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Keep Listening, Are You Listening?

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Body, forgive her.
Natalia is barely five years old when she makes her first childish mistake. When her mother is off working at the clinic and her father is nursing yet another hangover that hasn’t recovered since he’s been laid off from the hospital three months ago, she presses her palm and her five fingertips onto the steaming sole-plate of an iron mid-use.
The burn starts off cold to your nerve endings, the tell-tale sign that the plate is actually extremely hot, and the burn slowly escalates to something between throbbing and white-hot. Your skin starts to blister, and it’s your job to let out a cry — an appropriate reaction to the phenomenon unfolding upon you.
When the helper grabs Natalia by the wrist and lathers two tablespoons worth of mustard paste on her burns, she asks the child what she’d been thinking, to touch an iron like that. Daddy said it would be fine, she replies. You can’t help but reinforce a throb to remind her never to trust the words of a presently absent father.
Emotionally unavailable is something that Natalia’s still far too young to learn at this point, but it pains you to this day to vividly remember that he never came to check on her burns. She walks around for the next week with mustard paste plastered in with cling wrap, wrapped tight around a part of you. Her mother comes to check on her wounds at the end of the day.
Body, forgive her.
Natalia has grown up doing sloppy tendus at centre, and slightly cleaner pliés at the barre. For the sixth year coming, she’s acquired a taste for the likes of Tchaikovsky and Debussy, a taste well beyond her years, and has developed a proficient awareness in her fingers and her toes and the placement of her lopsided hips in a tendu derrière.
Despite her learned agility, she’s careless in the way that she trips over cracks on the floor and tends to scrape her knees. She hides the monstrosity across her knees under pink tights at ballet class, but she can’t hide these careless wounds from you. You can feel the bite every time she bends her knees, and every other time she skips a step on the stairwell within her large and grandiose house.
At times you pray for her to slow down, and you make a point through aches. You pray that one day, she’ll learn to take better care of herself, because then she’ll inadvertently take better care of you. She applies goosegrass into her own wounds before she sleeps, and you start to think that maybe she’s not quite as careless and carefree as you’d first thought. She cares.
With remedies like this, you heal quickly.
Body, forgive her. Natalia comes from a purely Russian bloodline, and some nights her mother recounts stories that her own mother had once told her, about the Bolshevik revolution. No matter what, you must never forget your roots, her mother would say. Natalia is Russian to the core, her bloodline dating back centuries, but she’s oddly intolerant to typical Russian winters.
She’s often afflicted with a cold, and every time she is, Natalia will curl up in her bed and tuck herself under thick duvets twice as heavy as herself. She gets extra rest and only drinks chicken soup when she’s sick. Maybe she’s not that bad to you after all.
Body, forgive her, for she doesn’t know a better place to hide from a fire than in the vents. She’s nine when she follows her recovering father to work. Natalia is still in shock by the time her shrieks begin to reach her own ears; by this time, she has already screamed your throat raw. The membrane to your throat is inflamed with use, and tickled with smoke. The both of you watch her father collapse to the floor with sweltering blisters bubbling up on his now-dead corpse. His flesh turns white. There’s a smell that you pick up on, the smell of burnt flesh hovering above the stench of kerosene.
She doesn’t stop screaming until the both of you nearly pass out. When a strange man pulls you out of the vent and wraps you in a damp blanket, you thank god. Then again, sometimes you speak to soon. He doesn’t take Natalia back to her mother, and alarms go off in you much faster than it does in her head.
Body, forgive her, because this is where it all goes really wrong.
It has taken you both over a decade to pinpoint exactly when things had begun to spiral into absolute, uncontrolled chaos, at which exact point in time. After decades of voluntarily and involuntarily visiting and revisiting the past, Natasha and you share a unanimous decision that this is it.
At this point in time, Natalia pleads to go home. She watches as the money changes hands, and she panics as she herself changes hands along with it. You want to put up a fight, throw hands and feet, but she leaves you frozen still. In a last-ditch effort to get her to resist in more than just words, you make her wet herself in the back seat of the van.
As soon as the stench hits, the man that Natalia has been sold off to slams the brakes to the van and gets off. He handles you both roughly and strips off her pants, and then he strikes her in the face - not quite how you’d expected for things to play out. You feel the throb on your cheek right before Natalia passes out from pure exhaustion, and you slip into the darkness along with her.
By the time she comes to, three more girls are sobbing in the seats beside and behind her. When she looks out of the darkened windows, Natalia sees that they’re in Minsk now. She resigns herself to her sorry fate, unsure of what’s to come. You’re close to having her retch all over the seat, but you know she doesn’t want to cause more trouble.
You should have. Then maybe the man would’ve left her behind.
Body, forgive her.
The next time she wakes up, you’re not too sure what they’ve put in you and her. Natalia is lying down on a stretcher, strapped down by her ankles and wrists. You feel a pin prick in her arm, and upon further observation, you realize that Natalia has been hooked up to an IV. Except the drip isn’t saline. It leaves the both of you sedated, and maybe a little high, to the point that you feel disconnected from her.
They call it compliance. You find the exact same high a decade later when Natasha’s shooting up in an alley in New York after a day’s work, so you call it heroin. Maybe if you weren’t Natalia’s body, you wouldn’t be subjected to such toxins. It’s a sad state, but you find that nobody questions how one could do something as heinous as hook up a nine-year-old to a full bag of opioids. Natalia is too far gone in this state to catch up on all of your subconscious developments.
These thoughts escape her the way they are slowly escaping you, and for all the things you’d blame her careless self for, you know she shoulders no blame for this. It’s not her fault, but it’s always someone’s fault. You’re just not sure whose it is this time around.
Body, forgive her. It’s been six months. They haven’t hurt you just yet, but she’s vacant behind the eyes. There’s something about staring right into odd screens sixteen hours a day with your eyes pulled open that empties out a person. It’s not something you can feel, not something physical, but Natalia used to have more fight than this. It’s messing with her mind and you don’t quite know what’s wrong just yet. At times you try to move, move your fingers or your toes, but it doesn’t register in her head and so you can’t do much at all.
They used to have to strap the girls down in these chairs, but they don’t have to do it anymore.
So take a deep breath.
Calm your mind.
You know what’s best.
What’s best is you comply.
Compliance will be rewarded.
Are you ready to comply? 
Body, forgive her. It’s getting harder to tell the difference. You find yourself mumbling strange words for Natalia in her sleep, and at times, even when she’s awake.
I am one of 28 young ballerinas with the Bolshoi, she whispers to no-one. Training is hard, but the glory of Soviet culture, and the warmth of my parents makes up for...
No, that’s not right. You pause, and she pauses along with you.
You make her stare at her feet, and they’re not blistered or maimed from dancing on blocks. She’s confused. She reaches out a finger to touch the bare skin on her second toe, and flinches as if there had been a blistering wound.
They’ve really done her head in, haven’t they? They’ve done her head in enough for ten thousand lifetimes and she feels wounds that aren’t physically there. You find yourself starting to mumble the same words all over again, and you pause at the same place. It seems they never got to finish conditioning into her the rest of that sentence. It seems, they don’t have to.
The next time she shows up for class on the mat of a sparring gym, instead of refining repertoires on pointe, you mouth something different.
I am one of the 28 Black Widow agents with the Red Room. Training is hard, but the glory of Soviet supremacy, and the warmth of my parents... all my parents... makes up for...
Sometimes even you get confused. They’ve done the both of you in, but she gets smarter as she gets older. She makes her first kill, a snap to the neck during a close-combat lesson, at the age of eleven and you find that these words never touch her lips again for years.
Body, forgive her. She’s just killed her mother.
The first time she sees her own mother in years, it’s when she pulls the bag off the head of her target at target practice. There’s a hole in her mother’s head, right between the eyes. Her mother’s once-crystal clear eyes are glazed over, almost as vacant as her own. You’d want to scream, but it’s as if she has forgotten what an appropriate reaction is anymore.
It takes Natalia a full five minutes for any semblance of recognition to kick in. Once it does, at first it doesn’t hurt, and then it hurts too much. And once it starts, it doesn’t stop. She walks out of the range quietly, and you think that maybe she’s barely holding it together too.
“Thank you, Natalia,” a voice says, dark and sinister. Despite everything, and you just don’t know why, she replies with a: “Happy to comply,” and a smile.
But compliance is unreliable. The method, is unreliable. Her smile is unreliable and it waters down as soon as she leaves, and she doesn’t know what to do with her tightening chest, or her watering eyes, or her shaking hands. For god’s sake, she’s only twelve now, but she’s forgotten what it feels like to harbour anger and grief. It’s unbearable, both for you and for her, but it feels like this.
Hang in there, the worst is yet to come.

