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Where did betrayal start? In the head or in the heart? That was a line from something, he knew. Something his sister would know – real and fabricated.

Simone would have been amused to know that he’d transformed her into his sister upon her death. She would have smirked and shook her head: “Sometimes, Michael, I wonder exactly how you climbed that ladder so fast when I know the only person you’ve been sleeping with is me.” Then she’d cup his big face in her narrow hand and kiss him, soft, sweet, a nip on the end: “Or at least you had better.”

Or she’d pinch him like they were grade-schoolers who didn’t yet know how to express affection: “Cool is not just work related, Michael. Cool is seven days, twenty-four hours, always on the job unflappable. Sister… Birkoff could’ve done better.”

He could have. But Elena had believed him – had let him get away with a piss poor lie, more likely. She had been there, watched, as he had slipped softly and irrevocably into grief and despair. Simone’s death had left no room for stages. He had had no use for euphemism.

“Dead, Michael. Just dead.” He could hear her. Not talking about herself at the time: a teammate lost and him trying to tell her that Ngemi was “gone.” “When people are ‘gone’ in Section, they’re ‘gone’ on a mission. In here the only choices are cancelled or dead.”

Options he hadn’t had with Elena at their home. He hadn’t been ready for the idea that one day she would be gone. Dead. Tried to compress it into something flat and shelveable.

Like Nikita.

He was watching her sleep. Because he could. Because it fit spaces of the mission profile spec. It was the kind of thing he had been compelled to do with Simone.

Simone who would have been elfin compared to Nikita. And, yet, even in her sleep she had been more—

They were different.

Somehow he had managed not to do this with Elena. To Elena. He didn’t compare his wife to his material. And he hadn’t compared his wife to his…“sister.”

He had asked her once what she meant by “cool,” not understanding how the American idiom fit their situation. She had looked around, perhaps for help or divine guidance, her head going from side to side as her hands landed on canted hips: “Cool,” she’d said eventually. “Chill…placidness, unflappability.” She’d looked around again, her hands moving too: “Detachment.  Not unenthusiastic, non-enthusiastic.  It just is. 


Simone had taught him to disengage. Had taught him the art of it. But mastery had come from different tutelage. From losing her.

Simone had taught him. Living a lie with Elena had been his practical.

When had he last thought of Simone? He tried to remember the day, the hour – the name of the month. When had her name, her eyes, her scowl stopped being the parts of an entity that he had almost been able to touch? He used to be able to count the hours between one thought and the other. He used to recite the intervals between one cleansing breath and the next, between squeezing the trigger and its kick against his shoulder.

Like this thing unfurling itself between him and Nikita, it must have been slow. And he wonders then, as this realization stumbles over him, what would have happened if Nikita had never come.

If Amana had survived.

If there hadn’t been any material at all.

There had been moments…with Elena…

Michael reached out and brushed hair drifting across Nikita’s face. He forced himself not to wonder, not to wish, not to think. Detach.


Simone had taught him that.