The Baroness

August 17, 2017:

In which Isa Reichert meets Irja Stojespal, the Baroness of Sokovia, in the charming town of Polyuchyn.

Polyuchyn, Republic of Sokovia

A small country between Poland, Ukraine, and Romania, Sokovia is nowhere special, but it's on the way to everywhere special. Or so the story goes.

Characters

NPCs: Irja Stojespal, Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov

Mentions: Phil Coulson, Sloane Albright, Tony Stark

Mood Music: None.


Fade In…

The morning had come quite late, of course. The SHIELD pilots and agents were allowed as much sleep as they dared, feted with a proper breakfast feast worthy of a victory celebration, and then allowed to go as they please, with one or two minor restrictions. Rusalka herself was quite detained, between Coulson's needs to organize things as well as explain the less well-known details of just what in the name of God had gone on last night.

And then promptly shoved off to the airbase to deal with the Stark-built aircraft that still remained – it was, at least slightly, her design. That, and she was easily the senior engineer on the project available. Coulson was given what he desired, including plenty of strong backs and trucks to retrieve debris from the ambush and coordinate with anything further SHIELD required – namely, Rusalka.

The others were permitted to enjoy the hospitality of a grateful land – not quite to a full nation; what happened hasn't spread far even with the local Air Force's participation. Such is life in Sokovia; the Stojespal lands are a little independent even as far as that broken yet defiant nation is as a whole. For those who chose to stay at the grounds, it's built as something between a chateau and a fortress, upon layers and layers of history and previous defenses for the family estate.

However, there's something further and something more important that must be done. A mother's concern, an officer's duty, and a baroness's right. The redheaded woman who had led the fight against 'Tchernobog' – the name quickly spreading in popularity for those wrecked ghost-flown monsters – is still an enigma that Irja Stojespal intends to solve. As well, to make the family's position clear.

And so, the Air Force major invited Isa Reichert – Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva, it turned out – to a walk among their town. A drive in, the baroness herself in uniform once more. Formal, official, but it might start to become apparent that that's simply her bearing. Certainly the perfect noble-born soldier, or at least someone who aspires to it. The grey and blue uniform, trimmed with gold piping and a polished brown leather belt, cuts a path of respect through the crowd – and it's respect that Irja returns to those around her. Cool, detached, but polite and never presuming.

Her stride easily matches Raisa's; the uniform's low heels clicking on the mix of asphalt and stone and concrete that makes up the roads. For a little while she's quiet, patient, letting the pilot get a true feel for this part of town. It's rustic, more than anything. Not quite the level of log-cabins and no electricity, but it's definitely the kind of place that has been comfortably present for a very long time. A bit of an amalgamation of anachronisms, just like the roads – or for that matter, the chateau-fortress that Isa had slept in the night before.

"Welcome, properly, to Polyuchyn. I thought it would be good to show you what you worked for." The officer is content to walk along by Raisa's side, nodding a greeting here and there at shopkeepers and other passers-by. The part they are in is a market square, somewhat like the farmer's market that the Yakovlevas had perused with Sally not so long ago. Children, adults, there's a small crowd that circulates through the place; strangely…there's a gap between them and the two women.

Irja's beret manages to give her just enough shade to cover her eyes, though the brown hair that escapes the back – pinned up and wavy, a few shades darker than her daughter's – suggests that the beret is a very comfortable and familiar friend. She gestures to the hills that line either side of the valley, smiling. "The mountains of Vyty Vovk. An old place, even as we number it. At the foundation of the world, it and places like it were already old. And special. God Himself smiled upon this land, though his blessing has not always been so well received."

Blue eyes the rich color of cobalt turn to regard the pilot as they walk. "But I think we have done well with what we Stojespal were given. Perhaps it is not the cosmopolitan excess of my daughter's current residence, but I believe the land reflects its people. Even those," she adds with a curious expression, "who only became so recently."

Politely, conversing for just the two of them, Irja smiles softly. "I would be very interested to know just how you and my daughter met. And formed such…a curious friendship, yet one with benefits neither of you could have predicted. I do not doubt you, Raisa Yakovleva. But…I would like to know you."

The first thing that the red-headed pilot had done, after the medics had checked her out and proclaimed her uninjured, was to lug her sparse belongings to the room that had been furnished for herself and her husband.

The second thing had been to faceplant onto the bed, insensible to the world.

Mikhail had been of a like mind; after tidying things up, he had done precisely the same thing, exhausted after the nerve-wracking battle over Sokovia. Both pilots had slept well past the dawn, comfortably tangled up in one another; when the first hint of sunlight had sliced in through the curtains like a knife, she had mumbled a curse and buried her face at Mikhail's shoulder. He, in turn, had mumbled something unkind and rolled over, dragging a pillow over his head to shut out the light. They'd slept on for another hour more.

She had risen slowly, creaky and stiff and acutely aware of how long she had spent in the pilot's chair. It was a comfortable one, owing to the innovations of Stark Industries, but even that comfort couldn't disguise spending so long actively flying, or the discomfort of muscles tensed for too long by adrenaline.

Then came a summons.

Frowning, the two pilots had discussed it, once Mikhail had finally deigned to join the waking world; Raisa had been invited, but Mikhail had not, and the two had agreed that it would be better for Mikhail to find some other thing to do while she met with Irja Stojespal. It was no trouble at all for him to wander off and see the sights elsewhere in Sokovia; his easygoing nature made it a simple matter to pick up a tourist's map, choose a random destination, and start ambling off that way. I'll call you later, he'd said with that crooked grin.

So it was that the red-headed pilot now finds herself out on the town, matching pace with Irja Stojespal, as crowds melt away from them like the parting of the Red Sea. It's nice to command a certain authority in one's own territory, although Raisa is not blind to the naked curiosity the crowd shows her. Some recognise her, with the way they point and whisper excitedly amongst themselves, but not all; her disfigurement had done a number on identifiable features.

She's dressed simply with clothing provided in her suite, since she had not planned on staying – white button-down blouse, black slacks, thin blazer, and a featureless greatcoat over that, worn mantle-style over her shoulders with her arms out of the sleeves. Her vibrantly red hair has been washed, combed neatly, and drawn into a loose but tidy braid that falls just above the small of her back. She wears black gloves over her hands, and her boots are polished. Despite her trim and tidy appearance there is a shadow beneath her good eye. Her pace is not brisk, but it's not slow, either; she tends to have a naturally long stride in spite of her height and a stride best described as 'purposeful.'

