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We Were Like Lions

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She is four when they move into a house in the middle of the wilderness. It was once an old abandoned farm house, but the foundations are strong and the stone walls are finely made. It sits on some good land, relatively flat and hidden by a copse of young trees. Off to the side, there should be a gurgling brook under a long, narrow bridge that has seen better days. Now, the brook weaves a tiny trickling pathway through the icy winter grounds. In the Russian countryside, the winters are always fierce. The ground has been swallowed by snow. On the other side of the brook is a smaller building, possibly once used as a tiny store for grain during the winter. This estate is far from other houses and even farther from the city, and was not easy to locate.

It will be the only home Natalia will remember. She does not remember it for long.

This is her only memory of her father and mother together: the sounds of their discontent echoing down the hall, as she strikes out into the darkness alone, in this strange house that Mama says will become their home. She does not know what she is looking for. The voices from the front door bounce off the walls and she closes her eyes, feeling her way through to the drafty kitchen. She is a bat, unseeing and all-seeing at the same time. She imagines that her ears can pick up everything.

But how long will we have to be here, Mama protests. Natalia does not understand their conversation. Her parents always argue in English, and she is too little to care what they mean and try to make sense of it. She imagines other creatures of the night: she is a she-wolf, crouching on all fours. She is scrounging for food in the dark, slack-jawed and hungry. Her knees chafe soft against the bare floor, so different from the fine polished wood she once learnt to crawl on. She does not know the difference. She does not remember. She only knows that here is a strange place, one she is not used to, and she needs to change along with it.

Until this trouble is over. Someone knows about what I did. The letters -

Damn the letters to hell! I am not afraid of a few threats.

I am!

One-two, one-two. Natalia walks her fingers along the crevices in the stone. The only thing she can see is the pale flash of her tiny fingernails, scuttling across the concrete. She uses more fingers now. She is a spider in the dark. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. 

Tomorrow the power will come. I will be back by autumn.

Natalia needs to go to school. 

Natalia is a smart girl. I will get books -

Solnyshko. Pozhaluysta. You cannot leave us here in this place.

You will be fine. Dmitry is one of the best.

He is a bad influence on her.

Their voices fade as she crawls into the dusty fireplace. It is empty, but still covered in a fine layer of soot. Natalia's searching fingers brush up against more cold stone. She moves her fingers up, down, left, right. Something catches on the tips, clinging and unpleasant. Cobweb. She grimaces and pulls away, but it pulls along with her. Spiders do not bother her, but something scampers across her fingers, squeezing its furry body into a split between two stones. Two liquid eyes, a whip-thin tail. Horror seizes her then: she is a rat, on her hands and knees, splayed on the dirty floor. Her skin crawls in disgust. She turns back into Natalia and runs. 

Mama, mama. There are things in the dark. She stumbles back to safety. She tries to stop the tears from coming, but they are already here. She hates this place, she wants to go back. Surely it was warmer wherever they came from. She buries her face into her mother's thick traveling cloak and inhales. The rich bear pelt still smells of its death, but at least it is warm. The smell becomes a strange comfort.

Hush, Lisichka. Gentle Russian now. Give your Papa a kiss.

Natalia does not move. If she does not do it, he will not leave.

I will be back before you know it, Lisichka. His voice warps like it is underwater, because she is crying and everything feels like water. Natalia is sure she is drowning from it.

Natasha. When your Papa is back, he will give you presents fit for a princess.

I am not a princess. I want to be a soldier, like you. I want to go with you!

Before Natalia finishes her shouting, she is running up the wooden stairs. Mama will be angry with her for shouting, and she does not want Papa to see her cry.

She will later regret not looking at Papa for the last time.

The house is still dark by the time Mama comes up to her room, but it has been several hours by now and it will soon be morning. Papa would have been long gone. Natalia realises that she did not hear him go. The world outside is still and dark, and so is her room. She shivers and hugs her knees to her chest, thinking of rats coming down the chimney like blackened snowflakes.

Natasha.

It is dark, Mama. There are big rats crawling in the house.

We will have big candles with bright flames soon. We can play the shadow-game on the walls. You can be the rabbit, you will like that, no? Mama will be the cat. A warm hand smooths the hair on Natalia's head, flattening it against her cheek. The words blow past Natalia, insignificant for the first time in her life.

Is Papa going to fight in a war again? She tries to be brave when she asks this. She is old enough for truths of the world. She knows that sometimes, people go to war. After that, the house will be filled with flowers and there will be a pretty stone with their name on it to put in the garden. She thinks she would like to get a stone of her own to keep. Papa Romanova. She would lay it by a pond or under a tree, with flowers all around.

No, Lisichka. He is no longer a soldier. He... is in a different war. A war of politics. 

Then it is not so dangerous, not like a fighting war? Are there evil people still?

The world is full of evil people. His world most of all. Mama must know then that Natalia's face twists in dismay, that it is an answer Natalia does not want to hear. But Mama has always been stern but kind, and she never minces her words.

Natalia, you have nothing to fear. Not of the dark, or of evil people. Take comfort in these things, Natalia. Breathe it in like it is a part of you.

The shadows in the room shift because the wind outside blows strong. Her mother remains a dark shape looming over her. How can Natalia take comfort in this? She is only four. But she does not say anything, just nods tightly because she is brave like Papa.

With dark there is light, and with evil there is good. And it matters not what others are, but what you choose to be. It will not be easy, but if you ever need to choose, Natalia, you will remember your Mama's words. You always have a choice.

Natalia understands this. After all, she is already almost five. There is the day and there is the night. There is lying and there is truth. There is her father leaving, when he could have chosen to stay. In a few years' time, she will resent him for this, but now she does not know resentment. She only knows that if it had been up to her, she would have chosen differently. 

Is Papa the good person? In his polly-tick world?

Her Mama pauses for a small second. For who really can know whose side is the better until the war is won and the victor tells the tale? This hesitance is misread by Natalia. She fears, for a moment, that the answer will be no.

Yes, Natalia. Yes, he is.

Good, Natalia says, smiling in the dark and patting Mama's hand comfortingly. Then he will be home soon.

---

Spring comes reluctantly that year. One afternoon it snows so heavy that Natalia almost cannot open the back door. She puts all her weight into it, panting, then the door gouges a path through the knee-high snow and she tumbles out into the thin sunlit air.

By the time she has scrambled over the low hedge near the brook, the first shock of cold has already hollowed out her lungs. It comes back out in tiny puffs. She shoves her hands in her pockets and wanders about in a circle, making clouds above her head. She is a fire-breathing dragon, huffing her discontent.

Natalia, stay away from the bridge!

Natalia giggles to herself and skips farther out of sight of the house. She knows the secrets of the bridge, and she knows that the bridge will never harm her. Still, she obeys. It is easy to obey her Mama. When she tires of running dizzying circles into the snow, she hops along to find Cabbage-man.

There is not much for him to do this winter. When they first moved in, the garden was already covered in snow, and the parts that were not had already withered away from the bitter frost. Now he is working hard by the front gate, shoveling snow off the pathway. His nose and ears are pinched-red. His pale hair seems dirty and dark under the flecks of snow, and it has grown out, along with his beard, ever since they moved out into the wilderness.

Hello, Cabbage-man. Are you a snow beast today?

He barely glances up at her, but his brows have already knitted together. He mutters a few curses and wipes a string of clear snot from his nose. Is it not cold enough indoors? Where is your coat?

I do not need it. She sticks her tongue out cheekily. I am a mountain lion!

Not if you do not roar.

Natalia roars, then throws herself into the snow and rolls about. Look, Cabbage-man. Now I am a snow leopard. 

Get up, girl, before your Mama sees you. Now I have more work to do. He sighs heavily and his mouth is downturned, but his eyes have crinkled up in the corners. Natalia knows it means he is secretly pleased. She lounges and stretches wide like a wildcat.

When will the bluebells come? Is it tomorrow?

Does it look like they will come tomorrow? Glupaya devchonka. He grips the shovel with grizzled, pink hands and continues working.

Natalia grins. She likes it when Cabbage-man calls her names. It means that he likes her, even though he will never say it. She spends the afternoon pestering him about flowers and about the new garden they will plant by the short hedge behind the house. She learns that if she puts white flowers under her pillow, she will be lucky. She learns that the red poppies in the fields will help you remember. She learns that bluebells are also called Dead Men's bells and that she should never pick them.

Spring cannot come fast enough. Papa cannot come fast enough.

Cabbage-man? Can we play Papa Comes Home?

He clears his throat and spits a great glob of phlegm into the snow. Ask your Mama.

This means yes. Natalia leaps up and throws the snow off herself, shaking it off like a dog. She hops back to the house and up the stairs, calling out nonsense-words to Mama when she asks what is going on. I have to look pretty, Mama. Papa is coming home.

She clambers onto her Mama's chair to look at herself in the mirror. Her hair is in knots, matted and dull from her romp in the snow. It is no longer red. It is easily solved: Mama always has a tube of red lipstick for special occasions. This is the most special.

It does not look as nice on her hair as she thought it would. Her hair only gets darker and stickier, so she leaves it and puts the rest of the smears on her lips. She is careful not to touch anything else with her dirty hands.

After she is satisfied with her looks, she wipes her hands off onto her petticoat and runs back to her room, her footsteps loud and thumping in the house.

Natasha! Are you behaving yourself?

Yes, Mamachka, Natalia replies sweetly. She tucks her mini encyclopedia under her armpit, because this is what her Papa said he would help her read when he gets home. She had specifically requested for an English one, so she will be able to speak English well next time, just like him.

The back door opens. Natalia can recognise the whine of the hinges from her bed, and smiles to herself.

Lisichka, I am home. Cabbage-man is always careful not to call himself her Papa, because he did once in jest and Mama was upset.

Natalia, on the other hand, can do whatever she pleases. Papa! You have returned. She takes the stairs two at a time, thundering all the way down and drowning out the disapproving tsk of her Mama. Papa, do I look pretty? Do you recognise me?

Ey! Cabbage-man draws up short and lets out a string of curse words. What the hell happened to you?

Dmitry! Mama scolds, storming over. Her eyes are green flame and Natalia shrinks back, avoiding its heat. What in - Natalia, what did you do to your face? Look at your dress! Why is your hair wet?

I am playing Papa Comes Home with Cabbage-man, Natalia replies bluntly, not understanding why this is not a good thing.

Natalia! That is no way to address Dmitry Vasil'yevich. Apologise to him. And look at what you have done to yourself. What a mess! No, do not touch me with those hands. Go to the bathroom. Your Papa will hear of this.

Cabbage-man ambles back out to resume his work, shaking his head and muttering. Glupaya devchonka. A flicker of a smile flashes across his face before he closes the door behind him.

---

After a few false starts, the sky cracks up wide open one morning and spring comes in all at once, crowding forward in a rush of green. Natalia sheds her leopard skin. She is a squirrel, emerging from hibernation. She infuriates Cabbage-man when she decides, one afternoon, to dig all around the frozen grounds of the estate for nuts that she may have planted in her sleep.

When the first bluebells tilt their blue faces to the sky, Natalia has already forgotten her Papa's face.

It hits her all at once one day when she is preparing his war-gift: a smooth grey rock fished from the bottom of the river near the rotting bridge. She wades into the shallow part and chooses the biggest she can find. This one covers her entire left hand, and is shaped faintly like a heart. This is a good stone.

The carving process is simple. She uses another sharp stone to make white scratches, but misjudges the space needed. Eventually, the stone reads PAPA ROM before running out of room. She does not mind. He will know it is his.

She has left space below it to carve his likeness, such that others will recognise him. This is important so they will not put flowers on the wrong stone. She imagines it now: a pale heart-shaped stone will rest on a soft bed of moss in the backyard, crowned with a wreath of poppies. The poppies will tilt their soft red-petaled heads towards his face, stroking it gently with the breeze. Her hand stops moving. She knows she is no artist, but at this moment, her mind cannot conjure his face at all.

The harder she thinks about it, the more the details elude her. She seizes up in terror once again. The voices in the empty house, the silhouette of Papa in the doorway. Shrinking away so that he would not see her crying. Who is her Papa? Did he ever exist? The memory slips away like the last dregs of a bad dream, melting away in the light of day. She cannot remember anything but a shadow in the door, trying to reach out a comforting hand.

She crashes back into the house, eyes wide. She is a white hart, fleeing the huntsman of the woods. MAMA. MAMA.

Hush, Natasha! What is wrong with you? Mama has been peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Her fingers are damp and sweet from it. A pot of cabbage boils behind her, its smell warm and comforting.

Natalia hesitates. I only wanted to ask you something, she says, suddenly quieted by Mama's heavy glare. Mama's gaze softens, and the lines on her face smooth out. Emboldened, Natalia presses on. Can you tell me what Papa looks like? It is only... it is not easy to remember.

She is suddenly clouded by shame. What kind of daughter forgets her father's face? She regrets asking, and prepares to apologise and slink away.

I will tell you, Mama says, and Natalia looks up in surprise. But first, you must complete a task. 

Mama sets her on a quest to collect every blue thing she can find, from anywhere she can find it. Do not destroy anything, Mama dictates, when Natalia asks for the rules of their game. And do not cross the bridge.

Natalia flies out of the house. She is a sharp-eyed raven, keen and cunning. She pecks around at the ground with hands pinched into twin beaks, but quickly realises that it yields nothing. She flutters over to the flowerbed and plucks a tiny petal of a bluebell, the bluest she can find, and puts it into her pocket.

The following few hours are miserable and fruitless: the sky is already beginning to darken when Natalia sits down in a huff, taking stock of what she has in her sweaty fist. A few threads of Cabbage-man's cloak, which may have been just a dirty black. A chip of ice from under a rock by the bank, though it does not look blue anymore now that it is in her hand. The bluebell petal has shrivelled up and lost its colour, lying torn in the web between her finger and thumb. She throws the little trinkets aside, frustrated, then runs back to her crawly-hole by the bridge to peer into the water. The water is very blue, blue as the sky. She dips into her reflection and cups the water in her hands. Instantly, the water runs away, trickling through her fingers and leaving a stinging wake of icy cold.

She tries again and again, but each time the water flows away, escapes easily through the gaps in her fingers. She feels the loss keenly each time, as though with every handful of water that eludes her, it washes away another detail of her father. How his hands looked when he turned the pages of her books. Drip, drip. The line between his eyes. Drip, drip. The way his laugh went quiet and airy when he was telling a secret. Drip, drip.

Natalia will not cry. She flicks the cold water off her hands distastefully and throws herself down onto the rocky shore. So what if she does not remember her Papa? He will be back soon enough.

Something out of the corner of her eye. She is a river-eel, sinuous and electric. She slices through the water and the cold gives her strength. She weaves through the black wood stakes below the bridge, pulls herself higher up on one of them. There it is: an old nest, half-wrecked by the fresh torrents of snowmelt running down the river. Within it, a curve of eggshell. She picks it up to inspect it closely. It is speckled as though with pepper, and gleams a soft dusty blue. Robin? Starling? She will have to ask Cabbage-man.

She has completed her task. She bounds back to the house, quick as a hare, but careful not to break the shell further. She cups it within both hands like a precious stone.

When she shows it to Mama, Natalia knows she has completed her task well. Mama smiles, sudden like a welcome breeze.

Perfect, Lisichka. Keep it well. That is the exact colour of your Papa's eyes. Now you will always remember.

---

She does not realise that summer has come until Mama points it out from her window. For the first time that year, she tells Natalia that it is a good idea to go outdoors. This day is a golden day. The sun pours over the dark, waxy vines of the house like thick honey. Cabbage-man is there, as always, propped on a spindly wooden ladder and clipping away at the thick bunches of foliage. He is grumbling to himself about how his knife skills have been reduced to cutting overgrown plants.

The tinkle of Natalia's laughter drifts up to him as she plays her nonsense animal-games at the foot of the ladder. Go away, Volchonok. Or I will cover you in leaves.

Anybody else would think that he is threatening her, but he is not. Natalia cannot think of anything smart to say back to him, so she falls back on the only rude name she has ever thought of. Cabbage-man! She sticks up her tongue, then throws some fallen leaves up at him and runs away.

The day is long and soon she is sweaty and bored. She has run circles around the stone house at least thirty times. Cabbage-man takes a break, too: he lights a cigarette and lounges back on the top rung of his ladder, blowing smoke into the wind. His hair ruffles gently, and the way the sunlight hits it makes it seem almost white. Up there on his perch, high up from where Natalia rests, he looks like a frowning, displeased angel. The smoke swirls about him like a halo, then drifts up and away.

A flash of red, winking down at Natalia from a cornerstone. She puts her hand up to shield her eyes. Ey, Cabbage-man! Do you see that? Surely it is a poppy.

He leans over to look, but the sun is in his eyes. Nonsense. Poppies grow on fields. He flicks away the butt of his cigarette and turns away. Snip, snip. More leaves fall.

Natalia is a squirrel, fleet-footed and sure. She is halfway up the wall before Cabbage-man realises it. When he does, it is too late. The stones are dry and stable, and the twisting vines provide extra footholds. Soon, Natalia is high enough to press her nose into the tiny bud. Up close, she sees that it is less red and more purple, but she wants to see what she wants to see.

Look, Cabbage-man! A poppy for my Papa. So he will remember me.

Natalia! Cabbage-man shouts. She turns, bewildered at his sudden fierceness and urgency, a hot retort ready on her lips. For an instant, she is reassured because Cabbage-man does not look angry. His face is smoothed over, slack in alarm, bone-white against the sky. Then she overbalances and the world seems to tilt over. Her hands shoot out to grab anything she can hold on to. Stones! Leaves!

Thorns. The shock of the pain makes her let go again and her feet slide off the mossy undercoat of the creepers. The wind rushes past her so sudden and sharp that she has no time to scream, and it stings her everywhere with its bite. She slams into something warm that smells of earth. Immediately, the rusty tang of blood fills her mouth. She has bitten her tongue at the impact of the fall. She does not feel it yet; she is too startled by the sudden change in events.

Cabbage-man groans, shifts, then groans again. 

Natalia pushes herself up on her elbows and he hisses. She sucks at the salty tang between her teeth, her hands fluttering around his face hesitantly. Dmitry? 

Get off me, glupaya devchonka. And go and get your mother. 

Natalia later learns that Cabbage-man has a broken wrist and rib. She cowers in a corner of the kitchen, hiding from Mama's disapproval and watching with owl-wide eyes. Her own wounds are minor: thin scratches across her palms, red rakes along her arms.

Mama winds white bandages tight around his chest as he instructs her, too careful and too gentle. Cabbage-man slides in a curse here and there, though somehow always sounding respectful. Tighter, pull it tighter.

When it is over, she pours him a clear glass of vodka, shoots Natalia a cold glare, then leaves to launder their bloodstained clothing.

She is a mouse, timid and cautious. She stumbles over her words. Please forgive me, Dmitry Vasilye... Vasilyen... 

He sighs and drinks the vodka like a dying man, then sighs again. He looks at her, hard but not unkindly. No more climbing.

No, she promises fervently. 

Let me see your hands. His strong fingers touch Natalia's trembling ones. The blood has already scabbed over. Does it hurt, Natasha?

Natalia wants to wince and pull away, but his hurts are worse and she has no right. She holds his gaze. A little. Does yours hurt, Dmitry? She uses his name shyly, like she does not know if she should. It feels strange, almost disrespectful, like trying to call her Mama by her name.

Like a bitch. He huffs a laugh and ruffles her hair with his good hand. Do not tell your Mama I said that.

Natalia breaks into a tentative smile, the warmth of his forgiveness helping to ease her skittishness. Pain is good, she says sagely, trying to say it like Mama always says wise things. It means there is also the opposite. If there is pain, there is... there is...

Her nose scrunches up. What is the opposite of pain?

Cabbage-man grunts, closes his eyes and tells her to go away.

---

There is one day that Natalia remembers more than the other days. It is a hot day but it rains all afternoon, and the air inside the house becomes warm and still in the humidity. A gentle breeze blows through her open window in a fine golden mist. If Natalia tilts her head to one side and squints, she can see a faint rainbow. It strikes the ground not far from where she keeps a stash of objects saved up for Papa's return. In a dirt-packed crack where a stone used to be lies a mini Encyclopedia, half a starling eggshell, a random assortment of feathers, the remains of Mama's ruined lipstick, and Papa's personalised tombstone.

She remembers this day because she sees her mother crying at the foot of the stairs. She makes no sound, but her shoulders are shaking. In her hands is a crumpled-up piece of paper. Natalia does not go down the stairs. She is afraid that Mama may see her watching, and is filled with shame, as if she has seen someone without their clothes on. Watching people cry will always bother her more than nudity. She will realise this later.

Natalia sees Cabbage-man approach Mama like a white shadow. He brings the smell of the rain from outside the house: warm and sharp like the sap of fresh-clipped stems. White fingers rest, carefully, on Mama's closed fists. A question.

Mama stills, inhales, then straightens up. A tree planting its roots deep. January, then, she says steadily. Cabbage-man gives a stiff nod, and it seems his face turns slightly to the top of the staircase, where Natalia peeps through the gap in the steps. She shrinks away quickly, wondering if her eyes glint like lamps in the shadows. Maybe if she were a cat.

I will need to get supplies for the winter. He clomps back out the door.

She does not see her mother cry again.

Cabbage-man does not come back for two days. When he does, she hears him from at least a mile away: he has gotten his hands on an old pickup truck, with half its paint peeled off and the bonnet almost completely eaten by rust. It whines its way up the steep slope to their door. He spends the better part of the day putting his load away in the outhouse where he sleeps. Giant steel contraptions, slim leather-wrapped packages, sacks of potatoes and cabbage. Natalia groans inwardly. She is sick of potato and cabbage. Mama has mastered making everything from them. She thinks if she tried to bite her arm, it would probably taste of potato. Her sweat probably smells of cabbage soup. She is going to become a little Cabbage-girl soon. What will she tease Cabbage-man with then?

