Forget Me Not
Her eyes opened slowly.
At first, she simply stared straight ahead, unseeing. But, gradually, the shapes in view began to make sense and she realized that she had been returned to her cell. She was laying on her bunk, her feet dangling over one end, a spring digging into her back. She shifted slightly, hoping to dislodge it, but her vision swam in response, and she let her eyes slip closed once more.
For a moment, she was tempted to simply fall back into the realm between waking and sleeping, to drift in that half-aware state. But, inevitably, the questions came.
What had they done to her mind? What was different? What had they changed?
She felt a brief moment of panic, but quickly suppressed it and drew a deep breath instead, forcing herself to take stock, calling up memories one by one.
It should have been a relief that nothing seemed out of place, but it wasn’t. If nothing appeared to have changed, it was only because she couldn’t see the new memories for what they were - they seemed to have always belonged to her.
She swallowed again, her fingers digging into the gray blanket covering her bunk.
A soft groan startled her and her eyes opened, finding the wall of her cell.
His name sounded in her mind with surprising ease.
There was another groan, followed by a grunt of effort, and then the sounds of retching.
She grimaced faintly. “Moving will make it worse,” she offered.
“Yeah,” Clint agreed, his voice strained.
He didn’t say anything else, and she didn’t press him.
She wasn’t certain how much time passed, but gradually, the dizziness she felt reached a more tolerable level. Drawing one last deep breath, she slowly rose to a sitting position. At first, the world seemed to waver, but that passed quickly, and she judged it safe enough to remain upright.
Clint must have had a similar thought because there was rustling in his cell, but a low sound of pain followed and she frowned.
“Headache,” he managed. He swallowed thickly. “Tried to walk the tightrope once and fell off. Hit the net wrong and landed on my head. Feels kind of like that.”
Her frown deepened. Mission preparation was never pleasant, but her own pain was not usually that intense. Though, she realized, it was possible that she had developed a sort of tolerance for it. Clint did not have that advantage.
She sighed softly. “My mother always drank peppermint tea when she had a headache. She said it was an old remedy.”
“Your mother?” For a moment, the pain in Clint’s voice was replaced with confusion. “You made it sound like you couldn’t remember your family.”
She opened her mouth to disagree, then quickly closed it again, realization settling in her chest like a heavy weight.
“I can’t,” she said at last.
“They can make you forget,” she responded curtly. “They can also make you remember things that aren’t real.”
But was that actually the case? Were these new memories completely false, or had they once belonged to someone else? Another trainee, perhaps? Could it be that at some point, another girl in the program had remembered the life that would have belonged to Natalia Alinova Romanova?
Her jaw clenched and she forced the thought away - she could not consider that now.
Clint, for his part, was silent; she was certain, somehow, that he was doing precisely what she had done, searching through his memories, looking for gaps, for inconsistencies.
“I don’t think there’s…” he said finally, trailing off. “I mean, there’s nothing…nothing new, or missing. I would know.”
“Would you?” she challenged, frustration making her voice sharp.
He had no answer for that, and she released a breath, letting her eyes close once more.
Frustration, anger - they are a distraction, a waste of energy. They will only cloud your judgment.
The words flitted through her mind unbidden, and one hand curled into a fist in her lap.
Training…that always remained. No matter what they did, no matter which life she believed she had lived, it never left her.
What would remain in Clint’s mind, when they were finished?
Her eyes opened and found his cell once more.
He had seen her false memories for what they were. Maybe she could do the same for him.
“Tell me about the circus,” she said suddenly.
She could imagine the look that must have crossed his face.
“But I already-”
“Tell me again. Everything you can remember.”
There was long pause, but he must have realized why she was asking, because finally, he sighed.
“I started as a roustabout. I wasn’t much of a roustabout at ten, I guess - couldn’t pick up much more than an empty crate. Anna always says I was so skinny that I’d have blown away in a strong wind…”
She blinked and wondered distantly how long she’d been staring up at the ceiling.
