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15 November 2018 @ 04:01 pm
The Ice Demon and the Red Skull 4  

Steve climbed out of the passenger seat and opened the back door. Lukas paid the driver, got out, and turned back to hold out a hand for Natasha, while Steve looked around as the bodyguard.

As soon as the taxi was gone, Natasha murmured, “Two guards on the pier.”

“And Braun,” Steve said. Braun was easy to pick out in the pale linen suit. “He’s seen us.”

Natasha turned her head so her wide smile would be visible. “Then let’s go.”

“Do make sure you put yourselves behind me if there’s gunfire,” Lukas said in a conversational tone, as they headed down the long pier toward where the Braun yacht was moored. “I know you’re brave and strong, Natalya, but do not risk yourself unnecessarily.”

“You can be my shield,” she told him, not quite so sure she would do it. She remembered him very definitely not bulletproof, and she’d hate to depend on something that proved to be false. “Don’t drink anything he offers us, I presume it’ll all be drugged.” She was amused as Lukas and Steve exchanged a glance at that, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to them. For someone as justifiably paranoid as Lukas was, he was still not paranoid enough.

Their footsteps echoed on the hollow wood of the pier, down toward Braun’s yacht. “Bon jour, friends!” Braun called, waving from the deck.

The bodyguards stepped in the way. “We need to search for weapons,” one said bluntly.

Natasha handed her bag to one of them and held up both hands. In her halter top and chiffon pants, there wasn’t much left to the imagination and they didn’t bother touching her. They looked perfunctorily into her bag, noting the phone, wallet, and her lipstick. They did not open the lipstick, which was actually a USB stick with a trojan on it to send all of Braun’s intel to SHIELD, or realize her gold bracelet was actually a version of her Widow’s Bite.

They patted Lukas down under the arms and were a little more thorough with Steve, still finding nothing of course.

“They’re clean, sir,” one called to Braun in Sokovian.

“Please, come up,” Braun called to them, waving. “Welcome aboard.”

Lukas hesitated at the foot, not stepping on the ramp. “This is not very friendly,” he accused. “Pat downs? Really?”

Braun came down. “I am so sorry. They’re very protective after my father-- well, he died recently.”

He looked at her as he said it, but she made sure to turn down her mouth in a expression of surprised sympathy. Oh I know all about it, kid, but you’re not going to know it from me, right now.

She didn’t know how Lukas managed to not make his voice sarcastic as he said, “My condolences.”

“We were not very close, but still, family,” Braun said and extended his hand toward Lukas. “Anyway, that is not important,” he added with false cheer. “Come aboard, friends.”

On the deck, he waved a hand. “Please, make yourselves at home. I have a great bar in the aft. And my lads would be happy to entertain your… bodyguard? .. while we talk business. There is another bar and Starkbox and the galley, of course…”

Ah, trying to separate Steve as the bodyguard.

Steve knew it, too, but instead of protesting, he looked to Lukas. “With your permission?”

Lukas hesitated as if he wanted to refuse, but forced a smile. “Certainly. There’s no sense in your being bored.” Steve followed the other bodyguards toward an accessway that went below.

“Excellent, then come this way,” Braun gestured her and Lukas through a covered plush seating area and then back outside to where a wet bar had been built at the back of the horseshoe-shaped seating area.

“Champagne?” he invited. “I have a brilliant Cristal ‘92 to share with you.” He poured from the open bottle into two ready flutes which he handed to Natasha first and then Lukas, before picking up a third glass that had already been poured.

“To new friends.”

“And new clients,” she returned with a bright smile, as she lifted her glass in the toast the yacht rocked abruptly.

Braun started and then offered a smile. “Sounds like someone might have slipped down the steps.” He called out if everything was alright in Sokovian, but didn’t wait for an answer. “No problem.”

Lukas exchanged a glance with her, expression tensing, since that was probably Steve fighting the other guards. She smiled back to reassure him. Steve could take care of himself, especially in the narrow confines of a lower deck corridor.

