Section One’s first test was simple, but it was never easy.
It happened in a dark, empty corridor near Van Access, alone in Comm. at 3 AM, or in the shooting range behind Munitions after all firearms had been carefully secured. The location didn’t matter, only that the material was isolated, vulnerable, and with someone they had begun to trust. Sometimes it was an operative posing as a fellow trainee, or a Valentine Op who’d been working them for weeks, but most often, it was their trainer who administered the test. And it was never done the same way twice.
Tonight, Michael had chosen the dojo. The evening’s classes had concluded, and as he strode up to the caged-in area, only one errant student remained: Nikita. Her slender, camo-clad leg battered the ribs of a rubber masculine torso in a steady rhythm, with enough force that the sound of the impact almost masked the curse she muttered under her breath.
The sensei had, as directed, found some small fault in her technique and punished her with a set of fifty kicks before she could go, giving everyone else time to clear out. Even if she was tempted to stop and pretend she’d finished, she’d been shown the camera overhead and knew that someone would be watching. In Section, someone was always watching.
“You’re off by half an inch,” he said from the doorway. Direct. Non-judgemental. Even helpful, in his own way, though she rarely seemed to appreciate his advice. He couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t like she had a choice – and it was time she learned to accept that. It was the only way she’d survive.
“Higher or lower?” she asked through gritted teeth, giving it one last failed try, and paused her set to smooth over the unruly wisps of blonde hair escaping from her ponytail.
Michael approached the mat and silently came up behind her. Before she could react, he bent and grasped the underside of her knee, pushing her off balance, and she caught herself on his shoulder as he lifted her leg, rotating it until her foot connected with the incorrect mark she’d been hitting. She moved with him, shifting her hips to stay upright, and shot him a now-familiar glance – one part anger, one part curiosity, all Nikita.
“Lower.” His hand slid down to grip her bare calf, adjusting her placement. “Here.”
He kept her there a moment, holding her indignant stare with an impassive gaze, and studied her beautiful blue eyes as he swept the pad of his thumb over her ankle. Her pupils dilated, lips parting in an unspoken question, but before he could claim victory, her jaw set in annoyance. Too soon. He’d have to try a different approach.
Slowly, he let go, nodding for her to continue, and stepped back. Nikita attacked the dummy with renewed fury, striking a blow that would make most men wince, and the possibility that he was now her imagined target didn’t elude him. He’d make use of that.
“Good,” he said. “Now, me.”
She turned, hands on her hips as she looked him over. “You?”
His black suit wasn’t optimal for hand-to-hand combat, but Nikita would learn soon enough that operatives were expected to perform under any circumstance. In the coming months, she’d be taught to fight wearing stilettos, paramilitary gear, or nothing at all. Clothes or lack thereof couldn’t compromise an operative’s effectiveness, and besides, he couldn’t remove his blazer even if he wanted to.
That’s where he’d hidden the gun.
“Yes,” he replied.
With a shrug, she settled into the stance she’d been taught – fists up, knees bent, one foot back. Rudimentary, but adequate for now. Michael’s own style was deceptively at ease, open hands slightly raised and body neutral, perfectly balanced. To the untrained eye, his deliberate movements made him look slow, maybe even weak. It wasn’t until he struck that his opponents realized their mistake. By then, it was too late.
But this time, Nikita needed to be the aggressor, so he beckoned her forward. He listened to her deep breaths, studied her tall yet slight frame for signs of tension, but most of all, he focused on her eyes. She was unsure of herself, trying too hard to emulate the calm demeanor of her target, and telegraphed her first move before she’d even decided to make it.
He batted her foot away, throwing her off balance again, but didn’t take advantage of the opening; that would come later. She huffed and recovered, sinking lower, and tried again. Not even close. He’d have to help her focus.
“How has your day been?” he asked, circling around her. He wasn’t sure if the confusion on her face was due to the candidness of the question, or the fact that it had been in German.
“Long,” she replied after a moment. Whether the delay was in deciding on an answer or searching for the right foreign word, he couldn’t quite tell, and it didn't matter. Communication was only ten percent verbal; by learning to read his movements instead of listening to his voice, she’d be able to block out any distraction.
“What did you do today?”
“Sleep. Wash,” she answered, punctuating each word with an easily-avoided blow. “Food. Fight.”
He nodded. It had only been a few weeks since lessons in her assigned secondary language had begun; if he pushed her, he wouldn’t get more than a few fragmented sentences. He’d try the exercise in German again in a month or so. In any case, French was more pertinent.
“Que vas-tu faire demain?” What will you do tomorrow?
Her eyes lit up at hearing him speak in his mother tongue. It was a rare occurrence inside Section, given that the majority of their personnel were from English-speaking countries and preferred their default. She’d have to learn his native language fluently herself before long, though she wouldn’t understand why until she’d finished her training. Only graduated operatives ever got to see Paris beyond these walls.
“Tu dècides,” she replied. You decide. An awkward, literal translation, but at least the anger behind it gave her focus. She feinted to the left and kicked from the right, at last aiming true.
He caught her foot in mid-strike. “Oui.”
With a flick of his wrist, she was flat on her back, groaning, but she’d fallen safely; her limited training had already begun to take over. He watched the beads of sweat drip down her hairline, her lips panting, her glare defiant as ever. But even his rebellious material knew when she’d been bested, stretching out and waiting for his command to get back on her feet. Instead, he knelt beside her.