She sulks at the kitchen table, watching Cabbage-man heave and sweat, hoping he will drop the cabbage and that it will roll down the hill. He does not. Finally, when it is getting dark, he drives off again, rattling and clunking all down the road until he is a dot in the distance.

You did not wait for me. A scolding voice startles her awake. Cabbage-man is standing by her door. The high moon outside shows that it is already very late. It has taken a long time for Cabbage-man to abandon the truck and come back by foot. For a moment, Natalia tries to remember what she was waiting for.

I did, Natalia retorts indignantly, her voice heavy with sleep. She does not know what she is disagreeing to. A dull thunk by the foot of the bed wakes her up a little more, and she crawls forward to look at it. A small ceramic pot sits there forlornly. The plant within leans over the side limply, and the base is overgrown. She looks up in confusion.

Keep this for your Papa. For when he comes back.

He is out the room and down the stairs before Natalia spots the tiny furls of red petals, peeking at her between the weeds.

---

They only receive one letter in the fall. Cabbage-man brings it in late at night because he needs to pick it up all the way at the post office. He will not say how far the post office is. Mama does not cry, but they all sit facing each other at the dining table. Natalia stares sullenly at her bowl of okroshka. Mama and Cabbage-man stare at each other with lines between their eyes. Whatever they want to say cannot be said in front of Natalia, and her English has gotten better.

(Through her observations over the months, she can now accurately guess the meaning of the English words radiator, money and escape.)

Mama sees Natalia has not picked up her spoon and raps at the table sharply with the tips of her fingers.

I will try to hunt some meat, Cabbage-man announces. His plate has been scraped clean, but his mouth is twisted in an unhappy way. Or perhaps that is the way his mouth always is.

Be careful, is the only thing Mama says.

The days get shorter and the nights longer. It makes the waiting unbearable. Some days, more and more, Natalia forgets what she is waiting for. She feels like she has been waiting all her life. The poppies that she had received from Cabbage-man have been replanted all about the house, but they are beginning to wilt at the first signs of winter in the air. Natalia is not certain that they will survive the winter, if they will be around by the time her father gets back. She thinks, for the first time, that maybe he is not coming back.

She lays Papa's stone out in a thicket of the poppy-plant. She knows she will soon forget him: the stone is smooth and blank. Even the white scratches of his unfinished name have faded away. There is no face on this tombstone. This is the best she can do. She scribbles a goodbye letter to him with a stub of charcoal and a torn-off page from her mini encyclopedia. She does not remember what she writes.

If Cabbage-man notices that her Papa Comes Home games have stopped, he does not show it. Occasionally he will come back after a day of hunting with a small, skinny hare. Once, he comes in half-dragging a small doe on his shoulder. Their meals are rich for the next week. Though the smell of its slaughter and butchery lingers about the house, Natalia learns to love it. It means a full stomach. She is sad when the smell finally dissipates and they go back to various combinations of cabbage, potato and stringy hare meat. Mama cuts away some bits of the deer to salt and keep, with as much salt as she dares to spare.

One morning, Mama smiles at her more and makes a small batch of varenye from berries she has picked in the woods. Natalia stares at the small bowl of fruit preserve in front of her. The woods are not close by, a mile from the narrow bridge. She does not know if berries still grow this time of the year. Maybe this is why the bowl is small.

Fearing a trick, she mumbles a wary thank you before polishing it off in a few minutes. The sharpness of the berry stings her tongue, but her lips grow sticky and she is content. In this moment, among other moments, she does not realise she has forgotten her father completely.

Cabbage-man comes into the house, pats her head softly, and thrusts a heavy packet onto her lap. It is poorly-wrapped and unfurls slightly at rest. A thick flap of fur peeks out and she draws it quickly from the paper. She recognises the brown flecked with white: the fur of the doe from many weeks ago, speckled as though from the first snows of winter. Natalia draws it about her shoulders in wonder. It is a little too big for her, sagging past her waist to hang about her knees. The familiar smell is back: the heavy musk of freshly-bled game, deep in the stiff undercoat.

S dnyom varen'ya, Natasha. Happy birthday. Natalia did not realise it was her birthday until this moment. Her parents smile at her warmly, smile at the innocent surprise on her face. It is easy, now, to pretend that they are both hers, even though Cabbage-man's eyes are brown and not blue.

The taste of the tart jam from Mama lingers in her mouth. Natalia smiles and breathes in the smell of death.

---

It is one day to New Years' Eve, but Natalia does not know it. They are not keeping track, and day and night bleed together in indistinguishable moments of dark skies and howling winds. It hailed huge chunks of ice all over the day before, followed by a blizzard through the night. Natalia is frozen to her bones and stays in bed, wrapped in her treasured fur. The snow is almost completely obscuring her window. She is a bear, hibernating through the worst of the winter. She will sleep and when she wake up, the sun will be back and the flowers will be blooming.

There is a draught downstairs. Cabbage-man has been working all day to clear the snow from the doorway and windows. The chimney is closed to prevent the snow from coming all the way into the house, so they cannot light any fires. Their single radiator fizzled out two days ago under the strain of a cruel Russian winter.

Mama comes to Natalia's room and lies next to her in the bed. They share the fur and she drapes her own bearskin cloak over their knees as well. Natalia curls into the warmth and sighs. Do you think my flowers outside will survive, Mama?

Mama scoffs like she does when Natalia asks silly questions. You will find out soon enough, when Mitya has finished turning over all that snow.

Time flows honey-slow as each breathes in the warm oxygen of the other, lulled into silence by the steady chak-chak-chak of Cabbage-man chipping away at the snow packed against their walls.

It is late afternoon that Mama realises the sound has stopped. Natalia is half-asleep, and does not stir when Mama pulls away from the bed. The faint throb of her footsteps fades from the room as she goes back downstairs.

Mitya? How is the work going? How about a bit of vodka, hmm?

The muted sound of a heavy door opening and closing, then silence.

It may be minutes later or hours later when Natalia finally stops dozing. It is probably close to five o' clock. The sky outside is a dull bruise, still and cloudless. The twilight hour drenches Natalia's room in a pale blue haze and she sits up slowly. Time has stopped, the world is silent. Outside, even the wind holds its breath. By now, there should be the overbearing stench of Mama's dreadful cabbage soup bubbling over the stove, but Natalia does not hear a sound.

She rubs the sleep from her eyes, wondering if she is dreaming. She goes down to see if they are enclosed in an igloo world, her feet pattering on the cold stone. It feels as if the inside of the house is shrouded in a fog. She is a mountain-lion, stalking through the dusky mist of the Altay mountains. Cabbbage-man is standing at the foot of the stairs, holding something out to her.

She blinks and stares, and he stares back at her. It is not Dmitry Vasil'yevich. This man is dark-haired and broad. He stares at her, up and down, his arm stretching towards her. She swallows once and twice, because she sees his eyes. They are blue like the darkening sky outside the house, blue like the sliver of eggshell buried somewhere beneath her bedroom floor.

Papa? Her voice bleats out of her throat, alien to her ears. She can hardly believe her eyes, and her heart beats about in her chest like a caged sparrow.

Papa's outstretched arm trembles. He is not holding something out to her. He is pointing something at her. It is slick and oil-black, glinting dull in the half light. He makes a noise like a dying hare being gutted and bled out in the backyard, and does not move.

Papa, it is me, it is me! Wild happiness engulfs Natalia. She remembers nothing of what she has practised with Cabbage-man; not the trinkets in between the flagstones, not the look of her hair. Her feet carry her downwards and she tumbles into him, sighing happily. Her laughter rings like bells. Do you not recognise your Natalia?

Natalia buries her face into the fabric of his winter clothing. How could she think he was Cabbage-man at all? He is black on black on more black. She laughs again, giddily, leaning into his side. He smells of something familiar, like something she is dearly fond of. He smells of good memories and warm smiles, it is all over him in the insides of his wrists, the crooks of his elbows. His two arms circle her hesitantly, as if he has forgotten how hard she likes to be hugged. He drops to his knees, and he is bending down to her now, so close that she can press her nose into his cheek. She is surprised to find that it is wet, and throws her arms around his neck.

Oh, Papa, please do not cry. It is alright now. You came back. You are home. I have presents for you upstairs. Do you want to see? Presents there, and a present for you in the garden too. Do you have a present for me, Papa? I know you do, please Papa, I have been good. Ask Mama. My English is so good now. This deserves a present from you, surely.

Wordlessly, Papa presses a warm foil square into her palm. It looks battered, like it has survived many a war to get to her. Squealing in delight, she unwraps it and lets the chocolate melt on her tongue.

She will later realise that the smell on him is exactly the same as the starry-speckled doe's fur on her bedspread upstairs. At this moment, it is still wrapped up in the last remains of the warmth she shared with her mother.

Chapter Text

Papa's Russian is slow and accented, as if it has been a long time since he last spoke in this language. Pack your things. We need to go.

Natalia hesitates, trying to push her face back into the warmth of his hip. Cold hands pry her gently away. She does not understand. He has just come home. Where do they need to go? This is what she has been waiting for, and she had always thought the moment of Papa's homecoming would last forever. Now, the moment has been swept away, and the wind blows cold from the open back door. It swings this way and that, then bangs shut hollowly.

Where are we going? 

His mouth, pale and pink under the unkempt stubble, twists into some sort of half-smile. Resistance is futile, he says kindly, patting the top of her head with his cold, cold hands.

Natalia nods like she understands and skips back to her room two steps at a time. She does not know these words, "resistance" and "futile", but Papa said it like he had really meant it, so it must be alright. She recovers a small velvet satchel in which she first put her belongings when they arrived; she had been allowed to pack some things then, with help. Now she frowns at the empty bag and wonders what goes inside.

In the end, she digs up the treasures she has saved for Papa and shakes them loose from in between the stones. The book goes in first, but she leaves the feathers behind. The tin of found objects rattles like little teeth and she cracks it open to peer inside. The lipstick has stained the sides slightly, leaving red smears, and the blue eggshell has been crushed into separate pieces by Papa's tombstone. She sighs, plucks the stone out, then leaves the tin behind.

The small sack is too small for her to fit anything else in it. She spends awhile trying to see if she should bring any of her clothes with her, but she is wearing her favourite nightdress already and she does not need anything else save for her coat. After many minutes of straining to stuff her deerskin into its tiny opening, Natalia abandons her task. She slings the bag across her back and goes back down the stairs, feeling the encyclopedia and stone knocking into the back of her knees with every other step. She thinks she will be able to return to this house, to have more time to look at all her possessions again, to see if she has left anything out. She does not understand that she will never come back again.

Papa is no longer in the house. It is quiet and empty and cold, and it is dark already outside. The sky is ink-black and silent, oddly cloudless. The winter chill rises from the frozen ground, but the air is still, so Natalia does not feel it until much later. She follows a faint sound drifting through the air. Chak, chak, chak.

The sound is coming from behind the small shack where Cabbage-man keeps his hunting gear. She has never been inside the shack itself, as Cabbage-man had explicitly forbidden her to go in with his sternest voice. Hunting gear is dangerous, he had said. When she peers in through the crack in the door now, however, it seems empty.

Papa is a little way behind the shack, down a gentle slope where a small fence stands. He is filling a wide but shallow hole in the ground. It is too dark to see what he is doing. She wonders how strong he must be, being able to dig so fast in the cold. The ground is hard as ice, and her feet leave no marks in it no matter how hard she kicks.

Papa, I am ready.

He stops and turns around, looking up her like he has been caught. Go back to the house. He turns away again, covering the hole with more urgency.

Natalia is curious. She flaps down the small slope towards him on her bat-wings, slipping and scrambling on iced-up stones. What are you doing, Papa? Are you digging a grave?

...No. Go back to the house.

Natalia smiles. She knows a lie when she hears it. Yes you are! Can I play too? She has always wanted to play the grave-digging game, but Cabbage-man had never allowed it. Glupaya devchonka, he had said, hacking up some phlegm and spitting at the ground. Digging graves is not a game you play. Wait till I tell your Mama.

What? Papa lowers the shovel again, shooting a glance over his shoulder. Then he scowls and turns away, dragging the shovel head across the hard earth to smooth it over. No. It is already over.

He steps away as Natalia approaches, leaning the shovel against a nearby fence-post. She squats and pats the fresh-turned earth with her hand. It is hard and clumpy already, all ready for her to put the final touch. She roots for the stone in her bag and settles it gingerly on top. There are no more scratchmarks on the stone, but it is still a lovely one, smooth and bright. On a clear moonlit night, it will glow like a jewel. She beams in satisfaction at her first proper grave.

Time to leave. He turns abruptly and moves away noiselessly like a shadow. Natalia tears after him on her short legs.

Where are we going, Papa?

To the city. You will be safe there.

How about Mama? And Dmitry?

Silence.

Papa! Are they not coming along?

Resistance is futile, he calls over his shoulder, not slowing his pace. His figure melts into the night. You are with me now.

---

It seems like they have been walking for hours. Natalia tries her best to keep pace. It was cold when they had first set out, then they walked and walked until she got warm, and then they walked some more until now she is cold again. She does not know if she will ever feel warm again. The snot running down her upper lip has stiffened into a crust; she licks at the saltiness experimentally.

The darkness seems to go on forever. They walk in a straight line, and she follows her Papa closely because it is so easy to lose sight of his black figure in the black night. She has stopped trying to ask him questions because seems to not want to speak, and her jaw aches from incessant chattering. Her knees ache from trampling on the uneven rocky ground, and they steer clear of the thick banks of snow hugging the trees. On any other day Natalia would love to jump into them and play, but now out in the cold, even she can comprehend that it will be a foolish idea. Shivering, she hunches into her coat as best she can, slightly regretting not changing out into something thicker. Her soft cotton dress whispers against her knees and she thinks, after tonight I will hate this stupid dress.

The trees get more dense, pressing closer and threatening to snag at Natalia's coat. She shivers and tries to fold into herself further, but the cold is inescapable. The strings of her bag are beginning to cut into her shoulders. She hates this new adventure. It is no longer fun.

Finally, when Natalia can bear it no longer, she blurts, Papa, please. I want to go back.

He trudges on without a sound.

Papa. Papa, it is so late. Mama will be worried.

He stops because she has stopped. She decides she will not move a step further until Papa agrees to turn back. Natalia wants to go home and sit at the table in the kitchen and pull faces at her hot bowl of cabbage soup. She wants to curl up in her deerskin on her bed, and fall asleep as Papa reads her a story. He has not done it for almost a year. He was supposed to it when he got back, but instead he has brought her all the way out here into the cold dark with nothing but a few trinkets rattling against her back.

I want to go back and see Cabbage-man, she continues. We can read my storybooks together. You always read me stories, Papa, do you remember...

Papa sighs exasperatedly, rubbing a hand over his face. At this point, there are many things he can say to make Natalia listen. Things like you will see Mama tomorrow if you hurry, or they are waiting for you in the city.

Instead, he says this: They are not coming back.

Cold. A shock of cold runs through her body, colder than she has ever felt. His eyes glint dully in the pale moonlight, uncrinkled and unsmiling. Natalia stares, uncomprehending. She thinks of the broken bits of eggshell scattered at the bottom of a tin in her bedroom floor. For a moment she is certain, then she is not. Are these not her father's eyes?

You have to come with me. To the nearest town. It is not safe here. Please. Resistance is futile.

Her extremities are numb from cold, but she feels her heart hammering hard against her ribs. She feels it fluttering around like a trapped bird, while his words float over her like they mean nothing. They went away, he mumbles. Far away. They won't be back. Please, we have to go.

Her fingernails dig little half-moons in her palms. A sudden urge seizes her. She needs to see her Mama.

Natalia? Papa says her name for the first time since his return. It tumbles out of his mouth tremulously, like he is afraid, or unsure. One thing he does not know is the fragility of a child's courage, wholly dependent on his own. At his hesitance, Natalia’s courage vanishes.

MAMA. She turns and squeezes herself between two small trees and runs. She is blind in the darkness. The black-white-black world around her tilts and flashes. Miraculously, she stumbles but does not trip. Behind her echoes a single shout from Papa, but she barely hears it. She runs and her small feet pound on the uneven ground, each step hurting more than the next.

Mama, mama! Mama... She is sobbing and crashing through the wood like a wounded deer. Her ankle twists on a deep snow-bank but she catches herself and keeps running. Tears are flowing hot down her face now, stinging her numb wind-chilled skin. The grave outside the house. That is where she will find Mama. She knows it now, in her heart. With another wail, she strikes out faster, flickering through the trees.

NOT THERE, roars Papa. His voice is nearby. Stop -

Natalia glances back in terror, her legs still frantically kicking up dirt and snow. Before she can scream, he springs straight at her like a wildcat, swiping his outstretched arm to shove her sideways. The impact knocks the breath out of her and throws her right into the air. When she finally lands into a low clump of bushes, the brambles are wiry and sharp, pricking at her cheeks and palms. Dazed, she untangles herself gingerly from her springy trap. She had not known how strong Papa was. The fear disappears as fast as it comes, as pain comes blossoming forward in slow pulses. She sucks on the blood welling up on her palm, gasping deep as the throbbing pain from the impact lingers. She can feel the dull swipe of Papa's arm across her body like she has been whipped by a steel pipe.

Papa lies on the ground several feet away. He does not get up. He stirs a little, then hisses and moans.

She feels the shame now, in what she has done. She should not have tried to go back. She should have listened to Papa. Natalia hopes he is not too angry with her, but his face is in the ground and he is not getting up.

Papa, she whispers, padding closer and laying a hand on his shoulder. Papa, I am sorry. I will be braver next time. I know she will not come back. Let us go to the city. Papa.

He raises his head to look at her, his eyes glassy and confused. For a moment, it seems he does not recognise her. Then he closes his eyes and shakes his head. I'm sorry, he whispers back. I'm sorry. You need to go without me.

His face is growing whiter and whiter. Natalia does not understand what he is apologising for, but she kneels onto the ground then balls herself up against his chest. He makes a low animal sound. She feels his warm breath in her hair, then he is pressing cold lips to her forehead. She ducks her head, feeling the rumble of his chest heaving apologies for things she does not know about.

This is when she sees that the ground around them is getting darker and darker. A steel trap has wrapped itself around his thigh just above the knee, its jaws tight and unmoving around a mass of red and white. The ground below it drinks the blood slowly. Cabbage-man’s hunting trap, Natalia realises. She recognises the cruel steel that she has espied in his shed a lifetime ago. The size of it could cut her body in half. Her hair stands on end and she swallows hard. The faint smell of iron comes to her nose, now that she knows there is blood.

Go. Please. Before they come for me. Find a road. Keep walking. Don't stop...

Natalia shakes her head and grips his arms hard. Under her fingertips, it feels like she is gripping ice. By morning, if she stays, she will become ice too.

Papa. I will not leave you.

The man huffs through gritted teeth like he is trying to laugh. He touches his trembling fingertips to her hair, brushing it off her face. Resistance is futile, he mumbles softly. Please don't stay here. There are bad people coming. They will... you need to go. Go far away. Don't stop. Please. 

Natalia cannot leave him. She will not. This trap was meant for her, and he is lying here now because of her. She butts her forehead against his chin so that he cannot see that she is crying. In the quiet wood, she can hear the thundering of his heart. Maybe it is her own. It is not so cold here, pressed up against his chest. His fingers tense around her shoulders like he wants to push her away, but she curls up tighter and clings harder.

After a long moment of Papa pleading with her to get up and walk away, he quietens. His arms circle around her carefully as his eyelids droop. The blood-scent curls around them, a warm and heavy fog. Natalia wants to say she is sorry, but if she opens her mouth, she will not be able to stop crying, so she says nothing. The ground is slowly turning her into a block of ice. Papa's breathing slows and evens out, even though Natalia can still feel his hot blood pulsing over her legs, soaking into her coat. When she chances a glance upwards, she sees that Papa has fallen asleep. Soon, the cold seeps into her bones and she sleeps as well.

---

She wakes up slowly, feeling as if she is struggling to get out from under a huge blanket. Or rising from very deep waters. The sounds reach her ears first. It is Papa, clinging tighter to her than ever, so hard that it begins to hurt. She whimpers quietly and stirs. Her frozen bones protest the movement, and her movements are sluggish. She feels like she wants to go back to sleep, and huddles closer into the warmth that radiates from Papa.

Please don't hurt her, he says over and over in English. Please let her go. You don't want her.

The urgency in Papa's voice drags her out of her dream-state. She turns as much as she can and squints. The sun has risen and everything around them is a blinding white. Many people stand over her, their black forms blotting out the grey sky. She jerks and shrinks away when one of them aims a kick at the arms around her. The arms curl tighter. If she curls up small enough, maybe they will not see her at all.

The voices around her are rough and deep, booming in Natalia’s ears.

dare to resist 

been awhile since your last wipe

a good long trip with your favourite chair

remember your place

somebody get that thing off him

your mission remember

Papa lets out a yell, his head thrown back. After a heavy, wet clang of metal, Natalia feels even more warm blood pulse against her. The trap is tossed away carelessly.

Look at that mess. You want us to get you a new leg, too? Match that arm of yours?

No. He stirs, his muscles coiled as if he is ready to spring.

jesus most of it's gone

quick he's bleeding out

the girl, asset

nah doesn't happen with him

let go of the girl

With a feral snarl, he pushes her off and throws himself at the nearest man. They both go down heavily. Natalia rolls free, but she is immediately kicked hard in her gut. She feels it all the way to the bones. Papa, she gasps, curling up tight. Two arms seize her and pull at her until she is standing upright, balancing on her toes. They pull until her arms feel like they will tear out from their sockets. Papa, help me.

Papa stops and turns. The man beneath him has stopped moving. Seizing their chance, the men close in around Natalia's father and hit him with long black sticks that sizzle with electricity. Immediately, Papa begins to scream, but they stop when he hits the ground. The men hold their weapons aloft, wary. One of them steps forward and brings the baton down on his injured leg. It no longer looks like a leg at all.

