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.
In the dead of night, a helicopter swooped down over a defunct water treatment plant along the Tagus river, and from a Mobile Command van just outside the compound’s gates, Michael studied the building’s thermal reading.
There were twenty-five hostiles inside: teams of two guards on each exit and interior door, and three known terrorists on the top floor, discussing their plans to bomb an upcoming NATO summit. Section owned two of them; they were collateral. The third, Francisco de Silva, would be brought in alive.
“We’re approaching Alpha Point,” the pilot said.
“Standing by,” Birkoff acknowledged.
“Adam’s standing all on his own.” Elena’s voice on the answering machine had been elated; Michael could all but see her smiling face on the other end of the one-sided call, and he blinked at the memory, focusing on the screen over Birkoff’s shoulder.
The silver bird closed in, landing on the roof, and the figures on the schematic scattered. The guards on the lower floors ascended to protect their employers as those already in place closed ranks, preparing for an assault.
“We’re in position.”
“Team One, engage,” Michael ordered. “Team Two, proceed to first mark.”
New warm bodies popped up on the screen, flooding in through the roof access above and a now-unguarded entrance below. Gunshots rang out over the comm. channel, competing with shouts of pain, shock, panic. Then, silence.
“Team One, status.”
There was no response. Michael looked down at Birkoff, the younger man’s eyes darkened by the shadow of guilt, and gave an almost imperceptible nod. If any members of Team One had read the profile and figured out that theirs was a suicide mission, they would’ve been smart enough to avoid abeyance in the first place.
On the thermal scan, green dots congregated around the building’s foundational pillars on the first floor – operatives whose comm. units had been tagged to differentiate them from the hostiles above.
“Team Two on mark,” said Anthony, the operative on point.
He’s only two years old, Elena had said. He’ll stumble for a while before he can really walk.
Michael forced the image of a tumbling toddler from his mind, glancing back at the screen. “Place the charges.”
Within moments, orange icons glowed where the explosives attached to the concrete columns, ready but not yet armed. “Charges in place.”
“Hostiles incoming,” Birkoff said. “Northwest corner.”
Michael watched the red figures on the top floor descend as predicted, evacuating into an ambush. The deafening staccato of semi-automatic gunfire followed, punctuated by the echo of heavy footsteps and orders shouted in a foreign tongue. The schematic was a red and green chessboard, and in one move, the game had become a stalemate.
“Team Two, status,” Michael ordered.
“Three down, two injured,” came Anthony’s whispered reply. “Hostiles holding the northwest and northeast corners. We’re pinned in the southeast.”
“Do you have de Silva’s location?”
Michael cursed their collateral. There’d been barely enough time to set up thermal sensors before the meeting; if they’d been more cooperative, cameras would’ve given a greater advantage. As it was, the temperature readings were of little use past this point – corpses took too long to cool.
“Hold your positions,” Michael said. “Team Three, go.”
The back-up team emerged from the helicopter, rushing to the aid of their beleaguered comrades. At the sound of approaching reinforcements, the enemy fell back, sacrificing their tactical advantage for the cover of filtration components along the perimeter. They’d be trapped.
Something is wrong. This is too easy, Michael thought.
That’s when he saw it: two red figures fading on the top floor. Their body temperatures had fallen below the minimum for the sensors, far too soon for them to have been killed by Team One. They could only be Section’s informants – and they’d been dead before the mission had begun.
“We’ve been compromised. All teams, hold your positions.”
But it was too late. Both teams had already moved to converge, charging into the open center of the ground floor to pursue the enemy, and Michael knew at once the trap that had been set. Red beacons spilled onto the screen from the southwest, out of a concealed sublevel beyond the thermal sensors’ reach. His teams were surrounded and outnumbered two to one.
“Team Two, standard diffusion pattern,” Michael said as gunfire erupted, every shot a pinprick to his frayed nerves. “Team Three, provide cover fire.”
The strategy wouldn’t save them, but it would buy him time to alter the profile. None of their contingencies accounted for this many hostiles, and their egress routes were blocked on all sides. The only way out was through.
“What’s happening in there?”
Operations’ unwelcome intrusion grated at Michael’s ears; he could picture the man leaning over the mic in his office overlooking Comm., a slim cigar in his hand and a sneer on his face.
“Costa and Guterres were dead before we arrived. De Silva knew we were coming.”
“Is he on site?”
“Yes.” Birkoff’s fingers raced across the keyboard. “Satellite confirmed his arrival.”
“He has to be taken alive,” Operations said. “If we have to sacrifice our teams and try again, we’ll do so.”
It may have already come to that. The thermal scans didn’t show the extent of their losses, but the operatives’ heartbeat trackers did, and they were nearly complete. If his order had been executed properly, the other side should have weakened significantly as well. There was still a chance.
“That won’t be necessary.” Michael pulled his gun from its holster. “I’m going in.”
Orange beacons flared at the base of the building, and Birkoff tapped the countdown on the screen. “They’ve armed the charges. If you’re not out in five minutes—”
“Leave without me.” Michael synced his watch with the timer, picking up a semi-automatic and spare magazine from the arsenal built into the wall, and slung the weapon over his shoulder as he leapt from the van.
He climbed over the inert electrified fence and approached from the southeast, infiltrating through a shattered window. His rubber-soled footsteps fell almost silently on the concrete as he navigated the first floor, a dark maze of pipes, machinery, and dead bodies. No hostiles in sight, but he caught the sound of a breath nearby and turned the corner, his gun trained on the source of the noise.
Anthony lay on the ground, a bloody hand grasping his stomach. Michael could tell from a glance that the wound wouldn’t be fatal, but the man would soon wish it was, if he didn’t already.
“Where’s de Silva?” Michael asked.
“Upstairs,” Anthony replied through gritted teeth. “They took the northwest exit.”
If they’d gone through the front, he’d have taken them out before they’d gotten fifteen feet, and they’d anticipated that. They were going to take the chopper.
“How many hostiles remaining?”
Nine casualties, one target. The intel their informants had been given about the mission wouldn’t be thorough enough for them to anticipate a single operative as contingency. Surprise was his best advantage.
“Primary egress route is clear,” Michael said. “Can you walk?”
“Adam’s walking! I wish you could see this, Michael.”
Anthony shifted, groaning in pain. “No.”
Michael glanced around him, weighing his options. Shooting the wounded man would alert the enemy, and there was no time to attach a suppressor to his gun. Anthony would have to suffer until the impact.
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning away, and a crimson-covered hand gripped his boot.
A precious second passed as Michael looked into the man’s brown eyes, and for a brief moment, he saw Adam staring back. His son would want him to show mercy. Section would not.
In one fluid movement, he knelt and snapped Anthony’s neck.
There were three minutes left on the timer. He bounded up the northwest stairwell, unconcerned with the echo of his footsteps. By now, they’d be on the roof, and they wouldn’t have posted guards along the way; this group’s mandate didn’t include suicide.
“They’ve reached the helicopter,” Birkoff informed him.
“There’s a manual override. It’ll delay them thirty seconds.”
Just enough time. “Do it.”
As he reached the roof access, he shed the semi-automatic; the chances of hitting the engine or the target were too high, even for him. He slipped through the exit undetected and rolled behind a covered vent, using a small hand-held mirror to peer around the corner.
The helicopter was still secure, but not for long. Gunshots rang out. The windows were bulletproof, but the locks weren't; the pilot’s dying scream echoed just as loudly from twenty feet away as it did over his comm. unit. He was too late to save the last remaining operative. He would not lose the mission objective.
With only a handgun and a single magazine, Michael stood to eliminate his rifle-toting opponents, and counted off the rounds he fired, each of them a kill shot. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Their bodies hit the concrete before the others could even turn to find their attacker.
