Chapter 1: Prologue - The prisoner
Washington DC, December 2015
It’s the day before Christmas of 2015 and their entire Serbian network is blown to dust – by a waterfall of bullets or, their accounts are unclear on this part, by a series of brutal executions in the streets of Belgrade, where seven of their agents lose their life. Natasha would mourn them, if only she knew who they were.
She does know this: one of them was a blonde, blue eyed man named Andrej, who probably died somewhere in his early thirties, whose picture is flashing on the holographic screen of their meeting room in DC. They’re sitting at an oval table that maybe wants to resemble King Arthur’s round one, but not quite – it’s still clear who the boss is, who is sitting at the narrow end of the oval: Maria Hill is in charge of bringing the bad news, and she does so coldly, apparently without any emotion, her eyes cool and hands steady as she reads through the files.
“Andrej,” she’s saying, clearly referring to the man in the picture behind her, half smiling, standing in a park or somewhere green, although nothing in Maria Hill’s posture or tone is suggesting that she’s speaking about him, “he had an intuition, as early as last June, about a mole.”
“In the Serbian network?” Natasha asks. They all let her speak, because they know that the Balkans are her area of expertise. It makes her feel uneasy, as if all eyes are on her – on her and on Andrej, half smiling in his blue suit in the park.
“In Belgrade,” Maria Hill says. “Who it was is unimportant, because they were all killed in the attacks.”
The few Avengers present bow their head at this – Tony Stark is away, on some business trip, or something like that; Thor has left without specifying where he was going, probably visiting his family, or whatever is left of it; that leaves her with Clint Barton, Bruce Banner, and Steve Rogers, who’s probably still a bit confused about the situation in the Balkans, which have always been a powder keg, to be honest, he must know this much – he looks like he’s paying an insane amount of attention to Maria Hill’s face. Natasha keeps looking at the surface of the oval table.
“So he contacted his supervisor about it,” Maria explains, “and we have a rather detailed folder about the intel. We think the mole gave us plenty of chickenfeed,” she states, removing a particular document from the rest, “mixed with some good, but outdated, or anyway unimportant, information, while deflecting our attention from what the real issues were.”
She pauses, which is something she does pretty often.
“Andrej tested them by spreading the word about a certain thing on the coast on Montenegro – next thing we know, there are two Serbian agents at the Christmas market in this little town on the coast of Montenegro. This was last week,” Maria explains.
“They found out,” Natasha states.
“Yes. They were meticulous, and didn’t even spare their own man.”
Everyone just nods.
“But right before he died, Andrej – and his supervisor, who will not be named – believed they had discovered the man who was behind the mole – who wanted him or her there, or even who planted the mole himself.”
Natasha closes her eyes, and thinks, why do I know what she’s about to say before she even says it, or, why has the room begun to spin.
“He’s known as the Minister,” she says, and she might as well stop talking because Natasha realises that she knows.
“He’s in the fucking government?” Clint gasps, but his voice is drowned by Natasha’s blood rushing to her ears; Bruce and Steve are exchanging whispers.
“Everyone calls him that, but he has never had…”
“...any official positions,” Natasha completes the sentence for her. “He works behind the scenes, always had. He’s old money, owned several metal factories, and huge amounts of land in Siberia. We’re talking large enough to be their own country,” she explains, because Americans don’t know, can’t visualize, just how large Siberia is.
“Natasha,” Maria Hill says. “I know how well you like it here now, and I think you deserve some quiet time – after all the operations you’ve done recently. I think you’re being a great friend and mentor to Wanda,” she says.
Natasha knows why she’s saying these things – it’s the first part of a sentence that contains a ‘but’, it’s a rhetorical technique, with the purpose of winning Natasha’s goodwill, which Maria Hill must know she doesn’t really need – because she’ll say something and Natasha will obey, like a puppy: she’ll go to the most remote corner of Siberia for her, not because she’s Maria Hill, but because it’s her job.
“I’ll think about it,” she says, then thinks about Wanda, and Vision, and thinks, maybe it’s not the worst thing. She doesn’t actually need to think about it; she knows she’ll go. She’s just buying herself some time, she guesses.
The next morning she finds an empty bed instead, and a note – the bed she and Wanda have taken to sharing is cold, and undone, and on the pillow next to hers is a note.
It’s written in Russian, in Wanda’s messy Cyrillic –
He asked me to come with him and I said yes.
Thank you for all you’ve done for me. Hope to meet you again on the field someday.
Wanda, the Scarlet Witch
And Natasha knows who ‘he’ is.
Natasha knows a bit about abandonment issues; she’s had to learn, obviously, and they come in all shapes and sizes: some of them make you clingy like a puppy, emotional and at times manipulative, and those thanks be to God she’s dodged, so far. Then there are those that periodically, every half a year or so, before anything has ever happened, when you’re still sleeping close to the one you love, wake you up in the middle of the night, make your feet itch and your mind scream: go. Because if you leave first then you won’t be left, it’s simple mathematics, thermodynamics marking the difference between the future and the past, what’s in your hands and what ultimately is not.
It all goes back to Olga, she thinks – as everything does. Her black hair and hazel eyes looking at her from the stage, through the dark eyeshadow and stage makeup, and she knew even then that it was not the fate Olga had chosen for herself, quite the opposite, to be completely honest – but it’s still what happened and it’s been almost fourteen years and it still hurts.
She could have prevented it from hurting, had she been careful from the beginning – from her very first night in the Moscow Room, after the one in Stalingrad burned down. Was burned down. By someone. Why does it even matter – one facility burned down, so they had to move her to another. Sixteen year old Natasha, suddenly forced to share rooms with Olga. The pain, the tears, the hurt, that she could have very easily avoided – yet she has not.
(Maybe that’s how it went with Nikolaj too? Somehow she doubts it.)
This time Natasha leaves, mostly, because, by doing so, she becomes immune to abandonment, and isn’t that some great accomplishment.
So she agrees to go to Serbia – which, as she’s already established, was totally going to happen anyway – and there goes her chance: at a life with Wanda, if only those words together in that order didn’t sound so foolish and insane; if only Wanda herself hadn’t made that impossible. When she boards the military jet to Belgrade, she’s mourning, but it’s not her sudden departure that saddens her. He asked me to come with him and I said yes. Here goes her chance at hoping for a life spent across the hallway from Wanda’s room, maybe kissing her at night, in the dark, when they’re sad.
And if in that exact second Wanda is kissing Vision in some forgotten corner of Western Europe, well, Natasha technically agreed to go to Serbia first.
Now Wanda’s gone and soon each of them will elaborate it and develop her own version of history and decide who was the quitter and who was the quittee and they will both deny that they ever were the quittee, no, it hurts less this way, and they will say:
It was only because she reminded me of home.
Only because she was the only other girl.
Only because she had an idea of what it felt like.
A moment of weakness.
Upon further analysis, Wanda won’t simply deny she was the quittee – she will say, there was nothing between us, and therefore not enough to call it ‘quitting’. And everyone will believe it, because there’s this thing the girls in the Room used to say, which, in English, sounds pretty much like this: it doesn’t really count if it’s with a girl. Which originally referred to the sexual act, and the central importance of penetration in some people’s rather narrow idea of intercourse, but of course since then it’s festered in Natasha’s mind and now it means way, way more than that.
Now Wanda will go off with her glorious, tall, blonde man, they will get married and have babies, and they’ll show everyone their rings; people will be happy for them and Natasha will be seething in anger and green eyed envy. Then Wanda will be Whole, a whole woman with a dick in her life, and Natasha will keep being broken. It’s the way it’s meant to be.
Belgrade, April 2016
A woman is sitting in the cell, hands tied behind her back, long black hair hiding most of her face; her legs are spread in front of her and her feet are bare and bloody, the right one has a wound. Natasha steps forward and halts, right before the bars, even if nothing seems to suggest that the cell is alarmed. By now almost all of the prisoners have left the building, taking advantage of the mess caused by the first evasion. The woman must have stayed only because she was bound. She must have fought, she’s gasping for air. “We’re on your side,” one of the agents says, in English, one of the SHIELD ones Natasha doesn’t know. “We’ve come to free you.”
The voice comes from far away, as if the hallway had stretched indefinitely behind Natasha’s back, had become infinitely long, even, and the agents will never be able to reach them, because now the only things in the world are the bars, and Natasha, and Olga on the other side.
When Olga raises her eyes, Natasha notices that she’s temporarily stopped breathing. She still has those large eyes, maybe even larger than then, because she looks like she’s lost so much weight; a quick look at her feet, the only part of her that’s not hidden by the filthy clothes, is enough for Natasha to tell: she still knows by heart every curve of her body, every valley and crest, the map of her skin and the exact proportions as they were back then, when they were both young and soft, breasts brushing against each other and peach flavored lips. When life, and the other, was a fruit waiting to be picked and tasted and the world was a summer day – doomed by the first winds of autumn, because both had been sold to the service when they were just little children; but summer nonetheless.
Steve shatters the picture in a million tiny pieces as he strides on, breaks the lock with one single bullet, then the door swings open and Natasha sees the agents run closer and closer towards them, until they disappear at the sides of her vision, and then she sees Olga, whole. And then Olga sees her, too. Her eyes, that didn’t seem to focus on anything at first, are fixed on Natasha now; they seem to have grown paler, sharper. They’re almost black, in the almost total darkness: the cell has no windows. The air smells like someone died in it.
Olga, the real one, had light hazel eyes that looked a bit green in the sun, clear and sharp, eyes that Natasha had rarely seen anywhere else. Now they look veiled and muddy, and they have thick dark circles around them, as well as sharp orbits, making her look a bit like a skull in a late Medieval painting, dead orbits that aren’t really supposed to have a glisten in them. Olga is staring at Natasha as if she could see right through her, which, Natasha doesn’t doubt it, she can; there’s also some kind of rage, that she can’t quite place in the complex image that her mind has of her, but she’s sure it’s always been there.
“Olga,” she says, “what did you do?” And then thinks, what did they do to you, my dear.
And by ‘they’ she means the man that Maria Hill’s folder, compiled from Andrej’s carefully transmitted information, information that has eventually cost him, and six others, their lives – the man the folder is about, referred to as the Minister, and they called him that too, although she’s sure that back then they knew his actual name. They knew where he lived, which car he drove, his chauffeur's name and what his young, distant relative turned wife look like. The answer to the latter was: young and scared, and Nastasha thinks she remembers her well.
Olga hasn’t replied; she’s looking at the ground, defeated.
She’s too weak to stand; once freed, Steve and Clint lift her, one arm each, and they drag her along. She’s always been taller than Natasha, but still her feet dangle several inches off the ground. She’s wearing the grey prisoner suit, shirt and pants, covered in blood and other substances Natasha can’t identify.
“Do you know her?” Bruce asks, in English. Obviously he’s speaking English. Natasha is still there, so of course they speak English. She’s still in the Serbian prison, she can hear in the distance that the sirens have gone off again. “She was my friend,” she says, not seeing the point of lying. No one says anything else. “I didn’t know they’d turned against her, too.”
There’s a principle that says: your enemy’s enemy is your friend. Natasha has no doubts that they’ll apply it to Olga. They’ll carry her to the Helicarrier like dead weight, and then all the way to Belgrade, where they will give her a cozy and warm room in the compound, a golden cage, with white sheets on the bed and a functioning shower.
Maybe she’ll defect and she will be briefed for long hours in the white room replacing the old beige one at HQ and with what she knows, however much that is, she’ll purchase a new identity for herself and Natasha will have to get used to calling her by another name, or maybe she’ll get to keep hers, and then Natasha will see her walk out of the room a winner, beautiful and free, and they will see each other and smile. Maybe Olga will never smile at her again. Maybe she’ll jump off Steve’s shoulders and she will start running, and Natasha will never see her again in this lifetime, either because she gets away or because someone shoots her point blank. Natasha knows she can’t really afford these thoughts.
Olga does no such thing. Steve and Steve drop her on a chair and Steve slowly walks towards her, pointing at her injured foot, until she nods and he starts touching it, bending it to the side slowly, as if it were much more delicate than Natasha knows it actually is, and Natasha remembers that, to them, she’s just another stranger, they’ve never seen her before and she’s very, very thin. She remembers that Bruce doesn’t actually know the sound Natasha’s fingers make when they run through Olga’s black hair, or that she has a brown birthmark on her thigh, or what the shade of her bare nipples at night is.
Olga sleeps during the flight, on an armchair that’s only slightly more comfortable than the chair she was bound to in the prison in the Serbian countryside, with her freshly bandaged foot on the seat in front of her and her other knee hugged tightly to her chest; a single shackle secures her to the chair, but she’s otherwise free to move and settle comfortably in it, which she really doesn’t seem to be doing, judging by the painful looking slope of her shoulders. She says nothing and does nothing except in the beginning, when she makes a sign at Clint, because she doesn’t know he speaks a few words of Russian, which means, unequivocally, that she needs to go to the toilet, and Hawkeye seems embarrassed but then he nods and takes her there, and why hasn’t she tried to ask Natasha, who speaks Russian? It stings a bit. Then Natasha falls asleep too.
As soon as they land they take her away, without even giving the Avengers the time to get off the plane and onto the tarmac; Clint drags her out of the Helicarrier and some agent with a suit and tie and a large gun points to the back of a military vehicle where Clint dumps her as if she were a trash bag. Olga doesn’t complain. The agent gets on the front of the car and another one ignites and drives away. Natasha is forced to walk on foot through the tarmac, with Bruce, Clint and Steve, none of which says nothing and none of which probably is even aware that it’s not just another prisoner that they’ve brought back as a souvenir from Serbia. They go back to the compound as if nothing’s happened.
The wait that follows is, for Natasha, the worst part; she walks the short distance between kitchen and hallway several times, turning around every time she reaches the wall, counting the steps and mentally following their rhythm. Afterwards, she’s decided, she’ll speak to her; but now there’s nothing she can do for Olga.
It’s dark when they let her out. She’s uncuffed, which, in Natasha’s experience, is always a good sign. Five years ago she, too, left the beige room, uncuffed and still clothed in the Soviet uniform. Olga is now wearing Western clothes, maybe because the tattered and torn prison outfit had been deemed inappropriate even for interrogation. The white shirt is falling off her shoulders, the pants are wrapped around bone thin legs. What’s happened to you, Natasha thinks, what have you done, Olga.
“Take her to the guest rooms,” one of the agents tells her.
Natasha nods. Stark has a room ready for her, sent some personnel to make the bed and freshen up the space; it’s in the left wing, on the upper floor, in the part of the compound that’s harder to reach by elevator, that requires the highest clearance, even higher than the rooms where the Avengers sleep, because it’s not about preventing access but escape, and Stark always says it’s way harder. They pass several barriers with Natasha’s card, that she slides with small, jerky movements, just enough for it to be recognized, as if she was obsessively saving the effort. When they’re not standing still in aseptic elevators, moving smoothly inside their long chimneys, they walk in synch, weren’t it for Olga’s limp.
Eventually they reach the corridor they were looking for, with its white and grey walls and the metal doors painted a bright white, with an opaque glass window each. Olga is the first prisoner of the Belgrade compound, so she gets the luxury of a corner room, with not one but two windows overlooking the yard, in the spot where the left wing of the building joins the main body.