The man lets up after Papa screams himself hoarse. What do you think you were going to do, dump her on someone’s doorstep then report in like nothing happened? No witnesses. The order was clear. What did you expect, hmm? What am I going to do with you?

Please. She's... my daughter. Let her go.

Your daughter. Your daughter?! Christ. You crack me the fuck up.

Told you his brain's turned to mush, another one adds. The one holding Natalia pulls her arms tighter. She lets out an involuntary whimper, even though anger and hate is burning in her gut. This one thinks he's her father, too. Both gone in the head.

Please I’m sorry I’ll do anything, Papa mumbles, his face turned into the dirt like he is ashamed. The man looming over him grins suddenly,  too wide and too bright.

Yeah, okay, Asset. You’ll do anything, huh? Okay. Promise. The girl lives. If you stand down. Look what you did to Len. Killed one of your own. Remember what the punishment for that was? Or do I need this to remind you?

At the sight of the baton coming close to his face, Papa sags almost immediately, like someone has deflated him. He drops his head back to the ground, blinking hard like he is trying to stay awake again. He looks like if he falls asleep now, he will not wake up again. They will take him away from her, they will dig a hole for him and put him in and cover him up. Natalia sees this happen in a flash.

Papa! She shouts desperately, kicking out at the arms holding her. One of the men bends to check on Papa's leg, tsk-ing in disapproval. PAPA! She screams again, twisting and baring her teeth. A big hand wraps around her mouth and she bites down as hard as she can. She feels the flesh give with a slick crunch, like biting into a raw carrot, but more slimy. She bites down harder, feeling hot blood run down her chin until the arms drop her. She lands sprawled on the ground, but before she can get up, another man heaves her into the air. The man snarls an animal-snarl and yanks her head back, ripping a few strands of hair from her skull.

Stop struggling, stupid girl. He says it in Russian, so she will understand. Glupaya devchonka. The words make her belly twist. Wrong words from the wrong mouth. She screams louder and louder, beating with fists. She whips her head back and feels a satisfaction in it connecting with the face behind her. There is only one person who calls her a stupid girl, and he is not here. 

This is the last thing she remembers: Papa moaning from where he lies on the ground, the men around her shouting and jeering, and the taste of blood between her teeth.

---

She is floating, far out at sea. The ground sways and the sound of waves crashing fill her ears. No, not waves, but what? Metal sounds, shuddering ground. By the time Natalia cracks open her eyes, she realises that her face is sticky with blood. Her right eye cannot be fully opened. She cannot move, her wrists are bound with cables that cut deep. The most she can do is squirm along the floor like a caterpillar.

Papa lies on the ground too, a distance away from her. Two men huddle around him, their backs to her, poking and prodding at Papa's leg. They exchange words that Natalia does not understand. She strains to listen to the snatches of sound, still bewildered by the roar of engines. This must be a dream. Any moment now, she will wake up.

well if it were a horse we'd just put it

but the femur's totally shattered

come back from worse than

yeah remember that report from '68

Jesus docs are gonna have a field day

Papa makes a loud, pained sound again as they push and pull at his leg. His moan brings Natalia to her senses. She remembers what has happened. She is paralysed, there is nothing she can do. She begins to writhe and scream.

Christ, it's awake. Shut it up before I open that door and -

---

She is floating, far out at sea. When she opens her eyes, she knows that it is not a dream. She is hanging over someone's shoulder, staring blearily at the ground below. With each step, she sways and knocks against his back. She tries to twist around, but there is nowhere to go.

She ends up in a small, white room. There are people in this room, but none of them speak to her. They are too busy heaving Papa onto a large metal table. He is not waking up. She stands and stares mutely until someone realises she is still inside, and drags her away roughly by her upper arm. The rough grip leaves a bruise, which will take about a week to fade.

She is brought before a very tall lady. The tall lady is slim with severe eyebrows, and looks down at her almost lazily. 

Too young, she sniffs in disdain, already half-turning away. And too skinny.

Natalia says nothing. She has not spoken since the forest. She only wants to speak to three people, and this lady is not one of them. She stares blankly back at this lady's face. You do not scare me, she thinks to herself.

She bit off Henley's finger. And broke Lydecker's nose. You'd like her. If she fails, she's dead either way.

The lady's mouth twists and she makes a soft "hmm" noise before clicking away down the hall. Natalia lets herself get pulled along a labyrinth of corridors before she is thrust through a doorway. The room is wide and spacious, like a hospital ward, but has no windows. There are six beds lined up along the walls on one side, and potties along the other. Five girls pause in their game to stare at her warily, then the door slams shut behind her. 

Natalia stands stiffly on the threshold, her face prickling. Their eyes rake across her, catching on the blood running down her temples from her fringe, catching on the stains around her mouth. She imagines she must look like a lion, freshly sated after a good hunt. She is not afraid of them. She curls her lips a little, showing them her brown-stained teeth, and they turn away to leave her alone.

The only bed that is untaken is the one closest to the door. When Natalia lies down on it, she realises why: there is a patch on the ceiling, like there is something dead and rotting on the floor above her. She realises that she has no possessions with her save for the filthy clothes on her back. Her bag must have been lost somewhere in the forest. She falls asleep again in the same blood-and-snow clothes she came in with.

---

In her new home, she learns the routine quickly. Every morning, they clean their beds, change the sheets, wash out their potties. Then they go for their breakfast, which often consists of a small bowl of oats swimming in cold milk. The oats are almost always hard and difficult to swallow.

The rest of the morning is spent in a room with a large table. A plump lady comes in and teaches them numbers. A bald man comes in after her, to teach them the different parts of the body. Here is the weakest, he would say, pointing to a printed diagram. This is for memory. The brain. The lessons are boring and Natalia finds herself staring into space, thinking of the outdoors. She does not know if it is sunny outside. She does not know if it snows. Every day, she stares at the dull concrete walls.

In the afternoon, they have ballet lessons. Natalia says nothing when she is given a leotard and tights that have seen better days. They are not her size, loose around the shoulders such that she has to draw herself up all the time to keep the straps from slipping off. The material used to be a lovely shade of lilac, but it is old and grey from use. Natalia learns that it was used by the girl whose bed she has inherited. Nobody talks about what happened to her, so Natalia does not find out. The other girls wear coffee-coloured leotards, which makes Natalia feel more foolish than ever.

The lessons are difficult, taught by a haughty lady with grey hair and stringy limbs. She walks up and down the room as they work the barre, holding a thin cane in one hand. She will pause where Natalia stands all the time.

Bring your leg higher. Turn out. More, more. Heel forward. Point your foot, point, point! Plié, more. More. Then, the sting of her cane on her thigh. Natalia does not understand the names of the moves, and the girls do not move to help her. By the end of the day, she has a neat line of welts down her leg. Her bones ache and complain with every movement. Natalia says nothing.

Dinner is the unexpected part of her dreary day. They are fed wholesome, thick stew full of meat and vegetables. It is so rich that Natalia cannot finish her share. When the tall lady finds out, she makes Natalia finish her bowl and a second bowl on top of that, until Natalia is close to retching. She learns that she must call the tall lady Headmistress.

After a week, she notices that the girl in the bed closest to her is washing her own potty, as well as those of two other girls in the room. They leave for breakfast early after thrusting their potties into her hands. Once, the contents slosh out onto the girl's hands, but she takes them wordlessly. Natalia hangs back with her to listen to her speak. 

Natalia learns that her name is Lilya, and that her parents are dead. She almost feels sorry for Lilya before she remembers that her Mama is dead too. Natalia wants to ask her why she lets the girls treat her this way, but she does not speak. She has not spoken since the forest. Lilya knows this, and does not mind it so much as the teachers or the other girls do. She does not sneer when Natalia stares mutely, and does not backhand Natalia across the face for having nothing to say.

They think I am useless, Lilya says one day, rinsing off the dark urine from her hands. One day, I will kill them both.

Natalia's eyes widen in surprise. Lilya has said this without any joy. She is not telling a joke, only stating a promise. Natalia does not understand this. Perhaps she really is too young, like what the tall lady had said. Still, she must not show her confusion, so she nods like Lilya has told her something she knows as well.

Lilya pauses and looks at Natalia. I will be sorry to kill you, though, she adds sadly. Then they wash their own filth away in companionable silence.

---

There is a ghost in the building.

This is one of the stories that the girls whisper at night, when Natalia is lying in bed staring at the dark patch above her bed. She thinks it smells faintly of dead game, left out on the forest floor to rot. The smell is strongest where she lies, and she grows to like it.

The girls believe there is a ghost because sometimes, when there is no sound, they can hear the sounds of sobbing, or wails, or moans. Natalia thinks she has also heard screams, but she takes no part in their conversation and does not volunteer this information. The sound comes from inside the walls, according to one of them. Her name is Yana. Natalia dislikes her because she gets the most praise during their ballet lessons, so she refuses to look in Yana's direction when she speaks.

No, the sound is from the death-mark. It is a monster living in the ceiling. Another girl, Elena, points to the patch above Natalia's bed. Natalia dislikes her because of her plaintive, whining voice. Her face is a perfect white heart, like a doll, and the other girls always whisper that Elena is the prettiest. She dislikes all of them save for Lilya. Lilya is plain like her, and during ballet class, she whispers the combination as she does it so that Natalia can keep up. Developpé devant. Devant! And Natalia will switch her leg forward quickly before the teacher notices.

Don't be stupid, Lilya says, her clear voice cutting through the girls' meaningless speculations. It is obviously the sound of someone dying very slowly.

That night, when the soft sounds of sleep fills the room, Natalia hears the ghost again: a long, low moaning sound blowing through a hollow reed. She frowns at the patch above her bed. It seems like it has gotten bigger. How long has she been in this place? She cannot be certain. Her days and nights are the same, her dreams filled with steel teeth and splintered bone and the ghost of her ballet teacher's voice saying more. She lies awake thinking of a stone house out in the wilderness, mapping the stain with her eyes and letting its shape burn into her memory.

---

One day, after breakfast, there are no lessons. There is a break in their schedule because nobody comes for them to take them to lesson. There is no lady who comes to teach them numbers, no man who comes to tell them which bone is the easiest to break. The adults seem to be busy with something else completely, and after some exploring, the girls discover that this is the first time they are unsupervised.

Apart from a few empty rooms near the dance studio, there is nothing much of interest. They discover that they are not the only girls in the building. There are two more groups of girls around their age, equally intolerable and unfriendly as themselves. They all try to play together, which escalates into a lot of name-calling, hair-pulling and a few broken fingers. This does not interest Natalia. She slips away from the commotion. With her newfound freedom, she decides to find out what is causing the stain above her bed.

Lilya follows her like a shadow, so Natalia offers her a small smile.

Where are we going? Lilya asks, and Natalia brings her back to their room. She stands on her bed and cranes her neck up at the ceiling, then Lilya is smiling at her too. Suddenly, she pulls at Natalia's hand and they're off back down the corridor, Natalia trailing after her.

Do you want to know what I really think? I think there's another floor in this building. Do you notice that there are no windows? I think it is because we are underground. It means there is a staircase. If we find it, maybe we can see the sun. Do you think summer is here yet? I want to go outside. I miss being outdoors. Did you used to play outside? I had a game where...

Natalia drinks up Lilya's questions as they patter past wide, empty rooms. Some are filled with long tables, others lined with mats on the floor. After some twists and turns, they find a heavy metal door with a small glass panel high up for adults to look through. It takes both of them pulling to get it fully open, but it is worth the effort: they have found a staircase leading up. The stairwell is dark but there is a familiar stench. Lilya wrinkles her nose, but they exchange glances. It is the same smell that comes from the ceiling above Natalia's bed.

To their disappointment, the level above them is more drab than their own. The floor and walls are rough grey concrete, as if the construction of this floor is incomplete. The light in the corridor flickers on automatically as they approach, revealing a long, windowless tunnel all the way to the end, where there are a series of doors. The corridor is broken into three sections separated by metal bars. A cage within a cage within a cage. Do they really need so many for a group of little ballerina girls?

The smell is stronger here, and it is too late for either of them to turn back. Their feet carry them onwards as if it is inevitable. All the metal doors are unlocked. After they pass the last one, they gaze into an open room, empty save for a huge machine in the middle. It fills Natalia with unspeakable dread. This is the same feeling that she will feel many times in the future, when she returns as an adult to look at her mother's grave. When she explores Auschwitz as a tourist. There is something about the air in this room that tells her people have died in there, sitting inside that huge machine. It is shaped like a chair, but the metal restraints glint like evil claws. Natalia thinks it looks a lot like a steel trap she saw once, on a snow-laden forest floor. Cold with finality.

The other room beside it is where the strong smell is coming from. Now that she is near it Natalia recognises the smell: it really does smell like rot, and blood, and the smell of an unwashed potty left out for weeks. She does not let it bother her, and she knows it does not bother Lilya either. It cannot, because if it does, if they allow themselves to feel it, it will never go away.

Like all the other doors before this, the door is not locked either. Natalia pushes it open and gags involuntarily. She clamps her hand over her nose as her eyes adjust to the darkness. At the end of that darkness, lying limp in a pool of excrement, a man. A man with a mangled leg, its skin torn off, its flesh missing from the bone in clumps.

The ghost, Lilya whispers wonderingly. The dying man. She does not make a move to go closer, but Natalia does.

Papa, Natalia says, her voice ringing and loud. It shocks them both: Natalia had forgotten what her voice sounded like, and now, hearing it echo back at her, it sounds tinny and foreign. Lilya's face is turned to hers, first confused, then nothing at all. Hard and unreadable like stone. Then she turns and leaves Natalia alone in the room.

Natalia creeps slowly to the man on the floor. She tries to inhale and breathe properly, but the smell is overwhelming, unlike anything she has ever smelt. There are bad smells in the world that she can get used to, that she can grow to like. This is not one of them. Papa, she says again, quietly this time.

He stirs. Even in the room, with the corridor light slanting in onto his face, his eyes are startlingly blue. He gazes at Natalia like he's terrified, his eyes wide and white all around the edges. You. I know you. You... you are...

Natalia watches mutely as his terror mounts visibly. When he starts to shake, she hears the chains that hold him down. He does not try to stand. Beneath the bile and filth, there is blood. Though she tries her best to look away, it is impossible. She stares at his nakedness, at the metal arm that tries so hard to wrap itself around his own body like it can protect him from harm. She stares at the bolts sinking through his shins into the ground. Papa.

I... I don't know you. I'm sorry. I don't remember. They took it away.

Does it hurt? Natalia bites her lip, because of course it does. It is a stupid question, coming from the lips of a stupid girl. Maybe it was better when she never said anything. What is the opposite of pain, Cabbage-man?

It hurts so much, he whispers, curling up as best he can. If he notices what he's been lying in, he gives no indication. He shakes and moans.

Papa? Why did they do this to you?

I didn't follow orders.

Natalia is chilled by the thought of them doing this to her as well. They could if they wanted to, she knows this now. All the food that she never finished. Her sickled feet during ballet, her inability to answer questions in class. It will be her, next, after Papa is gone.

It seems like the thought strikes him at the same time, too, and his hand snakes out to grab her by the ankle. Her heart stops and her throat seizes up.

Be good for them. For me. You have to be the best. You - I know your name...

Natalia.

...Yes. He lets go of her leg slowly and sags. Yes. I remember now.

I will be good, Papa. You have to - you have to be good too. So they will stop hurting you.

He starts to laugh, a hacking sound at the back of his throat. Old dog. New tricks.

He says it in English, his accent changing suddenly. Suddenly he is somebody else, and Natalia does not know him at all. She reaches out to touch his face, even though it is caked and browny-yellow. His hair is matted like a dog's, stiff and reeking. At the sight of her hand coming close, he rears back suddenly, like he is trying to get away from an attacker, but he cannot get far. Natalia snatches her hand back like it has been scalded. He shudders and writhes on the ground, sobbing. Natalia finds herself letting out a slow breath of something that feels like relief. Lilya was right, after all. The smell is of someone dying very slowly. It is not a scary thought, she realises. Death will be a kindness.

Do not worry, Papa, she says in her strongest voice. This time, when she pats his hair, he does not try to move away. He jerks like he is trying to stop himself from moving closer. When you die, there will be no more pain.

There is a hacking sound again. What do you think I've been trying to do?

---

Natalia has washed herself. She goes back into the dining hall where the girls have split off into their own groups, scheming and muttering and glaring darkly at each other. The nameless girl whose fingers are broken is sitting alone near the door, crying in great heaving sobs. Natalia moves past her and sits at her usual place, alone but with the girls she knows close by so she can listen to their snatches of conversation. Lilya is not in the dining room, and a part of Natalia regrets not going after her earlier. She plays the moment back in her head and she realises that what Lilya had felt upon seeing her Papa was not fear or disgust, or even anger. It was jealousy. Jealousy that Natalia has a Papa, when she does not. All she can hope for is the sun on her face.

She will apologise to Lilya, she thinks. Lilya she will speak to. She will tell Lilya about how she came here. And her teachers, too, she will speak to them because she promised Papa that she would. Better to be good than nailed to the floor of a dark room covered in piss.

The sound of footsteps down the corridor makes all the girls fall silent. The girls immediately assemble themselves in their default fall-in position, jostling for space slightly because there are three groups of them now and not one. The girl cradling her hand by the door stops wailing but does not stand. When Headmistress appears in the doorway, everyone straightens a little more. A bolt of electricity shoots through Natalia when she sees that Headmistress is dragging Lilya along by the hair.

I am proud of you, my little spiders, she says. Most of you passed this test. Her eyes rest on Natalia's and narrow slightly. This is today's lesson. There is no room for weakness in the Red Room.

She draws a small pistol from the folds of her cropped jacket and shoots the crying girl by the door. The girls in the room collectively flinch and inhale sharply, too terrified to do any more than that. Her head cracks open at the back like a watermelon. Now the room is completely silent.

Headmistress throws Lilya onto the ground at her feet. There is no running away. 

This time, Natalia does not flinch when Lilya falls to the ground, dead. Some girls beside her are weeping silently, but Natalia is no longer surprised. She is secretly relieved that Lilya has died so quickly. It would not have been pleasant to watch the patch above her bed grow damp with the rot of her body, too.

Chapter Text

Life in the Red Room gets easier when Natalia finally decides to behave herself. She does it because her Papa told her to, and now that she has decided to do it, it comes naturally. She never realised how tiring it was to be sullen and mute until now. During lessons she raises her hand and waits to be called. At ballet, she can pull her leg all the way up to her ear, and she can confidently land a perfect pirouette.

After she breaks her silence, the other girls treat her differently. She is no longer the stupid baby. They sit together during meal-times, elbows brushing. She sometimes laughs when they giggle about silly things, like the shiny spot on the bald man's head as he teaches them how to stop bleeding quickly. Pay attention, he will snap, when the girls titter uncontrollably again. He does not know why they are laughing. The shiny spot on his head dances about as he levels them an icy glare each.

His nickname amongst the girls is Mayak, the Lighthouse.

Alert, alert, Yana would whisper. Mayak is on. Storm is coming. Then the laughing will start again, and Natalia's mouth will curve into a smile as well. Yana is not so bad after all, because Natalia is improving at ballet. She follows how Yana looks and she becomes better, too. Her hostility melts away slowly, like ice in spring. She does not become close to anyone else like she did Lilya, but she joins in and shadows everyone expertly. She becomes one of them.

Sometimes she will still be reminded how different she is from them. Numbers are still difficult for her; her knuckles are constantly bruised with the sharp raps of the cane from her teacher's scoldings. She gets the numbers mixed up. Sometimes she writes them backwards, but she cannot tell the difference. She feels bad about this, truly like a glupaya devchonka, when she finds out that the other girls are three years older than her at least. Then it is not so bad.

Natalia guesses it has to be almost summer already when the other girls disappear for a different lesson that she is not a part of. You are too small, Headmistress declares, ordering her back to her room. And your numbers are abysmal.

So she finds herself with a little pocket of free time every three days, in which she drapes herself across her bed trying to complete the thick booklet of exercises Headmistress has told her to attempt. She works slowly because she only has ten fingers and ten toes and it is not easy to count beyond that. Many times she dozes off from the boredom of it, but jolts back awake when a phantom terror grips her. She expects that one day when she falls asleep during her practices, she will awake to find Headmistress standing over her with a hammer and nail. Would she be nailed to the bed like how...?

One day, she is mulling over this and looking up at the ceiling. The patch seems to be around the same size. If it is darker, Natalia cannot tell. Surely Papa is not there anymore, after all these months.

Then the idea to go upstairs to find him again hits her like electricity, sudden and sharp. She shivers from the thought and thinks about Lilya, whose face she has already forgotten. Would she dare risk it?

No. She shakes off the thought and buries her face in her book of numbers again, but the seed has been sown.

---

She holds out for three weeks before she decides to do it. Though the girls she sleeps and dines with are company enough, she cannot stop thinking about how much she would like to speak with Papa. He could be faring better now, he should have healed more. Maybe he can sit up. Maybe he will listen to her stories and laugh his low, croaking laugh.

Just like the last time, it is almost too easy to reach Papa's room from downstairs. The heavy metal door yields when she throws her body against it and leans with all her might. There are people on the second floor: the other girls, in a wide room. A lesson is going on without her, one that she is not allowed to take because she has failed at her numbers. She moves past the doorway, trying to make out what they are doing from behind the frosted glass door. The silhouettes are warped by the vertical grooves, so all she sees is moving shapes. It looks like they are learning a partner dance. A jealous pang fills Natalia's heart when she thinks about how she is not included in this dance class. Has she not gotten good enough at ballet yet? Just a month ago, she had been upgraded and given a brown leotard of her own.

