Trapped in her thoughts Natasha is barely aware of Maria padding into the room with a mug of hot tea in hand and book under her arm. The two have been living together for a few months now, after several more of avoiding the conversation. Maria settles on the sofa, back against the arm rest and resting her book against her knees. Natasha smiles fondly as she watches Maria, glad to see her partner relaxing for once. But she’s also a bit envious, her mind is wandering and seems to keep her in a constant state of alertness. Looking outside she sees the snow is falling gently once again, the calm setting is in stark contrast of the turmoil in Natasha’s mind.
The Red Rooms had left both physical and psychological reminders on her – but some were proving to be more damaging than others. While many suspected that the former assassin’s nightmares were plagued with the faces of her targets or the victims that she’s been unable to save since the avengers – they were wrong. Natasha’s most frightful dreams are plagued by laughing green eyes and a crooked, gap tooth smile under a mop of short dark hair.
Natasha can recall these memories as if they’d happened just yesterday.
The Red Room handlers bringing in a new group of girls for the next class, most were teary eyed and a few openly crying in distress. The girls ranged in age from some as old as 11 – around Natasha’s age – and others as young as 4 or 5 years old. The smallest of the girls Natasha knew wouldn’t last long, and only a few of the older ones would make it to see their next birthday as well. The Red Rooms had a way of weeding out the week before selecting the stronger candidates for the Black Widow program. Of the 28 girls in her class, Natasha is aware that only a handful of them are left. As she’s about to turn away and ignore the new girls assignment to dorm rooms she locks eyes with a curious set of green eyes.
The girl can’t be more than 9 years old, and is a thin waif of a girl. Natasha gives her a once over, noting the bruises along her pale arms and legs. The little girl offers a small encouraging smile when she sees Natasha looking at her. Natasha scowls, hoping that if she looks disagreeable enough the next class of girls will leave her alone. She finds herself annoyed with the green eyed girl and desires to shake her and ask why she’s smiling when she’s been stolen and brought to a place like this. Natasha frustratedly heads back towards the training rooms, thinking that the little girl with the bright eyes and gentle smile won’t last the night.
Looking outside Natasha sighs heavily as she looks at the gray clouds reflecting the sour mix of emotions she’s feeling at the moment. Checking her phone she’s hoping to see a message from Clint or Phil telling her that she’s need on a mission immediately. She knows it’s selfish to which for a disaster just to escape the memories and emotions that are threatening to overwhelm her. Pushing away from the window she sees Maria watching her intently. Despite her lover’s relaxed appearance and calm gaze, Natasha can tell that she’s concerned.
“Going somewhere?” Maria asks carefully, book still open in her lap.
Natasha smiles softly, not surprised that the other woman picked up on her restlessness, “Yeah, I need to go for a walk. Clear my head.”
As Natasha collects her coat and boots she hears Maria setting down her book and getting up from the couch. Within minutes the brunet has brought out a set of gloves and her favorite blue scarf. She’s grateful that Maria hasn’t asked what she does or where she goes when she disappears. If she ever asked Natasha isn’t sure she’d be able to tell her the truth, not when it would require to divulge such painful memories.
Maria wraps the scarf around her neck before tenderly drawing her in for a kiss. Natasha returns the kiss gently as Maria tucks the gloves into her hands.
“It’s freezing out, and I suspect it’s about to snow. Don’t get frostbite.” Maria tells her with teasing blue eyes and a cheeky smirk.
“I’ll be fine,” Natasha assures, unable to stop the smirk tugging at the corners of her lips. Heading out she can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt in her chest. She knows that Maria would listen and be understanding if she just explained to her the situation and the memories. Instead she swallows down the guilt as she exits the tower and hangs a right at the corner – her feet walking this path from memory. She hasn’t told Maria about her frequent walks, or the candles that she lights, because she doesn’t want to see the sorrow and pity on her lovers face. But, if she’s honest with herself she’s avoiding the pain of speaking about what’s troubling her – as if keeping them hidden means these experiences were a little less real.
