The Dragon

August 28, 2017:

In which Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov meets with the esteemed matriarch of House Stojespal, Dragana Stojespal.

Stojespal family estates, Polyuchyn, Sokovia

The grounds of the Stojespal estate, a mixture of castle and chateau. An ancient fortress that has seen many centuries, rebuilt repeatedly war after war. Old, battered, but absolutely never broken.


NPCs: Dragana Stojespal, Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov

Mentions: Phil Coulson, Tony Stark

Mood Music: None.

Fade In…

Sunrise was a curiously belated thing in this part of Sokovia. The town of Polyuchyn ran along a small river with mountains on either side, allowing for later than usual sunrises on most days. Some parts of the year, the valley obliged to give a nice proper early morning, but the day after the air battle that had taken place between SHIELD and Icarus Dynamics was not one of those. In the end, it worked out well for the guests of the estate.

There was, of course, much to be done – wreckage to clear, aircraft to maintain, seeing to other SHIELD personnel, that sort of thing. But the foreign entourage left quickly, with so much of their work yet ahead. Rusalka herself had joined them, the girl barely present for a quick breakfast before she was practically dragged off to the airfield half-asleep and mumbling curses towards Tony Stark.

And then there were the Russians. Mikhail and Raisa; the two of them were a curious itch that many in the estate wanted to scratch. The various members of the household, however, were deferential – claims had already been staked out and agreed to, at least as far as these two were concerned. Irja would speak to Raisa, discussing just how the Russian had come to meet her daughter. How they met, what the redhead intended.

Dragana had already claimed the woman's husband, much to the quiet mirth of the elder Stojespal family. He was, after all, remarkably handsome, and the mutual opinion of Irja's aunts and uncles was that Raisa had done quite well for herself. Among other things, of course. But for Dragana, there's much more that she wishes to see of the man past the puppy-dog looks and affable calm.

Once he's awake and had breakfast, she's waiting – calmly standing outside on the stone porchway overlooking the front grounds. Beneath her is the garage, the ancient Russian assault gun out of its storage and being given its typical post-trip maintenance. It's an old vehicle, almost as old as she is, and just like Dragana Stojespal is immaculately cared for.

The sound of her people at work, the sound of birds in the trees, the sun shining across the soft green grass. The smell of the trees, the feel of the sun on her back, the solidness of the old stone under her hand. These were the things she swore to protect. These were the things she loves the most. And this man, Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov, was very nearly part of something that would end it.

So she waits, taking in her favorite view, letting the morning pass as it will. Dressed in a white suit and slacks, silver-white hair tied up neat, and smiling at what she sees, she looks every inch the kindly geriatric grandmother. But beneath that smile lurks the edges of a storm, and within that storm a fury of steel.

He had woken up to find her gone.

That had not been the way he had wanted to start the morning, although if it had been up to him, his morning would not have begun for another several hours. He would have woken up slowly, by degrees, and gradually come to the awareness that he had survived the battle. He would have lay there, let the morning light filtering in through the cracks in the curtains; he would have curled an arm around his wife once he felt her waking up beside him, whispered a few things into her ear, and then…

Instead, Mikhail Nikolayevich rolls over with a grunt, pushes himself to his feet, and puts on something approaching real clothing in silence. He does so with a sour look on his face. It's duty, he's sure; there's no rest for the weary or the wicked. Most days they're the former, and some days they're something of the latter, too.

Best go see if there's anything any of those people want from him. He's still on thin ice. He would have to be an idiot for true to think that he weren't. True, he hadn't been entirely responsible for his actions, drugged out of his mind on the Heliosphere's lethal cocktail, but his affable calm hides what some might think of as a shocking streak of moral fiber, considering his background.

Then again, his wife is something of an odd duck, too. Such outspoken, strong-willed personalities are a rarity in the rank and file from the neatly-ordered and institution-ordained world that they come from. Perhaps she's gotten herself into trouble over that, but it's probably kept her alive, too, and she dances a fine line of knowing when to raise hell, and when to put up and shut up.

All he can see behind his eyelids is the interior of that nightmare-plane, the injector waiting with cold patience for his forearm to settle in the brace—

Mikhail Nikolayevich rubs at his face and mumbles under his breath, snapping his eyes open. The empty room is more of a welcome sight than what waits for him behind his eyelids.

If Raisa's absence hadn't been a splash of cold water – he hadn't actually realised how much it would put him out of sorts to find her gone, and he can't help a flash of guilt at how many mornings she must have passed feeling much worse loneliness than this – then the note on the table is.

He hadn't noticed it at first, but there it is, and the letterhead suggests it comes from Dragana Stojespal herself.

Once he's buttoned down his shirt and tucked it into his slacks, the blonde pilot frowns, leaning over as he cinches his necktie (he might as well look good, if SHIELD or anyone else is going to interrogate him again). His eyes flick over the note twice before he collects it and tucks it into his jacket's interior pocket.

Standing for a moment, Mikhail frowns before turning and fumbling through the writing desk for a pad and pen, and when he finally finds them he jots down a quick note for Raisa. Shrugging into a suit jacket, he closes the door and locks it. The quiet click is weirdly loud in the empty hallway. Weren't there household servants abuzz in these corridors last night?

No way to know, he decides, pocketing the keys and setting off down the hall at an easy lope. Both of them had been out like lights, dead to the world.

Mikhail has his eyes down as he fishes into a pocket for a cigarette, pinching it in place with canines and fishing around for a lighter in his pocket. Without looking up, he almost walks right into Dragana Stojespal's back; to his credit, though, he doesn't startle and he doesn't swear. He just adjusts his course, footfalls easing to a halt until he's standing beside the matriarch, one shoe scuffing quietly on the flagstones underfoot.

