“You can figure it out, I’m sure.”
It’s barely a structure. Wind sluices through the walls, the floor is dirt, and plumbing is a distant dream. Yelena lays Natasha out and combs her hair back from her forehead. Blood still flows from the cut, but more grudgingly than before. From the stash she hid in the corner of the hut two days ago, Yelena takes a cloth and presses it to Natasha’s head. She squats there a while, considering the shapes the shafts of failing light make on Natasha’s face. She presses harder, until Natasha moans. Her eyes flutter open. They focus. “Rooskaya.”
Yelena’s lip curls at the name. “You have a head wound, and something is torn in your leg.”
Natasha is still for a moment, assessing the damage. “Yes.”
“Those corpse soldiers are crawling all over the valley, like ants, and you can’t climb these mountains.”
Natasha’s hand curls. “You can.”
Yelena doesn’t dignify that with a response. A few moments later, Natasha makes a move to sit up, jarring her leg. Her face turns white with pain. Yelena puts her hand on the swollen knee and leans, and Natasha crumples in a dead faint.
It’s a long time until dark. Better for her to sleep. Yelena takes a nutrient bar from her supply, and she waits.
“Did you come to kill me?”
“You wouldn’t be alive to ask if I had.”
Evening draws to a close. Yelena has the makings of a fire, but she doesn’t use them. She has only one blanket, which she turns over in her hands a couple of times before spreading it across Natasha. She squats in the deepening dark, and she doesn’t shiver, and she waits.
By her reckoning, it’s past seven when Natasha finally stirs again. One instant she is a mouse rustling in its nest, and the next she is utterly still. After a moment, she says, “Yelena.”
They are silent for a while. Yelena listens to the quality of the stillness outside. The corpse soldiers are not quiet; if the adversary is wise, he’ll send something else in search of the spiders skulking in his back yard.
Birds enjoy eating spiders. Yelena listens for the flapping of wings as she listens for other things.
Natasha’s voice, when it comes, is very soft. “Is there water?”
Yelena rises to her feet, stalks through the last of the twilight to her duffel, and returns with a bottle. She waves it in Natasha’s direction until she makes contact and the bottle is lifted from her grasp. “You’ll want these, too,” Yelena says. She finds Natasha’s empty hand with her fist, and she drops pills into it.
A few moments later, she hears a swallow. Then, “We can’t stay.”
“And where do you propose to go, Widow?” Yelena asks, though she doesn’t disagree.
“There’s a motor pool only a few kilometers from here. I can tell you how to get there.”
Yelena doesn’t ask how Natasha has determined their location. “You can’t drive with that leg.”
“No,” Natasha agrees.
Yelena could swear she hears a smile in Natasha’s voice. “You need me to get you out, Widow. Do not patronize me.”
“Is your dignity so fragile, Rooskaya?”
Yelena swallows her snarl. “Can you hobble, or shall I carry you again?”
“I’ll hobble, if you’ll give me your shoulder.”
“We’ll wait for full dark,” Yelena says. Natasha makes no argument.
While they wait, Natasha eats the nutrient bar Yelena offers her and binds her damaged knee with elastic bandages from her belt. “Stark,” Natasha says, when she catches Yelena looking.
“You came to help me, then.”
It’s a long, slow stagger down the mountain. The amusement leaks from Natasha’s voice, and she leans more and more heavily on Yelena’s shoulder. Her breath is sharp and noisier than Yelena would prefer.
Yelena keeps on listening for the flapping of wings, for the unsteady march of dead feet.
“You can leave me anytime,” Natasha . “Leave me and run.”
“Keep talking, and I will.”
“You don’t know why you’re here. That’s why you came. To find out.”
Yelena leaves Natasha some way down the road in the lee of a boulder, gasping and white.
The motor pool has guards, of course – more of the rotting wretches Yelena fought before. They were soldiers in life, though, and their aim, at least, has not yet degraded. Still, they fall easily enough, one by one, and the supply officer in his tent gives little more of a fight.
Natasha smiles thinly when Yelena pulls up next to her. “My chauffeur.”
Yelena pulls her into the back seat of the jeep, and Natasha makes no other sound except a stifled moan now and again. When Yelena hasn’t heard one for a while, she glances back to see Natasha once again unconscious.
She doesn’t see it happen. She hears the contact and Natasha’s pained grunt, and when she turns, Natasha is down.
Yelena drives through what remains of the night. She takes the jeep off-road, and the border she crosses is desolate. Only scrub brush stand guard here.
She drives to a hospital, small, walls worn yellow by sand and age. The woman at the desk is local, but when Yelena asks the name of the doctor, it’s an English name, or American. Natasha stirs enough to let Yelena walk her into the waiting room. When Yelena has gotten her seated on the hardwood bench, Natasha smiles. “Russia will not thank you for saving me.”
“I did not come here for Russia.”
“Didn’t you?” Natasha’s chin lifts. There’s something in her eyes that Yelena cannot read. Something soft. Yelena despises it. “Did you come for me, then?”
“I came for myself,” Yelena says, and is immediately sorry.
“Did you. ” For once, there is nothing mocking in Natasha’s gaze, none of her usual arrogance. “I hoped you would.”
“Rooskaya,” Natasha says, chiding, fond. When Yelena can only stare, Natasha lifts her hand to the side of Yelena’s face. Her thumb brushes across Yelena’s cheekbone.
Yelena doesn’t move. She is frozen, the bird charmed by the snake. Natasha leans in and presses her lips to Yelena’s, and when she pulls back, she waits.