He ducked into cover as the retaliatory hail of bullets rained down, grateful for the impenetrable steel at his back. The counterattack didn’t last long; they knew the countdown as well as he did. Only one minute left on the timer.
There were five hostiles remaining, and at least one would be occupied with overriding the helicopter’s controls. Four threats, one non-expendable target among them. Michael threw the mirror across the roof, and the shatter of glass drew their fire, leaving them vulnerable to an attack from behind. Six. Seven. Eight.
De Silva turned, rifle raised, as Michael approached. A single shot to the shoulder brought the terrorist down, crumpling to his knees with a shout of agony. The helicopter whirred to life again, and the last hostile emerged, his arms raised in surrender.
Michael raced across the roof, hauling the screaming target into the passenger seat. A swift blow to the man’s head quieted him for now, and Michael took over the controls.
“Target acquired,” he said. “Go.”
As the helicopter launched, Mobile Command moved out below, and the final seconds on the timer ticked down. Three, two, one…
The explosion hit, and Michael closed his eyes against the blinding fireball behind him, knocked to one side by the turbulence. If he’d wasted just one more moment, they would have been caught in the blast’s radius. His hesitation – his weakness – had almost compromised everything.
He gripped the controls until his knuckles shone white, and channeled his rage into two calm, soft-spoken words.
Features the first deleted scene of the series (Birkoff teaching Nikita).
“The Lisbon mission was a success.”
Michael didn’t react immediately to Operations’ claim or the half-grin that accompanied it, only glanced out the office’s wall of windows as he evaluated the scenario. Target preserved. One hundred percent containment. Thirty operatives dead. By Section’s definition, everything was just as it should be.
“Yes,” he replied.
Operations leaned on the narrow ledge running the length of the room, regarding him with something akin to suspicion. “No one else could have done what you did. Most wouldn’t have even attempted it. Why did you?”
To prove it could be done – no, to prove that he could do it. Operations was right; no one else would’ve made it out of there alive. Michael should have been proud. Instead, he felt strangely hollow, almost numb in fading adrenaline’s wake. It was becoming too familiar a sensation.
“It was possible.”
“We could have waited for another opportunity. You went in and risked your life anyway.” Operations stood and stepped closer, piercing eyes trying to decipher the younger man’s impassive gaze. “Do you have a death wish, Michael?”
It wasn’t the first time he’d been asked that question. He didn’t flinch, withdrawing into himself, into the void of nothingness he’d created for moments like these. Unreadable. Untouchable. Invulnerable. But it came with a terrible cost.
Once, he had decided to live as penance for the lives his reckless youth had destroyed. But that debt had long since been repaid, and despite – or because of – his perfectionism, continuing on amounted to little more than stubbornness now.
The truth was, with Simone gone, there was little reason left to live, and perhaps even something worth dying for. Maybe if he were gone, Section would give up on using Elena to take down her father – maybe she and Adam would be safe. Maybe they were better off without him.
But if it had been death he’d sought tonight, he’d have found it easily enough. He could’ve given away his position. Stepped into the line of fire. Simply stayed on that rooftop a few moments longer. He hadn’t. There was something keeping him alive; he just didn’t know what it was. Yet.
“No,” Michael replied.
He said it with certainty, but Operations didn’t seem convinced. “You’re one of our most valuable operatives. I can’t have you sacrificing yourself unnecessarily. Do you understand?”
The words had the veneer of a compliment, but from Operations, they were a threat. If Michael attempted something like this again, drastic action would be taken, and whatever it was, it would endanger those he cared for most. He couldn’t allow that to happen, and Operations knew it.
“Yes,” he replied.
“I don’t know whether to demote you, or congratulate you.” Operations’ half-grin was back, and he tucked his hands in his pockets, turning to survey Comm. “You’re on downtime for the next week. Go spend some time with your son.”
And remember why you want to live, was the implication. Not for his own sake, or even for Adam’s. Only for Section. Even his downtime was just part of a mission. If he wanted to keep his son safe, that’s what Operations needed to believe.
Michael turned and left without another word, heading for Munitions. There was one more thing to do before he went home.
He found Walter at his station, almost hidden behind a row of tall grey bins and silver briefcases. At Michael’s approach, the Head of Munitions peered through the chaos, and a questioning brow met the blue bandana on his forehead. The unloaded handgun Michael had returned just ten minutes prior still lay nearby.
“Back so soon? It’s not like you to forget something, Michael,” Walter said.
The operative rounded the table until the boxes of inventory shielded them from the cameras’ view. “I need a Remote Signal Disruptor.”
“You’re not scheduled for anything requiring that kind of tech.”
“This isn’t profile,” Michael said, scanning the shelves behind them.
Walter crossed his arms, amused. “A favor, then?”
Michael’s downward glance served as a nod, and a begrudging one at that. Profile or otherwise, a simple request was often enough for him to get anything he wanted in Section; most were too frightened of him to refuse. Not Walter.
“Borrowing a cup of sugar is a favor,” the older man said. “Loaning out unauthorized equipment is asking to be canceled. You know I go by the book, Michael.”
The mischievous glint in his eye betrayed the lie; Walter had broken protocol more times than any other living operative. But his expertise was invaluable, and he’d never willfully endangered Section’s objectives, so his small infractions were frequently overlooked. They were also closely monitored. Michael would have to be careful.
He was about to reply when Nikita sauntered toward them, hands shoved into the pockets of her grey cargo pants and tussled blonde hair bound up into messy pig-tails, her face scrubbed clean of make-up. The further she progressed in Madeline’s deportment lessons, the more unkempt she became outside of them, but nothing she did could disguise her breathtaking beauty. She wasn’t trying to; like with all of her training thus far, she just didn’t care.
“Speaking of sugar,” Walter said, a broad grin on his face as Nikita approached. “I’ve got your contraband.”
He reached into his pocket and produced a pack of gum. Nikita all but snatched it from him, popping a piece into her mouth, and closed her eyes as she chewed, savoring the sweet taste. For security reasons, most meals in Section One were plain and prepackaged, delivered by a military-operated catering facility that serviced all high-priority organizations in the region. They were optimized for maximum nutrition and minimal flavor: lean proteins, vegetables, and whole grains. Given that many recruits’ former diets had been prison food, they shouldn’t complain. Most did anyway. Nikita was no exception.
“Thanks, Walter,” she said, and finally turned her attention to her trainer. “Hi, Michael.”
He tore his eyes away from her wry smile and glanced at the tiny package in her hand, deciding not to confiscate it; maybe it would stop her from attempting to raid Birkoff’s stash of candy again. “You’re supposed to be in Comm.”
“Birkoff got called away. Said he’ll be back in a minute.”
His gaze shifted to the empty workstation; she was telling the truth. Behind her, a group of black-clad operatives marched in their direction, grim faces trying to mask a particular brand of panic, and Walter frowned.
“As much as I’d love for you to stick around, Sugar, there’s a Flash Mission team to Cairo that needs their P-6s.”
“There’s a what?” Nikita asked.
For once, her ignorance wasn’t intentional. The minutia of Section’s functions – protocols, procedures, strategies – were the focus of Second Year. There was no point in sharing valuable intel with material that had less than a thirty-percent chance of living to use it, and right now, she was far short of that mark.
Walter laughed. “That means scoot.”
“See you later,” she said, winking as she backed away.
She turned and ambled toward Comm., and Michael didn’t realize how intensely he stared after her until he heard a soft chuckle by his side. He glanced at the older man, carefully neutral, but the damage was done. Walter looked between the pair of young operatives with a knowing grin.
“I’ll get you the RSD,” he said. “Come back in five minutes.”
The Cairo team approached, and Walter turned to dole out their equipment. They kept a respectful distance as Michael strode past them, following Nikita to Birkoff’s workstation. The Head of Comm had returned, and the trainee leaned back in the chair, her black boots propped up on the desk as she examined every small object within reach.