“Rest for a minute,” he said.
He allowed himself the ghost of a smile, as if pleased with her progress, and in truth, he was. But Operations and Madeline weren’t as impressed. Her numbers were low, not because she couldn’t perform well – her ingenuity and resilience more than made up for her educational deficiencies – but because she refused to take anything seriously, even when she’d been told it was a matter of life and death. It was time to show her that was no idle threat.
Nikita’s eyes closed, grateful for the reprieve, and Michael reached for the sleek black handgun behind his back. Any operative would have detected it the moment he entered the dojo, either from its subtle outline beneath his blazer or how its weight slightly altered his movements, and would never have let down their guard. But Nikita hadn’t yet learned that no one could ever be trusted, least of all those who appeared to be friends. This was the lesson. This was the test.
He gripped the smooth metal handle, as familiar to him as his own hand. The safety pulled back with a subtle click, so quiet even he barely heard it, and Nikita certainly didn’t. His finger rested on the trigger, and he saw his next move in his mind’s eye as clearly as he watched his target’s prone body before him. Trusting. Helpless. Free.
Wherever her mind had wandered, it was far away, beyond his reach. She was oblivious to the danger – to him – and he wondered where she had gone. The crowded youth shelters and filthy back alleys of her past? Some distant happy memory of her mother, however fragile? Every time she thought she wasn’t being watched, she had stared off somewhere else, as if Section’s walls were mere illusion, when they were the only thing that was real. She had even looked through him, her eyes asking questions he never answered, but every now and then, she smiled, as though she had stolen a secret from him nonetheless. What did she see?
She looked at him that way now, a lazy grin on her lips as her eyebrows arched in a challenge, right where the muzzle of his gun should be. But his finger slipped from the trigger. The moment of weakness had passed – hers, and his.
“Minute’s over,” he said, laying his hand upon his knee, and she looked to it. Before she could mistake it for an offer and reach for him, he stood. “On your feet.”
Nikita’s smile faded, and she rolled over, picking herself up. “I’m sure I’ve done fifty kicks by now. Can I go?”
“No.” He circled around the dummy and behind his wilful material, keeping his distance. “Start the exercise again from the beginning. And this time, do it right.”
He didn’t have to see her face to know the look of contempt in her eyes, but at least she’d learned to obey. She flexed her shoulders, movements stiff as she returned to her stance, and he knew she’d be sore tomorrow – perhaps too much to perform. Perseverance was important, but the last thing they needed was for Operations to see her hobbling through tactical training. He’d switch it for explosives diffusion with Walter if there’d be time after prepping for the Lisbon mission; he’d check when he stopped by Munitions to return the empty .32 he carried.
“Michael?” Nikita asked, and he turned at the door.
She pulled the elastic from her hair, wild blonde locks falling past her shoulders for a moment before she swept them up again. “Will I see you later?”
“No,” he answered. It was already eight o’clock; by the time he got home, Adam would be asleep. Elena had left a voicemail that afternoon. He’d missed his son’s first steps.
Michael glanced over at Comm., willing the image of a brown-eyed, cherubic face away. He would see Adam again after Lisbon. Until then, all he could do was survive.
“Tomorrow,” he replied. “Five AM.”
“You do realize this test was for both of you?”
Madeline’s slow, measured question scarcely needed to be asked, and Michael locked eyes with her across the desk, his gaze as cold as the stone walls around him. There was too much to be done this morning. The sooner this was over with, the better.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Why did you fail?”
He looked to the chair Nikita had occupied yesterday, her bruised knees forcefully crossed and her glare in the mirror aimed in his direction. “Her trust is fragile. If I break it too soon, it could negatively impact the rest of her training.”
Madeline leaned forward, catching his eye again, and he knew her next words before she inhaled to speak them. “Is it her trust you’re afraid of breaking, or her heart?”
His answer, too, he’d prepared in advance. It was no use lying to the woman who had taught him the art of deception. So long as she thought he wasn’t capable of deceiving her, he held the upper hand, and he wouldn’t waste that advantage now. The only thing he would concede was his silence.
“You can’t protect her forever, Michael,” she said, her disappointment clear. “Someday, you will betray her. And she will betray you.”
It was true – if she lived long enough. But the odds of that lessened with every passing day. He’d have to even them.
“Yes.” He held Madeline’s iron gaze with his own. “But not today.”
Despite his certainty, this was a battle he’d already lost. He wouldn’t be the one to carry out the test, but someone else would betray her in his place – and in his hesitation, he’d shown weakness. It was bad enough they’d held Simone against him in the past. He couldn’t afford to be vulnerable again.
Madeline’s lips curved in a mockery of a smile, one which never reached her eyes, and she nodded. “Not today.”
Without another word, he stood, not bothering to ask permission to leave; a look from the mercurial woman in front of him was enough. There was still the Lisbon profile to review, intel to be confirmed, and a team to be assembled. Since the mission had been bumped up, there wasn’t time for petty games – or for Nikita’s morning lesson, either. He wouldn’t be here to see her face when her last hope died. Maybe it had been planned that way from the beginning. Maybe not. Either way, he was glad he would miss it; there would be time to prepare for what lay ahead.
This was the first test. But it wouldn’t be the last.