It didn’t look like much. A dusty jewel among all the other jewelry in the open drawer of the vanity. And she hadn’t been trained to be a looter. But something about the gem called to her. She couldn’t take her eyes off it.
“Natalia,” the Soldier said. He’d already cleaned and hidden his weapon, and was waiting impatiently for her by the door, looking deadly with tactical uniform and metal arm. He was always impatient, and with good reason. They never had enough time–
“Time,” she murmured quietly, and touched the gem.
– and she was lying on her back on a hard mattress, the blankets piled carelessly around her body, staring at the Soldier sleeping beside her. When he slept, the line between his brows softened and the corners of his mouth relaxed. He looked almost boyish, and tired, and sad, and Natalia ached for the secrets of that grave look, secrets that the Red Room had hidden from them both. Who had he been, as a boy?
– and she was in a street, in a place she didn’t know, that smelled of trash and car fumes and waste, and two boys hurtled down an alleyway, one blonde and one brown-haired, shouting with excitement. They nearly crashed into her. “Sorry!” the brown-haired one, in pursuit, cried over his shoulder on his way past, and Natalia felt her heart twist with the inexplicable knowledge that this was him, her Soldier.
– and then she was lying in rocky sand, her heart beating sluggishly and her breath catching in her lungs, as a man stood over her and his shadow blotted out the sun, but she knew who it was without needing to see his face, and she knew somehow also that she was bleeding into the sand.
– and she saw him across a room, turning away – in a cryo-tank, his metal hand pressed against the glass – in front of her, no recognition in his eyes.
– and she was sitting across from him at a table in a restaurant. A nice restaurant. He was wearing a suit and the lines around his eyes looked a little more worn, and his mouth seemed more like he smiled. He was holding his hand with both of hers. She was wearing a dress that felt silky against her skin, and (she knew) his favorite set of underwear, and she was older. Much older.
“It feels like we never have enough time to ourselves, these days,” he was saying.
She laughed. “You know it’s more than we used to get. And it makes our dates even more special.”
“I know,” he said. “But I want–” He cut himself off and shook his head, laughing. Natalia was enthralled. She’d never seen him laugh like that before, so easy and free. Then he sobered up again. “Listen, Natalia. I want… to spend my life with you. Whatever that might be like. Whatever happens.” He let go of her hand with one of his so that he could reach into his jacket and pull something from his pocket. A ring box, she knew before he opened it. The ring was silver, with a blue sapphire in the center. He held it out to her, like he was offering his heart in his hands. “Natalia Alianovna Romanova,” he said in Russian, with that same slight American accent she’d caught the first time they’d met. “Will you marry–”
She came back to herself with tear-filled eyes and a lump in her throat, to find the Soldier in front of her, his hand around her wrist. She felt older than her twenty-two years, like she’d been gone for ages, and exhausted, like she’d slogged up a hill in mud or snow. It was similar to how she’d felt when Rodchenko had worked on her in the past, but less… sinister. Something strange had happened, but nothing was wrong.
“Natalia,” the Soldier said, his voice softer as he saw the tears in her eyes. “Are you hurt?” He glanced at the jewelry she’d been touching. “Do you… want one?”
She wanted a silver ring with a dark blue sapphire in it. “No,” Natalia said out loud and had to laugh because he could always make her feel better. “No, my darling. Our target is dead. Let’s go.”
The Soldier gave her a skeptical look, clearly deciding whether he should try to continue this conversation. But the longer they stayed in this bedroom, the more dangerous the situation became; the more likely they were to be discovered by one of the politician’s bodyguards.
A ring, Natalia thought, a little giddy, as they rappelled out the window and into an alleyway below, then, lightfooted, made their way to the rendezvous point. A ring with a sapphire. With a certainty she didn’t often feel, she knew it would happen, but not when or where. One day. Somewhere.
They just had to make it that far.