“You wanna turn the volume down on that gum?” Birkoff asked.
She only stared at him as she chewed louder, taking a compact radio from the desk and fiddling with its antennae. He turned to Michael.
“This is a waste of time. This piece of street trash is not gonna get this.”
Michael offered nothing, slipping into the character he had crafted for Nikita’s training: harsh, but not tyrannical; demanding, but supportive. A softer gaze and more expressive voice. He even managed a smile every now and then, most of them genuine. She needed someone she could depend on and grow to like; if he showed her the stoic, ruthless man the other operatives knew him to be, she would never respond, and she needed to trust him. Her life depended on it.
“This is how you get the file key,” Birkoff continued, typing away. Nikita picked up his discarded glasses and put them on, looking anywhere but the screen in front of them. No sooner had he reclaimed them than Nikita found something else to play with: a pencil. “Listen, babe, someday your life’s gonna depend on your ability to get into an encrypted file.”
Nikita blew a bubble and popped it, drawing Birkoff’s attention away from her hand as she adjusted her grip on her improvised weapon. She may struggle to comprehend computer programs, but Michael’s lessons in misdirection hadn’t been wasted. “I can get into a file.”
“Oh, yeah?” Birkoff tapped a few keys, reversing his progress. “Go ahead. You’ve got ten seconds. Go.”
She grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him down to the monitor, the pencil an inch from his throat. “Do it!”
Birkoff looked to Michael for assistance, but he merely arched his brows, letting Nikita’s gambit play out. Though she wouldn’t hurt him, the boy couldn’t be sure of that; for all he knew, this “street trash” might kill him. A few key strokes later, the file was open.
“See?” she asked, releasing him. “Did it in nine.”
The flustered teen didn’t respond as Nikita stood, only smoothed over the logo on his t-shirt. The irony of wearing an Anarchy symbol in Section wasn’t lost on anyone.
“You’re cute, Birkoff,” Nikita said, giving him a smack on the backside.
She wandered away, purposely brushing against Michael’s shoulder as she passed him, heading for an attractive, red-headed young woman exiting the dojo – a friend, judging by the smile and piece of gum Nikita shared with her. Their out-of-place laughter echoed through the open space, drawing curious stares from operatives nearby, and Michael studied the unfamiliar woman more closely. She was petite, about Nikita’s age, and beneath a pink tank top and white cargo shorts, carried herself with the nervous vulnerability of a trainee destined for failure. Fragile. Too fragile.
“Who is she?” Michael asked.
Birkoff followed his line of sight, giving the woman barely a glance. “Jillian Mathers. New recruit. Brought in about the same time as Nikita.”
The words rang hollow. Given operatives’ training in interrogation, most spoken lies in Section were by omission, and this was especially true of Birkoff; the boy wasn’t skilled at deception. There was something Freudian about him mentioning Nikita in the same breath as Jillian unprompted. It was almost as if he wanted Michael to make the connection.
He lay his hand on Birkoff’s shoulder, his grip firm but not painful, a subtle warning. Had the gesture been made by anyone else, it would seem almost casual, but Birkoff would know better; aside from sparring matches or rescuing fellow ops in the field, Michael never made contact with anyone who wasn’t headed for the White Room. His touch meant pain and death, often in that order, and all it would take was the press of his thumb to ensure Birkoff’s right arm would never type again. Unlike Nikita’s bluff, Michael’s threats were never idle.
In the black mirror of the monitor screen, Birkoff’s eyes widened, terror flashing across the young man’s face. He tensed, but recovered quickly, perfectly still as he waited for the inevitable question.
“Who is she?” Michael repeated.
“Section Five,” Birkoff replied, soft and monotone. “Arrived yesterday.”
“Why was she reassigned?”
“She wasn’t. She’s on loan for Nikita’s Year One.”
Year One. The evaluation that marked the half-way point of training, deciding whether a recruit was worth further investment, or if they’d be canceled on the spot; more trainees died that day than any other. Like the first test, it was both uniform and individual, designed to exploit and eradicate each recruit’s greatest weakness. That they’d begun to prepare so far in advance meant the aim was for Jillian to gain Nikita’s trust; they were integrating both tests, killing two birds with one stone. He knew in an instant what they had planned.
If he didn’t stop it, Nikita was as good as dead.
“Who’s posing as her trainer?”
A good choice. He was competent, genuinely loyal to Section, but adaptable; he’d be receptive to collaboration on the assignment. They’d trained together under Jurgen, and had often been pitted against each other early on, the disgraced former Marine at odds with the repentant terrorist. Their opposing personalities had proven a surprisingly effective combination under fire, and a mutual respect and understanding had formed between them. That would be useful.
He let Birkoff go, saying nothing more as he crossed to his defiant material and her new friend. The latter would have been briefed about him; how much she knew, he couldn’t be sure, but her first glance carried more than curiosity – recognition, and a glimmer of something else. That was her first mistake.
Nikita didn’t notice, hands on her hips and an excuse on her tongue.
“Michael—” she began.
“The encryption assignment is on the panel in your room,” Michael said, allowing a flicker of annoyance beneath his muted tone. “Do it. Now.”
“Until when?” she asked.
He glanced toward Munitions; the Cairo team was leaving. “Until you’ve finished it.”
“I thought I was supposed to meet with you and Madeline in an hour.”
“There’s been a change,” he said. “I’ll see you next week.”
“Where are you going?”
Michael contemplated revealing some variation of the truth, but decided against it; he didn’t want to invite more questions. Instead, he turned and left, noting the way Jillian’s eyes followed his departure. Her attraction was discreet, but discernible, and he wondered for a moment if it was part of the profile. Only time would tell.
He reached Munitions just as Walter emerged from the back, something tucked into his hand. Behind the now-empty bins, the older man showed him the RSD: a black plastic module the shape and size of an American quarter. It opened up to reveal a round, flat bit of translucent tech, almost identical to a topical tracker.
“Attach the dot to any surface and activate it with the button in the case,” Walter said. “It’ll knock out any surveillance tech within twenty feet. Don’t use it in open spaces.”
“Does it work on skin?”
“Yeah. No effect on internal devices, though. If you plan to go AWOL, find another way to disable your tracker.”
Michael nodded, slipping the disc into his pocket, and rounded the table.
“You’re welcome,” Walter muttered behind him.
The younger operative paused, a rare quirk of amusement on his lips as he glanced over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” Michael said, and finally, went home.
Tomorrow, Nikita’s one-month assessment would be complete, and the various department heads would agree that her initial placement as a field operative was still correct. By the time he returned, she’d have been transferred to the Farm for the next stage of training. That's when the real work would begin.
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
The words found Michael at unexpected moments, calling him back to a sterile white room and a frightened girl dressed to match. Back to panicked blue eyes behind a curtain of wild blonde hair, bruised and scraped feminine hands, and the cry of a husky, desperate voice. Nikita.
Tonight, they’d come to him as he prepared dinner, expertly slicing brisket into pieces small enough for Adam to eat. The knife in his hand wasn’t meant to be a weapon, but that didn’t make it, or its wielder, any less deadly. He was keenly aware of its weight, could estimate with reliable accuracy how much force it would take to lodge it in an intruder’s throat or chest from any throwable distance, knew a hundred uses for the sharp blade, both non-lethal and entirely fatal. He’d had occasion to try nearly all of them. He wished he hadn’t.
Nikita’s file said she’d killed with a knife – gutted a police officer in a drug bust turned deadly, despite the fact that nothing illegal had been found in her system. She’d been going through withdrawal, the prosecution had said, so desperate for her next fix that she’d butchered the cop who frightened off her dealer in a fit of rage. She’d taken him by surprise, but he’d already radioed for back-up, and she’d been caught at the scene with the murder weapon in her bloodied hands. It was an open-and-shut case.
