11th December, 1991
General Svetlanov's Interrogation Compound,
"Do you know what your father is, Natalia?"
The general is an old man. His face is weary, and the cold air condenses his breath before it has even left his mouth. "Do you know what he's done?"
The little girl frowns, confused. Her father is perfect- to her, anyway. Sure, he works most of the time, and he and her mother argue a lot, but he brings her toys. All of her favourite toys were bought by him. He also reads her bedtime stories whenever he is home on time. Stories about brave young soldiers who become victorious in battle. Some are about girl soldiers, and her father tells her that she will become like those courageous fighters someday. Natalia thinks that those stories are the best.
"He is not a bad man. He is good." She informs the man adamantly. Her little chin is sticking out in defiance, and she is still glowering at the general. The Russian winter is harsh, especially for young children, and she shivers without her parka to keep her warm. "You are wrong. You've made a mistake."
General Svetlanov shakes his head sadly, avoiding the eight year old's gaze. He's too old for this, he thinks. Though he soon realizes that telling the children of war criminals about the crimes their parents have committed will never become easy. Age has nothing to do with it.
"There has been no mistake."
"Prove it." She says, to his surprise. "I want proof."
"He doesn't even know that you've gone. He doesn't care that you're outside, alone, at night. He didn't even notice when we took his only child." He snaps.
"That is not true!" She cries.
"It is!" He yells. "He may act like he cares, but the only reason he keeps you is to brainwash you into another one of his soldiers. He is a master liar and manipulator."
She flinches, but continues.
"I want real proof."
"I don't think it would suitable, Natalia-..." His tone has taken on a more sympathetic edge, and he awkwardly places a hand on her shoulder.
One look at her pouting face tells him that she's not the kind to give up. He walks over to the cabinet in the corner of the interrogation room, and silently leafs through the many files. Once he secures the manila envelope he was searching for, he hands it to her. Despite being almost too small to see over the top of it, she insists on placing the file on the desk, facing upwards. She wants to read it like a grown up. Svetlanov almost smiles.
"Who is this?" Her voice trembles as she points at an emaciated woman in the first photograph. The woman is running, and she is holding a bundle in her arms. "What is she running away from?"
He answers by showing her the next photo. It shows her father, in full uniform, holding an assault rifle. She remembers that uniform. He wore it one night, to show her and her mother. He had rocked her to sleep while wearing that uniform.
"You didn't answer my first question." She reminds the general.
He grimaces. "That woman was your mother, Natalia."
"She is not my mother. My mother has blonde hair..."
"This," Svetlanov points at the woman's terrified expression. "Was your birth mother."
"Was?" She whispers.
The word seems to echo in the elderly man's eardrums, nearly causing him to wince. He looks her in the eye for the first time since she's been here. Large green eyes stare determinedly back at him.
"Was." He confirms.
She nods slowly, understanding. She looks down at the photos, and flips through them one by one, the images growing more and more horrific until she reaches the final picture. Her father, the former Major Romanova, holding the gun high over his head, crying in victory.
Natalia blinks many times, during and after seeing the images. She sniffs, and pushes the envelope and its contents away from her.
"Take it away, please."
Svetlanov slips the photographs back into the filing cabinet.
"What do you want me to do?" She inquires.
"Let us find him, so we can make sure that he does not do this again."
12th December, 1991
"Where were you last night, Natalia? I was getting worried. You arrived late." Major Romanova's tone is not angry, he simply sounds concerned about his daughter. Like any caring father would.
"I was playing, Father." She replies, without skipping a beat.
"You left your parka in your bedroom."
"I did not need it." She smiles sweetly, and bats her eyelashes. She can almost see his suspicious gaze melt away. He ruffles her hair, grinning down at her.
"I have a new story book for you today, darling..."
He is interrupted mid-sentence by the sound of glass shattering. Panes of glass rain down on the dining hall, sending Natalia screaming and her father running into the instinctive combat position. His eyes flicker towards his rifle in the corner. He makes a break for it, only to be gunned down halfway across the room.
She feels her blood run cold, too horrified to even scream any more. They had told her that they were just going to talk, that nobody would get hurt.
