Natasha awoke with a start. Her grief spent, she had dropped off to sleep, her exhausted body demanding rest. How long have I been laying here? she wondered as she pushed herself to a sitting position and reacquainted herself with her surroundings. The shadows hadn't lengthened noticeably, so it couldn't have been long, perhaps twenty minutes or so.
A sparrow alighted nearby, catching her attention as it cheeped and picked up a twig in its beak.
"Hello, little bird," murmured Natasha. "Is that for your nest?" She gave a small smile as it seemed to react to her question, cocking its head at her. It watched her for a moment, and then with a flurry of wings it was gone. Natasha tracked the sparrow's flight briefly as it darted away down a street to her right. It would be nice to be able to just spread my wings and fly away like that, she reflected as she rose to her feet with a sigh and took mental stock of her situation. Okay, time to move. It was funny how much calmer she felt after her short rest. Her earlier panic had completely dissipated, for now at least. Unclipping her flask, she twisted off the cap and took a short swig before reattaching the bottle to her belt and picking up her submachine gun. Which way? Might as well follow the bird, I suppose.
Natasha had been walking for nearly twenty minutes when she realised that she was entering an area of the city that had escaped complete destruction, and she began to look more carefully at the buildings she passed. Within another couple of blocks she had recognised where she was, and she quickly realigned herself with her destination. Aww, heck, I was walking in the wrong direction, at least for a while! she thought to herself frustratedly. She must have taken a wrong turning some time ago. Had she taken the route she had expected, she would have entered the city on the southern edge, angling north-west to reach the safehouse. However, she was now heading almost directly west, which meant she had moved further north than she had meant to. Oh well, not too long now and you'll be safe with Elizabeth and her group, she told herself, her spirits lightening.
The LF have certainly done a good job of clearing everyone out, mused Natasha as she neared what she knew to be the south-western corner of the city. She had passed block after block without seeing more than a handful of people. They were all homeless, from what she could tell, eking out a pitiful life from the ruins of what was once a bustling metropolis. The LF had been especially thorough here; the city had been almost entirely opposed to them, and its army detachment and reserves had fought hard, albeit in vain. Natasha's jaw tightened as she recalled the pounding of the artillery that had methodically flattened each district in turn. Endless waves of tanks and walkers had finished the job, rolling over the defenders with contemptuous ease and leaving only those too destitute or foolish to flee. Not to forget the resistance, of course, thought Natasha with a smirk. The LF had set up a field base on the northern side of the city, using it as a staging point for further operations in the area. It had thus become an ideal target for Nils Jednyak and his resistance cells.
Natasha paused as she reached the edge of the city park, much of which had somehow escaped the artillery barrages, and weighed her options. Cutting across the huge park would significantly shorten her journey. Gaige always said to keep away from open areas. But, on the other hand, the quicker I get to the safehouse the better. It seemed like an easy choice to make.
Halfway across the park she was regretting her decision. It was taking too long to cross, and she felt exposed and vulnerable. Her hands unconsciously found and gripped the stock of her weapon as she berated herself. You idiot, Natasha, what were you thinking? A 14 year old girl is kinda conspicuous in these parts, don't you think? She picked up her pace, trying to shake off her sense of unease.
She never knew exactly what triggered her reaction – perhaps the sound of a disturbed bird taking flight, or an imperceptible movement that she caught in the corner of her eye – but something caused her to pivot mid-stride in a 360-degree sweep of her surroundings. Just in case.
She froze, her hand rising to her mouth in shock.
Three hundred yards away stood a figure in brown and green fatigues, gazing steadily at her across the park. Instinctively she sensed his recognition – somehow she also knew the soldier was male – even as it mirrored her own realisation that he was the final member of the team that had been sent to find her. For one eternal moment they stood, unmoving, and then Natasha broke into a run.
The soldier followed.
