EIGHT MONTHS AGO
<SIte of the Red Room HQ destruction, location [REDACTED]>
<Nat is taken into custody and loaded into a van with Ross and a driver>
Nat: Dreykoff is dead, but there’s still more we need to do.
Ross: We? So now you’re willing to cooperate with authorities? After making me chase you halfway around the world?
Nat: I had to be the one to take Dreykoff down. He was a big red mark I didn’t even know was still in my ledger.
Ross: <amazed> The Red Room. Under the radar all these years. I can’t imagine how much damage they’ve done. <sceptical> And you took them down, all on your own.
Nat: I had some help.
Nat: I’m just being humble. It was all me. But now, I need your help to dismantle the rest of it. There’s still a network of human traffickers that Dreykoff used to steal young girls. If they’re not bringing them to him, they’ll sell them elsewhere. <the phone in his breast pocket chirps, distracting Ross, as Nat pulls a handcuff key from her belt> I sent you everything you need to take them down. <Ross opens his phone, begins scanning files, he stops at a picture of one young girl, she reminds him of Betty at that age, he inhales, realising the scope of the damage Dreykoff has done measured not in politics and spycraft, but in human lives>
Ross: What about all the other Widows out there in the wild? They’ve been Dreykoff’s eyes, ears, and weapons all these years. They have to be brought in to face responsibility.
Nat: They were his victims, and now they’re free. You’ll have your hands’ full hunting down the real villains.
Ross: Don’t think this is going to make me go easy on you and your friends. <long pause> You go and save the world when the world wants to lock you up. It’s simply impossible to know whose side you’re on.
Nat: You and I have that in common.
Ross: What is that old saying? You can’t go home again. <sighs as he realises Nat has given him the slip once more, looks down at the picture on the phone again, closes the file, takes a deep breath as he dials Betty’s number, exhaling slowly, he has second thoughts, hanging up before his daughter has a chance to answer>
[Loc: Unnamed safehouse, somewhere in Minsk, Belaruse, 04042017 10pm, MST, GMT-3]
<Melina and Nat exiting a tiny kitchen into a dining-living room, observing a conversation between Alexei and Yelena>
Alexei: <slightly annoyed> Again with the ‘what was real, what was fake’! It was our life. Yes, some things were made up, some things were pretend, but looking back, those three years, with you, Natasha, and your mama, they were the happiest of my life.
Yelena: <turns, looking over the back of the couch at Nat, snarking> Hey! Look at that! We beat out a Siberian prison! <rolls her eyes, turns back to Alexei> What about our trip to Disneyworld for my fifth birthday? That had to be real. Even you had fun. You stood in line for almost an hour just to get Goofy’s autograph. <Nat behind her makes a slashing motion, her eyes wide, shaking her head at Alexei>
Alexei:<totaly oblivious to Nat’s attempts to get him to be quiet> The guy in the Goofy suit was KGB. He was giving me written instructions for the new hidden camera that was in your mouse ears hat.
Yellena: <arms folded, sinking into the couch, scowling> So you letting me wear them the week after for ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day’ was all just part of the ruse?
Alexi: < realising too late his mistake in telling her the truth, grimaces sheepishly> We did have fun that day, though, da? You were SO excited to see where your papa worked. I remember you had just lost your first tooth. You did the little song and dance you made up about the Tooth Fairy for every person we saw in the Institute! <smiles nostalgically at her> It was adorable, and it was real.
Melina: <moves to the sofa, snuggling up to Alexei, changing the subject> I’ve contacted some of the other Widow groups in hiding and warned them to be on alert for those from Ninotchka’s generation.
Nat: <sitting on the arm of the plush chair Yelena occupies> Why specifically her generation?
Melina: The Red Room was always experimenting with different ways to keep control over the Widows. About ten years before me, there was a class that was referred to in whispers only. They were called the ‘Winter Widows’. From the very start, they were put through extreme mental conditioning around age three or four, not like anything you’ve ever seen. Brainwashing, electroconvulsive therapy, trigger commands. They were hyperaware, highly suggestible, wholly loyal and controllable -except when they weren’t.
Yelena: <shudders> What happened? Why did they stop?
Melina: Exposing still evolving adolescent brains to such procedures caused too many adverse effects. Some subjects cognitive functions regressed; others became catatonic and died. Those that survived the procedures developed severe mental instability as they reached puberty. Schizophrenia, heightened aggression, lack of impulse control. The handful that survived to Graduation were reserved for short term assignments. Primarily wetwork. They couldn’t handle infiltration and deep cover. They were precise tools that had to be carefully managed. Eventually, most were put down. The last I knew, there were only four or five of them left.