Pushing away her bitterness, she sidles to the end of the corridor and tries the door. The smell is nowhere near as bad as last time, thankfully. Her face is already cracking into a genuine smile, and it almost hurts. She does not remember the last time she properly smiled, showing her little pointy teeth. Soon they will begin to drop, like the other girls.

Papa, she says automatically, her voice ringing even though it is just a whisper.

He is no longer sprawled helplessly on the floor. Someone must have let him up and allowed him to clean up a bit, for his pale skin glows from where the corridor light hits him. At first he shrinks away, and Natalia can hear the heavy drag of manacles on the floor. He is no longer naked, either, but wearing a plain black pair of shorts that do nothing to cover up his battered leg. The flesh is mottled like misshapen clay, but the leg is whole and the skin unbroken. Natalia stares for awhile, and she thinks briefly that it is not possible that Papa's leg could grow back so much on its own.

Papa, it's me, she whispers, squatting on the floor. The smell is stronger now, as if the fumes hang in a low cloud close to the ground.

He looks up, and it is like looking at a living skeleton. The skeleton smiles gently. Hey there, kiddo. I thought you'd forgotten about me.

No, Natalia lies a little bit. It is not easy to come here.

I'll bet it isn't. He sighs and shifts like he wants to stretch, but the chains clack in disapproval and he stops. How long has it been, girl?

My name is Natalia, she says stubbornly. And it has been two months. A lie. She has not been counting.

Yes. I remember now. I'm sorry. I'm... not very good at remembering things.

You remember me now?

More than ever. He huffs slightly like he is laughing. The sound is hollow, like a funny musical instrument. They can't wipe me until I'm fully healed. Protocol or something. Lucky me, huh? Have you been good? Not getting into trouble like now?

Natalia stares uncomprehendingly. He is speaking English again, his accent strong and unfamiliar. But she can answer a little bit, at least. I am the best in the dance class, she lies.

Papa asks to see her dance so she does it, little things at first, then she gets bolder. There is enough space in this room. She does piqué turns all around him in a circle until he says she has made him go dizzy. She shows him how she can raise her leg to shoulder height and hold it there. I have the best turnout, she declares. See, look at my knee. Is it good, Papa?

Yeah. You're gonna be one of them showgirls, in - in -

Papa?

Stop. Don't say it. It... no. I can't. His face has changed. He is no longer smiling, but groaning and banging his head backwards against the wall. Don't think. Don't think about it. Chair. Chair.

Papa, are you feeling sick? Natalia hovers uncertainly. The thumping gets louder, and she worries that someone will hear. Then it sounds familiar all at once: the muffled rhythm, the measured pace. She hears this thumping at night. She has imagined that sometimes the walls have hearts and they beat loudly when everyone else is sleeping. Stop doing that, please...

You should go. Before they find you.

He is scaring her and she does not want to be discovered, so she leaves quickly and slinks back to her room guiltily. She has not done anything wrong, she decides. She has done her numbers. Nobody has explicitly forbidden her from exploring the place, and she has not tried to escape like Lilya did. She lists all the reasons why she will not get punished for looking for her Papa until she falls asleep.

The soft thumping wakes her up in the middle of the night for the next week.

---

I think I should have told you this a long time ago, he says suddenly to Natalia.

She is back in his room. Though she is afraid of punishment, the pull of being with her Papa is too great. At night she finds herself reaching her fingers towards the ceiling, as if one day if she tries hard enough she would be able to touch him from where she is lying.

She is playing with his hair when he says this, only half-listening. He has washed and his hair is soft and fine, almost as long as hers. It goes past his ears and brushes his shoulders. She lifts it in sections to tie into ribbons, to run them along his dark pepper-sprayed jawline that has gone sharp from malnourishment. He tries to move away because it tickles, but they have cemented his shackles tightly to the floor, and he cannot raise his arms far.

Told me what? She is distracted, trying to section the strands into three so that she can braid it like how she has learnt from watching the others.

I... I don't think I'm your father, Natalia.

Natalia presses her lips together and says nothing, still playing with his hair like he has not said anything. Was it right over left? What about the middle strand? Where do her fingers go?

Did you hear what I said?

Yes. I am not stupid. Her words come out like venom, spat out like she is a tiny snake. Something inside her chest feels like it has burst, or like somebody has taken a big spoon and scooped everything out. But it is true, Natalia is not stupid. These words are not a surprise to her, even though she never dared to admit it to herself. How could he be her Papa? All the other girls here are orphans. Their parents are not in the other rooms. Yes, it makes sense that this man is not her father. But for now, she hates that he has said it out loud. He could have just gone on - pretending - that she still had somebody to go home to - or that her real Papa was still - alive -

Shhh. Natalia. Please, don't cry.

I am NOT CRYING, she says, but it comes out wobbly and she hates it. She drops his hair and tries to turn and run, but he leans forward suddenly like he's falling and rests his whole torso against her.

Shhhh, kid. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

She has no choice but to hold on and hug him back.

When she returns to her room, her eyes are still red-rimmed and puffy, but nobody asks her about it. The girls are complaining that they are sore and comparing the sizes of their bruises on their arms and legs, and Elena has also been crying because her nose is swollen at the bridge and bleeding into a washcloth. When they go for their dinner, Natalia follows them silently, lost in her head, and blind to all around her. She does not notice that Headmistress looks at her for a long time when she walks into the hall.

---

She still goes back to visit him. Whether or not he is her real Papa, she likes him: he is kind, he does not scare her, he teaches her how to say bad words in English that Cabbage-man never did. He is all she has left, so she goes back.

When she steps through the threshold, the light in the room clicks on.

Natalia, Headmistress says quietly, smiling from where she is sitting.

Natalia freezes and feels her blood go cold, all the way down to her toes. Somehow, her face does not change. Headmistress, Natalia breathes quietly, and adjusts her posture to stand at attention. The room is so quiet that Headmistress can surely hear the pounding of Natalia's heart in her ears.

Papa is not on the floor, nor is he anywhere else in the room. The room smells sharply of detergent, like the type she is made to use for her potty every morning, but stronger. Headmistress is in the middle, her face shadowy from the unforgiving light on her table. It is just that one table in the middle of the room, and two chairs.

Sit, Headmistress commands, and Natalia moves automatically to sit in front of her. Never has she felt more peeled open than she does now, like a butterfly pinned to a mat for all to see.

As you can see, the man you like to visit as of late is no longer here.

Natalia says nothing, because she has not been asked to speak. She stares at Headmistress's severe brows, at the perfect curves of the thin arches. She does not dare to look straight at her eyes.

Who is this man to you, little spider?

Nobody, Natalia lies quickly. Headmistress.

Surely he is not just nobody. He was the one who brought you in. It has been almost a year. Are you going to lie to me, Natalia?

No, Headmistress.

Headmistress's face twitches and she makes a small hmm sound. You called him your father when you came.

He is not my father, Natalia grits out, unable to hide the bitterness in her voice. The last of the dream vanishes, the illusion is removed. Natalia has said it, and it is finally true: he is not her Papa. Her Papa never came home for her.

No need to be sad about it, Headmistress says lightly, and a small smile plays on her features. It looks odd on her face, like it does not belong. Has our soldier told you that he does know your real father? Did he tell you that, Natalia?

Natalia is so surprised that her eyes slide downwards to meet Headmistress's. She is so surprised that she forgets her shame and her caution, and he face cracks into an expression that is something like hope. No, Headmistress, she whispers with quiet and contained excitement. 

Poor girl. Here is a picture of your father. Now you know how he looks like. Headmistress lays a small photograph on the table. There is a man sitting on a chair in a sort of office, and he looks like he is sleeping. When Natalia squints closer, she sees that he is not sleeping. His eyes are half-open, with the eyeballs rolled halfway upwards. His head is tilted back like he is trying to doze off in his seat. The sunlight from the window makes his deep brown hair glow as if it is on fire.

There are three red holes in his body: one in his stomach and two in his chest. So he is dead, then. There is nothing left inside her chest for anyone to scoop out. Natalia stares at the picture blankly, trying to remember this stranger coming home. She tries to remember how he carried her on his shoulders when they went through the market, and how he looked leaning in the doorway when he thought he was watching her sleeping. This is a stranger. Her memories have been replaced by the soldier who is Not Her Papa, the man with the sharp-boned face with his quick smiles and shaggy bear-hair.

She pushes the picture back to Headmistress. Thank you, Headmistress, she says tonelessly. Had Headmistress expected her to cry? No, Headmistress never does things just to be nasty about it. She always does it to make a point. Natalia stares ahead as blankly as possible, trying to comprehend the building emotion inside her that definitely is not sadness.

Follow me.

Like clockwork, Natalia trails closely after Headmistress as she clicks away down the corridor to another room. It is the room that Natalia has seen before, only this time it is not empty. This time there is somebody in the chair, and people standing all about. Her stomach lurches and squirms like a wild thing inside her. Papa, she thinks in her head automatically, even though she already knows she is wrong.

He is shaking and jerking at his restraints like he cannot help it, his eyes glassy. He does not notice when Natalia and Headmistress enter the room until Headmistress is right in front of him and slaps him across the face. Natalia stays well away from the monstrosity of the chair, petrified. She wants to close her eyes and run, but does neither. She can only stare and wonder why this is happening to her at all. She cannot comprehend why Papa is in the chair or what will happen to him.

Soldat, Headmistress says, her voice hard as stone. Only then does his gaze fall on her, and on Natalia behind her. He turns paler than ever.

No, please, he begs, then tries again in English. He tries again in three different languages that Natalia does not know, but Headmistress ignores it.

Mission report, she says smoothly, over his urgent pleas. November 13, 1989.

Target. Alian Petrovich Romanov. He is looking at the ground now, and he has stopped resisting. His whole body sags like the weight of his words will break the chair alone.

Target status. Eliminated. No witnesses. Mission success.

Headmistress does not flinch. She is not done. Mission report. December 30, 1989.

Target. Dmitry Vasil'yevich Sokolov. Target status. Eliminated.

Target. Katya Anatolyevna Rostova. Target status... eliminated. At this, he raises his eyes and looks at her. His eyes, cloudy like an old starling egg. Natalia makes a small noise in her throat at the mention of her mother’s name, but everyone in the room is still.

He is not finished, he does not look away. Target. Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Target status. At large. He smiles suddenly, manically, and throws himself forward as far as he can in the chair, baring his teeth at Headmistress.

You don't scare me, you slimy bitch, he seethes. Go on. Hit the button. Erase it. She knows who I am now. She knows enough for the both of us. Make it hurt, I don't give a fuck. Do it. Kill me. DO IT!

Natalia, come closer, child. Headmistress beckons sweetly. Natalia comes as if pulled closer by an invisible string. Papa thrashes in the chair, livid. 

You sick bitch! You'll burn in hell! I swear to Jesus Mary and motherfucking Joseph, I will slice the skin off your face and -

Do you see this lever, Natalia? Headmistress tweaks a few knobs left and right of it, as if to better suit her mood.

Natalia nods numbly. Yes, she sees it. She looks at the lever then at the man shouting in the chair, the man who murdered her father and her mother and the man who swore to protect all of them. The unspeakable emotion rises until her throat, choking her. She cannot breathe. Everything around her moves slowly, as if she is staring through thick glass, or as if she is underwater. It is all so strange. She has never felt so alone.

This is the man who killed everyone you have ever loved, Natalia. Pull the lever.

Headmistress, I must warn you - untested change of - a technician hovering by the lever pipes up nervously, but his voice trails away as Headmistress levels him a glare. He is holding a little red book in his hand, and he waves it a little desperately. The voltage is different from the recommendation -

Is this important? Headmistress snaps irritably.

If we do this wrong he could sustain permanent brain damage -

I have watched him regenerate a leg that should have fallen off months ago, Headmistress drawls lazily. Do not waste my time.

But if HYDRA learns that -

Best they don't learn it.

In that time of distraction, Natalia puts her hand in Papa's restrained hand and gives it a squeeze. His shouts die down and he squeezes back like his life depends on it. She can feel the tremor in his fingers, how afraid he is. Headmistress’s order hangs in the air between them. There is no room for weakness.

All attention in the room is now back on her, and she withdraws her hand quickly. At Headmistress's cue, she rests her tiny hand on the lever.

Resistance is futile, Natalia whispers assuringly, just for Papa's ears. Just like how he had comforted her in the forest. He nods tightly and closes his eyes, tense and ready.

When the lever comes down, the screaming begins. The room starts to smell of ozone and iron, sharp and strange. By the time Headmistress lets Natalia jerk the lever back up, she knows that her father is gone forever. His eyes are streaming from exertion, but he stares at her without recognition.

Headmistress's eyes gleam cat-bright. Again, she commands, ignoring the protests of the others.

They repeat this routine until the man in the chair is no longer screaming, no longer moving. Natalia is not sure if he is still breathing.

Tell HYDRA their Asset has malfunctioned... and that the Red Room has requested to extend the loan contract as recompense.

Headmistress clicks her way out of the room, and Natalia follows, waiting for the praise that will never come.

Chapter Text

There is a monster in the upper level. It shrieks and screams, jolting all the girls awake. They draw themselves in their covers, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. Natalia sees that Elena is staring straight at the mark above her bed. There is fear in her eyes, like she expects the ceiling to suddenly collapse, or turn into a wide, gaping mouth and swallow all of them whole.

For a moment, it seems that the thought is not so unrealistic: the ceiling shudders, and so do their bedframes. There is a distant echoing slam that makes everyone flinch, followed by another, and another. The others do not know what it is, but Natalia does. In her mind's eye, she can see a wild bear of a man with a curtain of dark hair and a metal arm. The bear bursts through cage after cage after cage. With every slam, her stomach does a tiny flip. Is he coming for her, for what she has done? Why now, after all this time?

She does not realise she is holding her breath until the next slam does not come. The building itself seems to be shocked into silence, and finally, the ringing voices die down. All is quiet again. The monster has been subdued. Natalia lets out her breath and feels something wash over her. A mixture of relief and disappointment, but what had she been expecting? Nobody escapes this place without Headmistress's leave.

Natalia stares at the familiar map on her ceiling as the girls whisper ghost stories to each other in the wake of the incident. Zimniy soldat, they are saying, echoing the rumours that have spread over the months. The other group of girls from the other room have been around longer. They say that it is his name. Natalia listens quietly and says nothing. She notes, dully, that the patch on the ceiling is almost symmetrical, like two halves of an animal cut open and spread across the floor. 

---

When Natalia is almost ten, she has already made herself quite the ballerina. With her regular visits to the soldier a distant memory, she has been drilled to a level of perfection that even Headmistress cannot frown at. She memorises her routines flawlessly as their teacher takes them through Swan Lake. She learns la danse des petits cygnes with Yana, Ilse and Anichka. Every night, she goes to bed with her feet sore. Her toenails are black from dancing en pointe, and she has developed a habit of picking at the callouses on her toes before she goes to sleep. The teacher praises her now instead of Yana, saying that she is just like a dancer from the corps de ballet in Moscow. Natalia thinks that one day she will be ready to join the Bolshoi.

Then they finally let her start her training with the rest. It was silly of her to think that all they were doing in the Red Room was dancing. Suddenly, it all begins to make sense: the way the others held themselves after the sessions like they were in pain, the way bruises would blossom across their shins, so different from the hurts of ballet. Though Natalia has a lot of catching up to do, she has always been a fast learner. She does not become the best, but she is strong for her size and uses her flexibility to her advantage.

The other girls from the different rooms join their training too, and they begin to learn more and more things together. They see each other at breakfast and dinner. Soon Natalia knows all of them by name at least, and she spars against each of them in turn. They beat her every time. No matter how hard she tries, she does not seem to be good enough.

She learns the taste of the mat and the feel of her face hitting it again and again. From her corner, Headmistress lurks, watching but saying nothing. None of the girls know if she is pleased or not, but every time she steps in to observe, everyone tries their best to move faster, hit harder. Sometimes Headmistress will stop the training. She will step in suddenly and point to one of them. This one, she will murmur, and the chosen girl will try to hide her smile. 

One day she is sparring with Yana. They are dodging and feinting comfortably with one another, a routine they have long since established. Yana is exactly her height now, ever since Natalia caught up. It is natural that they are paired to practise their moves. Out of the corner of her eye, Natalia sees Headmistress slip through the door and turn the weight of her austere glare in her direction. Now is her chance. She takes Yana by surprise by stepping into her kick instead of away, then grabs her leg as they both go down. Natalia twists around and her knuckles find Yana's face. She hits once, twice, three times, until someone pulls her away roughly and twists her arm behind her back. Some of the other girls are hissing in displeasure like angry cats, but Yana drags herself to her feet and flashes Natalia a bloody grin. Natalia nods slightly, and her eyes dart over to where Headmistress is standing.

Headmistress's expression is stoic, but it always is. She uncurls her finger and points at Natalia. That one. 

Later, Natalia will find out that the chosen girls are shuffled between rooms. She is lucky enough that she gets to stay in her room in her own bed by the door. Yana shrugs and laughs when she has to pack her belongings and move, but she has Elena to accompany her so she is not angry. Next time I will be ready for you, little sister.

This is the last thing Yana says to her.

---

It is called the next step of their training, but everyone is nervous and nobody is certain. Even Headmistress looks tense, snapping orders frequently where she would normally remain silent. The rumour goes around that this procedure will make them better. Sharper, deadlier. It is the first time the girls realise that they are to be used as weapons, and only that.

Fortunately for Natalia, the girls from one of the other rooms are to go first. She and the rest of the girls hand-picked by Headmistress have to wait till the following week, but most of them cannot wait. They are eager to watch, and they gather around at the doorway trying to peep through the gap in the floor before their combat training session. Natalia follows, but in her mouth is the metallic taste of lead. She knows this room well, and what is inside. The faint smell of ozone hovering outside makes her feel hollow. If she closes her eyes, she can feel the cold metal of the lever biting into her palms. When the muffled screaming starts, she is the only one who does not flinch. The eager girls grow quiet and move away from the door with wooden faces. If they catch each other's eyes, it is to convey the same thought: that they are not going to enjoy their own turn next week.

Combat training is subdued, and nobody tries very hard. The instructors are frustrated and whip the cane about threateningly, but the absence of Headmistress's presence means the girls are not very afraid. The cane is a negligible hurt, nothing compared to what they can do to each other if they tried. They take their punishments mechanically until they are dismissed.

Most of the girls who have gone into the room are never seen again. The others Natalia sees the following day at dinner: they move mechanically, as though unseeing, or as though they have forgotten how. Elena moves past her, listing slightly as though her left side is no longer as strong as her right. There is no flicker of recognition in her eyes, and when Natalia sits beside her and asks about Yana, she frowns as though trying very hard to think. 

Who. Who is. Yana. Her lips quiver and she stops speaking, like drawing breath to speak is painful. Natalia stares at the bead of blood sliding slowly out of her right nostril, then Elena flops down hard as if someone has yanked her from beneath the table. Her cup of water crashes to the side. She flails like she is drowning in nothing, making hacking sounds as her saliva froths pink around her teeth. Natalia stares until someone pulls her away, then keeps staring until Elena finally stops moving.

The rest of the survivors drop like flies. She hears that two more went to sleep that night and do not wake up the next day. Another has a fit similar to Elena's in the shower, splitting her head on the tile. Another and another until there is just one left. The last remaining girl is moved into their room, taking Lilya's old bed. They say her name is Sabine, but it seems as though she does not know it herself. When the girls try to speak to her gently, she smiles guilelessly and babbles like a baby.

Sabine, you need to eat your dinner, Ilse will say patiently, pushing the bowl to her.

But Sabine will smile prettily, drooling a little from the corner of her mouth. Her eyes will be vacant. She speaks in single words, heavy-tongued and halting. Do. You have. Sweets.

This is more than what all the other girls could do, but Sabine still shakes like they did. Sometimes it will hit her during a meal, and her porridge will fling across the room as she spasms on the floor. The girls develop their own unspoken roles: Anichka will cradle her head and hum a soft song. The other girls will hold her limbs down, and Natalia's charge is Sabine's right ankle. Mostly it twitches and flutters like the legs of insects usually do when they are dying, but once it was so strong that Natalia had to sit on her knee and hug her calf. Ilse will run for help, and someone will come in with a mean-looking needle that will make Sabine fall asleep. Headmistress takes interest in Sabine's case, and so do the other technicians in charge of the procedure. They ask the girls questions about what Sabine was doing before it happens, what Sabine talks about, what Sabine remembers. 

Natalia wonders if this happens to the soldier-who-is-Not-Her-Papa too. She lies in bed at night and looks at the ceiling, wondering if anybody tries to hold him down when he starts shaking. That is unlikely, and the thought makes her eyes sting. She wishes she could be there to help him too. She could hug his legs and Anichka could sing Valse des Flocons de Neige into his ear. Maybe he will not know her face anymore, or speak in choppy sentences like Sabine, but it would not matter.

She asks Sabine what it feels like, once. If it hurts, if she can feel her body moving. If she is afraid to die.

Sabine laughs and mimics pulling her brains out of her ears like a magician pulling out a long, endless string, her eyes rolling. Then she goes back to knocking her head against the dining table and asking the floor for sweets.

She dreams the same dreams over and over. There is one where she is dancing in a room that is empty except for one chair. Her Papa sits in that chair, leaning back like he is very relaxed. His hair is in the sloppy braids that she has attempted to tie. There are bullet-holes in his torso and there are thick manacles around both his flesh and metal wrists, but he is smiling softly as he watches her dance. She smiles back and does another set of fouettés. Will you stay now, Papa? I have been good. She watches his face change with every turn she makes. One moment his face is blurry and pale, his short hair brown tinged with red, just like hers. The man in the photograph, the one Headmistress had said was her real father. Spot, turn. It is Cabbage-man, the mean slant of his mouth soft only for her, his white-blond hair matted to his forehead with sweat and dirt from the garden. Spot, turn. It is the soldier, dark and shadowed and rough around the edges. Red, white, black, over and over until she is too dizzy and has to stop. When she stops, it is always the same picture: the chair will be a giant manacled machine. Papa's hair will be black and long, clinging to his sweaty face because the machine will be gripping his temples with its electric teeth. Papa's chin will be jutting out as he stares at the ceiling, because in this dream, he will be dead.