- - - - 0 - - - -
Natasha continued across the park while trying to keep as many trees and bushes between her and her pursuer as possible. Her slim lead was being eroded quickly by the far fitter and stronger soldier, and she was already weary from her long journey into the city. Reaching the northern entrance, she turned and followed the long-disused road as it traced the park's edge.At the first road junction she hesitated, taking a moment to catch her breath. Left took her towards the safehouse, which was perhaps only another ten or fifteen minutes away at her current speed. But she couldn't go there now. Even if she somehow managed to avoid the soldier and get to Elizabeth, he would no doubt call for a search in that area once he realised he had lost his target, which would put the whole cell in danger. Natasha ground her teeth in fear and frustration, a hot tear forcing its way out which she wiped away angrily. I was so close! If only... Taking a deep breath she turned right, her heart aching as she ran away from her last hope of safety.
Natasha soon lost her sense of location, having taken as many turns as rapidly as possible in an effort to throw off her pursuer. She paused at the next junction and stole a glance behind her, wondering if she had been successful. Despair clasped a cold hand around her heart as a blur of green and brown entered the road two hundred and fifty yards down from her, and for a moment she considered just giving up. Her body was so weary. It's not fair! she wailed inwardly. I can't lose this guy. It's just a matter of time before he catches up with me. What's the point of stringing it out? Her shoulders slumped. A memory flashed in her mind. Gaige.
The point is, your brother died so you could get away,she whispered to herself. Don't you dare let his sacrifice be in vain, not without doing all in your power to stay alive.
Natasha watched the oncoming figure, her mouth tightening into a line. No, she wasn't done yet. Move! she commanded herself, forcing her body to comply.
Minutes later Natasha's renewed determination began to fade as the relentless chase took its toll on her, both physically and mentally. She knew she had to lose the soldier completely, and quickly, or there was no way she would escape. She couldn't just keep running. Already she had demanded far more of her body than she had believed possible. Sweat ran down her in rivulets, pooling in the small of her back, and her leg muscles burned with the continual exertion. Come on, she told herself fiercely as she adjusted the strap of her weapon. Don't give up yet. Arriving at another intersection, her sharp eyes caught sight of a road sign half-buried among the rubble of a nearby building. She glanced behind her. The road curved away to the left, affording her a few brief seconds of cover. Hastily she strode up to the sign, clearing away the broken masonry that obscured it. The City Hospital. Maybe I can lose him there.
- - - - 0 - - - -
The gap between Natasha and her adversary had closed to less than one hundred and fifty yards by the time she reached the hospital. She remembered it from several years ago, when she and Gaige had been involved in a particularly nasty hover-car accident. The ambulance had brought her in unconscious, she having suffered a vicious blow to her head when her vehicle flipped onto its roof. Miraculously Gaige had escaped serious injury, and Natasha made a full recovery. The driver of the other car hadn't been wearing his safety restraints and died of his wounds a few days later.
The blocky, five storey building hadn't escaped the ravages of the brief and brutal war for the city. An artillery shell, or perhaps a missile, had landed almost directly in the front entrance, bringing much of the wall down. Most of the windows she could see were blown out, and the roof was marked with several large holes. Acutely aware of the soldier just seconds away behind her, she kept running rather than lose precious time clambering over the rubble. She rounded the corner, searching desperately for another way in, and slipped into a broken doorway marked "Cardiology Department" with a gasp of relief.
Natasha charged down the corridor, her way lit by dull patches of light that filtered through windows long covered in grime. Too much noise, she told herself, grimacing as her steps echoed off the brick walls. It couldn't be helped, though; it was too risky to try to hide with the soldier so close. Skidding to a stop as the corridor suddenly opened out into a large room, she looked round with a flicker of recognition. She had seen this ward before, during her stay here; she remembered its unusual shape. Which means... this way.