It was strange…she remembered falling asleep to the sound of Clint’s voice the night before, images of the circus playing in her mind’s eye. She remembered the morning too, when the guards had arrived to take them away again.
But she didn’t remember the procedure itself. She didn’t remember waking from it.
“Natasha?” Clint asked again.
A frown flickered over her features. Natasha? Why would he…?
Her fingers curled into a fist until her nails bit into her palm. Natasha. That was what Clint had always called her, not…not Anja. Anja. It had been her grandmother’s name too. She’d never met her grandmother, but her mother had told her so many stories-
He sounded worried.
“I’m fine,” she managed at last.
“Right,” he agreed.
His voice was thick, strained, and that made her frown deepen.
“You still have a headache.”
It hadn’t been a question, but he answered nonetheless.
She heard him swallow.
“I had a costume,” he said suddenly, and it took her a moment to realize that he was picking up their conversation about the circus.
She almost stopped him - if his headache was worse, as it seemed to be, talking would hardly improve it. But there was a faint, desperate edge to his words, one she couldn’t help but identify with, and she held her tongue.
“Lily came up with the design, and Anna helped her make it. They wanted me to wear a mask too - it had feathers, ‘cause my stage name was Hawkeye. But I didn’t want the mask getting in my way and messin’ up my shots. Trickshot finally told ’em to listen to me because I was the one with the bow, and it was my call.”
Anja…Natasha closed her eyes and just listened.
This time, consciousness came in fits and starts, awareness slipping through her grasp like water through her fingers. No matter how hard she grasped for it, she couldn’t hold on.
Memories flooded her mind, most passing before she could examine them.
But there was one, a long-ago vacation, that seemed more vivid than the rest. Her papa had wanted a break from the hustle and bustle of Berlin, and brought them all to the wetlands of Spreewald. He rented a small boat there, and they had been enjoying the sights from the river when the boat had come across some unexpected rapids and capsized. Her mama and papa were strong swimmers, and they had been able to fight against the current, but she had been swept downstream before they could reach her.
She hadn’t been in the river for long. Her papa had rescued her before she’d been carried too far. But the shock of cold water, the sensation of the current pulling her under, the absolute helplessness…she felt that way now.
Like she was drowning.
At last, she came up for air.
The floor of her cell swam slowly into focus, and she realized distantly that she was laying on her stomach, her head dangling off the edge of her bunk. Perhaps the guards had been careless when they returned her, or maybe she had been restless before she’d woken.
Either way, the position was uncomfortable, and she sat up slowly. Her head throbbed dully with the movement and she stilled, waiting until the pain faded before she let her eyes drift to the cell beside hers.
The name rang clearly in her mind, though a few of the memories surrounding him seemed hazy, like a dream she could not quite recall. But she remembered enough to know that he usually woke first.
There was no answer.
She shifted on the bunk and called again, louder this time.
At last, there was low groan, followed by a grunt of effort that was cut off by a sharp intake of air; when he spoke, there was an odd breathless quality to his voice that made something stir uneasily in the pit of her stomach.
“Ich bin hier,” she assured.
Clint didn’t respond, and as the moments stretched, it finally dawned on her what she had said.
“I’m here,” she answered again, careful this time, not to slip into German, even if there was something comforting about speaking her native tongue. “How is your headache?”
“That is not what I asked.”
There was another pause, and she wasn’t surprised by the sudden change of topic that followed.
“You ever roller skated?”
“I…” Had she? She remembered a ninth birthday party and a rink, but… “I don’t know.”
“I have. Mark…I mean, Max, one of the clowns…he used roller skates in his act. I got to mess around with them sometimes. Mark was our juggler. He could juggle anything he picked up. Fire was the crowd favorite, ’cause he juggled a set of torches blindfolded. He wasn’t as crazy as this fire eater we had for a while, though. The guy practically guzzled gasoline. He burned down his trailer one night, practicing with hot coals. His name was…was…”
When Clint fell abruptly silent, she didn’t need to ask why.
“Don’t let me forget him.”
The words pulled her back to consciousness, and she blinked once, twice, and then frowned.