In the tower Maria has gotten up and put on more weather appropriate clothing. Liho is doing figure eight's around her ankles as she approaches the door. Maria smirks at the cat's antics. She hadn't been too sure about Natasha's pet cat, but over the last few weeks she has to admit she's grown attached. Reaching down she feels the cat arch up into her touch, scratching gently behind her ears Maria assures, "I won't be gone long. I'm just going to find Natasha,"
Liho meows pitifully, as if begging her stay put. Maria snorts as she shakes her head, just realizing she'd been talking, out loud, to the cat. With a few last pets she drapes a scarf around her neck before quietly heading out. She and Natasha have been together for a while now and it feels like a violation of her trust to follow her. But the past few days the former KGB assassin has been more sullen and withdrawn than usual.
As a former West Point graduate and intelligence analyst, Maria was very aware of Natasha’s perchance for disappearing when the emotions seemed to become overwhelming. Where she goes and what she does is a complete enigma. At first the random wanderings seemed to calm Natasha down, giving her some control over her emotions.
At first Maria ignored it, giving Natasha her privacy, but recently the random times of the outings and the fact they seemed to bring her little solace required her to do something. Natasha had been sleeping less and when she did sleep Maria could tell that it was often plagued by nightmares. Concerned, Maria rounds the corner and sees Natasha’s red hair and her navy pea coat up ahead of her by a couple blocks. Keeping an unhurried pace she follows her. Natasha may be the best at espionage, but Maria Hill was no push over when it comes to discreetly tailing someone. From here she can tell that Natasha is somewhat distracted.
The red head wraps her coat tighter about her wondering how she got so used to the warm, temperate climates. Walking a bit quicker she weaves between the people on the streets. Even with the memories that continue to flood over her she’s still hyper aware of her surroundings. Turning a corner she pulls out the gloves and tugs them on with shaking fingers as she’s hit with another memory.
Natasha is genuinely surprised that the small girl has not only managed to last the night but makes it to a month mark. She’s been moved to sleep in a bed adjacent to Natasha’s and the red head finds that she’s trying hard to not be nice to her – despite how the younger girl’s smile is disarming and honest. But she finds it hard to care about the other girls when someone is always getting caught breaking a cardinal rule. There were several of them that they’d all learned by heart, but a few were more important than others – such as never disobey an order. If one of the handlers or instructors gave you a command you followed it. The consequences for not doing so were at best a painful, brutal beating as a reminder of your place, or at worst a prolonged, painful death as a reminder to others that you are all replaceable.
On this particular morning one of the girls that came in with Green Eyes had broken this cardinal rule during a training match. The small blonde girl had started to cry and refused to kill another one of the girls that was injured in their sparring match. The handler had quickly drawn the hand gun and shot the injured girl in the head before dragging the small blonde towards the atrium – calling the other girls to follow.
Natasha watched as the older man brutally flogged and beat the small girl, leaving angry, bloody welts on the small girls back. No matter how many times she’d seen a public display of punishment her heart still ached. Stealthily looking over to the messy mop of dark hair, she sees Green Eyes watching in silent terror. The girl’s eyes are filled with tears she fights to hold back, small fists clenched by her sides as she does what’s required of them. Within the hour the blonde girl no longer cries or puts up resistance, her blue eyes are dull with pain and something that Natasha things is resignation. Broken. When the handle draws his gun the critically wounded girl doesn’t even flinch.
Natasha swallows the lump in her throat even as she continues to watch the execution, hoping that it will be a long time before she has to see the same look of terror on Green Eyes face. Much more she hopes that she never has to see the smaller girl, broken and resigned to death.
Natasha rounds another corner and sees the large, imposing façade of an eastern orthodox church. Walking a bit quicker she heads through the gate and the courtyard before ascending the steps. The sky continues to darken as the wind picks up, sending pangs of freezing cold air against Natasha’s skin – as if the coat was paper thin. Opening the doors Natasha enters quietly, she’s been here dozens of times by now.
Natasha doesn’t consider herself religious but she does have bits and pieces of memories from before the Red Room. Memories that are warm and comfortable where the touch of another person didn’t bring pain, and when religious icons and the sights and sounds of Christmas didn’t twist her stomach into knots. Quietly she notices that there are priests and parishioners in the main part of the church their voices blending together in recitation.