It’s larger, a perfect square inundated by light, says a real estate agent somewhere in Natasha’s head; the bed is a queen size instead of a single, and the desk gets plenty of natural light, as well as the yellow glow of the metal lamp, the exact same as every other lamp in the compound.
Even though it’s probably never been used before, and the windows don’t open past a palm’s width, the room doesn’t smell like cleaning products or new furniture. “We’re in Belgrade,” she tells her, because she doesn’t know if she already knows. “At a SHIELD facility. This compound was only completed last year,” Natasha says, wondering why she’s playing guide. “You’ll be the first to live in this wing.”
“So I’m your first prisoner,” says Olga.
Natasha stops by the window overlooking the yard. “I thought you’d come here to defect.”
Olga shrugs, raises her narrow shoulders, narrower than Natasha recalled. “For now our interests happen to match. But for how long will it last?”
“I can’t tell you that,” says Natasha, “if you don’t tell me how you ended up jailed in Belgrade,” and Olga laughs with the left side of her mouth, conceding her, at least, that.
And then, softly: “We’re here for the Minister.” Olga looks up to her, eyes wide.
“You weren’t surprised to see me; you knew I’d defected in the end,” Natasha states. Olga doesn’t reply.
“Yes,” she says in the end. “I had been told. And…”
“You always had something in you. Not like the other girls there. I think you weren’t so easy to bend,” she says, “that you would eventually be told to do something, and refuse to obey. Is that how it went?”
Natasha stops for a second, thinking.
“Sort of,” she replies, truthfully, “but I wouldn’t have, if things hadn’t almost collapsed by the time SHIELD arrived.”
Olga nods, but she’s still smiling.
“They’re far from perfect,” Natasha says, “and sometimes I wonder whether they’re actually better than what I came from,” she’s stalling, unsure of where the question is going, but desperate to find out. “Why didn’t you come here, too,” Natasha asks in the end, and she knows it’s unfair towards Olga, because while she ran away, to a life with the tall kitchen guy, Olga never got to choose the people she got to live with – Olga was purchased with a financial transaction, plus usage rights, at the age of seven years old: nothing, in her life, had been her own choice, save maybe a couple of things – Natasha being one of them. But then why, exactly, even within such a narrow field of action, why had Olga managed to be more herself, more free, than Natasha ever had, even in the shining, glorious, flourishing West?
She’d stepped on a train to move in with Nikolaj and that had been it. She’d wished every day that Olga could be with her – her shadow following her at night; trying to enjoy the moments, forever wondering what could have been, had the other been with her, those cold nights in Eastern Europe warming herself to Nikolaj’s side Even then she’d been aware that it would have been asking too much. And at night, in those first weeks, when she couldn’t sleep, even in her new house in the West, the thought had always been the same: why didn’t you come with me.
Because the thing was, Natasha had betrayed twice: the second time had been when she’d been saved, by Clint Barton, of all people, and she’d boarded a military jet to the West.
The first time, she’d betrayed herself - it was surprisingly easy: one snowy January morning, once she’d turned nineteen, once her training at the Red Room had been deemed complete, she’d stepped on that train with a man she barely knew and had called it love; they’d rented an apartment and they’d called it life; they’d pretended they were independent agents, even when the KGB was watching their every move like a hawk, and they’d called it a job.
She wants to scream, to blame the skinny woman in front of her – for being braver than her, maybe, even though she knows it’s not fair – but she can’t find the words.
Chapter 2: Arrival - Your friend
We get to see how things were inside the Red Room!
I loved writing the flashbacks. I really hope to see more of the Room in the movies.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Moscow, January 2001
Natasha remembers the first time she’d been housed in the new Red Room facility, after the old one burned down; she’d been taken by the lady to one of ten dorms, together with three other daughters of poor people like her. Irina and Lada had welcomed her warmly, with smiles and kind words, that sounded a bit insincere, but were very welcome nonetheless. They were both blonde, blue eyed and little more than children, both had paled in comparison to Olga.
She was sitting on the bed when Natasha arrived, and she got up to greet her, with a quick turn of the corners of her mouth, nothing compared to the big smiles Irina and Lada had put on for her. She was taller than Natasha, and leaner; she had a true dancer’s physique, that Natasha obsessed over every night, staring at her silhouette in the dark – she slept on her side, more deeply than the usual trainee, and she snored a bit. Sometimes it was barely audible, like a wolf exposing her soft underbelly, dangerous but vulnerable – and she knew that hidden underneath the blanket were those legs, long and flexible…
That’s right, Natasha used to tell herself, that’s why I’m so obsessed with her legs, because she was lucky enough to be born with dancer’s feet. Her arches, and thin ankles, that Natasha hadn’t been blessed with; hard work was never going to be enough to make up for it.
It took her a bit after their first encounter to pinpoint what exactly was so out of the ordinary about her: unlike all the other girls in the Room, Olga had short hair. Irina and Leda told her that she’d cut it herself, one night in the bathroom, with tiny scissors normally used for cutting nails. The ladies always told them that long hair, however inconvenient it may be in battle, was the first weapon of seduction. The ladies didn’t seem to bother Olga for hers, though. Natasha figured that Olga didn’t actually need long hair to be beautiful. She was already stunning, with the sprinkle of freckles on the bridge of her nose, the light brown eyes the size of teacups and her dark, straight hair that stopped at her chin, always an unruly mess. And when she danced, with her hair everywhere because it was too short to pull it into a bun and none of the ladies could do anything about it, it looked like there was nobody else in the room – her movements were wider than anyone else’s, her lines sharper, her head higher than anyone else’s. And if the ladies praised her, she’d barely acknowledge it.
She spoke little during the shared meals and in class, and was decent at hand to hand combat, although she lacked the pure brutal strength Natasha was praised for; when she fought, she looked like she was dancing, her movements rehearsed and controlled, as if it was a choreography rather than a fight. Olga the dancer, Natasha the fighter, she muttered under her breath sometimes, while staring at the mirror that covered the entire wall, at her own movements but mostly at Olga’s: at the beautiful curve of her neck and the unruly black hair on top of it.
On Natasha’s first night at the new facility, she barely said a word, save for her name. Olga Petrin, so oddly fitting, Natasha repeated it just to feel the sharp sounds against the roof of her mouth, Olga Petrin was a movie character, a star.
On her second day Olga asked her if she wanted to see a cool corner of the facility, and Natasha nodded, feeling her chest light up with some feeling. Olga led her to the large garden fenced with barbed wire and signs telling people to stay away or else, their solemn cyrillic the only sign of civilisation in sight; the garden was large and there was no grass in December, the weather colder than Natasha was used to, since she’d somehow managed to live in the same place all her life. She’d stayed at a temporary house in the outskirts of Stalingrad when she’d been first recruited, and then she’d gone back to the city, at the first Academy, the one that had burned down.
There was a hill before the barbed wire, and they climbed it together, leaning forward so as to not fall on their faces on the dry ground. On the hill was a tree, with bare branches, marks on its trunk and wiry roots that emerged from the dry ground. One piece of root stopped at about knee height; it had a small indentation on top, that resembled a bowl. “Here we made magic potions, with flowers and resin, when we were young children,” Olga said, smiling, pointing at the bowl. “There are flowers here, in the spring.” It was January. Natasha had turned sixteen in November. She wondered who else Olga meant, when she said we. Lada and Irina had just arrived, and she couldn’t picture the three of them making potions. Few girls stayed at the facilities as long as they had.
They sat behind the tree, on the wiry roots, with a clear view of the white sky and the barbed wire fence and the signs telling people to stay away. Olga sat with her long legs crossed, while Natasha found a nook in the roots to sit in, legs close to her chest and tense. Olga carried her limbs with an ease that looked almost surreal to Natasha – her back was slouched and her muscles relaxed as she looked at the sky and closed her eyes for a bit. Then Olga took out a pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes and offered her one, which Natasha accepted, holding it between her middle and index fingers like she’d seen the ladies do.
Olga asked her about the fire at the Stalingrad facility. Natasha replied, truthfully, that she wasn’t there when it caught fire, she was at a theatre for ballet rehearsals. She’d lost all of her personal items, minus her dancing gear. Olga asked her if she liked dancing. Natasha said that she did, although she wasn’t as good as her. Then Olga looked at her in a strange way, that made Natasha’s heart ache – like it was totally, completely unheard of, like no one had ever told her she was good before.
Natasha knew that the lady who taught ballet would praise her almost every day, and when they danced in groups Olga would always be placed in the middle, near the front. They rarely performed in public, but Natasha didn’t doubt that the Red Room was showcasing her. With the long legs, the cigarette stained hands, and the short, unruly hair – as if every attempt at getting away from their prying eyes, every attempt at hiding, at being ugly, only made Olga more visible. More beautiful.
The next day Natasha awoke to find a t-shirt with a picture of Nureyev printed on top. Someone had left it folded at the bottom of her bed, and the very strange thing was that by doing so, they hadn’t awakened Natasha. Natasha was a light sleeper, the ladies in Stalingrad always praised her for that.
“It’s Olga’s,” Lada informed her, when she saw it. “I don’t know why she left it there,” so Natasha asked her, right after a combat training session that had left them both shaking and sweaty.
“I want you to have it,” Olga said matter of factly, closing the zipper on her exercise bag. She’d barely broken a sweat – and she’d been beaten quite badly, too. Natasha couldn’t really admire her fighting skills, because even after only two lessons, she had more than enough information to know that she was a better fighter than Olga. But she still found something to admire – as well as stare at her legs and hair as she fought – in the way she always got up, unbothered, so much that even the most enthusiastic new recruit didn’t stay enthusiastic long against her.
“At the potion tree, tonight?”
Natasha nodded. Curfew was less strict than it was in Stalingrad. The ladies seemed to know that they all sneaked somewhere, even those who tried their hardest to look like good girls, like Kata, and they didn’t seem to mind. They seemed to encourage it, even. The barbed wire and armed guards made running away inconceivable, and it was not like anyone of them had somewhere to go, anyway. Smoking was technically not allowed, but rumour had it that lady Agata herself contrabanded cigars. Sneaking out with boys, sleeping with them, was on paper the worst offense a girl in training could commit, but the ladies could tell when the girls were up to it, and they never once tried to prevent it. Olga explained all of this on their second day sitting on the roots, Natasha more comfortable in her nook, Olga still with crossed legs and a cigarette between index and middle finger.
Natasha wanted to ask her more about this whole sleeping with boys thing. If anyone had to know something about it, that had to be Olga. She wanted to ask her about everything, her life and the facility and why exactly the stars were brighter here than in Stalingrad, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
They began to visit their spot under the tree almost every day, for a cigarette and a good talk. They sat in the same way, and on those rare occasions that some other girl was wandering in the garden – which was still cold, in the middle of January – they never dared to go near them.
Natasha was worried about their daily meetings in the garden. The ladies in Stalingrad had never encouraged friendships between the girls, at least when they were kids – Natasha had always been the youngest. Don’t get too close, lady Tatiana would tell her after class, where she’d learned to read and write and do addition, if she’d sat next to a classmate for too many days in a row, or if she’d played with only one other girl during breaks. Never let one person hold so much power over you, they said. Lady Tatiana had survived the fire, but only because she was outside when it was started, tending the garden. She grew vegetables and she’d taught Natasha how to cook them.
Natasha knew she couldn’t afford to give Olga so much power – but soon she found herself waiting all day for their meetings, that she thought of as secret, although they were not. She’d try to catch Olga’s eye during ballet practice, just to share a knowing smile with her. Slowly, she too grew addicted to cigarettes. She asked Olga where she bought hers – through a guard at the entrance, who contrabanded them. One evening in late January she went to said guard, gave him the money and received her first pack. She could feel the man’s eyes on her as she sneaked back out in the garden, burning through her clothes and her skin and her organs.
Those cigarettes tasted different, although they were the same brand as Olga’s, and she offered her one to celebrate her first pack. They smoked together, in silence, and Natasha knew she couldn’t afford to live for those cigarettes, those talks and those silences, because they could be so easily taken away from her, at any time; but they were all she had.
She also knew, and it was, after all, the same thing, that their days together were finite, and nobody knew exactly how close the end of them was. After all, Olga was the oldest girl in the facility, at seventeen years old. At sixteen, Natasha was entering her seventh year at the academy. Lada and Irina were only fifteen, and newer recruits. God knew how long Olga had been there. Rumour had it that she was actually from Moscow, and she’d never even left that facility, or the city itself. Yet the bed, the corner she occupied in the room, were as impersonal as a hotel room. Besides, Olga was old enough that Natasha knew that the first recruiters would arrive soon, to inspect her grades and combat skills and long legs and, eventually, her virginity – the thing that was between her legs, that the lady called Polina, the one who seemed to like Natasha the best, kept mentioning.
Irina and Lada seemed very concerned about their virginities – they’d tell her stories they’d heard from the younger girls, about Kata or Yelena or someone, who had allegedly lost hers with a tampon, or a beam exercise, or a somersault or something else, and they looked like they were scandalized but also amused at the same time, like they were just waiting for it to happen to someone else.
There was another story Natasha had heard from them, but also from the pious Kata, which meant that it had to be true:
Once upon a time in the Moscow Red Room lived this girl, who was visited by Agency recruiters shortly after her eighteenth birthday. They were different from the recruiters who’d taken them from their families when they were just children – those hadn’t been recruiters as much as customers. Those had purchased the girls for a price.
These new, proper recruiters checked a few things: grades, ability to read, write, and do addition, combat training, and then virginity. Virginity, the ladies always said, was imprescindible. How they checked for virginity, Olga had told Natasha, very calmly, one night under the tree, was the worst part: they’d have sexual intercourse with the girl, and if she bled, then it meant that she was a virgin. Natasha had said that it was brutal, and she’d also pointed out that it could only work once. Olga had replied that the results didn’t really matter, only the procedure, and Natasha had stopped for a second to think.
She didn’t say it out loud, but she was wondering when that was going to happen to Olga. She was going to turn eighteen that July.
The girl from the story hadn’t passed the virginity exam, despite being a bright student and a skilled combatant. No one really knew what had become of her, but her name had been Maria, which was also the name of a woman who used to beg by the barbed wire fence. She looked old, but Natasha knew she couldn’t be older than thirty; she’d ask for leftover food and the guards would chase her away every morning. Every day she’d be back by early afternoon. Her eyes were always wide open, and dark with anguish. So, every time she heard about recruiters visiting other facilities, Natasha thought of Maria, and her large, black eyes.
When she told Olga about the story, she laughed, and told Natasha that it didn’t really matter, that it happened often, just look at the sheets they hang from the lavatory window: sometimes they’re clean, sometimes they’re not. Then she told Natasha, almost in whispers, that it wasn’t the real reason why Maria hadn’t passed her exam. But Irina and Lada took the story about Maria and her virginity very seriously.
Because Irina and Lada, at the age of fifteen, from the new building in the middle of the city, so different from the remote temporary houses for new recruits, had seen the boys, a fact which always made the ladies laugh.