Raisa lifts her eye when she's formally welcome d to Polyuchyn. Truly, she would have preferred to sleep for another five hours, but Irja is one of the few people allowed to disturb the bear from its hibernation.

The Russian folds her hands behind her back as she walks, at the small of her back. It gives her a slightly military bearing, along with the hawkish look in that single blue eye. Maybe that's another reason people part in front of them. When she's distracted, Raisa tends to affect a somewhat hawkish bearing; an intensity to her eye and stern set to her features that is only accentuated by the scarring.

She glances over toward Irja.

"Hunh." It's not much more than a breath, and every so often she raises her chin in greeting to what few people are brave enough to call to her. "<It is a beautiful town. I would have asked to see it, even if you had not taken the time to bring me here. Which I must thank you for, by the way,>" Raisa adds, tilting her head towards Irja in concession. She speaks Russian, although not without a twinge of guilt. The language can't be anything but a reminder of the hard times her homeland had given this place, and many others.

She looks up to the hills as Irja gestures towards them. The smile on the other woman's face seems like an unfamiliar acquaintance; the red-headed pilot can't help the impression that Irja doesn't smile very often. No more than you do, she chides herself, with a faint sigh.

"<The bones of the earth,>" she adds thoughtfully, in regards to Vyty Vovk. "<There are many such places in the world. You can feel that they are old, sometimes, and that they are older than the places around them. This valley is old, but not so old as those mountains, I think.>"

Raisa doesn't turn to look at Irja, even as she knows she's being studied; she merely watches Irja loosely from the corner of her own winter-blue eye. Cosmopolitan excess? One could say that, after the means she herself had known in Moscow, and she had been afforded markedly better circumstances than many.

Her head tilts a good twenty degrees at mention of people of the land, and becoming so recently. The look in that single eye is a little blank.

Oh.

The significance sinks in half a minute later, as the pilot is left blinking owlishly.

Oh.

"<Her friend Sloane Albright is living in the apartment next to mine, in the Triskelion, SHIELD's headquarters in New York City.>" Raisa lets her arms fall to hang at her sides, idly flexing one hand in its glove. The weather is not yet cold, but it carries a sharp bite to it, and she finds herself grateful for her borrowed greatcoat. A cold breeze stirs her hair. "<I actually met both of them; I was lost in the hall one of the first times I had to make my way from the tarmac to my apartment. Not at all simple or intuitive,>" she grumbles, "<and I think the administrations design buildings that way on purpose.>"

She flicks a hand dismissively. "<In any case, that is how we met. We were both lost,>" she adds, with a faint half-smile. "<If I see things from above, I am fine. But on the ground… it is not so easy, sometimes, especially in a place like that.>"

It was, admittedly, one hell of a bed. Certainly far older in construction than anything in Isa's room at the Triskelion, solid true wood shaped in craftsmans ways – and stuffed to a level that made the plush couch at home seem like a spare army cot. After all, the room was for honored and important guests, and 'those whom stand by our shoulder in battle' ranks high in import among the family. Especially with their mutual nemesis – and especially with a matriarch that remembers nights when even a poor spare army cot would have been heaven's blessing of comfort.

Misha, of course, had been provided with a guide and translator – and, if Isa thought about it, a few other things in the young man who had joined him. A badge of belonging, a statement from the barony that this man was a bonafide friend and could be trusted. Eager, curious, all the hallmarks of a young man who wants to see more of the world. It was also assumed that Mikhail, being the other pilot of the sleek and pridefully deadly aircraft at the airfield, would certainly help out and not spend his time dallying, taking in the adorable antiques of the Sokovian Air Force's Nich Furiyi – the Night Furies.

The van that surreptitiously follows him, unseen, carries a few more less eager and boisterous young men, of course. Just in case their victory was not quite as complete as they had hoped.

Irja's own Russian is fluent, clearly college educated – or more likely, the military academy she'd attended. Not quite the poetic strains of Pushkin, but certainly quite sharp and pleasant. And even as Irja greets an occasional passerby or seller, examines a particular ware for sale, or simply makes her way across, nothing of their conversation escapes her notice. All her attention is quite on her guest.

"<Your thanks is accepted and returned in kind for your appreciation. I suppose no place is perfect, but one would always feel that home is just a little closer than anywhere else. No matter where that home might be.>" How does Raisa feel about Russia, truly? Or Moscow itself, the parts she grew up on? Nostalgia for one's origins, and for the familiarity born of youth spent in a place, is certainly important. Though, it's not an interrogation – merely a curiosity. And perhaps there's something in it of her comment earlier about her daughter's own choice of education and residence.

How has Rusalka Stojespal taken to New York City, and how has the city taken to her?

It's true that a stern, almost brooding expression – thoughtful, weighing many things, and always aware of the weight on its shoulders – is common for the Sokovian woman. The thinness despite the granite-boulder strength in her body says much of how that weight has been carried.

"Da," she says simply. After a moment, she speaks up a little bit more. "<Quite old, yes. This river, this valley, you are quite right. And I notice as well you seem to have adopted a little of our local custom.>" Oh? This was a curious tangent. "<The callsign of all three of your SHIELD aircraft. Rusalka's doing, though I admit to a little surprise at that. She was never one for legend or tradition, I am ashamed to admit. But yes.> Vyty Vovk."

Those blue eyes turn to the mountaintops, gazing up at them in a bit of distant thought. "<Where the wolf wails. I suppose if you know her name, you know the story at least. Those mountains,>" Irja continues, "<are part of that legend.>" A legend that, in all honesty, Sally herself had been little more interested in than that of Calamity Jane, for example. In her case, a whole new world had been uncovered, and the realization that such things do walk the earth had shaken her – and gotten the Sokovian to re-evaluate her former disdain.

That little sheaf of wheat might have started as a bit of teasing, or even simple superstition, but nowadays, Rusalka's not so sure. Irja? And especially Rusalka's great-grandmother Dragana, and the rest of the family? They've accepted it all along. That a true outsider and foreigner might respect the tales is interesting. That that same outsider would fight for Sokovia in Khoro's own name is downright fascinating.