It does not matter who it ends up as. They are all dead.

One day, one of the girls overhears Headmistress speaking to a technician about Sabine, while on her way to the bathroom. They want to take Sabine for more tests. So that we can refine the process for the others, the girl repeats fearfully. Then they started arguing because he said that if Sabine dies, they cannot continue with the programme, and Headmistress was angry...

The girls are silent when they hear this, sitting in a tight circle on the floor of the dormitory. It is a quiet night tonight, and the ghost in the wall is asleep. Natalia looks at the others and it seems that they already know what to do. Only Sabine is not in their circle: she is lying in bed like a corpse, straight and still. It seems that she does not feel the cold like they do, not anymore.

Everyone goes to bed uneasily that night, but nobody sleeps. Just before sunrise, the ghost wakes up and starts screaming again. Natalia turns over in her bed and wraps her pillow around her ears.

---

The other dream is where she is standing alone in a dark house. In this dream, her Papa comes home. The door opens and Headmistress comes in, smiling wide like how her mother never really did. Look, Lisichka. Look who is home.

A skeleton-man steps through the threshold. His eyes are sunken and vacant, and he lists to the side a little. The corners of his mouth are curled gently upwards, and spittle trickles down his chin. Do you. Have sweets. He moves closer and reaches out his metal arm, and Natalia wakes up.

It is two nights later. Natalia has just woken up because of the faint banging on the walls again. As her eyes adjust, she realises there is movement off to her side: Sabine is shaking again, her fists twisting the sheets beneath her into knots. Natalia is already automatically moving to grasp Sabine's ankle when she realises that something is different. Olenna is already holding her legs down. Natalia looks up and there is Anichka, holding Sabine's jaw open like she is trying to pry open a steel trap. Ilse is frowning, with one hand shoved into Sabine's mouth.

Anichka, not so hard. She will get bruises, Ilse chides. She glances up and notices Natalia staring. Sabine's eyes are rolling into her sockets. She is fighting harder than ever, gagging up a mouthful of vomit when Ilse withdraws her hand. Her tongue is like a slippery fish, Ilse complains, flicking her hand absently.

My hands are smaller, Natalia offers, and Ilse moves to the side gratefully. She eyes Sabine's flashing tongue, flickering wetly in the near dark, and grabs it in her talons, quick and sure.

Ilse lets out a soft triumphant noise. Pull, she tells Natalia, then turns to Anichka. Now.

It surprises Natalia how quick it is. There is a sound like a raw carrot snapping, muffled, when Sabine's teeth click together. Ilse presses her hands over Sabine's lips as the blood bubbles out between her fingers. She thrashes like an eel, but the girls are used to this. The movements are the same, so are the sounds. Only Natalia doesn’t need to hold her down this time. She wipes the saliva away on the covers, watching as Anichka smoothes the hair away from Sabine's forehead and pinches her nose shut gently, humming Le Cygne under her breath.

The following day, the technicians take Sabine’s body away.

What a waste, one says.

She must have bitten it and choked in her sleep, says another.

Who is going to tell Headmistress, worries another.

The girls say nothing and barely look at each other. Natalia follows suit. The death means nothing to her, the act less. It was easier than killing her not-Papa by far.

She shrugs nonchalantly, her eyes dead and her tone flat. I did not know. I heard nothing, I was asleep.

Nobody suspects them. They have been careful, and Sabine was always on the verge of dying anyway. The day’s events pass smoothly and Natalia feels like as the hours pass, she is letting out a long, slow breath of relief. 

Then Headmistress shows up at dinner and Olenna dribbles stew down her front in her alarm. Ilse rolls her eyes and kicks her hard in the shins. Headmistress’s mouth twitches, but she does not mention it. Instead, she breaks into a smile that is almost warm. Anichka’s spine tenses, but her face is smooth as glass. Natalia feels as if her insides are slowly being torn out from behind. She was not afraid before this, but now she is.

She knows. She has to know.

My little spiders, you are ready, Headmistress croons, unfurling her arms. They seem to stretch on and on.

There is a nervous ripple of movement, but the girls are silent in their obedience and confusion. They had just killed one of their own, and Headmistress knows, but her hands are empty. Her Beretta is nowhere to be seen, and she is smiling.

Someone is standing behind her. He had been standing so still that Natalia completely missed his presence, and Ilse’s sharp exhale tells Natalia that she was not the only one. He moves slowly and deliberately, a noiseless shadow, like something out of a nightmare. Natalia knows this nightmare well, and does her best not to shrink away. She almost expects him to smile clumsily like a small child, and stretch out his hand for sweets, but he does not.

His arm gleams brighter than ever under the fluorescent light when he steps under it. His gaze sweeps up and down the table, his mouth turned downward in displeasure, like he is looking at something that offends him deeply.

Something flutters hard in Natalia’s chest when his gaze connects with hers, but it is only for a brief moment. He does not recognise her, but she recognises him. That nameless emotion rises suddenly in her again, something that is equal parts hope and despair, joy and sadness. She wants to run into his open arms and never let go, she wants to pull her hair out and scream until she passes out. She wants to pick up the nearest chair and throw it into his teeth.

She will learn, when she is older, the name of this emotion. Now, she simply stares at his storm-blue eyes, her stomach roiling. How is it possible that he is standing here, unharmed, alive? When Yana is dead? What about Elena? What about Sabine? Her fists curl into balls, her nails bite crescent shapes into her palms.

He is already looking away, disinterested and emotionless. I am Ivan, he announces, his voice heavily Russian, but laboured in the same speech-slur that plagued Sabine. I will. Teach you how. To kill a man.

Chapter Text

Natalia is sure that she has never hated anyone this much until now. The pain she can handle; she has gone to bed nursing all kinds of hurt ever since she arrived at the Red Room. Pain is a given, her constant. But this man. This man, Natalia hates.

It is his face, she decides finally, one night when she lies in bed staring at the ceiling as though it could burst into flames if she tried hard enough. Her legs are trembling finely from exhaustion, even as she tries to take deep breaths to relax.

Yes, it is his face. The hollow stare that goes through her, unaffected and uncaring. The face that does not recognise her.

It cuts her to the bone, that he no longer remembers her. He is no longer the person in the room above her bed, neither is he the person who tried to steal away in the woods with her. She is unsure if he is the person who killed her mother. It is most likely, and this is a good thing. Natalia has always wanted to kill the man who had ended her mother's life, and Cabbage-man's too. And your father, her inner voice supplies, and she nods her head minutely. Her father, too. It does not matter that she no longer remembers their faces. She knows how to avenge them, and this is enough.

Every day, she gets the chance to kill him. Every day, she fails. The failure sits bitter at the back of her throat, holding her hurts at bay. Not good enough, he will say, each time she comes at him. Once, she had sunk her teeth into the joint where his metal arm began, but he simply snorted. Inefficient, he had said, flicking her to the side as a dog shakes off water.

Her body thrums in pain as she turns over, seeking a comfortable position to fall asleep in. One day he will beg for mercy, she decides. And she will not give it. She breathes through her teeth until morning, turning her hate over and over in her heart.

---

Slow, Ivan mutters, shaking his head. The girls shift nervously as he surveys their work. Natalia breathes heavily, her fists balled at her sides. There is no point in this exercise. They have been at it since morning: assemble, dissemble, assemble. Her fingers are slippery with gun oil, numb from tugging and pulling and sliding the parts into place.

He picks up Ilse's gun and pulls the trigger, but it is jammed. Wrong, he sighs.

The girls glare at him sullenly. Natalia is sure that each of them is plotting his death, like she is doing now. There are twelve of them and one of him. There are no guards at the door. The assembled guns in front of them are unloaded, but the one at his hip would be. She looks at Ilse, who shakes her head minutely.

Know your gun. Know its parts. With that you will. Know what jams a gun. How to fix it. How to. Jam someone else's. His voice, low and stuttering. His face, turned the other way.

Natalia slips forward and slides his gun free from its holster, twisting around such that the tip jabs straight at the back of his neck.

Click. Click-click.

The room is quiet. The man turns around, his mouth pressed into a thin line. Natalia takes a step back. Is he - laughing at her?

How to feel. If a gun is loaded. He plucks the gun gently from her fingers, and her arms fall to her sides uselessly. Utter humiliation, but she will not show it. She glares back at him mutinously. He only smiles a small, secret smile, then turns back to the rest. The room lets out a breath. The incident is forgotten. The hate inside her chest has its own heartbeat now, pulsing darkly. Growing.

---

He teaches them how to enter a building unnoticed. This is more boring than anything else: they have no buildings to try this out on. Instead, he scrawls on large rolls of paper on the floor. Long corridors, concrete walls, glass here, guard there. What would you do if the door only opened from one side? How about the motion alarms? Where would it be connected to? Where can you find the power source? How to get to the source unseen? Should you cut through the barbed wire, should you tunnel below it? Should you work in a team to create a diversion?

By the end of the day, the paper is saturated with scribbles. Natalia barely sees it, having only partly paid attention. There is another map that she draws in her mind's eye, over and over until it seems to sear itself to her eyeballs. As if she has stared at bright light. Which leg he favours when he shifts positions. Where his blind spot is. Where his blade is hidden, on the inside of his right ankle. The marker in his hand, too blunt to use effectively. 

The knife she had palmed at breakfast, warm in her hand. Its edge is dull, it is only for butter, or jam. Soft things. She eyes the man who calls himself Ivan, up and down. She can see many soft spots she can hit.

She waits until he is bent over the map, writing additional notes that Olenna has provided. The marker cap is in his mouth. His hair is in his face. He is frowning because he is trying to decide which hand to use to write his words. He switches from one to the other, but both seem wrong. His handwriting remains illegible.

Natalia! Olenna yelps, throwing herself at Natalia the moment she lunges at the soldier. The three of them fall heavily, rolling over. All she can see is red. The knife in her hand feels like nothing at all, and for a moment she is unsure of whether she is still holding it. She brings it down at his face, but she is not quick enough. The blade skitters off metal; he has raised his arm in defence. The force of the deflection throws the knife out of Natalia's hand. Then the arm reaches out and grasps her by the neck. Its hold is firm but not crushing. Still, Natalia whimpers at the helplessness.

But the arm does not squeeze. He is breathing hard, holding Natalia up such that her toes graze the floor. Enough, he bites out. Enough.

Natalia stops. He lets go, then picks up the butter knife and puts it away carefully. She rubs at her neck, feeling tears prick at her eyes as her blood rushes back to her head. Olenna shoves at her. Glupaya devchonka. Do you have a death wish?

Yes, Natalia thinks. I wish him dead.

Today, she has failed again. The hate turns itself over and over, a monster in her chest. She is sure that one day, it will grow so big that it will burst out of her body when it runs out of space.

---

Natalia learns that she has more than enough space in her body to hate many things. The new hate she harbours is for mathematics, and not just that. After hours of fruitless training with long-range rifles, Ivan says, This is too fucking ridiculous. The next thing she knows, she is stuck back in a classroom learning things like wind value and trying to solve equations such that she will know how many millimetres she will need to tilt her scope and in which direction and that is not even taking into consideration the rotation of the earth -

If she says 'angle of descent' one more time, I will shoot myself, Anichka murmurs, scribbling studiously into her notebook.

Better her than the Grim Robot, Ilse intones. He had hit her nose too hard once, and though the bone was not broken, it never looked the same after. She shoots a cautious look at the back corner of the room, where the soldier sits motionlessly. If his eyes were not wide open, Natalia would have thought that he was sleeping. Natalia wonders what he is seeing, then shakes herself from that thought. You hate him, her brain supplies.

He deserves to die, Natalia adds helpfully, idly doodling red flowers on her paper. She has forgotten their name, but they look pretty.

Stop being foolish, Olenna hisses, kicking at Natalia's ankles sharply. You are lucky he has not told Headmistress about you. If she knew - 

She will understand, Natalia spits, though she feels shaken deep in her core. It was a stupid thing to do, now that she thinks about it. Headmistress always knew how to make things hurt the most. She looks at the soldier again. His expression is vacant and unseeing, as though his soul has left his body. Her pencil is sharp enough. She will need five strides to reach the back of the room. If she jumps on him from the nearest table, she would have enough strength to put the pencil through his eye. All that time she had spent searching for something blue. How could she ever think that this man was her father?

The blue-grey eyes slide back into focus. He blinks, then frowns at her. Natalia scowls back.

When it is almost certain that Natalia will die of boredom, they are released for dinner. Stay back a moment, Natalia, Ivan says suddenly. Natalia freezes, then nods numbly, her heart fluttering like a caged hummingbird. This is it. This is the punishment she has been waiting for.

Ilse squeezes her hand sympathetically, saying nothing. Olenna hurries out, casting backward glances at Natalia as if trying to remember her face. Well, Natalia thinks, others have died for lesser reasons. When the room is empty and the door clangs shut, she swivels around slowly. Her pencil is still in her hand.

What do you want? she asks, meaning for it to sound blunt. Instead, it sounds like the high bleating of a lamb, and she cringes and feels even more like a child than she ever was.

The soldier sits in Ilse's now-empty chair, leaning his head heavily on one palm. Why do you hate me.

Natalia is caught off-guard, her mouth dry. I do not hate you, she says, too quickly. Her face heats with shame. Stupid Natalia. Glupaya devchonka.

You want. To kill me, he points out, sighing. He looks tired. I can't. Complete my mission if. You keep getting in the way.

Your mission? Natalia echoes.

Train the girls.

Is that all you are, you and your missions? Natalia seethes. She slithers closer, a cobra waiting to strike. First, the venom. Mission report. November 13, 1989.

His brows are furrowed in confusion. Stop. You can't. You're not - a handler.

Mission report. December 30, 1989.

Horror blooms across his face, raw and ugly. Katya Anato -

The monster erupts from her body. It forgets the pencil, clattering and rolling away on the ground. It fights with tooth and claw, thrashing and bearing down on its prey. It struggles, but its target is too strong, too big. Soon, the monster tires. The monster slows, stops, stares. Retreats.

Natalia's fists are throbbing. Her left knuckle is bleeding from clipping the soldier's front tooth. She sees blood trickling down his chin from where she managed to split his lip, but that is all she managed to do. Both her wrists are crushed in an iron grip, which tightens with each kick she aims at him.

I know you. Don't I. he whispers, almost wonderingly, in English.  He wets his lips, blood smearing across his teeth. His wide eyes dart all over her face. Her eyes, nose, mouth. Hair.

NO YOU DON'T! Natalia squirms and jerks, throwing herself forwards. The chair topples backwards, and he grunts as her knees dig into his chest. His hands still hold hers at bay. She struggles so hard she thinks her elbows may dislocate.

I killed your family.

You - killed - EVERYONE! Natalia bellows, twisting such that she can crush his windpipe with her knees.

He lets go of her hands and they fly to his neck. She growls in frustration when she realises her fingers are not long enough to go around completely, so she digs her thumbs into the hollow between his collarbones. Suprasternal notch, also known as the jugular notch, the voice inside her head supplies. What a time to think of the Mayak.

She presses harder, her nails drawing blood. He gasps and jerks. She presses harder. He is not fighting back.

She looks into his eyes. Beg for mercy, murderer, she thinks. I want to hear it.

Instead he says, There is a knife. In my boot.

She looks down, then up again. Is this a trick? She presses harder, his eyes roll and he gags. Coughs against her fingers so hard that she feels her grip slip. She slaps at his face then dives for his neck again.

He sighs and closes his eyes. Too slow, Natalia.

Natalia turns and sees Headmistress at the door. She is flanked by two officers whom Natalia has never seen before. They are dark-haired and mean-faced. Natalia, you are late for your dinner, Headmistress says, her tone gentle. Natalia nods stiffly, getting to her feet. Then she walks out of the classroom. The men leer at her as she walks out, but she ignores them. 

Getting soft on your vacation, Asset? one of them sneers, turning back to Ivan. He sits up wearily, watching Natalia. He nods his head towards the door. Go.

Realisation dawns when Natalia sees the resignation on his face and the weapons in the men's hands. Her breath stutters. Ivan - I did not - I never -

Natalia, do not make me ask you again, Headmistress snaps.

Natalia swallows, nods, then turns away. She marches out of the classroom and down the corridor, hearing the muffled sound of talking and her footsteps echoing. 

At night, the ghost wails through the walls. The girls are exasperated; it has been awhile since the sounds disturbed their slumber.

The following day, they practise assembling and dissembling guns again. He shows them how, even though he has already shown them before. The girls shoot each other looks of confusion, but nobody protests. They do their work in silence. Ivan slouches in a corner of the room, not really watching them at all.

Natalia slides up beside him, uncertain. Those men, she starts, then cannot find a way to continue. She touches his elbow lightly, and he jerks like her fingers have electricity. He looks at her openly, unguarded; his eyes say, There is a knife in my boot.

Her heart says, what is the opposite of pain?

The monster in her chest cowers. She cannot hate this man more than he already hates himself. What do you remember? she asks. Quietly, so that the other girls cannot hear.

Not enough. He smiles guilelessly, then points to the table where her gun is still half-made. Remember your mission, Natalia.

 

Chapter Text

She is eleven and a few days. Guesses that she must be, because she has lost track of when her true birthday is. She has not celebrated it for a long time, and this is what she remembers:

A small house made of stone, three people sitting at a table. A warm lap of deerskin. A bowl of berry preserve, a semblance of how it tasted. She remembers the burst of sweetness on her tongue, though she will never remember that it was really only half-ripe and had a bitter aftertaste. Memory is a tricky thing.

It was made in a time when no berries can be found. Her birthday must be sometime in November.

It is December when she kills her first man. A belated birthday present, she thinks in delighted detachment, when Headmistress announces a surprise for Natalia that night.

She meets her present in the room above her bed. The girls stand stiff and white-faced, their mouths pressed together. The smell of the room still lingers, as though the air itself remembers. Natalia remembers and says nothing. She says nothing because she knows what sits in the next room, the cold-clawed machine of ozone and fear that leaves you half-witted and foaming at your mouth at dinner. The others know it too.

The present makes a muffled sound underneath the hood over his face when the bulb above him flickers on. It is bare and blinding. Natalia stares at it until her eyes water, watching the colourful after-images of light pulse on the blank walls.

Natalia, come forward, girl. Headmistress curls a thin finger in her direction, and she lets herself be pulled closer as if by an invisible string. The other girls do not so much as twitch: they have already done this before, taken their own turns. Natalia, of course, is always the last: the smallest, the slowest, the shortest, the weakest. She sticks out her chin and draws herself up to show that maybe this time she can be better.

Gun, Headmistress says lazily.

It is in pieces on the table next to her present. This part of the test is easy; Ivan taught her well. She could assemble this gun in her sleep. She does it systematically, never breaking eye contact with Headmistress. Slide. Barrel. Spring. Slot. Rack. Trigger. Mag.

Look at me. I am as good as any one of them.

Headmistress is unaffected, as always. Unimpressed. She says, You have fifteen minutes. Find out who he works for.

Natalia looks at the others, but they blink back at her emptily. She has no choice to obey, so she tiptoes a little to pull off the hood.

She looks at the man hard. Tries to remember what Ivan has taught her, tries to recall what the Mayak has said. Is there an organ she can crush, a joint she can turn, to wring out an answer? She cannot say for sure. She knows she can use both thumbs to scoop his eyes out, but that will not help her. She knows he has twenty-six bones in each foot. She knows that he does not need both kidneys to survive, and that there are no bones guarding them. There is a gun in her hand with fifteen bullets. There is a knife on the table that she has not touched.

Her present raises his eyebrows at her. His hair is light like Cabbage-man's used to be, a spiky halo under the bright light. His eyes pale as well, pupils pinpricks of black. He is not afraid of her, but she knows about fear. She can make him fear her. She will show Headmistress.

Hello. What is your name? 

He closes his eyes. She puts down the gun.

My name is Natalia.

His eyes are closed.

Who do you work for?

His eyes are closed.

Do you speak English? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Parlez-vous français?

His eyes are closed.

Today is my birthday. You are my present.

His eyes are closed.

I very much want to unwrap my present.

She picks up the knife and slides the flat of it down his forearm.

He opens his eyes. There is a line in between them, now.

I am always very careful with opening my presents.

The edge is sharper than she anticipated. When she uses its edge to trace the veins on his arm, it draws blood. Her present flinches, but the arms are tightly bound to the chair.

But I have not had a present in a long time. Maybe today I cannot wait. Maybe today I will rip it open to see what is inside.

She does not know where the words come from, but when she says them, she feels her mouth curl around them at the edges. She shows her teeth.

The man licks his lips. Like I told your mother here, he says evenly, I am a clerk. I work for the LDPR.

Natalia glances at Headmistress, but her face has not changed. She does not know what LDPR is, but evidently, it is the incorrect answer.

So she turns back and drives the blade into his hand as hard as she can. It is more difficult than she thought it would be, and it grinds its way down when she leans her weight into it. Her present is shouting, but not saying anything. 

The ripping is more difficult. There is nowhere to go but up, so she drags the handle upwards, but the knife is too deep and only moves a little. She has to pull it out a little to make it easier. The vertical line upwards is rough-hewn and crooked, but Natalia grins when she finally reaches the elbow. She has avoided his major artery. Death within minutes, Mayak’s voice supplies in her brain. For suicides, most of the time messy.

Well, present? Are you the LDPR?

Stupid girl. I never said I was.  

Natalia pulls the knife out quickly and brings it down, fast, in a flash. A brief memory: her mother, chopping potatoes at the table. A bit of potato falling to the floor. She reaches down and picks it up. 

This is your thumb. I will feed it to the birds.

