She is a very serious child.
Everyone says so: “What a very serious child!” They are forever asking her to smile, or trying to make her laugh with make-believe games. She finds their enthusiasm embarrassing. Grown-ups should be more dignified – not rolling about on the floor with wooden trains.
Natalia realizes all of this later, of course. She's only four, then, and doesn't know the words embarrassing or dignified – but she's certain she would have used them, if she could. She remembers a sense of deep second-hand shame, a feeling of desperation. Why didn't anyone come and tell them that they were acting like fools?
Her father never asks her to smile, or rolls about on the floor with toys. She wishes the others would be more like her father.
Natalia is stacking blocks very carefully when the adults come into the room. None of them look at her, because they're all looking at her father. He's wearing combat gear, and the hair on the left side of his head is slicked back with blood. He smells like smoke and something unnameable, sweet and dark and a little sickly in her nose.
Father is saying, “Don't be ridiculous. The only thing children are good at is disobeying.”
She remembers the conversation in Russian, the way she remembers all the vague things that happened to her when she was young, but now, she isn't sure. She thinks it might have been English, or maybe French. It was a soft language, in her father's soft voice. It's the first time she remembers him speaking.
“Your papa is here,” her teacher says, redundantly.
Natalia is trying to be imperious – she doesn't know the word yet, but that is the thing she's trying to be. She sits on her heels, her spine very straight. Father comes and copies her on the floor. His gear makes unhappy creaking noises and his metal arm whines like a broken drill.
“What are you doing?” her father asks, in Russian.
“I am building a tower,” Natalia says, “And then I am going to knock it down.”
“Why are you doing that?” her father asks.
To learn detachment, she wants to say, but doesn't know how. Sometimes, she means, you must break beautiful things, and you must not hesitate. You must learn to let go of that which is not meant for you.
“Order comes through pain,” Natalia says.
Her teacher smiles, but Father frowns. He only wears this expression when the other grown-ups can't see his face.
This is how she learns that adults are disobedient too.
Natalia lives with sixteen other girls. They're all around the same age. It's an experiment, she hears the adults say. They're trying to determine the time-cost efficacy of raising assets. Rearing the blood of the Soldat. They want to replicate her father's perfection. Father is special: he's the only one who can come out of the machines intact. Everyone else loses something of themselves between the halo and the tank.
It doesn't mean they've stopped trying. Sometimes, smoke and screaming come from the prep room when Father is out on a mission. When the room is empty, the girls dare each other to sit in the chair for a minute. Yana goes in alone and wipes herself, trying to prove that she is the Soldat's best daughter, that she can survive what other humans can't.
Yana is right: she does survive. But there isn't much left of her when it's over.
Natalia isn't afraid of the chair. It can't hurt her if she doesn't turn it on. When the staff have left the machines alone, it's the quietest place on the compound, so she sneaks into the prep room and sits in it whenever she can. The lights are always blinking lazily: drowsy monster eyes. She curls up in the chair and imagines what secret things the machines are saying to each other through their thick black cables. She imagines them singing where she can't hear, humming through the wires like metal whales.
Once, Natalia falls asleep under the halo. When she opens her eyes, the room is full of technicians and her father is bending over her, smiling in his crooked way.
“Natashen'ka,” he says. “Were you keeping it warm for me?”
They let Natalia sit on his lap while the halo sparks. His body goes rigid and he screams like he's dying.
She puts her tiny arms around his neck when the electricity stops, his big gulping breaths hot against her ear. When they retract his restraints, he touches her like she's made of spun sugar, like she'll crumble under his hands.
“Interesting,” someone says.
“Beta waves stabilized on eject,” someone says.
“We need more data,” someone says.
This is how she becomes her father's keeper.
“I like it,” Father says later. They're practising her English.
“Doesn't it hurt?” Natalia asks. Pain is good, she's been taught, but you aren't really meant to enjoy it.
He shrugs with his face, as if to say, yes, perhaps, it doesn't matter. “But,” he says, “I'm, y'know, enhanced. Remember everything. Faces, names, license plates, phone numbers – things I ain't supposed to know. It gets messy, so they take away the junk. Clean it all up.”
“That doesn't sound very enhanced,” Natalia says, and her father laughs until a handler shushes them.
“I hate it,” Father whispers, in the dark, when he's supposed to be running her through a stealth routine.
This is how Natalia learns the truth:
Her father doesn't know his name. Her father doesn't know his family. Her father doesn't know where he was born. They tell him many things: Yekaterinburg, 1957, father a lawyer, mother a nurse – but he doesn't remember. He doesn't remember anything before the arm. They tell him there was a terrible accident, a fall, a time before he lost everything. He was a good and loyal soldier, and his sacrifice has been rewarded with perfection. The perfect body, honed for a single purpose. The perfect mind, uncluttered by extraneous facts.
“It ain't necessary,” Father whispers. “I forget things. I forget their names. They don't need to wipe me.”
He's unstable, one of the technicians tells her. If he goes too long without a reset, he becomes overwhelmed. Frightened. Paranoid. It really is for the best. Order comes through pain. He forgets the suffering, after all. That's the point.
“It hurts,” her father whispers. “It hurts. It hurts so bad, kiddo.”
“Papa,” Natalia says.
She puts her little hand on his face when he begins to shake.
Natalia knows she isn't really his daughter, of course. None of them are.
She extrapolates when she realizes that all the other girls, the new girls, come from outside, from a mother and a father somewhere beyond Base. She confirms it when she sneaks a look at his file and sees that he was sleeping when she would have been conceived. Natalia looks at her face in the mirror and sees no trace of him in her bones.
It changes nothing.
The new girls, though. Natalia likes the new girls.
They're brought from all over: from Russia, but also from Siberia, from Poland, from Turkey. Some of them are orphans. Some are happy to escape their homes. Some cry in their sleep for weeks, calling out for this mother, that uncle, those sisters. Some are thin-lipped and stoic, determination running from their shoulders to their white-knuckled fists, their resolve to never show fear or discomfort.
Natalia likes Sofiya, Yulia, Anna, Elif – but she likes Yelena best.
Yelena comes from Horokholyn Lis. It is barely a forest in the middle of the Ukraine, Yelena says. It's much smaller than the compound, maybe even smaller than Base. A church, tiny farms growing sugar beets and peas, scattered ivy-swaddled houses full of squirrels, abandoned during the Great War. Yelena collected bullets instead of wildflowers. Her mother, her father, her brothers – all arrested for seditious behaviour, but Yelena is the most dangerous of all.
Yelena is an optimist.
Yelena genuinely believes in the power of the individual to change the world. Small actions, she says, performed by the right people at the right time, can change history. That is what they are doing here: changing history.
“We're learning how to kill people,” Natalia says.
“Exactly,” says Yelena.
In her head, Yelena has a whole scrapbook of good things that came from assassinations. Her favourite example is Caligua. And, she says: imagine! What if someone had killed Hitler, Tojo, Zedong – before the genocide of millions? Why, the world would have been a much better place. Yelena keeps a photograph of Lyudmila Pavlichenko under her pillow.
Natalia mostly enjoys having someone to argue with.
It's not that the other girls are meek, necessarily. It's just that when you're the eldest, when you watch over the Soldat, no one really wants to be caught disagreeing with you.
Natalia's handlers, meanwhile, are impressed by how quickly she learns. In short order, she's teaching the younger girls, and the inexperienced new ones.
They're frightened of her – because she's older, because she sleeps under the halo, because she holds the hand of the Soldat. Natalia teaches them not to be afraid. Before long, they're climbing on Father's shoulders and calling him Papa Winter. He teaches them all the ways a very small girl can kill a grown man. Natalia's favourites are those that involve the spine: slide something sharp between the right vertebrae, and respiration stops. It only requires an exposed back, and everyone trusts children.
It doesn't always go so well.
Natalia sometimes misjudges her own strength. She wrestles with Father until her muscles stand out like ropes on her skinny arms, until she can throw her own handlers. She snaps Marya's neck by accident, and they put her in a small dark room for a week. It's the quietest place she has ever been. Quieter than the empty prep room. Quieter than a stealth routine. She doesn't know if it's meant to be a punishment or a reward.
More trainers come to supplement Father's lessons. Gymnasts and ballerinas, improving their flexibility, showing them how to be light on their feet. Father has taught them to be heavy, to be immovable objects, to be walls. Learning to be light is much harder than learning to be heavy.
A woman comes to teach them about poisons. The slow, undetectable ones; the quick ones that end with frothing and convulsions; the ones that can be gathered, and the ones that must be synthesized. She teaches them to know their target's weaknesses. There is no sense in slitting someone's throat when you can accomplish the same result with an eye-dropper full of peanut oil.
An anatomist refines in detail what Father knows by experience. Here, the man says: this is the inferior vena cava, the vastus medialis, the xiphoid process. Here is where you fracture the skull if you need to them to live, and here, if you don't. This is the patellar tendon. This is what happens when it's cut.
Father is sent on more and more missions. He is replaced by new sparring tutors. They hit harder, train longer, expect more. They use real bullets. They don't wait for the slower learners to catch up. The girls who complain are disciplined. Natalia doesn't ask how; only knows that they come back lax and quiet, a strange light in their eyes. She spends her free time helping the girls who lag behind.
The handlers mutter about quality over quantity, about substandard samples, about the rejuvenating properties of forest fires.
Natalia ignores them. If anything happens, she won't be involved. She is the Soldat's keeper. Special. Untouchable.
Sometimes, Natalia thinks, she is very stupid.
The last Sunday of every month is for team games.
Today, the very advanced students are taken aside, Natalia among them. The handlers draw lots to sort out the rest. Two groups. Evenly numbered. Uneven odds. It's like any other time they stage a competition, except for that. Natalia realizes the handlers have already chosen the winning team.
The other group is blindfolded and instructed to hold their hands behind their backs. Natalia's team is given pistols. Small calibre for small hands. Natalia's pistol has a smudge of green nail polish on the plastic handle. She covers it with her thumb when she aims.
Just before the shooting starts, Yelena blindly knocks the gun from Olesya's hand, sweeping her off her feet and nearly managing a headlock before she's pulled off by a handler. Irina, on Natalia's team, refuses to shoot. Yelena takes her place, and her gun. Irina is blindfolded.
She lifts her chin in the air before she dies.
Past the praises of the handlers, above the hot wet smell of cordite and blood, Natalia can hear crashing and shouting down the hall.
“—goddamn animals, they're little girls, they're just kids, you fucking—”
Her father screams in English, in Mandarin, in Russian, and then he just screams.
The victorious team is showered with praise before they're dismissed. Natalia goes to the changing rooms. She strips out of her uniform. Showers. Gathers her things. Salutes an officer on the way to her room.
Once the door is closed, she throws up until even the bile won't come.
Yelena isn't far behind her. When she comes in, unwashed and pale, Natalia has a surge of anger under her skin. Yelena, who always sees the light in any situation. Yelena, who never disobeys orders. Yelena, who refused to die.
“How will this change history?” Natalia demands. “How does this contribute to an ideal world?”
Yelena stares at her like a dumb animal.
“Tell me!” Natalia shouts, knowing it's too loud, thinking: maybe they're busy, maybe they don't care, maybe they can't hear, maybe somewhere on the compound Father is still screaming, maybe they're killing him, and—
“I don't know,” Yelena whispers.
Natalia doesn't think any of them sleep, that night.
They wipe Father so hard he doesn't recognize any of them for two weeks.
The second Marya is caught running away. They shoot her like a dog in the yard.
Yelena tries to kill herself. They take her away, and she comes back peaceful, affectionate. Natalia brushes Yelena's wet hair out of her eyes, and strokes the back of her neck until dawn.
The clever girls are especially dutiful. No one wants to appear rebellious, or worse, weak. Everyone agrees that something has gone terribly wrong in the minds of the adults. Having weaker sisters instils a sense of justice – everyone knows this. You protect those who can't protect themselves.