The same cool breeze that stirs Raisa's hair flutters the short cape that makes up Irja's uniform, and she nods as the Russian explains. "<I see. I am glad Sloane is well, though I understand that she is no longer the same person she was. Transformed, because of what happened.>" No condemnation or priurient curiosity, merely stating a fact. Something that seems to happen often, with this woman.

And then eyebrows rise a little in surprise, though Irja nods a moment later. "<I suppose it is a situation endemic to all such facilities. A latent need to provide the most confusing organization to any invader…forgetting all the time of those who must work and serve in such a place. Or perhaps merely a sense of the perverse among architects.>" Her comment isn't without place – Feathergrass Air Station's primary operations building wasn't that big, and wasn't nearly that modern, but certainly showed an attempt at being curiously disorganized in a structural manner.

Why were the stairs so far from the elevator, anyway?

"<I see. She told me that story as well. Perhaps divine providence bringing you three together?>" She doesn't shrug, though it's almost as if she had. "<And for a time, looked after you, after a crash. Something quite serious, I suppose. My daughter.>" And this time Irja truly smiles, even just a small amount. "<She does love to take on projects sometimes, and is just as fierce in protecting those she accepts. When Miss Albright disappeared, it was a very difficult time. Though, I must ask.>"

This time she looks back to Isa, taking in the woman's face. "<She has never been one for flying. And yet, one of her closest friends and allies is a pilot – a former Russian pilot, at that. Granted, SHIELD brought you close – and I am exceptionally proud of my daughter for her decision in that. But what drew you to her, Mrs. Yakovleva?>"

But before the question can be answered, she holds up a white-gloved hand. "<Let us rest first. Here.>" That hand gestures to a particular storefront, a small tea house and street cafe. "<If I were to be brutally honest, I understand and accept the need for such things.>" Her heels click a little more firmly against the ground for a moment to highlight what she's talking about. "<But I suppose after last night, you could use a moment to sit down, and I would like to discuss this instead…as a mother, to a friend,>" she adds, doffing the beret and gloves, tucking them professionally under one arm.

With that, she'll follow Isa's lead to take a seat – where they'll be served quickly and quietly, and given all the space they need. All the tea and biscuits they need, as well. Perhaps the major had a plan all this time…or perhaps it's simply the same serendipity that brought Raisa and Rusalka together.

The Russian spoken by Raisa is fluent, but that is to be expected, as her first language. It also carries enough of a regional dialect to place it to Moscow, as clear as if she were wearing the roundel patch on her sleeve.

"<Home? For me, that is in New York City.>" There's not so much as a flicker of longing in that single eye. Moscow had been a place she had lived, but it had not really been home, not for at least five years. It seems those turbulent five years had been enough to sour her on it entirely. "<As close as a place may come to home, anyway. Now, this place, this is a fine place. I would not mind it, if my obligations did not take me elsewhere.>"

Her words are genuine, and she finds herself realising she's going to miss this place when she leaves. There's a rustic charm to its fields and its hills, and the old bones of Vyty Vovk watching over it all. It's peaceful here, in spite of the ghosts of old wars past. If it isn't peaceful… it's certainly good at lending that illusion.

Raisa shakes her head. "<It was not her. It was me. I put the name forth,>" the Russian clarifies. "<Though I will not deny that she may have inspired it, with what stories she has told me.>" Her head tilts slightly. At first she had taken Irja's meaning as the satchet of wheat around her neck, which she wears even now tucked under her blouse, but of course the other woman can't see the simple cord of leather.

She inclines her head when Irja describes Sloane's circumstances, eventually shaking it a little. "<Well, but somewhat lost. I must sympathise with her. I felt the same, when I fled home.>" Ah, now that's a story Irja hasn't heard, yet. "<Though I did not grow scales, or learn to drift at the bottom of a pool for twenty minutes. I think my husband would find sudden changes like that alarming,>" she adds, with a faint twitch of her mouth.

Divine providence? Raisa only tips her head to one side, one shoulder twitching. It's not quite committed enough to be called a shrug. "<Yes. She did. She did not need to stay with me while I was in the hospital, but she did, and she did not need to look after me once I had returned home to recover, but she did. I do not… have very many people. I never have. And at the time, I did not have Mikhail Nikolayevich, either, so I am grateful for her assistance.>"

Slowly, her head tips the other way as Irja asks her question, frowning thoughtfully and studying the woman with that winter-sky gaze. After a deliberately slow blink of that single eye, she holds up a gloved hand… only to drop it as the other raises her own white glove, indicating a place they can rest. Raisa turns towards it, folding her hands behind her back as she walks.

"<I am not what I once was, when your people would have remembered my name,>" Raisa admits, grudgingly. A forefinger rises to indicate the scarred side of her face, and the dove-grey eyepatch. "<I have come down to earth too many times. And the rest of me feels no better than this looks, some days. I spent most of yesterday flying, first to arrive and then to bring Icarus' prototypes down to earth. I am tired,>" she finishes, with a weary sigh.

For a moment that shadow beneath her eye seems all the more deeper as they cross into the shade in front of the storefront.

Raisa whisks her own gloves off, tucking them neatly into a pocket and pushing open the door, automatically holding it open for Irja. She wastes no time in selecting a seat away from the traffic areas, but not quite in the corner. When tea arrives, she's quick to dump cream and sugar both into it, in curiously un-Russian habit, and wrap her hands around the warming ceramic.

What had drawn her to Rusalka?

"<Kindness and strength,>" she states plainly, although her eye has not stopped moving. She's scanning the faces in the crowd almost without thought. Even though she's in the company of the Baroness, even though all of these people are assuredly innocuous, her innate paranoia drives her to look all the same. "<That is what drew me to Sally Petrovna, initially. She was willing to show kindness and lend strength to a stranger; even more telling, a stranger from a place that you and your people do not have much reason to love.>" Raisa doesn't look at Irja, instead showing a tired half-smile to the next table over, which is empty. "<I was impressed by that.>"

She looks down at her teacup, watching the steam curl from its surface. The Russian flashes a proper grin, although it creates something of a ghastly effect on the scarred side, creasing the burn-textured scarring. "<Besides which, I needed a driver, and her skills were certainly not lacking. I am not crazy enough to drive in New York City if I do not have to…>"

"<New York, then? I see.>" Irja considers this, then nods a little in understanding. "<I suppose, especially as SHIELD officers, being in that city in particular helps. After all, the Triskelion is there, as you said.>" Her own Russian has that soft lilt of the Sokovian-Ukrainian, though it's almost painfully generic. Like a particularly grammatically perfected and highly organized tone, rather than any particular regional dialect.