She turned back to Braun, tossing her hair back to let him have an unobstructed view down her neck, bare shoulder, and plunging neckline. “So? I have the pitch, if you’d like to see it?”

“Ah, we don’t need business right away, do we?” Braun asked. He lifted his glass again and sipped his champagne. “Come, friends. 1992 Cristal, you must taste it.”

Natasha worried the glass itself was drugged - that was an old trick to dust the rim so even a pretense of drinking would infect the target - but Braun seemed too young and dumb to think of that. He’d probably drugged the expensive champagne instead, so she pretended to sip, touching none of the liquid.

Then to her alarm she saw Lukas sip at it and frown. “I think you were swindled, Alexander. That tastes like carbonated goat piss.”

Braun watched, and couldn’t resist a gloating smile. “Cristal is a bit overrated, I find.”

Lukas set it aside. “Might I have gin and tonic? That will wash this taste out of my mouth.”

“Of course,” Alexander said and made a weak effort to move toward the bar, while watching both Nat and Lukas for signs they were drugged.

A heavier tread along darkened lounge brought another smile to Braun’s face and he greeted, “Michel, have you taken care of--”

But his voice died away as Steve strolled outside with a faint smile on his lips. “Your hospitality is terrible,” he told Braun.

“But--” Braun retreated from him. “But you--”

“Were they trying to kill me or just get me out of the way?” Steve asked. “I put them down before they got very far, but I’m curious.”

“Just -- just to get you out of the way,” Braun stammered.

A sharp cracking noise drew all their eyes and Lukas crushed the crystal goblet in his hand and let the shards fall to the deck. He held up his hand, turning it to display his unmarked palm. “Now, Mister Strucker, we’re going to have a chat.”

Braun’s eyes went wide and darted around. “Who-- who are you? What do you want?”

Lukas sauntered up to him. “You poor ignorant boy,” he murmured, “you still don’t know who I am, do you?”

Braun shook his head, dampening his lips with his tongue. “I don’t know anything. If you want to know about my father, he didn’t tell me anything. He wouldn’t, I tried to get him to tell me, let me help him, but he refused. I didn’t know much at all about the business. If you have a-- a problem, I can’t help you.”

Lukas cocked his head. “Really? I think you can.” His hand grabbed Braun by the throat and lifted him off the deck with no visible effort. “Hydra. Tell me about Hydra, Werner Strucker.”

Braun tugged at the hand at his throat, choking for air. “Hydra? I don’t... “

Lukas smiled at him. “Really? Why does everyone in Hydra think they can lie to me? It’s quite tiresome.” He hurled Braun to the deck, where he slid along the surface a little ways before crumpling against the shiny metal railing.

Lukas snapped out his hand, a dagger appearing in it, though she knew there hadn’t been one on his person.

“Now then, Werner,” he crouched down before the younger man, “we’re going to discuss Hydra. Your father was one of them, we know that, so don’t pretend otherwise. I get very impatient.”

“Lukas,” Steve warned.

Lukas didn’t look away. “Steven, I am in the middle of an interrogation.”

“Put the knife away,” Steve said, and it was not a suggestion. Natasha tensed, waiting to see what Lukas would answer, while wishing Steve had let this play out a little longer before intervening.

The hand holding the hilt tightened. “You know what this child’s father did.”

“His father. Not him,” Steve reminded him. “We’re here for information, not vengeance.”

“Maybe you are, not me,” Lukas snarled back, but despite his words, he eased back on his heels, giving Braun some space. “Well, aren’t you fortunate my friend is here.” He stood up and the dagger vanished again, as if it had never been there. Braun blinked in astonishment at the trick.

“Who are you?” Braun asked.

Lukas looked down on him. “Your worst nightmare if you don’t tell my friends what they want to know.” He looked to Natasha. “All yours.”

He went to the wet bar, and found a sealed bottle of cognac to crack open and pour in a fresh glass as if he had no other concerns.