“Barney. My brother. Don’t let me forget Barney.”
“Because someday,” Clint said, his voice low, “I’m gonna get out of here. And I’m gonna find him.”
He did not say what he would do when he found his brother, but there was no need.
Bright colors flitted through her mind, oddly vivid though the memories before them seemed faded and tattered. There was distant laughter, voices. A man lying dead at her feet.
For a moment, she considered telling Clint the truth - that revenge was already out of his reach.
But then she thought of that fast moving current, of losing the one thing that seemed to be keeping her from going under completely.
“I won’t let you forget,” she promised instead.
It was a promise she couldn’t possibly keep, but she suspected he already knew that.
When she woke, there was a strange roaring in her ears, like she had just surfaced after a lengthy swim, though she could not say just how long it had been. She sat up and shook her head, then rubbed at her eyes.
Her vision cleared a moment later, and she let her gaze wander around the room.
The steel walls and cement floor were as unremarkable as ever, but she could not shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
Finally, she realized what it was. It was quiet. Too quiet.
There was silence for a moment and then a pained breath, barely loud enough for her to hear.
“Hallo?” she repeated.
After a long moment, a groan came from the cell beside hers.
She frowned, a name on the tip of her tongue, but it slipped away just as she reached for it. She shook her head again, frustrated.
“What is wrong?” she asked instead.
She heard him swallow.
“Headache.” There was a hesitant pause. “What’s your name?”
“Anja. Anja Hitzig.”
“We…we talk, don’t we?”
She nodded even though he couldn’t see it. “Ja.”
“What do we talk about?”
She thought for a long moment. “Zirkus,” she said finally. “The circus.”
“The circus…” Another pause. “I don’t know what to say about it.”
For some reason, his words caused a tight feeling inside her chest.
“Then I will speak instead,” she offered. “My mama is a teacher, und my papa ist ein Geschäftsmann.…a businessman. We lived in Munich until I was seven, but then Papa’s business took us to Berlin…”
Her eyes fluttered open, and she squinted at the light above her. It was uncomfortably bright, though not as bright as another light…the one she could see so clearly in her mind.
Drawing a deep breath, she pushed herself up on the bunk and cautiously swung her legs over the side. The world did not seem to waver, and she breathed a small, relieved sigh, the soft noise seeming almost unnaturally loud in the quiet.
It should not have been quiet, she realized uneasily. But the boy in the cell beside hers hadn’t made a sound.
“Hallo?” she tried.
“Hallo? Warum machen Sie nicht sprechen?”
Still, not a word.
Something tugged at her awareness insistently, and her gaze found the vent at the top of the wall their cells shared. Biting her lip, she measured the distance from the floor to the vent, then standing, she backed up to the other side of the cell and ran, jumping as high as she could. Her fingers caught the edge of the vent, and clung there until she was able to pull herself up to peer into the other cell.
She could see him now.
The boy was sitting in a corner, his back against the metal wall, his arms and legs akimbo as though he’d just been dropped there and hadn’t bothered to move.
He was staring straight ahead, his face entirely blank, his eyes hollow.
That was startling somehow, wrong in a way she couldn’t explain, and she almost lost her grip on the vent. She scrambled quickly to regain it, her foot hitting the wall as she did so, and the sound was enough to finally make the boy look at her.
He blinked and gazed at her for a long moment, his brow wrinkling with something like confusion before he looked away again.
The girl watched him for a moment longer, then reluctantly dropped to the floor and made her way slowly back to her bunk.
It was the footsteps that woke her.
She sat up and watched as the guards passed in front of her cell.
A moment later, she heard the jingling of keys and the release of a lock, followed by the sound of a heavy metal door swinging open.
She heard the boy’s feet scrape against the concrete as he stood. There was a pause, the briefest moment of hesitation. Then he walked from the cell, footsteps echoing as the guards led him down the hall.
A day passed, and he did not return.
Two days later, she was sure that he never would.
Three days later, Anja Hitzig left for Berlin.