Nat: Ninotchka seemed to be stable enough to carry out her mission. <shrugs> At least until I confronted her.
Melina: She was the oldest of that class and had the most minor side effects. But make no mistake, she’s still volatile and dangerous.
<a crash and scream is heard from down the hall, all four rise, rushing toward the sound, a bedroom door opens to reveal two young girls about four or five years old in combat with four more girls of approximately the same age observing silently, a ragged, well worn stuffed rabbit with one leg torn off lies on the floor, the girls are vicious and precise in their attacks, one with a bloody nose, the other with a deep scratch above her eye, the one with the bloody nose grabs a pencil from a nightstand, charging her opponent, Yelena’s hand snaps out grabbing the attacker’s wrist in a vicegrip>
Alexei: <roaring> Maja! Adisa! Cease combat! <the girls ignore him, the unrestrained girl lunging for her target, Alexei scoops a bear arm around her waist, picking her up, holding her to his chest> Maja, I said STOP!
Melina: <shoos the other girls out of the crowded room, calling behind them> Ask one of the older sestras to make some popcorn and we’ll all watch Sing together shortly. <turns back to the combatants, hands on her hips> We do not attack our sisters. If there is a problem, we use our words. <squats down to pick up the bunny, looking up at the girls> I see Adisa’s friend here got hurt. Tell me what happened? <the girls stare defiantly for a moment before one speaks>
Maja: Is this a test?
Alexei: <sits down on one of the beds, setting Maja across his lap, closes his eyes, breaths deeply, opens his eyes again, hugging the girl tight> No. No tests, little one. No more tests, no more training, no more fighting.
Yelena: <sits on the other bed, pulling Adisa into a hug> What happened to Bunbu?
Adisa: <staring down at the remnants of the toy in Melina’s hands, her bottom lip quivering> Maja took her away. She wouldn’t give her back and, and <the girl trembles, fighting with every fibre of her being not to cry> She killed her!
Maja: <tears welling in her eyes> I keep dreaming that the bad people are coming to take me again. Maja said that Bunbu keeps them away. <burries her head in Alexei’s chest, stuttering> I, I just wanted a friend like she has.
Alexi: Oh, little one. <cradles Maja, rocking her slowly> You are one of my girls. You are strong and fierce and brave. You can face anything. <looks overtop her head to lock eyes with Nat, who’s leaning quietly against the doorframe, observing> But the bad people are never coming back. Ever.
Melina: <carefuly examines the remains of the stuffed bunny, looks to Adisa, smiling softly> You know, Bunbu isn’t dead. She’s lost a lot of stuffing, and she’ll need surgery to re-attach her leg, but I think she’ll pull through. She’ll need a lot of love while she’s recovering. More than one girl can give. Do you think you and your sister can work together to care for her?
<Adisa looks across the room to Maja, sniffling through her bloody nose, the girls lock eyes, and an unspoken truce is formed, both girls nod, sliding from the adults’ laps to stand facing each other>
Maja: <head hung down> I’m sorry I hurt Bunbu. I just wanted a friend.
Adisa: <hugs her> Bunbu can chase away the bad people for both of us.
Melina: <smiles, rising> Ok, you two, go with Papa and get cleaned up. <she motions Nat and Yelena to follow her into the kitchen, concern wrinkling her forehead> That’s the third fight this week. The girls are restless. They’ve been cooped up in this tiny safe house for six months. We have to find a bigger space. The girls are living two and three to a bed and have nothing to do but watch movies all day.
Yelena: <throws her hands up, rolling her eyes> And, here it comes. The crazy talk.
Melina: <ignoring her, looks at Nat> Papa and I want to go home. Take the girls and go back to Ohio. Give them a normal life. <Nat says nothing>
Yelena: <turning to her sister> THIS is what I needed your help for. They’ve lost their minds.
Melina: We fought so they could be free. So they could live the life denied us.
Yelena: It’s too dangerous. Even if Ninotcha and the other Winter Widows weren’t intent on taking them back. You saw what just happened. What happens when some kindergartener steals their crayons or pushes them on the playground. How will they react when the teacher tries to put them in time out? Eh?
Melina: It won’t be easy, but we will help them adjust.
Yelena: <her voice raising slightly> And Ohio?! You just want to move into our old house in Akron and hope the neighbours don’t recognise you?
Melina: I’m not saying we move back to Akron; maybe we find a small town on the other side of the state, or perhaps another midwest state like Michigan or Indiana. It was a very homey, comfortable place.
Yelena: What would you and papa even do there? Raise your pigs? It’s not like there are many career opportunities for former assassins and spies.
