Chapter 1: five
“Congratulations on your birthday, Natashenka!”
Mama and papa are smiling all bright and happy, and they give her a present. There is going to be a party later today and birthday cake, but right now there is birthday pie and pink ballet-shoes.
Pink satin ones.
“I am going to wear them forever,” Natasha says, and she means every word. Mama helps her put the shoes on and papa picks up his violin. He starts to play so mama grabs her hand and they dance and dance, and they are making up all the steps, and it's the very best birthday.
Chapter 2: six
Natasha thinks that she's been cold since time started. And hot. She's all hot and cold and hungry and if Sascha tries to steal her lunch she is going to hit him. He steals Masha's instead and she's starting to cry because she's only four so Natasha grabs her plastic mug and throws at Sascha. And she hits him because she has the best aim in the whole district.
Sascha starts to cry and runs to the caretaker (who isn't a real mama, she just pretends to be) because he is a giant baby and Natasha is in trouble.
Chapter 3: seven
She is still a little confused on how she's going to help save the world. They tell her she's going to be brave and protect people, and they really, really mean it, and she doesn't want to make them unhappy, but she's confused.
But she can do this. She can hide and none of the other girls are ever going to find her. She's going to hide and she's going to find the target and she's going to win the day.
And later there will be birthday pie.
(Later, she will save the world, but only when she's a grown-up.)
Chapter 4: eight
Warning: contains the violent death of a child.
“- self-serving, counter-revolutionary,” says Director Kuznetsova and she isn't screaming, doesn't have a raised voice, but she's so angry and it's awful and scary and Natasha is shaking. The director takes out a gun and points it at Lyuda and Lyuda's crying even though she's one of the big girls and there is a CRACK in the air.
Natasha's ears are all ringing and odd and she feels woozy like she's sick because Lyuda isn't crying anymore: she's sprawled out on the polished wooden floor, with blood absolutely everywhere.
“That is what happens when you are a traitor,” says Director Kuznetsova.
Chapter 5: nine
Agrafena Ivanovna gives her a new pair of ballet-shoes. Her old ones were old so it's only practical, but her teacher said, “congratulations on your birthday,” so they could be a present.
They're in the big ballroom for their class today, which is beautiful (for a pre-Revolutionary room in tyrant-prince's palace built on the backs of slaves, she reminds herself firmly) but very cold.
She sits on the floor with the others and starts to stretch out her legs. Ballet class is for grace, to learn strength while being silent.
Sometimes, Natasha wants it to just be about the ballet.
Chapter 6: ten
Director Kuznetsova walked into their code-breaking class and said they could go and play, so Natasha and Olya and Gala and Asya and Nadya and Marishka and everyone are outside running around with snowballs. They shriek and laugh, and Olya swings herself into a tree to call out positions.
Natasha and Nadya argue tactics, but then Asya and Gala get cornered so they go running to the rescue. Natasha slides in the snow to kick Manya's legs out from underneath her, and Olya jumps down from the tree because she's bored.
It's the best fun they've have had all week.
Chapter 7: eleven
They are doing drills to the beat of a recorded drum, and the only words are those of their teacher as he calls out moves, critiques, to switch with their partners.
Today, Natasha is paired up with Asya, the girls taking turns to attack and defend with their blunted knives. Forward and back, block and slice, lock wrists and twist, all to the ever-increasing beat.
Then Leonid Mikhailovich says,“Romanova, Uspenskaya, to the centre. Mix the moves up.”
Natasha and Olya move, face each other, and lunge towards the other. Set drills is a dance, but actual sparring is fun.
Chapter 8: twelve
Natalia Rossi – not Natalya Alianovna Romanova – is having a party with her friends. Her friends are Annetta (not Asya), Gina (not Gala), Ottavia (not Olya), Nicola (not Nadya) and...and everyone is Italian. No one is Russian, no one will sound Russian.
There will be cake, games, balloons, and no one will be Russian.
It is her birthday, it's her party, and Natalia only has to worry about grades, teachers, and parents. It's Natasha's birthday; she blows out the candles and wishes that everyone will be graded well.
It's her birthday, and she doesn't want her sisters getting hurt today.
Chapter 9: thirteen
The projector was mucking up, again, so Natasha still hasn't seen the end of Revenge of the Jedi, and it feels like she's never going to see the Emperor defeated. On the other hand, this means that she doesn't have to think about Stars Wars and its Cultural Significance to American Culture until the projector's fixed.