Natalia used to think of it as obeying orders; as respect. You meet the eyes of your superiors. You do what your handlers tell you because you love them, because you believe in the missions. A symbiotic relationship. Everyone benefits.
After, there isn't any symbiosis. There is only compliance.
Father doesn't speak of it, and neither does she, but Natalia sees him watching.
She thinks it's a blank look, at first. A forgetting. A stepping-back, so the pain won't be as bad the next time. But his eyes follow Zoya, Ekaterina, Veronika, Yelena. Natalia. Purposeful. Searching. Like he's carving each of them into his memory. She wonders if he's forgotten the names of the ones who died. Some days, without reinforcement, he loses things. They fall out of his mind like autumn leaves.
He watches them through training, in the mess, on missions. When one of them passes him in the hall, his gaze catches. Natalia wakes up more than once, in the middle of the night, to a smear of darkness in the doorway.
Natalia kills her first man in Ostrov; her first woman in Vyborg. They send her to gather information in Polatsk, in Vetluzhskiy, in Babayevo. Most of the time, she's with handlers, but sometimes, it's with Father. She has plenty of opportunities to observe.
He always looks away when he catches Natalia watching him back.
In the end, he comes to her at dawn.
Natalia almost screams – not because she's scared, but to sound an alarm, because she doesn't recognize him. His hair is braided tightly back, dyed almost as red as hers. Even his eyebrows are red. His beard is gone, and so is the metal arm. The left sleeve of his jacket is pinned up high. There are backpack straps beneath his real arm and his stump.
“Listen,” Father says, and takes his hand from Natalia's mouth. He speaks to her in English. His quiet slurring voice. “We're on a mission together. You're meant to be my daughter. We've got to catch a train to see your mother, who's very sick. Can you cry on command?”
“Yes,” she says.
Natalia cries in the Veliky Novgorod station; little distressed hiccups, like she's trying very hard to be quiet and good. Father makes himself look worried and tired. They share a car with two elderly women who cluck over them when Father says where they're going. The one with fur on her collar gives them both a cup of tea from her travel mug, spiked with something from a flask. It makes Father cough. His portion has more rum than water.
The alcohol, the early morning, and the motion of the train are dangerously lulling. Natalia is asleep before they reach Boriskovo.
She wakes up with her head on her father's shoulder, his arm beneath her rear, carrying her on his hip like a woman. His walk is like the swaying of a ship. He smells like copper and salt and trees. She doesn't know where they are, and Father doesn't ask anything of her, so she goes back to sleep.
When Natalia wakes again, they're in the woods.
“What is the mission?” she mumbles into his shoulder.
“Ain't any more missions,” Father says.
Natalia knows this isn't true, because they're going to the woman with the papers. They always go to her before a mission, and she always makes them stop for tea. Her father grumbles, but he never says no.
“It is the rule,” the woman says. Her name is Lubov and she's very, very thin, with long hands like darting birds. “You don't whisk a girl out of the country without taking proper tea. It is not done.”
Natalia takes Lubov's tea the same as him. She copies how he drinks it. The tea is sour-sweet, lemon in the cup and sugar on the rim, snapping at her tongue.
Lubov has known Natalia's father since before she was born. Lubov speaks to him very frankly in Russian, and always asks the same questions. She never looks at Natalia, but she knows that Natalia's listening. It's a strange three-way conversation: Lubov looking at Father, Lubov speaking to Natalia, Father speaking to his tea.
“Have you learned your name?” Lubov asks.
Last time, her father said, very seriously: I am the White Death, and Lubov had laughed. This time, he flushes. He says, “That is not important.”
“Is it not.” Dry as salt. “My name is Lubov Borodina Kievich. Do you even know the meaning of it, you poor empty thing?”
“I know,” Father says sullenly. “Borodin for your father, and Kievich for your family, and your special friend might call you Lyubochka.”
“It also tells you where I am from,” Lubov says. Her eyes are wide open and shining. Natalia thinks, not for the first time, that perhaps this woman is crazy. “Where are you from, Soldat?”
“I was born in Russia,” he says, like always does, like he's speaking to a dim child. “In 1957.”
“Were you? Is that why you speak like an old novel?” Father's head comes up. So does Natalia's. Lubov shakes her black hair. “You did not know, of course. They would not have told you. No one uses those words anymore. My grandfather did, perhaps. When he was drinking. No, you are not from Russia.”
“Why do you tell me this now?” her father asks. His lip is curled in anger, like a dog.
“Because you are not going to come back,” says Lubov Borodina Kievich.
Natalia watches her father blink into his tea. Once, twice, a dozen times.
Before they leave, Lubov gives him a card, folded twice. She puts her sparrow hands on his before he can open it.
“Trouble never comes alone,” says Lubov. “Be better than them.”
They ride a rattling plane to Moscow, where they take a series of trains out of the country: Minsk, Poznań, Berlin. Between Belarus and Germany, when Father leaves her alone for several minutes, she checks the contents of the backpack. Underneath loose money, a bag of mixed nuts, and two knives, the metal arm curls awkwardly. She closes the bag quickly. Something about its lifeless fingers disturbs her.
In Düsseldorf, Father dyes his hair back to brown, and dyes Natalia's the same colour. The smell of it makes her gag until it dissipates. He chooses a disintegrating German novel from a street bookseller more bedraggled than his wares, and reads it to her from Cologne to Lille. She listens tucked under his stump, and laughs when he accidentally thumps her on the head. A sudden lightness hits her throat, like clouds blooming with colour at sunset. It's the longest she's ever been away from Base. She feels like an empty glass, filling up.
In Bapaume, they change their clothes at a second-hand shop. Natalia chooses a pale cardigan and a pleated skirt; if she keeps her head down, she's almost invisible. Just another shy little girl. Her father buys himself a slouchy hat to tuck his hair into, big amber sunglasses, and an ugly jacket. He looks like the American tourists swaggering around with their big voices and their cameras.
When she rejoins him, he stops and looks at her just a little too long, blinking quickly.
“Natalia,” she reminds him. His shoulders relax.
He murmurs “Dochenka,” and strokes her hair, but she can see the fear in his eyes.
She pretends to be asleep on the train. She catches him writing something over and over and over, slow and deliberate, on the last page of the novel.
Natalia doesn't like Paris.
She sees more traffic accidents in an hour than she has in the whole of her life. The air is rancid, thick with smog. Unfiltered cigarettes dangle from everyone's mouths, and the sidewalks are covered in still-smoking butts. She holds onto one of her father's backpack straps instead of his hand, because he needs it to swat the wrists of enterprising pickpockets. Natalia can tell people apart without looking at their clothes, because the French walk over people, the tourists walk into people, and the homeless shuffle around them, reeking of port wine and urine. A wild-eyed man tries to make them buy Eiffel Tower keychains, and screams obscenities after them as they walk away.
She wonders if maybe this is just what big European cities are like.
“No,” Father says. “Paris is special.”
Outside the sightseeing areas, the sidewalks are cleaner, more sane. Her father hunts down a map – not the ones made for tourists, with famous buildings highlighted in gaudy colours, but a bare and detailed street map. He buys tarte tropezienne from a wilting teenager nearing the end of her shift. He spreads the map out on the table. Natalia tries to avoid getting icing sugar on her skirt.
The mission is simple: hunt down a French diplomat who knows too much, and return with his ring finger. The man is in the habit of helping political refugees from war-torn countries find sanctuary. A bereaved amputee and his frightened daughter will be irresistible.
Natalia frowns. Her father is looking at the map, but he isn't reading it. He's wearing his sniper expression, everything hard and flat in his face. His right hand is a fist in his pocket.
As she watches, he pulls out Lubov's card, folded twice.
Natalia sits up straight and puts her hand on the table. Father doesn't jump, never jumps, but there's something like a flinch under his skin when he looks at her.
“Papa,” she says.
He unfolds the card under the table. It's substantially more worn and dog-eared than it was in Russia. She has to kneel on her chair and lean over his arm to see it.
You speak English with a New York accent, it says, in Russian.
And, below, a French address.
Natalia goes absolutely still.
She feels the sharp edges in her head jumble together – reorient. The diplomat dissolves. She shrugs timidity from her shoulders like discarding a shawl. The mission no longer has a target she needs to persuade. The mission has been changed.
Ain't any more missions.
They stare at each other like frightened animals. Natalia can feel the wool of her skirt pressing lines into her knees. Powdered sugar under her fingernails. She touches his wrist, tentative: then firm.
They leave the map on the table when they go.
The address on the card takes them to a village four hours outside of Paris.
(Natalia realizes her father must have planned it. He must have taken the card out in Brest, in Hanover, in Liège, when she wasn't looking – when she was sleeping. He must have looked at it so many times – trying to decide their future from Russia to France, alone, in the dark. She tries to imagine what it must be like, to not know. For the only piece of identification he's ever had to be scrawled on the back of a business card for Denisovich Lumber, Inc.
The man in the yellow house almost shuts the door in their faces.
“Lubov sent us,” Father says, in Russian and then in French, and the door stops before it latches completely.
“Borodina?” the man asks, incredulously. He yanks the door wide. He has an enormous white moustache and a gold ring in his right ear, like a pirate. In terrible Russian: “Does she not know I am retired?”
Father shrugs and opens his hand. The man rolls his eyes.
“You speak English?”
“Yeah,” Father says.
“Oh, jolly good,” the man says. “At least we don't have to bumble along in frogspeak. Get in here before the neighbours spot you. Wipe your feet.”
The man takes them through a room stacked floor to waist with books, maps, and old photographs. Natalia can tell where the man sits, because it's the only flat surface not covered in paper. Four abandoned teacups sit precariously on a stack of yellowing newspapers.
“I'm writing the definitive monograph on the Everest ascent of 1924,” the man says. “Or I would do, if persons unknown would stop battering down my door every year or so. I swear to Christ, you do one stint of forgery to pay your uni bills, and it's, Deacon, won't you whip up a birth certificate, Deacon, be a dear and smuggle my cousin out of the country until the ends of the bloody earth—”
When Natalia glances at her father, he's wearing a very tiny smile on his face.
Deacon grumbles all the way to the kitchen.
He's taking multiple photographs of Natalia for her false identification – with her hair up, her hair down, her jacket on and off – when a black woman appears in the doorway, fists on her hips. She has wings of silver at each temple, swooping back behind her ears.
“I'll fire up the laminator, shall I?” she says drily.
The woman turns to Father. She looks him up and down. “Alors! You're a strong one. Are you afraid of bees?”
“No, ma'am,” Father says.
“Come on, then. Tout suite. Those hives should have been moved hours ago.”
Father looks at Natalia, who nods. She could handle three of Deacon, even if he wasn't half-crippled by arthritis. Besides, she can see the hives through the kitchen's big glass door: squat white towers in the middle of the field.
“I only have one arm, ma'am,” Father says, but he follows the woman outside all the same.
The woman makes a rude noise, and then the door shuts.
“My wife,” Deacon says, after a moment. “Colette. What's your name, then? And what's your birth date?”
“Natalia,” she says. “I was born on November 22, 1991.”
“And your dad?”
“He doesn't know.”
Deacon's pen comes to a halt. He peers at her over his spectacles.
“His name,” Deacon says slowly, “Or his birth date?”
Natalia shakes her head.
There is an awkward pause.
“Well,” Deacon says, “I suppose that...does make it easier for him to be a new person. How about you?”
Natalia shrugs with one shoulder. “Who do you want me to be?”
By the time Father comes in, Natalia and Deacon are playing belote, adapted for two people. Deacon has beaten her four games out of five, and she thinks he'll beat her this time too. Father sits next to Natalia at the table and squints at her cards. She reaches up to touch his face, where a single bee sting is blooming on the point of his cheekbone.
“My name is Virginia,” Natalia says. “Your name is Michael Carr.”