Melina: <hesitates> Maybe, maybe I could become a teacher. Work at the school and keep an eye on the girls. <looks off, wistfully> I always wanted to be an educator in the Red Room, but my research knowledge was more important to Dreykoff. I wanted to share my knowledge and my love of science.
Yelena <softens> I remember we’d catch Lampyridae and Rhopalocera in the backyard. We made wishes on Taraxacum seeds as we blew them off into the wind.
Melina: <crosses to Yelena, rubbing her hands on her arms, letting them slide down to take Yelena’s hands in hers, smiles> You were an excellent student.
Yelena: <turns to a still silent Nat> Well? Come on, poser, what do you think of all this crazy talk?
Nat: <sits down at the table, folding her hands> You’re both right. We can’t keep the girls locked away in a tiny safehouse all their lives. They need an education and a chance to experience the world. They also need to be kept safe. Either way, this place isn’t a long term option.
Melina: We have the access codes to all of Dreykoff’s funds. You have contacts that could facilitate us slipping into the States.
Nat: That’s going to take time, and most of the contacts I haven’t burned are wrapped up in other projects. But I can send out some feelers to a couple, see what it would take. This is bigger than just one group though. Every Widow group sheltering girls will need to have the same opportunities to blend into wherever they choose to settle.
Yelena: <scoffing> So, what, we just going to start up an international organization to rehabilitate Widows?
Nat: <ponders> Actually, <punches her sister affectionately in the arm> that’s not a bad idea. A ‘charity’ for displaced and abused girls.
Melina: <nods> If you could find a way to legitimize it, we could funnel funds to every Widow group. Set them up as orphanages and foster homes.
<in the background girls can be heard in the next room giggling and happily singing along to their movie>
Nat: I’ll make some calls tomorrow. In the meantime, <points to Yelena> tell me about the facility you found.
Yelena: Old, dusty, abandoned. What do you want? There wasn’t a realtor handy to answer questions. <Nat glares impatiently> Ok, ok. It’s about an hour drive from here. Surrounded by crappy rusted metal fencing that’s not gonna keep anyone out if they want in. I checked the perimeter for any surveillance equipment just in case it wasn’t as abandoned as it’s meant to look.
Yelena: Nothing. Entrances are all crappy ancient locks. There’s a breach in the lower west wall of the boiler room. Evidence of a firefight there. I counted the remains of one American, one prisoner, and seven Russian soldiers.
Nat: <shakes her head> Only one American? Those numbers seem off. Especially if it was a Red Room training facility.
Yelena: I didn’t see any signs of Widows involved in the fight. They may have had some notice beforehand. Evacuate the school and leave expendable soldiers to lie in wait for the Americans.
Nat: Eh, plausible, but still feels like there’s a missing piece to the story. What about the rest of the building?
Yelena: The school rooms looked more like American classrooms than the ones we were trained in. Quaint but old like everything else. The maps only had 48 states, the presidents pictured on the walls only went up to Truman, and they had an old school movie projector with the film reels. <reminiscing> Like Mrs Peterman’s room, but without the fun touches like the helper board and the Show & Tell calendar. <slumps in her chair, arms crossed, scowls slightly> It was supposed to be my turn for show and tell the day after we left Ohio.
Melina: <ignoring her pout> Hm. That sets a time range of 1945-53. After WW2, the early Cold War. Did you explore the entire compound?
Yelena: <sits back up> I checked out all the buildings, but focused on the main one. <grabs a piece of paper and pen, beginning to sketch the layout as she talks> Past the boiler room there was a corridor with cells. All empty and sealed except one with the lock shot through -that one had a bunch of books and papers scattered on the floor.
Nat: Sounds like the Americans were there to rescue someone. They might not even have known they had stumbled into a Red Room training facility.
Melina: Unlucky for them. <Nat nods>
Yelena: <continues sketching> The ground floor layout was basically like any old money private school. There were multiple classrooms, a bland dining area of plain tables with benches, an old fashion industrial kitchen, what looked like maybe a staff lounge, and what I figure must have been the headmistresses office. Upstairs there was a very basic dorm, just footlockers and beds. I found the remains of another American in the dorm. The creepy part was the handcuffs on each bed.
Nat: <unsurprised> It was the Red Room. Would you expect any less? Probably easier to maintain dominance over the girls back then.
Yelena: Still, <shudders> ugh. There was a communal shower/toilet area, staff sleeping rooms, and of course, a dance studio. Looks like the studio might also have been used for gymnastics too.
Melina: They probably had the girls up before sunrise doing plies and sautes. In my day, it was three hours of practice before breakfast.
Nat: We had two-hour sessions, and then another two of hand to hand combat.
Yelena: <turns to Melina> That’s why I make a point of sleeping in now. <grins at Nat> Wake me before 7am, there had better be blood, fire, or coffee.