Her turn now, Natasha beckoned. “Stand up, Mister Strucker. We can do this more easily.” He slowly climbed to his feet, eyeing Lukas more than her. Which was fine. Sometimes she was the unhinged violent interrogator, and sometimes she was the sweet understanding one. Of course, in this scenario Steve was the sweet understanding one, so she would have to triangulate between the two of them.

“Now, why don’t you tell us what you know about Hydra?” she asked. “That would be the simplest thing to do.”

“I don’t know anything,” he protested. “Father was part of it, I do know that. That’s all. I swear.”

“Lies,” Lukas said, without turning from the bar. “I can feel you lying from here, Werner.”

Braun licked his lips. “Okay, okay, I asked him if I could join. But he said no, pushed me away like he always did,” he added bitterly.

That got Lukas turn around, poisonous fury etched on his face. “A leader of Hydra refused his own son the honor of joining it?”

She shot him a glare to let her work and faced Braun again. “So tell us what you know of your father’s business.”

“Nothing,” Braun said with an uneasy, guilty glance toward Lukas before adding sullenly, “He wouldn’t tell me.”

“Not even the weapons dealing?” she asked.

“No, of course not. Nothing illegal.”

She almost rolled her eyes at that one. “We’re not the police.”

“Do you even work for Stark?” he asked her, and she smiled.

“No. My employers are far more dangerous.”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lukas suddenly shift his posture and his head snapped around to look past her to the water. That gave her just enough warning before Lukas grabbed her around the waist and yanked her away from Braun. She didn’t resist, moving with his arm, as they jumped back. “Steven, down!” Lukas called.

She kept her balance as the shiny railing that lined the prow of the yacht bent and flexed, before it tore free of its posts with a ear-splitting screech. The metal rail wrapped around Braun like a lasso, encircling his arms and chest.

“What are you doing?” she demanded of Lukas, but he had his hands up defensively.

Braun’s eyes widened in sheer terror. “Help me!” he called to them. Even if she’d been willing, there was nothing she could do as Braun was yanked, as if pulled by a long string, straight off the deck. He was screaming, as he was held there, hovering above the water.

She rushed to the edge to where the railing had been torn away, Lukas at her side, to see as Braun was pulled through the air toward a speedboat twenty feet away in the water.

A man stood alone in the sleek red speedboat, dressed in a cream linen suit and a panama hat. He had a hand out, somehow invisibly controlling Braun in mid-air. The attacker dropped Braun into his boat, hard enough he stopped screaming, and then gave a mocking little wave.

“No!” Steve yelled and dove over the side.

The attacker saw that but didn’t look alarmed, as the boat’s engine revved up and the boat sped away. Steve did his best, swimming hard after it, but the boat was much too fast and was soon beyond the breakwater and out to sea.

She turned on Lukas, frustrated. “What the hell? I thought your whole reason for being here was to help us stop powered threats!”

Lukas didn’t look at her, still watching after the boat. “He’s magnificent,” he whispered.

“What? Lukas, he attacked and kidnapped Strucker! Right out from under us!”

Lukas looked at her, brows up, completely unperturbed. “I’ll shed no tears for someone who wanted to be a part of Hydra, Natalya. Nor do I care what the Maximoffs’ father does to him.”

That halted her in her tracks. “That was Erik?”

“It had to be, unless there are many out there who can manipulate metal. But that,” he gestured to the missing segment of railing, “was more remarkable than I had imagined. Something is happening on this world, some flowering has begun. I fear it is my doing, but I also fear it is not, and I do not know which is worse.”

For a moment, she looked at him, aware that he was not of her world, but something quite different. “C’mon, I need to grab his files. Help Steve,” who was almost back to the yacht. “Then we should go.”

Lukas probably didn’t need to do much to help Steve get back on the boat, but it gave him something to do as she put her lipstick thumb drive into the laptop on the desk inside the lounge.

Steve rubbed his hair with a towel he grabbed off the wet bar, coming in the lounge with Lukas at his heels. “So now what? Stick around and look for them?”

“We could tell SHIELD to put an alert on the boat,” Natasha offered. “I advise against informing the local police. In fact, we should depart soon, ourselves.”

