The lights flickered on, buzzing briefly, and the girl’s eyes opened instinctively at the noise.
She stared at the metal ceiling for a moment, registering the fact that she was not in the barracks. Memory returned as the last vestiges of sleep faded, and she started to rise from her bunk, but her breath caught as the movement reawakened her injured ribs. She pressed one hand to her side, trying to brace them, and carefully swung her legs over the edge of her bed.
“You are hurt, aren’t you? You never said if you were last night.”
Her eyes flew to the vent in surprise. The boy…Clint…was clinging to the ledge once again, watching her through the metal slats.
She quickly dropped her hand from her side and straightened up, ignoring the pain it caused. “I am fine,” she answered curtly.
To prove it, she stood and walked closer, peering up at him. In the brighter light, she thought she could make out the shadow of a purple bruise along his cheekbone. He glanced away when he noticed her scrutiny.
“One of the guards took a swing at me yesterday.” He released his hold on the ledge, disappearing from sight and landing once more on the concrete below. “What happened to you?”
“Training,” she said simply.
“Training for what?”
She hesitated - she’d offered basic answers the night before, but this was something quite different. The Polkovnik undoubtedly had a reason for keeping Clint ignorant about the program, and she was not certain how to answer his question without giving him information he was not yet meant to have.
That, she knew, could be especially dangerous.
Even if their interaction had gone unnoticed thus far, each time they spoke it became more likely that they would be discovered. And, she could not discount the possibility that Clint was not what he seemed. He could still be acting under orders, trying to lull her into a false sense of security. Though, truthfully, if the program supervisors learned of her defiance, it wouldn’t matter whether Clint’s cooperation was extracted forcefully or offered voluntarily…she would pay the price either way.
She was still trying to decide what to tell him - or if she should tell him anything at all - when the sound of footsteps carried down the corridor. She instantly moved away from the wall adjoining Clint’s cell and stood to attention in front of her bunk.
She kept her face impassive when the door of her cell swung open, but the guard paid her no heed, merely set a tray of food on the cement then closed the door once again. She waited until she was certain that the door would not open a second time, and when she was satisfied that it wouldn’t, she bent to pick the tray up, carried it to her bunk, and sat down.
It was a simple breakfast: a bowl of plain porridge and a slice of rye bread without butter. A nutrient shake served as a beverage, if not an appealing one. She had a very faint memory of refusing to drink something similar - four days without any rations whatsoever had cured her of her fussiness.
She raised the glass to her lips, but froze when an unmistakable sound cut through the silence: the cocking of a gun. The noise was amplified outside in the corridor, echoing oddly.
A frown flickering over her features, she replaced the glass, set the tray on her bunk, and crept forward to the door, keeping low. She stood only when she reached the door itself, and peered outside through the narrow opening. The small window was high enough that she was forced to stand on her toes, and the angle was awkward, but she could make out the profile of one of the guards.
His stance was angry, and his raised arm - the one she assumed was holding a pistol - was pointing directly at the cell next to hers.
It seemed the guards had grown tired of his resistance.
She tensed as the door of the cell was opened, and she heard the scraping of a shoe against the concrete. She could not see Clint, but judging by the sudden silence, he had wisely stopped moving as soon as he’d seen the gun.
The guard sneered in response, and spat a long string of insults in Russian, literally asking for a reason to shoot.
Clint, apparently, did not give him one.
Another guard stepped forward with a tray identical to the one she had been given and slid it across the floor. Once that was complete, the door was quickly shut, and the guards turned to leave.
She ducked out of sight as they passed in front of her cell, but she caught a brief glimpse of the angry guard as he re-holstered his weapon. His jaw was swollen, a dark bruise forming on the left side of his chin.
Perhaps the guard hadn’t been the only one to “take a swing” the night before.
She waited until the guard’s footsteps had faded into the distance, then returned to her bunk and her meal.
She heard movement in cell next to hers, followed by a soft clink, and assumed that Clint had picked up his tray as well, something she had not been certain he would do. He seemed so adamantly uncooperative that she had wondered if he would refuse to eat at all.
“You heard what happened?” Clint asked after a moment.
“I did,” she confirmed.
“First time they’ve pulled a gun on me like that. ’Guess I made ’em mad.” The causal tone was forced, but the note of pride was not. “What’d he say? The guard, I mean.”
She decided that it was best not to translate word for word. She was certain, somehow, that if she did, Clint would find a way to return the insults verbatim.
“He…does not like you,” she answered carefully.
She was surprised, and oddly pleased, when he barked a short laugh.
“Yeah, well, the feeling is mutual.”
She frowned faintly at his response. “Why do you antagonize them?”
In her experience, defiance was more trouble than it was worth. Clint, it seemed, did not agree.
“Maybe they can keep me here,” he answered, his voice suddenly hard, “but I’m not just gonna sit back and take it.”