For the first, but not the last time in Natalia Romanova's life, she had been manipulated.
13th December 1991,
A kind-looking man bends over and smiles down at Natalia.
"Who's this, then?" He asks the stern, terrifying agent that is directing her towards a hallway.
"Romanova's daughter. Just to warn you, Trainee Agent Coulson, she hasn't said a word since we got her from him. I wouldn't expect much from her."
Coulson dismisses the agent's warning with a wave of his hand.
"Hey there, Nat. Can I call you Nat?"
She glares at him.
"OK, then. Well, you helped us a lot."
"You killed him." She mumbles.
Coulson clears his throat, uncomfortable.
"That was not the way I wanted it to end. You were in danger, Nat, and he had a gun. He's not going to hurt you anymore." The surprise registers on her face. "That's why you are so angry, right? Because he lied to you?"
"Well, do you know what we are going to do today? We are going to give you a makeover. A new look. A new start. How about a new name?"
This catches her attention.
His smile falters slightly.
"We don't want anyone tracking you, now, do we? I still like the name Nat, though. How about we change it up a little bit...Natasha?"
A smile breaks through the frustrated expression of the little girl, as the younger Phil Coulson leads her towards the makeover station.
"Well, Natasha Romanoff, I am going to take care of you. I promise."
She turns to him, questioningly.
"I want to help stop them. The bad guys. I want to be trained."
13th July, 2001,
Natasha rubs her eyes and groans in frustration, with the book that she has grown to despise laying on her lap. The book itself was worn, years of overuse leaving the pages frayed, dog-eared and torn (and she will unashamedly admit that most of the abuse directed towards it was by her. Hurling the book against the wall, out the window, or anywhere really is a daily occurrence.)
It isn't so much that she hates reading; she loves it. She can read in Russian, English, French, Spanish, German...any language, any author, any plot. She spends most of her spare time reading. What she hates about this particular book is the content and how she struggles to understand it.
She was given this book...ten years ago? It must have been ten, because she came when she was eight, and she is eighteen now...so, yes. Ten. After ten years she still cannot bring herself to absorb the message it gives. She can blame her father for that.
She remembers being a young teenager, and she remembers realizing that the thoughts she experienced were not normal. She asked many times, she begged and pleaded for Coulson to help her. The thoughts she still experienced every day were slowly driving her insane. She would cry herself to sleep at night, thoughts of becoming a victorious soldier next to her father almost burned into the back of her eyelids. She received the same reply every time. That brainwashing at such a young age can never be completely undone.
That answer was never good enough for the young Natasha. She went as far as to request SHIELD to counter-brainwash her. It seemed like a reasonable enough solution. Coulson did not think so.
"Never." He replied, colder than she had ever heard him.
"Why? It worked for my father."
"Exactly. Taking out someone's thoughts and replacing them with your own is not only defying nature, it is a crime. And it will never work. Brainwashing is never effective in getting people to be passionate about something. You can tell them, and you can hurt them if they don't think the same way as you, but you can never force someone to believe. They can pretend, but deep down they will resent that cause more than anything. And that is why we will never do that- under any circumstances."
And so she was given this book.
"The World As We Know It."
The title is self-explanatory, really. It describes in unbiased terms how the world we live in and how the people who live in it function. It is completely neutral. And Natasha isn't. She cannot understand how so many believe all people to be equal. She was taught to fight for her and her family, their friends and those on their side. That was all. She was not tutored in defending civilians, or defending anyone except the set list of people her father had compiled. It hurts her to have to think like this.
She has been reading this book a lot more recently, as she is due to graduate soon. Later this evening, in fact. And nothing would please her more than having some of her own ideas and beliefs before she becomes an agent. There's not a whole lot she can do about that, other than trying to find her own thoughts. They are in there somewhere, she can tell. Buried underneath all the propaganda and the messages her father instilled in her, she has a conscience which she would very much like to find.
