Natasha hated the bar instantly.
The low ceiling wasn’t so bad, but the small tables and heavily-carved support pillars were scattered irregularly. There were mirrors everywhere, not just behind the bar, which kept giving her glimpses of her own movement in her peripheral vision that set her on edge. The bartender eyed her narrowly; though that wasn’t in itself a problem it reminded her sharply that she was way, way out of her territory here. As if that wasn’t obvious from the silence in her ear where Coulson’s voice should have been.
“A beer,” she said, sliding onto a stool at the bar. “And do you have food?” The bartender nodded. “Fries, then.” He gave her another nod, and turned to retrieve an unlabeled brown bottle which he opened and set in front of her, still wordless. She took the bottle and swung around to be able to watch the door without strain.
Either this guy had no interest in staying in business, he was good enough to not have to run the usual bartender patter, or he didn’t actually need to make his customers happy to keep them coming back. Probably the last one, if the sign by the door that read “Accorded Neutral Territory” meant something more significant than she realized. Which it almost certainly did. Natasha suppressed a sigh and took a sip of her beer…and then stared at the bottle for a second.
She’d been wrong. People would come here no matter what, for the beer. Clint would have loved it, though it was probably better that he wasn’t with her to try it—that would mean he was stuck too. There was only one other patron, but that was probably because it was mid-afternoon.
Natasha settled down to wait, nursing the beer carefully even after her fries showed up. She’d arrived most of an hour early, but she still had a good half of the bottle left when the door opened and a woman came down the three steps from the street—and though Natasha had been annoyed when all the description she’d gotten was “You’ll know her when you see her”, she had to admit that it was enough, in this case.
The woman was gorgeous, with a model-perfect figure, and tall, made taller by the three-inch heels on the shoes she was wearing. Her white suit’s skirt was an inch too short, her silk blouse buttoned an inch too low, and the ensemble was far too exquisitely tailored for the effect to be anything but intentional. Her hair flowed in waves nearly to her waist, raven-dark against the snowy fabric. It was even more utterly impractical than Natasha’s own, which she was growing out for the Rushman persona. At least she’d had enough lead time on this mission that she wouldn’t have to deal with a wig. Dealing with Stark would be bad enough. Assuming, that was, that she ever got back in touch with SHIELD.
Natasha shook off the rumination as the woman—trailed by two equally stunning attendants, also in white—looked her up and down. The gaze was meant to look assessing, and thereby unsettle her; that was fair play and Natasha didn’t mind it, but there was a hint of something else in it that set warning bells ringing, softly. She made sure it didn’t show in her voice when she said, “Lara Raith?”
“Should I be insulted that you think I might be someone else?” the woman asked. Her voice was low and amused, and it curled around Natasha’s spine like a caress. She blinked. She was hardly impervious to attractiveness in women, but Raith was far outside the bounds of her usual type. But she could feel herself flushing, and there wasn't a hope Raith couldn't see it, one of the perils of a redhead's complexion. The woman smiled, a satisfied smile that made the warning bells louder. “Shall we?” Raith said, gesturing at one of the little tables.
The lone bargoer at the next table took in what Raith was doing, got hastily to his feet, and started stuffing papers into his messenger bag. Raith watched the display with amusement she wasn’t bothering to conceal as he blatantly fled.
Meanwhile, Natasha made sure her hands were busy with her beer bottle and the basket of fries, and made no bones about picking the chair that let her see the door. Raith didn't try to fight her for it, trusting her attendants to do the watching. In a way that was encouraging; it meant Raith was used to the trappings of power and thus might actually have some.
Raith settled into her chair with deliberate grace and managed to convey the impression of lounging in it even though her posture stayed straight. She said nothing, staring into Natasha's eyes without losing that smile. Clearly she wanted Natasha to open the bidding, and Natasha was willing to indulge her; it was a tiny power play, making her the petitioner to Raith's sovereign, but she didn't care. If Raith could give her what she needed, favors owed would probably mean less than nothing.
“I'm not from here,” Natasha said bluntly. “I need help getting back to where I belong.”
One of Raith's perfect eyebrows lifted. “You were resourceful enough to…encourage someone to set up this meeting for you,” Raith said. “Therefore I have to assume you mean that a phone call isn’t going to help you.”
Natasha didn’t roll her eyes, but it was more effort than she would have liked. “When I said I wasn’t from around here, I didn’t mean Chicago,” she said. “As far as I can tell, no one I know, the organization I work for, none of my identities—none of them exist…here.” She gestured in a way she hoped conveyed the world at large.
She had, at least, managed to honestly surprise Lara Raith. Natasha wished passionately that she could have done it some other way, but the only way to get what she needed here was to tell Raith...
“You mean to say that you're all alone here?” Raith said. “Yes,” Natasha said, forcing herself not to grit her teeth. Raith’s smile spread.
