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One.

Pawn to E4

Her instructors tried to teach her to plan, to think ahead, to always know where the exits were, to never, ever trust anyone, not even herself. It was a hard lesson, one that she didn't take to like she took to all the other things at the training center, like a fish to water.

Pain was a swift teacher, even for Natalia, but not even pain could lock this lesson into her bones. She healed, returned to her place among the other girls, and struggled to learn the most difficult lesson of her life.

One day, after a bruising workout in the training ring, she was sent to an empty warehouse, a chess set laid out on a simple wooden table.

"My name is Grigori," the old man at the table said. "Sit down."

She sat on the hard chair, and listened intently as he showed her each piece, explained its movement, talked of relative strengths and weaknesses. He used words like sacrifice and pawn; she didn't know what they meant, but she was determined to learn.

Pawn to B6

Two.

Pawn to D4

Chess required forethought. And patience, neither of which Natalia had in great abundance. Every spare moment outside of the weapons range and gym and classroom was spent in that drafty warehouse.

She lost every time, and was subjected to a scathing post-game analysis of her mistakes. There were a lot of mistakes, and Grigori sent her back to her instructors with a pile of books, names like Alekhine, Capablanca, Bykova, and Kasparov engraved on the spine, a history of chess in Russia, dry and dusty.

She learned about the importance of the opening, setting yourself up in a position of power, of strength, able to defend yourself against all attacks. She studied the mid-game, how to endure, to plan, to set a lure.

And the end game, where if you were patient and canny and careful, you could spring your trap, taking your opponent's king and the game.

Natalia liked the end game the best.

Bishop to B7

Three.

Bishop to D3

Her training was brutal in its intensity, both physical and mental. There was no room for weakness, and one by one the other girls, after failing, disappeared. The instructors strongly discouraged fraternization; Natalia knew the others by their surnames, just as they knew her only as Romanova.

Sometimes, late at night in the girls' dorm, there would be giggles muffled by pillows, and whispered words. There was a part of her that yearned toward the other girls, wanting to experience their secret friendships and camaraderie, but she was too afraid of what it meant.

Instead, she burrowed under her covers with a flashlight she'd stolen from stores, and read about the Queen's Gambit and the Sicilian Defense, searching for the logic behind the moves.

Pawn to F5

Four.

Pawn takes Pawn at F6

She was sixteen the first time she beat Grigori, and she relished the surprise on his face as much as the fact that she'd won.

"You're learning," he said. "Finally, stupid girl."

Faint praise, but she could hear the affection in Grigori's voice. It made her feel giddy and her cheeks turned red. The next week, her instructors sent her on her first real mission.

She didn't fail.

She debriefed and was sent back to the training center, where she went through another, more thorough post-mission analysis. She was not found wanting, and when she was dismissed, she took advantage of the empty showers to wash away the blood that only she could see.

Bishop to G2

Five.

Queen to H5

Natalia continued to play chess with Grigori whenever she had the chance to visit the training center, and it hurt some deeply hidden part of herself to watch him grow older, hands curving like claws, barely able to grasp the pieces. She still lost more than she won, but she made Grigori fight hard for each victory.

Sometimes where her missions were long, they played the old fashioned way, by mail or personal ads. It was a way of keeping herself centered, and it reminded her of what the end game was.

He'd been old when she'd first met him, and it wasn't a surprise when she received a coded message from a former instructor about his passing. She went about her business, and that night when she showered the water hid her tears.

Pawn to G6

Six.

Pawn takes Pawn at G6

She completed her missions like the professional she was trained to be. She made few mistakes, was rewarded with tougher and tougher assignments, was injured, recovered and moved forward.

Grigori had taught her to think, to use her brain and to never sit with her back to the door. Because of him, she saw that there was more than the next mission, more than blind loyalty to the Soviet Union. That there was a world beyond the borders of her country.

Knight to F6

Seven.

Pawn takes Pawn at H7

Eventually, she came to understand sacrifice. You gave something precious up, to gain something greater in value. Sometimes it hurt, like having your heart ripped from your chest. Sometimes it was a relief, like letting something heavy fall away.

The important thing was to make sure it was a sacrifice you were willing to make, because like curses in fairy tales, sacrifices could rarely be undone.

Knight takes Queen at H5

Eight.

Bishop to G6

"My name is Nick Fury, Director Nick Fury. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s had their eye on you for some time now." He tapped the thick folder on the table in front of him. "You've been quite an asset for the Soviet Union, but it's time to push past all the petty Cold War bullshit. Can you do that? Can you see there's something more dangerous out there?"

She looked at his face, the scars, the eyepatch. Thought about everything she'd done over her lifetime. Endgame. "Yes, yes I can."

Checkmate.

-fin-