Instead, she's at the firing range with a rifle; lying in the snow, pretending she's on Hoth and wondering why Star Wars has blasters.
Blasters would cauterise the wound; bullets mean that targets run the risk of bleeding out.
Much more practical, Natasha thinks.
Chapter 10: fourteen
The gloves are heavier than she thought they'd be.
She's not allowed to charge them yet (and this is a 'don't you even think about it' order, not a 'let's see how you get around our orders' order), but she still can't help but touch them, let her fingers explore the elegant mechanics.
Natasha twists her wrists to study how movement is altered by the weight and structure of her Widow's Bite, and her mouth purses a little in thought. She's going to have to put in some solid practice, but it'll be worth it.
Her Widow's Bite.
Chapter 11: fifteen
It's been seventeen days since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has betrayed her, dying and disintegrating, leaving her sliced from her roots, convictions, purpose.
But she's not thinking about that.
She's thinking about French verbs, American consonants; she's thinking that her Hungarian needs practice.
She's thinking about Swan Lake and being forbidden to go en pointe.
She's thinking about her knifework, and about her teachers' crying.
She's thinking about how Dunya's mouth felt against hers.
If she thinks about all of that, then the world will still make sense.
If she thinks about that, she won't be so angry.
Chapter 12: sixteen
contains: non-consensual drug use, implied sexual assault
The target is an American businessman, all blinding smiles, hungry eyes, flashy suits. She has her red hair teased out from here to forever, too much eye-shadow, a dress that barely covers her backside, no weapons except for herself.
That's all she should have needed, but the drink she'd been forced by her cover to sip had been drugged.
She completes the mission with a broken glass instead of her hands, and she ends up covered in the target's blood.
“Messy, Natashka,” is all her handler says. She flushes, eyes pricking with tears of shame at a mission done badly.
Chapter 13: seventeen
If the objective of the assignment had been simple assassination, then sending in three of them was a literal case of overkill. If the objective of the assignment had been to see how well they worked together, then they passed with flying colours.
They are allowed to hit the Moscow streets, so they ignore that it's winter and order ice-cream like they are twelve-year-olds after their first mission.
“Congratulations, Olga Fyodorovna,” the girls tell each other.
“Nadezhda Yurievna, congratulations.”
“And to you, Natalya Alianovna, we add birthday congratulations.”
“Idiots,” Natasha says with a grin, and bumps her shoulder into Nadya's.
Chapter 14: eighteen
contains: memory loss/confusion due to psychological abuse, brainwashing
“What is your name?”
“What is your name?”
“I...I don't. I can't-”
“What is your name?”
“I can't remember. I don't know. I don't know.”
“Calm down. We know what your name is. You are Natalya Alianovna Romanova. Say it.”
“I am Natalya Alianovna Romanova.”
“Today is your birthday, Natalya Alianovna. You can sit, if you want to. There. This is more civilised, isn't it?”
“...yes. It is. Thank you.”
“As long as you are loyal to the Revolution, we will be kind. But if you have doubts again, we won't be. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I do.”
Chapter 15: nineteen
contains: violent death of a child
Iosif Drakov is a traitor to the Revolution. Iosif Drakov is a traitor with two bullets in the back of his head; it's an execution, but Romanova wishes his blood hadn't splattered all over his lovely books.
(why today why my birthday why today why today)
(go back to sleep you didn't see this you didn't I won't have to-)
“Cosmina?” Miruna's voice is getting high and panicky. “Papa, papa, Cosmina, what did you-”
Romanova pulls the trigger and
(I'm sorry, I'm so sorry)
Drakov's five-year-old daughter crumples to the floor.
“Shit,” says Romanova.
Her handlers won't be pleased.
Chapter 16: twenty
She can't sleep. Won't, maybe, but what Natasha says is that she can't, and Gala just nods like it's the truth. Natasha has her head on Gala's lap, and the other girl is stroking her hair. Natasha doesn't say anything when her fingers run into knots; the movement is soothing anyway.
“Quickly, let's be quiet.” Gala sings the lullaby in French, like Natasha is a small child. “Let's walk noiselessly/ It's the night watch.”
Natasha's hands won't stop shaking. She's crying and can't fucking stop, but Gala is the best sister because she just keeps stroking Natasha's hair and singing.
