The blow landed on her side with a crack, one she felt as well as heard.
The girl automatically stifled the cry that rose in her throat and rolled away instead, avoiding her opponent’s next strike. She came up in a crouch, eyes narrowed, ignoring the fierce ache that flared with every breath.
Conquer pain or it will conquer you.
Her opponent circled her, fists raised, her movements calm, predatory. She was one of the older female trainees, pale, with long, brown hair that fell to her mid-back. She towered over the girl by several inches, and she knew how to use her height to her advantage.
But the girl was faster.
She lunged forward suddenly, sweeping her opponent’s legs out from under her with a practiced motion. The older girl grunted as she hit the mat, and the girl leapt on top of her, pinning her there. She raised her elbow to strike at the other girl’s throat, expecting their trainer to call the match before the potentially fatal hit could be delivered.
But the order to stop didn’t come.
Her arm wavered.
The girl stood obediently and turned to face the trainer, her gaze fixed on a point over his shoulder, her expression carefully blank.
She could sense his displeasure before he spoke.
“Вы выиграли матч, но не нанесли смертельный удар. Объясните.” You won the match, but did not make the killing blow. Explain.
“Я не знал, что у меня было разрешение на использование силы со смертельным исходом.” I was not aware that I had permission to use lethal force.
The trainer studied her for a long moment, as though weighing her answer. “На войне ваши противники будут не столь деликатны. Дрогнете и умрёте.” In the field, your opponents will not be so considerate. Hesitate and die.
It was both a critique and a warning, one the girl heard clearly. “Понял.” Understood.
There was a pause as the trainer gave her one last assessing glance and then offered a quick wave of his hand. “Вы уволены.” You are dismissed.
He did not add that she was authorized to visit medical, but the girl was not surprised by the omission. If anything, it was less than she had expected for her failure. As she started for the door, she heard the trainer berating her opponent for her own poor performance during the match - in all likelihood, the older girl would not receive the same leniency she had.
The trainer’s voice grew distant as the girl started down the gray corridor. It was late in the evening, and the few windows she passed were filled only with the night sky, though the base itself was awash with artificial light. The final meal of the day had been provided a few hours before, so the hallways were empty, the rest of the staff and the other trainees finishing the day’s activities elsewhere.
She came to the end of the corridor and turned to the right, headed for the communal showers, the familiar echo of the guard’s footsteps following behind her. But, she was trusted enough that when she arrived at the stalls, they waited outside in the hallway, willing to allow her the luxury of privacy.
She undressed quickly, eager to ease the ache in her side with cool water.
It wasn’t nearly as effective as ice would have been, but by the time her allotted ten minutes were up, it had at least numbed the pain slightly. She paused to examine the injury, running her fingers over the already vivid bruise. In all probability, she had at least one cracked rib, but she had received enough medical training to know that at this point, it was simply painful, not dangerous. She would not have to worry about complications, even if she never received treatment from the base’s doctors.
She combed through her hair, braided it, and changed into a fresh uniform, easing the gray shirt over her head just as the guards opened the door. She stepped out into the hall, careful to keep any surprise from her features when they assumed positions in front of her, and instead of taking her to the barracks, led her in the opposite direction, to the cells.
Unease crept up her spine, but she forced the feeling away. If she had been due further punishment, the trainer would have informed her of that fact, so most likely, this was something else…perhaps preparation for a new mission. Trainees were sometimes separated from the rest of the population before they were sent out, and she hadn’t left the base since returning from America two weeks earlier.
The guards stopped in front of a cell near the end of the corridor, and opened the door, motioning for her to enter. She did so, and the guards closed the door behind her, the hinges screeching loudly.
The sound of their footsteps followed soon after, quieting as they drew further away, until at last, the only noise the girl heard was the sound of her own breathing. Her eyes swept the cell automatically. Like most of the base, the floor was concrete, but the walls were the same thick metal as the door. It was windowless, with only a small opening in the door offering a narrow view of the hallway outside. Vents, several inches high, marked each side of the room, running the length of the walls and circulating the air.
The cell itself was bare, aside from a simple bunk which faced the door, a plain brown blanket covering it. She was tempted to pull the blanket from the bed and cover herself in it - the cell was not terribly warm, and she was still chilled from the shower she had taken. But, even though she saw no cameras, it was still possible that they were watching her somehow, and she knew better than to show any weakness.