Thirty seconds later she halted abruptly, her way blocked by a wall of rubble. Okay, try again. She was turning to retrace her steps to the previous corridor when her ears picked up the sound of booted feet. Oh heck, he's really close. What now? She took a deep breath. Calm yourself, and make the right decision. Closing her eyes, Natasha focused on the sound of the soldier. Okay, he's coming closer. She could dash towards him, and hope he wasn't close enough yet to intercept her, or... She looked back at the rubble obstructing the corridor. Maybe there's another option. In sudden haste she pulled experimentally at the pile of broken masonry and ceiling tile, coughing as the pile resettled itself with a puff of dust. Yes! A small hole had been made in the blockage, which by her judgement was just about big enough for her to slip through. Which means he can't,she thought triumphantly as she eased her body into the gap.
Natasha straightened and peered into the gloomy passage in front of her. Too late to change your mind now, she told herself. Fist-sized holes had been punched into the walls, evidence of a fierce firefight in this wing of the hospital, and chunks of broken brick littered the floor. She hurried down the corridor, passing several adjoining passageways, and followed as it turned a corner. Reaching a set of double doors, she pushed on them but they refused to open. Frowning and placing her shoulder against the right-hand door, she gave it a shove.Natasha put one eye to the gap that opened, relishing the cool air that caressed her face. Moving her head from side to side, she could make out the shell of a large room, its outer walls destroyed and open to the outside. Hey, if I can open these doors I can get out! she thought, sudden excitement filling her. If she could get away with the soldier still looking for her in the hospital, she would be free. Eagerly she shoved the door again, which ground open a couple of inches. The anticipation of regained freedom building in her chest, she leaned on the door and pushed with all her strength. Whatever was resisting the door's movement shifted briefly before sticking fast. Aww, come on! she groaned. Just a few more inches...
It was no use. The door refused to open any further. Natasha turned and placed her back to the door, a sheen of perspiration coating her forehead. She fumbled with her water bottle, opening it and taking a gulp of lukewarm water. After screwing the top shut and reattaching the flask to her belt she took a deep breath, holding the air in her lungs for a moment before releasing it explosively. Damn it! She wanted to scream with frustration. The outside beckoned to her through the double doors, teasing her with its promise of freedom.
Nothing for it, I suppose, but to find another way out. Wearily she straightened, and began to retrace her steps down the corridor. She had been so close! Natasha turned the corner, and abruptly froze as a six-inch disk-like object floated toward her down the passageway. For a half-second she stared dumbfounded at the device, which she knew to be an LF portable remote-controlled scout, before hurriedly sidestepping behind the wall. She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry, and glanced back longingly at the double doors. If only... Forcing the unhelpful thought away with a titanic effort, she focused desperately on the problem at hand. But what could she do? It was likely the soldier was nearby, and she had scant seconds before the remote scout found her. If it hasn't already seen you. She sagged against the wall, the clattering of metal against masonry making her jump. The gun. Natasha had become so used to the weight and movement of the weapon slung over her shoulder that she had forgotten she even had it with her. I can shoot the scout... maybe. I can try, at least! She was unsure whether she could actually hit it, but it was the only option available to her. Stay close to the corner so you maximise your chances, she told herself, then when it appears blow it to hell.
Natasha crouched against the wall, the stubby submachine gun held firmly in clammy hands, and mentally rehearsed her brother's instructions given to her just months ago when he had first shown her how to use a pistol. Make sure the safety's off. Don't pull at the trigger, squeeze it smoothly until the gun fires. "Okay," she whispered.
The LF scout drifted round the corner, its body already turned to face its camera lens down the corridor. Natasha's weapon opened up with a deafening roar, sending a stream of metal slugs into the shell of the device. Smashed into uselessness, it clattered to the floor. She leaped up with a cry of triumph, and ran down the passageway. Go, go, go! Knowing that retracing her steps would only lead her to the earlier blockage she had encountered, she took the first turning she could.
Left or right? she asked herself a moment later as she reached the end of the corridor. Left.
- - - - 0 - - - -
"Stop right there!"
Natasha's insides turned to water as the command rang out. She whirled, her eyes widening as they took in the soldier standing eighty yards away, his rifle raised.
"Put the gun down, and walk towards me. Slowly."