Ten minutes, Headmistress drawls.

Natalia’s heart jumps. She cannot fail. She snatches up the knife and aims it at his knee. This time, the sound he lets out makes the light bulb sway.

I will stop opening my present if it gives me something else I want. Natalia leaves the knife in for a moment, comes up close to his face. He is dazed and does not respond, so she pulls his cheeks up and down. Nothing. She squishes his mouth, making funny faces, pushes the point of his nose upwards. Finally, his eyes rest on her.

Tell me who you work for. 

Silence, so Natalia gets into a crouch to brace herself. The quadriceps are big muscles. She will probably need all her strength. She pulls -

SHIELD. I WORK FOR SHIELD.

Natalia looks at Headmistress, who checks her watch. Sloppy, she sighs, but not completely useless. Finish it. 

Natalia removes the knife and lays it back on the table, trading it for the Glock. It fits in her hands like they have grown to accept its shape. It is inconvenient to aim for the point between his eyes, as his head has rolled back and is pressed between his shoulder blades. His neck is bared, his chest a wide target. She cocks her head and aims. There is the rib cage. There is the sternum. Just a little right, a little higher. Margin of error: about the size of her fist. 

She pulls the trigger twice like how she learnt. Two squeezes. The room is quiet.

Natalia has passed her test. 

---

Lessons resume after that like nothing has changed. Ivan has been gone for three months on an assignment, so they have been on their usual routine since autumn. In the morning she calculates the approximate distance of a sniper by comparing the time it hits the body to the time the gunshot is heard. It is tedious and complex; the old lady adds pointless factors like surrounding buildings and wind speed and air resistance until Natalia does not remember what she is trying to measure in the first place.

The Mayak drones on about fingernails. Blueness in the nails indicates poor blood circulation. The nail beds are especially tender; it is common practice to pull out fingernails as a questioning technique.

Natalia scowls. You should have told me that last week.

She has never done that before, a girl called Yelena had said to her suddenly the previous night. She does not normally speak much, and never to Natalia. Natalia had felt her eyes widen, but knew how to hide her surprise well.

What do you mean, she had said, carelessly, pushing her food about like she had better things to do.

She only ever asked us to kill, Ilse supplied. Never question. Something in her voice made Natalia turn to look at her, but Natalia did not know how to read that expression yet. It was the same expression on Lilya’s face all those years ago, when Natalia had told her that they had found her Papa in the room above her bed. Later, she will learn that it is a look of jealousy. Later, she will experience it for herself.

Natalia could only nod jerkily and resume her dinner, her mind going in circles as she tried to understand why Headmistress kept singling her out, why Headmistress was harder on her than anybody else. It did not seem fair, and this unfairness wedged itself at the back of her throat, causing her eyes to water. Sloppy.

When Mayak is finally done, they take a short break, then get changed and go to the ballet room. They have started learning the Kitri variation for Don Quixote. The steps are challenging, but she slips into the skin of a dancer willingly. The music is upbeat and cheerful, and when she closes her eyes, she can imagine big swishing skirts and bells in her hair.

The clattering of castanets. The teacher shouts out the steps as she executes them. Grand glissé, pas de chat, grand battement, pirouette-into-the-jump! And step step step... faster! Strong arms! No, Natalia!

The music stops and Natalia sighs, hopping on one foot and rubbing at a turned ankle with the other. The dull throb of her toes as she tests her weight against them and resets her position. After three tries, she makes it to the final sixteen turns, but she does not manage to complete them. Only Olenna succeeds by the end of class, and Natalia scowls in her corner, unwrapping her toes delicately. The nail on her big toe is black and has been hanging on for a week already. She plucks at it, but it is not ready to come off. Surely ballet is another kind of torture, she thinks to herself absently. Only it is not possible to make your presents dance on their toes.

---

She finally gets her first mission soon after the new year. The task is simple: she is to train with the youth ballet corps at a theatre with Olenna, because Olenna is experienced and one of the oldest in the group, being almost sixteen. They are to find an opportune moment to sneak into the artistic director’s office and find his financial records.

Headmistress needs to explain this. It will be documents with numbers on them. They may be in envelopes. They will show how much money he has, who he gets money from. Where the money goes. Look for names of banks and account numbers. Look for the word ‘transaction’.

Natalia mouths the word to herself to commit it to memory. But why? Natalia asks before she can stop herself.

He has been greedy, Headmistress says simply, and does not elaborate.

Their covers are simple. Nobody looks past two impoverished countryside sisters, brought to the city by their ballet instructor. They perform their best solo variations as their auditions, in front of the theatre’s resident choreographer.

Olenna, of course, performs her perfected Kitri confidently. She glows and blushes prettily when the choreographer claps and nods her approval. When it is Natalia's turn, she finds that her hands are clammy, and tries to wipe them on her tights. Stupid of her to go after Olenna. She imagines failing this audition and going back to the Red Room empty-handed and feels her face heat.

Can you play the music for Odette's solo? she asks the pianist timidly, not meeting his eyes. He nods, unfazed, and counts her in.

It goes smoothly. Natalia exhales almost noisily at the end of it, trembling all over from the effort that she has put in. She had wobbled slightly at her adagios, but she prays it is enough.

It does not surprise her that the choreographer is not impressed. Her head is tilted to one side and she chews the inside of her cheek for a moment. Not badshe says slowly, but her thighs are a little big, don't you think?

Natalia shuffles her feet and tries to rearrange the wisps of her rehearsal skirt, looking at the floor. Not good enough again. And this time, not even something that she can control. To stop herself from crying, she looks around the room to assess its level of security, like how she has been taught. One glass door in front, one wooden door at the back that is locked. Two blank walls, two mirrored walls. Two pillars. No windows. No cameras.

...younger. And she is quick to learn, her ballet teacher's voice floats over to her. Natalia clenches her fists.

They go back to their nearby rented apartment in silence. The next morning, the telephone by the door rings. Natalia's teacher smiles at them, and they get dressed for rehearsal.

They are the last two to enter the studio. The other dancers are already waiting and stretching at the barre, and raise their heads curiously when Olenna and Natalia patter into the room cautiously. 

There is already a small commotion by the piano in the corner. Some dancers are on their knees, wiping up a coffee spill on the floor. Another is standing rigidly by the side, spluttering an explanation to the choreographer.

When I ask you to fetch me a drink, I mean for you to get it.

I am sorry, Madame, I thought -

You have no authority to order Dmitry to do it on your behalf.

I know now. It will not happen -

You know that he is already a half-wit. And do you expect him to be able to hold anything carefully with one hand?

No, Madame. I -

Apologise to Dmitry, Zhenechka.

Forgive me, Dmitry, she says meekly, turning to the mortified man.

He bows awkwardly, his hands in his pockets. I play piano now, he stammers, looking at the floor. He edges around the girls and hides behind the polished wood, hunching his shoulders in.

Natalia has to remember to shut her mouth when Olenna pulls at her elbow.

Ivan? Natalia mouths at Olenna uncomprehendingly, but she pinches Natalia’s forearm and drags her to a free spot at the barre.

Glupaya devchonka. Use your mind, not your mouth, Natashka. For once in your life.

He does not look in their direction once during the entire rehearsal, but it has to be him. He looks smaller somehow, soft around the edges. His jaw is pale and clean-shaven. His hair is pulled back, neatly combed, fastened in a low ponytail brushing the nape of his neck. The dark turtleneck is well-chosen and hides the worst of his scars; his metal hand, however, is in plain sight. Natalia realises that it looks inconspicuous because he has made it look dull and stiff-jointed, like an old prosthetic of bygone technology. He never once shows that the fingers can close into anything tighter than the gentle arch needed to work the piano keys, and he is unnecessarily heavy-handed with it as if it were an unwieldy contraption. 

Stop staring, Olenna hisses. Remember your mission.

But Natalia's mind keeps turning round and round, coming back to her mentor sitting quietly on the bench. His accuracy is imperfect but his timing is consistent, which is more than enough for a dancer to have a good rehearsal. For the hard-to-please Madame, it seems, it is not enough. If a note happens to be wrong or if his left hand happens to touch more than one key at a time by accident, the tendons in her neck will strain. She keeps stopping herself from scolding Ivan, Natalia notes.

At the end of the rehearsal, she overhears Madame speaking to Ivan in a gentle voice.

Do you understand, Dmitry? You need to remember the key you are playing. This is A Major. You are always dropping the sharps. Here, take this pencil and write it in. It will help you remember. F, C, G.

Remember, Ivan agrees, nodding too many times and picking up the pencil. F, C, G, he mutters to himself.

Madame stalks away, exhaling sharply, in the direction of the artistic director's office. She is muttering darkly to herself and Natalia hears a bit of it: Stupid boy, Vasily needs to hear reason...

As she moves beyond earshot, Olenna takes this opportunity to giggle. Do you think he makes the mistakes on purpose? I could barely keep myself from laughing. 

Natalia shrugs noncommittally and moves closer to the closed office door. The voices are slightly muffled, but most of the girls have left, and Olenna falls silent as well.

Sasha is a good friend of mine, the artistic director booms imperiously. I will not turn away his charge. A fine young man at that. What does it matter that he is dim? Do you know how much money Sasha has donated to us?  You owe your job to him. I will not entertain any more complaints, Madame Guillon.

The office door is wrenched open and Madame strides out, chin high.

Speaking of Dmitry, tell him the director wants him in his office now, Vasily calls out after her.

Madame throws a glance in Ivan's direction. You heard the director, she says coolly, then turns to Natalia and Olenna. Out, the both of you. Do not be late tomorrow.

---

At night, when they are eating their dinner in silence with their own Madame from the Red Room, there is a knock on the door. When it opens, Natalia and Olenna fly from the table.

Ivan! They both squeal, running like they have not seen each other in years. He presses them to his legs quietly until they stop chattering.

They sit down at the table together, and he takes a few bars of chocolate out from his bag. Presents, he says stiffly, as Olenna and Natalia snatch them up like greedy sparrows. Madame makes a tch-tch sound, but says nothing.

When her tongue is thick with candy and her belly fit to burst, Natalia finally asks. Ivan, what is your mission?

He grins sheepishly. Same as you. Only. I needed extra help.

Why?

Hnn, he says, taking out a can from his bag as well. He opens it and takes a long drink. Natalia sniffs a faint whiff of something that smells like paint thinner. Madame makes another tch-tch sound, and slaps his hand lightly. He stops and shrugs. Director pays too much attention. To me.

Does he really think you are a half-wit? Olenna probes wonderingly. Natalia wonders how it is possible that Ivan has drawn attention when he spends most of his time impersonating a shadow. She did not notice him until he was standing in front of her. She did not even recognise him when he played her song for the audition.

There is a brown chocolate stain on Olenna’s chin, and Ivan reaches over and swipes it away with a damp finger. Then drinks a little bit more. You will have a chance. Tomorrow. He locks the office when he leaves, but. I will. Delay him. You have a window of. Twenty minutes. 

He tells them that the file they are looking for is carefully placed at the very bottom of the top drawer. He hides the key to that drawer on a ledge under the table. He only takes out the file every week on Fridays. If they are able to take it tomorrow, Madame can make copies of the documents and they can sneak it back into the office without him knowing it. There are so many things that could go wrong, Natalia thinks, so many eyes in the academy. But at Ivan's words, she simply nods. This is her first assignment, and she cannot fail.

After you retrieve the file, he finishes, you come back here directly.

Olenna, sharp as ever, frowns. How did you find the key?

Ivan blinks. Frowns back. Obvious. I went under the table. Glupaya devchonka.

Natalia giggles.

---

It is a godsend that Ivan has already told them where to look. Without the lights on in the cramped and disorganised office, Natalia and Olenna would have been lucky to find anything at all. Natalia learns next time that the term is “a needle in a haystack”, but in this case, it may as well be “hay in a haystack”.

She squints at the papers on his desk. Do you think these are important? There are numbers on them, she whispers, more to herself than Olenna. Olenna crawls out from under the table, shooting her a glare that is answer enough.

The file is, thankfully, slim enough for Olenna to slot into the top of her tights. It wraps around her thin frame perfectly, and she drops her shirt over it with a satisfied smirk.

They creep back out of the dark room and through the empty, darkened studio, careful not to make their footsteps echo.

A muffled bang from the floor above them causes them to freeze in their tracks. Natalia squeezes Olenna’s hand tightly at the shock of it, but otherwise remains calm.

It came from the stage, Natalia whispers, twisting out of Olenna’s grasp and turning to go up the steps two at a time.

Natalia!

Like the lower levels, the stage is unlit, with only the lights from the back entrance and exit signs casting a dim glow on the polished floor. 

As her eyes adjust to the darkness, she sees the shadows take shape and guesses where the noise had come from: the top board of the grand piano is shut. A broad-chested, big-bellied man leans back against it. In front of him, someone kneeling. It must be Ivan.

Memory is a funny thing. Natalia will always remember what she saw that day: the piano was broken, and two men were fixing it. She will never remember the way they moved, or the hands in Ivan’s hair.

With a sharp tug, Olenna forces Natalia to spin around and marches her back down the stairs. They are not noiseless, but there are noises enough from the stage that mask their escape. Natalia bites back a whimper as Olenna shoves her forward, not gently, with her arm twisted behind her.

They are back in the flat. The door has barely swung shut when Olenna turns and whips Natalia across the face, so hard and fast that she can only stand there and stagger.

Do not ever stray from your mission again. Her eyes are wide, showing the white around the brown. Olenna has never been mean-spirited or fierce towards Natalia outside of training, so Natalia is left gaping wordlessly and pressing a palm to her face.

Do you understand me, Natalia?

Small nod. A tear of pain and alarm, beading up behind her eyelid. I will not cry. I will not cry.

They sit at the table, not looking at each other, until Ivan comes in two hours later. He straightens his posture and shakes his hair free of its ponytail the moment he steps across the threshold.

Mission report, he says tersely, dropping his bag onto the floor and turning out his pockets to reveal two bars of chocolate. Olenna turns away from them, so Natalia snatches up both for herself.

Olenna taps the file on the table, her eyes fixed on Ivan.

Good girl, Ivan mutters, and sinks into his chair to leaf through it quickly.

Olenna bristles. What were you doing with Director Vasily just now?

Ivan does not reply immediately. He flips through the documents, squinting at them from top to bottom, then slides them back in carefully. You saw. His blank tone is a statement and question rolled in one. Olenna simply glares back at him.

Natalia sucks noisily at a piece of chocolate, all around the hazelnut embedded within it. Why are you asking, Olenna? We saw them fixing the piano. I was there, too.

...Yes, Ivan says slowly, even though his eyes say no. That's. One way of putting it.

Olenna curls her lip like a threatened dog. This makes her face look ugly. She says nothing, so Ivan shifts uncomfortably.

Sometimes. There are things you use. To your advantage. To complete a mission. He stands up and looks around. Give that to your teacher when. She returns. I will not come here again.

The door opens, the door closes. The shadow is gone. Natalia cannot comprehend Olenna's sudden bad mood, rare and black like a summer storm. Resistance is futile, she says, patting her shoulder affectionately. Be happy, Olenna, we completed the mission.

Olenna snatches her arm away and stands up in a huff. You really are a glupaya devchonka, you know that, Natalia?

---

When the file is ready to be returned, Natalia is nervous about putting it back. If only they did not have to put it back. How tedious to have to give back something that they have successfully stolen.

There will be a distraction sometime today, Olenna had told her grimly in the morning. I will tell you when. Go in, put the file exactly the way we found it, come back out. Nothing else, do you hear me?

Natalia remembers her dark rage from two days before and nods obediently.

The dancers spend some time in the studio breaking in new pointe shoes that have just arrived from the latest shipment. The studio is quiet, and the radio is playing. Over the soft sounds of indiscernible melody, there is the rhythmic knocking of toe boxes against the floor, or the rough skritch-skritch of shanks getting cut and ripped out.

Then, shouting drifts down from up the stairs. It gets louder, and there is the unmistakable sound of someone pounding down the stairs in a fury.

Olenna taps Natalia's elbow twice and she slips away towards the office while the others crowd at the doorway to listen in on the conversation. Natalia is faster than she planned to be, locating the key easily and slipping the file in neatly. She is even careful to leave the rolling chair tilted at exactly the same angle before coming back out.

The commotion is not over when Natalia returns. Ivan is packing his bag beside the piano hurriedly, his hair falling into his face. He sniffs noisily like he is crying and keeps dropping his piano scores in his haste. Whatever the problem is, the distraction really is perfect; Madame is still standing in the corner of the room screaming bloody murder in incomprehensible French, while the director tries to gently herd her into his office and away from Ivan.

What happened? Why is Madame so angry? Natalia asks in wonderment.

One of the older girls snorts. Isn't it obvious? She caught Dmitry fucking the director.

The dancers burst into a fit of giggles, hiding their grins behind their hands. Olenna follows suit, the perfect chameleon. Natalia smiles, feeling foolish. She looks at Olenna questioningly.

Fixing the piano, Olenna explains under her breath. Natalia nods dumbly and keeps smiling.

—-

They continue at the academy for another month to keep suspicion off themselves, because a pianist and the two new dancers leaving at the same time may raise questions. By late spring, a quick excuse does the trick.

A death in the family, the Red Room teacher explains regretfully to Madame outside the theatre. Their mother needs them back home to tend the fields.

A pity. The small one had potential, Madame says finally, taking a drag from her cigarette.

Did you hear that! Natalia tugs excitedly on Olenna’s sleeve.

Shut up. Your Papa just died, Olenna says grumpily, shouldering her bag and slouching away with a sigh.

Just like that, they are back in the Red Room by the next day. Natalia has completed her first mission, guided though it was. Olenna carefully leaves out Natalia’s disobedience and foolish mistakes from the reports.

Ivan is already back and waiting for them. The guns are on the table, parts strewn at random. There are new burn marks at his temples, scarred flesh still pink and raw, and he does not recognise Natalia at first glance.

Ivan, it’s me. It’s your Natalia, she whispers.

He stares at her for two seconds, then plucks at her hair gently. Natashen’ka, he murmurs.

What do you remember?

Ivan shrugs. Not enough, as always. Did I kill anyone.

No. Does it hurt? She presses a finger-pad to the edges of his eyes, tracing the scar up to his hairline. Like small forks of lightning.

Not anymore. He brushes her hand away, and pats Natalia’s head when she makes a disbelieving face.

It is not so bad. The forgetting.

Why would you say that, Ivan?

Sometimes. He turns away, his hair over his face. Sometimes it is the memories that do the hurting.

Chapter Text

After the success of her first mission with Olenna, the missions come swiftly, interrupting her regular lessons. Her lessons are no longer helpful for the most part. Natalia takes to her assignments like a fish, slicing through the water soundlessly and unerringly. Often, the mission is easy enough: plant a file here, switch a package there. She never learns of the full details of the mission, but it is inconsequential. She revels in the simplicity of it, the clear line between black and white. Yes and no.

What is the opposite of pain? Baby Natalia would have asked. She knows the answer now, and it is irrelevant. The only things she needs to know is the difference between success and failure.

She has never failed.

The pleasure of Headmistress' favour gleams hot and bright in her chest with every completed task. She will never be as good as Yana was at ballet, or as precise as Ilse is at shooting. Yelena will always best her in strength. But the thing that matters most - doing Headmistress' bidding - is her specialty.

She sees Ivan less and less. Trainings with him reduce to twice a week, then fortnightly. Most nights, Natalia lies awake boring a hole into the mouldy ceiling with her eyes. She imagines the tendrils of her mind reaching into the shadows and curling beyond the plaster and floorboards. She imagines a lone figure lying on that damp floor, pressing his cheek into the rot and listening to her breathing below.

One night, she hears a series of dull, rhythmic thuds. After a few minutes, Olenna puts a pillow over her face and groans, but Natalia simply turns over and sighs. Yelena throws her bedcovers off and starts prowling about, ducking her head under the beds.

He is sending a message, she says shortly, amused and irritated that none of the other girls has realised this. From under Anichka's bed, she drags out a small hamper of sorts, hastily wrapped up in a dining napkin: in it is a dog-eared copy of Totto-chan, a faintly rattling paper cylinder, four licorice sticks and a bar of chocolate.

Like the well-trained thieves they are, the girls immediately palm the treats of their desire and retreat back under their covers with the air of pleased children on Christmas morning. Having lingered in the back, feigning disinterest, Natalia is too slow to grab the chocolate. The paper cylinder lies forgotten within the folds of the napkin, and she steals away with it gratefully. 

The thudding has stopped. Ivan may already be sleeping, but Natalia knocks her bed against the wall anyway, in case he is listening, to show that they have gotten the message.

She turns the cylinder over in her palms, shaking it this way and that. There is a clear plastic opening on one end, but when she peers into it, there is nothing. She will only discover later that she needs to hold it up to the light. She wakes up early for this: sitting by the window, she lets the patterns shift in the soft light of morning.

--- 

Her first official kill order comes when she is just shy of fourteen. She is in the middle of her growth spurt and is the same height as Ilse, though she has yet to shed her little-girl awkwardness. Her leotard is beginning to grow tight at the chest, and she steals Anya's tweezers to pluck at the wiry strands of hair under her arms.

There has been a deserter, Headmistress says, presenting her with a slim folder. Inside, there is a name and a face. Dr. Rose Dilworth smiles wanly up at Natalia through wispy brown bangs, the rest of her hair pooling around her collarbones in soft rings. Her thin lips stretches across an unblemished face like a red slash.

Search her home. Recover any intel you find. If you find a child, bring her back alive.

Yes, Headmistress.

They drop her off in the same city that Rose is currently staying in. Natalia has memorised her address and wastes no time in finding a good vantage point from the opposite side of the road. The ghost of Ivan paces behind her as she peers through her binoculars, wishing she were back in her bunk looking through her kaleidoscope instead.

Entry points, Ivan recites blandly in her head.