(The funny thing wasn’t that Irina and Lada had found the boys – that they were secretly longing to expose that fruit, and lose their precious virginities – no, that was not funny, that was to be expected, because Irina and Lada were human. No, the funny thing was that the last night before Natasha jumped on that train with Nikolaj, after Olga had been recruited by the Minister himself, she’d heard them whisper in their bunks, about buying pig’s blood at the shops, to carry on their person at all times, in case the recruiters arrived unexpectedly soon.)
Unlike Natasha, Olga had grown up to become a lousy spy. There is no other explanation, Natasha thinks, no other reason behind the seventeen page report she’s managed to steal. It confirms most of the things on Andrej’s carefully redacted papers, adding so much more – about Olga, and her professional service, or, more fittingly, the lack of professionalism in it. She’s been impulsive and she’s been careless and she’s become too emotionally involved, and everything, on those seventeen pages, painfully produced by a low ranking agent and an old typewriter – even here in Stark’s hyper technologic compound, that is still the safest way – everything on those seventeen double spaced pages has been Olga’s fault.
The Minister doesn’t come up until page ten – no mention of him before the fateful day at the end of the summer when he’d finally shown up to the Moscow facility. Before that just names, and Olga’s wealthy ancestors, and locations of Red Rooms and precise, boring lists of the facilities they owned. Natasha thinks that’s fair. It’s hard to bare your whole soul to someone just like that, no matter how scary the interrogating agents try to look.
Olga’s spent her entire life in that palace – that is, after leaving the Red Room. Fourteen years, give or take, of taking care of a man named Fjodor, entertaining the guests at parties, probably sleeping with the Minister every night, or maybe he would walk into her room when it got dark, and then undress her and –
Fourteen years or so, Natasha thinks, fourteen years of stasis. Four walls, and those never changed. Maybe the Minister had taken her with him on diplomatic missions – that had nothing in common with what Natasha called missions: they consisted of dinners, balls, cocktail parties. Maybe she’d worn that green dress at those parties, or maybe the Minister had given her an entire new wardrobe. Meanwhile Natasha has traveled, settled down, lost everything, betrayed – she’s been almost dead and then saved, and then and only then she’s finally defected. Olga, what have you done?
Page twelve mentions, quote, Olga harming and abusing the Minister’s wife, Snezhana, preventing her from carrying an heir for the Minister; a behavior that had been going on for a few months, unquote. It’s the unofficial charge – it’s the final straw that landed her in that jail. Natasha believes she remembers the Minister’s then child bride. She’d waited for him outside the dorms, that afternoon, just like Natasha had waited for Olga: she’ll never forget the day she discovered powerlessness. Snezhana had red hair and blue eyes and a perpetually scared demeanour: she’s not worried about Olga hurting her – more like the other way around: she was the Minister’s wife, after all. But Olga, she never let anyone take advantage of her, not in any way that mattered, at least.
But then, what’s this feeling in the pit of her stomach as she reads page twelve?
She’s holding the file close to her chest, she realises, against a soft velvet shirt she’s worn for the occasion, for Steve’s last day in Serbia and the party they’ve thrown for him, because he is coming back and she isn’t, just like Bruce isn’t, just like Clint isn’t, not yet. He wants to be back soon, Natasha knows, because he misses Laura and the kids and everyone, and she supposes that it makes sense. Natasha would want to go home too, if not for the fact – rather simple, thinking about it, about how it came to be – that Wanda isn’t there anymore and she doesn’t really have a place to call home, or not anymore. If not for the fact, she thinks, that Olga is here, and if I did nothing about it, the universe would have made it happen for no reason, and I need things to have a reason right now.
But then again, it’s not like she’s ever had a place to call home, so it’s probably fine to stay, anyway.
“You’re not yourself,” a voice says, then a thud on the sofa (she’s lying in it, knees close to her chest). Bruce is sitting down next to her, with a smile that looks like it hurts, like it was meant to be reassuring but it’s not.
“I’m fine,” Natasha says, looking at the large window in front of her, impersonal the way only professional building fixtures can be.
“I mean even less than usual,” Bruce says. She sighs. “It’s the prisoner,” he says, and it’s a question, a statement, and an epiphany all at the same time. “It’s her, isn’t she?”
So Natasha, who’s feeling like a wild animal, whose hideaway has just been found by poachers, finds herself forced to surrender, to nod.
“You were in the Red Room together, right?”
“Right,” she replies, and her voice sounds rough around the edges, like it hasn’t been used in a while.
“Were you friends?”
Natasha lets out a chuckle. If they were friends – she supposes they were. Natasha had approached her first, like a fan approaches her favourite singer, full of admiration and love for her long legs and feet arches and for her short hair.
“I guess so,” she says in the end.
She is the first person I can say I loved and I am seventeen and watching her practice ballet and I can’t help but daydream about a pas de deux with her, not like the ones where two female characters dance together but a really romantic one, with tragic music and jumps, and I have no doubts that she’ll catch me, should I fall, and I know for a fact no one else would.
“We were very close,” comes out instead.
Bruce nods and pats her on the shoulder and Natasha thinks that he has no idea, not one of them has.
“Why did you agree to move to Serbia?” Bruce asks. Which is a smart question, really, because they’re the ones who agreed to move to another continent for maybe one or two years, and they probably had a reason to do it. Natasha knows that Bruce wants to stay out of the States and out of the spotlight. Why did she agree?
Because I missed this part of the world would be a good reply – a bit sentimental, but she is feeling sentimental, after all, but cryptic enough and unlikely to generate further questions, and Bruce is usually a discreet person.
“I didn’t know she was here,” she says instead, and wonders when exactly she started being so defensive about everything. “I knew she worked for the Minister in Moscow. I couldn’t imagine that he’d sent her to prison in Serbia.”
Bruce nods. Natasha realises it came out a bit too defensive.
“It also looked like a good opportunity,” she says.
“You were very close to Wanda, too,” Bruce says.
Natasha feels the blood in her throat run cold, somehow, if that’s even possible.
“Why do you say that?” she asks him.
“Watching movies, going to museums, the stuff. I thought you’d found a friend,” he says, sounding a lot like lady Polina, when she was feeling understanding.
“She was very nice,” Natasha says, reassured by the word friend, wondering whether Bruce really doesn’t even imagine, hoping so. “I think she needed someone, but now she’s found her place.”
“Isn’t she cute, with Vision? I never in a million years would have imagined the two of them, but…”
Natasha knows speaking would be too risky, so she just smiles.
Olga is technically free to go wherever she wants, as long as she stays inside the compound. Her story has been read and reread and fact checked, the facts compared with what Andrej had found it, and deemed compatible. They might as well have said, welcome to the west, sweetheart, and put a cowboy’s hat on her.
She does roam the premises, albeit undecidedly and always at the oddest of times, like a romantic ghost and just as pale and sickly. Natasha ran into her in the kitchen last week, on the first night without Steve, at 3 am. They smiled at each other, at last, and Natasha kept smiling till morning.
Until one day she shows up in the gym, while Natasha’s doing stretches. She never dances anymore; mostly strength training, some sparring when someone else is around.
“Nice gym,” Olga says in her muscovite accent, although it’s not really true, it’s a really shitty place and Natasha hates it but it’s reminding her of the one in the Moscow Room right now, because of the way Olga’s standing in front of her, much skinnier but unchanged in posture. And God, Natasha is no longer used to speaking in her own mother tongue –
Then Olga drops a bag on the floor, that Natasha hadn’t even noticed, at first – she’s wearing stretchy pants and a large, impersonal white t-shirt, borrowed from someone, given by SHIELD, and once again they don’t really have their own clothes, just the stuff that whatever organisation gave them. Maybe someday they’ll go shopping together like they never did, and what would they look like in a department store, such a mundane environment, like two people who are normal and haven’t been through any weird shit in their lives? Natasha wonders.
There’s a bar against one of the walls of the gym, the one with the mirror, and Olga starts stretching against it.
Natasha wants to tell her to take it slow, that her foot’s still healing, but she understood early on, in Moscow, that there was no point in giving Olga orders or sometimes even advice. Her jaw is set, her eyes fixed on the mirror in front of her, and the long legs still the same – thinner, less full underneath the stretchy fabric, her feet sickly skinny and covered in blisters and bruises and barely healed scars, but underneath it all Natasha can still see the young body that had captured her eyes in the Red Room so many years ago and she thinks, have I changed this little, too.
It’s been fourteen years; Olga’s face is all wrinkly and there’s sagging skin begging to be filled by something, anything, but she still has that sprinkle of freckles on the bridge of her nose and on her cheeks, and her eyes are still the same shade of hazel; her hair is still short, no more than shoulder length, and as unruly as before, but there are streaks of white in the black. Underneath all the abuse and neglect, she’s still one of the most beautiful women Natasha has ever seen.
When she’s done with the bar, she sits down on the floor, one leg on either side of her trunk, until they’re along a straight line, at which point she leans forward and soon she’s on the floor with her entire upper body, arms outstretched in front of her. She stays like this for a while, two, three minutes. They used to do this together, when the ballet hall was empty and the ladies busy somewhere else, Olga’s longer body enveloping Natasha’s live a glove, embracing her from behind as they stretched their muscles. Then they’d dance together in front of the mirror, sometimes actual routines they’d been taught by their teacher, sometimes small sequences they’d just made up. Inevitably Olga’s hand would catch hers, and make her turn like a spinning top, breaking their ballet composure and smiling. Natrasha doesn’t even remember what they were rehearsing for at the time – probably the Swan Lake, the only big pièce they did together, the only spring they ever spent together, after all – and it hurts to think that such a short time has managed to shape her so much, to turn her into the person she still is today. To think that the year she spent with Olga has turned out to be way more difficult to delete than the ones she’s spent with Nikolaj; to think that she’s trying to delete it at all.
Everything’s changed, but they’re still Natasha and Olga, and those are still their bodies, however older, abused, neglected, injured they might be. Why does that levity seem lost forever, Natasha thinks, I’d do everything to go back to the way we were; look at me, smile at me like an accomplice, make love to me and tell me it’s going to be alright. I never really stopped loving you, she realizes, with a gasp, and she can feel her eyes grow wide.
She could tell them, she knows. They wouldn’t react too badly. They've saved the world together, what could such a revelation actually do?
Natasha’s not afraid of being screamed at, kicked out, or worse. But.
She’s not going to lie down on her back, show her belly to the world. No matter the fact that they’re unlikely to stab her.
A lot of what I write ends up being about self acceptance. I really hope it doesn't say too much about me.
Chapter 3: First time - Control
content warning – somewhat explicit sexual content
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They took to staying out late, until it was completely dark in Moscow – there were no streetlights near the facility – and they had to use Olga’s lighter to find their way back to the entrance, down the hill.
Moscow was really cold in the late winter, but even more so after dusk, when the only other beings brave enough to be seen in the night were the guards and the stars above the barbed wire fence. Olga owned a single green parka coat, old and battered and too large around the shoulders, with fur trims on its neck and on the hood that were framing her face, displaying her freckles like they were stars in the Moscow sky. Natasha had been given an old pale pink windbreaker by the ladies, her entire wardrobe gone in the fire. Olga would let her borrow her stuff, mostly oversized sweaters and cardigans. Natasha liked to hold their too long sleeves in her fists, and smell the leftover scent of their owner.
They smoked a lot, and they talked. One night in late February, around the fifth or sixth week of them sitting under the tree, the first time they stayed out really late, it got really cold, so cold that Natasha was having trouble holding the cigarette in her right hand.
Olga extended her right arm then, patted the ground beside her, and without thinking Natasha slipped out of the nook she’d been almost subconsciously occupying since her first day there in January, and sat hugging her knees so close to Olga that their entire sides were touching.
Olga rubbed her shoulders vigorously then, like she was trying to warm her up, and then settled the outstretched arm around Natasha’s neck, stole a puff of her cigarette with her other hand, starting a small fire on the inside of Natasha’s cheeks.
“‘S good,” Natasha said then, not really knowing what she meant by that.
“It’s very good, yes,” Olga replied, with her deep, calm voice. It made her sound like an old wise woman, or an oracle, like she knew so many things Natasha wasn’t privy to.
“I want these nights to last forever,” Natasha said, thinking about herself and the oracle next to her, in the green, fur trimmed parka coat. It feels bizarre to modern day Natasha, and wildly out of character, that she actually said something that made her so vulnerable, something so emotional.
Olga smiled then, without turning to look at Natasha, looking up at the sky instead, pointing at the stars with the tip of her small nose.
“If we lived in a perfect world, Natasha, we wouldn’t even have met,” she replied, and Natasha had to stop and think, she was right.
One day the recruiters would come – lots of them, because she was so beautiful and so good at ballet – and they would inspect her for her virginity with their rough, dirty hands, and Natasha thought that she would have gladly taken her place, just to keep Olga safe, untouched. She didn’t know yet that Olga had already been recruited, in every way except formally, or perhaps even in that – even her statement, or Andrej’s report, aren’t too clear about that.
“Are you scared of recruiters?” Olga asked her next, as if she could tell what Natasha was thinking about, just by looking at her frown.
Natasha froze for a second, then nodded. But not for myself, she thought, I’m scared that they will come for you, she wanted to say.
“Don’t be,” Olga said. She uncrossed her legs and scooped forward, retreating her arm, until she was sitting cross legged again, this time in front of Natasha. She put her hands on both sides of Natasha’s face and leaned forward, looking at her in the eyes.
“There’s something inside of you that no one will ever be able to take away from you,” she said slowly, enunciating every word, her eyes burning into Natasha’s and out of the back of her head, into the night.
“Nat, you have the most beautiful soul I’ve ever seen,” she said then, and Natasha was once again floored by that ache in her chest – you are the cool one, she wants to scream, this should be the other way around, you’re the brightest soul I’ve ever seen and I’m nothing compared to –
Then her hands tightened around Natasha’s jaw as she leaned further forward, and her small mouth with the round, pink lips was drawing closer, and closer, until it touched Natasha’s, and it felt like the sweetest fruit of the summer, plump and soft and promising. Olga’s pink lips parted, so Natasha did the same – she’d heard the girls talk about how it was done – and cringed at the sound of teeth barely meeting each other, the strange sound of enamel, followed by the wet feeling of a tongue that wasn’t hers on the inside of her mouth.
She wanted to play along, follow the example and move her own tongue in synch with Olga’s, slip it into the other girl’s mouth, but she found herself frozen, her lips barely open, until Olga pulled away.
“Oh,” she said, with her beautiful, beautiful voice. “First time?”
Natasha managed to nod.
“I hadn’t realised,” she said, “you are so beautiful,” then leaned forward and kissed her again, softer, this time, without using her tongue, not straight away. Natasha thought that she wouldn’t have minded spending eternity like this, their bare lips forever touching in the black Moscow night.
They had to return eventually; by the time they walked back to the room, using their lighters to see the way, something wet was between Natasha’s legs, and her nipples were painfully hard in a way cold alone could never achieve. Irina and Lada always returned to their shared room even later than they did, both busy sneaking out in Kata’s room or in the kitchen, where two young boys from the outskirts of Moscow had just been hired to help with the dishes. That left the empty room for them.