“Okay,” Father says. He leans back. She can hear him repeating the names under his breath. She wonders how often she'll have to remind him.
When Colette comes in, her eyes follow Father. Natalia wonders what they talked about, to make her watch him so strangely. A few minutes later, though, it's as if nothing happened at all. Colette assembles a heaping platter of sandwiches, and ropes Father into making coffee the French way: espresso beans and more milk than coffee. He looks bewildered, but he's lost his deerlike wariness and the tension under his jaw. Natalia smiles, watching them – Father fumbling with the press, one-handed; Colette berating him cheerfully in a melange of French, Dutch, and her version of Deacon's odd, clipped English.
Lunch is followed by serious discussion.
“Right,” Deacon says, swivelling around on his chair, “How do you two feel about backyard surgery?”
When Father says nothing, Deacon adds: “Because if you come from where I think you've come from, you are riddled with trackers, lad.”
“Not me,” Father says. “Won't keep. They put them in—” He gestures at his backpack.
“I have one here,” Natalia says, pointing at the notch of her throat, “And here, and here,” at her left forearm, her right knee. When Colette stalks over, Natalia shows her the little white scars.
“Tch,” Colette says. “I can take them out easily, so long as they haven't drifted.”
“Yes,” Natalia says, and Colette fetches her nursing supplies.
They perform the operation on the porch. Father proves unable to witness, so Deacon takes him for a walk in the field. Natalia watches them, and the bees in the lavender, until Colette needs to work on her throat. When Natalia is allowed to turn her head, Deacon and Father are standing at the far edge of the field. Deacon's hand is on Father's shoulder.
“He was in Moscow in 1993,” Colette says. She pushes Natalia back down when she tries to sit up. “A lot of people were killed, that autumn. Your Lubov saved his life three times.”
“Was he a soldier?” Natalia asks.
“No,” says Colette. “A very stupid journalist. He asked her to marry him, afterwards. She refused, which makes her a smarter woman than me.”
Colette is smiling over the fields as she says it, though, so Natalia wonders if it's safe to laugh.
“Do you want to know what she said?” Colette asks. “She said, John William Deacon, you will be of far greater use to me at maximum distance.”
Natalia does laugh, then. Father and Deacon turn to the sound like spooked horses, but the bees don't notice at all.
Some part of Natalia will always be embarrassed that it was Colette, and not her, who first detected it.
They are midway through dinner when Father takes one of his contemplative mid-sentence pauses. Natalia, playing checkers with Deacon between mouthfuls of onion soup, hardly notices. Her father is a thoughtful man – precise. He's never loud when he can be soft, or fast when he can be slow. She likes that he takes the time to choose the right words, and especially here, with Deacon and Colette. They're very kind. Natalia almost wishes they didn't have to leave.
Later, when Father steps out to use the bathroom, Colette swears under her breath in French. Natalia looks up too quickly. Her throat twinges. Deacon hops three of her pieces.
“How long has your father been having seizures?”
Natalia blinks. Her mouth falls open.
“Le petit mal,” says Colette. “The gaps in his speech. How long has he had them? What medication does he take for them?”
Natalia can only shake her head helplessly. Colette's interrogatory expression softens.
“Has he taken head trauma recently? A concussion?”
“No,” Natalia says. And then, less sure: “They shock him a lot.”
She is suddenly very aware that Colette and Deacon are looking at her with their full attention.
“What kind of shock, cherie?” asks Colette.
“To his head,” Natalia says. “To reset him.”
“Christ—” Deacon says, and Colette thrusts herself away from the table like it's on fire. She stands at the window, spine very straight, for a long time. When Father returns, he edges into the room warily.
Colette lets out a slow breath that fogs the pane.
“People like that, they need to be taken out and shot,” she says at last.
“Colette,” Deacon begins, but she cuts him off.
“We have to do something,” Colette snarls, fists like stones over her belly. Deacon gets up from the table, cups her elbows with his hands. Natalia notices, for the first time, how much shorter Deacon is than his wife. He seems even smaller now, in the shade of her anger. If anyone could storm Base and carry all the girls out under her arms, Natalia is certain, it would be Colette, in this moment, incandescent.
“We have to do something,” Colette repeats, lower.
“My love,” Deacon says gently, “We already are.”
For a moment, Natalia thinks Colette will explode: lash out, or run from the room, or shout. And then, like a balloon deflating, she subsides. Deacon rubs her arms.
Natalia startles when Father speaks.
“I made a decision,” he says to the floor. “I ain't a hero, but I knew I could save one. Which was better than not saving any. That has to matter – doesn't it?” Father looks at Deacon, at Colette, something hard in his eyes, his jaw. “It has to.”
“You saved two,” says Deacon, and Father, blinking quickly, looks away.
Colette and Deacon refuse to allow them to travel alone.
The bees will look after themselves for a few days, Colette says, and travelling partners will deflect suspicion.
Before they leave, Deacon packs Natalia's trackers and Father's metal arm into a box. When he comes home, he says, he'll arrange to have them dumped out of a plane somewhere over Russia.
“Can't hurt to make them think you're lost in the old country, instead of on a boat for the new world,” Deacon says, and he and Father grin at each other like boys.
Father boards the train alone, but finds a seat nearby. Natalia sits with Colette and Deacon. When the cars rumble into motion, Natalia leans against Colette's arm and watches the French countryside rush past.
In London, they pass off Natalia to Father.
In Southampton, Deacon and Colette come around a different way, waving and hallooing, playing proud grandparents. Natalia hugs them before they go. Colette kisses her on both cheeks. Natalia feels like she can't soak up enough touch, like her skin is tingling, strapped on too tight. Father notices, and carries her onto the ship like he did in the woods, her face tucked into his neck.
Father doesn't turn, but Natalia peers back through his hair.
Standing stiffly, face drawn thin with anger and pity, Deacon is lowering his arm.
She realizes, ten years and 3500 miles later, what it must have been:
Natalia pretends to be asleep while they settle into their cabin. Father lays her on the bed and touches his thumb to her face.
“You'll never believe this,” Father whispers. Natalia breathes, slow and even. She knows she isn't meant to hear.
“That guy said he thought he recognized me,” Father says.
Natalia thinks frantically. Could Deacon have met Father in Moscow, during the fighting? Could Lubov have shown him a picture? Natalia would have been less than two years old, when Deacon was in Russia, and Father was out on so many missions then. She wonders if Father was even in the country – if maybe Deacon could have seen him elsewhere, outside, far from Base.
If maybe Deacon could have seen him before.
“I told him,” Father says, “That I didn't want to know.”
Natalia breathes and breathes, until Father walks away, until the shower starts up on the other side of the wall.
She waits until she hears him step under the water, and then she weeps.
Natalia sleeps with their false IDs on the bedside table. When she can't settle, she touches them and repeats the names, over and over.
Maybe she is a little like Father, after all.
On the crossing, he has a seizure.
Much later, Natalia will learn that this is called a tonic-clonic seizure, and that it's sometimes described as an electrical storm in the brain. That is precisely what it looks like. Father arches off the floor and convulses like he's trying to break his bones. He wets himself and bites clean through his tongue.
When it's over, he cries. Mostly, Natalia thinks he's ashamed, but also, she thinks maybe he's scared. She arranges his head in her lap and strokes his long hair, where the dark roots are coming in already. Just faintly the wrong shade, where no one would notice but her.
Later, she'll help him wash his hair in the bathtub. She'll offer to cut it and he'll refuse. This is how she remembers their last day on the ship: her father in wet black boxer shorts, sitting in the bath and frowning at himself in a hand mirror. Four days of beard. The waxy sheen of scar tissue on his stump.
Now, she wipes the blood and salt from his face, and wonders if they will survive this.
Originally, the plan is this:
They will disembark in New York City, where they will research ideal cities to settle, and then they will use their skills to obtain money, a vehicle, and basic supplies.
Like any battle plan, it doesn't survive contact.
Father takes Natalia to the viewing platform to see the approach. Natalia practically vibrates through the halls. Her father teases her the whole way, pretending to wiggle with her. Pretending, but she can tell he's excited too. He doesn't remember any missions in America, so this is as new for him as it is for her. The rest of their lives are located on the shore.
Except: when they get on deck, they can't see anything. A soup-thick early morning mist obscures everything around the ship. Near the horizon, the sky is red. Unseen foghorns bleat across the water like mournful monsters. Natalia slumps, her chin on the cold, damp rail. Father rubs his knuckles against her spine.
“I'm sorry, dochenka,” he says.
A dark sweep appears, confusing her eyeline. Lights glimmer above it, supported by nothing, until the supports peel themselves out of the fog. A span as wide as the whole of her vision. Natalia watches, mouth open, as the ship sails beneath it. For a moment, she's certain the bridge will lop off the top of the ship's funnel, it's so close. Cars whip by indifferently, as if they aren't flinging themselves across water, across space, as if they're not participating in a marvel.
Past the bridge, ghostly buildings lean over the water. The red, red sun hangs behind them, streaking everything with orange light. When Liberty steps out of the fog, one side of her green robe is painted gold.
Natalia grins up at her father, but he isn't looking at her. He's staring at the docks and gripping the rail like he thinks it's going buck him off. The back of his hand is white, and so are his cheeks.
“I've been here,” he says. “I came here.”
“When?” she asks.
“When I was a kid,” Father says. He doesn't sound like himself. He sounds drunk. “I came from...”
“No,” he gasps, like it hurts him. “From—Ireland. My—my ma's name was—was—”
Natalia never finds out what his mother's name was.
He doesn't remember.
Originally, the plan was this: less than 72 hours in New York, and then they leave.
Instead, by the end of the second day, they've acquired an empty white shell of an apartment in Brooklyn. There are two mattresses on the floor, a set of towels in the bathroom, and Father's mostly empty backpack by the balcony door.
Natalia is cagey and unsettled. The apartment is brighter and more open than Base, and the stark walls give her a headache. She tucks herself into a corner until she twitches out of it, walking circuits around the great room until she can't have a window at her back any more. It isn't like anything she's used to. She tries to pretend that it's Deacon and Colette's house, where she was comfortable, but the space looks less home-like than even the barest hotel room. She takes a horrible sort of solace in the fact that she's not the only one. Father, too, is climbing the walls.
Their first month in America is an exercise in anxiety.
They only ever leave the apartment together, and only for a purpose. Father tucks his hair into a knit cap, and Natalia wraps a scarf around her head, Russian-style, until she can find a jacket with a hood. In the grocery shop, they vacillate between choosing the first brand they see, rolling a die, or, on one occasion, closing Natalia's eyes and spinning her around. They pretend they can't understand conversations in anything but English.
They only sleep in separate rooms the first night. Natalia can't ever remember sleeping without sound: the breathing of nine other girls, or her father's faint snores; the rumble of an engine, the clatter of train tracks. The silence, even puntuated with distant traffic, terrifies her. At four in the morning, she drags her mattress into Father's room. She can't see him, but she hears his relieved exhale.
She's there for his first screaming nightmare, and his second big seizure, and the three nights in a row where he can't sleep at all.
In March, when their money begins to run out, Father skulks around job agencies until he lands work as a document translator. He buys a computer and hooks up their internet himself. A teachers' depository sells him a one-handed keyboard meant for handicapped children. Soon, he can type on it faster than Natalia can type with both hands.
In May, Father suggests Thai for dinner, and Natalia carefully, deliberately makes a face. “No?” Father says, and “Okay;” and Natalia disobeys her first order and makes her first choice on the same day.
In August, sweating even with all the windows open, they paint the apartment. The dice decide – dove grey for Father's bedroom, and sage green for Natalia's, and pumpkin orange for the great room. Their neighbours, two long-haul truckers named Evelyn and Nancy, help Father carry a sofa, a television, and a rickety dining set up five flights of stairs. Natalia follows with seven smoke-darkened paintings she rescued from the charity shop, one by one, held over her head.