One front door. Three windows, two open, Natalia murmurs. No activity.

Intruder alarm.

None spotted. Three locks on the door.

Easy target.

Easy target, Natalia confirms, her lips curving into a smile.

---

The television is on. Its monotonous drone flickers through the gaps in the door. Natalia has a knife between her teeth and a nail file and hairpin in each hand, but when she tries the knob out of habit, the door slides open so easily she has to catch herself from stumbling forward.

It is not the television. The radio is playing a recording of sorts.

So they send a little girl, Rose muses. Her teeth are stained with wine, which she sloshes about in a wide glass made for whisky. The ashtray in the table smolders.

... but that is built into every creature's situation, no matter how high, no matter how low, the radio interjects.

Alan Watts' lecture on life and death. Have a seat, girl, and drink with me first.

Despite her haste to complete the mission, Natalia obliges her and curls into the opposite armchair. Her eyes drink in the dim light. She is a cat who has cornered her prey.

I'm sure you're wondering why I decided to betray the organisation.

Natalia says nothing, because she knows that saying anything will betray her ignorance. She has not wondered anything at all.

...but what about the nothingness that was before you started? On the contrary, it takes nothing to have something. You wouldn't know what something was without nothing. You wouldn't be able to see anything unless there were nothing behind your eyes. The most real state is the state of nothing. That's what it's going to all come to.

White noise. The radio clicks off and the silence hangs on a thread, then Rose drinks the rest of her wine in one swallow.

She turns to look at Natalia, her mouth tilted to the side in her sad smile. I studied to be a doctor because I wanted to change the world. Ageless skin. Limb regeneration. The cure for cancer. The formula we found... well, we all know how that went. Five soldiers in an ice box in the middle of Siberia, what a bad start to 1992. It makes me wonder how they ended up with someone like Captain America. One flick of the switch and they have Achilles in the flesh. All we've ever done is make bigger monsters out of ourselves.

The children were my idea. Start them young, train them right, and maybe they will fight our wars the way we want them to, instead of turning on us and tearing each other apart. The children's ward was my idea, too. Hopeless cases, the sick, the orphaned. They would appreciate strength, having known weakness. They would be wiser in using it. Did you know that Captain America used to be colour blind? I wager he couldn't tell the French and Italian flags apart to save his life. After the scarlet fever and the asthma, he was a ticking time bomb. And the soldier... well, he's always been in bad shape, as far as I know. The only two successes we know of, and the only thing in common they had... was that they were both about to die.

She looks away now, sagging back into her chair. Her eyes quiver like faint candles floating in an open sea. I had her in my final year of medical school. It was such an... inconvenience. It shouldn't have happened at all, but I was a coward then. Back then, I only ever thought of myself. I suppose that's how heroes are made. Not because they're any braver... they just happen to be thinking of someone else.

She was born sick. You know, from all my smoking, probably. Rose lights another cigarette and takes a long drag, as if to make a point.

Probably, Natalia echoes faintly.

The nurses named her because I wouldn't. Grace, of all names. Like the song. What was the point? The girl wouldn't last. Hole in her heart. Jaundiced, blind, premature, motherless in a charity clinic for runaways. She would be dead within the year, I was sure of it. Professional opinion. Then I saw her in the ward, just a month ago. I don't know how she got there. What happened in her life for her to end up at the same place I was? I guess I would say it was a cruel twist of fate. Nobody needed to tell me who she was. A blind orphan girl called Grace. Seven years old. It was like looking into a mirror back in time.

She was the first to get the serum. I chose her because I thought, well, she's survived this long despite the odds. When she could see for the first time... she told me I was an angel. Me, the woman who had no courage to terminate her own pregnancy, but tried to anyway with alcohol and drugs. I didn't deserve it, but it was there all over her face. Love.

Rose's cigarette smoke curls gently into the air. "I was blind but now I see". See how fate has a hand in it? I didn't understand what it was to be a mother until then. As I administered the drug, I thought, wow, let's see how much worse you can be as a mother, Rose. There's a special circle in Hell just for you. But her eyes on me, her hand in mine... her forgiveness is everything I needed and nothing I deserve.

I would do anything for her. Anything. My life, measured up against hers? I would throw it away ten times over. You can peel the skin off my body and I will never give her back. But you will have to live with this knowledge. Nothing will absolve you, and nothing will wash my blood from under your nails. I am nobody. But could you stand it? Would you kill a sweet girl's mother?

I am only following orders, Natalia almost says. Her tongue is dry and thick, like she has eaten too much chocolate in one sitting. She thinks of a small wooden pallet-bed in a stone house, laden with furs that still smelled of amber and musk.

They killed mine, she says instead, drawing her knife.

Rose sighs as her throat opens up.

Natalia takes stock of the room. After rifling through some drawers, she dislodges a poorly-fitted panel at the bottom of a cupboard. In it, a scientific journal of sorts, with equations and diagrams. A few vials of unassuming liquid, unlabelled. She pockets these and returns to the sitting room. She pours the rest of the wine into the glass on the table, then lights a cigarette and puts it between her teeth. She rewinds the tape in the radio and presses play, then settles back into her chair. Takes three long gulps of the wine and lets out a breath in a hiss.

If you are aware of a state in which you call "is", or "reality", or "life", this implies another state called "isn't", or "illusion", or "unreality" or "nothingness", or "death". There it is. You can't know one without the other. And so as to make life poignant, it's always going to come to an end...

As she swirls the glass absently, her mouth turns to ash. Her eyes begin to water, so she tosses the stick out of the open window. She pours the wine down the sink, wipes her prints away, and leaves. She does not see the spot of blood on the seat cushion that she had been sitting on, and will not notice the stain on her clothes until she reaches the rendezvous point two hours later. Her handler points it out, making a tch-tch noise with his tongue.

Finally, Natalia thinks blankly, her mind still swimming.

When she reports in to Headmistress two days later, her eyes are trained on the floor.

Sloppy, Headmistress murmurs, fanning out a series of crime scene photographs in front of Natalia like a poker player coyly revealing her winning hand. No sign of the girl?

No, Headmistress, Natalia says. The feeling in her heart is relief, though at that moment, she cannot put a name to it.

The Asset could do it, her handler suggests, out of turn. He startles at his own boldness and takes a step back. Ma'am.

Headmistress wrinkles her nose, like he has done something endearing that she did not expect. He does have a knack for bringing little girls home to me. Isn't that right, Natalia?

Yes, Headmistress.

---

She gets a week off missions and rests by going through the motions. Sparring with whoever is around and not on mission, doing her own ballet combinations while staring at herself in the mirror and the girl that she has become. She wonders if her mother would be proud. She wonders if Ivan is, then scowls and goes back to her bed. She lies in it upside-down so that her head is at the foot, and points her little paper kaleidoscope to the window. The pattern inside glitters and trembles, finely, in perfect symmetry.

She shakes it and looks again.

She shakes it and looks again.

She

---

The children's ward has exactly eighteen children. It is in a small hospital in a small town, the only hospital around for miles. The population is so low in this region that there is no orphanage, so it is simply called the children's ward. It is home to the sick, abandoned and disabled children.

Henry is the oldest and is almost twenty. He lost most of his right leg and part of his pelvis to a land mine and only talks to himself.

Dima is the youngest at four and is partially blind from the acid that her father had thrown at her mother.

Natalia's stomach flips when she changes Dima's dressings as delicately as she can. The others peer at her curiously, some grinning and others sullen. They do not see new faces often, and the new nurse-in-training does not behave much like one. She takes five tries to draw Margot's blood for testing, and says nothing as she pulls and tugs at Erik's stitches when they are supposed to come out.

Are you really a nurse? A sandy-haired boy finally asks her, his voice a touch too loud. His head and neck are in braces, and he has a neat band-aid right across his nose.

Natalia winces, then nods with practiced nonchalance. I am still learning, she mutters. She has only learnt the basics that Olenna has shown her. In the next ward, she plays the role of stern matron well. Natalia should learn her role better, but being the friendly orderly making her rounds is difficult when she looks like a child herself. In response, she yanks at the last of Erik's stitches and quickly dresses the wound when part of it opens and starts bleeding again. Erik stares at her silently, his eyes watering.

Obviously. You must be new here. The boy laughs, definitely too loud this time. The other children shift in irritation at the grating sound. I'm new here, too.

Natalia moves to the next bed, where Grace sits still as stone. Her cheeks have been tear-stained for two weeks now, ever since they told her of Dr. Dilworth's untimely demise. Natalia draws her blood for tests, poking twice ineffectively before getting the vein, but Grace does not complain. She allows them to test her within an inch of her death, but will not lift a finger otherwise.

Natalia is to watch her and help in testing the serum further on some other patients. Rose, however, did not mention how she had gotten it to work on Grace. For the other children, Natalia may well be injecting them with sugared water. Her first subject is Henry, since he is the oldest and also one of the most damaged. To Natalia's dismay and annoyance, nothing happens to him even after repeated doses of the serum. Frustration boils hot in Natalia's belly knowing that this will count as a failure on her record, but it is not actually her fault. She has done all that has been ordered.

Still, Headmistress is unrelenting and unforgiving in the face of failure. Her face had soured when she realised that Natalia had killed the only person who knew how to use the serum. Well, little spider, she had said. You had better figure it out soon.

At this moment, the boy's voice jars Natalia from her gloomy thoughts. What's your name, nurse? I hate to keep calling you nurse. Since you barely count as one.

Natalia spins on her heels, biting the inside of her cheek. Natasha, she hisses.

The boy smiles guilelessly and shakes his head, pointing to the clipboard at the foot of his bed. 70 percent deafness, she reads.

My name is Natasha, she says, louder this time and more sympathetic. She looks over his state, which does not seem comfortable. What happened to you?

I fell off some scaffolding, he half-shouts, grinning like it was the best fun he has ever had. My name is Clint.

Chapter Text

Autumn bleeds into winter. Natalia knows it will soon be her birthday, but she does not know the precise date. In her head, she has already chosen the only real date she can cling to: December 30. Though her real birthday was probably sometime in November, it does not matter now. December 30 seems more fitting. The day her not-quite-father killed her mother. The day she left home with nothing but the clothes on her back and blood between her teeth. When she looks back at the days of her childhood and tries to picture it, all she remembers is being cold and more cold, and the flicker of black white red at the back of her eyelids. She is sure that some nights she dreams of home, but when she wakes, the images slip away like a mirage; the more she tries to look at it directly, the more it melts into nothing.

By winter she learns how to pass more as a nurse, at least to everyone but the annoying boy Clint. Olenna visits one day and sees how he is: noisy and complaining and underneath all that, too much cheek for one person to handle. Watch that boy, she says slyly, smiling her secret smile.

The other children get used to him eventually. They watch on in quiet amusement when he wheedles and whines, except for Dima, who has somehow learnt that screaming loudly solves all her problems. Natalia hates that Dima is like this. Noisy, crying, wretched, weak. She would not last a day in the Red Room.

My cast is itchy, the annoying boy Clint moans. Help me.

He would not survive the Red Room either. Natalia ignores him and refills the water by his bed, then turns away to check on Yuri. On good days, Yuri smiles at her and asks about the weather, but on bad days, he curses darkly and yanks his covers off onto the floor. Once, he tried to throw himself onto the floor too, but his legs are no longer his own and he ended up hitting his head on the floor and soiling himself. Natalia had found him sulking miserably, hanging almost upside down, with his hair half-drenched in piss. Because of this she feels pity for him, and is gentler to him than the others. She does not know the name of pity, only that it is the same feeling that swelled within her when she first found her Not-Papa lying on the floor in the dark. The smell was the same, so she feels the same.

Natashaaaaa, the itch is unbearable. I'm going to scratch my whole cast off.

She dips a small towel into warm water and wrings it gently, wiping Yuri behind the ears, under the arms. Today is not a good day for him. Though the cloth is warm and she is gentle, he hisses like an aggravated cat. Natalia sighs inwardly and keeps going.

Natasha, I'm bored out of my mind. I'm THIS CLOSE to dying.

No, you are not. I have seen dying people. Natalia almost says this, but she does not. Instead, Natalia folds the cloth carefully, pinching the ends with her fingertips and pressing them together until they're white and bloodless. Close your eyes and go to sleep, she says eventually, without turning around. The itch will go away.

No it won't, Clint complains, huffing and tossing as much as he can on his bed. The other children stir from his raised voice, murmuring their own complaints, and Dima lets out a warning whine.

The itch is in your head. It will go away if you want it to go away, Natalia says, a little sharper. Her eyes dart to Dima, whose head is cocked as though listening intently. Please dear God, Natalia prays. If she starts screaming I will wring her neck with this towel.

What do you know! You don't have a broken leg! Clint whines, slamming his fist against the railing of his bed. It collapses with a bang. Immediately, Dima lets out a shrill wail.

Mozhet byt', ya slomayu eto snova, chtoby ty mog zatknut'sya. Grebanye tryndets, chert, tvoyu mat', Natalia bites out, throwing the cloth back down and striding over to Dima. She does not let her expression change. Her face is fixed with schooled precision: brow furrowed with mild worry. She runs light fingers over Dima's brow, above her bandages, to let her know that it is her. She very carefully does not shove a fist into her wide yowling mouth.

That's not a very nice thing to say, Clint blurts, huffing in amusement. For a moment, it seems he has forgotten his discomfort. It's not very nurse-y of you to threaten to break my leg again, either.

Natalia's expression drops minutely into a brief scowl, then she shushes Dima and strokes a passive hand down her back. You speak Russian, she says bluntly, even though it's a question.

Clint shrugs easily, then resumes trying to scratch behind his knee again. Grew up in a circus. You learn things if you're observant. I used to climb up the ramparts in the wings and watch all kinds of people talk. Wanna know the first Russian phrase I learnt?

Miraculously, Dima's cries quieten a little, as if she wants to know, too. Natalia raises her face to him before she can stop herself.

Vonyayet kapusta popala v tvoyu zadnitsu i sgnila tam, he says evenly. His pronunciation is good. He grins toothily as he says it, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. Natalia finds herself almost mirroring the expression before she can stop herself, but then Dima reaches for Natalia blindly and almost takes her eye out. Then her scowl is back and she grasps the wayward limb gently.

Watch yourself, child, she murmurs.

What does it mean? Dima demands, waving her hands about. Natasha, I want to know! Her fingers find Natalia's hair and tug insistently. The silken thread of Natalia's patience snaps.

You smell like rotten cabbage went up your ass and died, Natalia mutters into her ear, tears springing to her eyes at the pain. Let go, or I will cut your toes off while you sleep. Glupaya devchonka.

Dima lets go and cries until well after the sun sets, but Natalia smiles secretly to herself and does not mind so much. She hums a short Tchaikovsky tune to herself as she busies herself with changing the sheets.

---

Grace still does not talk. She stares out the window, mostly, as if her eyes could devour the world. Natalia also feels sad for her, because it is not such a nice view for a forgotten hospital in a derelict French town. At least the Red Room had mountains all around, and snow that piled so high that she could fall from the roof and not get a scratch. Here it just rains and rains, and the tiled floor is constantly streaked with mud tracks from the outside. 

And the smell. Had it not been for Headmistress and her strict training, Natalia would have packed and left long ago. The stray thought occurs to her one morning, sudden and startling like a drop of cold water on her cheek. The chill of it runs through her body, electric. It is a stupid thought, obviously. She has nowhere to go. Besides, Headmistress would be cross.

As it gets bitterly cold outside, she shuts most of the windows to keep the children warm. The smell gets worse, and sometimes she even catches Olenna sighing in despair and they exchange a weary look: what are we doing here? What is the mission?

She has no choice but to speak to the children to pass time, and most of the time the only one who is able and willing to converse with her is the annoying boy Clint. Natalia is a good liar, this is true, but his questions are clever and piercing, and almost always threaten to pull at the fabric of her tales.

One day she cannot help but tell him that her birthday is coming soon. He smiles, his freckled face going soft and crinkly, and says, How old will you be?

Sixteen, she says, without missing a beat.

You can't be sixteen, he says, rolling his eyes. His mouth is stuffed full with the hard bread roll that is the children's supper. You barely come up to my shoulder and I'm sixteen.

How do you know? You cannot even stand, Natalia snaps, shoving lightly at his pillow. Her eyes are on Henry, as always: he sleeps like he is dead, with his eyes not fully closed. He has not shown any improvement over the past month, and Headmistress has been getting impatient. She has instructed Natalia to increase the dosage, but it is just as ineffective. Every day he wakes up a crippled, grumpy boy. He goes to sleep a crippled, grumpy boy.

You're always watching him, Clint says, off-handedly, like it is no issue. Casually but not too casually, and it gnaws at Natalia's conscience. This boy sees too much. Maybe all circus children are like this. Maybe she should join the circus too.

Natalia counts to three, then shrugs. He has a handsome face.

No, he doesn't, Clint retorts. A shower of crumbs cascade down his front, and Natalia brushes them aside with a sigh. Now she will have to sweep the floor.

No, he doesn't, Natalia agrees. He sleeps like he is dead. I am checking if he is still breathing.

Clint flicks his crumbs at her forehead, hitting it right in the middle. One-two-three. 

Natalia narrows her eyes. I will pull your tongue out through your nose, she says, showing her hands like she means it.

Clint sticks out his tongue like an offering. Are you like this to all your friends?

Natalia says, You are not my friend. The word catches in her throat, feels ashen in her mouth. Abruptly, she leaves the children's ward for the dispensary. It is almost time for the routine disinfection of all the instruments.

Olenna is already there, measuring out medicine and pouring it into cups.

How is your boy Clint? she teases, a smile playing about her lips.

Natalia dumps the needles into the tray of hot water and hisses when the water jumps back at her. How is yours? she snaps back.

Olenna laughs quietly. Natalia has not missed the many nights she has spied Olenna staying up later than her shift. Her ward is right opposite the children’s ward: there the patients are dying slowly, forgotten and alone. From what she has heard, the man has some form of lung cancer, but his smile is bright and his eyes are clear. He has a few months yet, and every night Olenna darts about him like a moth to a flame. His name is Leo, Olenna says firmly, and he is sweet.

You know he is going to die, Natalia points out bluntly, when Olenna shows her a sketch of flowers that he did for her, because he cannot buy any for her in his condition.

Olenna shrugs and tucks the slip of paper away carefully. All of us will, one day, she sighs.

---

It is a chilly morning, but the ward is not so stuffy even with the windows closed. By some sort of miracle, none of the bedridden children need diaper changes yet. The early morning frost clings to the window panes like spiderwebs, shivering in the new light winking through the barren trees across the street.

Natalia busies herself with the hot-water kettle, arranging the breakfast trays in rows of three. If she mixes the juice with a little bit of water there is enough for her to have her own cup as well, and today is apple. She pours out more for herself than she usually dares, then tops up the jug with water, giving it a good swirl with a spoon. The metal clinks softly against the glass.

There is a quiet titter of laughter drifting through the air from across the ward, ringing like the spoon against the jug. Natalia stills, and hears it again.

She moves quietly, an untethered shadow, her ears pricked. She does not notice the tiny furrow between her eyes. This furrow will deepen in the coming years, but she does not know this now.

Somehow, from the short distance of three beds away, the room seems pink-tinged with a film of mist. All around the ward the beds are lumped warm with blankets, shifting and heaving in the last violet shadows of night. Two children are sitting by a window, wedged ajar and letting in the crisp air. Clint is playing a sort of game with Grace, and they gesture slow then fast, big then small, and giggle quietly in between. The soft light of dawn strikes Clint's face high on his brow, on his cheekbones, down the bridge of his nose. His fingertips flash golden as he moves quickly: raises his fingers to almost touch his mouth, but not quite, then brings it back down and flattens his other palm across his wrist.

Grace follows, and they whisper and laugh again.

Natalia must move or make a sound then, because Clint's sharp eyes dart in her direction, amused and arresting all at once, and he gives her a shadow of a wink. She freezes like a cat in the street, imperceptibly; then the moment is over and she plods from bed to bed, sloshing juice into the empty plastic cups.

Grace, she says, her voice a touch too steely, how are you feeling today?

Grace shuffles away quickly, her eyes on the floor.

What were you doing? Natalia says.

It's sign language, Clint says quietly. I learnt it for when I'm too deaf to speak.

Oh. Natalia hands him his cup wordlessly.

I could teach you, you know, Clint says, his voice eager and earnest and happy.

Drink your juice, Natalia says.

Clint obeys and grimaces. What kind of juice is this? It's terrible.

Natalia feels the muscles on her face pull outwards, a vague semblance of a smile. There was not enough to go around.

Later, when she drinks her stolen apple juice, the sourness bites at her tongue. She finishes it anyway.

The next morning is different, but still the same. The clouds are so thick that the room simply shifts from a deep grey to a paler grey, and the children don't wake until almost ten. By the time Dima works up to her usual morning cry, Natalia has watched Clint and Grace for almost an hour. They seem to communicate in secret, as though linked by telepathy. They will choose a word, any word, then sign it out slowly together. Sometimes she will press her tiny fingers into his palms to show him how it would be in braille.

Like a wild animal drawn in by the warmth of a flame, Natalia drifts closer wile doing her chores, always in orbit but not too close that Grace might withdraw and become mute again. She feels her eyes drink in his hand movements hungrily, her brain working to repeat the movements in her mind. Today is all about the bed. Sleep, pillow, dream.

She watches the way his eyelashes flutter when he laughs, then looks away when his eyes settle on hers. Her hands move about listlessly without meaning, anything to give a distraction. Time is slow, and her mission ever slower.

Natalia blinks and finds herself one bed away from them. She has unwittingly come closer than she wanted to, and now she sidesteps this way and that, for fear of bursting the gentle bubble of laughter in front of her.

How are you feeling today, Grace? She does not expect a reply, but asks anyway. The mission deems it necessary.

Grace ducks her head shyly, but Clint nudges her. She raises a tiny fist and shows it. O. K.