Olga led her to her own bed, which was the farthest away from the door and the closest to the wall and the window. The curtains were drawn, dark and thick and dusty. Natasha thought that she wanted to see the sky while she was in bed with Olga, but she also knew that they had to be cautious. Sneaking out to do things with the boys was explicitly forbidden, but that meant that there was some protocol in place regarding it. Olga’s skin, her bare shoulders as she hastily removed her sweater and shirt, were a whole new uncharted territory for Natasha, endless possibilities she’d never even considered before unfolding before her eyes. Her hands ran to Olga’s sides, all the way up to her bare breasts – she wasn’t wearing a bra – until Olga smiled at her, like an accomplice, like a lover, and she put her hands on top of Natasha’s and guided them up, one on each breast, full and soft like ripe fruit and all hers.
They both kept their pants on, that first night, but Olga helped Natasha undress from the waist up, without dropping that beautiful smile, looking into her eyes as Natasha unclasped her bra from behind her back and let it fall on the bed; then Olga’s nicotine stained fingers were on her nipples, teasing them with cold fingertips. And Olga’s body was to similar to her own, but also different enough – she knew, rationally, what another girl’s body had to look like, but she’d never seen one like this before.
She ended up rubbing against her with those same fingertips, through the panties, until Natasha’s knees locked and she gasped and she saw spots. Wen she came to, Olga was smiling. They put on their pajamas without saying a word, because Irina and Lada couldn’t see them both naked in the same bed, then Olga patted the mattress beside her and Natasha curled into a ball next to her. Next thing she knew, Olga’s arms were around her, pulling her into a hug that felt like nothing else Natasha had ever done with anyone before. She fell asleep there, and she slept unusually deeply. Olga’s arms weren’t around her anymore when she woke up at five the next morning; the other girl must have had removed them when Irina and Lada had come back from the kitchen.
Staring at the ceiling, Olga curled on her right side next to her, she let herself think. Natasha had never been tempted by boys. In Stalingrad, the older girls were all boy crazy, as the ladies called them. They would sneak out all the time and tell each other tales of their conquests. Natasha never even envied them; the ladies praised her, and she thought it was a good quality for a future spy. Now, though, she could feel a new fear warming her insides.
On the bed next to Olga, her nipples painfully hard, she remembered a look she’d once seen in the eyes of the oldest lady, after Natasha had been caught practicing in the gym past her bedtime, trying to balance her whole body weight on just the tips of her toes and the heavy box inside the ballet shoes she’d just broken in.
“I thought you’d sneaked out to see the boys,” the old woman had said, half-jokingly, as Natasha hurried to remove the shoes, untie the laces, shove them back into their little bag. Pointe was hard, and she’d risked seriously injuring herself: even a minor misstep could have damaged her ankles and knees badly. The lady had had every reason to be angry, but she hadn’t looked that way to Natasha.
But after all, even the toughest of hearts had become attached to Natasha, in Stalingrad; she’d even won the affection of the coldest of all the ladies who had taken her in when she was barely nine years old.
“Why should I sneak out to see the boys,” Natasha had replied, her chest blooming with pride: I’m not like all the other girls, sneaking out to see the boys: I still think The Boys are gross, and ugly, and overrated, and I know The Boys are just a test you want us to pass – and I’ll pass it: I’ll prove I can. It’s not hard – they don’t tempt me anyway. I only sneak out to practice, because I am better than anyone else. I can prove it. I can.
Natasha had been disappointed, though, by the lack of genuine praise in her eyes: it sounded like a perfectly nice thing to say, admirable, even, in young Natasha’s point of view. The old woman had only said, “Go back to bed,” without punishing her, or even getting a tiny bit mad; she’d sighed.
And now in Olga’s bed she remembered that night, and blushed, remembering the pride she’d felt, at the thought of being different, of being better, of being immune to the charm of boys: immune to the dangers of love.
Then Lada shifted in her sleep, and she felt her heart skip a beat. She looked to the side, to lga’s sleeping form, Olga who was so unlike the others, and realized: there was something else in the lady’s voice. There was concern. Maybe that was why the ladies of Moscow didn’t mind if the girls sneaked out to see the boys in the kitchen.
Natasha’s not the only one who’s thought about stealing the seventeen pages.
“Woah, our prisoner,” Clint says and whistles, sitting down next to her on the sofa with a loud thud. It’s a particular tone, one that means that he wants to start a conversation, hiding behind the pretext of a casual remark: our prisoner, what an interesting life she’s chosen! He’s settled down comfortably, he looks like he’s here to stay: he’s crossed his legs, left one on top. He’s sitting sideways, like he’s too afraid to face her directly, even though he’s always looking for her face with his eyes, to see her mouth move as she speaks. He’s doing it now, albeit sideways, and he’s looking at her almost expectantly.
“What,” Natasha says, without lifting her eyes from the coffee table. He smiles, runs a hand through his hair like he always does when he’s nervous, exposing the bright purple hearing aid he allows himself to wear when no one else is around.
“Did you know why she was in that jail?” he asks Natasha.
She looks up and sees the familiar manila envelope secure in Clint’s grasp. Inside, she knows, are Andrej’s report and then seventeen double spaced pages, containing the transcript of the declaration that Olga Petrin gave the SHIELD branch as she defected from the KGB and especially from the Minister’s service. Natasha launches herself forward, straightening her back, planting her feet on the linoleum floor.
“No,” she says, which isn’t a complete lie, because before stealing the file, she didn’t know – she’d assumed Olga had tried to escape, which she had. She had had no idea about the Minister’s wife, and no way of knowing, unless –
“Fucking the housemaid! That’s so cool, man,” Clint says, and Natasha closes her eyes and doesn’t reply – she’s pretty sure this wasn’t even the main reason. When she reopens them, she sees that Clint’s cheeks are as pink as ripe peaches.
One morning, while Bruce and Clint are somewhere gathering some kind of supplies, she walks into the kitchen and Olga is there, mug in hand, looking like she’s been waiting for her.
“Hello,” Olga says, and her voice is still deep and calm, albeit scarred by the years of cigarettes and the general hardiness that comes with living as a spy, or prisoner inside a palace, whichever comes first. Olga’s made another mug of coffee, Natasha notices. Black, like she’s always taken it. She hands it to her, left arm outstreched in an inviting gesture.
“I read your file,” Natasha says as she grabs it, without even saying hello.
“Oh,” Olga says. “I’ve never been a great spy.”
She smiles then; she gets deeper dimples in her cheeks now that she’s so skinny.
“Eat,” Natasha says, “or you’ll be carried away by the wind,” and that just makes her smile more, and Natasha feels another bit of the ice in her heart separate from the main iceberg with a crack.
Natasha goes to the bathroom – the one that only she ever uses – the one attached to her bedroom – only to find a brand new Playboy issue, in English, with a doe eyed blonde girl on the cover, left laying on top of the laundry basket.
The cover looks like a picture someone took of their girlfriend at home, the stark effect of the flash in the privacy of someone’s own bathroom, as said girlfriend is wearing only eyeliner and a mint green bra. She picks it up – it’s heavy, its pages glossy and thick. Natasha knows there are more pictures inside, but it feels invasive to open, predatory towards the doe eyed blonde woman.
There’s Clint’s signature all over the whole thing, an encouragement, a promise, or maybe a peace offering. She picks up the magazine and takes a last look at the doe eyed blonde girl, her tight stomach and high cheekbones. Her name is Camille, also known as Miss April.
“About the Minister’s wife,” Olga says that afternoon in the gym, while Natasha’s busy with planks. The gym has become their new routine; Natasha can almost see the Moscow sky above them, when she closes her eyes in between sets. She remembers that Olga exercised little outside of ballet, and without too much enthusiasm.
Natasha lets herself fall on the thin yoga mat. She’s pushed herself even harder than usual, gathering the strength to ask.
“Did you really harm her?” she says. She’d much rather ask about the housemaid, what happened with her exactly – if Olga loved her, without really knowing what answer she’d be hoping for. She hopes Olga was safe, and loved, in the Minister’s palace; she also hopes Olga was only ever hers.
She wonders whether Olga knows the questions she really wants to ask. The other woman smiles – painfully, this time: it tightens the skin around her mouth, her eyes are slightly ajar.
“No,” she says simply. “I would’ve never hurt her. She was my only friend there,” she says. “I was only helping her, against him.”
“I never doubted that,” Natasha says. “Did he harm you?”
Because she’s heard a lot of stories about masters, superior officers abusing those who were below them, only to dispose of them afterwards, and she already knows that it’s what was going on – despite all the nuance, the history, she thinks she knows what the story was, stripped down to the bone.
Again, Olga says: “No,” then looks pensive, “not, like, physically.”
Silence falls on them like the night used to fall in Moscow, so Natasha, trying to fill it, walks to the bar on the wall, realises she has never even touched it yet.
“You haven’t danced in a while,” Olga tells her, almost perceiving her thoughts as she’s resting her hand on the bar, next to Natasha’s.
“I’m going to bet that you haven’t, either,” Natasha replies, and there comes that smile again.
They look at themselves in the mirror – the two of them, together – and it’s clear that time hasn’t been kind to either of them, although that was to be expected. Fifteen years at the service of a man – the man – the Minister – but Natasha knows that Olga isn’t the man’s creation; she’s much more than that. SHIELD’s fears, if any still exist, are unfounded. They don’t know the strength hidden in that scrawny body, the light that still shines behind Olga’s light brown eyes.
Her hand has moved closer, pinky finger almost touching Natasha’s; they’re both pale, but Olga’s white is sicker, like she hasn’t seen the sun much lately, which Natasha knows she hasn’t: she’d been in that jail since June, ten months of liquid food and sunrays crawling through thin bars near the ceiling. She hadn’t been imprisoned, though – she’d just traded cells: from the undoubtedly lavish room in the Minister’s palace to the dirty shithole they’d found her in. And now here she was, free, and the first things she did were –
Olga’s hand is on top of hers now, fingers beginning to intertwine. The skinny woman in the mirror is moving closer to the other figure, the one with red hair, Natasha notices, and then she feels her breath against her mouth, and she remembers that winter night, how Olga had kissed her first.
So she closes the distance, and lets her lips wander.
It’s just as soft and sweet and promising; among a million little things that have changed, kissing her – kissing Olga – still feels like that night, forever ago. There’s sweat on their lips now, from the exercise, and they’re older, there aren’t many promises to be made anymore. Olga’s thin fingers grab the hem of Natasha’s shirt and pull her closer.
Suddenly footsteps break the silence; Olga takes a step back and looks at Natasha with fear in her eyes. And Natasha doesn’t think that she’s seen fear in Olga’s eyes before, not even when such fear had been more than warranted.
Then Clint walks into the gym, bag over his shoulder, shoots them a weird look and puts the bag down. Olga smiles, puts her hand on Natasha’s shoulder, and her hand is so warm – that for some reason makes Natasha’s chest tighten.
Then Olga smiles weakly, all dimples once again, and she is gone.
“What are you doing here?” she asks Clint, once Olga’s footsteps are indistinguishable from the faint noise in the hallway.
Clint doesn’t reply, too busy digging in his bag for something.
Hawkeye stands up and turns to look at her, looking surprised. “Oh,” he says, “she’s gone.” He’s extracted a hairband from the bag, bright green, and he’s putting it on, holding his blonde hair back from his face: it’s become quite long. He says Laura likes it this way, and it covers his ears well enough, usually.
His hair is held back by the fabric now, exposing his ears; neither the bright purple of his old hearing aids, or the sleek plastic of the SHIELD pair are anywhere to be seen. “Can’t hear you,” he says, “I’m sorry. Let’s spar.”
“Okay,” Natasha says weakly, trying as hard as she can to look at his face as she speaks, even though it’s hard, because one minute ago she was kissing Olga and the wall she’s so carefully built between that side of her life and just about everything else has thinned so much, it’s been almost pierced by Clint’s sudden appearance in the gym.
Years and years of bricks and concrete and hard work and tears, and everything will be alright, everything, everything as long as I can keep this one thing safe, which sounds a lot like the words that many people whisper, even the ones who are not religious, moments before meeting their fate, real or perceived: prayers, whispered as an attempt to retain some control.
Every now and then a light, a sound reminds her that she’s in a gym in Serbia, and she’s supposed to be sparring with Clint. He can’t hear her – overpowering him seems easier; but he knows where to look, and he can stand his ground. Still, she realizes, still he’s given up part of his control.
It’s his soft underbelly, Natasha thinks, it’s like Olga’s deep sleep in the Room, where everyone else slept the way soldiers slept in trenches.
She lunges, and dodges, and almost gets him at some point, but he’s always been quick, and flexible, despite his size. At some point Clint manages to hit her, the blow stinging like a hammer on the brick wall inside Natasha.
“Are you OK,” he asks her, helping her get up from the linoleum floor. She finds that she can’t answer, not straight away.
“Yes,” she whispers in the end. He’s staring at her, and she’s staring back. They’re looking into each other’s eyes, she realizes.
“Everything OK?” he asks again, and he does not mean physically, not this time: Natasha can’t nod, but she can’t speak either, so she just stares, and he smiles, leans forward and hugs her. And she’s not a big hugger, never has been, but he’s always been her exception, and that’s probably why everyone seemed to think they were dating, at first.
So she hugs back, smiles, and then retreats, slowly, to the changing rooms. She wishes she could tell him something – anything – anything other than the truth.
Clint toootally knows...
Chapter 4: The Minister - Ghosts
We finally find out more about the Minister.
Spring came to Moscow shortly after that first night together, the days became longer, they stayed out later and later at night and the sky always darkened a little bit later than it did the previous day.
They moved their evening conversations further down the hill, close to the barbed wire fence. They knew the guard’s patrol times by heart and they knew when it was safe to kiss. Natasha didn’t trust her own judgement at first, always let Olga make the first move.
Soon she grew confident enough for a small peck on the lips when she could see that the guard was far away. And when she did, Olga would look at her the way she’d smiled at her on their first night together – like an accomplice, like they were the only two people in the world who knew a secret, which wasn’t so far from the truth, after all.
If the ladies noticed, no one said anything. But the way they looked at Natasha, when it became clear just how close she’d grown to Olga, was enough to tip her off.
Their daily schedules also became more freentic – they began practicing hand to hand combat outside, and they started using the outside shooting range. Olga wasn’t bad at shooting – definitely better than she was at hand to hand. She was fairly ambidextrous and had naturally good eyesight.
The ballet rehearsals also became more frequent and intense. Olga was Odette. Natasha was a maiden. “You’ll be the main next year,” Olga had told her, “very few people have the same passion as you.” Then she’d improvised a pirouette around Natasha, on the hill, under the tree, and she’d kissed her cheek. They’d shed the winter coats. The light pink sweater she wore brought out her freckles.
As the days grew warmer, they were granted permission to leave the facility for one day a week, usually Sunday, and visit the city with one lady as an escort. Which was how, at the age of sixteen and four months, Natasha first saw the Red Square and Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
“I always came here with my father on Sundays,” Olga said, pointing at the mismatched towers, shifting her weight excitedly from one foot to the other. She’d never mentioned her family before. Lady Svetlana, who was with them, scoffed at her words.
“Come closer,” Olga said.
