January 13th, 2003, Volgograd, Russia
Natalia Alianovna Romanova, daughter of Lila and Dmitry Romanova, was born at precisely 3.04 am on a dark, cold morning in January.
She was born at the family home with the help of a kind elderly neighbor. Her father was nowhere to be seen.
She came into the world kicking and screaming, already fighting for life.
Natasha took a long time to come, exhausting her mother in the process. But as Lila held her baby daughter, stroking over the soft tuft of red hair at her head, she knew she would never again see something so absolutely perfect in all her life.
Not even the door slamming open, nor the shouts and curses, nor the way Dmitry stared down at her little angel could ruin that moment.
Lila knew she would give her life willingly for the small, sleeping bundle in her arms.
In fact, as it turned out, she would.
2nd March, 2006, Volgograd, Russia
Natalia sat by the roaring fire, laying down on a threadbare carpet a few feet from the flames. Her hands lay pillowed under her head and her always curious face tilted up at her mother, sitting in the rocking chair.
The little redhead listened intently as her mother told her story about a young girl trying to get to her grandma’s house safely.
They were just getting to the end, when the woodcutter comes to save the day from the nasty wolf, when the door slammed open and Dmitry walked in.
Lila didn't look up, calmly and quietly finishing the story, closing the book with a flourish.
Natalia clumsily pressed her palms to the floor, pushing herself up from where she'd been laying. She already knew not to look directly into her father's face and her ever wide green eyes stayed on her mother's face instead.
Dmitry stalked forward, ripping the book from Lila's hands, examining it distastefully. "Who gave you permission to buy this?" He spoke in English, accent thick and heavy.
Lila finally looked up from her hands, her beautiful face pale and her chin wobbling. "No one." She said quietly, accent just as heavy.
"I didn't think so," Dmitry sneered, "no one gave you permission because that is my money. To spend how I want. You don't go out and fucking work, I do. I decide if that little brat gets anything." His voice rose in tenor.
Lila could see those intense green eyes watching from the carpet and she swallowed the lump in her throat.
"Did that little bitch ask for this?" He waved the book around in the woman's face.
Lila flinched and rapidly shook her head. "No, I saw it and I thought she might like it. It was my decision."
It hadn't been, in fact.
They had been walking through the market that morning, their one task to collect food for Dmity's dinner that evening. They walked past the toy stall, they always walked past the toy stall.
But Natalia had stopped still and tugged gently at her mother's hand. She was pointing at a book at the front of the table, her mouth popped open in awe.
The book was red and gold, clearly not new, but also not in bad condition either.
Lila, already knowing this wasn't allowed, let Natalia pull her over to it.
The little girl didn't have any books and the only toys she had were ones the neighbor who had helped with the birth had given her before Dmitry stopped her coming around.
Natalia was already such a clever girl and longed to learn more. Her fingers ran over the cracked leather cover and Lila, knowing she would get into a lot of trouble, couldn't stop herself from buying it.
It hadn't been expensive but it had still been money taken away from the food budget.
They'd gotten home and had spent the whole day reading, story after story. They thought they had more time, Lila desperately wanted to finish the book so they could hide it. But they ran out of time and Dmitry had come home early.
Now he held the book in an outstretched hand, lips pulled back in a cruel smile as he made sure Natalia and Lila were watching. With their gazes on him, he dropped the book.
Into the flames it went, orange and red immediately engulfing it, smoke rising as the leather burned.
Unable to really understand, Natalia began to cry softly. She never cried loud. She tried to never cry. Crying was bad.
Lila moved quickly, picking the girl up and settling her against her hip. She immediately began to sing softly in Russian to the trembling girl, something soft and old.
From across the room Dmitry snarled, taking two big steps to reach them.
"What did I fucking tell you about speaking English?" His hand went around Lila's throat and Natalia tumbled from her arms.
She landed heavily, one arm bent at an unnatural angle. Too shocked to cry now, those bright green eyes watched as Dmitry dragged Lila against the wall. Her mother's face grew red and her eyes lost their light as he choked her.
Just before she passed out, he threw her to the floor.
She took a rasping breath and then he was on top of her, hands flying out, hitting and hitting and hitting.