In September, Father enrols Natalia in a homeschooling program. They fret like mad things, but Deacon's IDs and their cover story – missionaries in the Balkans, no formal schooling for the kid, identification disasters, you know how it goes – are accepted without mishap.
In October, Natalia moves back into her own room.
In November, they buy a bookshelf, and a CD player, and bed frames.
One afternoon in December, when Natalia is frowning at her grammar homework and Father is frowning at his computer screen, both of them in their pyjamas, she sits up and realizes:
Somehow, when they weren't looking, they stopped being assets and started being people.
What was the exact moment, she wonders? Was it in Brooklyn, sleeping on a mattress of her very own, or in France, when she left behind the things they put under her skin, or in Russia, when she followed Father onto a train, shedding crocodile tears? Or was it more like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture, the both of them assembling pieces until: click! and there she was?
Or maybe, she thinks, it's one of the grand mysteries, like the start of everything. Her science textbook tells her she's made of stardust. Maybe people, like particles, like universes, are just inherently incomprehensible.
Thoughts like those make even grammar tolerable.
For a little while, anyway.
Natasha has an aggravating night where she wakes up every hour. Every time she falls back to sleep, she has another surreal, uncomfortable dream. Finally, at 5:30, she gives up. Father is already in the kitchen, drinking black coffee and playing solitaire, so she complains at him.
“What do you dream about?” she asks, when she runs out of steam.
“Ah,” her father says. He says nothing else for some time.
Then: “There's this boy.”
He falls silent again, and goes stiff. Natalia pours herself a cup of coffee while she waits.
After 26 seconds, he blinks back into himself.
“You dreamt about a boy,” Natalia prompts.
“Not about, really, he ain't – he's just there, sometimes. All sorts of places.” He taps her forehead. “You remember when we saw the play where the guy acted all the roles himself? Like that.”
“What does the boy look like?”
“Small. Just tiny. Blonde, blue eyes, wrists like—” Father holds up one huge thumb, and she grabs it. “And a broken nose.”
“Maybe he was your son.”
He laughs. “With this hair, and this face? You think I could've made a pretty little Aryan boy?”
“You had me,” Natalia says, and lets go of his thumb.
There is a tenuous moment between them like cobwebs stretching. The silent plea: don't say you're not my real father, don't say you're not my real daughter, I know, I know, but please don't say it.
“Well,” Father says. His mouth makes a shape resembling a smile. “You must'a got your good looks from your ma. Anyway, the boy ain't real. He changes all the time.”
“Does he grow up?”
“Could say. Sometimes he's...” Her father gestures: shoulders as wide as the earth, a waist like a woman in a corset. “And tall as a giant. But a kid, that kid, couldn't grow up like that. He'd have to, I dunno, stitch a whole second person onto him. Stretch his bones. It's just a dream, kiddo. Like yours.”
“My dreams are boring,” Natalia grumbles. “Yours sound more interesting.”
“Yeah, well,” Father says, slapping a card on the table, “We'll swap, 'n when you dream about the same person three times a week, you tell me how interested you are.”
She thinks that's the end of it, but it's not.
Natalia always comes running when Father screams in his sleep. She came for him when he was in the chair, and she doesn't plan to stop now. She is her father's keeper.
Often he doesn't know her when she wakes him up, but he's never hurt her. He always seems grateful that a person is nearby. Natalia doesn't mind, even though it upsets her to see him in distress. She'd want someone to do the same, if she was like him.
Father's back is arched, his hand wrapped in the sheets like he's trying to hold himself down. His hair clings to the sweat on his face. His teeth are clenched and bared.
When he's like this, she's learned, it's best not to grab him. She carefully untangles his hand instead, and strokes her fingers over the back of his wrist to soothe him.
She goes still when Father says, “Steve.”
Natalia has heard him shriek in pain, or beg for someone to stop. She's heard him threaten, snarl like an animal, curse in every language he knows until his throat is hoarse – but she's never heard him say anyone's name.
She doesn't know what to do.
“Don't,” Father mumbles. And then, like he's been stabbed: “Steve!”
His hand comes up so fast it almost smacks her in the face. She catches it and presses it between hers. His calluses are long gone, but she can feel the raised lines of scars that never quite healed all the way.
“Papa,” she whispers. “Papa.”
He comes awake wild-eyed and panting. His gaze goes unfocussed in the way that normally means a seizure is coming, but he only stares at her.
“Stevie?” her father says.
Natalia thinks her heart is going to break, the way he sounds. Like a child. Just like a little boy.
“No,” she says gently. “Natalia. Natashen'ka.”
“Dochenka,” Father murmurs, and closes his eyes. He slumps back against the pillow. She holds his hand against her face while his pulse slows.
She's certain he's fallen back to sleep, so she jumps when he says, “The boy. The boy who gets bigger.”
“I think,” Father says to the ceiling, “He was my friend.”
When Natalia starts Grade 11, she needs more assistance and time than Father can give. Three times a week, she visits a tutor. Her good grades fetch her a bursary. She signs up for extra courses at the college.
She buys too many books at the antiquarian shop down the street, and gets herself hired almost by accident. She celebrates with a membership to the gym. Tuesday and Thursday mornings, she gets her ass handed to her by the krav maga instructor, a Vietnam vet with LADY LUCK tattooed on his knuckles.
“I don't know how I was so much better at this when I was six,” she complains to her father, as he presses a bag of frozen peas to her knee.
“It's different when you're fighting for your life,” he says.
The next time Jim sweeps her feet out from under her, she feels a stupid surge of gratitude.
When she finally manages to knock him down, months later, he lets out a joyful tiger-roar so loud it startles the yoga class on the second floor.
Father never goes out alone.
Mostly, it's a safety precaution. He refuses to go to a doctor about the seizures, and he won't wear a medical bracelet. It frightens Natalia to think what might happen if she wasn't there – where he might be taken. So: when he goes for a walk, Natalia comes with him. They scour library shelves in sync. When they need groceries, clothes, supplies, they go together. When she leaves in the morning, he's there. When she comes home at night, he's there. Sometimes he's exactly where she left him, the click of his typing louder than the radio. Sometimes he's staring out the window. Sometimes he's sleeping.
But he's always there.
When Natalia comes home from her tutor and can't find him, she falls to her knees and breathes through her clasped hands until she no longer feels like she's dying.
Then she pushes herself to her feet and begins to assemble the pieces.
His shoes are still by the door, and his jacket is hung neatly. There is no evidence of a struggle. Nothing is broken or knocked over, except in the great room. There's a mug of cold tea on the coffee table, a plate overturned on the sofa with half a sandwich under it, and a book splayed open on the floor, pages crumpled, as though someone was startled while reading it.
Natalia picks up the book and skims the face-down pages. American military history. The open chapter appears to be focused on foreign policy during the Second World War.
She turns the page, and feels her heart stutter in her chest.
Steven Rogers, the caption says, Before and after the experimental procedure which turned him into a national icon.
The boy who gets bigger.
The boy who – according to the page beneath his photograph – died in a plane crash in 1945.
Natalia drops the book and starts to canvas the building, ground to sky.
She finds him on the roof, huddled against the air vents, his hand fisted into the hair at the base of his skull. Half-dressed and shaking. She crouches in front of him and waits until he looks at her before she touches him, her small hand cupping his bigger one, cradling his head.
“Papa,” she says softly.
Her father shakes his head once, a single sharp jerk under her hands.
“Picture of me in that book,” he says. “Looking all of about twenty. Two arms. Must've been a real hit with the ladies.”
The sound that claws its way out of him might be a laugh.
“Says I was born in 1917.”
Natalia strokes her thumbs over his cheekbones.
“Got my name under it,” he says, and now it really is laughter, hoarse and unsettled. “It's James. Barnes. James Buchanan. Like the president. What kinda fucking idiot names their kid—”
She curls herself around him when he dissolves. Huge gulping sobs like something inside him is tearing open. He shakes harder than he did in the chair, harder than any of his seizures. She clings to him until it passes, his nose tucked under her ear, her hands moving on his spine. She remembers, viscerally, when their positions were reversed. She wishes she could fold him up in her arms, hide him from the world. She's never felt unhappy with her body, with her whipcord muscles or her willow bones, but here, freezing on a rooftop, she wishes for the first time that she was just a little larger.
“I'm only just remembering,” he rasps, some time later, “And it turns out they're all dead. You gotta wonder if God's havin' a laugh at my expense.”
“You don't believe in God,” she says into his hair.
He sighs, and a tenseness goes out of him with it. “No. But maybe I should, just so I got someone to yell at.”
After that, like the book smashes a dam in his head, Father begins to remember.
Every night before bed, they play the memory game. Natalia gives him one of hers so that he won't forget her childhood. Father gives her whatever he's remembered during the day. It's a very optimistic game. Most of the time he doesn't have anything new. On those days, she makes him remember something from last month, last year. It's a cycle, both of them always remembering. She keeps what he forgets. She writes everything down in case something should happen to either of them.
Today he's saying, “I'm in a class – an art class. Everyone's painting. Mostly girls, some boys, and me. Steve's on my left, and the radio's on. We're all painting something in the middle of the room, and then we all stop.”
“What are you painting?” Natalia asks.
“I don't remember.”
“What's on the radio?”
“I don't remember. Not music.”
She scribbles notes, and then she tells him about the time she and Yelena stole something from a handler's collection of naughty postcards. He laughs until his lashes are wet.
The next day, after getting thrown around by Jim for ninety minutes, Natalia walks home. She passes the same line of outlets: hair salon, clothing, toy store, used bookshop, clothing, framing—
She stops. She scratches her ankle with the opposite foot.
At home, she carefully arranges two sketchbooks, a box of pencils, a line of paint tubes, six brushes, and a motley pile of general supplies on the coffee table.
Father proceeds to ignore it like a cat, but a week later, she catches him hunched on the sofa, sketchbook propped up on his knees, pencil moving in jagged strokes across the page.
Natalia wants to contrive a way to run into Hot Neighbour.
Hot Neighbour is only a neighbour in the loosest sense of the term. She's always going into the apartment building across the street, but Natalia suspects she doesn't actually live there. Her car is almost always gone before midnight.
Hot Neighbour is hard-muscled and lanky, like a gymnast, and looks maybe a year or two older than Natalia. Hot Neighbour has what Father calls a resting murder-face, but one time, Natalia caught her looking at her phone with an absolutely devastating one-two punch of a smirk. Natalia classifies her attraction to Hot Neighbour in two phases: before the smirk, when she'd been moderately interested, and after the smirk, when things had gotten a little bit out of hand.
Except – Natalia doesn't know if Hot Neighbour is interested in women. Worse, Natalia doesn't know what kind of pick-up Hot Neighbour would most appreciate, even if she was. The direct approach? The let-me-help-you-with-your-groceries approach? The increasingly flirty daily greeting approach? The oh-hey-I-love-your-jacket approach?
The one that works isn't even on her list.
Natalia runs into Hot Neighbor.
As in, physically.
Father is going to pinch her forever.
“Shit!” Natalia hears, and then she's on the ground. “Oh shit!”
Hot Neighbour's horrified face swims into view.
“M'fine,” Natalia says, and sits up to prove it. “Just embarrassed – I'm so sorry.”
She accepts the offer of a hand up, and it's only when she's on her feet and very close does she realize she's wearing her sweaty gym clothes in front of Hot Neighbour. Her hair is a disaster and chalk is smeared halfway to her elbows. Natalia is beyond mortified. She's certain her face is a riot.
Hot Neighbour hands Natalia her headgear and says, “Boxing?”
“Mixed martial arts,” Natalia replies. “Honestly not training to be a pratfall actor, all evidence to the contrary. Are you okay?”
“Moi? I'm a brick wall, don't worry about me,” Hot Neighbour says – and smirks.
One-two punch, right in the ovaries.
While Natalia is trying to figure out how to respond, Hot Neighbour says, “Hey, you're looking a little dazed. Where do you live? Mind if I walk you home, just to be safe?”