Natasha obeyed, and moved forward a few steps. In that exact moment a passerby ran hurriedly into lady Svetlana, who turned around to tell him off, and in those precious two second, while the old woman raised her index finger in complaint, Olga’s lips kissed Natasha’s cheek, or, to be more accurate, the right corner of her mouth. Then they were both giggling like little kids, the cathedral behind them, an ocean of unaware Muscovites and tourists all around them.
“What’s so funny about it?” Svetlana asked them. Olga shrugged.
As summer approached, they began spending more and more time outside, smoking on the roots of the tree, or on top of the hill, or behind it, by the barbed wire fence. The sun shone on their bodies, which were more often than not resting in the thin grass that had covered the dry ground, warming them but also making Natasha feel exposed. She was still wary of kissing Olga in the garden, or even holding her hand. Olga was a bit braver, but there were still lines Natasha knew she wouldn’t cross. That’s why that peck on the lips, in the middle of the Red Square, still made Natasha’s cheeks warm every time she thought about it.
Olga had been excited on that day, in a way Natasha had never seen her before – part of her charm, she realized, consisted in the way she always looked unimpressed, as if enthusiasm was some kind of weakness that had to be resisted. Two weeks after their first outing to Moscow, though, Natasha wasn’t able to hold back anymore: “You mentioned your dad,” she said. “In Moscow.”
Olga smiled. She stubbed her cigarette against one of the roots, then threw the butt away, past the barbed wire fence, where they always tried to throw them, not always succeeding: at the bottom of the fence were a handful of butts that hadn’t reached far enough, thrown when the wind was too strong or their hands too cold or too tired.
“Yes,” Olga said. “He sold me to this place when I was seven.”
Natasha gulped at the expression – he sold me – which sounded so crude, but was also a fairly accurate description of what had happened. “Where was your mother?” she asked her.
“Somewhere, I guess,” Olga said. “I remember very little of her. I was raised by the housekeeper, basically. My mother didn’t really get to decide shit.”
Natasha nodded, then lowered her gaze to the grass. “My father left when I was a baby,” she offered in exchange. “My mother decided to sell me. I think she couldn’t afford to keep me,” she said, because it was the truth. She probably wouldn’t have said it, if it hadn’t been for the words Olga had used – he sold me. Which was probably normal, given that the Room was training them to be spies, after all, and that’s what information is for a spy: transactional.
Olga looked at her with darker eyes than usual, heavy like clouds right before the rain. “It must have been really hard for her to make that decision,” she said.
Her hands were fiddling with the strings of her shoes, until they snapped back and she retrieved the pack from her pocket. “Mind if I smoke another one?” she asked.
Natasha shook her head.
“My father was friends with the Minister,” Olga said. Natasha had to nod and squint to be able to process that. Most of the girls in the Red Rooms came from poor families, had been sold out of necessity, when there were too many mouths to feed.
“I was the last of four children, and the only girl,” Olga continued, “and the Minister… always liked me a lot, I guess,” she said, then uncrossed her legs and held her knees close to her chest.
“He’d come to our house every weekend, just to see me. He’d play with me, with my dolls. I was a doll to him, I guess.”
She sounded absolutely calm – the way she sounded when the ladies asked her something in school, or when she spoke to the other girls, apparently certain of herself and whatever it was that she was saying. But her hands, the right one holding the cigarette, the left fiddling with the shoelaces, they were shaking, and her chest was shaking too, the way it could have done on a particularly cold night in January. And Natahsa didn’t need to hear it to know that her throat was dry and her heart beating a bit too high up, in her throat.
“Until at last he became jealous – scared that someone else would steal me, and marry me to some family. So he convinced my father to move me here, because they have such a good ballet school, and he loved it when I danced. I feel guiltu when I dance, because I feel like I’m doing it for him, but I know I’m good at dancing and I need to be good at something, you know?”
Natasha didn’t know what to reply.
“He… recruited you for the Room?” she asked her.
“The normal recruiters did. But he did offer my dad a very nice sum to let them,” she added, taking a deeper puff from the cigarette.
“How old were you?” Natasha whispered.
“Seven,” Olga said.
Later, Natasha couldn’t imagine the Minister as anything resembling a human – good or bad; she wondered what his authors would have written, in his biography, after he was dead and gone. Would they mention how he fell in love with a child that didn’t reach his knees? (Is it even possible to fall in love with a child of four? Wouldn’t that be something else?) Would they ignore it, or would they paint him in a positive light, somehow, as the kind gentleman who took his friend’s daughter’s fate so seriously? Would Olga Petrin be mentioned at all?
That night, Olga offered Natasha another cigarette and they never mentioned her father, or the Minister, again until the end of the summer.
Olga turned eighteen in July.
Natasha had always been told that turning eighteen was a big moment in a girl’s life – for civilians, because that’s reaching adulthood; for spies, because that’s when the recruiters start coming. Neither of them was a good thing, but the enthusiasm leaked through, somehow.
Which is why Natasha was absolutely delighted to discover that Olga had planned for the two of them to spend the day entirely together, bribing the ladies to take them to the lake to swim. It was the sixth of July, and Moscow was almost warm – warm enough to strip to their underwear and jump into the cold water of the lake. And if the escorting lady thought anything of their shared state of undress, she didn’t mention it – or maybe she was just oblivious.
Rationally Natasha knew Olga had that kind of fame – the rebel, the man-hating one – “Someone’s going to tame you,” a lady had told her when she’d first cut her hair, Olga had told her, “someday,” and she’d laughed, but it hadn’t been a happy laugh. Natasha knew that hanging out with her so much couldn’t do any good to her own reputation. She never cared in the slightest. But she had also gathered, from the way the other girls spoke, that nobody was really able to conceive something like whatever she and Olga shared.
(Like it wasn’t a menace, and therefore whole, without boys in it.)
Olga splashed her in the face with the lake water once, twice, until Natasha splashed her back; afterwards they laid in the warm grass together, grass that seemed different from the one in the garden, even if Natasha couldn’t really pinpoint why, and looked at the clouds and described their shapes. They talked of everything, except for their future.
That night Olga gave Irina and Lada some tips about where to find cigarettes and locked the door from the inside.
Afterwards, lying in the small twin sized bed together, Natasha turned on her right side to look at Olga’s sleeping figure in the dark. Irina and Lada had come back smelling like cigarette smoke and they hadn’t said anything when they’d seen them cuddling. Natasha had broken free from the embrace how, and was leaning her weight on her forearms to take a better look at her lover.
The sprinkle of freckles on her nose, her heavy eyelids and thick, dark eyelashes, as stunning as the dark nest of hair on the other girl’s head; her slender hands curled on her chest as she slept, her small mouth with pink, plump lips.
She’d always known it, she guessed, but it had never hit her as hard as in that moment, that their time together was limited and the sum of the days they’d been granted was most likely going to be a finite number.
“That Olga woman is cool,” Clint declares the next morning over breakfast. Natasha stops sipping on her coffee and raises an eyebrow at him.
Bruce is sitting next to Clint, on the opposite side of the table as Natasha. He’s holding the mug in both hands, and looks curious.
“You spoke to her?”
“Asked me for archery lessons. Not her finest skill,” he says, still staring at Natasha. Olga had had no reason to ever shoot arrows in her life – they didn’t teach it at the Room, and she certainly hadn’t learned with the Minister.
“She was never the best fighter,” Natasha concedes. “Or spy,” because this much should be obvious if they’ve all read her file, which Natasha thinks they did.
“But she worked for the Minister,” Bruce interjects. “One would think only the best of them were recruited to work for him.”
Natasha sighs. Bruce suddenly looks like he regrets saying whatever he’s just said. “Olga was the best dancer,” Natasha says, “and the prettiest of us, and she caught the Minister’s men’s eyes when she was very little. He paid her father to have her trained, but only as a way to keep tabs on her, and prevent her from meeting boys,” she explains, and the irony of this logic isn’t lost on her – it probably wasn’t lost then, either.
Clint looks like he’s just been punched. Natasha is floored – maybe they can’t see it now that she’s so skinny, but Olga has always been the most beautiful of them. Not just physically – she was a very pretty girl, with no doubts – but in the way she behaved, so carelessly, like everything always came so easy to her.
Bruce nodded. “Why didn’t he marry her? Because she was too young, or wasn’t her family...?”
“His own wife was around our age,” Natasha tells him, “and Olga’s father was a rich man, and a family friend of the Minister’s, but he had to marry a distant relative to secure his ownership of some land in Siberia, and besides, I don’t think he wanted to marry her. He saw her as some kind of pet. Everyone kind of did, but…”
She’s no longer sure of what she’s trying to say. The ladies, the other girls – they all had this image of Olga as some archetypal being, who wasn’t subject to the same laws as them – the ladies because she was the daughter of a rich family, unlike everyone else they could abuse; the other girls because she had already been bought by the most powerful customer of all the Red Room, and therefore she had nothing to prove. Or maybe it was her dark hair, or the careless way she moved and smoked under the tree. But they never bothered to see past this façade – they all thought of her as monolithic, invincible. Perhaps only Natasha had gotten to take a look underneath that surface, to really see what was in there. Perhaps…
Natasha doesn’t finish her sentence and nobody asks her what she was going to say. No one mentions the recruiting again.
That afternoon in the gym they don’t kiss. Not straight away.
“So,” Olga asks, “what’s up with that man?”
Olga nods. “He’s a friend,” she replies, truthfully. “He’s the one who recruited me, in Budapest, after a mission went wrong.”
Olga nods again. Natasha hadn’t meant to bring up that time. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“Leaving,” she says, “I’m sorry that I gave up looking for you.”.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Olga says, “what happened to me – to us, it was so much bigger than us. You did the right thing defecting. I should have done this too, ages ago.”
“You did now,” Natasha tells her. And then: “I’m sorry about Nikolaj.”
Something in Olga’s eyes seems to soften, like a mother’s gaze when it lands on her child. “It’s fine,” she says, “I was gone, and I would have told you to wait for me, if only I’d imagined a way. To get out.”
Natasha nods. “Did he treat you well?”
“Like a king,” Olga says, voice sharp, eyes bright and maybe even glistening. “Like his queen.”
They go back to their exercise.
Afterwards they shower together, although in turns – they don’t go to their private bathrooms; Natasha enjoys the communal showers, they remind her of her youth, together with Olga’s presence. She doesn’t bother hiding her thin body from Natasha’s eyes, wandering naked in the locker, looking for clothes to put on. The agents are all away; they’re the only two women here.
Then they go to the patio overlooking the sad, blooming garden, because Natasha wants to feel the warm spring sun on her skin.
“What was he like,” Olga asks softly, “Nikolaj?” The sun makes the outside of her irises look green. Natasha thinks they’re the prettiest eyes in the world.
“You saw him,” Natasha says.
“In passing. He was that guy who worked in the kitchen. He was tall, and blonde,” she recalls.
“Other girls told me he was handsome. He had a really square jaw, I guess. He recruited me,” Natasha says.
“That’s unconventional,” Olga replies. She finds a lawn chair and sits down in it, crossing her thin legs.
“We… became lovers. Or at least I think he wanted us to become lovers. I tried to do it – it was nothing like being with you, but I thought it had been an exception, that it was… normal. I probably would have left him soon anyway, if we’d stayed in the Room. But when I escaped, I might as well have handed him my life in a plastic bag. I got too involved,” Natasha says, which isn’t a lie, “at least he was a good spy.”
“Never as good as you.”
Natasha smiles, unsure of what to say next.
“What did you do, with him? Where did you go?” Olga wants to know. Natasha knows what she wants to know – it’s not sexual in nature; she’s honestly interested in her life prior to defecting.
“We went west,” Natasha replies, “we were based in Czechia, we worked in the region. I hoped that it would help – getting away from the country, I mean. With him. He liked to think he was freelancing – he wasn’t. He still worked for Russia, but he was a bit of a wild card. I think he saw a valuable asset in me.”
Olga nods and doesn’t add anything. Natasha knows that she knows, though.
“So,” Natasha says, “what did you do for him?” She doesn’t need to specify who him is, because Olga knows. She’s asking so casually, too – like they’re colleagues at a law firm meeting up in an elevator, discussing the latest cases and office gossip. What did you do yesterday at the meeting, Natalie? Same old stuff, Olivia. Did you hear Susie from Human Resources is going through a divorce? Did the man who fell in love with you when you were four abuse you? Did he abuse you back then, before the Room even bought you, when you were just a little girl? Natasha’s as tense as a violin chord, leaning against the white plastic table on the patio.
“Looked after his younger brother, mostly. And kept company to Snezhana, his wife” Olga replies, omitting what they both already know.
Natasha’s jaw drops. “No field work?”
“None at all. He took no risks with me.”
Natasha has to close her eyes to make sure she’s heard correctly. “And… are those things true? The ones they said about his brother?”
That the Minister’s brother was as feral as a wolf, and ruthless? Olga smiles again. “Fjodor,” she says softly, “no… they said he was a brute, which wouldn’t have been too different from the rest of the family.” She uncrossed her legs, then crossed them again. “But Natasha, that was all bullshit.”
Natasha had forgotten just how brutal her mother tongue could sound – when she’s nostalgic, she just recalls the stories her mother told her, or the sweet words Olga whispered in their shared room at night. Bullshit, though, that’s something she hasn’t heard in a really long time.
“The Minister was the real brute,” Olga states. “Fjodor was… he’d been in an accident, when he was a little child. His brain had been damaged, or something. He was a sweet young man,” she adds quietly.
“Oh,” Natasha says. “So you took care of him? And then?”
“Then I found my network around the house, if you know what I mean,” she winks, and Natasha has read the file, and she knows.
“Was there anyone else?” she asks. Every other question, before this one, feels like she was just skirting around the issue – now she’s biting into it, and it’s bleeding all over her jaw, her mouth and chin and neck and…
“A servant girl. Nothing serious.” Natasha remembers that it had been on the seventeen pages. “A friend of the Minister’s,” Olga lists, with a small laugh, “she was older, and she helped me stay sane. I couldn’t have had anything more, even if I’d wanted to. I never had the… presence of mind, in that house. I hated those walls,” she says.
Natasha nods. Outside of their bubble some birds are chirping. “Did you love her?” she asks. “The older woman.”
“I’m not sure. She’d become all I had,” Olga says, and Natahsa remembers Nikolaj and discovers that she understands.
“Has there been anyone? For you?” Olga tries. “Your archer friend? Clint? Or the scientist?”
She’s smiling encouragingly. Natasha knows she wouldn’t be offended, if Natasha replied yes to any of those. But it wouldn’t feel right.
“Clint is married. Bruce is… I don’t like men, Olga,” she says, truthfully, and it’s the first time she’s fucking said it out loud, and it’s in Russian, and it’s an unexpected turn of events – Olga smiles, gets up, takes her hand and cradles it in hers, softly – her skin is so cold, but it’s still so comforting, so Natasha lets it out: “There was a girl, that magic girl from Sokovia. I think I loved her, or at least at first I did. But then she left me for a man, and she wasn’t you. It’s always, always been you.”
Olga leans forward and kisses her lips, softly – it’s not a passionate kiss. They hear voices in the hallway, male, English voices, but they don’t let them interrupt them.