Such is the costs of learning such things in school, instead of in locations.

Irja weighs the woman's words – 'as close as a place may come to home.' Clearly, she does not entirely think of New York as a true home, simply…a place. A place that happens to be where she resides, but that is not the same as a true home. A tinge of sadness, considering her own background and the blessings she'd been given as part of the family and as a Sokovian.

"<It is indeed. And this valley, these mountains, this river will always be open to you.>" A simple enough sentence, but one with an unspoken weight that sets a bookend against the world and says 'no further.' "<I will provide exception and permission to travel here as you wish, Raisa Yakovleva – Raisa Ivanovna. Forgive me; we are not terribly used to patronymics. I blame our Romanian neighbors.>"

A joke? Maybe. Maybe just a comment on the fact that Sokovia does happen to be sandwiched between three quite different great powers of old, each with their own rather disparate histories, cultures…and languages. Between Ukraine, Poland, and Romania – and a few smaller lands to the west – there's quite a bit of influence that decries the easy assumption of slavic language.

After all, Stojespal itself is hardly something one would find in Russian.

Fled home? As they settle in and Raisa goes for her tea, Irja considers the words of the pilot. Certainly an interesting point to make, and would explain why a former top test pilot for Russia's air force is now across a continent and an ocean from them. And while she'd heard of the request for Sokovian wheat for her daughter – for a friend – she'd not realized who it was would receive such a gift. There's much she's seen from a distant viewpoint, little bits. All of them adding up now.

"<I see. I understand a little better now, I think. So Khoro's name was your intention, I imagine you first chose it as a salute to Rusalka. And yet it proved far more accurate than you thought. We do have a poets' society, here. A small one, but they would be most intrigued by that. The name of the wisewolf, returned once more to Sokovia to defend and avenge the land with her teeth upon the throat of a demon? One summoned by an ancient enemy?>" There's almost a laugh from the taciturn officer.

Almost. "<I suppose they would spend months telling and retelling that into a true myth, something worthy for generations. Or at least they would try. Poets.>" She shrugs, noncommittally, before nodding.

"<Of your wounds…I have no doubt. I have lost fellow servicemen and women, over twenty one years. I have seen terrible wounds. None, I think, so great as yours – do not misunderstand. I do not mean to patronize, only this – to tell you that you have my respect.>" She takes a sip of her own tea, letting the word linger a moment. "<To do what you have done, again and again, despite such terrible sacrifice – and to do it for us – is truly a spirit of someone I would be proud to call friend. You may be tired. But here, in secret, you are respected.>"

And there's a bit of business to be done. "<I cannot directly laud you as you and your husband – and the others – deserve. Your Agent Coulson has agreed with Baba that to do so would draw too much attention. It is unfortunate, but it is what it must be. There will be no celebration, no more than what has already happened. In some way, perhaps, this was the most I could do. A poor choice for a parade, but at least I am able to show you what you have fought for.>"

A bit of jam finds its way to the teacup as she notes Raisa's own preference – perhaps the redhead truly is more American than she might first allow. "<And I offer that to you, at any time – you are welcome here, in perpetuity, as often and as long as you wish. As a guest of the family, of course, our home is open to you.>" The castle, specifically, and what luxuries it has. For as public or private as Raisa and Misha wish to be, this rustic and charming land has claimed them as its own.

"<Even if we do not worship her…perhaps that is not the same as not believing she exists. And the wisewolf herself would frown upon anything less for one who took up her name in such heroic ways. I approve, as baroness…and I know she approves as well.>" There might just be something in the land that shifts, slightly – just that slight bit of feeling of home settling in. Not one to stay forever, but…one that will always be there when it's necessary.

And then there's an unexpected blink at Raisa's use of Sally's nickname – less at the curious informality and more at the use of the patroynmic itself. Petro's personal name is not one that has graced her lips or ears very often in the last five years, and to hear it on another's voice as a term of respect? If she were any less human, her stoicism would prevent a reaction; as it is there's a second slower blink – one that holds for just an instant.

"<That is a quite apt description of my daughter. Perhaps a little too much strength when it comes to her own way of doing things, but then again I am no longer in a position to judge such things. Not when she has done so fantastically well for herself…in her own way of doing things. Though I am glad that she has returned at least somewhat to our traditions and ways.>" She takes a long sip of her tea, then says two words. "Chest' nevblahanna. <Honor unyielding. It is the cornerstone of our family, that we do not bend or break – ever. Grow, yes. But never to yield.>"

There's a soft burst of giggles at the other end of the tea cabin, before a voice shushes the two little girls who had made the noise. The children are scooted away quickly, their mother quick to depart while nodding her apologies to the seated duo. Something in Ukrainian whispered back and forth between the children as they look so long at Raisa.

"<Forgive them. They are children…but I suppose, considering that the harvest moon is but a month away, children look forward to festivals. They were quite enamored of your hair, actually.>" Now it's Irja's turn to almost smirk. "<Khoro the wisewolf is, after all, a protector of our harvests, and we celebrate her in September. There are legends that she joins in those festivities, a maiden or woman as she wishes – though all her descriptions mention luxurious red-brown hair.>"

That smirk finally cracks into something real. "<I think they thought you were her. It seems Sokovia truly has welcomed you after all, Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva.>"

"<It is as good a place as any, and my work is there, more often than not. When I return to the city, I will speak with Tony Stark about the possibility of remaining with Stark Industries.>" Raisa picks up her teacup, turning it this way and that as she idly regards the china's pattern. It isn't the finest in the world, but it's a good sight better than what she's used before arriving. "<Yes. I will continue to work for SHIELD, but I think that it is better if I step back. I have spent enough of my life risking it.>"

She shrugs, taking a sip of the tea and setting the cup aside. "<Now, I want to enjoy living it… but retirement is too quiet a fate for somebody like me.>" It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that she would spend the rest of her life climbing the walls. She's too addicted to the adrenaline of dancing at twenty thousand feet.