Natalia watched, cradling her broken arm, tears drying on her cheeks, as her father beat her mother unconscious. Again.
7th April, 2008, Volgograd, Russia
Natalia slept on and off that night, tossing restlessly. The dark pressed in on her, the tree outside her room tapping against the window in the wind, the male voice in the living room rising and rising.
It ended as it usually did, with banging and clattering and choked gasps and pleading words falling on long deaf ears.
It ended with silence, her mother either unconscious or unable to speak.
It usually ended with the sounds of the TV as her father watched or the footsteps as he went to bed.
That night the footsteps stopped outside her bedroom door, light flooding in and illuminating Dmitry.
Natalia, already awake with her hands clamped over her ears, sat up in bed.
Her father said nothing, just stalked towards her, closing the door and leaving her in near darkness once more.
The girls chest felt tight and her eyes burned with the effort of pushing back tears. A single shaky breath escaped her lips as his weight settled in the edge of the bed.
Convinced he was now going to hit her, Natalia flinched heavily and tried to use her feet to push herself back.
An iron grip on her ankle stopped her in her tracks. Dmitry pulled, hard and fast, and Natalia flew down from the pillow, flat on her back.
The girl whimpered as the fingers slid up her calf, wrapping around her hip. His weight shifted as he moved, throwing his legs over her waist.
His hands pinned hers to the mattress, her old broken arm injury burned. It had never healed properly.
His waist pushed hers down, his fingers sliding up her pajama shirt.
Natalia stared up at the ceiling, face turning blank, eyes emptying.
She tried to leave her body that night, and every night that followed.
25th May, 2009, Volgograd, Russia
When Natalia heard footsteps outside her room that night, she shuffled to lay down in the bed, eyes already on the ceiling. She forced her heart to calm, her mind to white out, in preparation.
But as the light flooded the room, the girl saw that it was her mother.
She rushed to the bed, throwing on her bedside light. It was very late but Lila was still dressed in her day clothes and she had a bag slung over her shoulder.
"Get up, Natalia." The woman urged, rushing around the room. "Where are your shoes?"
Natalia rubbed her eyes, brows pulling together. "What's happenin'?" She whispered as she pointed at her shoes.
Her mother quickly knelt to shove them onto her feet. "Get up, put your coat on." Lila told her.
Natalia clambered out of bed, confused as she pulled her coat from the wardrobe. "Mama?" She asked softly.
Lila stopped in her tracks, cupping Natalia's face in her hands. "We're leaving. Is there anything you want to take with us?"
Not completely understanding, thinking she meant that they were going for a walk, she hesitated. "Bunny?"
Lila nodded, dropping to her knees and shuffling under the bed. She pulled up the broken floorboard, taking the stuffed white bunny from its hiding place. After the book, she had gotten creative. She'd taken small amounts of change at a time, hidden it until she'd had enough and then bought the raggedy little thing. Natalia loved it.
She pressed the bunny into Natalia's hand, taking the other and rushing from the room.
They moved through the living room, through the hall and to the waiting door.
They were right there, so close, not close enough.
Dmitry stepped into view, eyes thunderous and expression a veritable storm.
Lila wheeled back, the bag sliding from her shoulder to the floor. She held Natalia behind her as she backed up and away from the door.
Dmitry moved with them, each step heavy on the floor. "What's this? Trying to run away, huh? This is how you repay me? Feeding you and clothing you and keeping you alive."
Soon, Natalia's back hit the wall and her mother had to stop moving. "We were just going for a walk-" Lila breathed.
"With a bag full of the stuff I bought you?" Dmitry sneered. The anger wasn't the quick and burning emotion they were used to. Instead this anger was simmering and twisting and rising and somehow even more terrifying.
"Natalia, go to your room." Lila whispered.
The girl, stunned and scared, stood still where she was.
Lila shoved Natalia towards the front door but the girl still couldn't move. She stood, pressed against the wall, terrified down to her very core.
The beating was absolutely brutal.
Lila tended to not fight back but this time...this time she tried so hard.
Her gaze kept meeting Natalia's, kept trying to urge her towards the still open door.