They skip dinner with the others and hide in Natasha’s room, the door locked from the outside – it’s not a dorm anymore, they’re not sharing it with Irina and Lada, the ladies aren’t listening to their every more, but Olga is still as eerily quiet as she’d been back then. Natasha remembers the first time she’d managed to pleasure her – a couple of weeks after that first night – and how proud it had made her feel, her chest blooming with joy as she hugged her lover.
“Have you ever done this with another woman?” Olga asks her in the end, panting.
Natasha shakes her head – she and Wanda didn’t get this far. “The only times since Nikolaj have been work,” she replies, truthfully, once again, “and even Nikolaj, God only knows,” and Olga nods and she knows.
Then Olga scoops closer on the queen size bed, until her head is resting on Natasha’s shoulder. It’s Natasha’s turn to sleep heavily this time around; the years in the West seem to have improved her sleeping patterns. She can see the dark bags underneath Olga’s eyes, she can hear her wander around the compound at night.
Natasha is beginning to doze off when Olga’s voice sends her back to her bed.
“I hoped you’d come to rescue me,” she says.
Awake, Natasha scrambles to sit cross legged on her bed. Olga does the same, only hugging her bony knees to her chest.
“I had heard of you. Of the Avengers. I knew you’d defected. And it was only about time, before you started tracking down the Minister.”
“I guess, subconsciously, that’s why I wanted to be caught with Snezhana. Why I stole the Minister’s jewels. I wanted to be saved by you,” Olga says, “or maybe I just wanted to be executed. Who knows.”
Natasha reaches out to pull back a wild strand of black hair from her forehead.
“I have something on the Minister,” Olga says. “I can help you catch him.”
Natasha doesn’t say anything and nods. She runs her hand through her hair again, pushing back strands that don’t need to be pushed back, then cupping her left cheek like a child’s.
“I never forgot you, either,” Olga tells her then.
Chapter 5: Recruiters - Come with me
cw: implied rape. proceed with caution
They got one whole – beautiful, breathtaking, amazing – year together, in the end.
Which is something Natasha has told herself plenty of times in these past fourteen years.
The recruiters first came for Olga in August, during the hottest week of that entire year. They took her to the old lady’s office, and asked some questions.
Afterwards Olga looked unphased, but she did smoke almost an entire pack that day, nested in the roots of the tree on the hill. “They were not from the Minister,” she’d assured Natasha when she came out of the office, “and he’d never let anyone else have me.”
In vain Natasha tried to hold her hand on the hill, to come up with reassuring words that didn’t sound too cheesy. But it was hard, because she didn’t really understand what was going on, and only understood her pain – the future longing, that would inevitably come, after her friend’s departure. Girlfriend? They had no name for what they were. They were just the two of them, inseparable, and the bond between the two of them was so different, unmistakeable, from the bond that united them to any other girl in the Room. Natasha briefly considered saying these things out loud, but then Olga just took her hand and held it, fingers tightly intertwined, for a long time, without saying a single word.
Recruiters came again, in late August, this time from another branch, although it was still the same agency. Again they took her to the old lady’s office.
Natasha waited for her just outside the corner, in the hallway. “What did they do?” she asked her as soon as she came out. She meant to ask about the virginity tests.
“He’d never let them touch me before he gets to,” Olga answered.
The Minister finally came in September. It was hard to miss – it was on everyone’s mouth. Irina said that the Minister was a very handsome man; Olga begged to differ. When Natasha saw him, she didn’t think of him as handsome or ugly – she could see why some girls found him handsome: he was tall, and slim, with a brown bear and hair cropped short, although the top of his head was balding. He wore thin golden glasses, round, and a dark green suit. But he was way older than she’d expected; although she knew he was Olga’s father’s friend.
Olga had told her that he was attracted to her – so she’d assumed that he was young, she’d expected a man in his early thirties, like in those novels the other girls smuggled about older soldiers and schoolgirls. The Minister was just plain old – well into his forties, with lines around his icy blue eyes, on the corners of his thin mouth, on his high forehead.
They were doing stretches when he arrived – one of the ladies announced him in the gym, and called Olga Petrin’s name. In the old lady’s office, Olga Petrin.
Of course the Minister did not take her to the old lady’s office. Natasha watched, frozen in fear, as one of the youngest ladies grabbed Olga by the wrist, Olga still in her dancing gear, grey tights and a blue shirt that fell off her frame like on a hanger, and then they were gone in the poorly lit hallway that lead from the dancing hall into the common areas and the offices. There was a young girl, maybe twenty, twenty-two years old, sitting on a plastic chair in the common area: his bride Snezhana, as the old lady had later told them, when they’d asked whether they had a new recruit. She just sat there and waited, staring at the void in front of her baby blue eyes.
Natasha has thought about it a lot in the following years – she now thinks they turned right once in the common hall, into the main hallway, leading to the dorms, and then into one of the empty rooms from when the Red Room had housed almost fifty girls.
There the Minister had examined her.
At any rate, Olga returned later that night.
She was silent and sullen and even the ladies knew better than to bother her; Irina and Lada separated like the water in the Old Testament as she passed, crossing their room before she collapsed on her own bed like a dead weight.
For the first time in her life, or maybe not for the first time, but with a brand new intensity, so that it felt like the first time, Natasha felt powerless – like there was nothing she could possibly do to make things better. So she sneaked into the kitchen, because she was good at sneaking into places, stole a knife, a jar of sweet strawberry marmalade and some leftover bread from the dinner neither had touched, and ran back to the dorm. She spread the marmalade on a slice and handed it to Olga. From her bed, after a moment of hesitation, she held out her hand, and she took the slice. She ate slowly, no more than two slices, with her left hand; with her right, she held Natasha’s.
Olga began paying more attention during ballet practice, asking the teacher more questions, exaggerating her movements just to show off and lingering in the most difficult poses, in a way that was impossible to ignore for Natasha, who had taken to staring at her in the large mirror rather than at herself. New recruiters began flooding the gym – dancers, this time. So Natasha saw through her sudden zeal in dance class pretty easily, and she knew she would succeed: soon Olga Petrin was cast for the Nutcracker production in February.
It wasn’t unheard of, for a Red Room recruit to be cast in a major ballet production. If anyone, Natasha also knew, it just had to be Olga. She was the best dancer by far, and she had the family connections everyone else lacked.
Still, the turn of events had surprised her. Olga had never cared much about ballet, despite the talent God had graced her with.
“I’ll get to stay until February,” she said, beaming, when the news of her casting was announced by their teacher. They were in the changing rooms, which were empty, because Olga had dragged her outside to smoke after practice, waiting for the other girls to leave.
Then she leaned forward and kissed Natasha on her open mouth, with an enthusiasm Natasha hadn’t seen since that day. She kissed back, unsure of what to say.
That also meant that Olga had to spend a lot more time away from her, practicing.
They almost never went out to the tree anymore – she’d come back late in the evening, kiss Natasha on the lips while Irina and Lada were sleeping, awakening her, and then they’d either cuddle, or pleasure each other in silence, under the bedsheets. They were sleeping together almost every night now, since at least she summer, Natasha couldn’t recall when it had begun. She’d discovered that other girls did it, too, especially in the winter, when the Room got really cold, so she felt less guilty about it. She had slept in the same bed as other girls, in Stalingrad, and she had never worried before. The ladies rarely ever set foot in their rooms, but even if they had, she hadn’t felt like she was doing something wrong. And most of the time, what she was doing was exactly the same thing she did with Olga now, in Moscow. Maybe they didn’t hug so tightly, and when they awoke, at night, and discovered they’d drifted apart, they didn’t scoop back to their original positions the way she and Olga did, but the essence was about the same.
But she hadn’t felt the shame, then.
She hadn’t realized – she’d just thought she was somewhat superior, too smart to fall for a boy like the other girls. But if the other girls felt for the boys what she felt for Olga, Natasha thought that it was fair, and it didn’t make them stupid. Because Olga was, and it sounded very cheesy, even in her own mind, the reason why she did most of the things she did nowadays; the moments they spent together every day, however few they might have become, were the best part of it. And if the boys made the girls so happy, then Natasha could understand why they went against the ladies.
But still, when they held each other tight, after making love, or when they were especially tired or the future loomed ahead in a scarier way than usual – there was this other shame, and fear, that Natasha couldn’t quite shake.
It wasn’t because Olga was a girl, this time – no, she thought it had nothing to do with that. It was because she’d been taught, by everyone, several times over, that getting attached wasn’t good, for a spy; and because she knew that sleeping with a girl was going to taint her reputation, and reputation was important for a spy.
So no, it wasn’t because Olga was a girl. It was because Natasha was a spy.
But still, their time together had a deadline now, and that deadline was written all over the town, on the top of the sober pieces of advertisement for the ballet. February 8th was the day the ballet would premiere; afterwards it had been agreed that Olga was to move with the Minister, in his palace.
Natasha had foolishly thought that, in the meantime, the Minister would disappear, if they tried to think about him as little as possible. Olga was always tired from all the practice, and she was more silent than before; every night she’d try to coax her into talking, in bed, but she’d always drift without speaking. She’d always been a heavy sleeper, but sometimes awakening her was so hard that it scared Natasha. And she always had large black bags under her eyes, which she would conceal with foundation.
But he – the Minister – the monster, he would stay away until February.
She was proved wrong in November, when an envelope came addressed at Olga Petrin. Lady Sabina took it to their room, knocking twice on the door before opening, leaving Natasha just enough time to jump out of Olga’s bed. It was a plain white envelope with a handwritten address. Olga recognised the hand straight away.
“My father told me,” she said, afterwards – she never heard from him; no one in the Room was allowed to call – “that he wants me to make a debut.”
“A debut?” Natasha asked.
“In society,” Olga replied, “at a ball, this December. A debut is usually a way for girls of rich families to find a husband.”
“But you’re training,” Natasha objected, “you’re not going to get married.”
“No,” Olga replied, “but she wants me to go with the Minister. Snezhana is indisposed, and it would cause him great pleasure if I could join him.”
Her voice was cold now, the words so clearly not her own. Natasha lunged forward and hugged her, and felt Olga lean into her chest and hold her shirt tightly.
“The Minister was a close family friend of my father’s,” Olga says to a tired looking Maria Hill, who’s flown all the way to Serbia from New York. Natasha is translating; they’d been taught English at the Red Room, as part of their training as spies, but Olga ended up never using it, and it’s been a long time anyway. She was never too good at languages, much like Clint.
“He’s known me since I was born,” Olga says. “He always liked me more than he will ever admit. I think he fell in love with me when I was four years old.”
Olga stops. She has Maria’s interest – it’s clear in the way the older woman’s head is cocked to the side, her eyes half closed, her posture rigid. She’s not being hostile to Olga – how could she be, Natasha thinks, if she’s telling her this. She’s sitting on a plastic chair at the kitchen table, translating and staring at both women’s lips as they speak.
Olga had walked straight into the interrogation room at first, but Bruce had shook his head. “You’re not a prisoner anymore,” he’d told her, and Natasha had translated for him, because he’d said it almost under his breath, and Olga had forgotten most of her English. Then he’d left, leaving them alone with Maria Hill, which Natasha had admired.
“When I was seven years old, he gave my father usage rights for some land in Siberia, and a large sum of money – I never knew the exact amount – to have me recruited at a Red Room facility.”
Maria’s eyes move to stare at Natasha, who translates and tries her hardest not to display any emotion.
“Red Rooms facilities were training programs that housed, fed, and trained future agents for the KGB preferably, but they would sell to the best offerer most of the time. They were segregated by sex, and the average age of recruits was twelve. Natasha and I were some of the youngest.”
Natasha omits her own name from the translation, although she knows that Maria has caught it.
“We were taught to fight, shoot, and dance. Ballet was a core part of the curriculum.” This is all information SHIELD already has, but Natasha thinks that Olga needs to say this, as a ritual, to prepare herself for what’s next.
“But I don’t think he ever meant for me to become a spy,” Olga says. “It was just a way to keep me controlled, in one place, isolated, especially from other men and boys. Everyone who worked there was female, with the exception of the guards. It was already agreed upon that the Minister would take me in, once I’d turned eighteen.”
“Why not marry you?” Maria asks.
“He had to marry a distant relative’s daughter in order to keep the family fortune together,” Olga replies. “My father was new money, although he owned a successful business. He wasn’t as wealthy as the Minister.”
“He came to recruit me shortly after my eighteenth birthday, in 2001. I only left the Red Room a few months later, because I’d been cast as the lead in a ballet production, and thought it would be too much to move away during rehearsals.”
Even Maria seems to understand that it was mostly bullshit, Penelope’s trick, weaving the shroud, then unweaving it. Unlike Penelope, she couldn’t keep it going forever; but Natasha now knows that she won an additional five, six months, and she most likely did it for her, Natasha, and she doesn’t know how that makes her feel.
“When you moved into his palace, what were your duties?”
“It’s on the transcript of her first confession,” Natasha interjects. Maria shoots her a look.
“I want her to say it again.”
“I was given a room in the same wing as the family,” she answered, “which was composed of the Minister, his wife Snezhana, their first daughter Alisa, who was born shortly after I moved there, and the Minister’s brother, Fjodor. I was to be his caretaker.”
“Why did he need a caretaker?”
“He’d been in a horse riding accident as a child,” Olga explains. “He’d damaged his brain in a fall, or something. He could walk, and feed himself if someone else gave him the food, but he couldn’t speak, and required constant care and supervision. It couldn’t be known outside the palace, because nobody could know that the Minister didn’t have a male heir of sound mind and body. I was his caretaker for ten years.”
“What happened afterwards?” Maria asks.
“He moved him,” Olga says, then smiles, and her lights light up, “to Siberia.”
Maria is interested. Natasha will tell. Olga can help them secure the Minister, and she’s choosing to share her knowledge.
“In the past ten years,” she begins, “he’d been working on something, with dirty money, I don’t know from where. It was a big project and it needed the utmost discretion, so the building was rather slow. He’d sometimes take trips to Siberia, to supervise the workers. Some of them were Western agents he’d caught in the war,”
“Work camps?” Maria asks, in disbelief.
“He blackmailed them, mostly. The others were locals he paid very well.”
“He was building a fort,” Maria says.
“It was completed four years ago,” Olga says.
“Do you happen to know where it was?”
“I saw an address on some papers, once, in his study. Well, not an address – the name of a village, in Siberia. I can write it down for you.”
Maria hands her a postit and a pen. Olga writes it in cyrillic, her cursive just as unintelligible as back then; seeing it makes Natasha’s chest hurt.
“So you’ve never been there?”
“No,” Olga says. “I had to reassure Fjodor when he was being moved there. To be completely honest, I don’t know what became of him, and I really hope he’s fine and that the Minister didn’t just want to get rid of him. I don’t think he would have – he was very faithful to those he loved, although he had a very twisted idea of loving. I think he hired helpers for him, out there, professional ones – he was becoming too much for me to handle. I hope so. I have one request,” she says then, out of the blue.
She’s clearly never done this before – she doesn’t know whether it’s fine to have requests, and it shows.
“We would try our best not to hurt him,” Natasha says, before she even translates. Olga stares at her for a second, then nods.
“I want him to be safe in the West, with all the care he needs. He’s a sweet boy.”
Maria seems to think about it, and it’s the side of her that scares Natasha – the one that works with human lives and well beings as values to be fed to the calculator; the one Natasha also has.