The blonde pilot cleans up nicely, cutting a professional image in spite of his affable and easygoing bearing. Hands in pockets, he looks out over the view as she does, frowning a little and squinting at the first vestiges of the offensively bright morning sun. His cigarette, unlit, dangles at a downward slant from his lower lip.

It is godforsakenly bright in this valley, he decides after a moment.

"<You rang, Grandmother…?>"

Such an address is probably inappropriately casual, but he's still tired enough that his judgement is suffering for it. Irreverency seems to be an incurable curse of his. If she turns to look at him, he's still looking straight ahead at the vista, though he'll tilt his head just a fraction, fixing her with one faded blue eye and arching a brow just a hair.

There's one or two servants around, a maid and steward caring for one of the guest rooms as Misha walks past. Amusingly, dressed in a slightly more modern take on the typical household servant attire, but very clearly something from the past. Just a little less troublesome than the more typical frilled collar and sleeves that a true historical might prefer.

After all, they're a pragmatic as well as traditional family.

The note she'd left behind was simple, but the handwriting superb – Dragana's Russian might be accented and a little old fashioned, but her penmanship is appropriately exquisite for a retired baroness. Other than the note and the two taking care of one of the rooms, however, there's not a lot of people around right now.

In truth, most of them are out at work – life goes on for much of Sokovia, and there's much more to care for than the estate lands. Of course, there are the occasional workers outside – besides the armored gun carrier and its monster six inch howitzer, there's a couple groundskeeping carts taking care of the greenery.

It's just a quiet place sometimes – a place of peace, of refuge, and just the kind of place a retired warrioress like Dragana Stojespal might build for herself and those around her. What he might be able to see of the town from the windows at the guest floor says a lot of the same – it's not all that large, stretched out along the river that hooks one corner of the family estate.

She doesn't move when he nearly runs into her – almost as if she'd been waiting in just that right spot to catch him by surprise. Okay, maybe in the nine and a half decades of her life she's entertained enough overnight visitors to know just where to be standing in the morning…but there's perfect timing and then there's perfect timing.

Dragana turns her head and glances up at him, cobalt blue eyes flicking for a moment over his features and taking them in. Yes, this is definitely the same man she'd spoken to the night previously, interrogated at the airfield. All the tiny features – the slight softness to the eyelids, the nonchalant half-frown at the light, the faint crease on one cheek that isn't present on the others. Little details that cannot be falsified in such short time.

She's satisfied. "<I did, young man.>" At least her Russian's good enough. Maybe a bit antiquated, and definitely accented, but certainly clear. "<Your wife thinks much of you, as does my great-granddaughter. I suppose that means you are the kind of person who would attend an old woman as she wandered about her yard, aren't you?>" There's an amused smirk that crosses her lips for a moment, as she rests her hands on the cane in front of her. Nothing like those generic hospital tools, this one is definitely some fancy woodwork with an engraved knob for a handle – the family crest proudly displayed, just visible under her finger.

She'll gesture to one side, which has stone steps connecting it down to the main courtyard in front of the squared off demifortress. Once they're walking together, given privacy aside from the occasional cheerful wave, the old woman speaks in a voice just for him.

"<So you smoke. I suppose it is still popular, despite being such a terrible, foul habit.>" She reaches into her coat's inner pocket, drawing a small gold lighter from the pocket. It's held out to the pilot with an amused glance, now that they're alone. It wouldn't do to let the others notice she still keeps a few of her own from time to time.

"<But we have all been bad children once or twice, haven't we. Though it has been a very long time since I have been such a bad girl, I suppose. At my age, you must choose your vices carefully.>" The walkway is clear, and she'll pause to let him light up if that's what he wants. If not, they'll continue along, circling around the pointed corners of the fortress half of the estate's main building, some of the stonework patched with modern materials…some of it much older and cruder.

"<So. Ask me your questions, my boy. I am sure you are quite full of them.>" It's a way of feeling him out, of course. What does he ask, how does he ask it, what does it he wants to truly know? And giving him the first 'go' may seemingly put her at a disadvantage…but chess is a long game, and the first one to make their move also is the first one to show their strategy. Honesty with him also demands honesty in return, putting a lever of control over him that he might not recognize right off.

And he already knows she cuts through deception like a chainsaw through cotton candy.

The pilot's mouth thins over the unlit cigarette, enough to move the cigarette a little, but not enough to come across as an actual frown. It's hard to say whether the gesture is meant as an acknowledgement or whether it's just idle movment.

"<I should hope my wife thinks much of me, or I would not be wearing this.>" Mikhail pulls a hand from its pocket, baring his own wedding band. It's a simple band of pale gold, faded where the surface finish has been rubbed from wear. His hand slips back into the pocket. "<As to your great-granddaughter, I would not know. I have not spoken to Sally Petrovna more than a few times, pesronally.>" He lifts a shrug in a fatalistic shrug, along with half that affable grin. "<I can hardly complain if she does.>"

When she mentions attending an old woman as she wanders about her yard, though, he doesn't show any reaction at all. So much for tracking down his wife, although she had mentioned something about a meting this morning… probably busy in debriefing with her superiors. Business he has no place in, and would not be permitted entry to.

Dragana rests her hands on the cane in front of her, in a gesture that suggests her mind is already made up, as though he had already given his answer. Mikhail lifts a shoulder in a shrug. "<Why not? I was going to see what Raisa Ivanovna was up to, but like as not it won't be something I have the security clearance to be present for.>" The cane is eyed for a moment, lips thinning in consideration. "<That's a very nice piece of craftsmanship, Grandmother.>" She's not his grandmother, but it's a respectful title.