Chapter Text

Body, forgive her.

It’s hard, she knows. Her mind has become a dumping ground for bad thoughts, and her body — you, a dumping ground for bad men. You’ve since filled out in the right places for her, but you soon find out that it’s not the best thing to look like that in a facility full of men.

The worst part starts when she is called into the dean’s office for the first time. He’s the head administrator of the Red Room Academy, and when he tells her to unbutton the upper half of her top and let her blonde hair cascade over her right shoulder, she doesn’t say no. She sits, they talk. The man’s gaze floats over her full lips, her bare neck, her uncovered tips of her collarbones, and they disappear down her button-up top.

He carries a cocksure grin and his bare cock in his hand. She pretends she doesn’t notice.

The next time he calls Natalia in, he tells her the same thing. This time, he locks the door. He calls her over to his side of the table and layers his filthy hand over hers, and places it on his shaft. You can both feel it twitch at the touch. This time, he teaches her exactly how to pleasure a man. He says that she’ll need it, this knowledge. For the future, he says. In the real world.

When you feel him at the back of your throat, you gag. She apologizes. He tells her that with an attitude like that, she’ll go extremely far. Men will bend the world in half for her. The other girls should learn from her. You still taste him on your tongue the next morning, and Natalia forces herself to throw up. It doesn’t change anything.

Body, forgive her; the man is playing favorites. Calling her into his office, or his room, it’s a monthly affair now.

He starts with locking the door, and he’s started taking off her clothes. He’s touching her face first, and then her hands, and then her stomach and soon enough, the inside of her thighs. The man gives no warning when he turns her around, bends her over a shelf, and shoves himself inside her for the very first time.

You feel a slight burn between your legs, and you have to admit to feeling a little proud when she kicks him in the knee in protest, but the look in his eye when he next looks at the both of you, it’s murderous. The man grabs you tightly by the neck and slams you to the ground, jamming his steel-tipped boot into your side and breaking six ribs. He then picks you up like a rag doll, bends you over the table again, and finishes both him and you off. And then, he throws you both out.

You don’t realize your throat has been shrieked raw until it ends.

Natalia isn’t quite sure what to feel at this point, but her chest hurts to breathe. You feel it too. She collects herself as best she can and walks with blood dripping down her thigh, walks past other predatory stares and past the strange man with a metal hand. He looks at her, calls out softly into the hallway to ask if she’s okay, but she doesn’t react. You want to scream, yet again, but all she wants is to take a shower and go to bed.

