In her darkest moments, she wondered if maybe she had always been like this. If perhaps, she had born heartless and broken and the red room just capitalised on that. She wondered if she would ever really be more than what the red room made her. It was in those moments that she would remember. There had been a time, in admits all of the horrors, where she had been nothing more than a little girl, marveling at the world atop kind shoulders. Amongst the pain and bloodshed there was sunlight and laughter. Reminding her that she was human, that she wasn’t born with red in her ledger.
She had spent a long time trying to build a person to live in her body. It was harder than she thought. Before, when she'd had to be someone, the red room would pull her out and shove something else in her head. They had made her a ballerina, with callouses formed through rigorous dance and hands that never held a gun but were able to dismantle it with practiced ease, and feet that never made a sound as they lifted her over the body of her partner. They had made her a soldier's wife, with a ribbon in place of a ring and a grave marked with roses in a forest covered in snow. When S.H.I.E.L.D had asked her for a name -one she could choose for herself, one that would never be anyone else but hers- she had picked Natasha.
It was an odd name for her to pick for herself. She could have chosen anything, she’d had a number of names over the years. But she had chosen Natasha. Natasha the diminutive form of Natalia. Similar but not the same. Different, but unable to exist with the original. She’d thought it poetic; and silly and sappy, and stupid really, but she had picked it all the same. In her mind, she would never be Natalia again –there was never any certainty that Natalia had ever been real to begin with- but Natalia had given rise to Natasha, Natalia allowed Natasha to be born. And wasn't that enough?
When she is shot at on a road near Odessa, she sees a metal arm and says that that was the first time she met the winter soldier, and maybe it was, but that didn't stop her reaching for little Natalia's memories as she lay bleeding out on a dusty road.
Natasha has a cornucopia of memories to comfort her; memories that are good and bad and real and hers. And yet still she clings to a memory as well worn as a child's blanket. And, like a blanket, she wraps herself in it when she is lost and scared. When the red becomes too much, or when the lies and covers become almost too much, she allows the memory to wash over her. A memory of great heights and soft laughter, a small spark of childhood and humanity in a place where there was none.
Black clad legs move in front of her. Strong and silent they never trample the underbrush, merely move it. The path they make is temporary, bushes and plants swallow the space in a matter of seconds, and she knows that if she falls behind it will swallow her too. He towers over her, just like everything else. Her mission was to shadow a ghost. To watch how a mission was carried out, how to make herself into a machine. She follows diligently, focused and cold and not at all annoyed at the stupid plants that blocked her off from the rest of the world. It happened suddenly. One moment she was trying to not to stumble over roots and the next a silver arm came down and scooped her off of the ground. She squawked at the sudden gesture -something she would never do now- and she swore she felt a deep laugh vibrate through the chest of the arm that held her. With another shift she was sitting atop broad, mismatched shoulders, marveling at the world. She remembers the feel of brown hair clutched between her fingers, and his chest against her dangling feet. She stretched and twisted with wide eyes from her new height. Everything was so small! The flora that dwarfed her moments before was like a sea around her. Bushels of blossoms reached out towards her. The sun was warm on her skin, the breeze soft through her hair and everything was just so beautiful. Joy swelled in Natalia's little eyes and heart. In that moment neither of them were killers, there was no red, no lies.They were human. A little girl full of wonder and a man who treated her with kindness.
It’s a small memory, from when she was small herself, but it has shaped Natasha in more ways that one. It proves that underneath everything Natasha was still human. The memory is comfort and joy. It is reassurance and confirmation. The memory reminds her that she had been innocent once, that she was human.
She wonders -as she bleeds near Odessa and on a bridge in Washington- if he clings to that moment as tightly as she does.
Natasha Romanov was a world class spy. She was a master in espionage, capable of toppling nations with a well placed words and bullets. She was on par with super soldiers, had survived two encounters with the winter soldier and had survived a hundred lifetimes in the red room. Natasha Romanov has done bad things, terrible things, she will be the first to admit it, but she did it to survive. Survival didn't warrant shame. She faced the things she had done and tried to right her wrongs. Natasha Romanov did not hide from her past.
Except when she did.
She was subtle about about it, he wasn't particularly forthcoming with questions and no one ever noticed that she was never alone with him. In act with Steve hovering like a mother it was rare for anyone to be alone with him. But, she had to admit, she was avoiding him. No one noticed, no one but her, and even if they did they wouldn't mention it. They all had their ghosts. She had as much reason to avoid him as anyone. What would they think if they knew the real reason she avoided him? What would become of her if they found out that the great Black Widow, the knife in the night, was afraid that he would confirm her greatest fear?
Natasha wasn't naive, she couldn't be, not with her profession. Although she clung to the memory of Natalia -based herself on her- she knew that there was the chance that she never existed. The red room had been known to, on occasion, gift them with nice memories. Ones that inspired loyalty, that gave them something to mend the broken, missing patches in their mind with. Then there was the risk that she had made the memory up herself, that it was nothing more than a child's way of coping with the horrors she had seen and committed. She had always known that there was a chance it wasn't real, she though she had accepted that. But, faced with the opportunity to find out, with a part of her past lifted from her mind and put in front of her, she found that she knew she was stupid to ever think otherwise.
What would she do, who would she be and how would she cope, knowing that the very foundation that she based her humanity on, was fake? Maybe it would be like a house; sitting on a foundation of glass normal and supported until one day it shattered and it collapsed in on itself. Or perhaps it would be like a foundation-less house? With nothing rooting it to the ground the next rain would simply, wash it away. What would it mean if that moment wasn't real? Her worst fears would come true. Could she continue being who she was, knowing that she had been born bad? Born heartless, red dripping from her. Maybe what they said was true. That the red from her ledger dyed her hair and soul, that she drowned in it every day.
No. Better she avoid him. Avoid the truth and let her continue to believe that she had been good once.
She’d been hit. Her leg bent at an unnatural angle and –she gritted her teeth in pain when she tried to move it- yep, definitely broken.
“Don’t move,” Cap told her after she called it in, “someone’s on route to get you now.”
“Ayeaye Captain.” Natasha joked. She maneuvered herself so that her back was flush against the wall and waited. It was at times like these that she was glad that she was part of a team. Of course she could have continued regardless of her injury –she’d done it before- but she didn’t have to. Not anymore at least. Here, with a team of people that cared about her, she could sit back and allow them to have her back.
A glint caught her eye a while later. “Hey Soldier,” She breathed dramatically, “you here to whisk me away from all this?” She asked with a fluttering of her eyelashes and an arch of her back that, she thought, was much like the breathy damsels in the cheesy bodice rippers Clint adored.
He stopped for a moment and grinned. “Do you ever actually walk on these missions, or do you just wait for me to carry you?” Natasha’s heart jumped a little at his meaning.
He leaned down to pick her up, his ear so close to her mouth and- “You remember?” She asked quietly. Eyes demanding the answer her voice could not.
“Of course I do.” A small and privet smile on his face. “Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?” He asked as he hoisted her into his arms, his smile a full faced smirk now.
Natasha clung to him as he carried her back to the plane. When they returned to the others Natasha couldn’t help herself. Surrounded by those she trusted and loved, there was no need to hide her happiness. Eyes wet with tears she smiled. It was real. She was real.