True, she might become a civil aviator, but the thought of flying one of those plodding things – the phrase Launchpad McQuack flits through her mind – is enough to elicit a shudder. No, that wouldn't be for her. To be so close and so far from what she had enjoyed, that would almost be worse than being grounded.

"<I do not know that Icarus is finished, although we have destroyed their prototypes. I will keep my eye on them, I think, and my ear to the ground for news of them. In the spirit of cooperation, I hope that you and yours will inform SHIELD if you hear of their activities, going forward.>" Another sip of tea, unhurried and careful. "<I still plan on smoking out the rest of the vermin and watching them burn. I am not yet finished with them.>"

Raising her head, she cocks that winter-blue eye toward the other woman, studying Irja somewhat speculatively for a moment. That's right. The Baroness doesn't know what had come about, or why she had transitioned from the media's darling to something of a fugitive.

Swilling her cup around, she tips her head and twitches a shoulder in the lightest expression of a shrug. "<I appreciate the offer, Baroness, and I will certainly consider it, but this is not my home. I am not Sokovian. I do not even speak the language; frankly, I would be surprised if speaking Russian here were not considered an insult to its people. But thank you. I will not say that I will not consider it.>"

"<Heh.>" They aren't used to patronymics. "<I noticed. I asked Sally Petrovna to provide me with one to call her by.>"

There's a shadow of something that passes over her eye. She had also learned the story of Petro, and what had happened, at least in part. Raisa settles for swilling the tea in her cup again, frowning down at it as though she were considering something. Given as these people actually know of her reputation, it would only be fair to explain to them what had happened. Her name is now safe to use, according to certain superior officers… but she still hesitates, purely out of habit.

She huffs a sigh through her teeth, annoyed at her own indecision enough to brush past it.

"<I believe I said I owed you a story. One to do with these very wounds,>" she adds, in answer to Irja's acknowledgement of them. She taps at the stiff scar tissue over her right cheekbone. "<But do not mistake my persistence for heroism. I throw myself into the sky again and again because I do not have a choice. I belong there, Irja Stojespal, not here.>" She clomps a boot down on the tea house's smooth flooring to illustrate.

"<I was a test pilot with the Russians, as you know, and as many of your pilots seem to know. I flew all of the newest technology. Of course that was not without risk. I knew of test pilots who had died in their line of work, no matter how careful… I knew the risks when I accepted the offer.>" Raisa tilts her teacup on its axis, absently studying the way the liquid shifts this way and that. "<I was paid well to take those risks. And I knew how to talk to the media. I knew what pretty words to tell them. And I told them those pretty words.>"

She leans back in her chair and looks up to the ceiling, unseeing, a flicker of something fundamentally exhausted crossing her face. "<I met my husband thirteen years ago. He was a combat pilot on duty where I was flying one of the latest prototypes. We got along well right from the beginning. He was my best friend and my lover for eight years, and then his aircraft went down.>"

"<It was not a good month. I lost my parents in an automobile accident, and a week after that, I lost my Mishen'ka.>" That must be one hell of an interesting leap of logic, because right this very minute, a helpful young lad from Dragana's employ is showing him around the charming antiques at Feathergrass Air Base. Raisa sips at her tea, as though considering how to proceed. "<I drank, after that. Never on duty, and never before I was to go up… but I wanted to be numb. They never found his body, and the wreckage was sealed.>" She shakes her head, slowly. "<I couldn't even say goodbye to him properly.>"

"<Three weeks later, the prototype I was assigned to fell out of the sky.>" She claps her hands together, the sound sharp in the quiet tea house. "<It was the damndest thing. I've never seen anything like it. The port engine block ruptured. The whole goddamn housing just fell out of the sky… and so did I, with it. The ejection seat failed. Just like Mishen'ka had happen from the reports I'd been given.>"

The pain is tempered by the fact that he's alive and well, probably driving Dragana's servant insane with his enthusiastic curiosity, but it doesn't by any means erase the pain of those years.

"<I went down with it because I had no choice but to. An electrical fire sparked in the cockpit, and that is how this happened.>" Raisa gestures to indicate the ruin of the right side of her face. "<They tell me I was human wreckage when they pulled me out of the actual wreckage. I didn't wake up for several months. I was not able to get out of bed for months after that. It took years for me to recover enough to function… they told me I would never fly again.>" Her eye hardens. "<The one thing I had left, if I could not have him, or any semblance of a family; they told me I could not have it.>"

"<That would not do.>"

"<I pulled strings. I cashed in favours. I taught myself to fly again, in spite of this. I spent three years breathing, eating, and sleeping physical therapy and rehabilitation. I visited Mishen'ka's grave every week, and I brought flowers to him and my parents as well. But it was useless. They would not have me back.>" She smiles, bitterly, a twist of the mouth. "<I am ashamed to say that I crawled into a bottle of vodka after that, and I did not come back out for two years. I think that I would have killed myself if I had not promised Mishen'ka's grave that I would not do that.>"

"<I became desperate. I would go to SHIELD, I thought. I would bring them collateral. So I stole from the Kremlin, anything I could lay hands on with my security clearance, what was left of it. As it turns out, someone had been asleep at their desk, and my security priveleges were somehow still there. I suppose because my record had been so spotless.>" Raisa swills her tea in its cup again, taking a sip. "<So, I took my intelligence, and I boarded a plane, and some hours later, I came to New York City for the very first time. So it was that I was given a new name, and Isa Reichert became a quinjet pilot for SHIELD. I traded intelligence on the promise of being given a chance to fly again, because I did not have anything else left to me.>"

Half a glance is cast outside, to the peaceful street and its people going about their day. Everything seems deceptively peaceful after that night of fire and thunder; no sign at all that there had been a desperate battle across Sokovian skies. She can't help but feel approval at that; this peace, this normalcy, is one of the reasons she has dedicated herself to eradicating elements like Icarus.

Her eye slowly turns back to the table, and she continues her tale.