The showers are usually lukewarm, but this time around, she turns the temperature to scalding. Doesn’t she feel her skin blistering with each drop? It’s as if she lets the hot shower melt each and every fingertip of the man’s touch off of you. You find your fingernails scrubbing yourself off as well, until your skin draws blood.

She can’t sleep that night. Everything hurts too much. It’s the first time you cry for her in years, you’d thought she had forgotten what tears felt like on the apples of her cheeks.

Body, forgive her. Natalia begs of you to understand.

These weekly meetings become far more often now, and he calls it ‘punishment’. It’s a near weekly affair, and he begins to share her with his friends like property. It’s not long before you realize why she doesn’t quite fight it as much anymore, or rather, why she doesn’t fight it at all. When they hurt you, she isn’t there. She leaves you alone. She disappears.

Deep down, Natalia knows that you’re irate that she does that. She’s supposed to take care of you. You both are a team. You and her, she and you. But body, don’t you understand that you might be the one to blame?

It’s hard to stick with you when you feel pleasure in the things that ruin her. You react to the invasion of her space in all the wrong ways, and it’s a fucking mess. It’s embarrassing, it’s disgusting, you’ve betrayed her and she doesn’t know how else to get through it. It’s a purely physiological thing, and she knows that you can’t help it, so can’t you understand that she can’t help it too? She begs of you.

Checking out of her head is the only way that this’ll work out for you and her, both. She and day-long dissociative episodes become best pals. She promises she’ll try to hate you less, though, the next time around.

Body, forgive her. She promised, yes. But she isn’t always good on her promises, especially not to you.

There’s a newfound heaviness in her steps and her manner, and you notice it as promptly as the strange man does too. She’s oblivious. Maybe Natalia’s just exhausted, like you are. You’re both a bag of bones, battered and bruised. She doesn’t sleep as much these days, and then she sleeps too much.

You feel weighed down by something you can’t yet understand, and it’s sitting on your shoulders and on your chest. You try to breathe against cracked ribs, but you can’t seem to take a full breath. Then you realize that you can’t seem to remember when was the last time you had.

Body, forgive her.

You’re broken and bruised and she knows that too. You’re exhausted all the time, and you yourself don’t really know why. When you’ve barely had a wink of sleep, she forces you awake. Running on empty is better than another punishment, better than being ‘relieved’ for being late for the first class. Everyone knows that being ‘relieved’ in this place just means the snap of a neck or a bullet between the eyes.

Sometimes she lies awake in the mornings, two hours ahead of everybody else, and makes the decision that she doesn’t want to go. She hides herself under a thin blanket, exhausted too. It’s too painful to move. Maybe being relieved would be a relief. You know she thinks this. Thoughts like these come more often as the days move forward.

On days like these, you’re the one to get her out of bed instead. You’re the one getting her out of bed on most days now. It’s as if she has a death wish. You get Natalia ready and into class just a mere thirty seconds before Madame Belova arrives.

Cutting it that close, you want to heave a sigh of relief, but you find out that she feels absolutely nothing. Sometimes, you can’t reach her anymore. It’s like you’re screaming into a void that has no bottom. Can anybody else see that too?

Body, forgive her. She’s a liar.

No, you don’t just mean white lies and masterful manipulating lies. You mean, she lies to herself and to those around her. Whenever you’re hurt, she says that she’s fine. Whenever you’re scared, she promises there isn’t a pang in her gut. There’s a great divide.

She walks around with fractured bones and an even more fractured mind. She walks with a blatant disregard. You wonder if she feels pain at all but you believe that she feels none, but you hurt anyway. Isn’t that enough?

A man with electric blue eyes and a metal hand frowns as Natalia limps past one night. You favor your left, from the irritated ribs and sore hips that you have from her nightly affairs.

He asks, are you okay? To which she replies, perfect, just passing through. She even does it with a smile that you know she can’t even feel, but the man is thoroughly unamused.

Body, forgive her.

This is when it starts. There are no more mustard patches and goosegrass, no opioids and no bandages. There’s just her, and you, in a bathroom stall with a history of dead girls too.

If you ever once thought that she’d take good care of you, that’s a long time gone now. She stares at her wrist, and then she stares at the shard of glass with the sharp ends, and then she rips and tears you up until you bleed. For a moment, just a moment in time, she’s happy.

And then, all out of left field, your heart races. Your ears begin to ring and seem to drown out the world. Your mouth goes dry. You can’t even begin to understand what’s going on; you haven’t even begun to understand this.

She cuts you up even more, and so the more you throb and bleed. Then, she lathers your blood all over the broken, rusted edge of the stall door, and then she hides the shard behind the toilet seat. You both end up in the infirmary, and when she’s asked about the gash on her arm — and they say it’s horrible at best, it’s good that she came — she says that she’d tripped into a serrated edge.

It’s the first time she’s hurt you on purpose, and yet they don’t ask questions. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. You still have to force her to go to class the next day.

Body, forgive her.

Or don’t. Natalia is at least sixteen now with a blatant disregard for her own life. She’s wasting away, and making you waste away along with her. That’s not how things should go.

She has started drawing on walls, one perfect line for every perfect kill. She has tens, nearly a hundred, and you sit on the edge of her bed as she stares at it every single day. You don’t know what’s going through her head, not one bit.