For a moment Natasha didn't move. Then she spun round and broke into a sprint, expecting at any instant to take her last breath as a bullet smashed the life from her. Instead she heard the soldier curse and follow her, his booted feet thudding heavily on the stone floor.
Rooms passed by in a blur as Natasha desperately sought a way of escape. The hard physical fitness regime her brother had put her through was the only reason she still had sufficient energy to run, but she was almost at the limits of her endurance. The rhythmic pounding behind her was getting closer; she had to get away, and soon. Feeling cool air waft over her face, she put on a burst of speed. There was an opening to the outside somewhere ahead.
She rounded another corner and stopped, aghast, as the corridor ended in a sudden dead end. The room in front of her was indeed open to the outside; a gaping hole had been torn out of the upper quarter of the left wall. But there was no way she could get out. I'm trapped. The realisation hit her like a physical blow, making her stagger, and she blinked at the tears that suddenly filled her vision. Since leaving her brother, capture had always been a remote possibility, but she had put the thought firmly to the back of her mind as she focused on the long run ahead of her. Now it was very real, and the dread of it washed over her in full strength. Her knees abruptly weakening, she sank to the floor in abject despair. Images flowed thick and fast through her mind; childhood memories with her parents from a happier, more peaceful time, the many occasions during their first month in hiding when Gaige had rocked her to sleep after a nightmare had woken her, the always-friendly faces of her friends in the resistance cell. Most prominent were her last few moments with her brother as he prepared to sacrifice himself for her sake. I've failed you, Gaige. I've failed you all.
"It's no good hiding, I know you're here."
The soldier's voice rang clear in the stillness, jerking Natasha out of her mental slump. The fight's not over 'til you're dead, said a voice in her mind. Jean-Luc had grinned as he spoke the words to her, calming her nerves moments before he made the heroic one-man stand that had given him his limp. Natasha had been with Jean-Luc, Mike, and Isabella on what was supposed to be a relatively safe supplies-gathering mission just a month ago, but it was blown when they happened upon an unexpected LF patrol returning to base. The group had been pinned by heavy fire until Jean-Luc made his hair-brained but ultimately successful break-out, allowing the others to fade away to safety. They had mourned his loss, but then he had appeared at the safehouse a week later, bruised, exhausted, and with a high fever from infection in his wound, but otherwise alive.
The memory reignited the flame within her soul, and she pushed herself to her feet, her hands finding the cold, hard metal of her submachine gun. You can shoot him, just like you did the scout. Just point and click... The idea frightened her. Do you really think you can kill someone, Natasha? she asked herself. But what choice did she have? There was no other way to get to safety. Earth was at war with the LF, and in war soldiers die. Her brother and their friends had already proved that. Grimly she backed into a corner, positioning herself so she had a good view of the doorway. She took a deep breath, willing her body to be calm as she waited for her adversary.
He sprang into the room without warning, his rifle sweeping across in a reflex born of long conditioning as he checked for his target–
– and stopped short as he found the muzzle of Natasha's submachine gun levelled at his chest. The soldier's eyes gazed into her own through his goggles for a long moment, and then he snickered.
"You won't shoot me," he said, his voice dripping scorn.
"Yes I will," replied Natasha, trying valiantly to keep from trembling. Pull the trigger! she told herself. She had already missed her best chance; the soldier had spun first to his left, and she had been on his right, giving her a crucial half-second to shoot him before he turned and saw her. But she hadn't.
He took a step towards her. "I don't believe you. You're just a kid, a frightened little girl without your big brother to hide behind." His mouth twisted in an unpleasant smile. "He's dead, you know."
Natasha drew a sharp breath, struggling against the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks as fresh grief drove a hot knife into her heart. Intellectually she had accepted that Gaige had almost certainly died, but to hear the soldier confirm it so casually suddenly made the pain a hundred times worse. Grief turned to anger, but still her gun remained silent. Why couldn't she shoot him? Just pull the trigger and it's over. But it wasn't that simple, was it? As much as she despised the LF and all they stood for, he was still a human being. It wasn't like shooting the remote scout earlier. A machine didn't bleed, a machine wasn't alive.