“I see.” She reached out as if to lay her hand comfortingly on Natasha’s; Natasha pulled away from the gesture, though not as sharply as she wanted to, and made a show of picking up her beer bottle again. “I see,” Raith repeated. “And you are anxious to get home, of course, lest you be missed. Who’s going to miss you, little doe?”
Natasha shook her head, but it didn’t help dispel the fog that was creeping in at the edges of her thoughts. Raith’s eyes looked odd, as if they were going pale, washing over with white, and Natasha did not like the sound of the phrase “little doe” in the least, but instead of protesting she found herself saying, “I’m a valuable asset. They’ll be looking.” She managed, at least, to keep the names that wanted to emerge behind her teeth—they would be looking, all right, they would kill themselves looking if she didn’t get back, but Raith didn’t need to know that, because on the off chance that either of them managed to replicate the circumstances that had brought her here she didn't want Raith to know they were leverage. Her breathing was getting faster, and she couldn't make it slow down.
“If you thought they could find you, you wouldn’t be talking to me,” Raith said. Her voice was soothing and Natasha fought not to let it soothe her. “I think you’ve left your former employers, my doe, whether you meant to or not. You have no one to protect you here.” Natasha felt a stab of fear at that; she'd let herself get used to having someone to watch her back at SHIELD. But it was muted under a wash of desire to throw herself at Raith's feet, to beg for her protection, and the last of her rationality retreated to the very back of her mind and hid itself away.
One of the things they'd taught in the Red Room—without really meaning to, but all the survivors had learned it well—was that the initial assault was always the worst. If you could hide a seed of rebellion through the first onslaught, there was room to fight later, when they were flush with victory and their guard dropped. She’d never had to handle an attack quite this literal before, but the principle held and Natasha didn’t try to stop the look of mute adoration that she could feel her face assuming.
“Now when you say you’re valuable, what does that mean?” Raith asked her, quietly enough that the silent bartender wouldn’t be able to hear.
Natasha matched the volume. “Infiltration, interrogation, assassination,” she said. “I’m very well trained.” She let the words out without restraint.
Raith looked surprised, but not skeptical. She wouldn’t think to doubt the claim, not while her power was working—whatever that was, perhaps the woman was a mutant. Oblivious to Natasha's musings, Raith smiled again, broad enough to show teeth, and said, “My doe, I think that you may be a present.” She turned her head to speak to one of her attendants and said, “Remind me to make sure that Cooper is properly thanked.” The attendant nodded. “Now perhaps we should continue this conversation some—”
Natasha’s stomach growled.
Raith examined her for a second. “When was the last time you ate?” she asked. If it had been Phil, who liked to try to make her and Clint live like normal people, Natasha would have rolled her eyes and nudged the basket of fries, but she had a feeling Raith didn’t appreciate insolence, no matter how light-hearted, in her subordinates. “Yesterday, around this time,” Natasha said. There was only so much money even she could acquire without starting to attract unwanted attention, and she had a few days yet before short rations would become a problem. And if she was still here in a few days…well, she supposed it didn’t matter, now that she had Raith to look out for her.
“Mmmm. And do you eat meat?” A little surprised, Natasha nodded, thinking how considerate it was of Raith to check. They sat quietly while Raith’s attendant went over to the bar and ordered something. Natasha was content to bask in Raith’s regard. It was a strange feeling, and it worried her a little, insofar as she was capable of being worried.
“Who did you say would be looking?”
“Coulson, and Barton,” Natasha said, wondering idly why that seemed a better answer than Phil and Clint.
“Tell me who they are, my doe,” Raith said silkily.
“Barton is my partner,” Natasha said. “Coulson is our handler.” She found herself oddly reluctant to volunteer any more information. Fortunately, Raith didn’t seem interested in the details of SHIELD.
The food, when it arrived, was a steak sandwich that was just as good as the beer. Natasha ate slowly, not wanting to make herself sick. It was just a coincidence that it would also delay the moment that she would be somewhere alone with Raith, who kept watching her in a way should would have found unsettling if anyone else had done it. The bartender watched too, still silent, though Natasha had the distinct feeling that he disapproved of something.
Eventually, however, the sandwich was gone and Natasha followed as Raith got gracefully to her feet. Flanked by the attendants they left; there was an awkward small shuffle at the door when both Natasha and the larger of the attendants tried to precede Raith out. Once they were on the sidewalk, Raith turned to her and said, “You were trained for bodyguard work as well?”
“Yes,” Natasha said, pleased when Raith’s lips curved into an approving smile.
“I haven’t asked you your name yet,” Raith said.
“Natasha Romanoff,” she replied.
“A lovely name,” Raith said.
“I agree,” said a new voice. Natasha turned to look even as she took the step necessary to get herself between the voice and Raith.
The speaker was a very tall man, closer to seven feet than six if Natasha was any judge. He was leaning on a carved wooden walking stick that was about as tall as Natasha herself; he had at least two more weapons on him, both concealed in the long leather coat he wore like armor, and Natasha was certain he wouldn’t hesitate to use them.