Off they go, and he falls into step behind her almost without thinking. Unconsciously he finds himself assuming the role of the protector; eyes scanning the far and medium distances, flicking over at every motion or sound – but whether he does this for Dragana's sake or his own, it's hard to say.

Aside from his loved ones, Mikhail Nikolayevich is not a very popular man right now.

He seems to consider her proclamation and offer of a lighter, frowning around it. Eventually he shakes his head. While he would pointedly like to do it, it feels like something of an insult if he did, so he politely waves off her gold lighter. "<Maybe later, Grandmother. I just like to carry one around…>"

The stonework is eyed for a moment, noting the condition of the building. It's old, certainly, but it isn't decrepit. There's a fair effort done by these people to keep everything shambling along in some semblance of order. Sokovia, he decides, is a lot like a bear. Sleepy and unconcerned with the outside world, until the outside world begins poking at its flanks with a sharpened stick. Then, it's all hell breaking loose.

He decides, as he chews on the end of his cigarette a little, that he's glad Dragana hasn't decided that he, his wife, and SHIELD are enemies. Fighting this woman on her own turf would be suicidal. And he, here in the midst of the spider's web, with the old weaver herself. Mikhail suppresses a shiver at the thought.

He's had enough of feeling like a trapped, snared hare for one lifetime.

"<Questions…?>" He looks out to the sunrise, nonchalant once more in spite of his sharp clothing and his clean-cut looks. He hasn't shaven in a few days, which definitely shows in the morning light, but he seems unconcerned as he reaches up to rub a bristly jaw. "<I hadn't thought that far,>" he says, opting for honesty. Opting for anything but honesty would get him killed, he's pretty sure. "<But I'm sure you have more. Ask,>" he says, with a magnanimous wave of one hand. "<It wouldn't surprise me if you engineered the afternoon to talk to me alone, with the former connections I have.>" He makes a point of placing emphasis on the word, as though scornful of even broaching the topic of his own mistakes.

He is, really. He ruined two lives with his mistakes. Possibly much more than that, too. The only good thing that's come out of it was dispatching those prototypes, and maybe putting to rest the trapped souls of those pilots. Maybe.

The way his eyes harden a little suggests he's still chewing that over, even though he seems to have finished speaking for the moment.

"<Rest assured she does.>" The calm statement sounds as casually calm as if she were looking at a particular leaf on a tree, commenting on how green it is. "<And neither would she. Consider that she wears its mate upon her right.>" There's a gentle nod as he pockets his hand. "<I have learned a little about what people do without thinking so much about it. To wear a sign of love amidst such an injury, and to wear it proudly as she does?>"

Proudly? In her own quiet way, perhaps – but pride comes in many forms, and Dragana has seen and been guilty of many of them.

There's a flicker of a smirk at Mikhail's use of the americanized nickname. "<Sally, hm. Yes, though Rusalka has told me of the few times she's talked with you. That you remind her favorably of her own father, in some ways. I do see Petro Stojespal in you, your manner. Though I don't know if she sees you as well as I.>"

She reaches out as they walk along, feeling a leaf on a passing tree. It passes muster, but also gives her a moment to listen as he speaks. "<That is true. I apologize for being forced to separate you, but I am just an old woman. There is much happening that I have no control over, of course, so I must bend as the tree in the wind.>" Dragana may be expert at spotting BS, but she can spew it too. And gives Misha a slight wink of amusement if he gives any sort of reaction to her false humility.

The walk continues, circling around to the lower level of the estate – towards a small set of horse stables. "<My granddaughter insisted on speaking to your wife privately, to discuss things that have happened and things that will. My great-granddaughter is, of course, one of those things. Woman-to-woman discussions, a worried mother pinned with duty and a child so far away. I do hope you will forgive my meddling, as it were.>"

She wouldn't normally keep a married couple apart, especially without so much as a by-your-leave, but she wasn't completely truthless before. SHIELD wants to retrieve its aircraft quickly, and its people; there are levers in the world long enough to move even her.

"<Hmm? Ah, thank you.>" She holds the cane up a little bit, pausing in her walk, admiring the fantastic woodwork. "<It was made in 1951, when I became baroness. My first husband made it himself. He loved working with his hands, a true craftsman. And a deliciously shrewd businessman and negotiator, as well.>" Very clearly, something that had been deeply loved – the polish practically made it shine like a mirror, while the blackened engraving was a point of pride from the creator.

There's a nod at the wisdom of his waiting. "<An understandable choice. I wouldn't want to wear you out and leave you puffing for air after too long of a walk, after all!>" Cackling at the joke, she tucks the lighter back in for later. "<When you are ready to enjoy it, let me know.>" If he's careful, and pays very close attention, he might notice a few things. There's not the slightest tremor in her hands, the lighter remaining perfectly still. It's also a very fancy lighter, not merely gold-plated. One that has seen very occasional use, as well. Last, and most difficult to notice, might just be the calluses on this old woman's hands. Worker's calluses, even at her age.

And then there's a pass made, sliding the first play of the game to her. Sometimes that says much about one's strategy as well – in this case, the tension in his walk and the lack of questions speaks to his nervousness in the situation. "<Do not fear. I have no trained snipers on you, no plans to eliminate you. It would be terrible manners, and anathema to the very blood in my veins, to do that after giving you rest in my home. Here, at least, you are safe.>"

The smell of horses, the soft whinny of morning equine curiosity, and the working of a stableboy preparing their breakfast all become apparent. Dragana looks over at them and smiles. "<My granddaughter's indulgence. She admires horses so, and though the estate is not so great in size, a couple of them seemed to be appropriate. The children in town love seeing them walk around from time to time, as well.>" It's true, kids love horses.