Chapter 17: twenty-one
Today, she has been a legal adult for three years. She could own an apartment (if she had any money), sign contracts (if she had any reason to), she could even vote (if she was allowed, or saw the point).
Legally. In theory.
Away from the theoretical legalities of her existence, Natasha crunches her way through the snow towards the firing range and tries to keep her temper.
For a moment, and quite deliberately, she imagines painting snow with the blood of the Red Room staff. Then, with a long exhale, she clears her mind.
Escape requires careful, emotionless plotting.
Chapter 18: twenty-two
She arrives at her tiny Parisian garret stinking of bleach, juggling a bag and a gorgeous display cake. Cake on the table, name tag (“Sofia”) tossed into a mug with her hairpins, she turns on the tv and strips out of her uniform.
God, she hates being a maid.
The cake is chocolate with thick icing and pink roses. The cake is old, tastes of dust; she tries not to get metaphorical about it.
“Years of academy training wasted," wails Buzz Lightyear on the tv.
"I know exactly how you feel," Natasha mutters, and pours herself a shot of vodka.
Chapter 19: twenty-three
The man is watching butterflies, and Natasha can't see the fascination – they're delicate, pretty, not inclined to live long. It's morbid.
(There's the attraction, she supposes.)
She walks up to him and she's done her research, unbuttoned her tight blouse provocatively, but he just motions for her to stay still. She complies because she doesn't want to spook him, and a butterfly lands on her hair.
She smiles, all wide-eyed and awestruck even as the giant butterfly glides away and the target comes closer.
She turns, slices the artery in his thigh, and leaves the man with his beloved butterflies.
Chapter 20: twenty-four
“I'm homesick,” says Frances, who is American and far from home in a gay bar in Berlin. Natasha's not even lying, because she does miss her Red Room sisters.
She also doesn't want to remember it, so she takes another drink as Ada runs a hand up her arm.
Rationally, she knows that Ada is probably not going to kill her. The woman might be bad in bed, but...
But Natasha's been the pretty girl in a bar too many times herself to ignore her instincts.
She says, “I can't do this,” and leaves Ada staring as she slips away.
Chapter 21: twenty-five
There are not many people who turn up to Schönbrunn Zoo in the middle of January, but Romy Neudorf is a drifter, whimsical: it's the kind of thing she would do. Natasha likes being Romy, and she strolls around in combat boots, purple stockings, a multicoloured coat that is faintly ridiculous.
Safe in her artsy shield, Natasha lets her gloved hand trail over railings and, sometimes, she spins, takes a corner dramatically, stands with her feet poised like the ballerina she always wanted to be.
Then she smiles and rushes ahead to look at the otters, just because she can.
Chapter 22: twenty-six
She tries not to kill on her birthday, but a contract is a contract is fifty grand wired to her bank account. So today she's finding her target, and then it's 'oops, sorry, sir,' and he's glaring after a red-haired girl in a crowd, rubbing his arm where she bumped him.
By the time he's dead, she's on a plane.
By the time the widow has finished lying to the police, Natasha's sitting in a theatre three countries away, dressed in grey silk with amber studs in her ears, waiting for the curtain to rise for Giselle's first act.
Chapter 23: twenty-seven
“Nadya's dead. I'm getting drunk,” Olya says, and walks into Natasha's hotel room.
“Hello to you, too,” she says, not quite processing the news as she locks the door.
Olya saunters over to the kitchenette, grabs two glasses and pours out the vodka.“Interpol,” she says, tossing her glass back. “They fucked up, she's dead. And her boyfriend and the kids. Motherfucking Interpol.”
Natasha stares at her, feeling sick. Then her eyes narrow. “Olga Fyodorovna, what are you planning?”
“I'm going to kill them. Care to join me, Natalya Alianovna?”
“This is a bad idea.” She drains her glass. “Yes.”
Chapter 24: twenty-eight
Nadine Rommel's Swedish cabin is the closest thing Natasha has to a home. She's been here for weeks and now it's a cell; she has an urge to go outside and run.
It's snowing, and she's not a fool, so she grabs her book and curls up on her bed in a nest of quilts.
In her book, the Fellowship of the Ring is breaking, and her eyes blur.
Asya vanished in '98, Gala in '03 (rumours of SHIELD), Nadya's dead by her own hand, Olya's got a death-wish masquerading as revenge.
The Fellowship is broken, and she's not crying.