Lukas shrugged but nodded his head. “In any case, I suspect Erik will do our work for us. If he knew enough to come after Braun, he knows about Hydra.”

“So we let him interrogate the kid? Maybe murder him?” Steve asked.

“I think we are not in a position to ‘let’ him do anything,” Lukas returned. “Even if we could find him.”

Natasha turned from the desk and frowned, wondering at his words. It was tempting to take them figuratively, but she suspected he meant more literally. “Are you saying you can’t stop him?”

“In theory? Perhaps. If I knew better how it works. But it used a different,” he paused and gestured with his hands helplessly, “structure than I am familiar with. Nothing like Wanda’s, it seems. It will not be fought easily.” Then he added dryly, “If I wanted.”

Which he didn’t, and she wasn’t sure he ever would.

“I’d much rather talk to him,” Lukas went on. ”Find out what he knows. Where’s he’s been. Why he abandoned his own children.”

Natasha re-evaluated her assumption at the last. It was said in the same tone as the rest, but there was anger there. He might end up fighting Erik over the twins. But even so, he would never do real harm to his own blood.

Glancing back at the laptop, she saw the upload was complete, and pulled the stick out. “We’re done. Let’s go.”

As they left the boat, she heard banging down below of the guards knocking to be let out. She looked to Steve, eyebrows up, “How did you lock them in?”

“Closet,” he answered with an embarrassed shrug. “And a hanger wrapped around the handles. It won’t keep them long now they’re awake.”

Lukas smacked his shoulder. “Well done.”

She wanted to laugh but settled for a smile, as they headed back down the pier to catch one of the many taxis that frequented the waterfront.

At the hotel, she reported into HQ that they’d met Braun and she’d uploaded the worm, then glancing at Lukas, she’d edited carefully that he’d claimed his ignorance of Hydra but an unknown third party had interfered and he’d been pulled away. “Lukas and I agree that it’s not worth it to try to find him right now. Just put a tag on his file in case he pops up, but he’s a small fish.”

“If you’re done I have a new mission for you,” Maria said. “Just you, though, since you’re in Europe already. Coulson will be your handler. Best to send our screwed up boys home.”

Natasha glanced at them, a fond smile turning her lips. Steve was trying his French on the clerk, while Lukas rolled his eyes at his accent.

“I’ll send you the briefing, but we need you in Russia. Looking into Strucker gave us a lead for weapons. Maybe more exotic dealing. But should be easy in, easy out.”

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. She never liked going back, too many memories. Though maybe she’d have a chance afterward to look into her parents. But she didn’t let any of that in her voice. “Understood. With Barton?”

“No, Barton’s on task already. There’s been some odd behavior at the Phase II experimental site,” Maria added. “He’s keeping an eye on it. Fury and Coulson wanted someone we can trust there.”

Natasha grimaced. She wished Clint could come back her up, but SHIELD was a bit thin-spread on trusted agents after the Hydra reveal. “Got it.”

“Get you and the boys to Nice. You all have flights tonight.”

It was easy enough to get the two of them to head back to Nice, by reminding them that Braun was missing and they should leave town before his guards decided to go to the police. Getting them to do as they were told and go back to the States, while she went somewhere else, was a bit more difficult.

But in the end, she persuaded them it was not their problem, and in the airport, she left first, headed for a connection in Frankfurt to Moscow.

“Don’t be surly,” she chided Lukas. “I have a simple job to do, and you should go back to the twins.”

“I don’t like being so distant from you if you need help,” he returned. She eyed him and he added, a bit defensively, “I am not calling your skills into question – though I did fool you, so you are not omnipotent, Natalya. And you yourself said my Russian skills were like a native.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ll meet you back in DC soon, I promise.” Standing on her toes, she kissed his cheek. “Try not to get into too much trouble without me.”

The look in his eyes suggested he intended to get into trouble deliberately, just to make his irritation known. She said goodbye to Rogers, waved at them both, and headed for her plane.

She felt oddly alone as she settled into her seat with her small bag.

Soft, Natasha. You’re getting soft.

to part five