“How long do I have?” Laura swiped angry tears from her cheeks. She paced between the marble island and double sink. “Before they come back.”
Natasha brandished three fingers. She sat, cross-legged on the Barton’s kitchen floor. Mountains of laundry were being separated into bulbous mounds. It felt good to have something to do. Nat swore she had a system to organize everything but had yet to be able to explain her methodology to any of the Barton’s.
“Probably.” Natasha added another pair of Cooper’s socks to the kid’s laundry basket. Clint had the kids at a local park, playing in country-sponsored sprinklers. “He can drive everyone around until we give him permission to come home.”
Nat had helped him make the plan. Laura needed some time to glue herself back together after her meltdown. Natasha had unplugged the router and tucked Laura’s phone in the playroom, under a layer of plastic blocks. She needed to unplug herself from the media storm. Everyone with internet access, professional or not, was covering the recent Supreme Court ruling.
After depleting energy at the playground, they’ll go for ice cream. Natasha found her stomach contract with hunger. She suppressed the impulse to text Clint with a request for black raspberry and peach. With any luck, half of the children would fall asleep on the way home and Nat could avoid dealing with their collective sugar crash.
Laura sniffled as she tried to reign in her anger. Frustration, despair and panic closely trailed the rage. “But what about my ice cream?” Her chin wobbled as she swallowed another swell of emotion.
“In a cooler, he got ice from the shop’s kitchen.” Natasha held her phone out to Laura, so she could see the picture of the take-out dessert.
“Thanks Nat.” Laura plucked another rag from the bin. “God, you must think I’m pathetic.”
Natasha started to nod but froze once the question registered. Instead, she hunched over the laundry, holding herself together. Her arms added pressure to her ribs, which hurt, but grounded her. “It’s fine. You’re okay.”
The attempt at comfort pitched the American into another cleaning frenzy. Laura scrubbed at the disassembled stove. Metal burners had been scattered along the countertop. She had a myriad of cleaners grouped by use all around the kitchen.
Everyone coped with bad news differently. Had this been a personal crisis, Laura would have leapt into action. But this was a systemic problem that terrified Laura. How could she keep her patients and children safe, if the government actively worked to thwart her efforts? As a trauma nurse, forged in emergency departments, she understood more about healthcare than the average American citizen.
“What is this? I can’t remember the last time we made tacos. It looks like ground…chicken? This is gross.” Laura grunted and swore at the congealed food. Channeling her rage and panic into cleaning had to be a step in the right direction.
Natasha had stopped looking at her like a threat, so that was an improvement.
Natasha rolled leggings, nestling them into the bottom of the laundry basket. One bin of clean clothes, another of dirty bedding and towels, the third basket contained kids’ clothes.
“Want some help?”
The chores never ended. Natasha always had work to do, ways to help and stay above the ocean of despair that threatened to drown her. Personal traumas haunted Natasha. Policies and governmental corruption were normal. She had been born into oppression and learned to thrive in it.
Nat had learned how to feign empathy and mirror emotions, but an element of confusion remained over Laura’s reaction to the American government’s decisions.
America was a dream. Apple pie with vanilla ice cream and endless possibilities. It was where she learned to live a lie so completely, that Natasha believed she had a family. Yelena taught her how to ride a bike on rural dirt roads and learn to love Bazooka bubble gum.
Grief swelled, squashing her appetite. She did not deserve ice cream, especially if Yelena had died for her sins.
Laura sniffled, drawing snot back up her nose. “No, you’ve got your hands full.”
“It’s alright.” Natasha blinked. Memories of her faux family dissipated like tendrils of smoke. The scent of fear lingered, but she managed to tune into the present. Reality ebbed and flowed like a static-crusted radio station.
Laura sighed, despair dripping from her words. “None of this is okay. This is apocalyptic. I’m terrified, Tasha. I don’t know what to do.”
“I know.” Natasha didn’t, not really. Her friend’s panic inspired images of alien warfare and fatal injuries in her mind. Connecting the dots of Laura’s emotions to the ruling of Roe v. Wade was a tangled challenge that Nat couldn’t sort out.
But Natasha was trying to be a more supportive friend, so she lied. By aking the emotion that Laura displayed, Nat mirrored appropriate expressions. Copying the feelings that she witnessed was easy enough. Natasha had been trained to do that her entire life. It was a skill she had honed over her career as a ballerina, spy and assassin-for-hire.