Chapter 25: twenty-nine
Natalie Rushman: ex-pat cocktail waitress, occasional model when she needs the money (her SHIELD watchers must get a kick out of that), and most certainly not a Russian assassin.
This is a second chance, but Natasha's sitting in a dark Tokyo kitchen at 1AM eating noodles and stinking of alcohol, bruised by handsy customers.
Maybe SHIELD could relocate her, if asked.
(She hates having to ask.)
She washes her bowl, but she can't clean the blood from her hands. Can't repay what she owes.
Working for SHIELD would clear her ledger, she thinks. It'll be her birthday resolution.
Chapter 26: thirty
“I'm just saying, Nat,” Barton says, signing off another page, “you could have been a computer programmer in Tel Aviv.”
“Computer programmers in Tel Aviv don't have paperwork?” Romanoff arches her eyebrows at him.
“They don't have twenty-two pages of after-action forms to fill. And, uh, there's cake. Chocolate.”
“Yes. For you. It's in the common room.”
“That's what...people do on birthdays. Normal people. Or so the rumour has it.”
“Is it poisoned?”
“Possibly,” he allows after a pause.
“Yeah, well. Agents.”
“Tel Aviv wouldn't have poisoned cake,” Romanoff says simply. “I like it here.”
Chapter 27: thirty-one
Clint isn't here for her birthday. He's here for her couch, some expensive Chinese and cheap beer, and a crappy action movie. In Chicago.
(He doesn't live in Chicago.)
She's amused, happy in a quiet way, but the movie doesn't have enough explosions. Without thinking too much about it, she says, “You want to have sex?”
“Yes. Wait, is this a trick question?” he asks, eyeing her.
Natasha smiles, crawls over to straddle him. “No. I just want to.”
His hands slide up her thighs and the only tension she feels is the hum of desire. So, she kisses him.
Chapter 28: thirty-two
The best hotel in Murmansk calls itself 'your home at the top of the world', which is patently untrue. They are merely within the Arctic Circle, and Romanoff's actual home is far more...homey.
She needs to get home before boredom scrambles her linguistic abilities any further.
“I am freezing my balls off,” Olson mutters as he locks the door behind him, and Koskinen snorts with laughter.
“It's okay, no one will be able to tell,” she says, and Romanoff thinks that if they start arguing again, she's going to kill both of them.
It will be worth the paperwork.
Chapter 29: thirty-three
To Natalie Rushman, there is nothing special about today. She (twenty-five, Libra, Chicago-native) is having Friday drinks with her co-workers (because, lawyers; Friday drinks are sacred) when a blue-eyed man walks up to her and turns on the charm.
He says his name is Jason, and she is totally taking him home.
She shuts the door behind them and Clint pushes her up against it, kissing her with a muttered, “Jesus, 'Tash, how do you walk in those shoes?”
Natasha smirks, nips his bottom lip and then looks him straight in the eye.
“Maybe I'll keep them on.”
Chapter 30: thirty-four
Arlington in January is miserable. Not that there is any weather particularly suited to funerals, but there are grey skies and biting cold. Romanoff keeps her hands in her pockets, and forces herself to watch as Olson's coffin is lowered into the ground.
There'd been shots fired in salute; her ears are still ringing, her heart still beating too fast, but the danger has passed. The danger was somewhere else.
Today the shots were fired in tribute, but she looks at Olson's husband and their daughters, and all she can think about is the bullet that went through Olson's head.
Chapter 31: thirty-five
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“In my defence, it was Pepper's idea.” Stark is torn between looking apprehensive and smug.
“What?” Natasha manages. And then, “How?”
“Coulson's cellist has connections. Very impressive connections. I wonder if I can steal him-”
Rogers cuts Stark off, shoves the CD case into her hands. “The second disc is everyone rehearsing, and on the third track, you can hear him speak.”
Volgograd Philharmonic Orchestra, says the cover, and she's never letting it go.
She can hear her father play again. Hear his voice.
“Thank you,” she says; it's all she can say.
Clint kisses her temple. “Happy birthday, Nat.”
The Volgograd Philharmonic Orchestra was in reality founded in 1987; given by my timeline Natasha would have been ten, I've taken some creative licence. Coulson's cellist being a guy comes from the excellent fic So, How Was Your Day?, which has been adopted as headcanon (and Coulson Is Not Dead, Dammit.)
Thank you so much for reading!