“I live, just—” Natalia points.
Hot Neighbour doesn't just walk Natalia to the building, but up all five flights of stairs and inside the apartment, where she wrangles agreement out of Natalia's bewildered father that he'll keep an eye on her.
“I know too many people with head injuries,” Hot Neighbour says, and salutes rakishly in the doorway before she disappears.
Natalia collapses on the couch, covers her face with her hands, and groans.
“Wow. That must have been some spill.”
“I,” Natalia says, “Am so screwed.”
Three hours later, she notices a post-it note stuck to the corkboard by the door, and feels her heart try to thump its way out of her ribcage.
If you ever need a sparring partner, it says, Call me.
Natalia introduces herself as Virginia Carr, and doesn't volunteer any biographical information prior to 2003. Kate doesn't seem to mind. It's not like they're doing much talking.
It takes Natalia an embarrassingly long time to figure out that their sparring dates are – well, dates.
She kisses Kate right there on the mat when she figures it out, and Jim throws a glove at her head, but that's okay.
Father pinches them both, for being idiots.
When her father starts producing art that he allows her to see, Natalia is very impressed.
She doesn't know much about art. She knows what she likes, but insofar as history and technique are concerned – it just doesn't hold her attention. She considers herself too tactile to really appreciate the finer points of a two-dimensional medium.
But despite that, she can tell that he's good. Not a prodigy, but good. She thinks maybe it's a combination of muscle memory – once your hands learn something, you never entirely forget – and the thing in his brain that makes him an excellent sniper. He can zero in on an object with a level of obsessive detail that constantly astonishes her. Father's still-lifes are tiny photographic icons, some barely larger than postage stamps. He sandpapers his pencils to microscopic sharpness.
His paintings are...not like that.
He never uses a stroke thinner than an inch, even though the canvases he buys are relatively small by oil painting standards. He uses colour, technically, but everything is dragged out of black: dried-blood red, forest-shadow green, midnight blue, coffee-bean brown. What isn't nearly black is cut hard with grey, muting out even the brightest jewel tones. His landscape elements are crisp and straight, whether they're buildings or trees or rocks, all of his gradients smooth within their bounds. His buildings have a weight – his fields, a clean airiness.
It's the people that are smears.
Occasionally they're somewhat realized, hair and hands and feet, but most of the time, they're only suggestions. The breadth of shoulders here, the sweep of legs there. A wreath of smoke in place of a head. It's not for want of skill. Once, she caught him paint a crisp, iconic silhouette, only to pick up a palette knife and deface the edges into incomprehensibility.
There's one or more of them in every painting, and even though none of them have eyes, Natalia always has the impression that they're looking. Not at her, necessarily. Just – out.
She finds them deeply unsettling.
“I think it's probably healthy,” Kate says, over soba and Japanese beer. As far as Kate knows, 'Michael Carr' saw some unspecified, extended conflict before they came to America. “You said he refuses to see a therapist? Maybe this is, like, his release valve. It's got to come out somehow, yeah?”
“I guess,” Natalia says.
“Hey, his memory problems...” Kate muses. She plays with her straw for a while. Natalia waits. “Maybe – maybe it's not a release thing. Maybe he's trying to make it all real. The stuff he has trouble remembering.”
Natalia thinks of a tattered German novel, the last page covered entirely with her name.
She shudders, and Kate puts her hand on Natalia's, and they don't talk about it any more.
One day, when Kate's over, Father asks Natalia a question and calls by her real name.
Before she can panic, Father turns to Kate and says, “Right, Becca?”
There must be a word for the awful mixture of relief and nausea that hits her, right in the chest.
“Of course,” Kate says, grinning, like nothing is wrong at all, and Natalia couldn't love her more.
Thirty seconds later, he's on the floor. It's not a bad seizure, by his standards, but he doesn't remember the last ten minutes of conversation. Natalia is trying to decide whether she should tell him, when Kate says, “Mike, who's Becca?”
“My sister,” Father says, and winces. “Did I—”
“Yeah, it's cool. It was right before you seized.” Kate points at Natalia with her thumb. “You called her Natalia.”
Before the panic can even get to his eyes, Natalia says, “My mother. She, um.”
Her face must be doing something awful, because Kate's expression goes soft and sad. “Aww, Vee. I'm sorry.”
“S'where she gets her good looks from,” Father mumbles. Their old joke, but his heart's not in it.
When Kate leaves, Natalia and her father curl up together and watch feel-good movies until dawn: Natalia feeling awful about lying to Kate, Father feeling awful for compromising their cover, both of them knowing they won't get a wink of sleep tonight if they try.
Natalia's grateful that episodes like this one are few and far between these days, but – hell. She'd give up a lot of things if she never had to see her father that scared, ever again.
They learn how to thrive.
It's a process, and sometimes, the bad outweighs the good. Their closet-sized apartment is never quite warm enough. Neither of them are paid very well. Father's heartache over Steve and his family is cyclical – just when he begins to think he's recovering, grief takes him by the throat and shakes him to the ground. The more he remembers about himself, the more he remembers his missions – bad ones, some in America. When the Russian children one floor down scream at each other, both of them freeze like deer. New Year's and the Fourth will never, ever be easy.
But Father makes a friend, and then two, at the coffee shop around the corner. One is a Cuban doctoral student in her mid-40's, writing her thesis on transhumanistic themes in Borges. The other is an elderly Jewish mathematician who is spending his twilight years studying the Riemann Hypothesis. Her father looks as old as the doctoral student, but is actually as old as the mathematician. Natalia jokes that he's finally found peers in his age group. He switches her coffee with decaf for a week.
She gets a small raise at the bookshop, and starts shopping around for a degree that might suit her. Father takes on freelance translation whenever the company's supply dries up. That winter, when the heating dies eight times between October and March, he translates two obscure Russian novels and a book of Vietnamese poetry into English.
Natalia and Kate celebrate their one year post-pratfall anniversary at the gym, beating each other with sticks.
Father improves by leaps and bounds. He remembers more and more, and his big seizures go down to once per month – then once in three. His absences are less frequent. He recognizes Natalia more often than not.
And then, on a sunny Tuesday, aliens invade New York.
They watch the news like children, sitting on the floor in front of the television. Natalia can hear muffled booming from across the East River. Sometimes the glass rattles in the window frames. Father flinches every time.
There's a giant wearing a cape, and a person in a metal suit, and a green monster the size of an elephant. An archer guards the rooftops, while a man with wings helps a woman in a catsuit leap into the air. The newscaster says their names over and over: Thor, Stark, Banner, Barton, Wilson, Hill.
When Natalia looks at her father, he's shaking with rage, his hand in a painful fist at his side. She puts her hand on his wrist, and a little of the tension goes out of him.
“It's a fucking travesty,” he bites out. “Putting some kid in the suit. The shield. They could'a made up a superhero instead of dragging his name through the dirt—”
He falls silent. They watch until the aliens collapse, until the man in the suit falls from the sky, until the footage begins to loop. The new Captain America throws his shield over and over. Falls on a car, again and again, until she can't stand it any longer. She makes her father go to bed. She strokes his hair.
“Why'd it hafta be Stevie?” Father mumbles into the pillow, more than halfway asleep. Natalia hears a child, all Irish tenements in Brooklyn, accent like a draught, trying to imitate the men in the movies and the streetcorner boys. “Shoulda been me. He was so good. Shoulda been me.”
She brushes his hair back from his face until the mumbling stops. His eyes twitch under their lids when she gets up from the bed.
Eight hours later, she finds Captain America.
It's 4:41 in the morning, and Natalia is surprised to catch him awake. She rolls into the kitchen and he stares at her from the hallway, a cup of burnt coffee in his hand. She can smell it in the pot on the stove.
He looks a little better than he did at the end of the news footage, but not by much. He's only wearing a pair of pyjama pants, so she can see the yellow after-image of bruises all up his sides. Natalia would think they'd been inflicted a week ago, not half a day, if she didn't know better.
When she points her father's gun at him, the Captain puts his coffee cup on the sideboard without taking his eyes off of her. He raises his hands. She watches him very carefully. He's calm, and doesn't appear confused. He seems, more than anything, empty. There's nothing happening behind his eyes. She wonders if he's even a person. If he's a shell they put something into, like the chair in reverse. She feels sick.
“Who are you?” Natalia demands.
“Steve Rogers,” he says. His voice is deep and pleasant, resonating out of his keg of a chest. She can imagine him giving rousing patriotic speeches. She thinks this is probably why they chose him – or made him.
“Your real name,” she says.
“Steven Grant Rogers?” There is finally an expression on his face. “Yes, really.”
“Steven Grant Rogers died in 1945.”
“I was frozen,” he says patiently. “In the plane, in the Arctic. SHIELD found me and thawed me out. They're going to make a press release about it in a few days.”
He blinks four times before he says, “What? How? Sorry, I mean, I have pictures, but...”
“Show me,” she says.
When he takes her to the living room and lets her look through the files, she understands his reticence. He isn't worried about the quality of doctored images holding up under scrutiny. He's self-conscious. There are photographs of him naked, asleep. Different handwritings document prior medical trauma: here, a skull fracture, there, a dislocation of the hip. All well-healed by the time his body was dressed and placed in a room meant to simulate the 1940's.
Natalia looks at the photographs. She looks at the man.
They are the same.
She can't entirely rule out an elaborate scheme involving a direct blood relation, or plastic surgery, or cloning, but she can't fathom why. The story is nearly unbelievable. Surely no one would go to all that effort, only to concoct such a ridiculous fairy tale to back it up. The very absurdity of the evidence stands for itself.
The man next to her is Steve Rogers.
She presses cold fingers to the notch of her throat.
“Are you okay?” Rogers asks.
The answer is no, so she says instead, “My father knew you.”
“Really?” A thrill of something in his voice. “Is he...is he still alive? How old is he?”
“I don't know,” Natalia lies. “He talks about you all the time. He thought you were a fake.”
“On the news,” Rogers agrees. “Everyone did, I guess. I'm not supposed to tell anyone, but seeing as you know – do you think he'd – I mean, could I meet him? Your dad?”
“Yes,” she says, so that she doesn't say, I'll drag you to him by your hair if you refuse. “Yes.”
They catch a bus back to Brooklyn. Even at five in the morning, it takes them nearly an hour.
Natalia stops with her hand on the apartment doorknob.
“He has amnesia,” she says, flat and low. Dredging it out of the weedy depths and laying it like a dead thing between them.
“I'm sorry,” Rogers says.
“He doesn't remember—much. But he remembers you.”
Sometimes, Natalia wants to say, you're the only thing he knows. Sometimes, when he forgets who I am, he can still remember you. He mumbles your name in his sleep. I think you're the last earthly thing he would forget.
“I was hoping,” she says, and stops. She clenches her jaw and spins round to the door. Her hair slaps her in the face, stinging while she fumbles with the key.
“That I might recognize him?” Rogers asks the back of her head, too soft, too kindly. “I hope so. I've got a real good memory.”
Natalia swallows and breathes and swallows again, and then she opens the door. She brings him to the great room.
“Wait here,” she tells him.
Rogers immediately falls into parade rest. She leaves him like that, frowning at one of her father's paintings.
Father looks so peaceful, she almost doesn't want to wake him. He usually sleeps deep, but troubled. There's always a pin-scratch wrinkle between his brows, his eyes shut a little too tight. Now, his face is slack. She watches for as long as she dares.
“Papa,” she says at last, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Father is awake the moment her throat makes the sounds. She waits while he groans and rubs at his eyes with his right hand. His stump beats against his ribs once, twice.
“I brought him,” Natalia says. “Captain America. Will you see him?”
“Natashen'ka,” he says warningly, and sits up in bed.
“Papochka.” It comes out of her mouth injured and small, and in a moment his big hand is on her face.