She walked steadily across the room and sat down on the bunk, drawing her knees up to her chest, her arms wrapped loosely around them. And so she waited, intending not to lay down until the official call for lights out.
She was startled when she heard noise in corridor - shouting.
She frowned faintly as the noise grew louder, the words becoming more distinct. Whoever was shouting was speaking English, and they were cursing - colorful curses she had yet to learn officially, though one of the guards had thought it amusing to “tutor” her.
A shoe squeaked on the concrete floor, and a string of Russian curses ensued, followed by the familiar sound of flesh hitting flesh. A pained grunt echoed loudly and the yelling quieted, but the rest of noise did not. She did not rise from her bunk, but saw several guards pass in front of her cell, dragging something…someone.
He was still struggling - she could hear by his voice that he was male - but the guards managed to push him into the cell beside hers. They closed the door quickly, the metal reverberating with a clang.
It wasn’t until the guards had left again that she heard a soft groan, and the sound of a body scraping slowly along the concrete floor, finally coming to settle on what was, most likely, a bunk like her own.
A few minutes passed in silence, until the lights of the base flickered once, twice, and then cut out, the signal for sleep.
The girl uncurled her legs and started to stand so that she could slip beneath the blanket on her bed, but she had been still for too long and her side had stiffened. Pain flared with her movement, and she grunted lowly, the noise escaping before she could stop it.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
The girl froze.
The girl did not answer. Unauthorized interaction between members of the program was strictly prohibited and she would not bring wrath down upon her head, even if the boy in the cell beside her was foolish enough to risk it.
She ignored him and set to work on her bunk. Unfortunately, her side protested again, and her sharply indrawn breath was apparently loud enough for him to hear.
“Hey, are you hurt? You…you seem like you could be.”
Her eyes narrowed. Was this a test? It wasn’t out of the question, though it had been some time since her trainers had felt in necessary to gauge her reactions and adherence to protocol. Perhaps her failure during the sparring match had made them suspicious.
If that was the case, she would prove her worth. Her loyalty. She would report this boy in the morning.
“Look,” he began a little louder, loud enough that someone else was likely to hear, “I know you’re there, and I just-”
“Quiet!” she hissed automatically in English…then immediately cursed her lapse. She waited for the guards to appear, to escort her to the Polkovnik for a reprimand, and perhaps worse, but the hallway outside remained empty.
And the boy…the boy continued to talk.
“You speak English.” His voice, now a great deal softer, was a mix of relief and surprise. “I wasn’t sure anybody here did. All I’ve heard is Russian. At last, I’m pretty sure it’s Russian.”
The majority of trainees and staff knew English - it was important, the Polkovnik said, to be familiar with the ways of the enemy. But, if he had ordered that this boy not be spoken to in the language, then she had violated that command as well. She closed her eyes in resignation - so many failures in one day. She would surely be punished now.
“Are you American?” the boy questioned, a note of hope in his voice. “You sound American.”
She opened her eyes to glare at the wall of her cell, the one that adjoined his, already blaming him for what she would have to endure.
“It is easy to sound American,” she boasted, allowing her natural Russian accent to color the words.
She took a sort of vindictive pleasure in the disappointed silence that followed.
It lasted long enough that she wondered if she had quieted him for good and started to work at her bunk once again.
She paused when an odd noise caught her attention; there was a grunt, not pained this time, but full of effort, and she automatically sought the source of the sound. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw it.
The boy had jumped up to grip the small ledge of the vent in his cell, and pulled himself up so that he could peer at her through it. The cells were lit only dimly now, in allowance for the night, but she could make out his silhouette, and his eyes…familiar eyes she knew to be blue-gray, with small flecks of teal, green, and gold.
It was the boy. The one the Polkovnik had taken an interest in, just two weeks before.
The position must have been difficult to hold, because he dropped back to the floor a moment later.
“Look,” he began again, “I get that you probably don’t want to talk to me, that you don’t want to get in trouble or whatever, but you’re the first person I’ve had anything resembling a conversation with, and I just… No one will tell me anything. I don’t know what they want from me. I’m nobody. I’m from Iowa. I’m a carnie, that’s it. It’s not like they can ransom me or something.” His voice took on an odd note. “There’s nobody who’d pay anything to get me back.”