“We’ll see what we can do,” she says. “The Minister must know you’re with us, though, and he clearly had his reasons to doubt your loyalty to him. Would he be expecting an attack?”
“He’s seen you’ve stormed the jail,” Olga says. “He knows you have me, but he doesn’t know I know about his project’s location.”
She clears her throat. “He knows you’re onto him – he must have hidden there. All his other properties were easy to find, and close to urban areas. But now, he’s not expecting you to find him so soon. You can have him surrounded.”
Natasha translates and Maria nods.
“You’re sure of this?”
“I saw the papers,” Olga replies.
“I want to admit I’ve wondered,” Maria says, and Natasha can see she’s still sceptical, “why would he put you in jail, if he loved you so much?” and something about the way she says that word, loved, gives Natasha nausea – as if by doing so, he’d done Olga a favour. Although he had a very twisted idea of loving, Olga had said. As if a grown man could love a four year old child, in that sense. She feels a touch of hatred for Maria Hill right now, she’d like to lunge forward and slap her across the face.
But Olga understand the question well enough without Natasha’s translation, and she smiles. “You read the file,” she says.
“You ‘harmed and abused’ his wife, Snezhana,” Maria recalls.
“Yes,” she says, “but it’s not just that.”
“I learned how to induce a miscarriage, because he kept getting Snezhana pregnant. Her body didn’t like being pregnant, and every pregnancy could have been her last – Alisa’s birth almost killed her. So I helped her avoid it, all this time. They’ve never had another child after him.”
Then she frowns. “When I left,” looking down, on the table’s wooden surface, “she was pregnant again. And I didn’t have time to stop it.”
“Did the Minister find out about the miscarriages?” Maria asks. All doubt is gone.
“Yes,” Olga replies. “He loved me, but he didn’t care about me. Or maybe he loved me, but he loved the idea of having a male heir more.”
Maria Hill nods. Natasha can tell she’s finished. Now she’ll process the intel and they’ll decide on a plan. Seems like they’ll be back to the States before the end of the summer, then.
Natasha wants to ask her own question, too. Maria is writing something down, and she’s not listening, or she’s pretending she’s not.
“What will you do afterwards?” she asks, in Russian. “When this is all over. Will you come to the States?”
“Can I?” Olga asks.
So Natasha steps forward, wraps her arm around the other’s waist, pulls her into an embrace and thinks of something smart to say. “Come with me,” she says instead, in Russian. “Be with me. The way we should have. It’s not too late.”
“Will we be able to be together?”
Natasha stops and thinks, because she’s never considered this on purpose. With Wanda, she’d had the faintest glimpse, but it had disappeared as soon as it had come. “Well enough,” she says in the end. Maria seems completely absorbed by her files. Natasha briefly wonders how much she understands - she knows for a fact that she speaks some Russian. Is she confused, disgusted, creeper out by them, or by the realization that all along, Natasha was like this.
“I’ve never lived with anyone before,” Natasha adds. “Not like that.”
“Me neither,” Olga replies, faintly, as if they haven’t just finished talking about why that is.
“We’ll find you a place together then, if you’re sure,” Maria tells them, in English, emerging from her files - she's understood well enough, then. She’s lost the cold exterior, the ones that scares Natasha. It looks like it’s taking a lot of effort, but her smile is warm.
Chapter 6: The ball - The night before
Natasha got to see Olga, right before the Minister came to pick her up for the ball; two of the younger ladies had carried her away, to one of their private bathrooms, and had helped her dress and apply makeup.
The dress had come soon after the envelope, in November, in a bag that Natasha hadn’t recognized. The acronym GUM was printed on both sides. Inside was a dark green ankle length dress, made of some kind of soft fabric Natasha hadn’t recognised, either. There were tiny discs of some sparkling material sewn into the skirt.
It wasn’t the first time it had been worn: the twenty-second of November had been Natasha’s seventeenth birthday. It hadn’t been a particularly happy one. She’d trained and fought and danced while Olga practiced for the premiere, and then she’d curled up in her lover’s bed, inhaling her smell from the pillowcase.
Then Olga had arrived from the theatre, earlier than usual; it was freezing outside, but not raining. Without saying a word she’d opened the small wardrobe, where she kept the green dress, still in the GUM bag, together with the few garments the Room provided the girls with.
She’d passed it over to Natasha, then, and Natasha had stared at it without understanding. “Put it on,” Olga had said, “I want to see you in it. You’re the queen today.”
Natasha had smiled – she hadn’t wanted to do it at first, but Olga’s eyes had convinced her. She’d slipped into it carefully, terrified of breaking it – she wasn’t used to dresses, although she knew they would become part of her job someday; and she’d never worn anything so expensive before.
It had fit; Olga was taller, but they were just as slim.
“You’re beautiful,” Olga had told her, her voice shaking. “Green looks amazing. With your… hair,” she’d said.
Then she’d taken her by the hand and she’d led her to the garden, to the hill with the tree, checking every hallway for ladies. On top of the hill they’d danced, like witches at a Sabbah, holding hands and kissing, their backs to the Room, facing the barbed wire fence.
Now Olga was wearing it, together with broad stripes of black and silver over her eyes. Her lips had been dyed a shimmering red. Her hair had been straightened somehow, and pulled into a tight bun, with only her fringe spared. Natasha couldn’t breath for a second, lost in the proportions of her body, clad in green, and the colours of her new face; but soon the image broke, because Olga looked absolutely unhappy.
The chauffeur came to pick her up and Natasha waved her at the barbed wire fence. It was very cold and Olga was shivering in her sleeveless dress, even though someone from inside the car threw an expensive looking fur coat at her. As soon as she settled in the backseat of the car, the engine revved and they were gone.
Natasha waited at the barbed wire until the car disappeared in the distance, among the sparse trees that surrounded the Red Room. It was a ten minute drive to the nearest signs of civilization, but they might as well have been two thousand; as soon as the car was indiscernible from the darkness of the December evening, Natasha felt alone.
The lady that had walked them to the fence patted Natasha’s shoulder, in a rare display of affection, because she knew that they’d been close; then she was gone as well.
Natasha spent that night smoking alone, curled up in the nook at the base of their tree, because it had become theirs. She smoked more than she ever had, until she got sick and had to consider vomiting near the barbed wire fence – the guards knew her by this point. Then, when most of the lights in the facility were turned off – some light was always on, because the ladies patrolled the exits, and they never left – she got on her feet and walked back to her room. The patrolling lady didn’t say a word to her, and neither did Natasha. She tried to lay down in her own bed, which was empty, most of the time, since she’d taken to sleeping with Olga; she tried closing her eyes and counting to a thousand, but she didn’t manage to fall asleep.
Maybe she did, because she doesn’t remember counting or turning the entire night, but it was a very superficial kind of sleep, with intense visions that were half nightmares and half thoughts. In some, Olga never came back, kidnapped by her Minister, who took her to his own palace after the ball, took her into his own bed and handled her roughly. In others, Olga came back, overjoyed, the next morning, telling Natasha that she had a plan to escape, telling her she loved her and that she did not have to be afraid. Was Natasha afraid? In the dream they stole a car and then drove away into the early afternoon sun. It was always sunny in the dreams, clear and bright and uncomplicated.
Neither thing happened; Olga did come back late the next morning, wearing women’s clothes that Natasha had never seen before. They were fancier than the stuff the Room gave the girls. She didn’t look rested – much like Natasha didn’t, to be completely honest, – but Olga looked properly exhausted, like an athlete who’s just run a marathon.
“He won’t be back,” she said, rekindling hope in Natasha’s chest, “until February,” and then they both nodded, wondering why they’d allowed themselves to dream.
In the meantime, a new excitement was keeping the other girls awake at night.
They’d hired someone new in the kitchen, Lada whispered to them one night – she had the grace not to mention the fact that Natasha and Olga were embracing in the narrow twin bed. It was a Siberian named Nikolaj, tall and blonde like a model on Western magazines.
Natasha paid no mind.
It was like a movie, in retrospect, all those little apparently random details, that will have a larger role later on, because nothing in movies is truly random. But life isn’t a movie, and that’s not what usually happens – expect that time it did.
That’s why Natasha ended up convincing herself that Destiny itself had brought her and Nikolaj together. She supposed that he was handsome, sharp jaw and all, and he was a few years older than her, three, which sounded very appropriate.
Like a movie, she told herself – but the aura was still the same, the same dreamlike quality that had started the moment she’d set foot in her new quartiers in Moscow and she’d seen those slender legs and short black hair.
Nikolaj courted her because she was pretty: petite, with red hair, light eyes. Being told she was pretty by a man was different from when Olga did it; it made her straighten her back, do the thing with her eyes to make them appear bigger, more childlike. It felt like a challenge, or a test to pass. And if she thought of Olga during those nights, as his hands were on her body in the darkness of the kitchen, she supposed that no one had to know.
Belgrade, June 2016
Olga would stay behind.
SHIELD’s doctor had declared her unfit for active duty, on account of her weight and the still healing wound on her foot. And, although he hadn’t stated that in front of either of them, on account of the still undecided nature of her true affiliations. Natasha doubts she even has affiliations anymore, but does not share the thought with anyone. Now Olga is smoking on the windowsill of Natasha’s room, in the wing of the Serbian facility meant for personnel.
She’s vacated the room in the prisoners’ wing since that first time, after the gym. They sleep together in Natasha’s room, which is large and airy, one of the privileges of belonging to one of SHIELD’s finest branches. Olga had become a light sleeper, in those fourteen years, Natasha doesn’t need confirmation to connect the dots, so now they both are. Besides, she never sleeps before big ops.
SHIELD’s given them a full unit of agents and military grade weapons, and it’s conceded all their requests to an alarming degree.
“Are you afraid?” she asks Natasha. Natasha shakes her head; they have plenty of personnel, highly qualified, and more weapons than she’s comfortable admitting. They’re leaving early the next morning, by military jet, to an area a couple hundred miles from the palace, and then they’ll use land vehicles to cover the rest; they’ll strike at nightfall, when most of the workers are away. They’re mostly poor villagers from the surrounding settlements, they’ve uncovered, in almost two months of investigations; they don’t want them to be caught in the crossfire.
“My people must really hate him,” she says instead, “they gave us everything we asked for and more,” and Olga nods. Natasha’s read the seventeen pages, and she can’t blame SHIELDS.
“Are you afraid?” she asks Olga, remembering that she’s never had to go on the field, unlike her.
“A bit,” Olga says.
“Me too,” escapes Natasha’s lips.
“You said you weren’t,” Olga points out.
“I guess…” Natasha steps forward, leans out of the window, then steals one of Olga’s cigarettes. “I never had so much to lose,” she says, blowing out the smoke. With Olga sitting on the windowsill, they’re at the same height, so she leans forward and kisses her.
“Is someone smoking in here?” a voice calls from the hallway. Natasha instinctively turns around, hiding the cigarette behind her back. Clint’s leaning against the doorframe.
Olga must have understood what he said, because she’s smiling. “Be safe,” she shouts, in broken English, but English nonetheless, which makes Natasha’s chest fill with bubbles and without even thinking, wrapping her arms around the other woman’s neck, cigarette and all, she kisses her on the corner of the mouth.
If Clint is confused he does not let it show.
“Did you tell her?” Natasha asks; she doesn’t need to specify who she means. Clint nods, awkwardly; he’s wearing his bright purple hearing aids. He’ll wear the invisible ones in the morning, because it’s dangerous to let the enemies know. Natasha wonders whether Laura knows, now, remembers how he’d remove his invisible aids every night to hide them in the most remote corner of their guest bathroom in the farmhouse.
“It felt like a part of my previous life,” Clint specifies. “I didn’t want her to know anything about that. But it was becoming a burden to hide.”
“Yeah, I know a thing or two about those,” Natasha tells him. He nods in acknowledgement. The real reason – why this thing, this part of Natasha always scared her – was that she didn’t really believe in hiding things; secrets are meant to get out. And they do, eventually.
And if she’d died – years ago, before or after defecting, before Wanda, before all of this resurfacing – she figures, then no one would have known, that the Black Widow likes women, that is, then the secret would have remained hidden. And although for the longest time that had been her goal, the thought had always scared her. Like a life left half unlived. Like the whole thing at the Room – the whole thing with Olga – had all been for nothing. It was a sad thought.
“Laura knows this is serious?” she asks Clint instead.
“We spoke on the phone earlier,” Clint adds. “She’s… it’s like every other time. She’ll be alright.”
Natasha nods and the thought hits her – that now she has someone waiting for her at home, although it’s not really home, does she even have a home anymore? Anyway there’s someone, just like there was Wanda, once, but still it feels a bit different, because this is a big op compared to the other ones, and because it is Olga.
Clint lingers on the doorframe, until it’s clear that Olga won’t leave Natasha’s room. Then he smiles, and it’s not the usual smile you put on when you’re saying goodbye; there’s something more in it.
The next morning, while embarking the plane – Olga has stared at her the whole time in the room, at four am, after the alarm, as Natasha got into tactical gear and did her rituals – she thinks about that one night, when the Minister’s chauffeur had come to take her to the ball, or that afternoon while the Minister raped her in the empty dorms. She’s wondering about that feeling of powerlessness – is Olga feeling it too?
Chapter 7: Premiere - Beginning
Soo here we are! Last chapter!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Moscow, February 2002
Natasha had come to see Olga backstage, in her beautiful, beautiful stage clothes, and then she’d sat a few rows back in the audience – she was the only person olga had wanted there from the Red Room. she knew that Olga’s parents – her father, who’d sold her – had to be there somewhere, in the first row or perhaps in one of the balconies. But she didn’t spot him; she didn’t know what he looked like.
Olga danced beautifully, and everything was beautiful – Natasha would have truly enjoyed it at any other time.
They met again backstage, afterwards, Olga still wearing her beautiful costume.
“He wants to take me in tonight,” she said, “he lives closer to the theatre, and he says he’s waited enough.”
Natasha nodded, unable to find words that made sense.
Then Olga stepped forward and hugged her, and Natasha realised that they would never get a last kiss, because there were dancers and make up artists and coaches all around them, together with the press and God knows who else.
“I’ve lived in the Room almost my entire life,” Olga told her, “but I feel like I only started living when you came along.”
Her stage makeup was wet with sweat and Natasha could feel it against her own skin, sticky and heavy.
“I think I didn’t know what love meant, when the other girls mentioned it, not until I met you,” she told Olga, and then gasped, only now realising the magnitude of what she’d just said – the L word – those words that had been hanging in the air above them since early on, when they still met outside to smoke under the tree; Natasha feels like they didn’t have a care in the world back then, even though she knows it’s not true.
Olga broke the embrace, planting her hands on Natasha’s upper arms and looking at her in the eyes, hazel in blue. “I don’t know why I’m telling you now,” she said.
She took a breath and Natasha could swear her eyes became wet. “But I’m in love with you, Nat,” she finished, “and God knows how long I’ve been, and whether we’ll ever see each other again,” and then Natasha laughed, noticing, as she did, that her voice had broken, and that she was crying. Now Olga was crying, too.
We’ll see each other again – these are things, she thought, that people say without actually meaning them – not because Olga didn’t want to see her again; they both would have killed for another night, another hour, or even just a last kiss.