“Please,” Natalia says. “Please.”
She doesn't know anything else in the world that might help him. Nothing but this.
“I'll see him,” Father says. He gives her his crooked smile. He pats her cheek. “And I promise not to sock him.”
He walks past her. She can't follow him. She presses her hands to her mouth and inhales. She can smell vanilla and gun oil. She breathes in. She breathes out.
Natalia doesn't follow, but she's still close enough to hear her father whisper “Steve?” like the whole world has broken out from under him.
She counts ten whole heartbeats before Rogers says, “Bucky?”
She hears her father laugh tightly.
“That's it? Seventy years, and that's all you can—”
Natalia steps into the hallway just in time to see them crash into one another. Father's face is pressed into Rogers's collarbone so hard she wonders whether he can breathe, but the way Rogers clings to him, she thinks it doesn't matter. They would hold their breath for each other, these two.
One of them is making a terrible winded sort of noise. Father is shivering like a leaf.
Rogers, shattered and thin: “How? Buck, how?”
Natalia realizes it's her father gasping, and lunges forward when Rogers leans back. Father's eyes roll back into his head. Natalia catches him on the way down, and lays him out before the convulsions begin. Rogers is at her side in a moment, wild-eyed.
“It's all right,” she says, warding him off with one arm. “Stress is one of the most common triggers. He'll be fine in a few minutes.”
Rogers looks like he is going to crawl out of his skin from distress. She wonders if she should pat his hand. “How often does he have them?”
“The last one was in February,” she says. “He's much better. They used to be every week.”
“Jesus,” Rogers whispers. “Jesus.”
It wouldn't be the first time she's carried her father to his bed, but Rogers picks him up like he weighs nothing at all. Although, if she's honest, he really doesn't. It isn't until she sees him slumped in Rogers's arms that it hits her how much weight he's lost since the crossing. He's built solid, his sturdy bones like oak trees under his skin, but all of his muscular bulk has sloughed away. His cheekbones are like ship's prows.
Rogers stands over the bed like a statue.
“Let him rest,” Natalia says, and: “You'll be here when he wakes up.” She thinks it's more shock than anything that allows her to tug him to the kitchen. She makes Lubov's tea, extra strong, and then, because she needs something to do with her hands, Colette's milky coffee.
It's only when Natalia sets the second mug in front of him that Rogers actually looks at her.
“You're really—” he says. “You're really his kid. When did he have a kid?”
“I'm actually not,” she says. “But he's my father. It doesn't matter.”
“And, and the whole time I was under the ice,” Steve says quietly, “Buck was – was suffering.”
She's never seen a man look as destroyed as he does without breaking down entirely, but Rogers sits straight as a governess, his hands trembling ever so slightly on the tablecloth.
Natalia wishes Kate was here. When Kate talks to the vets at the gym, she's rough, and doesn't ever coddle, but she manages to connect with them on a wavelength Natalia just isn't sure she can manage. She's too deep into it herself.
She tries for gruff. “Captain Rogers.”
He responds with a shaky smile. “Call me Steve, please.”
“Steve,” she says. “He remembered who you were a couple of years ago. By reading about your death. What do you think he did?”
Steve's shoulders droop. He doesn't say anything, but she can practically hear him think, Be angry with me.
“He went up to the roof,” Natalia says, “And cried for hours.”
Steve's whole body flinches.
“He doesn't blame you,” she says. “I don't think it's even occurred to him. The same way I bet it won't occur to you to blame him for all the people they made him kill.”
Steve frowns, opening his mouth, and the front door explodes off its hinges.
Natalia scrambles up, teeth bared, her chair in her hands like a wrestler. She could kill herself for leaving the gun in Father's room.
She stops counting after twelve. One tight black mass stalking through the great room. None of them carry riot shields. She feels her mouth twist. When the first one steps over the kitchen threshold, she comes at him with the chair. Her first swing unbalances his helmet; the second breaks his jaw. His gun fires into the ceiling. The splintered chair leg won't make a dent in the next operative's ballistic collar, but it slides easily into his thigh.
As if at a very great distance, Natalia hears Steve shouting.
She breaks the next man's hand, and the subsequent woman's collarbone, but sheer numbers are on their side. She spits and bites as they take her down. Just like an animal, snarling. She feels cold metal slide around her wrist and torques, kicking out as hard as she can, barefoot in leggings.
She hears Father smash into the room like a wrecking ball and thinks, oh fuck.
He screams a mush of Vietnamese and Russian at them. Throwing himself full-bodied, blood on his teeth. They seem flummoxed by this skinny one-armed lunatic. A few of them back up before they lunge in, carefully, dodging his single flailing elbow.
By the time they wrestle Father to the ground, Natalia is chafing under two pairs of handcuffs and the weight of one very large man pinning her legs. It doesn't take much to subdue Father, frenzied as he is. All she can see of him is one foot, and a brief flash of eyes, all whites and pupil.
“Don't hurt him!” she screams. She can't tell what language comes out of her mouth. She tries again: “Please!”
Her eight-year-old self is ashamed of her. Look at you, she thinks: breaking down in less than a minute. You used to watch them electrocute him. Is this how soft America has made you?
“Stop!” Steve yells. A huge clap of sound, and then quiet. All Natalia can hear is the creak of leather, the scuff of someone's combat boot, her own frantic breathing.
Someone walks into the kitchen. Natalia is facing the wrong way. She can't see them.
“Captain Rogers,” a woman says.
“What's the meaning of this, Deputy Director?” Steve looks half-ready to murder.
“There was a perimeter breach on your apartment. Cameras showed you leaving with the girl. We were very concerned when we saw her bring you here.”
“We've had eyes on this apartment for about a year,” The woman says. Natalia feels cold right down to her bones. “One or more of the residents are suspected of ties to a Russian terrorist organization. Shady ID trails. We've been waiting for the right opportunity to engage.”
“And you thought this was an appropriate level of engagement? Towards civilians?”
“We thought you might be in danger.”
“In danger. From a teenage girl.” Steve has very expressive eyebrows. “I don't know if you've noticed, ma'am, but—”
“The same teenage girl who just put four of my best people out of commission with a chair?” the woman asks mildly.
Whatever Steve begins to say is drowned out by one of the operatives exclaiming, “Jesus, this guy looks a lot like—”
“That's because he is,” Steve snarls. “Which he'll corroborate if you get the fuck off his throat.”
Natalia thinks it's more surprise than anything that makes the operative move. When she hears her father cough, she decides she's going to kill everyone in the room if it's the very last thing she does.
“Sergeant James Barnes, 32557038,” Father rasps out. “Please, let my little girl go, please, she's my daughter—”
The ensuing silence is astonishing.
The woman says nothing for a long time. And then:
“Yes – Director? I'm...going to need another vehicle.”
The operatives are surprisingly gentle, helping Natalia and her father to their feet, checking them for injuries. The man who pinned Natalia's legs bandages a cut on her brow. Another man brings them both a glass of water.
Natalia gets her first glimpse of the woman, and realizes she's the one from the news broadcast. The one who fought aliens with Steve. Hill, Natalia thinks. She looks incredibly tired.
By the time they get to the ground floor, the local media have gotten wind – either of Captain America's location, or of the large paramilitary team descending on a Brooklyn apartment building. Natalia is blinded by the flash of cameras. It's one solid wall of noise from the door to the curb.
Natalia and Father are placed in separate vehicles. Steve rides with Natalia. He carries out a tense, hushed conversation with Hill throughout the ride. Natalia can hear none of it over the engine, the creak of gear.
The building they enter is enormous. The halls are less so. Natalia is crowded with an operative on each arm. The room she's taken to and the chair she's encouraged into are freezing cold. Steve makes a disgusted noise before he places his leather jacket on her shoulders.
Hill sits in a chair opposite Natalia and rests her forearms on the table. There's a clipboard and a small recording device next to her left elbow.
“I'd like to ask you some questions,” Hill says. “You have the right to a witness besides Captain Rogers, if you'd prefer.”
“Captain Rogers is acceptable,” Natalia says. Better than acceptable; Natalia would sooner trust one of her old handlers than a legal representative of whatever organization Hill fronts. That way lies the path of black sites. She'll answer questions if it will help her father. That, and no more.
Steve pulls a third chair up to the table.
“What is your name?” Hill asks.
“Natalia,” she replies. Hill pauses and glances up. “That's all I have.”
“And how old are you?”
Steve, beside her, rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry for calling you a teenager.”
“Have you ever been to Russia?” Hill asks.
“I was born there,” Natalia says, hearing an echo of Father in her head. She thinks its true, for her. It must be.
“Are you affiliated with any Russian organizations?”
“Have you ever been affiliated with any Russian organizations?”
Natalia says nothing.
“Ah,” says Hill. Slow, with weight, like she understands. Natalia feels ill. “The Red Room?”
“Not anymore,” Natalia says carefully.
“When did you defect?”
“I don't know the date. We arrived in New York on the twentieth of February, 2003.”
“You were uninvolved in the fall, then.”
“Fall?” Natalia grabs the edge of the table. Her handcuffs clink against it. “When – did anyone – there were twenty-three girls—”
Hill is shaking her head. “The Red Room collapsed in 2005, following a faction war. As far as we can tell, it was absorbed into a terrorist cell somewhere east of Moscow. All assets would have been transferred or liquidated.” Hill looks apologetic. “Including people. I'm sorry.”
Natalia slumps against the back of the chair.
“Natalia,” Hill says gently. Natalia looks at her. “Were they your friends?”
“They were everything,” Natalia says. She doesn't expect the woman to understand. There isn't a word in English strong enough.
Hill isn't ruffled. “There's a chance we could help them, if...”
If you let us have them, Natalia finishes in her head, and thinks of Yelena and Ekaterina in fine sharp uniforms like Hill's, breaking into people's homes and tugging black bags over their heads, good little Russian soldiers.
She tells herself not to be ridiculous, this is America, not the gulag, they'd be safe here, they could have homes of their own, and names, and families, and choices—
She shouts at Hill in Russian, in Japanese, in anything but English. We don't want your help becomes I just want to see my father becomes let me out of this fucking room, until her voice is nearly gone, until she's curled over her hands in the chair, forehead on the table, gasping sobs so big they hurt coming out.
“—the handcuffs, for god's sake, she's not a criminal,” Steve is saying, near her shoulder, and he's wrong, he's wrong, he's wrong.
“I killed people,” Natalia says wetly. “We killed people, we all did. They taught us. They didn't make us do it. They made my father do it. They made it so he couldn't say no.”
Steve's soft touch on the bones of her shoulder.
“Sometimes,” Natalia informs the floor, “I enjoyed it.”
Natalia is taken to another room. It has softer lighting, a futon, a chair, a small bookshelf, and a toilet and sink behind a partition, but she isn't fooled. It's a cell.
She's given a blanket, a warm cloth for her face, and a long swab to put inside her mouth. Some young part of her is uncomfortable with having her DNA on record, but she complies without protest. She drops it into the tube and passes it through the slot in the door.
“Are you sure you're all right?” Steve asks from the other side. “I can get someone to stay with you, someone who isn't from SHIELD—”
“I'm okay,” she says. “Just come back when they know his results.”
She wraps herself in the blanket, lays down on the futon, and waits.
The door is reinforced, but sometimes Natalia can hear people walking past. She wonders who they are, how they came to work here. If they know about her, or her father, or if they're only going about their day, walking through her physical space but never into it. Ships passing.
She's not surprised that she falls asleep. She was up the whole night looking for Steve, followed by a long burn of adrenaline. She doesn't know how long it's been when she wakes, startled, from a knock on the metal door.
“Natalia? May I come in?” a woman asks. Not Hill.