Cursing silently Natasha just remembers that she’d wanted to avoid coming during evening vespers – she not only wanted to avoid people but she wanted to respect their evening recitations. She wished the soft sounds of pray and worship comforted her like it did the parishioners that lined the pews, but she knows there is no god. She could cannot reconcile all she’s experienced with the existence of a kind and loving god. The soft hymns they sing and heavy scent of incense hanging in the air sets her nerves on edge, but she came here with a purpose.
Silently she moves towards an alcove where long, thin beeswax candles are standing reverently. A few of the candles are lit before a rendering of Christ on a crucifix, a few more have been lit in front of depictions of various saints that she fails to recognize. Natasha knows that lighting the candles is a somewhat sacred practice for Eastern orthodox practitioners and that it was generally a time of prayer and thankfulness for salvation.
But that’s not her purpose for being here. While other church goers have lit candles for their blessed saints and prayed earnestly for forgiveness for sins, or in thankfulness for their redemption her presence here was different – different but no less meaningful. She never says a prayer or kisses the icons like the others. Rather, like she’s done in various churches throughout the world, she lights a single candle and hopes that the soul she’s lit it for has finally found peace. Taking a calming breath Natasha removes her gloves and steps up to an array of candles as she wills herself to pick up a lighting stick. Her hands shake as her stomach twists uncomfortably. Natasha doesn’t notice that Maria has finally reached the church and has taken up residence in the foyer. The agent’s blue eyes watching her every move with growing confusion and concern.
Carefully, Natasha lights a single candle, watching as the flame grows strong enough to stand on its own, flickering softly in the dimly lit room. She doesn’t recall how many candles she’s lit just like this one, but somehow she still doesn’t feel like she’s fulfilled her promise – that somehow she will never be able to. Tears sting in the corners of her eyes as she remembers the night she made the promise.
Natasha watches quietly as Green-Eyes slip off the cuff that keeps her linked to the bed frame, silently she gets out of bed and walks towards the balcony at the end of the room. Looking around carefully Natasha gets up and follows, picking the lock on the cuff with a hair pin. Thinking about the bitter cold weather outside, she picks up the blanket off her bed. Watching carefully she sees the small girl climb up on the edge of the balcony rail and sit down. The height alone would deter most of the other children but Green Eyes doesn’t seem to be disturbed. A floorboard barely creaks as Natasha moves closer and the younger girl turns to look at her quickly. Green Eyes calmly watches her move out of the shadows and into view, she doesn’t even bother to hide the doll she has clutched in her hands.
“You know, we aren’t supposed to have personal items,” Natasha says quietly, not sure what she’s trying to accomplish with this.
“So, turn me in.” Green Eyes answers stubbornly, the air hanging between them. It wasn’t uncommon for other girls in the program to try and eliminate the competition in hopes of prolonging their survival.
“You know what they do to the girls who break the cardinal rules?” Natasha asks, more rhetorically than anything else. Examining the doll she notes that it’s a representation of a gypsy girl with a dress of traditionally colorful fabric. She’s not sure if she’s concerned or impressed that Green Eyes has managed to hold onto such an item for so long.
The other girl nods somberly, “Tortured and then killed. That’s what happened to Bepa a few weeks ago.”
Natasha remembers the little blonde, but realizes that she never really found out her name. But it was easier that way. You could be called upon to watch the girl you ate breakfast with be mercilessly abused and killed – or even worse is you could be the one asked to end the life of one of your comrades. It’s just easier if the other girls remained faceless, but Natasha’s heart refuses to accept these facts. She feels a pang of regret for not remembering the name of the girl that she killed during practice a few weeks ago. Swallowing down the guilt she stands quietly in the snow.
Green Eye’s soft voice breaks her from her reverie, “I think it’s a fate I can deal with, we will all die one day. At least being tortured and killed now is less painful than living out the rest of my life as a product of the Red Room.”
"You may be right,” There’s a sadness in Natasha’s voice that she doesn’t recognize. But as she thinks about surviving the Red Room, becoming the Black Widow, it isn’t really a win but at least she’d get to have a life. Sighing Natasha climbs up beside Green Eyes and untangles the blanket and wraps it around herself and the younger girl.