Nat: <laughs wholeheartedly, rocking in her chair> I’ll try to remember that.
Adisa: <from the other room> Papa! Mama says we share the popcorn on movie night! <Alexi can be heard grudgingly agreeing with a crunchy mumble>
Yelena: <returning to her sketch> There was a courtyard in the centre of the building, overgrown of course, but still very pretty in the snow. I’m not sure what it was used for. Did they allow the girls downtime back then maybe?
Melina: <shakes her head> Unlikely. Ridgid scheduling of all waking hours has always been a part of the program. The open space was probably used for basic callisthenics and combat training.
Yelena: Makes sense, I guess. <taps the pen on the table a few times, recalling> That’s all of the main building. There were some support buildings on the perimeter. A large garage with some rusted out military jeeps. A warehouse with what I assume were supplies. I didn’t open any crates. They could be anything from rotted food to antique weapons. The creepiest building was on the far edge of the compound. It looked like a medical lab or an infirmary, but it had a crematorium furnace. I didn’t look inside. <shaking slightly> I couldn’t.
Nat: <inhales deeply, her lips pressed tight together, her eyes full of sadness, exhales> Girls who didn’t pass their training.
Melina: <trying to stay clinical and detached, despite her watering eyes> Easier to just burn the bodies than dig a grave for each one.
<the three women sit around the table in silence, when suddenly Maja comes bouncing into the room, tugging on Nat’s arm>
Maja: You’re missing the concert! It’s the best part! <the three of them smile, setting aside their conversating for the moment, joining the girls in the packed living room, Alexi at the centre of the couch, two little ones on either side of him, snaking popcorn from the bowl in his lap, the older girls in chairs or on the floor Yelena and Nat softly singing along with them>
Yelena: Don’t you know I’m still standing better than I ever did? Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid. I’m still standing after all this time.
Nat: <watching the simple family moment with a lightness in her heart, sings along as well> This is my big hello, I’m here and never letting go. I can finally see, it’s not just a dream when you set it all free.
<the movie concludes, and Alexi ushers the girls to get ready for bed despite loud protests, the older girls help him to scoot them off, while Melina, Nat and Yelena return to the kitchen to resume their planning>
Nat: Four of us can head out early tomorrow to check out the facility. <Yelena groans> AFTER coffee. <Yelena nods> If there’s still no sign of any surveillance there, we’ll split up into pairs and explore the facility. I don’t know if we’ll be able to convert it into a safe space, but I definitely want to check it out.
Melina: Someone should stay here with the girls. I trust them, and the older ones can handle themselves, but with Ninotchka out there, I just don’t want to leave them alone.
Yelena: <puts a hand upon Melina’s> It’s ok, Mama. We understand. Sonya can come with us. She’s good. <looks Nat in the eye> She was almost ready for Graduation if we hadn’t stopped Dreykoff.
Nat: <whispers> Jesus.
Yelena: Yeah. <pauses> I really want this place to work out. We need to establish a stable base. The sooner we do that, the sooner Mom can work on more of the cure, and I can find and free more of our sisters. Then, after we save the day, maybe you take me to NYC, show me the sights?
Nat: <grins, laughing> You are such a tourist.
Yelena: <grinning back, her eyes teasing> And you’re still a poser.
<at the top of the stairs, Alexi can be heard talking to the girls>
Alexi: All my girls, you get good night’s sleep and dream big dreams! <he thumps his way down the stairs and into the kitchen, points at Nat and Yelena> That goes for you two, too. Natasha, you’re going to have to share a room with Yelena. <smiles at them> Will be just like when you were little, ya?
Nat: <still in a teasing mood, looks at her sister> Depends, does she still wet the bed and cry at thunderstorms?
Yelena: <rises in a mock huff, throwing an oven mitt at her sister> That’s it! No leftovers for you! <grabs a pot off the stove, shovelling forkfuls of mac and cheese into her mouth, mumbling> Mmm! So good! <shaking the pot, holding it out toward Nat before pulling it back to grab another forkful> Too bad Natasha doesn’t get any!
Nat: <sticks her tongue out, making a raspberry noise> Love you too, brat. Let’s get some sleep.
Notes from Peg’s Desk
Wow, I didn’t expect this side story to be as large as it’s turning out to be, so we’re going to break it into two parts. The opening is part of a deleted scene from the Black Widow movie, though sending Ross after the human traffickers and the bit about Betty are my own. Next episode we’ll dive into some Red Room history as we explore the old training facility in Maryina Horka. After that, we’ll swing back and reconnect with what the rest of our friends(and foes) are up to. Hope everyone is safe and healthy and enjoying their holiday season! Until next time,