“Yes,” Natalia says. She sits up and runs quick fingers through her hair. The tumblers clatter and the door opens, spilling ugly fluorescent into the room. The woman who enters is tall and blonde, perhaps in her late twenties. Natalia blinks. The woman is wearing pyjamas: drawstring pants patterned with grumpy owls, and a soft cotton shirt. Colourful tattoos peek out from her cuffs. Natalia, sleep-creased, wearing her oldest pair of leggings, suddenly doesn't feel quite as undignified.
“Hello,” the woman says. She has a very nice smile. “Sorry for the informality – it's all a little chaotic this morning. Dress codes are always the first thing to go. I'm Catrina. Do you mind if I sit down?”
Natalia gestures at the chair.
“Thanks,” Catrina says. “Now—” and this with a roll of her eyes and a sarcastic hand gesture, “I'm supposed to tell you that I'm your 'interrogator' and read you your rights, because protocol, but honestly, nothing you say in this room can be used in a court of law. We'll record audio for internal reference, with your permission, but that's all. We're not trying to deport anyone. We just want to know what happened.
“And,” Catrina adds, in Russian, “We can do it this way if you'd prefer.”
Clever, Natalia thinks. Yes: send me a soft person, send me someone in the least threatening clothes you can find, send me someone with kind eyes, send me a countrywoman. Fine, she thinks. I'll talk, if you want it that badly. I'll talk.
Natalia slowly breathes in. Slowly breathes out.
“Da,” she says, and they begin.
By the clock in Catrina's tablet, it takes nearly five hours, not counting the break when Catrina realizes Natalia hasn't eaten since the previous night. Father's cooking will always be her favourite, but the two greasy breakfast sandwiches and the fruit smoothie Catrina brings her might temporarily win first place.
“Thank you,” Catrina says, when it's done. “You've corroborated everything James has told us, and added crucial information. His doctors will be especially grateful.”
Before Natalia can ask – is he all right? have they scanned his brain? can they treat the seizures? – there's a tentative knock on the door.
“Hi,” he says. “I hope I'm not interrupting?”
“No, we're done,” says Catrina, and smiles at Natalia before she leaves.
There's an envelope in Steve's outstretched hand. Natalia sits up and takes it from him. She looks at him before she tears it open. He nods.
The first page says all she needs to know:
Sample No. 89903. James Buchanan Barnes.
In the margin, in neat engineer's script: confirmed.
A tension goes out of her she hadn't realized she was holding. She knew. She knew. But – it's good, to see it on the page, immutable. Real.
There are two more pages in the folder.
The second is hers. It lays out the geographical distribution of her DNA: 89% European, 10% Asian, 1% Sub-Saharan African. It notes that she carries the gene responsible for coronary artery disease, and she makes a mental note to be more careful about her cholesterol.
The next page is a paternity test.
Natalia pushes it back into Steve's hands.
“I don't need to see that,” she says.
Steve makes a small frustrated sound. He hands it back to her. “Just – you need to sign acknowledging you've read all the pages.”
Natalia grunts and snatches the page.
She skims the genetic markers and lists of alleles. She doesn't know enough biochemistry to interpret them, so she skips to the conclusion.
The alleged father, JAMES BARNES, is not excluded as the biological father of the child. The probability of paternity is calculated by comparing an unrelated, random individual of Caucasian descent. Based on testing results obtained from listed DNA loci...
Natalia dimly registers weight on the futon beside her.
Combined Paternity Index: 372,664.
Probability of Paternity: 99.997%.
“Oh,” Natalia whispers. “Oh.”
“I had to practically sit on him to get him to read them,” Steve says. “He kept saying it didn't matter, he didn't care, you were his kid in all the ways that counted, somebody get him a lawyer because he was going to adopt you—”
Natalia laughs, and then presses a hand to her mouth.
“We figure they were trying to replicate the serum genetically,” Steve says. “Course, it doesn't work that way. My kids probably wouldn't have asthma, but they certainly wouldn't be tiny super soldiers.”
“God forbid you ever procreate,” Father says from the doorway. He turns to Natalia when she stands up, papers sliding from her lap to the floor. He looks suddenly shy. “Did they – I guess he told—”
“It doesn't change anything.” Her hands are fists at her sides. “It doesn't. I chose you. I chose you.”
Father flicks his hair out of his eyes. His crooked smile.
“You sure did, kiddo.”
She doesn't remember starting to cry, but her face is wet by the time Father's arm comes around her shoulders. He's shaking too. Steve tries to sneak out of the room, and Father hauls him in by the front of his shirt. Steve holds them until they're still.
Half laughing, half weeping, Father says: “Look at us. Like a couple of grandmothers at a wedding.”
“My face hurts,” Natalia mumbles. “I never want to cry again.” She leans back and looks at him. “What are we going to do? Are we prisoners?”
“No,” Father says.
“You're goddamn right you're not,” Steve growls. “I convinced the Director to let me take you into my custody.”
“So we're your prisoners,” Father says.
“No – yes – sort of?” Steve rubs a hand over his face and sighs. “It's just, we've gotta stay under the radar for a while.”
“Somehow,” Father says drily, “After being hauled into a SHIELD wagon with Captain America, I don't think we can just go home and lay low.”
“No,” Steve says, “But I might have a way around that.”
Father takes one look at Stark Tower, still smoking fitfully, and says, “You gotta be fuckin' with me.”
“This is not laying low!”
“It will be, once we get to the 94th floor.”
“Sacred fuck,” Father mutters, and starts for the doors. “Guess if we're going to impose on you, we may as well do it in style.”
“Don't worry,” Steve says, “We can pull out the couch cushions.”
Father's laughter sounds startled. He smacks Steve on the hip. “You can shine your own damn shoes, Stevie.”
Natalia has a sudden wash of – not jealousy, but something like it. A needing. Father had a life with Steve for as long as he's had a life with her, and there's a whole world inside them that she can't see. She wants it: to know what her father was like before her, before Russia, their feet on the streets of this city before the war.
She's so caught up in disorienting not-jealousy that she almost doesn't notice the people who come out of the elevator.
The archer is still in uniform, arguing loudly with the blonde giant. The giant is in civilian clothes, but the hammer is hanging from his belt. The archer doesn't look like he's slept or washed since the battle. The man with the wings is smiling indulgently at both of them, hands in his pockets.
Behind them, a longbow over her shoulder and two quivers in her hands—
Natalia stops. So does Father.
“Kate,” she says, and then everyone stops.
“Vee,” says Kate, very small.
The archer looks back and forth between them like he's just been presented with a bomb.
Kate takes a step forward, and then another, and then hesitates, as if she isn't sure she should reach out. There's concrete dust smeared on her costume, and a crust of blood around her nostrils. Natalia hates her, a little. Natalia has never wanted to kiss her more.
“I was honestly going to tell you,” Kate says. “Eventually. When it was relevant. When I stopped being an idiot.”
“I have had a really awful twenty-four hours,” Natalia says.
Kate's shoulders slump.
“Papa had a seizure, and we were forcibly detained by SHIELD, and we can't go home—”
“—on top of that, I've just found out that my girlfriend has been lying about her job—”
“And I,” Natalia says, “Could really use a hug.”
Kate blinks, bites her lip, and then flings herself at Natalia. They only stay upright because Father catches them. Natalia buries her face in Kate's hair. She feels Kate do the same, burrowing her nose under Natalia's ear.
“I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was a superhero,” Kate mumbles.
“I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was a child soldier for evil Soviets,” Natalia mumbles back. “And my name's not Virginia.”
“Now, see, that's just not fair, you're not supposed to beat me at the awful apologies game.”
“Tough shit,” says Natalia, and swallows against the tightness in her throat.
They look at each other. Kate is dirty and exhausted, but god, she's beautiful, and Natalia aches all the way down to her sternum.
“It's Natalia, isn't it?” Kate asks. “What your dad called you, that was your name.”
Natalia presses her lips together and nods.
“And you,” Kate says to Father, “You're not Michael Carr.”
Father shakes his head. “James Barnes. I'm sorry too.”
“It's okay, I—” Kate stops. She looks at Father. She looks at Steve.
“Holy wafflehouse,” says the archer.
Father winces when he turns to Steve. “Was that supposed to be classified?”
“Probably,” Steve says, blasé.
“You are obviously esteemed by my peers,” says the giant. He offers one enormous hand. “I will not share your true name, though I do not know the significance of it.”
Father shakes the giant's hand. The man with the wings says, “It's an American cultural thing, don't worry about it, he's kind of a national hero,” and Natalia doesn't think she's ever seen her father more flustered.
“Are you just visiting, or will you be here later?” Kate asks.
“At least the next few days,” Natalia says.
“Their apartment building is still probably eight deep with reporters,” Steve adds. “My fault.”
“I have to take the Disaster Duet back to SHIELD,” Kate says, “But I'll stop by later, okay? And we can, um. Talk.”
“Yes,” Natalia says.
“Well,” says Kate.
“Oh, for the love,” Father says, “Just kiss her already, Christ, look, I'll turn around—”
Kate, laughing, does. Natalia hears Steve clear his throat and turn with Father, hears him say, “So, Buck, about the Dodgers,” and hears Father reply, “Oh, fuck that;” hears the giant say, “Lady Hawkeye did not say she had a shieldsister,” and the man with the bow reply, “Thor, buddy, 'sister' is not the right word for that,” and then Kate puts her hands over Natalia's ears to block out the world, if just for a few moments.
Steve shows them around the suite with the help of the AI, who reminds Natalia – with an odd homesickness – of Deacon.
After, although it's obvious that he hates to remove himself from Father's side, Steve gives them some privacy.
Father lays down on the bed in his room, and Natalia curls up at his side, head under his stump, just like she did when she was a child. Natalia wants a shower and a good meal, but she needs this more, to rest in the quiet with her father.
Natalia thinks about the blank spaces on the forms where her mother could have been, and wonders: what was she like? Did she know she was bearing the Soldat's child? Was she happy? What was she thinking, while she carried Natalia for three quarters of a year? Was she merely doing her duty for her country? Was it for herself? Was it for money?
Natalia never thought about it much before, the parent-shaped voids at the back of her mind, but now that she knows one half of her genes, she finds herself tremendously sad for a woman she's never met, and likely never will. A woman who probably wasn't much older than Natalia when she brought an asset into the world – and then vanished.
Natalia hopes, channelling a little of Yelena's optimism, that there is a woman in Russia now, somewhere warm and safe, a book in her hands and a cup of bittersweet tea at her elbow, distracted only by mundane worries. Natalia hopes that she's happy.
With a horrible jolt, Natalia realizes that she couldn't have been the only one. How many of the original sixteen, she wonders – how many were her father's? All of them? And the girls from the villages – were they his too? How much of him did they take and spread around like pollen, trying to breed perfect soldiers? How many women carried them, alone?
Natalia wraps her hands around her stomach and butts her head into his ribs.
As if it jolts the words out of him, Father says, “They're letting me start over.”
Natalia sits up. “They're what?”
“Just, you know, sweeping it under the rug,” he says. “Said there's enough evidence I wasn't acting under my own power that they're – that's it.”
“It can't be.”
“I think they can make it be,” he says, wonderingly. “I told them I killed a president. I remember taking the shot. But they're saying that – that it wasn't me. None of it. The guy who did, he died in Russia, in '03. They showed me the records.”
Natalia rubs her face, dislodging the bandage on her forehead. “They're covering it up.”
“It's embarrassing, I guess,” he says. Wry, and sort of fond. “One of your guys, history says a lot of nice things about him, it'd be a real shame if he'd been a mass-murdering robot for fifty years. I mean, you'd have to rewrite all the textbooks.”
“How many people,” Natalia asks, feeling a touch of delirium begin to edge in, “Did you kill for America during the war?”
“I don't know,” Father says. He's trying very hard to keep his face still. “I done lost count.”
It takes a long time for them to stop laughing: fear and relief draining out into hysteria. It's horrid, it's horrid, but they can't stop. Steve must think they've lost their minds.
“I don't care,” he says, after. “They can tell whatever goddamn fairy tale they like, so long as it doesn't hurt anyone. I ain't hurting another soul in my life. I ain't.”