“What’s your name?”
“Natasha,” she answers hesitantly, not sure what the smaller girl wants.
Giving the older girl a small smile she says, “That’s a pretty name.”
After a few moments Natasha gives up trying to avoid the human connection that she has so desperately desired since she was brought to this forsaken program, “What’s yours?”
The two sit in silence for a while, sharing the blanket and body heat as they look up at the stars. Timidly Mischa looks up at Natasha solemnly and asks hesitantly, “Natasha, can I ask you something?”
Natasha hums in reply, waiting patiently for the question.
"Would you remember me? I mean… Well, to be honest I’m not going to make it out of the Red Rooms alive, but you’re the best one here. I was just wondering if maybe you’d think of me from time to time, or light a candle for me at a church.” Mischa stammers out quietly, looking down at the ridged ceramic smile and the unseeing painted on eyes of the doll. Her fingers trace over the face of doll as she says quietly to no one in particular, “I don’t want to just die and it be as if I was never here at all.”
Natasha contemplates this and knows that very few girls make it to her age, much less get any older. She also knows that Mischa isn’t like the other girls, she was much more gentle hearted and unwilling to hurt others. Eventually Mischa will become a victim of the Red Room and there’s no sense in denying it. But the way Mischa looks so calm as she contemplates what her life will have meant – a nine year old thinking about being one of the lost souls that no one knew existed – causes Natasha’s heart to ache. Looking at the other girl whose sad green eyes are looking at her she quietly assures, “I will remember you, Mischa.”
The relief in Mischa’s eyes is enough to make Natasha want to cry. But the smaller girl offers her a comforting smile, taking her hand and squeezing it tightly. Even after they return to their beds Natasha thinks about what it means to remember someone and dreading the day that she has to find out.
Maria never expected to find Natasha in a church, but she had just quietly followed her in. The red head had obviously been here before, knowing her way around the church. Maria’s heart hitches painfully in her chest as she watches Natasha fighting with herself internal as she reached out to light one of the candles. Watching and listening carefully she sees Natasha’s shoulders heave with silent sobs, the former assassin bringing up a hand to cover her mouth. Of her bodies own volition Maria’s moving towards her, reaching out to take the smaller woman’s shoulder’s in her hands.
Natasha starts violently, starting to pull away until she makes eye contact with the brunet. Her eyes are filled with tears that have spilled down her flushed cheeks. Tenderly Maria draws her closer to her, brushing away the tears even as more take their place.
“Sweetheart,” Maria says softly, holding Natasha tighter when she feels her tremble. Natasha’s arms come up to wrap around Maria’s waist, clinging to her tightly. Maria isn’t sure what to say, or how to comfort her lover, not knowing why she’s upset. Maria presses a kiss to soft red locks and holds her for as long as she needs.
“I need to tell you something, but not here,” Natasha whispers brokenly, before admitting, “I can’t keep it to myself anymore.”
“Okay,” Maria assures, rubbing her hands up and down Natasha’s arms lovingly. She looks over at the flame of the single lit candle that has captured Natasha’s attention. Asking softly, “Do you want to go home?”
Natasha nods, reaching for Maria’s hand. The taller woman takes her hand and guides her outside. Maria leads them back towards the tower, her arm around Natasha’s shoulder. She’s concerned as Natasha generally wasn’t one for public displays of affection unless they were necessary for a mission. But it seems the red head appreciates Maria’s presence and the gentle touches. As they round the corner to the tower snow begins to fall lightly, putting a dusting of pure white on the sidewalks, street signs, and in their hair.
Once in the apartment, divested of coats, boots, and scarves Maria has gone to the kitchen to make them both hot tea to help shake off the cold. Natasha, still quiet, had gone into their room and retrieved a footlocker she kept under their bed. The one that Maria hadn’t said anything about when Natasha brought it in and put it there without so much as a comment.