There was a bitter edge to the words, one that seemed to hint at something deeper than a vendetta against his captors. It made her curious, but asking him about his past would inevitably lead to questions about her own.
She focused on finishing her meal instead, and for once, Clint didn’t seemed inclined to break the silence.
An hour later, the guards returned, though the angry guard was noticeably absent, and this time, their guns remained holstered. They dragged Clint from his cell, fighting, kicking, and cursing yet again.
An hour after that, they came for her.
The girl kept her face impassive as she was led down the corridor, but tension grew in the pit of her stomach when she realized they were traveling in the direction of the Polkovnik’s office. Such meetings were not entirely out of the ordinary - the Polkovnik oversaw a number of missions personally, and he had always seemed have a particular interest in her, though she was uncertain why.
But now, she was sure that he knew…he knew that she had been talking to the boy.
Had her superiors been watching all along?
Or had Clint told them?
A strange, heavy feeling settled in her chest at the thought.
Trust no one.
It was a mantra she had been taught for those rare occasions when she was in the field, cut off from command, but her own, private interpretation was not limited by circumstances.
Clint had somehow succeeded in making her vulnerable nonetheless.
Her expression remained blank when they finally reached the Polkovnik’s office, though her stomach churned unpleasantly as the door swung open to admit her. She half expected to see Clint standing at the Polkovnik’s side as the proud new pupil, but the Polkovnik was alone.
“Вводить,” the Polkovnik said simply. Enter.
She did as he’d ordered, coming to strict attention in front of his desk while the guards took up positions behind her. The Polkovnik scrutinized her for a moment, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, his fingers steepled thoughtfully.
“Вчера вечером, вы сопровождались в клетке,” he began. “Мальчик был помещен в ячейку рядом с вашими.” Last night, you were escorted to a cell. A boy was placed in the cell next to yours.
Her throat tightened at his words, but she nodded sharply, promptly, as was expected of her.
“Имеет это мальчик говорил с вами?” Has this boy spoken to you?
Lying would only make the punishment worse.
“Да, полковник.” Yes, Polkovnik.
The surprise she felt was enough to make her eyes widen, though she was quick to correct her slip; thankfully, the Polkovnik seemed willing enough to overlook it.
“Мальчик доказал…Непримиримой,” he explained. “Мы разместили его с собой в надежде, что он будет рассматривать вас как сверстников и искать вашей компании.” The boy has proven…intransigent. We placed him with you in hopes that he would view you as a peer and seek out your company.
The girl blinked, her mind racing.
The Polkovnik had asked if Clint had spoken to her, but he’d never questioned if the reverse were true. So…perhaps she would not be punished after all.
Relief swept over her abruptly, though this time, the emotion was hidden carefully away, as was the unease that followed it. If the Polkovnik was to be believed, then Clint was exactly what he seemed.
Instead, the deception would be on her part.
It was not the first time she had been used in such a way. Her youth, her gender, they were all tools at the Red Room’s disposal. To those who did not know her or her capabilities, she appeared non-threatening. Innocent.
She hadn’t been either for a very long time.
“Что вы от меня хотите?” What do you want me to do?
The Polkovnik waved a hand. “Скажите ему о программе, что он поверит, вы рискуете себе поделиться. Завоевать его доверие. Тогда, убедить его, что сотрудничество в его интересах.” Tell him about the program, things he will believe you are risking yourself to share. Gain his trust. Then, persuade him that cooperating with us is in his best interests.
She frowned faintly at that - it was a restrained approach, one usually reserved for missions outside of the program’s walls. Inside, they rarely had the need for such subtlety.
As though he’d sensed her thoughts, the Polkovnik clarified:
“Это имеет решающее значение, чтобы он остался нетронутым, но охранники растут нетерпение в связи с его выходки, как и я его сотрудничество не будет необходимости в течение длительного времени, но на данный момент, является предпочтительным. Вы, конечно, докладывать мне ежедневно и сообщить мне о вашем прогрессе.” It is pivotal that he remain intact, but the guards are growing impatient with his antics, as am I. His cooperation will not be necessary for much longer, but for the moment, it is preferable. You will, of course, report to me daily and inform me of your progress.
She gave another nod. “Да, полковник.” Yes, Polkovnik.
Apparently satisfied, the Polkovnik sat back in his chair and motioned towards the door.
“Вы уволены.” You are dismissed.
She turned on her heel, the guards immediately moving into position around her. They did not take her back to her cell but continued down the hallway towards the instruction rooms.
She was not surprised; her new assignment would not interfere with her training.
It did, however, leave her in a position she had not anticipated.
Trust no one.
It was not precisely the lesson the Red Room had intended to teach her, but it was the lesson she had learned.
She simply did not wish to be the one to teach it to Clint.