"<Though, to calm your suspicions, just the morning. SHIELD would like you back, of course. Agent Coulson was concerned about you, and pointed out that you're the only other person that truly understands how to use that Stark-built flying nightmare at the airbase. His words.>" An amused smirk passes her face for a moment; Coulson tends to bring out that reaction in people. "<And I would not dare keep you from your wife any longer than I must. So we will speak quickly, and return you shortly to your comrades.>"

Then one eyebrow raises as the silver-haired woman glances back at him. "<My granddaughter says also that you are not allowed to lose yourself admiring those 'old classics' of our air force, as well. 'It is not an air show, and if I must work at the break of dawn so must he!' Or something mostly to that. So.>" Questions time.

"<Five years ago, when you crashed. When Icarus first recruited you. I would know what happened, why you first chose to go with them. I understand what came later. But what was first? I have not yet heard this part of the tale.>"

Although Mikhail tilts his head a little, arching a brow at the description of how Raisa wears her matching ring, he doesn't speak right away. There's no sense in holding up whatever Dragana has to say. One might as well try to shout down a hurricane. It would have about the same effect.

He slips his hands back into his pockets, glancing over when she gives her observation about Petro. "<I don't think anyone sees anyone or anything as well as you do, Grandmother.>"

Part of him could almost feel sorry for anybody who underestimates this wonderful old relic of a woman. Some of the trees on these grounds may well be younger than her. Her mind is still sharp, though, and that's all she needs to get by in this world. A sharp mind, and the loyalty of her people.

Privately, he enjoys a flicker of amusement. He isn't sure he could liken this wizened old vixen to anything so humble as a tree bending before the wind, but he knows better than to comment on it.

She might flay him alive or something. This grandmotherly old woman is an ally, ostensibly, and she's experienced and learned a lot in her ninety-five years… but she's dangerous, and Mikhail knows better than to ignore his own intuition. That intuition's probably the only thing that's kept him alive through his life's great blunders.

Mikhail's mouth twitches, just a little, at the corner around the cigarette. He starts walking whenever she does, stopping when she does. The stables are given a long look with that affable expression, but if the building has any significance to him, he doesn't acknowledge it. His eyes flick over when Dragana speaks up again, head still pointed at the stables.

"<Oh, so it isn't SHIELD business, then.>" He reaches up to scratch at the back of his head, frowning a little around his cigarette. "<Well, I suppose there's nothing wrong with that… but I'm surprised she bothered to leave early. Or that she even bothered to do that at all. She's as tired as I am.>" Going back to sleep sounds like a pretty good idea, actually; he can't help the vague impression that he could waste another several hours doing just that.

He straightens his arms, giving his shoulders a bit of a hunch as he walks, lending him even more of a nonchalant look. "<Yeah?>" Cocking a faded eye towards the cane, he studies it a little closer for a moment. "<Looks like it's probably older than some of the trees on this estate. Meaning no offense,>" he adds, both hands raising in peaceable gesture. "<It has character. I like it.>"

"<It sounds like you were close to him,>" Mikhail comments, ambling along once she starts walking again. "<You say he was your first husband. Did you marry again?>"

It's a surreal topic, for him. Having only married once, the idea of losing his and taking another wife is fundamentally bizarre. There is only Raisa, for him. His forcible separation had made him an incredibly uncooperative test pilot, at first. Then came the cocktail they'd custom-tailored for the Heliosphere's operators. After that, he hadn't cared about much of anything.

He grins. The expression seems to take all the strain and years out of his face; makes him young again, free of cynicism and paranoia. It's almost easy to see how Raisa fell in love with him in spite of herself, with a grin like that.

"<I will, thank you, Grandmother.>" Let her know when he's ready for the cigarette, that is, but maybe his thanks is in reference to something else. The subtle way his eyes flick from feature to feature suggests he hasn't missed them. The gold lighter, the finish worn down in a way that proves it's not just finish. The steadiness of her thin hands, which speaks to their strength. The workers' calluses.

She didn't come from money, Mikhail decides. Not with hands like that. The aristocracy have soft hands, hands that have never seen effort or strain. What it means yet, he couldn't say, but it's a good detail to know. It can say a lot about her character and her motivations. He's smart enough to know he doesn't know all the details about her, and that it would behoove him to learn them.

His head turns when Dragana offers a balm to his suspicion, and the sudden snap of movement is enough to betray his fleting alarm. Is he now a prisoner to the lovely Stojespal countryside, to be used as a bargaining chip? But no, that's not it.

That Coulson spoke directly of him is both heartening, because the man has done a lot for him and his wife, and also terrifying, because being on the radar of somebody that obscenely good at his job is… well, terrifying. If Coulson wanted to disappear the blonde pilot, Mikhail has the unsettling sensation that the agent certainly could.

There wouldn't be anything left for forensics to find.

The blonde pilot suppresses an involuntary shudder and glances back to Dragana, pulling himself back to reality. "<Back. Yes. To SHIELD.>" He shrugs one shoulder, frowning and rolling the cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other, brow furrowed in a troubled expression. "<But really, our lives aren't so valuable as that. There are other pilots out there, smart men and women who can learn Khoro's systems…>"

Mikhail trails off, awkwardly. That's right, wasn't Khoro the Wisewolf of the Harvest in these parts? He knows a little more about folklore than his wife does. He paid attention whenever Rusalka talked about the beloved local patron goddess. Maybe his wife's choice of names wasn't so wise or inspired after all. Will Dragana take offense?