Now the box sits open on their coffee table as Liho sniffs curiously at the item before meowing and jumping up onto the back of the couch. Maria gives the cat a gentle scratch behind the ears as she drapes a blanket over Natasha’s still trembling form. Collecting the mugs of tea she joins her on the sofa, setting the tea on the table before her.
In Natasha’s hands she has a leather bound sketch book, the book must be old as several of the pages have yellowed and the binding is worn from frequent use. The other item laid out in her lap is a doll. The flaxen dark hair falls in curls around the ceramic face, beautiful green eyes are painted on with care. The dolls has obviously been carefully crafted and taken care of, it’s clear the doll is precious to Natasha.
“Natasha?” Maria asks softly, she can tell that Natasha’s nervous about something. While she’s curious she doesn’t want Natasha to do something she doesn’t want to. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I only followed you today because I was concerned, I didn’t mean to invade your privacy.”
Natasha looks at her a moment, unreadable, before nodding and saying softly, “I think it’s time I told someone.”
Maria wonders what could be so damning and upsetting, she also wonders if Clint or Phil knew what it is that’s haunting Natasha. Setting her mug aside Maria lays a hand over Natasha’s, “Okay.”
Natasha opens the sketchbook and flips through the pages. There are various sketches of people and places – many that Maria recognizes as iconic places throughout Europe. As the pages go on she sees more familiar places and people – a sketch of Clint drinking coffee in his pajamas with his dog Lucky. Various avengers and shield agents caught candidly doing work. One of Maria reading by the fireplace with Liho curled up contently in the blankets with her.
“These are beautiful, Natasha,” Maria says, smiling as she looks at the sketches Natasha allows her to see. She doesn’t dare reach out to turn a page or look longer than she’s allowed, these are Natasha’s most cherished possessions. At the back of the notebook a loose leaf page that’s worn around the edge, with small tears at the corners is a sketch of a girl – no older than 9 or 10 years old.
The details of the sketch are striking, the look in the child’s eyes steals Maria’s breath away. The girl is sitting on the railing of a balcony, feet dangling over thin air, unruly dark hair whipped up in the wind. But the green eyes are starring off the page with soul piercing sadness despite the soft smile. Clutched in the drawn girl’s hands is the doll Natasha is holding. Maria looks at Natasha, noting that the tears are back again.
Maria brushes a few of the tears away, tucking errant strands of red hair behind Natasha’s ear she asks, “Who is she?”
“I’m not sure, she was one of the girls in the red room. I called her green eyes for the most part, but her name was Mischa.” Natasha tells her, voice thick with tears and emotion.
“Mischa,” Maria says softly, saying the name out loud as she looks at the drawing and then at the doll.
Natasha takes a shuddering breath before continuing, “They were bringing in girls for the next class, always trying to make the program stronger, better. I was 11 at the time when I saw them, by then I’d thought that whatever sense of friendship and affection I’d had were gone. But I saw her across the room with other scared, teary-eyed girls. She was calm, she didn’t cry like the others. Instead she offered me a small smile.”
Maria listens, hearing not just the story but the self-hatred in Natasha’s sardonic tone. “She smiled at you?”
“Yeah, the type of warm, encouraging smile you give someone when you want them to feel better.” Natasha says, then adds with a touch of anger, “There she was a dirty little kid who was just taken from her home and she was smiling at me as if to say ‘it’s going to be okay.’”
Natasha chokes back a sob as Liho meows with concern, the cat has climbed down the sofa to rub up against the women’s ankles. “I hated her at first.”
Maria’s confused for a moment, but she waits for Natasha to clarify, “I hated her because she wasn’t afraid like I was. I was 4 or 5 when I came to the red rooms, and I realized quickly that it was a mistake to get close to the other girls. By 11 I knew that most of the girls they brought in wouldn’t even make it through the selection process, much less the Black Widow program. I didn’t bother to learn names or talk with them – to me they were my competition. Every time one of them died that was one step closer I got to surviving.”
“Mischa made you feel emotions you thought you got rid of,” Maria states calmly, understanding a bit more about Natasha’s struggle with expressing emotions and the turmoil in her mind.