"Now unless you want to join your brother," he continued, "you will do exactly as I say. Put the gun down."
Natasha shook her head. "You won't kill me," she said through gritted teeth. "You need me alive."
The soldier laughed harshly. "You're right, I can't kill you." He took another step towards her and adjusted his gun to aim at her knee. "But I can still shoot you. Have you ever been shot before? You wouldn't believe how much it hurts."
Natasha swallowed. You're running out of time, girl. "Go away, or I will shoot you," she said thickly.
"No you won't."
It's now or never. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Natasha's weapon barked once and then clicked and fell silent. The soldier stared at her, his jaw slack. "Y-You actually shot at me!" he stammered. She gazed at him, not trusting herself to respond. She hadn't expected to run out of bullets, and her heart thudded loudly in her chest as she wondered what his response would be.
"You shot at me," he repeated, as if trying to convince himself. They locked eyes, and Natasha saw something in him snap. Uh oh. His face hardened and he lunged at her, his outstretched hand wrenching Natasha's weapon out of her grasp and flinging it away behind him.
"How dare you!" he roared, slapping Natasha viciously across the face. She staggered against the wall, her vision blurring. Before she could recover he followed up with a vicious kick to her midsection, and she collapsed to the ground in agony.
"I should kill you now," muttered the soldier. "You've caused us far too much trouble already. I lost my entire team because of you."
Natasha's breathing was shallow and her skin clammy with sweat as she lay on the ground, curled up against the nauseating pain that throbbed in her stomach. From her position she could see only her captor's boots and ankles as he stepped nervously from side to side. The sound of clinking metal told her he was fiddling with his rifle. He's gone mad, she thought to herself. He had to know the LF didn't take insubordination lightly; if he did kill her against orders and his officer found out he would most certainly be executed.
"I can just say I killed you in self-defence. They won't know otherwise, and there's no-one to argue with my version of what happened." He giggled. "After all, you'll be dead." His rifle clunked as he cocked the weapon a final time.
Natasha closed her eyes. This was it. After everything her brother and their friends had sacrificed, after her long hours running from the LF, she would now die by the hands of this madman. It was ironic, she reflected, that the LF actually wanted her alive. But firing her weapon had pushed her captor over the edge, and now she would pay for her defiance.
"Goodbye," cackled the soldier.
The thunderous crash of a weapon discharge split the air. Natasha heard a muffled thud and the clattering of metal against stone, and opened her eyes in surprise to see the lifeless body of the soldier crumpled on the floor in front of her. Before she could react, heavy steps entered the room, and she wondered whether she had escaped certain death only to be captured again.
She tried to move in an attempt to identify the owner of the voice, and uttered a low groan as her body protested with a fresh wave of pain.
"You are hurt!" Whoever it was moved briskly to her side, and strong, gentle hands carefully raised her to a sitting position. Her head swam, but gradually the blur faded, and she was faced with a man in his late forties with bushy eyebrows and greying hair.
She blinked. Was it possible? "Mikhail?" she asked.
The man broke into a smile. "Da, it is me."
Natasha gazed at her rescuer, scarcely believing her eyes. Mikhail. The Russian-born resistance fighter was Elizabeth's second-in-command, and a good friend of her father. Which means... which means... Abruptly she sagged, relief flooding her worn and battered body. Mikhail caught her before she completely crumpled, and she flung her arms around his neck.
"I couldn't do it," she choked, her body shaking in his arms.
"Couldn't do what?" asked Mikhail.
"I couldn't shoot him."
"It is good, Natasha, shows you have good heart. Better that I shoot him."
"I missed, and then he got mad and hit me and-and-and..." she trailed off, the tears flowing in a cleansing, healing torrent.
"Shhh," soothed Mikhail, stroking her hair as he held her protectively. "It is over."
It's over, echoed Natasha, as she allowed herself to fully relax for the first time that tragic afternoon. Gaige, you did it. I'm safe.
A/N Don't forget to read Getuie's version too!