As a child of the Red Room, she had come to understand that emotions were weapons she could wield. Maybe she had been born with a darkness in her heart. There were tales of monsters that fed on the misery of others. Natasha’s thoughts mixed together, causing interruptions in her concentration. Monsters were real. Yelena used to draw handlers with curved horns and scaled armor. She sketched them in dust, snow and mud. Sometimes, Natasha traced her sestra’s drawing on bathroom tiles or scratchy sheets.
“Nat, how can we raise them in a world like this?” Laura’s voice crackled with lengths of tightly coiled fear.
Laura sounded like she did when they read over Skye’s patchwork history. Natasha nodded along to her friend’s blustering comments. She survived systemic corruption, hell, it had shaped her into the ideal Black Widow. She became Madam’s personal model of the Red Room’s well-groomed assassins.
What did Laura mean? Natasha dumped an armful of socks into the kids’ laundry basket. How could Skye, Jemma and Lila be felled by a bureaucratic law?
An hour later, Natasha considered Laura’s concerns. Parts of the conversation made sense, but there was a part of Nat’s heart that had turned to marble years ago. That part of her had been preserved in order to survive. That traumatized part of her, resisted empathy for a privileged third world, affluent nation of innumerable freedoms.
The rest of the world did not labor under the allusion that women had rights. People and governments saw people with uteruses as inferior, breeding vessels.
Natasha had always known that truth. She had not been granted autonomy over her reproductive health. Her body was programmed to respond to abuse, painful stimuli aroused her battered brain.
Now, she had been dropped in the middle of the land of the aloof and home of the polarized political parties. Choice induced feral panic. Natasha’s life had been full of consequences, but all were out of her control.
Yelena, Nadia, Vanya and the soldats, had endured graduation ceremonies. Hysterectomies and chemical cleanses that stripped them of sexual choice and desire. Assets, like Yasha were granted chemical castration and medication that modified their anatomical urges.
Natasha shuddered at memories of metallic instruments and fuzzy antiseptic. Americans had been born into privilege so prolific, it led to a lifetime of oblivious indifference. That fact grated against Nat’s mind, like sugar against a cavity.
Lila, Jemma and Skye were not spineless, thoughtless waifs. They were not vulnerable in the same ways that Natasha and her sestras had been for all their lives. Residency in the Red Room guaranteed regular rape, daily programming and torture tactics favored by notorious dictators. If Natasha believed in a god that did not hail from Asgard, she would question his or her judgement.
“I keep trying to make sense of it. But I can’t. As a nurse, I try to put myself in everyone’s shoes. But Tasha, I can’t. These shoes are worse than Herb’s when he comes into my ER for spring cleaning.” As she spoke, Laura brushed angry tears from her cheeks.
Natasha watched the scene play out from a corner of the kitchen ceiling. The Barton’s kids would face their own trials as they grew. Maturity was one thing, but puberty held layers of combustible trauma that Nat had not dared to unpack in her years of therapy.
Natasha cared deeply for her adopted family, but they would not suffer like she had. Waves of anger threatened the fragile empathic persona Natasha had crafted.
Yelena had died. Everyone who had existed in her dormitory had died. Yelena had killed a good number of their handlers, hell, she had even bound Eve as a present.
The sight of her sestra, blood leaking from her nose with a grin plastered on her face shoved its’ way to the front of her memory. Guilt and longing sharpened the pain that always gripped her heart. Dozens of Widows had been sacrificed in their search for perfection. Brainless zombies that did not care whether they lived or died, who had no will or sense of self were no longer part of the living.
That was unfair. The injustice of the Red Room’s very existence made it hard for Natasha to understand Laura’s emotional rage over a Supreme Court ruling.
Down, down, down. Natasha’s concentration narrowed to, rushing sounds flooded her ears while her vision tunneled.
People protested in the streets. News outlets focused on ‘good trouble’ and the pros and cons of basic human rights. It was all foreign.
“What can we do?”
Natasha blinked. “I-I don’t know.”
She had grown, like a crooked weed in the shadows of the USSR. Deprived of basic care, she learned to thrive in the sinister chaos of Stalin’s regime. Choice was a luxury that she had not been granted.
“We’ll figure something out Laura.” Natasha squeezed her friend’s arm, still dissociated and floating somewhere above her body. The words sounded wise, but far way. They came from her mouth, but were not what she really thought. “We always do.” It wasn’t the grandest of empathetic gestures, but it was all she could manage.