The Red Room Graduation Ceremony.
Long before any of the students ever reached the day, the actual event was one that was hyped beyond belief. The ones old enough to go through the event were always nervous and excited going up to it, eager to become fully fledged agents and to be out into the field. There was also still a lot of secrecy around the tasks though. The graduation ceremonies were only held a few times a year, and on the days they were held, anyone not participating in a ceremony was kept in their dormitories, told to focus on private studies during that time.
Once the ceremony was over, the graduates didn’t talk about what they’d done, and soon after that, they’d leave to join their fellow agents in the field. This didn’t help the rumor mills that circulated from the younger ones. Some of the rumors were pretty close to accurate. A couple were just absurd. The most ridiculous rumor that she’d ever heard from one of the younger children was that they sterilized the agents completely.
Upon hearing that, Vivian had sat that particular trainee down and explained to them that doing an unnecessary, invasive procedure like that would be a waste of time, money, and would put the agent out of commission for weeks before they could then even go out and be an agent. Basically, it was just an all around bad idea that would only ever be implemented by a complete moron.
The truth was that the graduation ceremony was actually pretty tame. The girls were tested on a variety of their skills. Their physical abilities were tested in various ways. Swimming, running, and an obstacle course were pretty standard. They also were tested on various fighting styles to see what ones they’d mastered. On one of the days, they were tested on their numerous language abilities and their acting skills as well. Weapons proficiency and target practice on fake targets needed the utmost accuracy to continue. Those were all standard ones that basically no one in the red room ever failed. By the time they were eighteen, surviving agents could typically perform all of those tasks at peak efficiency. The tests where people could fail were the two tests that were kept closely guarded secrets by both instructors and those who had lived through them.
The first test was an execution. A straightforward prospect that managed to still trip up people. The very last test and the final deciding factor of whether the person graduated was interrogation, namely being able to withstand one without giving away sensitive information.
If they passed all of those tests, the students then received a birth control implant in their arm. That implant needed to be replaced periodically, but there was little to no recovery time associated with the procedure. Plus, if they wanted to have children down the line, all they had to do would be to remove the implant and wait for the hormones to clear out of their system. For the first few years of training, the implant would also have the added benefit of being a tracking device.
Unsurprisingly, Natalia was extraordinarily good at every single one of the tasks placed in front of her. She was faster, stronger, smarter, and just overall better than most of her classmates. In fact, nothing within the tests seemed to phase her. Vivian just watched as the young woman stared down each one and then moved with the grace and precision of a professional twice her age.
“She’s performing even better than we thought she would,” Madame B. praised.
“Thank you, Madame,” Vivian replied. “I’m incredibly proud of her.”
“As you should be. Grateful, as well.”
Glancing over upon hearing that, Vivian frowned, her brow furrowing as she questioned, “What do you mean?”
The expression on her face never changed as Madame B. kept watching the students being tested. There was several minutes of silence, each second ticking by slowly and making Vivian’s skin itch. The silence was on purpose, meant to drive her out of her mind, to test to see if she’d try to ask again, to see if she’d dare question someone in charge.
“Because if she had performed less than perfectly, it would have your head she would have to aim at in order to pass.”
Of course. Bullet to the head. She had a feeling that Pierce had suggested that little idea to Madame B. although probably to just shoot her. It was most likely Madame B. who’d decided to add in the element of making Natalia be the shooter if she failed.
“Good idea,” Vivian replied.
That did prompt Madame B. to turn and look at her, her eyes narrowed. Vivian kept her gaze forward this time and didn’t say anything further. After a moment or two of being stared down, Madame B. focused back on the girls. Natalia had gathered up her things as was heading toward the door. Vivian’s gaze met her pupil’s and she couldn’t help but smile and nod at the girl. The corner of Natalia’s mouth ticked up ever so slightly.
“You are not to speak to her until after her tests are complete,” Madame B. instructed. “You may, of course, observe the tests.”
Nodding, Vivian glanced down at her feet, “Yes, Madame B. Thank you, Madame B.”
Madame B. scoffed, but nodded and then began walking. Vivian followed, keeping a few feet back from her until they reached the next testing room down the hall. Following her into the room, Vivian stared at the chair in the middle of the room, only glancing away as a bound man was pulled into the room. He was limping, his lip was split open, and bruises were scattered across his visible skin. The most notable bruise being the dark bruise covering his nearly swollen shut left eye.
Vivian’s stomach churned as the man gasped in pain as he was forced into the chair and his hands were secured to the chair. A bag was then put over his head and she could see his entire body just trembling . Standing against the back wall, Vivian almost felt bad for this man, but then she felt her concerns slip away as he choked out, “ We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children .”
God, Vivian hated white supremacists. They were garbage, every single one of them, and honestly, Vivian had no qualms about orchestrating their deaths. Part of her wondered if she should care, if she should value their lives, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do so. His whimpering and his hissed pleas went ignored, and she glanced over as the door opened and Natalia entered. She was standing tall, her posture perfect as she kept her gaze forward on the prisoner.