But they were in Moscow’s most famous theatre, wearing expensive scene costumes, for the premiere of one of its most important ballets, and one of the most famous men in Russia had decided years ago that he needed to own Olga Petrin, and there was nothing Natasha Romanova, age seventeen, could possibly do about it.
Natasha comes back.
It’s two days later, and Natasha is waiting for her outside the hangar. “She chainsmokes,” Maria Hill says, greeting Natasha at the entrance, then lets her run to Olga who’s standing further back, on the bare ground. Clint has already called Laura from the jet.
The meeting comes first, and Natasha feels like they’re physically pulling her apart from her lover.
Six hours later they hug; Olga smells like a fresh shower, the progress she’d made in fitting into Natasha’s clothes partially undone during the hours they’ve been apart, or maybe Natasha’s imagining it – it’s not actually long enough to lose a noticeable amount of weight; but Olga looks surprisingly frail in her arms.
“You must be tired,” she tells Natasha.
“I’m not,” Natasha says, “it’s the adrenaline.”
Olga nods. They’re on the patio, where there’s a dozen of lawn chairs, but she chooses to sit on the half wall that separates it from the driveway. “So,” she starts, then looks down to the ground, “how did it go?”
The Minister was killed.
He tried to escape from the roof, where a helicopter was ready to take off, when one of Clint’s arrows had struck.
Olga nods as Natasha recalls.
He was going to leave everyone behind – the staff, a chauffeur, even his own brother.
“Alisa was away at the boarding school,” Olga states. “Fjodor?”
“SHIELD has him in custody,” Natasha replies. “They’ll take him to the States. They’ll interrogate him accordingly to his state,” she adds, feeling a tinge of guilt deep in her stomach, choosing to believe in what she’d just said but not really succeeding. Olga isn’t buying it either.
“I’ll ask about him,” Natasha says, “I’ll take care of him.”
Olga nods. “We will.” She fumbles, rearranges her legs twice. “Snezhana?” she asks.
Natasha knows that her face has given it away – the deep sigh she’s taken, the way her shoulders have slouched forward at the mere mention of her name. She thinks of the girl sitting in the plastic chair in the common hall, waiting for her husband to be done violating a girl barely a few years younger than herself. She thinks that overall there are more victims than anything else.
“In childbirth,” she manages, “she died in childbirth in December,” and Olga nods.
“I couldn’t help her on time,” she whispers.
“It’s not your fault,” and Natasha’s tone is stern. “It was his fault, just like everything else.” Olga looks down.
“Did the baby make it?”
“A girl,” Natasha says, and she’s seen her, even if for a mere second – pink and small and loud, as one of the agents took her away. “She’s in SHIELD’s custody.”
“He didn’t get the male heir he wanted, then,” Olga remarks, and Natasha can feel some kind of pride in it, or maybe something else, something more childish. “She won’t remember him,” Olga states next.
“You’re the only person alive who knew Snezhana so well, that we know of,” Natasha starts. She pauses, unsteady on her feet. “You’re the only connection she has to her mother.”
“Natasha,” Olga interrupts. “I just got out of a prison in Serbia, I’ve lived in that palace since I was eighteen and I have never worked a day in my life. How is that ever going to work out, Nat? You need to tell me, because I can’t think of a way.”
Natasha feels like her vision is blurring, the ground losing solidity beneath her feet.
“I’ll help you,” she blurts out. “Come to the States with me. We can live together, if you like. We’ll both take care of her. She’ll know Russian, and she will be loved. I think you’d be great at loving her; I think you’re great at loving and…”
She’s out of breath now, Olga looking at her, wide eyed. “You’re asking me to come live with you?”
“There’s nothing else I want in this world,” she replies.
“Can we even do it properly, there in the States?” Olga asks with a newfound vigour. “I’m not a man, Natasha,” she adds, almost in a whisper.
And Natasha realises that she has never really been to the West – that she was always the more fearless of the two, apparently unbothered by her reputation, not afraid to show who she loved; but it’s true that she always did it within a set of precisely defined lines, because stepping outside of them would have meant to be ruined: killed, or worse.
That she has never seen two men holding hands in the street, or on TV, if they even had one in the Minister’s palace, much less two women; that she probably can’t even imagine marrying someone she loves, ever.
“We can,” she says, then, surprised by her own emphasis, “I know two guys who got married, and I know of a successful woman lawyer with a wife. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy – but you’re one of the strongest people I know.”
“Married?” Olga asks. “To each other?”
“I’ll tell them,” Natasha says.
Olga looks up, surprised.
“Aren’t you afraid that they’ll take it badly? That they’ll kick you out of the agency?”
“No,” Natasha says, after a second of hesitation, because it’s true. “I’ve always known they’d do no such thing, ever. I could have told them sooner. I just didn’t do it because…”
“...I guess I wasn’t ready to tell it to myself,” she says in the end. “I guess I always envied you, because all the girls knew and all the ladies knew and you never gave a shit.”
Olga sighs. “I needed to pretend that I didn’t,” she says, “because it was the only way, you know? The only way I could take it, at least. If I tried really hard to look like I didn’t care, then I…”
Natasha nods. “If I tried really hard to act like I liked men, maybe I would have started liking them for real.”
Olga lets out a small laugh. “Worked great, didn’t it?”
Natasha finds herself laughing, too.
“Yelena,” she says, after they’ve been staring at the sunset in silence for what felt like a good twenty minutes.
“The baby,” Natasha says.
“We’re keeping her,” Natasha tells Maria Hill the next morning at breakfast. Olga is sitting beside her, the mug close to her chest and a strange expression.
“Oh,” Maria says, “I’m glad. I thought so too,” she adds, “that it was the best thing to do, given the circumstances.”
“We’ll give her an identity,” Natasha says, “and we’ll write that Olga gave birth to her in jail, on December 10th, 2015. That she was rescued together with her mother when we raided it.”
Olga probably doesn’t understand everything that’s being said – they’re speaking fast, and her English is rusty. But it’s a story they’re rehearsed last night, in bed – and as they discussed technical details, like how the jail refused to let medical personnel visit the expecting mother, Natasha let her mind wander, and this is where her mind went:
There’s a brown haired girl wearing overalls, playing in the greenest garden Natasha’s ever seen, and the garden is attached to this house, that looks just like every other house in an American suburb she’s ever seen; Olga’s picking the little girl up, and they’re smiling at each other, and the girl blabbers a word that sounds like mom, and Natasha’s chest…
She stops herself from daydreaming any longer.
“The father was the Minister,” Maria states, jotting down some notes on a piece of paper.
“Yes,” Olga interjects, her English sharp and accented.
Maria looks at her, surprised – it’s the first time they’ve actually spoken, outside of interrogation, although it feels a bit like an interrogation, or like planning an op – with the talk of details and such.
But there will be no tactical gear this time, no silent walks in corridors that lead to attacks, hearts thumping loudly in the chest, temples, and eardrums.
It’s like the debriefing at the end of a successful mission, the last paperwork required to shelf the file and move on. And there’s a lot to move on to – first times to look forward to; houses to pick, restaurants to discover, dinners to be had with Clint and his family and Bruce and their friends.
“I want to give her a home,” Natasha lets out, to Maria Hill, who looks at her and then at Olga and then at the paper on the kitchen table, confused, wondering which her she meant – the one sitting next to her, or the one waiting in a room that’s been quickly turned into a nursery by agents who must surely have felt out of their depths. Perhaps knowing that she means both.
Missouri, July 2016
It’s hot in the summer here, even at night – Clint’s laid the table on the patio. Lila and Cooper are sitting at a smaller, foldable plastic table; little Nathaniel’s sleeping on his mother’s chest. Yelena’s asleep too, having just eaten, in her new stroller that was honestly more expensive than Natasha imagined. She’s seven months old, and beautiful – not the way other people’s children are, even though Lila, Cooper and little Nathaniel were all very pretty, too. She’s the most precious thing Natasha’s ever held, and she holds her all the time, feeling her warmth close to her chest as she feeds her formula and gross baby food. And her body physically responds to the closeness, too – it’s like a wave of calm, and warm, and love, travels through her entire being, when she has the child in her arms and her lover beside her.
“We named him Nathaniel,” Laura is saying to Olga, looking down at the sleeping child in her arms, “because of her,” pointing at Natasha, who doesn’t think she’ll be able to forget Olga’s face, when she understands what Laura means.
“Yelena was the name of Nadezhda’s mother,” Olga supplies, a fact that Natasha didn’t know, either, “she was a very cool woman – she used to give me books when I was living at the palace.”
“I’m glad the Minister kept it,” Natasha says. They’re not really talking to everyone else at the table – Bruce turns to the children, asks them about school, which is a topic he finds very exciting, although Cooper looks rather bored by it.
“Do you like reading?” Olga asks Lila, her English still accented, but miles better than it had been just a few months before.
“Very much,” Lila says, “you could teach me Russian, so I could read books in Russian, too!”
Olga laughs. “I can teach you some words,” she says, “learning Russian takes a very long time.”
They ask her how to say mom and dad in Russian, then dog, then cat. Which are all things they’ve never asked Natasha before, and Natasha wonders how she’s spent such a large part of her life repressing herself, folding herself smaller and smaller into a box, then almost throwing said box away.
“Кошка1,” she replies, before Olga can even open her mouth. The children repeat it and scream in delight, and Olga smiles.
“How do you say it,” Olga asks her, in Russian, “what we are,” she illustrates, with large sweeping gestures between the two of them, sitting side by side at the table. She asks it lightly, as if it were another animal, another word commonly found in children’s books,
Laura and Clint stare at them in curiosity, not really understanding Olga’s question, but still waiting for the reply.
“Lesbians,” Natasha says in the end, loud and clear, “we’re lesbians.”
“We’re lesbians,” Olga repeats.
“We are,” Natasha whispers back.
Then the panic sets, and she thinks, in no particular order – what if it’s not OK to say it in front of the children; what if Laura’s actually hyper religious and has never mentioned it before; what if Clint gets mad that he has to explain what a lesbian is to his two children with ages in the single digits; what if they get mad and kick us out. Does Olga look so calm because she can’t really know the situation, what we’re risking exactly, or because growing up out there has made her afraid of nothing; or because she’s just as scared as I am?
So she holds her lover’s hand, underneath the table where both of their hands have fallen, and they both hold it tight, so tight it almost hurts.
“Oh,” Bruce says, and he looks surprised. “I’m…”
“We’re so proud of you!” Laura says finally, perhaps in an overeager way, that Natasha appreciates nonetheless; it doesn’t matter that she can’t even understand what she’s proud of.
“We’re honored you told us, Nat,” Clint adds, “and Olga,” and Olga’s shoulders drop and she smiles.
“What does it mean?” Lila interjects. Cooper is silent, and the look on his face suggests that he already knows, or thinks he does. And just as Natasha thinks, Clint will get mad, Clint laughs, and says: “Do you want to be the one who explains, Nat?”
And after gasping for air a couple of times, everyone’s eyes fixed on hers, she finds the strength to recite: “It’s when two women love each other, instead of loving a man.”
“Loving, like, marrying?” Lila wants to know.
“Yeah,” Natasha says, then realizes, and covers her mouth. She turns to Olga, and she’s smiling too, holding an empty glass in front of her face, which is all red. “Hopefully, one day,” Natasha tries to salvage, but everyone’s giggling and her chest feels light, too.
“We live together,” Natasha explains, looking at Lila, “and do the normal stuff couples do, like buy furniture and argue over wall paint,” with a pointed look at Olga, who rolls her eyes.
“We ended up painting the nursery green,” Natasha informs Laura. Olga had wanted yellow.
“I was wondering what was up with that,” Clint says, giggling. “I wondered whether it was just a temporary fix, before finding an apartment each. I guess not,” he concludes, winking.
Then Clint and Laura get up and tuck the kids into bed – Nathaniel, who’s already sleeping; then Cooper, obediently, and little Lila among protests: “Only if dad tells me a story,” she says, and Clint makes a big scene of rolling his eyes back, but he’s smiling, and he comes back fifteen minutes after Laura.
“How long…?” Bruce asks then, breaking his silence – Natasha had become so overwhelmed she’d almost forgotten he was here too.
“Have we been together?”
They turn to look at each other – Olga barely holding back a smile.
“Since 2001,” Natasha says in the end. Laura gasps and Clint whistles, as Bruce simply nods. “We were separated, not by our own will, when the Minister recruited Olga.”
“Ever since then?” Laura asks.
“Even if we didn’t know it,” Olga confirms, the difference in accents between those same words almost melting Natasha’s heart. So, without thinking, she turns and kisses her – and it’s the most natural thing in the world, and Clint cheers at them but she knows that soon nobody will even bat an eye.
Then Clint does a thing – it’s small, probably imperceptible, but Natasha notices nonetheless; he’s let his hair grow out recently, since before Serbia, and now it frames his face in loose curls, that Laura often caresses.
Sometimes it gets in his face – it’s doing it now, as Natasha and Olga pull apart, so he raises a hand and tucks it behind his ear, exposing – crucially, Natasha thinks, showcasing, even – the bright purple aid he wore in Serbia, when no one from SHIELD was around. It’s not the invisible pair Stark had designed for him, so small it fits wholly inside of his ear, that he wears to missions, because enemies must not know his weakness, because apparently hearing aids are easy to disable even from a distance; it’s no longer the invisible pair he used to hide every night in the most remote corners of his own house.
And Laura caresses his curls again, brushing the metal with just the tip of her finger, then catching Natasha’s smile.
Late at night, after one, they climb up the stairs in silence, careful not to wake the children, both Clint’s and Yelena, who’s sleeping peacefully in Olga’s arms. She puts her down in one of Nathaniel’s older cribs, that Laura has gifted them, because he’s outgrown it and three’s enough, thank you. It’s light blue with a red ribbon and it’s the best thing Natasha’s ever seen.
Bruce has left them the guest room, he actually insisted on sleeping on the sofa; he’s downstairs and probably sleeping.
As Olga changes into a nightshirt – one of the few they’ve bought together in New York, because she needed a new wardrobe and Natasha was going to make sure that she got it – and as she removes her makeup, and sets her hair free from the ponytail, Natasha closes her eyes on the comfortable double bed, then opens them to the exposed wood of the farmhouse’s ceiling; the crickets are singing their song outside in the sweet July heat.
Neither of them sleeps easily, and they probably never will. Natasha can hear her walk on the balcony multiple times every night, just like Olga can hear her check on Yelena every hour, some lucky nights every two.
They’ve started mentioning it in the morning, asking each other whether she slept well – confessing their nighttime activities to the woman with whom they share a bed, words forced out of their mouths like debris from an open wound; and Natasha likes to think it helps. Olga almost slept through the night last week, before leaving to Missouri. She has a feeling that this will be an easy night, too.
Olga lays down next to her, and tomorrow they’ll leave to the airport, and then to their apartment in the city, to their little life they’ve conquered, after kissing everyone goodbye. They’ll give them some more baby stuff, they’ll help them load everything in the rental car, and they’ll send them away, but only after they promise that they’ll be back soon.
1 Cat in Russian
I don't care if it's cheesy, they deserved it...
Thank you all for reading my shameless semi self insert fic!