How an Australian runaway had ended up roaming the streets of Toronto wasn’t important, but her new country’s laws were; like France, Canada had no death penalty. She’d served less than a month of her life sentence when her record appeared on his panel, one of hundreds of potential recruits. The first thing that had struck him, of course, was the contrast between her mug shot and a photo taken at her trial. When she was first arrested, she’d been filthy and feral, but with her piercings removed and her hair washed and styled, she’d looked more like a supermodel than a convicted killer. The combination of beauty and brutality had made his decision obvious; the next day, she was on her way to Section One.
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
It was one of the first things she’d said to him. Why did she lie? Denial? Regret? Simple stubbornness? There was no reason not to admit what she’d done, and the sooner she embraced it, the sooner she could focus on redeeming herself. Whether or not she accepted it, she belonged in Section. Didn’t she?
There were two types of field recruits: Careers, and Criminals. The former were cops, soldiers, or intelligence officers, trained professionals who misused their skills or learned dangerous secrets in the line of duty, whether by choice or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The latter were killers deemed mentally sound, ruthless but not psychotic, whose innate violence could be refined and controlled.
Nikita was neither. And if he’d been wrong—
“Michael?” Elena called from the living room.
“Is dinner almost ready? Adam’s getting restless.”
“Just a minute,” he said.
He slid the meat onto the blade, placing it on the platter with care, and set the knife in the kitchen sink. As he turned, he caught his reflection in the weapon’s mirrored edge, his pale green eyes too distant, too cold for the warm husband and father he was supposed to be. He thought of Adam in the other room, his hands stained with neon markers and his mouth with blueberry juice, and smiled.
Another man’s reflection smiled back.
“Where have you been?” Walter asked, barely glancing up from a circuit board underneath the magnifying glass.
Michael didn’t answer, scanning the area for signs of Nikita. Though she trained at the Farm now, her lessons with Madeline continued; it was more secure for the recruit to return to Section than for the Second-In-Command to leave. She was supposed to meet him by Van Access at 4PM to be escorted back, and if she’d finished early, Munitions was where he’d find her.
“Have you seen Nikita?”
“Not as often as I’d like,” Walter replied, adjusting a wire. “Or as often as you have.”
The older man had a subtle, pleased grin. He wasn’t just teasing; now that Michael had the RSD, Walter likely assumed he and Nikita were sleeping together. His reputation for attracting his trainees’ affections was well known, but whether he ever acted on the opportunity was just as widely debated, and he never confirmed or denied anything. The only time it had been true was with Simone.
“If you see her, tell her to come to my office.”
“Will do,” Walter said, turning back to the tech in his hands.
Moments later, Michael was in front of his computer, Nikita’s file open before him. Now that her preliminary evaluations were complete, she could focus on her training, and her first week at the Farm had been productive. Both her combat and marksmanship scores were steadily increasing, along with her progress in French, German, and American Sign Language. She’d never learned to drive, so that was the next priority; she had to be proficient before lessons in evasive maneuvers could begin.
The itinerary would only intensify from here: scuba and skydiving, emergency medical response, chemical and biological weapons, security system disarmament and explosives diffusion, and communications technology. There were also secondary skill sets for simple undercover missions; in Nikita’s case, administration and hospitality. Madeline’s training in elocution and deportment would eventually allow her to pose as a socialite or high-class escort, giving her access to otherwise elusive targets among the elite. But a woman of Nikita’s beauty was memorable, and had a high risk of exposure; her talents in that area would have to be used sparingly.
It was Madeline’s voice over the intercom; Nikita’s lesson must have finished.
“I’d like to see you in my office.”
Michael logged off the computer. “Of course.”
But when he entered the deceptively warm-lit chamber, Nikita was nowhere to be found. Madeline gestured to a chair, bidding him to sit as she turned her monitor, and brought up surveillance on a combat training session. They watched as Nikita evaded her opponent, failing to take advantage of openings or make any unnecessary offensive move. In the end, she won, but the match lasted far longer than it should have. In a training scenario, hesitation was a dangerous weakness; in the field, it was certain death.
“Nikita poses an unusual problem,” Madeline said. “Her strength and reflexes are impressive, especially considering her upbringing and incarceration, but she’s holding back. I expect you know why.”
“She doesn’t want to hurt her opponents. She sees the other trainees as friends.”
Madeline nodded. “Her compassion is going to be an issue. That’s why we’ve already taken steps to use it to our advantage.”
She tapped a key, and the screen switched to the profile of a familiar, red-haired young woman. Michael scanned the info, memorizing each detail: 21, American, convicted of killing her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend in a car crash. On the low end of acceptable combat and weapons scores, but her youth and seeming innocence would be an asset in cold missions requiring misdirection. She wouldn’t last more than a few years.
“This is Jillian Mathers, a Level 1 operative from Section Five,” Madeline continued. “She’s capable, but inexperienced. This will be her first undercover assignment.”
“What’s the profile?”
“She’ll pose as a struggling recruit in danger of cancelation. Nikita will try to protect her, and help her to improve. In the process, she’ll achieve her own full potential.”
It was a sound plan, and one he may have suggested himself before long, though with different parameters. Bringing in an outside player was a mistake; it was better to strengthen her bonds with potential future teammates than to use a decoy. When she realized she’d been lied to, her resentment would be a far greater threat to her progress than mediocre early combat numbers.
But it wasn’t his decision. That they hadn’t consulted him meant his input wasn’t welcome, and the profile had already been set; whatever they expected of him, he’d have to provide. “How do I facilitate?”
“Advise Nikita against forming an attachment with her. She’ll resist on principle and increase her efforts.”
Reverse psychology. Predictable after a certain point, but effective. Even Nikita’s rebellion had its uses.
“How long will Jillian be with us?”
“Until Nikita is at full capacity. Afterward, we’ll tell her Jillian was canceled for poor performance. Her death will serve as a deterrent.”
Michael nodded, taking one last glance at Jillian’s profile.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“No.” Madeline gave him a flicker of a false smile. “Nikita is already in transit. You’ll see her tomorrow.”
Slowly, Michael stood, buttoning his blazer as he kept his racing thoughts beneath the surface. No mention of the Year One meant no intention of allowing him to interfere. Nikita wasn’t the only one being lied to – or tested. Their plan was already in motion. It was time he made one of his own.
“Ichi. Ni. San.”
The sensei’s voice echoed through the cavernous concrete dojo as twenty recruits moved with synchronized precision, attacking, blocking, advancing. One. Two. Three.
Michael spotted Nikita instantly, her blonde ponytail bobbing with each sharp yet graceful strike. Since several martial arts were taught in succession, they’d eschewed the traditional karate gi, allowing recruits to wear whatever felt most comfortable. Beneath a white t-shirt and grey trackpants, her willowy frame had begun to put on muscle, lithe limbs gaining subtle definition. Section fitness regimens were designed to transform an operative’s body into a living weapon, but the demands of field work made endurance and stamina just as vital as combat skills. Too lean, and they’d lack power; too bulky, and they’d sacrifice speed. Finding the right balance took time, but Nikita was already well on her way.
Beside her, Jillian shifted on unsteady feet, a split second behind the rest of the group. She appeared slightly uncoordinated, her movements jagged. It didn’t take a trained eye to see she was struggling, but it did take years of experience to recognize that her clumsiness was intentional. With her auburn pigtails and anxious expression, she looked every bit the lost, child-like trainee Nikita would be compelled to protect. She wasn’t just trying to look weak; she was trying to appear helpless.
He observed the exercise alongside the other trainers, out of the recruits’ line of sight. As the lesson ended, the sensei paired his students up and turned them over to the waiting spectators. It was time to put training into practice.