Madame B. walked over and held out a gun. Natalia took it without question and held it up. Madame B. then walked away and announced, “His name is Marcus. Shoot him.”
Immediately the prisoner began trembling more, begging, “Please, no. Don’t. I don’t want to die. Please , I’m begging you. I have a wife. I have family. I don’t deserve to die! I need to—”
The gun firing ended the begging, the man’s head immediately falling forward and the room going completely silent. The hood was removed from his head by a female agent (Vivian didn’t know her name) and the head was pulled back for Madame B. to examine the wound. It was a perfect headshot and the man’s eyes were glassy and dead.
“Good job, Natalia.”
Madame B. then nodded and the three of them headed into the next room where Natalia took a seat. A recent graduate was waiting with a syringe and the ‘truth serum’ drug ready to administer. Natalia remained stoic as it was injected into her veins. Luckily the drug would be out of her system in about a day at the longest. Most students were fine after a nap, but some had more extreme reactions to the drug that meant that they needed a full day of rest.
A few minutes after the drug was injected, Madame B. nodded to the agent (Vivian believed her name was Nadia) and the woman left. Vivian stood back, watching Natalia carefully as Madame B. then demanded, “State your name.”
Natalia stared forward, a smirk on her lips as she replied, “Which one? I have so many.”
“Your real name,” Madame B. insisted.
Natalia sighed, and their gazes met for a moment before Natalia answered easily, “My name is Sasha.”
“Sasha?” Madame B. questioned. “That is not your real name.”
Natalia shrugged, “It’s the name I was born with. Not the most glamorous name, of course, but it doesn’t have to be.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s the truth. My name is Sasha. I’m studying ballet in Saint Petersburg, and I came out here to visit relatives,” Natalia replied, shrugging slightly.
“Which relatives?” Madame B. snapped.
“What’s your aunt’s name?”
“Liar. What’s the real reason you came out here?” Madame B. glared. “Who are you really?”
“You’re right. I’m lying,” Natalia retorted. “I’m not here to visit my aunt.”
Madame B. stood back, looking triumphant and demanding, “Tell me, what is the real reason you are here?”
“My aunt Nadia is a convenient reason to come out here, but really I’m here to visit my friend, Valya. We’re a little…close, you see. Too close,” Natalia said, widening her eyes. “If the government found out, we would both be imprisoned.”
“I don’t believe you,” Madame B. insisted. “Who do you work for?”
“I told you,” Natalia insisted. “I’m a student. I’m just here to visit. I don’t know what jobs you believe I’m doing, but you have the wrong person.”
Madame B. looked agitated, and Vivian was surprised when the woman then turned to her and snarled, “Out.”
Leaving the room as asked, Vivian shut the door behind her and instead watched from behind the glass with the other students, not at all nervous as the interrogation continued for a staggering eight more hours. Periodically Natalia was given breaks to go to the bathroom in a corner, but that slowly began stop. There was no need anyway since no beverages or food of any kind had been provided during the duration of the test. No matter what or how Madame B. asked the questions though, Natalia stuck by her story of being a ballet student named Sasha who left Saint Petersburg to come visit her friend/lover Valya under the guise of visiting her aunt.
Different interrogators were swapped out and the more they interrogated Natalia about her story, the more intricate the whole thing got. She never tripped up on a detail though, miraculously enough. She mentioned around hour three that her aunt Nadia was a schoolteacher and then was able to correctly restate both that and the subject she taught around hour seven when prompted.
Vivian had practiced cover stories with Natalia before, but even she was impressed by the level of detail and dedication that her student had put into hers. Vivian herself had never actually managed to go that deep undercover. Although that was more or less because she’d taken her first foray into subterfuge to be her first act of rebellion and instead became herself. The nameless child agent became Vivian Alana Peshkova. It was her real identity. Everything else was pretend.
Natalia was finally declared a graduate after twelve hours and Vivian watched as she was injected with her implant before a small bandage was placed on her skin. Smiling as Natalia then left the room, Vivian announced, “Seems you passed with flying colors. I knew you would.”
Natalia smiled as well, looking like she was about to say something, but then they both nodded as Madame B. emerged from the room and announced, “You two should go get some rest. You have a long day ahead of you tomorrow.”
“Yes, Madame B.” they both recited.
The two then walked in separate directions and Vivian made it all the way back to her room before she realized upon hearing the door lock that she was going to be able to actually be out in the world again. She was going to be outside and interact with people.
Immediately her breathing labored and she felt a tightness in her chest and throat as she sat back against the cabinets of her kitchen area. Vivian put her head between her knees and forced herself to take deep breaths as she thought of all the new challenges ahead of her. How was she supposed to get back to Bucky? What if someone recognized her as Vivian Peshkova? What if Natalia figured out who she really was and what she was really doing? What if Natalia couldn’t be saved from this life? What if Natalia became a direct threat to keeping Bucky alive?
What if she never got back to Bucky at all?