"<There is no need to be quick.>" Eager for a change of subject, Mikhail seizes the opportunity when she talks about returning him to his comrades. "<And they aren't my comrades. My wife is the agent, not me. I will work for Tony Stark, if he is willing to have me, but I guess it would be hasty to rule out offering SHIELD my services, in the future.>" He shrugs a shoulder. "<It would also not surprise me if they had no trust in me. I wouldn't, if I were in their position.>"

"<But Grandmother, I would be more concerned about keeping my wife from me, than keeping me from my wife,>" he adds, softly.

He's seen what she's done. More importantly, he knows the depths to which she would go for his sake. It isn't that he wouldn't do the same for her, or that he wouldn't be upset if he were kept from her; he's just a lot more patient than she is, in the short term. He has time enough if he has to wait through an afternoon to see her. There are worse places to wait.

Five years ago, when he crashed…

The cockpit klaxon is blaring at him, beeping in staccato tones that he's lost control of the ailerons and he's losing altitude fast. Another alarm screeches that there's a fire somewhere aft of the cockpit. The world outside is a wheeling rush of stars and dark, silent earth, and he's going to die, and the only thing he can think is that he had left her this morning without a kiss goodbye—

Mikhail shudders and pushes a breath out between his teeth, eyes fluttering open again, toward the dawn.

"<Because I wanted to take care of her.>" The words are a sigh so soft that the breath could be missed. There's no missing the way he shuts his eyes, though, or the faint incline of his head. The man is either a masterful actor, or he's no actor at all. "<They promised me we'd b taken care of. A handful of flights. One project. I'd be able to look after Raisa Ivanovna even if something had happened to me. Or if the day came we could no longer pull our broken bodies into the cockpit any more.>" He huffs a sigh. "<I was too naive, too eager to believe in a solution. We wouldn't be able to fly forever… but we understand one another in this,>" Mikhail adds, seriously. "<Our soul is in the sky,>" he says, touching the heel of his hand to his breastbone, "<just as your soul is in this place, Grandmother,>" he adds, reaching up to touch a leaf overhead.

"<I did it because I loved her, and because I wanted to know she would be taken care of if something had happened to me… I had no way to know it would turn into such a nightmare. They lied, and they cajoled, and they threatened pilots to join their cause. I am sure that the ones who joined before me…>" His voice drops into a tired murmur. "<I'm sure they are gone, now. I was not long off from it myself. Maybe I did not understand it while I was under the effects, but it was killing me, and not slowly.>" This time, Mikhail doesn't suppress his shudder. "<Tony Stark, he told me I had a month left, maybe two.>"

He decides that Dragana probably knows he was drugged under the corporation's direction; had probably gotten the whole story from Rusalka once she'd decided to do some digging. Mikhail assumes she has the context for what he's referencing – but there's always the possibility that she hasn't.

A quiet hurricane, perhaps. Certainly a polite one. But as Sally had once explained, 'Honor Unyielding' was a core mindset – and with Dragana, unyielding is absolutely the proper term. She will listen, she will question, she will bide her time. And when it is her time, it is hers and no others.

"<Flatterer.>" There's an almost wizened smile at the man's compliment. "<Though perhaps so many years has given me a perspective that others have not achieved. May you all live as long, and see as clearly, my boy.>" Yes, she's definitely amused, but her point is made – Raisa wears the ring amidst the destruction of her hand and arm. Fighting to fit it where she decides, refusing to give in even to the crippling injury to show that she is truly bound to this man.

And she sees that Mikhail is more than smart enough, despite his lackadaisical attitude, to realize this. Another point in his favor, being wise enough to downplay his intelligence with such an act. Such a good boy.

Doubly so for knowing when to be wise enough to keep his intelligence to himself. Though in all honesty Dragana would be more amused at the suggestion than anything else, and perhaps – as she'd admitted – iron-backed pride is something she sins with as well. Noone is perfect, after all.

If he isn't interested in the horses, that's alright. She makes it a point to check in on them from time to time, and make sure the stable boy is doing his job. A quick, snapped comment to him in Ukrainian, likely chiding him for being a sluggard and suggesting his breakfast be served the same way if he did not step it up. Great-grandparents will be great-grandparents after all, even if it might almost feel like a drill sergeant chewing out a recruit for not being perfect /enough./

Not so different, they.

"<No. Personal. Irja has worried more than a mother should when her daughter announced she had already joined the agency. And your wife is one of her friends. Rusalka…has had a troubled past. She did not make friends easily, especially outside of town. But her intelligence is too much to risk a local education, and a falcon such as she must be allowed to truly soar. My granddaughter wishes to know you both better, in her way – and in her schedule, I am afraid.>" She nods gently, the situation obvious.

"<She simply has not learned to truly judge someone upon meeting them. Or perhaps…she has forgotten. She did not take Petro's death easily, as noone should. That is why I handled things myself…among other reasons.>" Ominous, and just enough detail for Mikhail to tug on if he desires. After all, she had compared him to the shade of her grandson-in-law; it's only fair to leave the door open slightly. But only slightly, lest he choose otherwise. Sokovian chess is such a subtle game.

The comment on the age of the cane gets a smirk. "<You would be closer to the truth that you think. Character, you say.>" She gives the cane a glance, smiling at some unknown joke. "<Yes, Grigor would agree with you there. And then try to sell you some overpriced carving he'd given up on, I'm sure, the greedy bastard.>" Her laugh takes the sting out of it, though; simply a joke between husband and wife that's older than her walking companion.

