“We’ve taken three girls from the facility our agents infiltrated near Moscow. It was only a temporary training ground. God knows how many they still have.”
“How old are they?” Natasha asks while pulling the three slim files across Fury’s desk towards her. This was not what she was expecting when Fury had called her to his private office.
“Six, nine, and fourteen.” Fury looks at her hard. “We’re hoping that their age will make them easier to rehabilitate. They could lead normal lives.” He doesn’t say it, but Natasha knows it anyway. Have normal lives, be normal people. Not like you, who can do nothing but what your training taught you.
“The six year old, maybe. I wouldn’t count on the other two.” She feels Fury prompting her to continue. Natasha sighs. “The nine year old would be in the final stages of mental conditioning and the fourteen year old has either been in the field already, or was about to be. Do we have their names?”
“They had names written on their uniforms.”
Natasha smirks. “Those aren’t their names.”
Fury nods, and motions towards the files in front of her. “I’ll keep the psych unit informed. Take a look over those files. I know you gave us intel on the Red Room years ago, but let us know if there’s anything else.” The thinly veiled ‘that is an order’ is useless, as Fury is well aware. Memories are the Red Room’s specialty, their failsafe. Her childhood kills blaze neon in Natasha’s mind but the Red Room men are eternally faceless, blurs behind their ledgers.
She takes the files to her room and flips them open anyway. Olga, fourteen. Tried to kill the S.H.I.E.L.D agents charged with guarding her several times before being sedated for the flight to New York. Hasn’t spoken a word. Vasilisa, six. Screamed for hours. Possibly still a new recruit. Sofia, nine-
Tiny hands clutching at her neck, whispering in her ear, the snowflakes flying against her face to catch in yellow hair as well as red, she loved elephants, and her name was…
Her name was…
Sofia is Svetlana Drakova, and Natasha unravels.
Clint’s eyebrows rise when she knocks on the door to his apartment in the middle of the night, but he doesn’t remark upon it, just waves his hand towards the old, second hand couch. His tastes are as spartan as hers, and since neither of them spend much time off base, the ordinary detritus of living; the chipped crockery, the pictures, the out-dated TV guides, don’t have much opportunity to accumulate. They can pack up their personal items in fifteen minutes flat, and have done many times because the word ‘home’ doesn’t mean much in their line of work.
Natasha sits, and looks away from him. “They brought in some girls from the Red Room.”
Clint secures the door firmly before walking around the couch and sitting next to her. He’s dressed for bed in loose sweat pants and a grey t-shirt, and Natasha feels a momentary pang of guilt that she’s robbing him of sleep he so desperately needs. “I know,” he answers, leaning his elbows on his knees. The mission may be classified, but even in S.H.I.E.L.D you don’t bring in three Russian child soldiers without people talking.
“One of them is Svetlana Drakova.”
Clint stiffens, stares at her. “Fuck.” He stands up and goes over to one of the cabinets in the kitchenette, rifles in the top shelf and pulls out a bottle of bourbon. “I think you need a drink.”
Natasha hates bourbon, but she takes the bottle anyway. Clint sits down next to her and she remembers that alcohol soaked night years ago in Budapest, when civilians died in the crossfire and she slurred confessions into his neck.
“I burnt down a hospital.”
Clint’s hands tangled in her hair as she stumbled against him. “Its in your file.” He helped her onto the tattered bed in their rented apartment and pulled her legs into his lap when he sat down. “You assassinated Ivan Drakov while his daughter was in the building.” He leant back against the pillows and even in her drunken state Natasha recognised that this was some sort of test. “File said she’s been missing ever since. Probably dead.”
“She’s not dead.” Natasha crawled over and pressed her face against his chest even as she felt Clint shift uncomfortably and lift his arms to keep her at a distance. “I took her to same orphanage where they found me.”
Clint said nothing, but his fingers came up to brush against her face as he got up from the bed and pulled a blanket over her, taking a pillow so he could sleep on the floor.
“Tasha.” Clint’s voice breaks through her reverie because he only calls her Tasha when they’re alone. “I knew about Drakov’s daughter before you told me.”
“I was tracking you. I saw you burn the hospital down, and I saw you take the girl to the orphanage. S.H.I.E.L.D suspected that the Red Room was taking girls from that place for years but couldn’t find enough evidence to build a case. It wasn’t high on their list, but I knew about it.”
Years ago Natasha would have been surprised he had been tracking her that long without her knowing, but she’s seen his skills in action countless times. If he doesn’t want to be noticed, he won’t be.
“You could have taken her straight to the Red Room. Hell, you could have let her burn in the fire, but you didn’t. I think you took her to the orphanage because deep down you hoped they wouldn’t choose her.”
“She was traumatised and no one would miss her. Of course they would choose her.” Natasha’s voice is clipped.
“Yeah,” Clint says simply. “But you didn’t just hand her over. You wanted to give her a chance. It made me curious to see what else you could do.” He lets out a deep breath before continuing. “I was supposed to kill you that day.”
