She doesn't remember her childhood before the Red Room. There’s a few scattered memories like burned photographs inside her consciousness, but nothing else. Fluorescent lighting and her father’s face, hazy lights through a frosted window.
What she does remember is ballet. Shoes, ribbons, leotards and Madame B’s harsh voice. Her training, splinters biting into her palms and knees, actions that become reflexes. She remembers the cold of the handcuffs around her wrist at night. She remembers smoking her first cigarette. She remembers Varvara, giggling in the dark. She remembers the snap of Varvara's neck under her hands.
Then, when she tries to run away in Prague after a mission, she doesn't remember anything after metal clamping around her head and electricity screaming down her spine.
She does remember fractions of missions. Gunpowder, blood, screaming, thick, oily smoke scarring the sky.
She remembers Soldat, too. Her partner, sometimes. She thinks she loved him at night, when they were together in a creaky hotel room and their handlers had left the room.
They curled around each other like shadows and whisper languages they both know. One day Natalia murmurs a word of English and Soldat lets a stream of fluid syllables out of his mouth. Natalia freezes, and lifts herself up to look at him. He stares back, and speaks in English again.
“Sorry,” he says, and has an accent.
“Shush,” Natalia tells him in Russian, and the handler comes back in from the ice machine.
She comes back to herself sometime later, when she looks older and her hair is longer, down to her waist.
When she is meant to be taking a shower after a mission, she strips and stares at herself in the mirror. Twisting this way and that, she supposes she is attractive. That must be why she’s such a good soldier.
Long, lean pale skin, red hair, green eyes. She leans closer and peers into her face.
Her handler knocks on the door and yells for her to hurry up. Natalia sticks her head under the water and wraps a towel around herself.
“Coming,” she says and leaves another longing glance at herself.
She’s gone many places, more than most, she supposes. She’s been to all of Europe, Morocco, Japan, Australia, South Africa. She’s never been to America. She’d like to go one day. She still remember's Soldat’s accent.
She wonders more now. She probably shouldn't but she still does.
“Where did you take me from?” she asks Madame one day. They’re in the classroom, it’s late. This classroom used to be filled with her peers. All those girls are dead now.
Madame cocks her head. “Take you from?”
“Who is my family, where was I born, how did you get me?” she lists, and hopes she won’t be killed for asking these things.
“All that doesn't matter, Natalia,” Madame tells her. “You should sleep. It’s late.”
It’s time she finds out who she is.
She gets ready to leave like she would any other day. They've given her her own room, although it is bugged to high heavens. She slips on her civilian clothes like she would normally wear and ties a scarf over her hair.
She breaks out not in the middle of the night, but late summer afternoon where the light is failing fast but it’s not overly suspicious for her to be out and about. She tips her head at every guard she walks past and keeps an even pace. I am not running away. I am not running away, she repeats to herself, I am just taking a stroll.
She keeps that up until reaching the barbed-wire fence that circles the facility. She winks at the security camera and slips mini bolt cutters out of her pocket. She still has three minutes and twenty-two seconds until the guards come around again. She cuts the fence and slips under.
Natalia hikes through the forest then walks along the path to the nearest town. They will be after her soon, if not right now.
“Need a ride?” a rough voice calls out to her. It’s a farmer, in a beat-up, mud splattered pickup truck.
“Yes, sir,” she says, and climbs into the passenger side of his car. She braces her arm on the open window and smiles at herself in the side-window.
From there, it’s easy. a few trains, some help from strangers, and within a week she is in Moscow.
The first thing she does is go to the Russian State Library. “Can I help you?” a voice asks. It’s a librarian with mousy hair scraped into a bun and glasses perched on her nose.
She opens her mouth, and remembers to speak Pусский. “Yes. Do you have any records?”
“A few old ones from years ago.”
“Can I see them?”
She spends the entire day in those archives, inhaling books and dust with every noseful.
She knows her name is Romanoff. Or at least that's what they called her. So, she starts with that. 213 Romanoffs in the history of Russia.
It’s a day and a half until she finds him. Ivan Romanoff
A name. That's it. No marriage records, no parents, children.
She spends the rest of the day asking around about Ivan Romanoff. It turns out, from a gossipy teenager that looks up from her flip phone and blows a pink bubble with her gum, that he was an enemy of the state. She gets from a man in an alley that deals in information, he was killed in 1941. She gets more over the next day, and the one after that. Finally, she knows all of it.
Ivan Romanoff, born in 1908. From Moscow, he was a home-grown political activist that fought communism. In 1939, he was jailed without trial and executed in 1941. His family was all killed. He had a wife, Maria. And a daughter.
That’s who she is.
The daughter of a dead man.