"<Indeed. Oh, we married in 1949, after settling many accounts and restoring much of the local area. He died in 1982, I am sad to say. Cancer. A terrible disease, that.>" She glances up at his question, weighing him – wondering what else besides simply plucking at conversation threads might engender such a thought. "<I did. Once. My second husband was a quiet man. Tender, though. He passed away in 2000, and I decided to marry no more.>"

A dark mirth crosses her face and gives a slight chortle. "<I will have enough trouble looking after two husbands in the afterlife. A woman can only do so much; a third would be more trouble than he was worth. You and Raisa…have made a good decision.>"

"<Do not be so surprised.>" This to his momentary twitch of alarm, not even looking at him – just running her hand across the neck of one of the horses. "<As I said, you are guests. And do not discount the value of your experience. You have more…'flight time' in that aircraft than anyone else but your wife. It would be foolish for SHIELD to be so wasteful.>" She glances up, still catching that moment of self-control when he manages not to shudder. Dragana knows a little of the relationship between Raisa and Coulson, and the lengths Coulson went to retrieve him.

"<And give your leader credit. Agent Coulson of SHIELD is a man of wise ways, and who values his people more than his agency or his desires. In him there is trust, there is safety. He is not a man to spurn people lightly. You may trust in him, Mikhail Makarov, even if your fear tells you otherwise. I tell you this.>"

And that is that.

The mention of the jet's name gets a quirked smile, as Dragana turns away from the horses to begin walking along further. This time, following the path around the edge of the grounds, looping back to the stairs to the estate's foundation. "<The horses do not like to hear her spoken of. But the rest of us…we do. Rusalka informed us of the meaning of that name. Have you heard her legend, young man? Why she came to us so long ago? It is only appropriate that her avatar return to us, to protect this land once again.>"

There's a momentary wistfulness in the old woman's eyes. "<It has been some time, after all. It was good to hear that howl in the sky once more, don't you think?>" And then, the slightest moisture given to friends from long ago, Dragana blinks and the razor-sharp mind returns once more. A sentimental pup, she remembers being teased. But humans are allowed such things, Dragana decides.

"<You have stood together in battle. Some gave their lives, but you bled together. That is comradeship. That you were victorious is no small thing…but it is not the meaning of the word. Not in these lands.>" A gentle rebuke, almost a simple definition. "<They do not know you well. Not yet. And I understand your desire to leave fighting service and seek the private sector.>" She pauses, one hand on her cane and the other slipping forward to reveal the edge of a brutal knife scar on her left arm. "<One of many. A small collection is all I have, fortunately, but it is a thing I would mind not possessing. You…and your wife, together, I think. You have had enough of your own collection. It is time for other things in life.>"

That's less an observation than it is a demand. Enough trouble has happened, and enough have died with their blood on Hydra's knife. For her great-granddaughter to lose a cherished friend would be less than acceptable, and that is a very, very tall cliff for this woman.

She is aware of the later events. The drugging, the bizarre concoctions forced into their pilots. That he had been…someone 'else' when he'd first reappeared, completely under the control of what had come to be the Devil's own switchboard, a digital repository of damned souls locked into a computer. Some of it had come from Raisa by way of Rusalka, some of it had come from his own mouth the night they landed in Sokovia. It was late, but Dragana remembers it well.

She permits him to see a slight tightening of her grip around the cane, knuckles whitening slightly. Just enough of an expression of rage to request he continue, and just enough of a sign that she fears such a thing – and understands it well enough to fear it.

"<May all those of my blood and my concern find a mate such as the two of you have found.>" She listens quietly to his story, judging it just as much on merit of what she'd already known and confirmed from SHIELD as she was listening to it in his voice. Truth is a gift she'd learned from a friend, and it is a unique sound all its own. What the man speaks now is that truth – that pure, single correctness that lets the soul give vent to what has been.

There's a soft nod. "<Foolish, perhaps. To have such hope. The rulers of Russia have never been kind to their people, and that is no less true in your case. But love is hope. And you, young man, were deeply in love.>" She stops, finally, in the open between the house and the stable, looking at the grass, the trees, and the sky…and then finally at Mikhail. Like sharp electric-blue lasers, those eyes bore into his soul for a moment – before she nods once. "<There is much I will not ask. There are some things no man should be forced to admit. But you have told me enough, I think. Kneel, please.>"

That's the first time he'd have ever heard her use that word.

When he does, she smiles. That cane comes up as if it were a sword to gently tap his shoulder – more than gently, there's some weight to it. Much more than a mere wooden cane should be, and yet it's been nothing but that the entire time. That mystery lasts only a moment. "<Mikhail Makarov, you are a man without a land. You have a residence, but you have no home. Today that changes. I am not the baroness; I merely carry out her order.>" Smirk. "<And she has seen fit to recognize you in the ways of the Stojespal that were old even when this valley itself was young, sheltered by the ancient bones of the mountains. You were not born of this land and its people, but you have shed blood for them, and they have accepted you. Rise, child of Polyuchyn, and be proud.>"

And then she turns, leading her latest charge back to the castle. "<Don't just stand there dawdling, now. Breakfast awaits. I'm going to have to make amends to your wife by fattening you up that she may catch you more easily, after this.>" And that gets a proper cackle of amusement – if she can't play matchmaker with her other family, especially Rusalka? She's going to sharpen her fangs a little on the two newest residents.

