The door of the cell closed behind her with a clang, the sound almost startling in the quiet, and the girl winced imperceptibly.
The metal door was heavy enough that its closure had left the cell vibrating faintly in its wake, and the sensation had traveled up her legs, sending small spikes of pain through her side.
She grit her teeth against it and walked over to her bunk.
Sitting down, she leaned back against the wall and let her eyes close as she took a few deep breaths, testing both her tolerance for the pain and the stability of her ribs. She didn’t think they were cracked any worse than they had been before, but after tonight’s sparring session, they ached.
The match had lasted well over an hour.
It wasn’t the longest she had fought by any means, but her opponent had inevitably realized that she was favoring her right side and made that the focus of her attacks. The other trainee had never actually succeeded in landing a direct hit, but the prolonged defense had taken a toll of its own, and over time, the dull, steady throb the girl had been ignoring had turned into something sharper and more insistent.
It was tempting to lay down now, to take advantage of the privacy the cells offered - after all, her meeting with the Polkovnik made her fairly certain that she wasn’t being observed. He would not have ordered her to report to him daily if he could simply monitor the cells for himself.
But, weakness was weakness, and even if no one else would ever know, she would.
In any case, she couldn’t risk falling asleep; the guards would return with Clint soon, and it was the first night of her assignment. She would need to be alert.
The girl’s eyes opened at that thought, and she stared at the door of her cell for a long moment.
She could not place the feeling that suddenly rose inside of her, did not have a name to describe it, but she clamped down on it nonetheless, and pushed it away. She had been given her orders, and she would obey them.
She had no choice.
Clint would understand that someday…perhaps someday soon, if the Polkovnik was to be believed.
Wrapping one arm around her torso for support, the girl drew her legs up on the bunk and waited.
She didn’t need to wait long.
The sound of a scuffle down the corridor announced Clint’s arrival, the now-familiar shouts and curses reaching her first. The noise grew louder until at last she could see the guards through the small opening in her cell.
She frowned when she realized that she could see Clint as well; the guards had succeeded in forcing him upright, and his arms were locked behind him in what she knew to be a painful hold. Clint tried to twist away, but the guards simply tightened their grip, and Clint flinched, curling in on himself a little as they dragged him forward.
Her frown deepened when the guards opened Clint’s cell and pushed him inside. He landed on the floor with a grunt, and even after the door had closed and the guards had left, a minute passed before she heard Clint move again, slowly easing his way across the concrete, towards his bunk.
He was silent long enough that she wondered if she should say something, but she had never purposefully initiated their conversations before, and she did not want to make him suspicious.
In the end, he made the decision for her.
“Natasha?” His voice was strained. “You around?”
It was the first time he had called her by the name he had given her, but answering to it was surprisingly easy. “I’m here.”
He huffed softly, the sound tinged with something like relief. “Thought maybe they’d moved you somewhere else.”
“They didn’t.” It might have been better for him if they had.
She heard him shift again, his breath hitching, and she turned to stare at the wall adjoining his cell, brow furrowed.
It wasn’t until the words had left her lips that she realized how similar they were to the ones he’d spoken that morning.
Fabric rustled in what she assumed was a shrug. “I’ve had worse.”
If he hadn’t said that so quietly, she might have believed that he was trying to impress her.
Her head tilted, eyes narrowing in thought. She couldn’t help but wonder when he’d “had worse,” and how that fit with the picture he had painted of the circus the night before. It was possible that he was referring to something that had occurred in the Red Room, but that didn’t seem likely - the Polkovnik had made it clear that he was not to be seriously harmed. So, chances were, he was to referring to something else.
She wanted to know what he meant, if only because knowing more about his past might influence how she dealt with him, but something in his tone had given her the sense that he would not appreciate her questioning.
That left her uncertain.
She couldn’t afford to offend Clint, not if she wished to make any progress. Yet, she could not seem callous either - if he believed that she was genuinely concerned, he would be more likely to view her as an ally.
She settled for what she hoped was a middle ground. “How were you injured?”
“Today, you mean?”
“They made me run an obstacle course. Fired shots at me to keep me going. It worked until I realized they were using blanks, and stopped halfway through. They didn’t like that much.”
No, she thought. They wouldn’t.
“What about you? How’d you get hurt? You said something about training this morning.”
He sounded curious…she supposed that was expected. She never had answered him earlier. Now she could.