"<That was in March. Some months later we discovered an aerospace company, Icarus Dynamics. They are not so unlike Hydra, and it is their fault that my Mishen'ka came down to earth. They sabotaged his aircraft, and then they took him into their number. They drugged him until he went along with their insanity. And then they put him in the cockpit of one of those monsters. He shot me down over St. Petersburg, you know, before Iron Man was able to take him away from them, and return him to New York. Ah, God, he was sick when he was brought back. Very sick. They were killing him, with their drugs and that monster. They kill all of their test pilots. Use them up and discard them, like a cheap cigarette lighter.>"

"<But he is safe, now.>" She closes her eye; exhales a breath. "<But they stole from me, did Icarus Dynamics. They stole from me. And now, I will see them burn for that. I will take from them a debt of blood and fire. We have destroyed their prototypes, but I do not think we have stopped them. They came too far. Too close to their goals. And now, if they try to raise another one of those abominations, I must be ready to stop them again.>"

She tips her head, at Irja's confirmation of her description of Sally. The red-headed pilot frowns thoughtfully. "<There is also another reason that I do not mind Sally Petrovna in my life, so much, but—>"

But her attention is taken, as the two children mistake her for their guardian wisewolf. Her head swivels around, blinking somewhat owlishly at the children and their guardian, quirking her single brow. Once upon a time her appearance was enough to scare off most children, so the attention is a little unexpected; a little puzzling.

Raisa shakes her head as she straightens in her chair again. "<Feh. There is nothing of brown in my hair. It is red; it has always been red. And I am not wise, only stubborn. Although if I am still here in September, I should like to join them, I think. A respite from the death and the danger.>"

"<But as I was saying, there is another reason that has drawn me to her, and one that I hope you will forgive me for. Even now that my husband is returned to me, Irja Stojespal, I will never have children. I suppose I spent too many years in proximity to too many chemicals a body ought not be near.>" Raisa allows herself a faint flicker of a melancholy smile. "<I do not mind, I suppose, since my Mishen'ka and I both lead dangerous lives. But sometimes, we will see children playing, and we will be a little sad. But only a little. We are doing our part so those children can play safely. But forgive me, please. I do not mean to presume,>" she adds, fingers raking her hair away from her good eye. "<She is your daughter, not mine, although I have done all in my power to look after her while she has been courteous enough to do the same for me, and my husband.>"

The mention of Stark Industries catches Irja's attention. Interesting that so much revolves around the engineer; perhaps she'll need to – no, no perhaps about it. Especially in an official capacity, to examine further just what he might be willing to do for her homeland. And in a personal capacity, what his intentions for Rusalka's future are.

In time. For now, there are more pressing circumstances. The blue-eyed officer listens intently as Raisa ponders her future,

"<It is, I suppose, a risk endemic to the profession. As I said…not all of my colleagues in the academy have lived as long as I have. I understand your desire to avoid further risk. Myself,>" she adds, before pausing. An opening, a personal comment, wasn't something she'd expected to let slip – but Rusalka and Dragana were both right.

There is an honesty about this woman that draws one into returning the same, and a directness that is appreciable. Perhaps it isn't quite the Sokovian reserve she prefers, but she can see why Rusalka befriended the Russian pilot. A refreshingly unique personality, in the end.

"<Myself, I was never drawn to the sky as much as yourself. My skills were elsewhere, and once I had my daughter, the choice was made by her. I have considered what I would do in the future, when my time in uniform has come to an end; perhaps teach at the Academy. I would never risk Rusenka losing a parent.>" She doesn't realize the slight slip, the affectionate diminutive passing her lips unexpectedly.

And yet that daughter has already lost one parent. Petro Stojespal's murder had been a cruel thing, though that was not a risk that Irja had taken. It was a situation entirely out of her control, in the end. And it was a situation that had been, with some personal assistance of her own…

Rectified.

As will the situation with Icarus. Since this has expanded to a Sokovian situation, it allows the local military to step in. And even if they are not Stojespal, Sokovia itself still remembers the scars of Hydra's presence last century. Any collaborators with their old enemy…would be dealt with. Strings pulled, plots uncovered, and those guilty?

Rectified.

"<It is less of an insult than it might seem. It is true that, in the past, our nation's fate under the Soviets was enough that collaboration with the fascists was preferable. To many. And afterward, punishments were…severe. But it is a new century, even for a land as old and rustic as this. Pragmatism and hope have their way; after all – do I not speak Russian as it is?>" She smiles a little to make her point. "<It is not quite as uncommon or troublesome as you might fear.>"

And then there is a story given, and Irja falls silent. She does not watch Raisa closely, instead listening carefully while staying focused upon her own tea. A sip, then another, before refilling her cup; the tale is long – but she doesn't interrupt. There is no need to cap a well of honesty; instead it should be partaken of deeply.

It's a story of loss and sadness, illustrated by the whitish scarring that crosses the woman's face. Irja gives a hard swallow as the pilot describes the situation of her crash, and the years afterward. And then Raisa describes her great betrayal, when she took all that she could and fled to a foreign government. The corners of her mouth quirk down slightly as Irja listens, and weighs a judgement. When the story is done, and Raisa swears her vengeance in a way that Dragana would hav enjoyed, she finally nods and speaks.

"<I cannot condone treason and betrayal of a nation.>" Those eyes suddenly laser-focus on Raisa's own, demanding silence as she continues. "<A high crime, though in this case there is a question. Who betrayed whom? From what I understand from last night, and talking to my daughter this morning, your husband would have been the twenty-ninth ghost locked in that machine. All because of what your nation did to you.>"

She reaches for her beret, fingers rubbing against the black wyvern coat-of-arms that signifies her family. "<A nation demands oaths of responsibility and service from its soldiers…yet provides no oath in return. There is an advantage in the way we do things in this part of Sokovia; those in the south – in the capital – pretend at nobility. They play their games, pretend their superiority, but those oligarchs know nothing about true noble obligations. Nor do they understand that those obligations go in both directions. They are ties that strengthen, not a puppet's strings.>"

Irja looks back at Raisa after the children leave, eyes softer now – not nearly so fierce as they were a moment ago. "<In some ways, we have shared pain. I understand Rusalka has told you of her father. I am glad that you have been reunited with your husband, but we both have lost much important to us. In that…I understand your actions all too well. And I understand your feelings, I believe.>"

She finally smiles. "<And I accept and appreciate them. Duty forces me to remain in Sokovia. Rusalka is, as well, growing quickly – her independent spirit is something that I would not see crushed. That she has wise friends willing to encourage it is an answer to prayers I have made for years. I would ask you to continue to be her friend, and look after her as you have.>"

Stark Industries does seem the central point of more than a few suspicious events. Since joining it, nothing especially strange has come up, but even the red-headed pilot can't deny that incredible things happen when the company or its counder are involved.