13th July 2001,
The Main Hall,
No longer a trainee, Agent Coulson has taken the role of the proud father as Natasha Romanoff receives her credentials. She has put more effort into this organization in her ten years as a student than most agents have in their careers, and the Director acknowledges this. Natasha is the only graduating student of '01, and the ceremony is brief. Many distinguished SHIELD members are in attendance; however, this does not stop Phil Coulson rising to his feet and applauding her as she makes her way down the steps. She grins.
Director Fury shakes Natasha's hand, commending her on her achievement. He spots Coulson, and makes his way through the crowd, taking Phil to a small patio area outside.
"Keep an eye on her." Fury orders. His blunt tone, despite being his usual timbre, surprises the agent.
"Why? She has proven herself-..."
"Yes, but...I'd be inclined to be a bit suspicious towards people of her background." He puts emphasis on the last word of the sentence. "The success rate in counter-brainwashing does not seem to be in her favour."
"We are not counter-brainwashing, nor will we ever employ that method in this agency. You told me that." Flushed with anger, Coulson glares at the Director. Fury seems impressed.
"Fair enough. Just don't let her slip under the radar, Agent. Don't let your affection impair your judgement."
14th July 2001,
The training rooms,
"You weren't kidding, were you? SHIELD really does need all the agents it can find."
Phil nods, smiling.
"You leave tomorrow, Nat. First mission."
"Where to?" She questions.
Chapter 3: Budapest, part one
Just to let you know, I remember that Natasha said that Clint was sent to kill her because she got on agencies' radars in a bad way, implying that she had been reckless for a while and a lot longer than I have written here. But I'm going to deal with that angle later on, as ths is just one of many "Budapest" chapters. Thank you, hope you enjoy!
This room is cold, empty, but Natasha likes it. It confuses most people; her enjoyment of silence and simplicity, but she knows that all the fanciness of hotel rooms and private jets are wasted on her. Maybe someday she will develop a taste for the luxuries in life, though she doubts it.
"Is everything alright, Agent Romanoff?" Izabella questions from the doorway. Natasha nods and smiles warmly to express her gratitude. Izabella was sent to accompany Natasha to her assigned "Plan B". Her "Plan B" was the destination she was to go to if her cover was broken, or if for any reason she cannot reach her "Plan A". Coulson had set it up for every case she had been assigned, and fortunately, to her knowledge SHIELD were unaware of it. Natasha makes a mental note to thank Coulson next time she sees him.
"Perfect, Iz." She replies to the older woman.
"Agent Romanoff...if you don't mind, my son and I will be staying with my sister tonight, not here. For safety reasons." She sounds almost apologetic.
"Don't worry about it, it's absolutely fine. Thank you again."
Izabella nods slowly, and turns to leave.
"Stay safe, Natasha."
"I'll do my best."
The hotel is quiet, gloomy and very empty. As she fills the kettle on her bedside table make her third cup of coffee, she notices every little sound; from the flies buzzing to the tap dripping. Every noise Natasha hears doesn't send her jumping, but it certainly makes her suspicious. The draft blowing in from under the door is putting her on edge, so she decides to leave the coffee and to take an early night.
The bed is freshly made and surprisingly comfortable, yet Natasha simply sits down without pulling the covers over her. She opens a book, but doesn't take in what she's reading.
She reflects on the night's events...
She was an idiot to think that the hall was safe, when she thinks back on it. But her hubris blinded her, and that was her downfall. She was so, so sure that the hostages were in the library that she didn't think twice about running unarmed into the hall.
Twenty five dead hostages.
The human trafficking ring were a difficult group to get a lead on, but they were a relatively low-key assignment. That was why it went to Natasha, who had only been graduated a week. But once SHIELD found out that the ring realised they were being tracked and were taking hostages, it suddenly became a higher priority case. Even more so, when bombs were involved.
But Natasha begged to be let stay. She was ready, she'd told them, and she'd come prepared. Begrudgingly, the director gave the nod towards Natasha staying behind, but told her to stay of the hostage negotiators' way.
But of course, that's not really how she does things.
Once the tip got in about the hostages being in the library, Natasha decided to go the longer, safer route to reach them: through the massive dining hall. But once she opened those doors, she realised her mistake. She barely had time to duck under a table before the debris rained down.
