Natasha rolled her shoulders a couple of times and arched her back, breathing deeply.
Until about two minutes ago, she hadn't realized how sore her shoulders were from hunching and leaning in close to the canvas all night. It was a habit she really should kick, but she honestly didn't see how: when she painted, she would forget about the world outside of the expanse of fabric and palette, and step away hours later to realize her tea's cold, sun has risen, and she needed to pee really badly. There was no helping the way her body took a backseat when she needed to paint.
She dunked the brushes in water and started wiping excess paint off her hands, still deliberately facing away from the easel. Crimson was such a pain in the ass. You put even a speck on the palette, it creeped into all colors, and the turpentine only smudged it on her skin, leaving it tinted--
Dammit, she didn't remember using that much red.
It was a good twenty minutes before she was done cleaning up and came back inside the studio with a grilled cheese sandwich in her paint-covered hand and her eyes closed. She leaned against the worktable and stayed like that for a moment, motionless, ankles crossed and one arm folded across her ribs. Breathing deeply, listening to birds chirping outside, bracing herself for the moment of truth.
She opened her eyes.
It was always a gamble once she stepped away from the painting. It was never like what she envisioned when she started, and never what she saw when she was putting down the finishing touches. Between getting snapped back into reality and fully integrating herself with it, art morphed into surprise or disappointment.
She stared the painting down across the room, through sunlight and particles of dust. Composition, simple. Nothing innovative there - she liked the strong contrast between crimson and cyan (even though she had no idea how she ended up with the latter dominating the painting, when she remembered mixing cold grey when she started), and it was less realistic than most of her oil paintings, veering into cartoon territories. She could dig it, had a Darren Dreamer vibe to it. A stylized-looking girl staring at the viewer in high contrast, that was all there was to this one.
No, there was nothing innovative there, just a decently done painting of a pretty girl, dime-a-dozen, those, and yet...
...and yet sun had fully risen and she could hear cars and people on the street now, and her eyes were still locked on the parted lips and the void behind them.
Quiet knocking on the door snapped her out of this daze, and she closed her eyes again. She felt weird. Like she just had a conversation in a language she didn't understand. She was grateful for the familiar intrusion, and she started shoving the rest of her stale sandwich in her mouth, leaning back and snorting as the knocking intensified. After one last decidedly aggressive bang she heard the rustle of bushes around her house, first further, then closer, until John's head appeared behind her window. Boy, he looked pissed. She raised the last bit of her sandwich in greeting and grinned.
"I don't need your bullshit today," was the first thing he said after she lazily pushed herself away from the table and opened the window. He shoved a newspaper in her arms and leaned inside for emphasis. "Open the goddamn door."
"The patio is unlocked, you dingus."
"Natasha", he sighed and looked at her in his special "half mad, half disappointed" way. He lived under the impression that every dark nook and cranny was overflowing with villains just dying to slip in through every security overlook, that an unlocked door was a death wish. She understood - his work taught him to see death and losses like hers taught her to see colors and opportunities. But it wasn't her job to humor him; she was only his best friend.
He entered the studio a moment later. He looked tired - bags under his eyes, crumpled shirt, but most of all, the slump of his shoulders and his grimy expression, the one that left deep lines around his mouth that wouldn't go away for days, sometimes. He must have had a rough night. A working night. Natasha felt a pang of guilt, and she expressed it in her own special way.
"Brother, you look like shit." He just grumbled at that. "Have you eaten today? I can make you some gri-"
"NO! No, thank you, not necessary." Philistine. "I could go for some coffee, though, if you don't mind." He sighed and combed his fingers through his hair, than looked up at her, looking miserable. "What a night. We got ourselves a bona fide locked room mystery today. A Jane Doe, no ID, nothing in the database. No trace of a break-in, none of struggle, we don't even know the cause of death," he shouted the last sentence over the hissing of the coffee maker. Natasha plopped a cigarette in her mouth and flicked her lighter, mind running a mile a minute. "No external injuries, internal hemmorhage, from what we can tell, but the coroner was no wiser than us. We'd be banking on poison, but poison doesn't make you scream bloody murder, and she was found after a noise complaint, of all things. People could hear her screaming all the way on the street."
"Hrm," Natasha mused through the cigarette, and picked up the cups to carry them back into the studio. John was silent now, apparently mulling over the case, or maybe just too tired to talk.
"Mental illness, maybe? Hallucinations and a weak heart, alcohol or drugs, maybe--" she paused as she entered the room. John wasn't listening. He was staring at the painting, hands in pockets and shoulders rigid. That wasn't normal; usually, she couldn't pay him to look at her art, and the most insight she had ever gotten out of him was a "wow, that must have taken a lot of time". He never looked at art. He never stared at art with clenched teeth and unflinching focus.
"John?" she bumped his shoulder lightly with her forehead. He turned his head to her, and she didn't recognize his expression.
"Who is this?"
"Nobody. I didn't even use reference."
"You mean you don't know her."
"You never met her."
"I don't think there's a she to be met, dumbass."
He reached into his coat's pocket and pulled out a rolled-up envelope, and handed it to Natasha, still looking at her in this new, cold way. "No, not anymore."
Something in Natasha's heart froze. Her hands put down the cups, opened the envelope, and took out polaroid photos, sharply lit photos of dark hair and startling blue eyes and parted lips with no life behind them, and a fading streak of crimson. She closed her eyes, and opened them again, and closed them, and opened them, but photos were not paintings, they stayed the same, and she could read John's expression now.
"Natasha. Please. If you know anything about this girl, you have to tell me."
"Don't look at me like that, this- this is not an accusation. But anything could help. A name. A date. Her family deserves to know."
"Or maybe you mean to tell me you painted the crime scene by accident."
"Yes! Watcher, John, what did you think happened?!"
"I don't know. But I think you know."
"I've never seen this girl in my life, John." Her legs were shaking. And that goddamn portrait was drilling its eyes into her back, she felt its presence as if it were a person sitting quietly and getting off on her panic. She wished it would speak its mind already, join in and offer an explanation, or at least assert her in her hope that it's just a bad trip and that she should never, ever buy weed from Rick Contrary again. But the painting was quiet, and John was quiet, and Natasha was quiet, and she knew that she was in really deep shit.
John didn't press on. He shook his head and left, telling her over his shoulder to stay in town, maybe.
They won't need her after all, maybe.
Or maybe he will come back with slip of paper authorizing him to drag her into an interrogation room, but he will just ask her to come with him on her own, he won't want to use it on her, it's just a formality, it won't take long. And at the Police station they will agree that she had no way of reaching Downtown that night, that she had no obvious motive, they will shake her hand and apologize. And her rivals will whisper about it and be so goddamn jealous of her own scandal, and this painting will pay off her student loans, maybe.
And her best friend will never stop looking at her like she was a stranger.
"Bitch," she said to the portrait pointedly.
A/N: Someone requested a Rainelle/Natasha picture during Femslash February, and I kind of wanted to write a companion piece to it ever since. I wanted to end this on a lighter note, but my fingers slipped onto the drama key, I suppose.