Natasha nods as she says bitterly, “With one curious look and genuine smile I wanted to like her, and I wanted to be her friend. But it wasn’t going to be possible, not in the red rooms. Among the numerous ways you could be eliminated from the program they had these cardinal rules – about a dozen of them. A couple of the main ones were that you never disobeyed your orders.”
“One of the last girls left from Mischa’s group injured another girl in a sparring match. The handler ordered her to kill her wounded opponent. She started crying and refused to do it. They were both killed, the injured girl on the spot and Bepa – the little girl that refused- was brutally beaten within an inch of her life. I could see Mischa, frightened with tears in her eyes, as they shot her friend.” Natasha says, even more tears silently finding their way down her cheeks. Maria has moved closer, wrapping an arm around Natasha’s shoulders and pressing a tender kiss to the red head's temple.
Maria is stunned by this revelation, but she quickly steels herself, schooling her features as she tries to comfort Natasha. She waits patiently for Natasha to continue at her own pace, “That night Mischa snuck out onto the balcony. I don’t know what compelled me to do so but I followed her. She was sitting on the railing holding a doll, as if nothing in the world scared her. I warned her about the doll – we weren’t supposed to have personal items – told her that she would end up like her friend, but she just shrugged it off.”
Natasha says, looking down at the picture she traces a finger over the rugged edges of the paper. The image of Mischa frozen in time. “She knew she was going to die in the red room, that she would continue to watch others die until it happened. And yet, she still asked me what my name was. I broke down and I asked her what her name was. Sitting there in the cold under my thin blanket, she asked me something that broke my heart.”
As Natasha breaks off into a whimper Maria runs her fingers through her hair soothingly, her heart aching that the red head had suffered so much and that the memories still continue to cause her pain. The agent would do anything to ease her lover's pain. Maria asks softly, realizing that her eyes are stinging with unshed tears, “What did she ask?”
“She asked me if I would remember her, or maybe light a candle for her sometime,” Natasha stammers as sobs overtake her. Maria quickly draws the smaller woman into her lap, feeling Natasha tuck her face against her neck. Warm tears wetting Maria's collar as she shakily says, “She didn’t want to die and for no one to remember that she existed. At 9 years old, she knew she was going to die and she just wanted someone to remember that she was a living, breathing little girl. She died just three days later.”
Natasha allows Maria to rock her slowly, stroking her back in comfort. Maria brushes away a few of her own tears as she holds onto Natasha tightly, almost afraid to let go lest she break, “So, that’s why you were at the church. Lighting a candle for Mischa.”
“I’ve lit hundreds, maybe even thousands, but it still doesn’t take away the guilt I feel because I lived and she didn’t.” Natasha cries out, the anger at her own helplessness in the moment, “I should have done something, anything.”
“You were just a scared little girl too, Natasha.” Maria tells her quickly, her voice betraying her sorrow, “Mischa wouldn’t blame you.”
“When they found the doll, I wished it was me instead of her. For the first time in years I cried myself to sleep, seeing her lifeless body every time I closed my eyes.” Natasha says, clutching the Romani doll to her chest and feeling more vulnerable than ever she tells Maria honestly, “I wanted to die, but I knew that I couldn’t. I pushed myself harder, trained every chance I got and did as they asked of me. If I died, my memories of Mischa would die with me and I couldn't let that happen.”
“We won’t forget her,” Maria assures firmly, adjusting Natasha in her arms she leans back and holds her. Adjusting the blankets the two women hold each other. “If you’ll let me, I’ll go with you and light a candle for Mischa too.”
Natasha snuggles closer, grateful for Maria’s gentle, comforting touches. Revealing such personal and emotional information has left her relieved but exhausted. With a sigh of relief she states gratefully, “I would like that.”
As the evening grows into the night Maria guides Natasha to the bedroom. The two change into pajamas as Liho jumps on the bed, impatiently flicking her tail as she waits for her owners to settle into bed. Natasha takes up residence in Maria’s arms, allowing the former director to spoon against her with Liho tucked behind their knees. Natasha sleeps peacefully that night, curled up against Maria the images of green eyes and crooked little smile don’t haunt her like they had. Not now that someone else knew that Mischa had been a living, breathing little girl.