At least she doesn’t carve the same lines into you anymore. If she once needed physical pain to remember all of the people she’s killed, she’s way past that now. Sometimes, when you fall asleep, she screams awake from the voices in her head. You stare at corners at something that isn’t there.

It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s not okay.

Body, forgive her. She’s just thrown you down the stairs today. She’d tripped, she’d said. They ask her if they knew she was pregnant, and for a while now, you’d been feeling rather sore and unwell.

She says no. She says, how could that be? She says, not a single clue. You know she knows. You’ve been telling her for a while. It’s why she sent you tumbling down the stairs in the first place. But there are better ways of getting an abortion than fracturing your face, your ribs, and breaking your arm in three places to do that.

She asks, is she still pregnant? They tell her no. She tries not to smile.

Body, forgive her.

Wait, no. You can’t forgive her. They don’t take her against her will anymore. In fact, she shows up when he, them, they least expect it. With her hair cascading over her right shoulder, just the way he likes it, she crawls into his bed and makes her peace with what this is.

She pushes the curve of her back up against a man that’s more than twice her age. His throbbing cock rests hard against her rear. Sometimes, they fuck, and he fucks you raw. Other times, they fall asleep, and it’s the first time in a long time that you have ever felt an extent of tenderness from this man’s hands.

Through the night, he locks you in his arms. He sings and whispers praises about what a good, easy, perfect girl she’s become. Really one of a kind. Then, he says he loves her most. You feel absolutely nothing, no butterflies in your stomach nor heart beating out of your chest, when she keeps your back to him and says: I love you too.

You want to say that she’s asked for it. Sleeping in the bed of her abuser, she’s definitely asked for it. But we don’t blame the victim here.

Maybe this is the only version of her experience where it kind of makes sense, in some twisted, demented, horribly misunderstood way,

The strange man with the metal hand comes around more often now, and often walks the halls late at night. He doesn’t sleep, is always anxious. They never talk. One day, he stops Natalia in her tracks on her way to the shower and back to her room in the wee hours of the morning, and asks her why she keeps coming here.

Just passing through, she says. He looks at her funny, like he has just caught her in an obvious lie. It is an obvious lie, but he doesn’t correct her.

Body, forgive her. Natalia knows well that sipping on ice chips isn’t dinner, but it’s dinner for you. She still throws up anything that manages to make it even halfway down her throat. Your gag reflex is slowly becoming essentially non-existent, and so she feeds you even less. In fact, you stop having hunger pangs.

She’s obsessed about how she looks, except that you know just as well as she does that it isn’t a matter of looking good. The skin over your spine is bruised and your ribs can be seen through her clothes. You know her antics by now; it’s just a matter of making you look thin and sickly enough to make it all stop. It doesn’t matter that you’re within an inch of your life. It doesn’t matter to him, or them, that she’s within an inch of her life too.

They don’t stop. She’s running out of ways. In trying to take control, she’s slowly but surely losing all control. You think she’s insane. No, she’s just sick, she’s always been sick, just in a way you’re unable to fix.

By eighteen, you wonder if she’ll make it out alive. You bet she doesn’t want to.

Body, forgive her. It’s torture, she knows. They’ve tried everything from flaying you to slicing you, to depriving you of what you need. Light, time, food, water, warmth, coolness, and all of your senses.

They beat you, they blind you, they deafen you with the sound of a thousand screams for forty-eight hours straight. They drown you, they burn you, they put electricity through your bones. They even pass you around men like they claim that captors in the real-world always do.

You’re suffering at the hands of her fate and she doesn’t bat an eyelash.

Instead, she checks out. She always checks out. It’s how she lies easy. It’s how she deals with the monstrosity of her experience, and of her life. She checks out of the present like checking out of a five-star hotel, just like she checks out on life.

They’re trying to break her, you know. But you wonder why they don’t realize that they’ve already broken her, a long time ago. It’s been a long time coming. Hasn’t it been obvious enough?

If they’re looking for a reaction, you’re a hundred percent sure that they won’t find one here. And neither will you. It goes on for days, and these are days that they waste. They say she’s made of marble, that you’re made of marble, and they sing her praises as the nurses carry her out. She thanks them back using your mouth, a mouth filled with blood.

As much as you hate it, it’s not a fight that you win. It’s never a fight that you win. You’re starting to realize that now.

Are you ready to comply?

Body, forgive her.

The day of graduation is coming near. Oh, so near. You sleep in the dean’s bed, his fullness all up in you like you’re his personal cock-warmer. He takes your blonde hair in his hands and thinks that you’d look better as a redhead. Men always love redheads. The world will bend to her will, he says, as a beautiful redhead.

So her head catches fire. It goes up in flames, literal flames, and it kisses her scalp and caresses her brain. While her hair runs the deepest Russian red, her eyes run the brightest earthly green.

What’s going on in there, you beautiful redhead?

Natalia starts falling behind in her classes. You know she does that on purpose. You’ve honestly given up fighting for her anymore, but this time is the first time that she’s fighting for you. She doesn’t want to go under the knife, but she still ends up there. Sloppy. Snippy. Done.

Now, she and you have nothing left to lose. That’s always been the point, since the beginning of the end. You both have no place in this world. Somehow that’s worse than death.

Body, forgive her. She’s made you an accomplice in a string of grand gestures. From a bomb in the Municipal Market of São Paulo, to the hospital fire in Tianjin, China. From the nuclear arms race in France, to sarin at the wedding of an American diplomat.

She has created ripples, waves, gargantuan torrents in a world where she knows that she has no place. She’s a drop in the ocean that caresses the world, and yet it’s not a world that she knows how to exist in anymore.