Michael approached the mat in his usual black sparring gear, arms bare and hair unbound; the distraction gave him a welcome challenge. Nikita’s eyes sparkled with amusement at the rare sight of him in anything other than a suit, but he forced himself to meet Jillian’s gaze instead. Though her nervous glance was brief, it held all the things he expected: fear, apprehension, and a fleeting glimmer of desire. Only two of them were feigned.
“Where’s Davenport?” Nikita asked, scanning the crowd for Jillian’s trainer.
“He’s been called in,” Michael replied. “You’ll both train with me today. Get into position.”
They obeyed, separating and settling into fighting stances, and looked to him with a sense of unease, waiting to see which friend would be forced to attack the other.
“Jillian, offense. Nikita, defense.”
Nikita nodded, bright blue eyes relieved but focused. Jillian was harder to read, her gaze fixed on the ground for a moment before she exhaled, and began.
The first strike was reckless, almost impulsive, and the follow-through lacked commitment; Nikita blocked it easily and fell back, ceding ground without losing balance. Jillian’s second attempt had more conviction, but sacrificed accuracy, her fist meeting empty air. The third missed entirely, her overextended arm exposing her to a counterattack – one Nikita refused to make.
“Stop,” he said, and they turned to him. He motioned for Nikita to step aside, allowing him to take her place opposite the shorter woman. “Stay grounded. Initiate from your shoulder, not your fist. Try again.”
False surprise washed over Jillian’s face as she sized up her new opponent. He stood perfectly still, his arms deceptively relaxed by his sides, and he watched her hesitate, waiting for him to show he was ready.
“Attack,” he said. “Now.”
And she did, launching herself at him clumsily, her heels rolling off the ground and her fist swinging in a wide arc. He dodged and used her wasted momentum against her, swiping her feet out from under her as he pinned her to the mat.
“Never let your guard down,” he said, leaning close. “Stay focused.”
“I’m trying my best.”
Her breathless voice was weak and her frightened eyes showed pure innocence, but as she shifted beneath him, her thigh brushed against his knee. He tightened his grip on her wrists, a warning; if her subtle writhing was any indication, she’d prefer it were a promise. His expression was dispassionate as he studied the fallen recruit, giving away nothing. Nikita was still watching.
“No, you’re not.”
He released her and stood, leaving her splayed defenseless across the padded surface. Nikita moved to help her up, but Michael blocked her way.
“She has to learn to stand on her own,” he said.
Jillian’s eyes glistened with tears as she rolled onto her side and picked herself up, putting on a brave face that fooled no one – and everyone except him.
“Nikita.” He backed up, clearing space between them, and beckoned her toward him. “Attack.”
Whatever reluctance she’d shown before, there was no trace of it now. She struck without hesitation, aiming true, and he caught her fist mere inches from his face. The proximity was intentional; the closer he could draw an enemy in, the more vulnerable they were to counterattack, but he wouldn’t retaliate just yet.
Her second attempt was just as impressive, and there was a slow burn of resentment in her eyes, just beneath the surface. The anger that had made her careless now gave her focus; the same had once been true of himself. If she could learn to hate her enemies as much as she loved her friends, she’d surpass all expectations.
“Full set,” he said.
She retreated to regain her balance, her piercing blue gaze fixed on him with a challenge few dared make, and began again. He side-stepped the first blow and countered, curving inward so his fist glanced harmlessly against her stomach. On her second try, she anticipated his move, turning her failed strike into a parry of his attack and using the momentum to advance.
“Good.” He turned his wrist to capture her arm, trapping it between them. She fought uselessly against his hold, a dangerous glare giving her crystalline eyes an icy sheen. If he went any further, he’d be frozen out completely. He let go, turning back to Jillian. “Continue. Same positions.”
They switched and circled, both more focused now. Jillian feinted for a few strikes, more balanced but no less predictable in her erratic movements, pretending her aim was to land a blow while she tested Nikita’s reflexes.
It happened on the fourth attempt, as he knew it would. Jillian’s fist struck Nikita’s sharp cheekbone, almost as if by accident; surprised, Nikita stumbled, catching herself with one hand on the mat.
“I’m sorry,” Jillian said, breaking formation.
“Don’t be.” Michael looked down at his trainee. “Nikita shouldn’t have let down her guard.”
The petulant blonde stared up at him, hand cupping her injury. Michael blinked, fighting the urge to help her up; encouraging rivalry was prudent, but outright hypocrisy would draw suspicion.
“That’s enough,” he said as Nikita sprung onto her feet. “Jillian, report to Descartes for strength training. Nikita, take a break.”
Neither made any reply, obeying silently. Nikita grabbed her water bottle at the edge of the mat and took a drink, coming to stand by his side as they watched the redheaded woman shuffle toward the gym area.
“What’s she doing here, Michael?” Nikita asked. “This girl isn’t a killer.”
“Ask her yourself.”
Nikita shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. She needs help.”
“She’ll receive the same training as everyone else. There’s nothing you can do.”
“I can help her.”
Just as Madeline predicted. The profile was perfect – too perfect. Once he played his small part in bringing the women together, there would be no going back. But there was no other choice.
“I wouldn’t become too attached to her, Nikita,” he said.
He scanned the crowd, watching the trainees’ progress. “It’s best not to make friends until you know who you can trust.”
“Who do you trust?” Nikita asked, rhetorical; she knew he wouldn’t answer. “I don’t think you even know what a friend is.”
Michael allowed his mind to drift briefly to names and faces long suppressed, but never forgotten: Jean-Paul. Antoine. Rene. They were too painful; he thought instead of Elena, just a touch of softness showing behind his impervious mask.
“I do,” he replied, and turned, his stoic self again as he led Nikita away from the sparring area. “Focus on your own performance. Your next evaluation will be here sooner than you think.”
“One year from your recruitment.”
The Year One wasn’t just a test of loyalty and endurance under torture; first, there was a thorough examination of all skills gained thus far, each one graded and final scores assigned for both potential and performance. There was far more to being an operative than the ability to kill. Most didn’t have it.
Nikita glanced over at her friend, struggling with a pair of kettle bells. “The same time as Jill’s?”
“What happens if she doesn’t pass?”
“She’ll be canceled,” he said.
“Canceled?” she asked, tilting her head at the unfamiliar euphemism.
Michael looked her straight in the eye. “Killed.”
Fear swept across her delicate features; how much was for her friend and how much for herself, he didn’t know. She swallowed, terror hardening into resolve, and lifted her chin.
“No,” Nikita said. “She won’t.”
Nimbly, she crossed the mat, weaving between sparring matches in progress, and he let her go. Jillian glanced at him as Nikita approached, questioning eyes meeting his own for a moment. He gave her a subtle nod and turned, knowing her gaze would follow. He’d see her again soon.
It was supposed to be a simple mission. The standard undercover capture scenario at a downtown café required little in the way of manpower, and as the line-up moved at a glacial pace, Michael was the only operative inside. He watched the target, Serge Dumont, out of the corner of his eye, sipping a latte at a nearby table and reading a newspaper. The nondescript man was a low-level informant for various Eastern European terrorist cells, and much to his misfortune, witness to a recent meeting between multiple high-priority targets. He dealt in information, not arms, and was unlikely to resist; if he did, they were prepared.
A two-person back-up team posing as police officers had parked by the back entrance, but public arrests drew attention, and were best avoided. Just in case, a Dark Directive had been issued; local law enforcement wouldn’t interfere with the mission or investigate after the fact. As far as the police were concerned, they were never here.
“Chamomile,” he said as he reached the counter, handing the barista a few francs. “Milk. No sugar.”
He took the steaming mug to a seat by the door and settled in to wait, scanning a worn paperback from his messenger bag. When Dumont folded up his paper a few minutes later, getting ready to leave, Michael stood, exiting before him and lighting a cigarette by the entrance. Rain had begun to fall, and the target cursed as the café door swung shut behind him.