What is this? Natalia says.

She said she feels fine.

She cannot say it for herself?

Grace is already pulling away, retreating to her bed. Natalia rolls her eyes, clicks her tongue against her teeth.

Maybe she just doesn't feel like talking, Clint says. You know how that feels?

A lifetime ago, maybe. She is no longer that mute stupid girl, who could not find words to express her anger and loss. Now she is a spider, and she has a mission. Still, she bites her tongue and turns the conversation around.

You said you were going to teach me, Natalia says, her mouth turning playfully to the side.

Clint laughs like a summer breeze. Anything you want, majesty.

---

I like food, Clint signs one morning, after choking down some dry, hard bread.

I like dancing, Natalia signs back, showing him her black toenails.

---

I am not cold, Natalia signs, tilting her face to the cracked-open window. The snow is drifting in, much to Grace’s delight. She grabs at the swirling flakes, panting in excitement, her cheeks flushed.

I am cold, Clint signs back, grumpy. He huddles into a little ball under his covers, though his cast extends beyond the meagre square of the blanket.

No more playing, Grace, Natalia murmurs, pulling her hands away and shouldering the window shut. Grace pulls away, her face mirroring Clint, her petulant eyes pleading. She still has not spoken, but Natalia has been kinder to her lately.

I will bring you something to play with, Natalia says gently. Next time.

Will you? Clint asks, loud enough that Natalia winces and makes a 'shh' face. Thankfully, the other children ignore their little exchange.

Natalia purses her lips, thinking about the little paper cylinder next to her pillow back at the Red Room. Toys are for children. I am no longer a child.

He grins and winks. Look at you, being all nice, he mutters, signing at the same time. Natalia wrinkles her nose and leaves quickly before he can make fun of her even more.

---

Increase the boy's dosage, Natalia, comes Headmistress' next order.

She hears an echo of Headmistress' voice from many years ago. Pull the lever, she had said. Again. Again. Again.

Though there has not been any change in his status or behaviour, Natalia has started to feel like maybe she is playing with fire.

Natalia has always obeyed unquestioningly, but now she falters a little.

For Henry? Natalia asks hesitantly.

Is there any other boy? Headmistress snaps, her voice stinging even over the telephone.

No, Headmistress.

See it done.

Yes, Headmistress.

---

Henry does not wake up two days later.

Natalia keeps her face a steely mask as she tries her best to wheel the body out without rousing suspicion, but she can feel the children's questioning murmurs as the bed squeaks against the floor.

Where is Henry going? Dima demands, her flute-high voice carrying across the ward. The children sit up stiffly, as though they can smell the blood on Natalia's hands and are trying to trace the source. Pack of hyenas, scenting the air. 

Natalia wipes her hands off on the cloth near the sink, then turns back to everyone and smiles. He is just being transferred, she says blandly. Inside, her heart flutters like a trapped bird. She wants to be an ostrich, hiding her head in the sand. 

The children settle down eventually, much to Natalia's relief. She goes to the cancer ward to tell Olenna of the news.

My subject is dead, she announces dully, kicking at the floor in feigned disinterest.

Olenna does not look up from measuring out her medications for the day. Headmistress told you to increase the dose?

Yes. Did she tell you also?

Yes. Olenna raises her eyes to Natalia, and they are wide like Natalia has never seen. I have not done it.

The words mean nothing to Natalia at first, and she snaps back at them reflexively. What? Why not?

I did not want him to die, too.

Natalia inhales sharply. Defying Headmistress is never a good idea, this she knows. You know I will have to tell her what happened.

Yes, I know.

She will know that you disobeyed.

Yes.

What will you do?

I do not know, Natalia. 

There is a word that hangs between them unspoken: Natalia cannot even begin to think of the meaning of it. So long ago that word was burnt out of her brain. So long ago, a scrawny girl who would not speak stared into the lifeless eyes of her first friend in the Red Room, the brave girl Lilya who wanted to climb into the light.

The light is not for little spiders like Natalia. She leaves Olenna and trudges back to her ward numbly. A loud buzzing sound has filled her ears, like static from the television. There is the taste of iron in her mouth.

Clint sights her from the far end of the ward, ever the hawk. Her feet carry her to the foot of his bed, and she plops herself onto the corner. 

Did I ever tell you about the lions in the circus, he says suddenly. His voice is uncharacteristically low, and Natalia leans toward him imperceptibly. She shakes her head, her ears still filled with tiny bees.

Sometimes my job is to feed them and bed them down, he continues. But it's a dangerous job.

Do they bite? Natalia blurts, thinking of powerful jaws, dripping with blood. The crunch of bone. A soldier lying on bone-white ground, steel trap wrapped around his thigh.

The old ones, sometimes, Clint says. They were caught from the wild, and they can never be trusted, even when they are trained. It is always the same: one day they wake up and remember, this is not where I should be. This is not the wild. They are always in heavy chains, and when they get the chance they will always try to escape. Some do eventually.

What happens then? Where do they go?

Nowhere. We catch them. They have trackers, and their trainers hunt them and punish them.

That sounds... Natalia searches for the word slowly, her tongue shifting to find it. Pitiful, she says finally.

Yes. But the cubs suffer too. The ones who are born in the circus, or taken in so young that they don't know better.

Are they also hurt? Natalia breathes.

At the start. They are kept in tiny cages with strong bars, and beaten when they lash out or try to escape. Then they grow older and outgrow the chains and the trainers use thinner chains, and then even thinner, until finally they are left in the open with just rope around their ankles.

Then they escape, Natalia says, and as that forbidden word leaves her mouth she feels the blood in her head throb from the adrenaline of it.

Clint shakes his head. No, they stay. I used to hope the same. I thought maybe they would chew through the bonds and run away in the night, but they always stay. Every night I tell myself, tonight they will free themselves. But in the morning I hear them growling and snuffling up their feed outside. 

So one day I think to myself maybe they need help. One night I go to the best lion. His mane is just starting to show. His name is Kaiser. I stroke him and say, Now you are free. I saw the rope away with my knife and he lies there blinking at me. I push him and he doesn't move. I hiss and he yawns. I snap at him and he licks at his paws.

The ringmaster sees me then. He's so mad he boxes me hard enough to down a full grown lioness. Clint smiles, sharp-edged. Points at his ear. Ruptured eardrum. 

Natalia feels her breath catch. She reaches out before she can stop herself, touching Clint's other hand hesitantly. This emotion is sympathy. Natalia will not learn it until Clint tells her about it, many years later.

But now she knows this: his hand is warm, like a pile of furs sitting by a fire all day, like the concrete in the street just after the sun has set in the summer.

Why did the lion not run away? It would have been so easy. Are lions that stupid?

Clint seems to look at something else then, as if a memory is being played out behind Natalia's head. Then he shakes his head slowly. He didn't know he could, I think. When he was small he couldn't, but he has no way of knowing how big he is now, and how strong. In his head he must feel like a little lion cub still, and the rope as heavy as the chains. He doesn't have anyone to tell him they are different now. He doesn't have anyone to tell him that he is stronger than the rope around his foot. That he is stronger than the ringmaster and his little black whip.

That's stupid, Natalia says sharply. If it were me, I would know the difference.

Funny you should say that, Clint says, his shrewd eyes burning holes into her own. Then he looks away and yawns theatrically. Is it teatime yet?

Chapter Text

The story from now is a cascade of tiles, falling one after another - from where Natalia experiences it, it will seem like everything falling apart, the thread pulling loose, the cloth coming undone. There will come a day when Natalia will look back and see the picture that had formed, and know that it was not falling apart, but into place. Each position fixed in time, its path already determined from the moment she was pulled feet-first from her mother's womb.

Perhaps the pieces had already begun to fall then. Her first tooth. Her scraped knees on the harsh floor of her new home. Her father shutting the front door for the last time. The sliver of robin-egg shell under the bridge.

Now, here is another piece: Leo is on his feet, spinning Olenna in his arms.

Olenna? Natalia whispers. Her feet squeak on the linoleum and Leo turns and smiles.

You must be Nina. Olivia has told me so much about you, Leo says, reaching out with his hand. His eyes are kind, but Natalia steps back quickly.

Before Natalia can think of anything else, Olenna seizes her by the upper arm and drags her back to the nurse's office. The door shuts with a muffled click and Olenna sighs at it, not turning around.

Your name is not Olivia. My name is not Nina, Natalia says stupidly. Her tongue is thick in her mouth. Then she says, with difficulty, That man was dying.

I can explain. Olenna is still talking to the door, her eyes on the doorknob as if she is expecting it to spring out of its socket.

But Natalia is not so stupid anymore. She sucks in her breath before she says it. You did give it to him.

Yes.

He did not die. Not like mine.

No.

How?

I do not know. This time Olenna turns to face Natalia, and Natalia sees that it is the truth.

Why did you lie? Why - Headmistress needs to know this. Why did you not tell her?

All of the questions pour out of Natalia's mouth, but it is all the same. Why, why, why. The piece has fallen, had fallen long ago - the echo if it is only just reaching Natalia. The next piece will be struck soon.

Glupaya devchonka, Olenna says, but her voice is soft and sad. You know this. Think about what will happen to him if she knows.

Natalia swallows, and her brain throws up the images for her: a cold cell with no windows and no light, a man, naked and chained to the floor. A silver arm, a black chair, a stain on her bedroom ceiling. A girl called Sabine with a sweet face and vacant eyes. Olenna is right. She knows.

She will find out, Natalia whispers, and even then she has a bone-deep feeling that Headmistress can hear. She will know, she will find out - Olenna -

Hush. Do not tell me things I already know. Olenna's eyes are wide, and there are two small pinpricks of light in them that quiver, caught in unshed tears.

What will you do? What - what will WE do? Natalia grips her wrists tightly. She knows that if Headmistress thinks that she lied - like Olenna - she knows that if - what will the punishment be? Surely not something as simple as death. What is the opposite of death?

A million years ago, a five-year-old girl asked a Cabbage-man, What is the opposite of pain?

And now she asks, what is the opposite of death? Is it pain? If she is to live, that is what she will need to live through. Pain is the opposite of death is the opposite of pain.

Natalia, Olenna says finally, you cannot lie to Headmistress. You know nothing of what I have done.

What do you mean?

Just... do not tell her. Promise me. You will protect yourself.

Why? What will you do?

Enough questions, Olenna says, her voice beginning to be stern again like it usually is. But this time Natalia knows she says it because she has no more answers.

Olenna, Natalia says, tipping her head into the other girl's shoulder. Her forehead touches the hard line of her collarbone.

The two girls breathe together in the silence.

In the distance, the falling piece strikes the next.

---

Headmistress finds out in a way that Natalia does not anticipate. It does not happen for another week, in which Natalia tries her best to remain calm. Her fingers betray her the most when they should not: she has been trained better than this. Still they shake when she writes out prescription labels, when she measures out cough syrup. She stops visiting the cancer ward, and stays around the children under her care even at their noisiest. They are good distractions.

But then there is a morning when Natalia is on the telephone and before she can say anything, Headmistress' voice is cold and piercing, and it says this:

Why am I getting reports of SHIELD agents arriving at Calais?

Natalia almost drops the receiver. She hesitates a moment too long. 

Natalia? Answer me.

I do not know, Natalia says truthfully. I have told no one.

If the mission is compromised, girl, now is the time to report it.

No, Headmistress, it - it was not me. It could never be me. The moment she says this, she feels her breath pull at her lungs, and her chest aches like a solid hit to the solar plexus. Her mouth had known it before her brain. But Olenna would not turn on them. Headmistress could not figure it out. No. No. Not -

Olenna? Hm. I would not have expected it.

No, Headmistress, I - I did not -

You did not say it, Natalia? My little spider. I can hear everything you choose not to say.

Natalia is gripping the telephone so hard that her teeth are chattering minutely. She says nothing, not trusting her own voice.

You know what you must do. The protocol we follow, for enemies of the Red Room. What is it called, sweet girl? 

Her heart hammers bruises into her ribs. Slash and burn, she whispers. Her vision is a film of tears.

And?

No survivors, Natalia mutters.

You would not disappoint me, would you, Natalia?

No, Headmistress, Natalia intones, and sets the receiver down. She is gentle, but the sound of it resonates, like the muffled bang of a wooden block hitting another.

So the pieces keep falling.

---

At night, she checks that everything is dark. The children are asleep in the ward. Her mind is far away, soaring on albatross wings over a wintry forest, over a frozen lake. Her legs bring her to the outside of the building, and the task comes to her even without her even thinking about it. One by one she jams the windows shut. It is a relatively cold and windy day, and she has no need to be covert about it, as all the windows are already closed. Next, the back door. This is a small hospital, only one level all around, and she covers the ground faster than she expects. She glides back into the ward, her mind on autopilot.

There are many flammable things in a hospital: gas, fuel to keep warm in case the electricity goes out, oxygen tanks. Things that burn easily: pillows and sheets and gowns. She almost comes to herself to laugh about this small irony, but her thoughts are still on other things. If she does not think about what she is doing, it will be easier. She has done this before.

She checks that the doors to each ward is bolted from the outside. This, too, is easy to set up: all of the doors already have locks fitted in place, in the event of misbehaving patients attempting to run away and harm themselves. Another thing that Natalia almost laughs about.

She reaches the cancer ward and hesitates, because there is someone who is not asleep.

It is Olenna. She is lingering by Leo's bed, her silhouette against the window making her appear like a shade.

It is happening tonight, then, Olenna whispers, her voice drifting out to embrace Natalia. Her hand is frozen on the door.

Yes, Natalia admits. Then, she lowers her voice further. You can do it, she says fervently. you can - go. I will say you were here.

You know that that is not possible, Olenna says sadly.

It can be, Natalia persists. It has to be.

Not for me. I will be happier if I stay. Go on, sister. Close the door.

Lenka, Natalia says, for the first time, and the last. She wishes she can see her face, but it is too dark.

She does not know what else to say. They do not know how to say goodbye. This is not what they have learnt in the Red Room, nor have they seen it happen before.

The shadow of Olenna steps forward quietly and shuts the door, and Natalia imagines that she does so with a small smile on her face.

Another piece falls.

Natalia blinks away the salt in her eyes and slides the bolt into place.

---

Natalia has left the children's ward to the last. She does not know why she has done it, but then again, she does not learn about the word 'sentiment' until after, when it is too late.

She does not look in to see their sleeping faces because she does not need to. She will never need to see them again. The bite of the metal is cold as she locks the final door, and she finds herself thinking, it will not be that cold any longer. She almost finds herself looking forward to it, but then her mind leaps back to the shape of Olenna and she stops. She cannot do this, but she has to. She has to.

You have to do this, Natalia whispers to herself fiercely.

You don't, the boy Clint replies from behind her.

Natalia whirls and flies through the air like a fox. Too much force, too much emotion, too much surprise: they tumble and roll in a tangle of limbs. Her knees slam into his stomach, her hand on his throat, other fist raised high.

Oh, Natalia realises, how did he get out of bed? She takes a breath and sees all at once that he is whole and well, and his legs are not bound up in casts, and that his taut muscles are more than any bedridden patient should have. SHIELD, her brain supplies wildly. He has to be SHIELD. It was him.

Hot anger flashes through her. Were you lying about the hearing too? she hisses, pressing her nails deep.

Clint shakes his head. Don't do this, he says. You don't need to do this.

Natalia strikes him hard with her fist, once twice three times, feels the edge of a tooth slide against her knuckle. Sting of pain, trickle of blood. This is all she knows.

I have no choice, Natalia says, then shoves him aside before he can subdue her. She runs to the infirmary and locks the door. Fiddles with the gas knobs, upends the ethanol over the rags. She needs to do this. She cannot fail. She must do this. She is ready to do this. She has always been ready. This is who she is. There is nothing else.

Natalia, open the door! Clint shouts. The pieces are falling faster now, in time with the pounding of his fists. Like many thundering footsteps, like a herd of buffalo stampeding in the dust.

Everything about this mission is too simple. The setup, simple. The escape, simple: the infirmary window is the only one she did not block up. She strikes her match and looks at the window. Natalia, the door says. This is not who you are. 

Maybe it is, and maybe not, but the next part is simple just like everything else: she lets the match fall. The heat of the flame flares immediately and the blood rushes to her face at the sudden warmth. Under the door, the shadow of Clint's legs shudder and shake as he throws his weight against it.

She looks at the window. The glass is fogging up quickly with the smoke.

Natalia! One final scream, hoarse and pleading.

In one swift move, she backs up against the door, steadying herself. Then she fumbles the door open behind her and charges at the window without turning back.

The impact shakes her all the way to her teeth, but she lands on her feet like a cat. Breathless and blinded by smoke, she runs, and this time she does not stop, even when the night begins to fill with the screams of others.

---

The morning headline reads: 46 DEAD AS FIRE RAZES HOSPITAL: FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED

Headmistress folds the paper back into half and then half again. She sets it down across her lap, then leans forward across the table, and her smile is wide and red.

Molodyet, Natalia, she croons, but the words sink into Natalia's gut like stones.

She is given a full week off training and no new missions for the next month.

Most of her time she spends sleeping, which comes alarmingly easily even though she had expended very little energy clearing out of her mission. She is nursing no injuries, yet her body is as shattered as her mind. The others give her space, as though they too feel the presence of the invisible would Natalia is carrying. She does not speak much for awhile, and eats less, until Headmistress comes to oversee her at mealtimes. So she eats her meals when she should and then lies in bed and stares at the ceiling, not even really seeing the ceiling patch of the soldier. He has not been around for some time. She turns so that she does not need to look at the ceiling, but she ends up looking at the window: the dust is swirling in the sun. This is when she remembers the kaleidoscope that she had given to Grace. This is when she realises that it had probably been burnt in the fire, too.

All ash now, together with Dima and Yuri and Leo and Olenna. She does not know if Clint had managed to escape, but at this point, she cannot find any more strength in her to care. Then she realises that she is like this, and has been like this, because all she can do is care.

It is the third week after the fire. Natalia stuffs her sheets into her mouth and cries until she throws up.

---

The pieces are still falling, slowly this time, but surely. All of them are leading Natalia to where she will have to end up. All of them leading Natalia through mission after mission, and the red in her ledger bleeds over. Her fingers stop shaking when she walks into hospitals. She smiles when she celebrates her birthday undercover - why yes, Alexei, I do so love black forest - and blows out the candles without blinking. She switches out her weapons for something bigger, something heavier, as her palms finally grow big enough to support the full weight of a rifle. The guns she can handle, but she finds she is the best wielding her trusty garrote: small, undetectable, lethal. Just like her.

They start calling her something else. 

The Black Widow, Headmistress says at first, mockingly. She should not have this name. It means that she has a reputation, and this reputation threatens the secrecy of their organisation.

My Black Widow, Headmistress says later, reverently. The paper in her hand reads: RUSSIA MOURNS PASSING OF BELOVED SUPREME OFFICER

---

The Black Widow, the man on the other end of her interrogation slurs.

Natalia flicks her knife in the direction of his eyeball and grins when he flinches. Answer the question, SHIELD agent. Your name. Your access code.

You're the Black Widow, he says snidely. Can't you figure that out yourself?

Natalia backhands him again, hard enough that her hand hurts, but not hard enough that he will be out cold. Don't bore me. You won't like me if I'm bored.

I think I will, the man laughs, his teeth showing blood. Natasha.

Natalia's heart trips, but she simply blinks and hits him again. Name. Access code. Make me ask again and I will start using my knives.

The man groans and rolls his head back. Natashaaaaa. Come on. You know my name.

His voice is the same, the way he drawls out her name. The line between his eyes is the same. The pieces slam into place. Natalia feels her lips part just a fraction -

Clint moves so fast that she cannot react. In one move he throws his head forward and catches her right in the eye, then he flips and smashes his chair into the back of her head. She goes down hard, only just cushioning her fall by turning and landing hard on her shoulder, then she is on her back and her breath is kicked out of her lungs by the full weight of his knees crashing and digging into her sternum.

His arms are still tied to the splinters of what used to be the chair, and they hover just next to her jugular. She can already feel her blood thrumming against the sharp edge, and immediately stills.

Do you know me now? he says. He is not laughing anymore.

Yes, she whispers. She wants to close her eyes, but it is not out of fear. Maybe it is relief: she knows that it would have been like this, either way. There is only one way that she can stop.

Do you remember the fire?

She wants to say no. She does not answer.

Why did you let me go?

She does not know the answer. She does not answer.

Do you remember the children?

The splinters are biting into her flesh. It is more painful than she expected.

I remember, she mutters. She does not want to remember it. She does not want to remember the children or the fire or this boy who is now a man, looking at her like how he used to so long ago, like his eyes alone can burn through her corneas into the shadows of her mind. The look of a spy, which she is old enough to recognise now, but was not old enough to recognise then.

Just do it, she thinks, before I remember too much. Ivan was right. Sometimes it is the memories that hurt. So many years and she cannot forget their faces.

Do you remember the lions?

What lions? Natalia frowns and almost asks it, but then suddenly she does remember. How he had spoken to her urgently, suddenly, about the lions in the circus. How he had searched her face for something, anything. She remembers the story about the old lion who was chained in his cage all his life, wasting away and forgetting his past, and she remembers the story about the lion cubs, too naive and good to disobey. She remembers thinking about how easily they could have run.

She remembers, vaguely, someone telling her once. Perhaps it was the soldier, or Cabbage-man, or her Mama whose face she has long forgotten. There is the dark and there is light. There is good and evil. And with that, there is always a choice that she can make. She blinks and the chains of her past are now little red strings.

The lions... Natalia says, blinking back sudden tears. That's what you were trying to tell me.

He sits back and pulls his arms free of the ropes, and then they are both kneeling on the dusty floor with sawdust in their hair and splinters in their palms. He grasps both her hands tight, his forehead falling forward to brush hers.

I'm sorry I couldn't tell it to you sooner, he whispers back.