It’s not much different to you. It’s worlds different to her. You see the world through no lens but your own. Perhaps she sees differently. She shoots up in an alley and gets on with the show.

Body, forgive her.

People are coming for her now. And when they come for her, they come for you. The body count keeps growing, and along with it, her name on international lists. And when the people come, you often wonder why she bothers fighting so hard in the first place, when all she’s ever always wanted was out of this life anyway.

That’s what she wants, right? That’s why she has hurt you the way she has hurt you? Yet, it’s like she’s waiting for something, for something to happen. Sometimes, she thinks it enough that you begin to feel it in your gut.

Something has yet to come, but you can’t tell what. It’s either her greatest nightmare, or her greatest ally. In between a well-deserved painful death, and an offer to a new lease of life, she can’t tell them apart.

Body, forgive her.

Natalia’s mind is absolutely stupid by now. Sure, she knows medicine, and her hands are a work of god himself. She knows eighty different languages and can draft out mission plans within one good sitting. She knows her science, she knows her math, she knows the most profound things in the world, and she has her way with a computer and a man. Even a woman, too.

Yet, when she comes face-to-face with Death in the figure of an all-American man, she’s blind. He offers her a way out, and she says no. He offers to protect her, and she says no. He offers to kill her and be done with it, and she says no. He gives up, and doesn’t know what she wants.

They have dinner. His name is Clint, it rhymes with flint, and he has the most watchful eyes that you have ever seen. You have a good feeling. She has one otherwise. And so Clint, whose name rhymes with splint, tells her as it is — You’re surviving, but you’re not living. Your life is ending before it’s even begun. Don’t you see, Natalia? It shouldn’t ever have been this hard.

She thanks him, tells him to do his job. She assumes his job is to kill her, maybe capture and torture her. Yet, coffee cup in hand, he says that he is. He offers her a lifeline.

When she doesn’t think to take it, you do. In this man’s hands, you’re finally in control now. But maybe, not really. You take his card, you take his phone, you take his hand, and off you both go.

You think you’ve left Natalia — specifically her piece of mind — behind in a seat in a booth of a German coffee shop. In that case, you’re stupid too, for she follows you like a shadow overcast upon you.

Throughout the plane ride from Berlin to New York, you don’t talk much, and so he talks. It’s genuine but calculated, truthful but manipulated. You think, this man is something else. She thinks, this man will ruin her life.

Her replies are short, and maybe almost rude, but he’s gracious and patient, and he sees something that both of you haven’t. What he doesn’t see, is the decay that’s already blatantly there. He’s counting his chickens before they hatch, and both she and you know enough to never do that.

Is the worst part over, you think? No, not yet. But if you’re patient enough, like he is, it can.

Chapter Text

Body, forgive her.

The first time that they take the both of you into a brand-new infirmary, they run a series of exams and tests. Exams and tests have always been a thing back home, back in the academy, and Natalia has always been a tad too competitive.

From ambidextrous target practice, to hour-long ballet assessments by the barre. From nine different repertoires on pointe, to snapping her best friend’s neck. From language exams, to wilderness survival exercises. Been there, done that.

Except these exams and tests aren’t lessons or exercises, but evaluations and kits. Still, she tops the class. She excels. And by excel, you honestly really mean that her body and her mind are unlike anything that the Americans have ever seen. In fact, they’re horrified.

What happened to you, they ask. I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through, they say. In her utmost nonchalant manner, she remains calm and unaffected, and confused about their sudden sympathetic dispositions.

When you scan over the medical reports with your very own eyes, you’re horrified too. They’ve photographed every scar and mark and brand on your body, including the ones on the inside of your thigh. They’ve detailed every broken bone to your tiny frame. You — her body — are a chaotic mess, a heap of damage and destruction, and that’s just the ones on the outside.

Clint & his handler advises that she should talk to a therapist to give her clearance to operate. She lies through her psychological evaluation and gets an easy green light.

Like they’ve said, the world still bends at her will.

She scratches Natalia Romanova off of all of her charts and documents, and puts down Natasha Romanoff instead. Again, they bend.

Body, forgive her. It’s been a little over a year. The Americans tell her to assimilate. They tell her that she’s with them now, that she’s safe, that she’s good, that she’s perfect, that it’s the start of a new lease of life. Yet, it doesn’t feel that way.

Sure, you’ve gotten used to the extreme warm weathers of the summer and the mild chilliness of the winters in New York. You’ve become a fan of heights and she hangs out on rooftops with her new favorite person. You’ve tasted glazed donuts and loaded cheese fries, and burgers are about the size of your face. The coffees are bad, but huge, and that’s part of the experience.

Everyone hates Starbucks, but still buy them anyway. Every time she goes, she gives a different name.

And it’s been forever since someone has touched you in a way that has meant any harm. It’s been forever and day since anyone has tried to destroy her mind with programs and machines and words. Really, it’s just been four hundred and twelve days. Good, after a lifetime of bad, can sometimes feel that way. It’s the first time she actually feels herself smile, and mean it, and you’ve waiting too long to feel that rush again.

Then, she slips into alleyways in the night and exchanges money for drugs. Heroin, cocaine, ketamine, meth, anything that works. You start to realize that she’s been lying to you, to Clint, to everyone, about exactly how well she’s been.

You’re a slow learner, aren’t you? The sick don’t only get better. Most times, they often get worse. It just gets harder to notice.

It’s alright if you learn slow, as long as you learn. All you have to do is keep listening. Are you still listening? Will you keep listening? Will he, will they keep listening?