“You won't,” Natalia promises. A little bubble of laughter escapes her. “I'll even squash bugs for you.”
He laughs, high and startled and quick, and then puts a hand over his eyes.
“What did they do, while you were there?” Natalia asks.
“Did some scans, hooked me up to an EEG. I think I just about gave the doc a heart attack.” Father's smile is rueful, but he sounds amused. “Apparently he'd never seen someone with as many holes in their brain as me. Said he was surprised I was alive. Said he was surprised I was conscious.”
“And—” He digs around in his pocket and comes up with two bottles of pills. “I get to try anti-epileptics until we find one my metabolism doesn't nuke from orbit.”
“Good,” Natalia says. “I guess I'll forgive them for punching you in the kidney.”
Father grimaces. “I hoped you hadn't noticed. Nice black eye, by the way.”
“Still prettier than you,” she says, and pins his foot when he tries to pinch her.
Kate stays the night.
Some lizard-minded lobe in the back of Natalia's brain wants to initiate desperate, protective, room destroying sex, but she respects Steve too much to damage his suite – and, really, both of them are too exhausted to do anything but collapse on top of the covers, skin to skin, curled around each other like cats.
Natalia wakes up sideways on the bed, her face mashed into Kate's right breast. She takes one look at the early morning sunlight, grunts, and falls right back to sleep.
When Steve comes out of the bathroom, shoes shined to mirrors, not a hair out of place, spotless in his service uniform, Father's face goes through a complicated series of emotions.
“C'mere, you mook,” he says at last. “Some things never change. Your CIB's crooked.”
Father re-pins a badge one-handed, straighter than Steve managed with two and a mirror.
“Lucky for you, you still got an NCO around to catch this shit.”
“Check your lapels for make-up before you get out there, you know how those ladies can be with their powder puffs.”
“You're gonna be late if you don't – oof!” Father tucks his face into Steve's neck and pats him on the back. “Yeah, buddy. Jesus. Me too, okay? Me too.”
“Come on, gramps,” Kate says, twirling her car keys. She's wearing a sleek grey pantsuit that Natalia is going to have to find an excuse to get her into again. “The sooner you get this over with, the sooner you can get back to emoting all over each other.”
Steve pulls back. He claps Father manfully on the shoulder, and then ruins the effect by sniffling. Father rolls his eyes.
Natalia herds them both to the elevator.
“Don't fuck up!” Father calls. “I'll be watching!”
Steve makes a rude gesture before the doors shut.
“Tell me,” Natalia says, “Did either of your mothers have ulcers?”
“Steve's, probably,” Father says. “I was a perfect angel. Slept through the night and everything.”
“Uh huh,” says Natalia.
“His badge is crooked again!” Father shouts at the television. “How does he do that?”
Natalia makes popcorn.
Father has dinner simmering when Steve gets out of the shower. Natalia is texting teasing photos to Kate, who's stuck on clean-up duty in Manhattan with Clint and Sam. Kate's responses are unprintable.
“Last I remember,” Steve says, hands on his hips, staring at the stove in open awe, “You could just about manage boiling water. What happened?”
“I learned how to be fussy when I was twelve,” Natalia says.
Steve laughs until Father swats him with a tea towel.
They all look up when the AI speaks.
“Apologies, Captain Rogers, but the front desk has informed me of an incoming telephone call for you.”
Steve frowns at the ceiling. “Not a reporter, I assume.”
“I do not believe so, sir,” JARVIS says. “The call originates from a rural address in France. I can block it if—”
“No,” Natalia and her father say on top of each other. Steve blinks.
“Accept the call,” Natalia says, feeling her pulse spike, thrumming under her jaw.
The faint hiss of a connected line fills the room. Steve looks at Natalia and says, slowly, “Hello?”
“Oh!” A honey-warm, flustered voice. “I didn't think I would get through! I'm so sorry for bothering you, Captain.”
“Not at all,” Steve says. “How can I help you, ma'am?”
“Well, you see—”
“Colette,” Natalia blurts out, and then clicks her teeth together.
“Yes,” Natalia says. She tries, she tries, but her voice cracks anyway.
“Oh!” Colette gasps. “Oh, I'm so glad!”
“Why – how did you know to call Steve?”
“Because I'm an awful busybody,” Colette says. “I didn't know! When I saw Captain Rogers on the television, I thought, ah, I must tell him about your father, he deserves to know, and – John! Come in here! Vite, vite! Hold on, cherie, I must figure out how to turn on speakerphone.”
“—lord,” Deacon says, after a moment of white noise. “You didn't manage to—”
“Hello,” Natalia says, and can't help laughing. “Hello, yes, she did!”
“That's not little Natalia?” Deacon makes a sound like he's blowing air through his moustache. Oh, she wants to see them, touch them, spin them both around the room. She wants to clasp their hands. “Is your father about?”
“Yeah,” Father says. He clears his throat. “How are you, old man?”
“You insufferable bastard,” Deacon says. “I'm bloody furious, is how I am. You don't call, you don't write, you don't introduce us to Captain America, who I assume you found, somehow—”
Father is grinning, wider and wider.
“Yeah, Buck,” Steve says, catching the mood, “Why haven't you introduced me to this nice gentleman?”
“Because he's an ass,” Father says, and Deacon roars laughter. “Steve, this is Colette and John Deacon. They helped us get to New York.”
“I'm honoured to speak with you, sir, ma'am,” Steve says. “I can't thank you enough.”
“Yes – well.” Deacon makes blustering, embarrassed noises.
“It was our pleasure,” says Colette. “Natalia, you must tell us how you've been! How is—”
“Colette?” someone says, in the background. “Oh! Izvini, sorry, I will come back.”
Natalia almost falls to her knees.
“Privyet?” she says, barely a breath. Louder: “Hello?”
The silence hurts her soul.
And then, tiny and brittle:
“Da,” Natalia says. She lifts a hand; puts it down. “Lenochka,” she says, wobbly, “Yes, it's me. Yes.”
“Oh,” Yelena says; chokes. “Oh, oh.”
“Did Lubov Borodina get you out too?”
“She did,” says Yelena. “She sends us a samovar every year. It is very funny.”
“I wish I could see you,” Natalia says. She fists her hands in her skirt. She doesn't even have a phone to hold onto. The tension is vibrating out of her.
“You can,” Colette says. “Do you have Skype?”
It surprises a laugh out of her: so simple. Go on Skype. See your friend, who you haven't seen in ten years, who you didn't know was alive, who is 4000 miles away. Just turn on your computer.
“I will set up the connection in the living room,” says JARVIS.
Father looks terrified, and Steve hesitates, so Natalia tugs both of them out of the kitchen bodily. She needs Father for this, and she thinks Father will need Steve. She fidgets on the sofa with them for three minutes.
Then: there, on the screen, larger than life, is Yelena.
Natalia makes a sound like a sob, and covers her nose and mouth with both hands. Her vision swims and she tries to blink it away. She doesn't want to miss a moment. Yelena, wearing a sky-blue dress patterned with little white anchors, her blonde hair loose and damp, her huge wet eyes. She's grown up, Natalia realizes, astonished: we both have. She almost expected Yelena to be the same, to still be a willowy eleven-year-old with her hair in a braid around her head, a perpetual bruise on her jaw. They stare at one another, speechless.
Shadows move in the doorway beside Yelena. Colette, come to save them from themselves.
It's not Colette, though, who walks behind Yelena and bends over to look at the screen, mouth open, looking like she's been punched in the gut.
Natalia grabs at the nearest object for stability. It happens to be Father's knee.
Sofiya comes next, and then Veronika; Elif and Anna and Darya, Yulia and Olesya: alone, or in pairs; some walking, some running into the room like the rest of the house is on fire, until there are nineteen young women clustered around the camera, sun-touched and bright-eyed and more beautiful than Natalia ever thought possible.
It's Ekaterina who starts crying first, and then Anna, who never wept unless it was with someone else, and then someone says, “Natalia,” and another, and another, and Natalia thinks her heart is going to stop.
Alina, towards the back, says “Papa,” and Natalia turns to look at him.
Father is shivering. Steve reaches out, then pauses, as if he's not sure he should even be here, witnessing; and then he wraps a firm arm around Father's shoulders. Father leans into him like a felled tree.
“When?” Natalia asks the screen. “How?”
“You sent them for us,” says Elif.
“They came with helicopters and guns,” says Sofiya.
“Lubov Borodina helped them.”
“Colette shot the guards herself.”
(“I thought we weren't going to talk about that,” Colette says, muffled, off camera, and Deacon says: “But you were magnificent.”)
“We stripped Base and sold it,” says Veronika.
“We destroyed the chair for you.”
“We stayed with Lubov Borodina until we could go to France.”
“One or two at a time.”
“Thank you, Papa,” someone says, and Father rears back from Steve. His expression is terrible.
“Don't,” he says, wet and wrecked: “Don't, don't thank me, I left you – I left you.”
“You sent someone for us,” Elena says.
Before Father can protest, Zlata says, “They wouldn't have come if you hadn't told them where to find us.”
“Besides,” says Ekaterina, “You could not possibly have taken all of us. They would have shot us like rats. Going alone was smart. You could do more from the outside.”
“We were not angry,” Anastasia says.
“We missed you, though,” Alina adds, softly.
Father's face crumples.
“I'm sorry,” he says, “I'm so sorry. Please,” he says, hand open on his knee, “What can I do? What can I do?”
The women look around at one other, searchingly.
“—visit New York?”
Father, slowly and without expression, turns to Steve. Steve doubletakes at him.
“Of course!” Steve says. “Yes, of course!” He gestures wildly at the television. “What, you thought I would say no to this?”
“Where are we gonna put them,” Father says, dazed.
“In the suite?” Steve spreads his hands. “Tents on the roof? Wherever they want, Buck, seriously.”
“We're going to New York!” someone says in Russian, and somewhere out of frame, Natalia hears Deacon start to laugh.
At the airport, Natalia holds a sign that says Barnes over her head for an hour. Father and Steve – whose idea of a disguise is a hoodie and big sunglasses – both offer to take it, but she won't give it over. She wants to be the first thing they see.
Her resolve lasts until the moment Kate says, “Nat, is that her? Is that them?” and the sign drops to the floor from her nerveless fingers.
“Nat,” Kate says, “Go on,” and Natalia whispers, “I can't, I can't.”
Kate picks up the sign.
“Over here!” Kate calls across the concourse, flailing it back and forth. Barnes is upside down. “Pick-up for Team Gorgeous! Last one to the limo has to ride on top!”
Yelena, a hundred yards away, drops her bag and begins to run. A split second before she reaches them, Natalia realizes that Yelena won't be able to shed enough momentum to stop. Natalia turns just enough when she catches her, taking all of her slight weight, that they spin around and around, clearing out a space for themselves in the crowded terminal, Yelena's long skirt flaring out like petals, laughing in Natalia's ear.
When they stop, Yelena clasps Natalia's face and looks at her. Both of them grinning like fools.
“Small things, sister,” Yelena says. “Didn't I tell you? The right people at the right time.”
Natalia can only shake her head, smiling so wide it hurts.
Someone bumps them, and they turn to see eighteen women all trying to hug Father at once.
Steve and Deacon stand together, grinning. Colette flaps her hands at her face and blinks at the ceiling. Father, arm hovering over several heads, mouths help at Kate.
“You're on your own, daddy-o,” Kate says.
“You always joked that you wanted a dozen kids, Buck,” Steve says. “I had no idea you were being literal.”
“This ain't even remotely—” Father manages, before Ekaterina hauls him into a real embrace. He is tense, tense: and then he relaxes, touching her spine with his knuckles, and then the whole of his hand.
Kate slips her fingers between Natalia's. When Natalia looks up, Kate says, “Ready to go home?”
“Yes,” Natalia says. “Yes. I think we are.”