“Here.” Michael offered the closed umbrella in his free hand, smiling. “Take it. I’m not going far.”
Dumont turned, surprised, and thanked him. As the target unfurled the black material overhead, Michael dropped his cigarette and drew his gun, pressing the muzzle against the man’s kidneys.
“Come with me, please.”
If Dumont had any doubts about complying, the click of the safety shutting off was motivation enough to keep him moving. They turned the corner and approached the van waiting at the curbside, where the umbrella fell into the street, forgotten. Michael opened the side access door, ushering the target inside and climbing in after him, but the moment the operative turned to close the door behind them, Dumont took his chance.
Michael blocked his clumsy strike, knocking him out with one swift blow to the head. At his station nearby, Birkoff jumped in his seat; the boy knew of Michael’s deadly efficiency, had seen it on mission footage at distorted angles, but this was the first time he’d witnessed it with his own eyes.
After holstering his gun, Michael hauled the unconscious man onto the bench lining the van wall, proceeding to cuff his hands and chain his feet. He’d likely be out for the ten-minute drive back to Section, but there was no reason to be careless.
“We should check in with Madeline, let her know to have an adrenaline shot waiting,” Birkoff said, reaching for a pile of M&Ms beside the high-tech field console. He popped a few into his mouth, and Michael waited until he’d finished chewing to answer.
“Later,” Michael replied. “Right now, I need you to access Jillian Mathers’ file.”
Birkoff swiveled his chair around, spilling M&Ms onto the floor as Michael approached. The boy looked to the operative with barely-restrained panic, eyes darting from face, to hand, to concealed gun and back again.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Michael said.
“You scared me half to death last time,” Birkoff replied, hiding his fear behind a child-like annoyance.
Michael closed in. “That’s why I won’t need to hurt you.”
But I will if necessary. The unspoken threat was clear, and Birkoff paled. His shaking fingers drew into a fist as he looked at the screen, slowly turning his chair back. Taking a deep breath, he set to work; a few moments later, Jillian’s file was open before them.
“Here it is.”
Michael glanced at it, cross-referencing with his own memory; all the details matched, but it wasn’t her personnel file he was interested in.
“Bring up her active mission profile.”
With a sigh, Birkoff did so. Michael leaned over him, studying it carefully. It was just what he had expected: gain Nikita’s trust, feed her false intel on Section’s location, and wait for her to crack under torture. They knew she’d be strong enough to resist on her own; only the threat of losing a friend might cause her betrayal. And that kind of weakness was unacceptable.
Michael stood, and Birkoff glanced up at him. “Can I get back to work now?”
He said nothing, taking a seat opposite the captured hostile, and Birkoff tapped a key, his irritated order to the driver echoing in Michael’s comm. unit.
“Target acquired. Let’s go.”
Dumont’s interrogation – and subsequent cancelation – was brief, finishing just in time for Nikita’s lesson with Madeline. As Michael paused outside the office door, he wished the man had put up more of a fight; maybe it would have delayed the inevitable a few more days. On the panel in his hand, he watched the scene unfolding inside, waiting for his cue.
Nikita flopped down onto a chair in the seating area, gratefully kicking off the 4-inch heels she’d been forced to wear the past hour, pacing and turning and twisting until she could navigate the room and stairs without so much as a wobble. She sprawled out as she reached for her pair of running shoes, her little black dress riding unladylike up her thighs, but Madeline was quick to reprimand her.
“No,” she said, still looking at her monitor. “Don’t change yet.”
Nikita leaned back, crossing a bare foot over her knee. “I thought my princess lesson was finished for today.”
Madeline nodded, amused at the nickname. “It is.”
“So why am I still here?” Nikita asked.
“Our assessment indicates you’d be a good candidate for Valentine Operations.”
Nikita’s head tilted. “Valentine Operations?”
Madeline slid her chair back and stood, smoothly rounding the desk. “From time to time, a mission may require you to perform in an intimate capacity.”
It took a moment for Madeline's meaning to sink in, and when it did, Nikita's question was full of naïve disbelief. “You want me to be a whore?”
“If necessary,” Madeline replied.
Nikita looked at the floor, her jaw tight. “I don’t know if I can do that.”
It was an unexpected admission. When Michael had first received her file, he’d made assumptions about her past – they all had. A young, homeless female was vulnerable, and she’d been on the streets for years, her prolonged adolescence spent drifting from shelter to shelter across two continents. The likelihood of her engaging in prostitution at some point was overwhelming, though all tests had come back negative; she was either extremely fortunate, or hadn’t resorted to it often. This fact was an asset, not a crime, and heaven knew Michael had no right to pass judgement.
“Suppose an arms dealer is about to sell nuclear weapons to a terrorist group planning to bomb a major city,” Madeline said, circling the younger woman’s chair. “The only thing standing between the deaths of millions of innocents and their safety is your ability to seduce him.”
“Is that likely?”
Madeline paused in front of her. “It happens more often than you’d think.”
“So that’s it?” Nikita asked, folding her hands behind her head. “Just lie back and think of Section?”
“Of whatever or whoever will help you stay focused on the mission objective.”
Nikita looked at her pointedly. “Whoever?”
Madeline crossed to her desk, pressing a button on her console. “Michael.”
The automatic double doors opened, and he stepped into the office. Nikita’s attention snapped to him, her eyes narrowing as she sat up and uncrossed her legs. His name hadn’t just been a summons; it was a suggestion, and one she was sure to resent. That was the point.
“What’s he doing here?” Nikita asked, as if her glare didn’t hold the answer.
“He’s your target,” Madeline replied, and Michael strode further into the room, setting his darkened panel by a vase of orchids on the desk.
With an incredulous laugh, Nikita leaned over her chair. “You want me to seduce Michael?”
Nikita hauled herself onto her feet, taking a few steps toward the older woman. “How?”
“Any way you can,” Madeline said.
Michael’s gaze revealed nothing as he approached, passing close behind her to ease into the chair she’d left vacant. She scratched the nape of her neck with a red-painted false nail and cleared her throat.
“How will I know when I’ve succeeded?”
Madeline beckoned Nikita over to the desk, retrieving a small, rectangular black case from her suit pocket. She opened it to reveal adhesive black dots, no larger than sequins.
“When you can plant one of these undetected.”
Nikita touched one, and the tracker stuck to her fingertip.
“Conceal it under your thumbnail,” Madeline said. “When he gives you an opportunity, apply it directly to the skin.”
She followed the instruction, hiding the black dot beneath the glossy crimson acrylic, and glanced over at Michael.
“All right,” she said, exhaling, and sauntered toward her target with an unassuming, yet sensual, ease. “How do I start?”
Madeline smiled. “You already have.”
Nikita shot her a last rebellious look before fully turning her attention to Michael, clad head-to-toe in a black suit and matching leather dress shoes; she’d either have to slip her way underneath, or convince him to take something off. Under normal circumstances, this exercise would be redundant; most men who were both heterosexual and sane would take one look at Nikita and tear their clothes off at the slightest provocation. But their targets were seldom completely sane, and had good reason to be paranoid, especially of beautiful, unfamiliar women. They wouldn’t make it easy. Neither could he.
“Hello,” she said, grinning as she casually raked a hand down her side. “Mind if I sit?”
Michael pried his eyes from her trailing fingers and glanced at the empty sofa across from him. “Go ahead.”
She leaned over and lay her hand on his knee. “I meant here.”
Slowly, she traced a crease of black fabric up his thigh. He steeled himself against her touch, eyes showing no sign of the violent reaction within. This was what he’d dreaded.
Disengage. Breathe. Focus.
“Stop,” he said, and her hand stilled. She looked to Madeline.
“Try again, Nikita.”