The suspects had placed the twenty five at the opposite end of the hall that Natasha had entered, in the hope that they could lead a foolish young agent in and wipe them and the hostages out. And they did, although they didn't succeed in killing Natasha. The ring leaders were arrested, of course, but that didn't bring the twenty five men, women and children back.
And now Natasha is in trouble. All sorts of international agencies are going to have it in for her now.
She is a rogue agent after directly disobeying her organization's orders, and she is wanted- alive or dead. Most likely the latter.
She sets down the book, and closes her eyes. One sound in particular catches her attention- and it's not the flies, or the tap, or the wind. By the time she realises the danger; Clint Barton's arm is wrapped around her neck, crushing her windpipe.
He forces her against the bedside cabinet, all the time keeping her in a tight headlock. She squirms underneath his grip, his muscles flexing as he struggles to keep a hold of her. She scrapes her fingernails against his skin, blood welling in the bright red marks that she's left on his forearm. Regardless, his relentless force sends her world spinning as she almost slips out of consciousness.
Almost slips out of consciousness.
She after several seemingly futile attempts at getting him to release his grip, she finally grabs hold of his wrist and twists it with all the power she can get. Surprised, he lets go of the pressure on her throat. In control at last, Natasha twists Clint's wrist around to his back, and forces him to the ground. He kicks, but she is one step ahead; and jumps out of the direction of his blows.
She seizes his other wrist, and presses them both to the carpet, pinning him to the floor. She places her foot on his ankle and presses down, causing him to yelp out in pain. She grins at this sign of vulnerability, and puts more pressure on his ankle. Clint digs his nails into the carpet, biting down on his lip until he tastes blood. He suddenly spots an opportunity: as Natasha relaxes, she eases her grip on his wrists, and he wriggles out to grab her leg.
Natasha slips backward, hitting her head off of the bedside cabinet, sending her reeling. She blinks to clear her head, and before she knows any different Clint grabs her and pushes her against the wall. He removes his bow from the sheath and uses it to restrain one of her arms as the other reaches out to hit him.
He grabs her fist as she raises it, her other arm still pinned against the wall with his bow. She fights back, however. She fights back using every ounce of strength she can muster, enough to knock an ordinary man, or even a highly trained assassin to the floor. But Clint Barton was beyond highly trained.
With the blood circulation slowing down towards her limbs and her vision growing increasingly blurred as she gets closer and closer to passing out, Natasha realises that this is it. But there is one thing that she wants to know first...
"Who are you?" She manages to ask.
"Not your name." She interrupts. "Who you work for. Who sent you?"
Clint inhales deeply, unsure what to say. Well, since she's going to die anyway...
"SHIELD sent me."
"SHIELD." She mutters to herself, in an almost "I-should-have-known" kind of way. "Coulson wasn't kidding. I work for them, y'know? I was expecting some terror cells or human trafficking rings to have it in for me, but not really my bosses..."
"I know that you work for them." He announces.
"And I'm assuming you work for them too?"
"Not exactly." He responds.
She nods, and closes her eyes. She expects what is going to happen next, but Clint doesn't. She expects him to raise his bow and end it, he hasn't really thought this far ahead, which is unlike him. Usually killing, out of necessity, is a second nature to him, but this time he has been so focused on getting the target under his control that he hasn't thought about actually killing her.
And what surprises him most is that he doesn't want to. He does not want to kill Natasha Romanoff.
Before he can even think properly, a window shatters, sending glass raining down in jagged shards. Both agents fall to the floor, the danger of each other forgotten as they are joined by a group of men entering through the window. There is at least six coming in at once, all armed with guns, knives, and one seems to be in the possession of a large rapier.
Clint turns his head towards Natasha as he rises to his feet.
"This is that human trafficking ring that you mentioned earlier?"
She nods silently.
The men descend on them, not using their weapons as Clint and Natasha are vastly outnumbered. Three men tackle Clint, who is still shook from the shattered window, and throw him to the floor once again. Natasha is left to deal with the three other burly men, all armed with some form of bladed object.
With one exchanged glance, Clint and Natasha realise what's going to happen next.
It looks like they're allies. For now, anyway.