Look at the aircraft she had landed on Sokovian soil with. Piloting such a thing couldn't have been possible without the support of Tony Stark. It would have been a pipe dream of aeronautics and engineering.

"<We have given our service in our youth,>" Raisa agrees, tiredly. "<There is no reason not to focus on living our lives, now, having made our sacrifices. That is how I like to look at it, at any rate, and still be able to sleep at night. Perhaps I do not have a child to think of as you do, Irja Stojespal, in not putting myself at risk, but I still have my husband to think of. I would never force him to suffer through what I have suffered. There was nothing to fill that void. When I was told he was gone, I wanted to die.>"

She sighs, breath whistling through her teeth, and looks aside to a quiet corner of the tea house. "<We were able to save him, we joint forces of SHIELD and Iron Man, but sometimes I still wake up in the middle of the night, weeping, because I dream that he is still gone. Eight years we were together, Irja Stojespal, and then suddenly, he was gone—>" Here Raisa snaps her fingers, "<—like that.>"

"<It was my father who drew me to the skies. Ivan Fyodorovich Yakovlev was a pilot, although he was the son of a navy man. I think most of his life was in the sky, and everything beneath his feet was just an afterthought; sometimes it seemed like he was somewhere else, even when we were all together, Mother and I.>" Reaching down, Raisa swills her tea in a slow circle again, before taking a sip of it. "<My mother was a secretary, in Moscow.>"

After the conclusion of her own story, she drops her gaze to the table, eye lidding in a tired expression. She looks tired and run-down enough not to care what Irja's judgement is of her; for she knows Irja is judging her, and weighing her tale. It may be sh is an oathbreaker, in a manner of speaking, but at least she is not a liar also. Her tale is honest enough not to paint herself into any particularly favourable light… but what she had done, she had done out of desperation. It wasn't just a personal preference to fly as a career – it was the one last thing left to her that made her feel life was worth living. Without that, she's certain she would have self-destructed long before now. It would have been a swift and earnest plunge.

"<He would have been the twenty-ninth ghost. If they could get their hands on me, I would have been the thirtieth. I do not think they would have stopped at thirty, either. A corporation like Icarus Dynamics, they do not let something as little as morals stop them.>" Raisa pulls a face, scowling. "<They would have kept going until their monster on a leash could be mass-produced and dominate the skies, and every nation with an axe to grind would have wound up finding ways to get them. It would have been the beginning of another world war.>"

She sighs, shaking her head softly. "<They will do it again, I think. We have only set them back, not stopped them… SHIELD has not yet caught some of the people responsible, not to my knowledge. Many of the poeple, including the owner of it all. I will have to remain vigilant about searching for them. I will not suffer filth like that to return to power, or to wield any measure of it over their fellow man. They stole from me.>" Her voice is still soft, but lit by sudden fire. "<With what they took, and what they did to my life… blood and fire, that is what I will give them,>" she adds, in a low growl. "<Blood and fire.>"

Her single blue eye lingers on the table as Irja relates that she knows Rusalka had spoken of her father and Irja's husband. There's still something defensive in the set of her shoulders, something of stubbornness in the subtleties of her posture. That is one point from which she will not back down, no matter how nicely she's asked; these people had crossed every line of hers, and she intends to crush them like insects for their trespass.

Still, she glances up, tilting her head slightly at Irja's words. "<I do not know about wisdom, Irja Stojespal, but I will continue to guide her in whatever way I can. But you do not need to ask me to do such a thing, specifically. Sally Petrovna has earned my respect. I do not need to be asked to honour that, not by any means.>" Raisa allows herself a faint flicker of a half-smile. "<I am honoured to know her, as well as to know her relations of the venerable Stojespal line, and I would gladly sacrifice my life for hers if it meant her safety.>"

With the Baroness mostly assured that her daughter will not be coming to any harm in the company of the one-eyed pilot, Raisa swills the rest of her tea about in her cup, draining it and setting it aside. Yawning, the pilot stretches luxuriously, slumping over the table for a moment before climbing to her feet. "<If you do not need my attention for anything else, I think I will stop imposing upon your time, and go see what trouble my husband is getting himself into. Maybe we will sleep a little while longer… I am still exhausted. I have not taken time… off… in a very long time, and it is… refreshing.>" She regards Irja with a tired half-smile. "<Unless there is anything else, Irja Stojespal?>"

In some tiny point of pride, one Sally Stojespal would bring up the fact that the aerodynamics of the Khoro-type aircraft were at least partly her work. Maybe it's true that fantastic things happen when Stark is involved, but there might be some credit being claimed by the youngest of his engineering specialists.

It is, of course, why she's spent the entire day since an early morning gathering, documenting, repairing, and dealing with the hypersonic aircraft's repairs and return home. Where there is credit, there is responsibility. And a very long day working.

"<I understand your feelings. When Petro was taken from me, I…felt much the same. Fourteen years married, thirteen with a daughter, and.>" Fingersnap, just like Raisa. "<Though, instead of being reunited with him as you have fortunately been, I was able to keep my precious daughter and only child. I envy you your husband, I admit – but I cherish every moment of Rusalka's life.>"

Whether she would trade anything…is a question Irja Stojespal refuses to consider. A daughter for a husband, or vice versa? It seems that Raisa herself has been on the other end of that trade, a mirror of sorts of Irja's own life. But like Pandora's box, some questions cannot be opened and examined – the situation merely accepted, and endured.

Enduring has been a hallmark of her life.

"<I am not surprised. Such things seem to be instilled by fathers in their daughters; Petro was a fan of auto racing since before I met him. He always took her to the grand prix each year, and I suspect she gets her talent and intelligence from him. Certainly her enthusiasm.>" She lifts her eyes, a wry expression crossing her eyebrows as she meets Raisa's own. "<I recall you mentioning availing yourself of her transport from time to time. Is she still a terror behind the wheel, I wonder?>"

The judgement starts as one of Raisa, yet it is a set of scales merely resting on one balance of another, larger set. A scale she has already measured and marked well, knowing what nations do to their people when it is convenient. There is a reason Dragana herself took the resolution of Petro's murder to a personal conclusion, after all.