“Lara,” he said in a tone that only pretended to be casual, “you know I don’t like it when you try to poach minor talents. Especially from Mac’s, come on.”
“She asked for the meeting,” Raith said, doing a very good job of concealing the fact that she was startled and irritated.
The man tilted his head and looked at Natasha—though not, oddly, straight into her eyes. “Really?” he asked. She nodded, watching him carefully. He was right-handed, and tended to lead with that side even more than most right-handers, and she guessed his style would be all straightforward violence—he didn’t strike her as the subtle type. “Huh,” he went on, and turned his attention back to Raith. “Still, I’m guessing she didn’t know you were White Court.” His gaze flicked to Natasha as he said the last two words, checking for a reaction. She gave him none.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Raith said. “She needed help. I’m providing it. Now we’re leaving, Mr. Dresden, and I suggest you not interfere in something that is not your business.” She turned, ostentatiously not looking back at Dresden.
“Lara,” Dresden said, a warning note. Natasha tensed, judging angles. He was close enough to the wall of the building that she could probably use it. Raith did not reply, but she reached behind her and closed her fingers around Natasha’s wrist.
And hissed, in pain or anger or both, and dropped the grip like she’d been burned, and Natasha felt the crack in the control on her mind and shoved at it as hard as she could. It burst like a balloon and Natasha ducked the wild grab of the attendant who was reaching for her, sweeping his legs out from under him as she went. He hit the pavement hard and she darted around his partner, took three running steps until she was on the far side of Dresden, and whirled so she could watch them all.
“I don’t know what White Court means,” she said steadily, as Raith looked up from the hand she was cradling. “I do know I don’t want to go anywhere with her, and if you can help me with that, I’m sure I can find some way of repaying you.” She tried to meet Dresden’s eyes to drive the point home but he wouldn’t let her. But she saw him swallow and knew he’d caught the hint anyway.
The man pretty clearly had a white knight streak that beat even Clint’s, and Natasha was not above using it, not in these circumstances. She’d happily give him the traditional reward, for that matter; it was no great hardship.
Raith had a good façade of calm over her anger when she said, “You told me they were people you worked with.”
“They are,” Natasha said, shrugging, not understanding how it was relevant. Raith raised her hand, palm forward. It was covered in blisters and brilliant red, as if she’d pressed it to a hot frying pan.
“This says otherwise,” she said, in a voice that wanted to be a snarl. “I misjudged you, little doe. I think we wouldn’t have been able to work together after all.” She swept a dismissive look over Natasha and turned on her heel. Natasha suspected she’d have been stomping if her shoes had allowed for it.
“What, no goodbye kiss?” Dresden called cheerfully. Raith ignored him; she and her attendants swept over to a huge, white Rolls—Natasha was no connoisseur but she suspected it was of ancient vintage—and executed a showy little choreography of getting into it and driving away.
When the car had turned a corner, Dresden let out a long breath that wasn’t quite a sigh. “That went a lot better than I was expecting,” he said, and swapped his walking stick to his left hand—gloved, oddly, unlike his right, which he held out to shake. “I’m Harry Dresden, and I hear you could use some help.”
Natasha eyed the hand for a second, taking in his posture. He had lost anything that looked like a readiness to attack as soon as Raith’s car was out of sight; she decided to risk it. “Natasha, Natasha Romanoff,” she murmured, reaching for the hand and looking up through her eyelashes. “Thank you so much.”
Color started to mount in his cheeks, obvious against his skin, which was only slightly less pale than Natasha’s own. “Look,” he said, sounding strangled, “you don’t have to—I mean could you not—” He was genuinely uncomfortable—though not uninterested. Fascinating. Perhaps she didn’t need the sex kitten routine after all. Natasha straightened and shook his hand firmly. “No really, I owe you,” she said in a more normal voice. “What’s White Court?”
Dresden breathed in and out again before he said, “If I told you she’s a vampire, would you think I was crazy?”
“I guess not,” Natasha said slowly, “seeing as I think I’m in the wrong universe.”
Dresden blinked at her for a few seconds and then he smiled—grinned, really, a wholehearted expression that took his slightly sinister scruffiness and made it charming and roguish. “You are not what I was expecting when Mac called and told me I needed to stop Lara from carrying some poor girl off to her lair.”
Natasha made a mental note to thank the bartender—and possibly kill the weasel who’d sent her to meet Raith in the first place. “I aim to surprise,” she said aloud, and Dresden laughed.
“I have a friend you should meet,” he said. “Her name’s Murphy.”
“Could we deal with my universe problem first?”
Dresden shrugged and said, “Sure. Which would you rather, my office or my lab? I’m warning you, the lab’s in my basement.”
“Lab,” Natasha said firmly, and Dresden nodded. “Right this way,” he said, gesturing at a Volkswagen Beetle a few cars down that had seen much better days. “While we’re driving you can tell me everything you know about what happened to get you here.”
Natasha waited until the car doors were closed before she began to talk.