She wandered away to plot her next strategy, circling around the pillars by the stairs, out of his line of sight. When she returned a few moments later, it was with a shier smile, self-consciously reaching over her shoulder.
“Hi,” she said, keeping her distance. “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”
“My dress – I think the zipper is caught on something.” She turned, the problem concealed by smooth, straightened blonde hair. “Could you take a look?”
The ploy was so obvious he considered asking Madeline to end the session right then, but he had to admire her creativity. Engaging a target with a request was a risk that could easily backfire; if they refused, recovery could be nearly impossible. Still, it was the follow-through that mattered. He’d let this play out.
“Okay,” he said, standing. He swept her hair aside and found the problem: she’d ripped the metal teeth from the lining. “It’s broken.”
“Really? That’s too bad.” She glanced at him over her shoulder. “It’ll have to come off. Can you help me with that?”
A distant part of him wanted to laugh at her brazen sense of humor, and it took more focus than he’d ever admit to keep the urge hidden, but disappointment won out over his amusement. There was a fine line between playfulness and carelessness, and she’d crossed it; either she didn’t understand, or she wasn’t taking this seriously.
He let his hand slip from her shoulder. “No.”
Nikita rolled her eyes, raising her arms in surrender as she turned to Madeline. “I give up.”
“You’re not really trying,” Madeline said.
“No. If you were, you’d have succeeded by now.”
Nikita paced near the desk, her hands on her hips. “This is impossible.”
“It’s not impossible. You’ll just have to find a better way to win over your target.”
“Let them tell you,” Madeline said. “Seduction isn’t about sex. It’s about making a connection – once you’ve accomplished that, they’ll do the rest. Let them hear what they want to hear, feel what they want to feel. Just listen and respond. That’s how you’ll win the target’s trust.”
“How can I listen when he doesn’t say anything? I’d have better luck seducing one of your dummies,” Nikita said, her arm swinging in the direction of a bare, headless purple mannequin.
Madeline turned to him. “You were a little cold, Michael. A more open response may be appropriate.”
Michael glanced away at the reprimand, nodding. Almost without thinking, he’d retreated too far into himself, letting feigned suspicion become the impenetrable mask of iron he knew so well. He could never let her see what lay beneath that armor – if she did, he’d lose much more than her trust. She couldn’t be allowed to pass this test. Luckily for him, she wasn’t meant to.
“Try again,” Madeline said, and Nikita slowly ambled back toward him, looking at the floor. “Listen to what his body is telling you.”
Nikita nodded, stopping inches away from his face, and closed her eyes. She simply stood there a moment, breathing deeply as he studied her delicate features, almost angelic in their beauty. The warmth of her nearness subtly caressed him, an intoxicating heat building between them until he couldn’t be sure which of them swayed toward the other; all he knew was that when their hands touched, she became his world.
“Hi,” she whispered, opening her eyes, and the vivid blue irises sparkled as she smiled.
“Hi,” he replied, even softer than his usual calm, muted tone.
Her gaze dropped to his lips, her own parting, and he couldn’t help but look at them. It was an invitation – one he couldn’t accept without conceding defeat, and neither could she. They stayed like that for a long moment, their yearning unspoken, until finally, she made her move.
“Dance with me?”
There was a wistfulness to the question, both vulnerable and certain. If she had doubt, it wasn’t about fear of failing the test – it was about losing this moment between them, something neither of them wanted. She’d finally learned how to listen.
“Yes,” he answered.
Nikita grinned and took his hands, guiding one to her waist, the other outstretched beside them. They were palm to palm, mirror images of desire, and as she entwined their fingers, she looked into his eyes. Her free hand slid up to his shoulder, and they began to turn, their gazes locked and their bodies moving in perfect sync.
He didn’t react as her fingers shifted by his collar, nearing his exposed skin, and did nothing to stop her from cradling the back of his neck. He waited for the brush of the tracker, but she just urged him closer, her head tilting to claim the kiss they both ached for. One he could never allow.
She blinked at his refusal, hurt and confusion written across her beautiful face as he pried her hand from him.
“Why?” she asked.
“You missed your opportunity,” Madeline said.
Nikita turned, Michael’s hand slipping from her arm, and she let out an anxious breath. “Maybe I was waiting for a better one.”
“There may never be another one.” Madeline’s motherly façade fell, disappointment revealing her true ruthlessness. “Hesitation is a dangerous weakness in an operative, Nikita. Every moment you waste risks lives. Including yours.”
Michael glanced away as Nikita took in the threat, but he heard the unshed tears in her voice, and knew it was his own warning she remembered.
“I understand,” she said.
Madeline leaned back against the desk, opening the tracker case. “That’s enough for today. Return the tracker, please.”
She nodded, turning over her hand to retrieve it, and her eyes widened as she realized the tracking dot wasn’t there. She looked at the floor, searching around her feet to see where it had fallen, but she’d never find it. Her eyes glistened with angry tears as she turned to Michael.
“Where is it?” she demanded through gritted teeth.
He took a step toward her, plucking the tracker from just above her elbow, where he’d placed it as they parted. She hadn’t just failed to tag him; she’d made herself into the target.
Nikita snatched the tiny plastic circle from his finger and stalked to the desk, eyes downcast as she deposited it into the waiting case.
“That will be all, Nikita,” Madeline said.
The trainee grabbed her rumpled clothes from the changing area and jammed her feet into her running shoes, brushing past Michael on her way out. Neither he nor Madeline intervened, allowing her to take the ruined dress with her; it would be confiscated and discarded when she returned to the Farm.
Michael said nothing as she left, his expression carefully blank, guarded against Madeline’s discerning gaze. How much of the truth had she seen? What weaknesses had she found? He waited for an admonition, a warning, or an ultimatum, but received only a cold smile. Nothing was as frightening as her silence.
“You can go, Michael.”
He nodded, taking his panel from the desk, and made his exit. As he calmly strode toward his office, he refreshed the video feed, but his temporary security clearance for Madeline’s office surveillance had been revoked since the moment he entered; he’d give almost anything to see what she was planning now.
And whatever it was, he had to be prepared.
Nikita was scheduled to return to the Farm at 5PM, and with the Valentine lesson abbreviated, that left the better part of an hour before Michael was to meet her at Van Access. He no longer had clearance to listen in on Madeline’s scheming, but Level 5 status came with many privileges, and the ability to track his material’s movements via camera through unrestricted areas was one of them. Inside his office, Michael watched Nikita on his computer, stalking toward Munitions with her training clothes slung over her shoulder.
“If looks could kill…” Walter said, whistling low at her approach. “I don’t know what’s deadlier – the glare, or the dress.”
Michael couldn’t see the former – the camera’s slightly overhead angle was less than ideal – but the audio was loud and clear. Nikita said nothing, leaning on the work station and staring down at the cluttered surface.
Walter set down the gadget in his hands. “What’s wrong, Sugar?”
“Madeline’s new lessons,” Nikita replied. “Valentine Operations.”
“Who was the lucky target?” Walter asked, smiling.
Nikita paused. “Michael.”
“You don’t seem too happy about that,” Walter said.
Walter shook his head. “Really? I thought—”
He stopped short, but it was clear enough what he meant: he’d thought Michael and Nikita were sleeping together. Now that he knew they weren’t, he’d wonder why Michael asked for the RSD. It was unlikely he’d report the request, but the suspicion couldn’t be allowed to linger; Michael would have to give him a reason. Maybe even the truth.
“What?” Nikita asked through clenched teeth, almost a dare.
“Nothing,” Walter said, and started tinkering with the tech again. “So how’d it go?”
Nikita sighed. “I lost.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s Michael. You’ll only win when he wants you to – and believe me, Sugar, he does want you to.”
“Why would he care?” she asked.
“You’re his material – your success reflects on him. And if there’s one thing I know about Michael, it’s that he hates to fail.”