She listens with narrowed eyes as Raisa describes a future that would have been. "<And when their monster was ready, it would have been unleashed at 'random' – forcing the hand of their victims. A common enough strategy of Hydra in the past; to get everyone fighting each other instead of them – and then infiltrating, offering…help.>" She nods slightly at Raisa's vow.

"<I will speak with Agent Coulson. You will not be alone in your fight against Icarus, and even if their connections are wrapped in shadow my daughter assures me that many believe our old nemesis is tied to them.>" She reaches her hand to Raisa suddenly, callused and slender yet iron-strong. When that hand is taken, Irja raises her voice for a moment and switches to Ukrainian, uttering an ancient vow before translating. The reaction from those few in the cafe is a shocked moment of silence…before a very deferential attitude settles over them.

Deferential to both women.

"<'From this moment, the House of Stojespal, for the sake of its blood and its people, for love, goes to its death. We charge, my knights. At my rear, follow.' Raisa Yakovleva, I would have you as one of my knights, as one of our people. Perhaps Sokovia will not be your homeland. But it will always welcome you, as one of its own – our blood may not be yours, but ours will spill alongside it.>"

That hand is released, as Raisa mentions her tiredness, and there is a soft nod. White gloves are donned once more, creased and unwrinkled in their crisp perfection. The beret is gathered, and Irja glances to the door and raises two fingers held together. "<I will keep you no longer. There is much to do still, and much to examine. Baba may have been quite thorough with her thermite collection, but there is always evidence left behind. And I strongly suspect that those connections to Icarus will lead to Novi Grad and the oligarchs.>"

She stands, leading the pilot to the door. "<The car will take you back to the estate, and your husband will be returned to you shortly. Rest. You may be done with your duty for today, but I fear it will not be done with you for a very long tome. Not for any of us.>" Before they get into the vehicle, she snaps a salute to the pilot – holding it a moment even after Raisa completes hers. "<Honor Unyielding, my cousin. Welcome to the House of Stojespal.>"

After a certain point, the pilot is not very much use to help repair the aircraft. True, she may have helped design many aspects of it, but that doesn't make her a fabrication specialist or metallurgist. The finer points of aircraft repair are beyond her… her job is to give security to aircraft repair specialists, it would seem.

…Launchpad McQuack.

Raisa finds a chill crawling up her spine, and shudders.

"<If I had spent much more time apart from the truth, I am certain that I would have self-destructed, no matter my promises to Mishen'ka's headstone. I visited it every week, and I had no such considerations as children to hold me back from wanting to self-destruct.>" Raisa shakes her head, expression troubled. "<I came dangerously close to the point of no return.>"

She shakes her head again. "<I am glad I did not. I do not care what pain and suffering he has caused me in the short term; I would never subject Mikhail Nikolayevich to such abject misery as that. I still cannot believe he is back. I wake up sometimes, in the night, and I am dreaming about the way it was before. I wake up, and I cannot believe he is there, still, not just in my dream; snoring in my ear.>"

Fingers settle around the teacup, setting the empty vessel aside at its saucer with a delicate clink. It's quality china, just as it had served quality tea. She will have to remember this place. Maybe, if she gets kidnapped by Dragana to have this exact same conversation, she can finagle her kidnapping to take place in this tea house.

The red-headed pilot starts when her hand is taken, and it takes a conscious effort not to snatch her hand away; the one that Irja takes is the right, the burnt one, the tissue of her right hand bizarrely smooth and irregular to the touch. In some places it's too smooth, almost plasticky; in others, textured in ways it shouldn't be. Raisa's own hand is cool to the touch, and there's no way Irja can miss the feel of fingers twitching under her own; or the conscious effort to still them.

Raisa is silent for a long moment, blinking somewhat owlishly at the woman who holds her hand and recites ritualistic vows at her. She looks left and then right to the people around her, as though beseeching them for some kind of help, or to finally admit that the ruse is up and it's all just some kind of elabourate joke. They're surely not making an outsider like her a knight, are they? A member of the Stojespal's own line…?

Once upon a time, she might have scoffed at such a thing as empty protocol, a speech made for aristocrats to feel better about themselves… but she knows this woman, and she knows this land. These words are not hollow, and the other woman speaks them with feeling and sincerity. Over the years, she had taught herself to recognise when she was being lied to – and Irja Stojespal is not lying.

Is that a little mist in the winter-blue eye of the pilot? Surely it's just a trick of the lighting. She blinks rapidly before managing a smile, bowing her head deferentially. "<At your rear, I will follow, Irja Stojespal, and it would be my honour. You will understand if my first loyalties, however, are to SHIELD, and to Stark Industries, but it sounds as though we are all of us more united in purpose than we might think.>" Conflict of interest shouldn't be a problem, not in this vermin-hunt. Everyone has the same goals, and that's to put a stop to Icarus Dynamics and Hydra.

"<Novi Grad? You think that they are in the capital? Well, it would not be surprising. It is where the rich among them would go, while still being able to stay in a place that offers them the decadent comforts that they are accustomed to.>" Raisa pushes herself to her feet, with a weary nod. "<I understand. I think we will sleep, today, and recover the sleep we have not been getting. Everyone has contributed to Khoro, and her construction was no simple matter. I suppose that kind of ostentatious record would please the wisewolf, wouldn't it?>" That capricious spirit would be gratified that something bearing her name would turn out to be a Big Deal.

The salute is returned, razor-sharp in spite of the exhaustion dulling the edges of her mind. Like the commander, she holds her position for a moment in respectful display. Only after assuming at-ease does she incline her head, deeply. "<Honour Unyielding, my cousin. I am honoured to be welcomed to the House of Stojespal.>"

With that, she flops back into the seat, letting the car take her back to the estate. The driver has presumably been told where to go. She can only make that assumption and hope it's so. She hadn't realised how tired she was; suddenly it seems to be an uphill battle just to keep her eye open and her head up.

By the time she reaches her quarters, she's staggering. All she has the presence of mind to do is to shrug out of her coat, kick off her boots, and sprawl across the bed with a sigh of incoherent satisfaction.

That's exactly where Mikhail finds her, an hour and a half later. He smiles, pausing only long enough to shed his own boots and settle down beside her. Five minutes later, they're both dead to the world, and probably neither of them can remember the last time they got so much sleep.

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