She eases a fentanyl patch over the hollows of her chest as she heads to work. Body, forgive her.

There comes a time, once you’ve decided to get so very comfortable with your new life, where you notice a feeling. You’ve never felt it before, not as far as the body remembers. The last that she had felt it had been back when she was a child, a lifetime before this lifetime amongst a variety of lifetimes that she calls ‘now’.

It grows within her ribs and it evolves to become whole from deep within her. Her heart is a field of dead and decayed flowers and roots that has finally begun to flourish with bits of life, and warmth, and love. Even in all of her secrets, she holds the calloused, bow-wielding hands of her favorite human being, and she feels at home.

Home. That’s a word that you've heard but haven’t felt in so long.

They work together. They spend time together. They fall together and they never fall apart. It’s kind of a perfect world when they are together, and you have a good feeling. Oh god, you have a great feeling about this. After everything, this is what she truly deserves.

You feel butterflies in your stomach whenever he envelopes you in his arms. Your heart beats right through her shirt whenever he tousles your hair and caresses the translucent skin of your cheek, cold skin against a warm and steady hand. It’s endearing. It’s all-encompassing. It’s consuming. It’s love.

One morning, Clint runs his fingers through your hair and he tells her that he spots some blonde-colored roots. He says, it’s pretty. He says, you should grow it out.

Natasha, being good ol’ Natasha, thinks nothing much of it. She shuts him up with a sloppy, tender kiss on his lips, and she entangles her fingers into his as they sleep through the rest of the morning in the same bed.

It’s a dream, an absolute dream. You think, don’t screw it up. But just be patient, and just keep listening. If you think that this ends with a happy, love-filled ending, you’re thoroughly mistaken. We’re not at the end yet.

Body, forgive her.

When the first good man — in a long string of less good men — makes love to her between his sheets, she feels nothing. Maybe even pain, but she doesn’t say a thing. Of course, you feel good. He makes you feel everything right. He bathes you in enriching love and showers you with affection, and he worships your body like its the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

Again, in her head, there’s a great divide. There has always been a great divide. Sometimes, if she’s high, the pleasure increases tenfold.

And then he makes the huge mistake of saying that he loves her for the first ever time, and all she can think about is a man with a distinct smell. All she can taste is him, on her skin, on her lips, in her mouth. When Clint touches her, you know that she feels her ribs break. Your stomach clenches with her panic.

A young girl, a younger her, pounds her little fists against your full-grown chest. She mistakes it for an escalating heartbeat.

She promptly rushes out of the bed that they share, doesn’t look at him, doesn’t talk to him — really talk to him — when he asks what’s wrong. Instead, all she says it’s that they’re done, they’re through, she doesn’t love him and this isn’t something she can do. He’s crestfallen, heartbroken, and she thrusts the proverbial knife into his back, lodges it wherever it hurts, and then she twists it even further.

Then, she puts on her clothes and she grabs all of her things and she runs as far as she can away from him.

While she still feels a rock-solid shaft against the small of her back, and the unbudging arms of a smelly old man when she walks the streets, trying to catch her breath, you feel nothing.

Body, forgive her. The only way she knows how to really love and be loved is at the hands of purely bad men. It’s a downward spiral, bad decision after bad decision after bad decision, and you tend to bear the brunt of it.

They hit her, and choke her, and they knock her around and tell her she should die. That she’s worthless. That nobody will ever love her the way that they love her. She knows at least three ways of how to kill a man with her bare hands in two seconds, but these bad boyfriends and one-night-stands somehow always think they know better. They tell her that they’ll shoot her dead if she ever dares to leave, and she says okay.

Was that to staying, or to dying? You don’t know to which.

Clint often eyes her bruises with a frown when she comes to work. One time, she shows up with an eye swollen so deeply shut, and another time with a cut lip. When he probes about them, about how she’d gotten them, she lies and says: I tripped.

It’s a stupid excuse. Everyone knows it’s the world biggest, dumbest, most unbelievable excuse. He blinks, thoroughly unconvinced, and all he says is: okay.

One evening, they have the privilege of running into each other outside the bar on Fifth, her bicep gripped hard by a man that’s not nearly twice her size, and his arm hooked around the shoulders of someone else. A girlfriend from earlier that year, she remembers, but she doesn’t remember her name. If Natasha remembers correctly, she might be a pediatrician, or a lab technician, or a nurse practitioner. One of them, at least.

She stares a bit too long — the woman is beautiful. Long brunette hair, perfect cheekbones, sculpted swooping arches of her eyebrows, a tiny nose, and the most enthralling almond eyes that shine in three different hazel-colored tones. Confident, self-assured, compassionate. Everything that she herself isn’t.

You think you’re not that bad, right?

A sharp sting hits the side of your head and suddenly the world erupts. Clint’s hands are around that man’s neck, Clint’s girlfriends hands are on your face, and you can’t decide who to look at. She isn’t helping to decide either, not for a while, not until she finally says: let him go, it’s okay.

Her boyfriend has a broken nose from the archer’s fist. Now, she has a broken nose from his. Then, they fuck. Hard. And he tells her that the shiner around your eye looks really fucking ugly, and she agrees.

Clint’s girlfriend tells him in passing that Natasha is dead behind the eyes. He replies, saying that he’s noticed, that he’s working on it.

Body, forgive her.

It’s easy to avoid bad men by staying home. So, that’s a start. But staying home and staring at the ceiling with heavy bones and a heavy heart isn’t quite like the life you’ve always wanted for yourself. Then again, it’s her life too.