Dmitry slammed her down like a rag doll. Her head was bleeding, her face was swollen, some of her limbs were twisted and broken, blood bubbled at her lips, breaths caught and gurgled in her throat.
Dmitry slammed her down onto her back. Her head moved around disjointedly.
Natalia couldn't understand what she was seeing; the same green eyes as her own, unseeing, staring at nothing. Still and quiet and broken.
Natalia didn't have to touch her mother to know, didn't have to see that her chest was still to know.
Her father had killed her mother.
Dmitry stalked forward, grabbed her roughly by the shoulder, picking up Lila's fallen bag and walked with her out of the door.
Bunny lay discarded next to a puddle of blood.
They spent the next four days travelling; Natalia squished into trunks of cars, hidden under seats, running and running, nothing to eat, cold and exhausted, lost.
When they arrived in America, she was to be called Natasha.
The name her mother had given her ripped away, just like the only person who had ever loved her had been.
29th May 2009-6th July 2014, Chicago, USA
Natasha Romanoff thought that everything would change. When they landed in this strange new country, the memory of her mother's broken and bloody body fresh in her mind, Natasha had foolishly thought that was it. Her father would change now. He'd killed Lila and now surely his rage was done, surely.
Despite everything that had happened, she had been foolishly naive. He didn't mention Lila again, he didn't mention that the police had been closing in even before he'd killed her. He didn't apologise. There was no switch in his behaviour, no niceness to him after the violence. No promises that he would change, no tearful begging for forgiveness. He was just hard. Always hard and full of that rage. The only difference was the way the rage came out. It was crueler now. Biting, scratching phrases and words thrown at her, full of poison. Hands sliding over her, petting her hair, moving lower and lower.
Without Lila there though, he had to take his frustrations out on someone and she was the only one left. Subjected to everything her mother had been, she was now his plaything more than she had ever been before.
Dmitry, now Daniel, had had more contacts than she knew how to understand. He'd gotten them a house with a big basement, soundproofed.
She didn't realize that until a month into their new lives.
They'd continued life much the same as they had in Russia, just with the added physical violence towards her.
But a month in things began to change.
Her father made friends easily. He met them in alleyways, bars, strip clubs and he invited them back for drinks, for drugs.
Daniel had them over a couple of times, making sure he could trust them, before he introduced them to Natasha.
It was a warm evening in June when her father first led her to the basement.
There was a small shaft of light coming from a window on one side. A mattress sat pushed up against the wall, more than big enough for two people. Or two grown adults and a child. A box sat beside the mattress. A box that contained, and Natasha would find out slowly, various objects to be used on her.
That night, Daniel let his new friends take turns with her. There were no rules other than not to hurt her pretty little face. They were allowed to do as they pleased.
Natasha fought at first, tried to scramble away, cried and cried. It turned out that the first group liked that sort of thing.
Nights passed in much the same way, at least two trips to the basement a week, and Natasha learned to leave her body like she had when it had just been her father.
Months flew by.
Natasha wasn't allowed to go to school.
Natasha, still a child, had to take birth control bought off the internet.
Natasha learned that physical pain was a good way to deal with the mental anguish.
Natasha cut herself, her body littered with marks. It didn't matter because her body was always covered with marks.
As Natasha got older, they started offering her drugs. She had no idea what they were, no idea what effect they would have, she just knew they numbed her body and mind to what was happening.
Natasha grew. She'd become the perfect daughter for Daniel.
She'd been waiting, biding her time.
She sucked up to him, she did the chores, she bought him drinks and made his food, she took the abuse and she went down to the basement when he wanted her to.
Waiting waiting waiting.
Daniel thought Natasha was his and in that time, he grew sloppy. Lackadaisical.
He'd started to let her out. She could go out the store, could go to the nearby park if he wanted her out of the way for his various dealings.
Being outside was near magical and Natasha absolutely loved it. They were the best moments of her life.
The times outside were tests, to begin with, but she played the good daughter for a year straight. She came home from her trips every single time, until he was lulled into a false sense of security.
Waiting waiting waiting.
7th July, 2014, Chicago, USA
That day, Natasha left the house. Thirty dollars for groceries in her pocket, she stepped out of that door and ran, not once looking back.