She did not answer immediately, considering her options. The American mission was still vivid in her mind, though she knew it would not always be. In a way, she was surprised that she had been allowed to keep the memories this long. Nonetheless, she still recalled how much she had wished to speak with this boy. She had the chance now, and at this point, if she were punished for it, it was unlikely that answering his questions would make much difference.
“You are…a carnie?” she repeated at last, tasting the unfamiliar word on her tongue, guessing its meaning. “You worked at a circus?”
“Yeah, I do.”
He seemed determined to ignore the past-tense, and she did not try to correct him. He would learn.
“What did you do with the circus?”
“Archery. I do trick shots with my bow.”
“You are good?”
“Yeah. I am.” There was no hint of ego in the answer, just simple confidence, and that, more than the words themselves, told her that he was speaking the truth.
“Then, that is why they want you.”
In all honesty, she was not certain why the Polkovnik would be so impressed by someone skilled with an archaic weapon. Other weapons were far more efficient. But, if he were so effective with a bow, perhaps the Polkovnik felt he would be equally skilled in other areas.
There was a pause before the boy spoke again. “So they…they want to keep me here.”
This time, she did not respond, and that, it seemed, was enough.
“Oh,” he said a moment later, his voice subdued. “Right.”
There was a longer silence, and the girl shook herself, realizing that she had spent several minutes standing over her bed, one corner of the blanket held uselessly in her hand. She pulled it back, but did not lie down, sitting once again instead.
She heard the rustle of fabric, the sound of the boy sitting back down on his own bunk.
“What’s your name?” he wondered.
The question caught her off-guard. She had never been asked that, not here, where she had never been given a name to offer.
Iris Montgomery. Cecilia Fasjovik. Natalie Rushman.
They were the few names she could recall from the missions she had carried out - missions when her mind had been her own. But there was one other name she knew.
Natalia Alinova Romanova.
She had seen it in her medical file once, when the staff hadn’t known she was conscious. She repeated it to herself sometimes, but it never quite seemed to fit - like a coat that was too big, or too small…or perhaps it was a coat tailored for another girl altogether. But, it was hers, not something that been given to her by the Red Room, and for that reason alone, she hid the knowledge away, like she did those brief glimpses of her past.
She would not utter that name inside these walls.
The boy, oddly enough, seemed to understand. “If you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay. How ’bout I call you Natasha? We had some Russian acrobats once, and one of ’em was named Natasha. That’s a good name, right?”
She did not respond, but he apparently took that as assent.
“Natasha it is. I’m Clint.” He scoffed softly. “Wish I could say it’s nice to meet you, but-” she heard him kick the wall of his cell, the sound echoing.
She tensed, but as before, the guards did not appear. Perhaps they were safe after all…perhaps, somehow, their conversation had gone unnoticed.
“I’m gonna get out of here, you know,” the boy - Clint - declared suddenly. “I’m gonna get out of here somehow and go back home. The circus…they want me there. At least I think they do, even if my brot-” She heard him swallow. “I don’t think they knew. I don’t think they knew what he was planning.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant, but no response seemed to be required of her, so she didn’t offer one.
“Maybe you can come with me. You’d like it - they’re good people. They took me an’ my brot-” he faltered again. “They took me in. Anna, especially. She’s always looked after me. She’s psychic. At least, that’s what she says. She tells fortunes. But, you know, she plays the Lotto every week and she never wins.”
He seemed to be talking mostly for himself now, but she let him.
“And Jack, he’s a magician. He taught me how to pick locks, and hustle poker. He was gonna teach me to pick pockets, but Anna wouldn’t let him…said it was a sure-fire way to get me sent to juvie. Rick and his wife Janie, they do the high wire act…”
His voice washed over her as she finally lay down on her bunk, pulling the blanket up, and closing her eyes against the pain from her ribs. She tried to ignore it and let herself be carried away by his words, her mind filled with the sights and sounds she remembered from the mission, his details painting a fuller picture.
By the time she fell asleep, her ribs had ceased to hurt at all.