Natasha’s breath catches because even though she owes him a debt for sparing her life, he’s never told her why, and his face is unreadable in a way that scares her. Clint moves forward, his hand cupping her cheek, and presses his forehead to hers for one long moment. They don’t have much physical contact outside of missions or training and that makes the feel of his calloused hands against her skin all the more dizzying. Natasha finds she’s leaning into his hand and pulls back abruptly when his thumb grazes across her lower lip. “You always were the sentimental type,” she murmurs, but it lacks her usual bite.
Clint looks like he’s about to reach out to her again, but settles back into his former sitting position. He’s still close enough that Natasha can feel the heat from his skin, and for a second she considers climbing into his lap and burying herself in the warmth of this man who was sent to end her life and changed his mind, because he always saw more than what the Red Room made her.
Instead she curls up on her side of the couch and pretends to go to sleep.
The S.H.I.E.L.D psychologists have been meeting with what have become known as the Red Room Three for four weeks before Natasha applies for clearance to talk alone with the nine year old girl. Fury doesn’t ask why she wants to speak to that girl in particular, but he gives permission all the same.
She enters the holding cell where Svetlana is being kept to find the girl handcuffed to the metal table in the centre of the room. Natasha understands why and stays on her guard; Svetlana Drakova may be a human weapon but the Red Room did not have the chance to refine her, to train her to plan, to manipulate, to bide her time. Her first instinct is to attack.
When Natasha carried Svetlana away from the burning hospital she was wearing a pale blue dress and two plaits that went all down her back. Now her ash blonde hair is cropped short until just below the ears and she’s in the same grey jumpsuit Natasha wore when she was that age.
This is Natasha’s legacy, the only one she will ever have, can ever have. Svetlana may not know it yet, but when she grows older and other girls her age start to bleed every month, she will discover what happened when the Red Room strapped her to an operating table and shoved a needle in her skin, leaving her to wake in burning pain later. After all, what use has an assassin for bearing children?
Natasha had told Clint about that procedure in Budapest as well. He hadn’t commented but he did squeeze her hand.
Svetlana glares from her seat, already straining at her handcuffs that must be cutting into her wrists, and Natasha steps forward. “Sofia,” she says, because the girl won’t remember her real name. Natasha doesn’t remember hers, either. She takes a moment to compose herself before asking in Russian, “do you remember me?”
“Natalia Romanova?” Svetlana looks up at her. She has grey eyes like hail stones. “They told me about you.” Her English is almost flawless and Natasha winces in recognition.
“It’s Agent Romanoff now,” she offers carefully. “Americans are bad with names.”
Svetlana’s eyes narrow. “They said you ran off with an American.”
“I’m sure they say many things.”
“Are you going to kill me?” Svetlana whispers, and she sounds the closest to a child that she ever will be.
“No one’s going to kill you.” Natasha tries to keep her expression as neutral as possible, but it still sounds like a lie. “They’re going to help you. You can go to school. Make friends. Have a family.”
Svetlana breaks into hysterical laughter and Natasha has to keep from joining in because she knows how ridiculous it is to be talking about school with a girl in chains.
“I don’t know what a family is,” Svetlana giggles. The harsh, greenish overhead light makes her sunken cheeks look almost ghoulish, something one of the younger guards has been heard to describe as ‘creepy,’ but Natasha has seen too many monsters to be fooled by parlour tricks.
Natasha smiles ruefully. “Neither do I.” Their eyes meet and Svetlana drops her gaze first because Svetlana’s training hasn’t gotten that far yet. Natasha had, she excelled in every aspect of her training except loyalty, the one skill she could never master. Natasha may have stopped running for now, but if S.H.I.E.L.D should fall she will be standing tall among the rubble. The Red Room taught her to obey, but she learnt how to survive.
They remain in silence, the Black Widow and her unwilling progeny, until Natasha turns to leave. This is not an interrogation, and nothing she can say will change what has been done.
“You carried me in the snow,” Svetlana’s voice calls in Russian and it halts Natasha in her tracks. “You carried me away and then you let me go.”
Natasha punches her access code into the control panel and the door slides open. “Yes,” she confirms, “I did.” She doesn’t receive an answer and she doesn’t expect one because she knows it already. She may no longer be the child who returned from ballet class to see her home in ruins, but she’s not the girl shivering in her cell either. Natasha Romanoff may be forged in flames and far from whole, but she’s real and no one else made her. Svetlana will build herself from nothing too and maybe one day she will remember her name.
“My parents died in a fire,” Natasha reveals, and it’s the truth. Lies are her trade so truth is sacred, its what she guards deep under her ribs and gives her teeth and fingers to hold on to. Truth is a loaded gun pointed at her head. She owes it to Svetlana to provide the bullet, should Svetlana choose to use it.
Natasha will be waiting.