"<And then I suppose I will turn you over to your handler, that you may go help them gather up their machine and return to New York. But I give you permission to admire our old classics, since I suspect you will be doing that anyway. Now, for breakfast, young man. You would not keep your beloved great grandmother waiting, would you?>" And with that she'll lead him back, to food, to a car, and to the airfield – quickly reunited with Raisa, who has had an equally beneficial morning.

The two of them deserve it, don't you think? The question is thrown towards the forest, and out of the corner of the old woman's eye a certain flash of a scarlet-eyed smile and a red-brown tail shows the agreement she'd hoped for. Foolish sentimental pup, says the wind.

It may be for honour that Dragana Stojespal refuses to yield, and this has made her into as storied a figure as the mountains themslves among her own people. She is well-liked, that much Mikhail has been able to see, and well-loved by her own family, despite the heinous crimes hiding behind that kindly facade.

He knows about the old woman's past. The details had been told to him by Raisa herself, one night in New York, when neither of them could sleep. They'd spoken of family in one another's arms; she had asked him about his grandmother, he'd asked of her Navy grandfather, and the conversation had eventually turned to Rusalka and House Stojespal. Raisa had told him a little of the family history, or at least the condensed version she'd gotten from Rusalka. Both of them had shuddered as their imaginations had filled in the blanks.

In a way, House Stojespal is a powerful ally to have in this coming battle, he decides as he walks at the old woman's side. He has to check his gait, keeping his usual loping stride slow to keep pace with Dragana.

Neither does he seem to mind too much. His lackadaisical assertion of patience earlier had been honest. A morning or an afternoon or even an entire day, he doesn't mind; he knows he'll be let to see her again, although being apart from her through someone's meddling rather than happenstance does have him nervous somewhere in the back of his mind. It reminds him too much of how Icarus had kept him from her, how they had twisted his memory of her; how eventually they'd inferred to him that they'd held her captive for his cooperation.

They'd never laid a hand on her, of course; by that time she'd been in the hospital in Moscow, fighting for her life against those horrific wounds… but he hadn't known that. At the time, he could only believe their claims that they had her.

"<Thank you,>" he says uncertainly, to her wish that they all live so long as her.

Ninety-five years is nothing to sneeze at. At this point in his life, with so much agitation in such a short period of time, just clearing forty is going to be a blessing. He can't help a certain awe at the number of years she's seen. It's hard for him to even put into words the sense of wonder that makes him feel.

Will I be so gracious? he wonders, silently, watching as she chides the stablehand. When I've seen more years than many trees, than the hills around this valley?

The boy tries to argue with the old woman, but the old woman is having none of it, and finally seems to win the argument by way of stern words and threatening to relieve him of his own breakfast.

Mikhail can't help a faint snort of amusement at the lazy boy's indignation and Dragana's tidy handling of the situation; a faint and crooked smile at the ordinary afternoon. As though last night had never happened, and the autumn sun lends its warmth in spite of the lives that had been snuffed out.

Great God, I hope so.

He looks back to her when she talks about Irja's motivations, frowning and scratching at his jaw. It's annoyingly bristly. Not quite enough to prompt a comment from Raisa, but enough to offend him. He scratches at the stubble absently as he listens. "<Yes, I heard something of that from my wife, too. She said that she had lost her father.>" His expression softens. "<I am sorry for all of your loss. It sounds like he was a good man, and I regret that we did not have the chance to meet him.>"

Mikhail shakes his head. "<I am happy to speak with your… granddaughter…?>" He hadn't actually thought about how old Dragana is, or that there's a generation somewhere between Dragana and Irja. In fact, he blanches a little as the reality of that sets in. Oh. Oh, dear. "<Great God, you're ancient,>" he blurts out, and then the horror is transparent on his face as he realises what he's said.

Both hands are clapped over his mouth, eyes so wide the whites are visible. "<Oh, Great God, that's not what I meant, I don't—>" Now he's just floundering, verbally. "<I mean to say—that is—>"

Red as the autumn leaves, Mikhail decides to quit while he's behind, red straight through to the tips of his ears. He mumbles something that might be an apology, but it's hard to say what the words are, exactly.

This is why Mikhail Nikolayevich is not a politician.

Clearing his throat with about as much grace as expected, he stuffs his hands back into his pocket, clamping his teeth around his unlit cigarette. Well, this is turning into a regular fiasco. He shakes his head again, coughing awkwardly. "<As I was saying, I am happy to speak with Irja Stojespal if that is what she wants. I do not have much else to do, here, until I am called back to New York City. Not like my wife.>" Raisa is caught up in the midst of this Icarus and Hydra mess, but not himself, not as much.

His profile has been much smaller in the grand scheme of things, which he doesn't seem to mind at all. There are a lot of people that are spectacularly angry with him, so keeping a low profile is not only wise, but necessary. They're the kind of people who won't hesitate to stoop to despicable acts to get whatever it is they want. He knows firsthand just how far they're willing to go. He came uncomfortably close to becoming a casualty himself.

Although he listens to Dragana's words about the death of Petro, he does not ask after it any further than she offers. It would be rude to pry into such personal business. More than that, it would likely be salting a wound. Petro seems a much-beloved fixture of House Stojespal, even after being gone for so many years.

He wonders, briefly, how Irja has managed alone all these years; how one simply picks up the pieces and moves on after such a crippling trauma. Or Dragana, with the pain of not one but two lost husbands. The idea of marrying someone after Raisa strikes him as almost alien. If something ever happened to the flame-touched pilot, it's likely he would be as lost as she had been.

Once again he finds himself murmuring an almost-silent prayer of heartfelt thanks.

