Soviet Union, 1986
That was the first thing Natalia Romanova learned about him.
She was 11 when she got brought into the covert Soviet agency called Отдел X [Department X], together with 27 other orphaned little girls. They were about to take part in the Black Widow Ops program; a program whose main focus was on building an army of elite female sleeper agents.
People called her Natasha - the proper diminutive for her name - but it always left her feeling submissive. Rumor had it her father, whom she had no recognition of, had been of American descent. Natasha was the only girl able to understand English before they were taught to speak it by the agency. As expected, there was a lot of hostility towards her because of her potential biracial heritage.
Maybe it was one of the reasons she sided with the Американец from the beginning.
The boy's real name was Bruce Wayne; he was 14 and supposed to be the lone heir of a wealthy US industrialist couple. After assassinating his parents right in front of his eyes, the group of Widows responsible for the assault on the Waynes had taken the traumatized and catatonic boy along instead of pulling the trigger. It had, ultimately, cost all of them their lives, but the leaders of Department X eventually saw the potential.
They shaved the boy's head and put him up against the strongest and most savage instructors of a group of five boys called the Winter Soldiers. They were taller, older, and heavier than him, moreover enhanced by some super-human serum which made them near invincible in battle. Many times, Natasha watched them train out on the yard, dragging their victim through the mud, bloodied and beaten.
Still, Bruce endured.
He persisted, despite all odds and attempts at breaking his mind and body.
So did Natasha, facing all the hardships of the brutal Black Widow Program.
Over the course of the next five years, she and Bruce became friends. She would tend to his wounds after an especially brutal training session and taught him to master the Russian language. He helped her learn to drive stick shift vehicles and how to scale obstacles taller than herself.
The Winter Soldier program came to an abrupt stop when one of them went berserk, killing his four colleagues in cold blood and fleeing the compound, never to be seen again. The agency thus decided to not make the mistake of subjecting their remaining assassin to the serum.
At age 19, Bruce Wayne, codename The Bat, had grown from a frightened little boy into a superb assassin and master strategist. No one dared to call him Американец anymore, not if they wanted to live. He tackled all kinds of covert wetwork missions with the same sense of efficiency and cruelty. To his handlers and any possible outsiders, the Bat was like a machine; showing no mercy and even less decipherable feelings.
The only person he was always gentle with was Natasha.
When it was time for her to finalize her training after turning 16, she was faced with sterilizing surgery; a procedure all graduates had to endure. Removing the ability to bear children was supposed to make the Widows solely focus on their missions and turn them into merciless machines. Once Bruce found out about her upcoming fate, he went and shot all of the surgeons and doctors before they were able to lay a hand on her.
Knowing their days at the agency were ultimately doomed, the two of them left a bloody trail behind as they escaped into the night, mere weeks before the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26th, 1991.
Bruce pulled the woolen hat deeper over his ears. It had holes and was not insulated, and the cold bit right through the mottled fabric, but it was the best he had managed to scrounge up. Natasha returned from the ticket booth on the windy platform, clutching two tickets in her hand.
They had loitered around Moscow central station for a while, keeping an eye out for eventual followers and pickpocketing money to be able to buy some food and two cheap tickets to Minsk. “Half an hour until the train arrives.” He nodded and took the ticket she held out into his direction. As he brushed her frozen fingers he proceeded to take them into his own; trying to massage warmth into them.
Natasha drew back, stuffed them into the pocket of her thin overcoat, and met his youthful scowl with equal petulance. “Stop treating me like a girl.” Bruce's thin, chapped lips twisted. “You are a girl, silly.” Annoyed at his patronizing ways, Natasha swung around. “I could cut off your balls with a blunt spoon.” He followed her, a sparse grin the only indicator of the adolescent he actually was. “Not with your numb hands.”
Bruce allowed her to bump him with her shoulder as they headed towards the far end of the platform.
They spent the time huddling on a bench with rotten wooden planks, waiting for the train to arrive.
Minsk welcomed them with a giant statue of V. I. Lenin in the central square and portraits of Lenin and Karl Marx on the walls of nearly all stores or hotels they passed by. They wolfed down pancakes with fried fat and composite jelly at a cheap hostel before curling up against each other on a ratty cot, eventually giving in to their bone-numbing tiredness.
A train rattled by somewhere in the distance. Its squealing brakes woke Natasha from her light sleep. Her eyes darted around the dark premises, heart hammering in her chest as she tried to remember where she was. Next to her, there was movement and a whiff of something familiar.
Bruce sat up, his shifting allowing an unpleasant gust of cold air to seep under their thin, stale blanket.
“I wanna go home.”
It was that low, clipped tone of his which made her prop herself up and regard the shape of him. Eventually, she nodded.