“I was sparring.”
“One of the others.”
“The others?” His bunk creaked as he sat up. “How many are in here?”
“I don’t know.”
That was the truth. Interaction between trainees was carefully controlled, and even then, they were never allowed to meet in large numbers. She guessed that there had been close to a dozen in her age group once, but she had no way of knowing how many were left. Members of various other groups were scattered around the facility, some younger and some older, and some trainees were in the field, deployed on long-term, deep-cover missions. Others still, like Clint, were brought in independently. Tracking anyone…the few individuals she could remember…was impossible.
Apparently, that wasn’t the answer Clint had hoped for because he made a low, pained sound as he stood, and she heard him start to pace, taking a few short, restless steps in his cell. That same frustration was just as evident when he spoke.
“What do they want from us? You said they want me because I’m good with my bow, but all they do is run tests.”
“Yeah. They keep taking blood samples and sending me through scanners. I’m always strapped down for that. Sometimes, like today, they have me do other things…endurance tests, I guess. I don’t know what they’re looking for.”
She did. At least, she could guess. They were evaluating him…trying to determine the extent of his current abilities. It made sense, given what the Polkovnik had said.
Clint seemed to know what her silence meant. “Can you tell me anything?”
This was it, the moment she needed.
It had come more quickly than she’d expected. She should have been pleased.
“I…I could be punished,” she said at last, the words strangely sour in her mouth.
Clint sighed, the sound softer, more solemn. “I know.”
She didn’t doubt that. Even being treated as he was, Clint had seen enough to guess that inside these walls, punishment was not something to be dismissed.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble,” he continued. “I just…”
He trailed off, letting the sentence hang. Fabric rustled and his boots scraped along the concrete; this was followed by the sound of cloth sliding against metal - he’d sat down again, she realized, not on his bunk this time, but on the floor. Judging by the nearness of the sounds, he’d chosen the corner closest to her - she wondered if that had been an unconscious choice or a deliberate one.
She heard a quiet exhale, but Clint didn’t speak, not right away. It was almost a surprise when he did.
“I have a brother.”
She looked up sharply, caught off-guard both by the comment and the sudden roughness of Clint’s voice.
“His name’s Barney. A couple weeks ago, he told me to meet in him the supply tent after the show. ’Figured it was a little weird, but I didn’t really think much about it, you know? But when I got there, Barney wasn’t alone. These guys were with him. Soldiers, I think. They jumped me. Barney, he just…he didn’t…”
Clint’s voice cracked faintly, and silence fell once again.
“I’m pretty sure they drugged me,” he said at last, picking up his narrative as though it had never stopped. “That part…that part’s kind of hazy. But when I woke up, I was here. So, Barney’s gotta be the one who…” Clint drew a harsh breath and pushed on. “He set me up. I don’t know what he got out of it. But, I just keep thinking, maybe, if I know more about this place, I can figure out why he…”
She heard Clint swallow, heard him fighting to keep control of the emotions which were so obviously close to the surface.
Understanding that he needed time, she let the quiet linger.
Almost against her will, her gaze drifted to her hands, one of which was still bracing her ribs, the other of which rested in her lap. Her fingers curled. She remembered the man she had been ordered to eliminate…the one who had contacted the Polkovnik through the Bratva.
She hadn’t known who her target was then - it hadn’t mattered.
But it did complicate things. Should she tell Clint that his brother was dead? She dismissed the thought quickly. She wasn’t certain how Clint would react, if he would take satisfaction from that knowledge, or blame her for her part in the events.
Would he be right to blame her?
Her part in the mission had been minimal - “wet work,” as the Americans sometimes said. She had not been directly involved with Clint’s acquisition. But she had been there, nonetheless. She had killed his brother, even if his brother had brought it upon himself.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally, uncertain if she had offered the apology because it matched the image she needed to project, or because she felt as though she needed to give it.
In any event, an apology would not be enough. After what Clint had told her, he would expect more, and she had an assignment to complete. She sighed, pretending to relent - she could not seem too eager to reveal the details of the program.
“I will tell you what I can,” she promised quietly. “But no one must know.”
“I won’t say anything.”
Clint meant that. She almost wished that he hadn’t.
Closing her eyes and ignoring the pain from her ribs, she drew a deep breath and began. “It is called the Red Room.”