"<Comrade Agent Coulson? He is a wise man, yes, but that is all I can say. I have not spoken with him much. Before…>" The blonde pilot gestures helplessly. Before he had been freed from Icarus' influence, he had not been himself, and has problems piecing those memories back together again. "<I do not remember much of him from before,>" he finishes, a little lamely. "<They are all like a jumble, like a puzzle one tries to put together without finding the borders first. The pieces look right, but they do not fit exactly, and they all look so similar.>" Mikhail knuckles his forehead, frowning. "<I can't make sense of them.>"

He remembers brief flashes of Coulson, rare and precious moments of lucidity in the midst of the chemicals that had governed his system and his very personality. The man had offered him a place to stay, and he had remembered that much, grateful for the help offered, but ultimately too badly shaken and frightened to stay in one place.

"<As far as Raisa Ivanovna and I are concerned, we will do anything for him. He has given us our lives back,>" Mikhail adds, soberly. "<And at great risk to himself and his reputation, too, without even knowing who I am, at the time. How do you even begin to repay that…?>" Sighing, he lets his hand drop, slipping both into the slacks' pockets again. "<I am sorry, Grandmother. I think my wife trusts more easily than I do, any more. And she used to trust much more freely than she does, this much I know; we have spoken about it.>"

Specifically, she had asked him late one night, drowsy and half-asleep in the crook of his arm, to help her learn to trust again. That there were people she had asked the same thing of, helping her to do exactly that, but none of them could know her as well as him. He had smiled, kissed her hair; reassured her that he would do his best. But doubt is an insidious thing, and he's been through as much trauma as her, in his own way. Trust is a rare and elusive thing.

Even so, both pilots laid their trust in House Stojespal.

It's a start.

"<I presume the horses don't like to think about being eaten,>" Mikhail points out in response to Dragana's cautionary words about Khoro. "<If I were a horse, I suppose I wouldn't want to hear about it, either. Yes, Raisa Ivanovna told it to me, although I'm fairly certain that it isn't the same as hearing Sally Petrovna tell it. Anyway, she told me she wanted to honour House Stojespal, with the name. Something to that effect.>" He shrugs one shoulder, frowning around his cigarette. "<It made sense to me… although I don't know if I'd go that far. It's just an aircraft, even if it does things I never thought an aircraft could do.>"

He rolls the cigarette to the other side of his mouth, the motion one of slow deliberation. His eyes flick over to the lightening sky for an instant, then back to Dragana, gaze skittering away just as quickly at the hint of misty eyes. He'd caught that detail. He's also smart enough not to acknowledge it.

Mikhail has no rejoinder when the old woman chides him for comradeship; when she tells him she understands his reluctance for either him or his wife to put themselves at risk any more. Of course, he reasons, it'll probably happen anyway. They can't say no to people in need.

She bares her scars, and he rigidly looks away. One of many, she says, and he believes it wholeheartedly. By the time he looks back, it's in time to see her knuckles whiten around the cane's grip.

They share a moment of mutual, silent anger. Mikhail shows no reaction, other than the slight flex of his right hand's fingers; a fleeting, involuntary twitch. It seeps away soon enough. He might play the clumsy and affable fool, but he's smarter and more canny than he lets on. He's smart enough not to let his emotions rule him, for the most part; smart enough to know when and how to suppress his real reactions when he needs to.

He shakes his head, slowly. "<No. They haven't. It was a fool's errand in the first place, to do something behind the backs of the government like that, to rub their nose in their failures because of something like funding.>" He cringes a little. "<I don't really want to see what happens, if the men in power get hold of the people in Icarus. It won't be pretty, I know that much. On the other hand, I guess I wouldn't mind too much, if I'm being honest.>"

Mikhail looks away, reaching over to offer a hand to the nearest horse. It's a sleek grey, coat dappled, thick mane a mix of black and white hairs. The destrier dips its head to snuff in the pilot's hand before lifting its head to nose at his shoulder. Standing firm, the blonde pilot allows the horse to nudge at him, even as he looks over toward Dragana. "<Yes,>" he says, softly, when she pronounces that he was deeply in love. He frowns, though, as though the answer isn't one he really approves of. "<But that is not right, Grandmother.>"

There's a half-second of silence.

"<I am still.>"

Kneel, please.

Mikhail blinks somewhat owlishly, and as a result he doesn't drop right away, head tilting to one side. After a moment of silent incomprehension, he drops to his knees, arms hanging at his sides. Leaning back on his heels, he lets his head fall forward, heaving a great breath. It sounds weary.

The leaden weight of the cane touches one shoulder, and while he doesn't straighten, he does tilt his head in puzzlement, very slightly. That's no cane-sword, but he can't imagine what something so heavy might be. It's a curiosity to turn over in his mind, and one he'll likely discuss with Raisa, but later.

Mikhail Makarov. The proclamation seems awkward, like something important is missing. The lack of a patronym is like an itch that can't quite be scratched at. He wouldn't dare stop her to correct her. In fact, he remains silent through her speech, head bowing even lower.

He's silent even as he feels the weight of the weapon lift from his shoulder.

"<Dragana Stojespal, you do us too much honour.>" Slowly, wearily, Mikhail climbs to his feet, brushing off the knees of his slacks. "<Thank you.>" It seems like a hollow platitude, but it's all he can find to say.

He doesn't look very proud as he rises. In fact, he looks tired, and somewhat heartsore.

Even so, he manages a faint smile. "<Thank you. No, I had better not keep my beloved grandmother waiting.>" He follows, if only because there's no point in staying out or keeping her waiting. Besides which, she says he'll have his wife returned to him soon enough, and that's the only part he seems to have any real investment in.

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