“Has he ever failed at anything?”
“Sure. Everyone does, sometimes.” Walter smiled, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “You’ll be fine. There isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t fall madly in love with you. I know I have.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll always be my Valentine, Walter.”
“Wouldn’t mind being your target, too.”
“Not gonna happen,” Nikita said, a wry grin on her face.
Walter laughed, letting go. “Can’t say I didn’t try.”
Michael exited out of the video feed. He’d seen enough to know how badly her trust had been damaged; if he didn’t intervene soon, her resentment would grow, and she’d refuse his help when she needed it most.
When he arrived at Munitions, Nikita had left, but she hadn’t gone far. In what little time she’d spent in Comm., she’d managed to charm Birkoff into sharing the Oreos he’d stacked by his station, and even appeared interested in whatever application the boy enthusiastically gestured to on the monitor.
Whether she knew it or not, Nikita was already applying her Valentine training, and it wouldn’t take long before she searched for signs of it in others. Every word, every touch, every glance would become suspect. Even her own heart couldn’t be trusted. The only way to survive was to pretend not to have one at all.
“How is she?” Michael asked, approaching Walter’s work station.
“Not too pleased with you – and I don’t think she ever has been.” Walter crossed his arms. “If the two of you aren’t sneaking around, why did you need a favor?”
Instead of answering, Michael retreated into the relative safety of the inventory area. It wasn’t a blind spot, but it was dark enough to prevent lip-reading, and the cameras weren’t equipped with infrared. He’d perfected the decibel needed to evade the microphones, and since he’d been the one to install them, Walter had, too. As the older man followed him between the shelves, Michael turned.
“Adam,” he replied.
In all of Section, there were only a handful of people who knew about his son. No one else could be allowed that kind of leverage.
“There’s no surveillance on the kid,” Walter said.
He was right. The mission profile was clear: no interference. If Vacek ever decided to contact Elena and had his people search the house beforehand, Section couldn’t take the risk of them finding cameras.
“No,” Michael replied. “But if I’m ever compromised, I need to know he and Elena can escape unseen.”
It was as close to the truth as Michael could tell. The RSD had initially been for the discreet elimination of anyone who learned of his blood cover – or those who already knew - if they attempted to use that knowledge against him. But if things moved into the next phase, protecting Adam would become almost impossible. There were too many variables, too many threats, too many enemies – on both sides.
“Is it Vacek you’re worried about, or Section?” Walter asked.
Michael shot him a warning look, so cold that even the gregarious Head of Munitions seemed shaken, nodding and backing away into his work area without a reply to his question. Silence was answer enough.
His objective complete, Michael began to head toward Nikita, but through the wire fencing around the dojo, he saw an easier target: Davenport, approaching his office next to Michael’s own. The fellow Level 5 op should have finished briefing Jillian on the day’s profile and traveled with her to the Farm during Nikita’s lesson with Madeline; they were supposed to be training when the real recruit returned. Something was wrong.
Nikita glanced up from Comm. and caught his gaze, her eyes slicing into his heart like daggers, and his decision was made. Michael intercepted Davenport at the door to his office.
“What are you doing here?” Michael asked.
“I’ve been called in for the Morocco mission,” Davenport replied. “Jill will have to go back with you and Nikita.”
Michael looked over at his material, pulling her hooded sweatshirt over her dress and heading out of Comm. With Jillian nearby and half an hour until their return to the Farm, he couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to set his plan in motion.
“Where is Jillian now?”
Michael found his target in the dojo on Level 7, pulverizing a training dummy with an almost crazed zeal. Jillian’s form was better than the one her innocent act required, but far from perfect; her recklessness was genuine, and had she faced a real hostile, the odds of her winning would depend on strategy, not combat skill. That wasn’t her only weakness, and Michael scanned the area, ensuring they were alone.
“You should only train at the Farm,” he said, approaching the mat from behind. “Recruits don’t have clearance on this level without an accompanying operative. If anyone recognizes you and sees you here alone, your cover could be compromised.”
Jillian stopped and turned at the sound of his voice, her gaze appreciative as it swept over him, but quickly grew into annoyance. “If I trained at the Farm, I’d have to pretend I’m an ignorant klutz, and I’ve had enough of that for now, thanks.”
She turned back, red braids slipping over her shoulders, and continued her set. Her movements were more cautious now, her body tense. She was easily distracted – a fact Michael fully intended to exploit.
“The mission will last at least another few months.” He circled around her, watching her subtly shift toward him, as if following his voice. “If you can’t stay within the parameters, you should be reassigned.”
“No. I just need to blow off some steam,” she said, stopping to catch her breath, and faced him. “If you’re so worried about my cover, you can help.”
She gave him a half-smile and took a step toward him, her next move telegraphed from the moment she began to approach. Her fist swung at him, quicker than the last time they’d sparred, but not quick enough; he blocked the strike, his eyes fixed impassively on her own.
“See? Now I’m not here alone,” she said.
Michael pushed her back, and allowed her to regroup as he began to circle her again. “I’m not your trainer.”
“And I’m not your material.” She mirrored his movements, and smiled, looking him over. “Doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun.”
At her playful innuendo, his gaze flicked up and down her petite figure, slim yet alluringly curvy beneath form-fitting black training clothes. He watched her breath quicken, her muscles tensing, and not just in preparation for her next assault. She feinted with her left hand and punched with her right; he caught them both and spun her around, trapping her arms across her chest.
He forced himself to feel nothing as she struggled, writhing and grinding back against him, and he tightened his grip until her body was flush against his. When she finally stopped, he held her there a moment, his lips brushing against her ear.
“Do you concede?”
Jillian panted softly, and it had nothing to do with exertion. “No.”
Michael let go, and as she turned to strike, he flipped her onto the mat and pinned her down, just as he had when training her with Nikita. But now, there was no pretense, no one watching, and nothing to stop her from acting on what she wanted.
“The match is over. You’ve lost,” he said.
“Really?” she replied, squeezing his thigh between her own. “Because I’ve got you right where I want you.”
He didn’t move, neither stopping nor encouraging her. If he was too receptive, she’d expect him to reciprocate; too reluctant, and any advances he made in the future would seem suspicious. It was best to be neutral, and let her draw her own conclusions.
“Acting off profile is grounds for cancelation,” he said. It was a statement, not a threat, and even carried a hint of concern.
“Who says I’m off profile?”
“I do. Your objective is to accelerate Nikita’s performance.” He glanced at her lips. “Involvement between us would jeopardize her progress.”
Her eyes lit up. Just by acknowledging the possibility of them together, he’d given her something to hold onto, to fight for – maybe even kill for. He had to be careful, or Nikita could become a target; if that happened, he’d have to kill Jillian himself before it was too late.
“By making her jealous?” she asked.
“She doesn’t have to know.”
“She would,” he said. “You underestimate her.”
Jillian arched, tilting toward his lips. “And when the mission is over?”
He was spared the need to answer by the sound of footsteps across the dojo, and took the moment to disengage, standing. She stared up at him, the tears she’d faked during training replaced by a steely determination. Michael offered his hand.
Smiling, she took it and let him pull her to her feet, drawing her in close. He glanced warily at their potential observers by the entrance and back to her, resolved.
“Return to the Farm. Focus on the mission. When it’s complete, you’ll be transferred back to Section Five.”
Her smile faded, and she gripped his arm. “There could still be a chance—”
“There isn’t.” He looked at her lips one last time, as if reluctant to pull away. “Go.”
Jillian’s hazel eyes narrowed, but her hand slowly retreated, and she turned to leave. Michael watched her with a subtle, controlled longing, waiting for her to look back. She paused at the exit, and as the metal door slid shut, she gave him one final glance, her gaze a challenge.
If he lost, Nikita was dead.