You think it’s been three years. She thinks it’s been four. Neither of you really know how long it’s been since you’d both gotten on a plane in Berlin, destined for New York, but all time and place and all the days begin to blend together again. You know this feeling, and it alarms you. She doesn’t sleep, but doesn’t move.

Sometimes you want the sky to burst into flames, and the noise outside her window almost sounds like warning sirens. Well, at least to you.

She wakes up two hours ahead of two hours before going to work, and then she calls in sick. Or rather, she texts. You know that her voice will be a dead giveaway as she toes the line between being sick, and not being able to get out of bed anymore, and it’s still one of her secrets that she continues to upkeep.

The both of you wait for the chaos to burst through the front door, guns blazing, calling out her name with an amount of distaste that just might make her shake in her bones. You both wait for the bullet, because she’s always waited for the bullet or the strike, but the bullet never comes. In fact, no one comes.

She doesn’t leave her bed for days.

Other than the not sleeping, the not eating, the not drinking, the not speaking, the not breathing, the not blinking, and the not showering or moving, it’s maybe one of the easiest few days that you’ve had.

You remind yourself not to be disillusioned. This is supposed to be very, very, very bad, it’s just that she’s not letting anyone else see it yet. Body, forgive her.

For a moment, you think this is it.

When she returns back to the office the following Thursday morning, nine working days later, she gets called into another psychological evaluation. But yet again, it’s an easy test. Nobody sees it yet, just how bad this really is.

You learn the taste of gunmetal on your tongue that very same night. You learn the taste of gunmetal on your tastebuds for the next many nights. Sometimes you wonder if it’s the taste of your brain matter and your blood, but then she pulls the gun out from beneath the roof of your mouth, and that’s the only way you know that you’re both still alive.

Natasha answers the front door immediately after with a gracious smile on her face, as Clint comes bearing work files and gifts in the form of noodle boxes and kung pao chicken.

She sits crosslegged, forcing down mouthful after mouthful of noodles and chicken that you know she can’t taste, and still says that it’s really good. She takes mouthful after mouthful, and laughs at every stupid joke that her partner makes about Budapest, and Bucharest, and other places that start with B’s.

They talk about his upcoming wedding, set for next year, and how she’ll definitely be there to air his laundry — dirty and otherwise — during the reception. The only best friend’s speech there is, she says. They talk about it as if she hadn’t just had a gun in her mouth twenty minutes ago.

You feel almost sick.

As soon as he leaves out her front door, your shoulders drop and your face goes slack, and the smile that she’d had promptly disappears from your face.

Body, forgive her.

Sometimes it just slips right past her when she’s mentally packing her bags and shelving her thoughts to make that trip to the other side of that door, or that open window, or off the side of that one good pavement and right into oncoming traffic, exactly what gets hurt in the process. She often forgets that it’s you.

You are an extension of her, and she, an extension of you. And most days she tries to separate the two as best she can, and apparently it makes her feel better about herself, but it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference. There is no difference. There’s nothing to split.

She still drinks. She still does a ton of drugs. She still sleeps with men that don’t respect her, but at least she doesn’t turn up to work with shiners anymore. You’ve well gotten familiar with the taste of her Glock 26 on your tongue. You recognize every single nook and groove and catch and dip and edge. The one time she doesn’t use a Glock 26, your tastebuds can even tell the difference.

And then, at 5.23am on the 27th of February, she doesn’t ask you for your consent before she drives you right into a concrete barricade at the speed of a hundred miles per hour. It had been a split second decision on the drive home from Boston, you know, but it still sickens you that she’d finally done it. And at the same time, at least she’d finally done it.

She’d done it, two months before the wedding.

If she had wanted to die that much, to kill you too, she should have just used a gun. You both know well enough to know that.

Her ribs break open in a spectacular display, and they say that there’d been no brake marks, and no skid marks, and given the extent of the wreck that she should’ve died on impact, and a young girl, a younger her, pounds long and hard against your fully grown, fully damaged chest. As the first responders and the medics work to pull her out of the wreckage, they mistake it for a live heartbeat.

Body, forgive her.

Because Clint just can’t forgive her, not yet. He’s the first one that they call when she gets rushed to the nearest Level I Trauma Center. They call him just as he’s biting down on burnt toast and helping his fiancée decide on the best colored napkin for a Spring wedding, and he leaves the decision undecided, along with the rest of his toast. He gets on the first flight out to Boston.

When he reaches, he fields statements and reports and questions left, right and center.

The car didn’t skid. She didn’t brake. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. She has shattered sternum. Her aorta is in shreds. She has bilateral lung lacerations. Did you know she was on opiates and cocaine? She’s out of the woods now but they’re working on saving her legs. Her spine is broken in two places. We’re getting a psych consult. Does she have family? I’m telling you, she drove straight for the barricade.

She drove straight for the barricade on purpose. We have it on a traffic camera recording.

He spends three full weeks there, holding your hand in the ICU, as she’s barely awake. You’re on the vents. The pain is everywhere. In your head, in your bones, in every cell and fiber of your body. Your body is covered in scars that you’re convinced are the equivalents of the mark of Cain, a wretched way to never die a premature death.

When Natasha finally wakes, that’s when his own rapid-fire questions start coming. How long has she been abusing illicit drugs? Why hadn’t she braked? How often has she harbored suicidal thoughts? How long has she been depressed? Why is she depressed? Did they break up at the time because she was depressed? Hasn’t she been happier in the States? Why had she lied through all of her psych evaluations? Why didn’t she ever tell him? Didn’t she trust him enough to let him know?

He asks, what the fuck is wrong with you? She says, I don’t really know.

There are tears in your eyes. There are tears in your eyes, of torment and of terror, and it’s the first time since the day that they’d met nearly five years ago that he has ever seen her cry.

The good archer’s eyes soften at her demeanor, and he places a warm, comforting hand on your forearm, and he begs her to tell the truth for once in her life. For once in her life, to let him in, because he can’t stand to see her like that.

Confined to a hospital bed, you feel it coming, the reckoning. The moment of moments that you’ve been waiting her entire life to actually happen. The moment where she tells the truth, her truth.

Your chest hurts as she stifles her sobs, all this to say that everything started with a man.

Be it the man who set the factory on fire, or the man who stole her from the vents, or the man who fondled his way into her pants. It’s always a man.

Then man usually has a way with words. That’s obviously how this man, amongst other men, had ruined her life. He usually finds his words easily, but today he just doesn’t know what to say.

What can he say? There’s nothing to say.

But what Clint can’t put into words, he throughly puts into gestures. He doesn’t touch her unless she wants to be touched. He listens, and listens attentively, and doesn’t judge. He puts in her leave on her behalf. He makes sure that she gets the best care in the best treatment centers and the most fitting psychiatrists and psychologists that he can find, and this, Laura — a nurse practitioner — helps with.

Eventually, the soon-to-be husband and wife decide to push their wedding date. They say, it’s okay, they’ll have a fall wedding instead.

Body, forgive her.

Despite all the leeways and concessions and help that has been offered to her by the outstretched hand of good women and men, as well as best friends, Natasha finds it hard to snap out of it.

At times, you still hurt. Whether it’s the pinprick of your fingertip against a sharp and pointed edge, or the cutting pain of thinning fingernails against the flesh of your palm, it’s small, but you hurt. She does it to differentiate what’s real, you hear, and you don’t know what that means.

You remember the way your body feels when she screams awake. You remember empty corners. She still wakes like that sometimes, and the corners still remain dark, cold and empty.

The in-house shrink in the inpatient facility tells her in return that just because it’s all in her head, voices and sounds and visual hallucinations of her many demons and ghosts, doesn’t make it any less real. But we’re gonna have to work on that, the shrink then says.

The medications make her dull, and make you heavy. It doesn’t feel good, not in the slightest. In fact, it feels the worst that you’ve ever been, but just keep listening. Learning is listening. It’s listening to what the body needs, and apparently it’s effort, and brain chemistry. Apparently, it’s this.

Eventually, you breathe again. Not one of those half-breaths that make you want to yawn as you walk up the steps, none of that. No, you wake up one morning with a newfound fullness in your breath. You start to taste again. Pleasure doesn’t feel like pain and, again, you take a full breath.

You take a full breath.

Body, forgive her. After everything that she has put you through, from A to Z and Natalia to Natasha, that’s all that she asks of you.

She admits that she’d detested herself, and that had undoubtedly rubbed off onto you, but she reassures that it had been nothing to do with you. You throb, a manner of reminding her of all of the times that you’d borne the brunt of her destruction, and had held all of her ticking time bombs.

But for once, this is something that doesn’t feel like she’s intending to create to explode.

She writes apologies and love letters and thank you notes to you, her body. She showers you with self-love and affection, and respects you the way that you were always meant to be respected. She asks for your forgiveness, for all of the years and all of the ways that she has ruined you.

She takes the best care of you, and you’re reminded of her mother.

Body, have you forgiven her yet?

She grows out your blonde hair and disregards the red. In fact, she snips it off when it gets too long, and you both only then realize its actual weight. Not just inches and ounces, but decades of events that have marked her all these years. Your head feels lighter, as does hers.

A young girl, a younger her, pounds her fists against the inside of your fully grown chest. Natasha, being good ol’ Natasha, doesn’t mistake it for a heartbeat. Instead, she sees it as it is, for exactly what it is.

The soul of a young girl, the younger nine-year-old her that had been left behind in the scorching vents of a burning pharmaceutical factory, slams and pounds her tiny fists at the walls, and they reverberate in the words that say: I’m still alive. I’m still here.

And then the walls fall, and the soul of a nine-year-old her finally gets smoked out of the vents, and she finds her way to the surface. Her palms are scorched, but she remembers cling wrap and mustard paste, and so the twenty-years-long burns don’t hurt that bad.

Can you forgive her yet?

Natasha still trips on pavements and laughs with good boyfriends at the hairline cracks in the concrete, and they agree that it’s just so dumb that she did that. And sometimes she scrapes her knees running away from her best friend’s kids.

You still feel the bite every time she flexes her knees, and she still loves to skip her steps on any given stairwell. You pray for her to slow down, and that she’ll learn to take better care of herself, because then she’ll inadvertently take better care of you.

She applies a paste of goosegrass to her wounds, on the skin’s surface and otherwise, before she goes to sleep. It’s to show that she cares.

With remedies like this, and persistent therapy, and trips to Budapest and Bucharest and other cities that start with B’s, and still a good handful of rough and tough days where you have to force her out of bed, or sometimes you both just unanimously choose the bed, and time spent around loved ones and family and friends, and the soul of a nine-year-old her now alive and upbeat and well and giving her instructions at the back of your head, and even with the feelings of the barely-there sensation of heavy hands on her arms and her thighs and a shaft rubbed up against the small of her back, and the mindful bridging of the gap that you both call the great divide, you both heal quickly.

And you forgive her.