Dedicated to all those fictional spies and espionage movies and shows, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Syriana, Alias, and of course Nikita, for spawning this demented child of a story. For Matt Damon and his accent and pure awesomeness.
The coffee they offer Nikita is lukewarm, which bothers her. She doesn't want to seem like a snob, but she's accustomed to Venezuelan black coffee, ironically trade-free and organic, rich and fresh and hot when she gets it back at Division.
But she doesn't show it though, her ire of instant coffee, nor does she show her displeasure about the assignment, doesn't show her ulterior motive or the suspicious business she's in. Instead, she demurely smiles, looking through her lashes at the guard to her right, and sips her cold coffee in a Styrofoam cup wrapped in her manicured fingers.
The guard is a full head shorter than she is with acne cratered all over his face. He gulps, feeling oddly warm in a frigid corridor full of death row convicts. He's twenty-nine and hasn't had a date in nearly three years. A part of him hopes he gets lucky. Another part, the more realistic part, is sure he won't. Another part of him is deathly afraid.
"H-He's ready to meet you," the guard stutters.
Nikita hums, hiding her impatience. The click of her heels echoes down the row, a couple of cat-calls responding. She follows the guard down, down until they hit a sparse room with a lone man sitting at a metal table.
The door shudders when it closes, and the guard shudders with it outside.
The man finally looks up, surprisingly defiant for someone about to die in twenty-four hours. She likes that. If nothing at all, it means he'll be good. Maybe hard to train but good.
"Hello," she says.
He stares, his jaw tightening.
She frowns. Never got to see his photo. He's a little old for a recruit, but she supposes Percy has his reasons. A white tee stretches over his broad chest and his beard, speckled with grey, moves as he dryly swallows. For Nikita, at least he's well-built and not bad on the eyes, despite the almost woeful presence he emanates.
He opens his mouth, chapped lips splitting.
"You must be Nikita." Voice low. Coarse like a murmuring growl with a lilt to his voice that tells her he comes from a lower-class background. It surprises her that he regards with a strange restraint, as if respectful. It meant that he understood order and hierarchy. It meant he could be taught.
She sees potential. This might work. Maybe she shouldn't have doubted Percy when he assigned her, of all people, to him.
"That I am."
She settles herself down in the chair across. Nikita's irritation about the whole assignment dissipates. She liked it when the recruits were easy. She smiles, and his eyes trace her mouth. Red.
"I don't wanna die."
Her smile widens, and his eyes shamefully flicker down.
At first, he reminds her of the Afghan desert. There's a character to that vast landscape that was lost upon her old unit. All whipping wind and dust, sharp cliffs and edges for miles and almost pretty, in an abnormal way. But uninhabitable, where you couldn't see unfriendlies amongst the rocks, and it made people walk on their toes. And it was dry. Handsome.
The wife beater shows off his various tattoos. The La Muerta brand stretched across his bicep is the most prominent. He's clean-shaven and healthier looking, having lost the sullen cheekbones and dark bags under his eyes. It's a funny juxtaposition. He could pass off as a white-collar professional if his face weren't perpetually stuck in a scowl.
The other recruits, the ones young and stupid and not quite as world-weary, whisper about him. They make theories and conspiracies about how and more specifically, why he was chosen. He's atypical. He's the one who's supposed to be dead, not the one given a second chance like the rest of them. But the grim reaper and its cheeky, skeletal grin stamped on Michael's arm tell them otherwise.
He doesn't play nice with the other recruits, staying solitary at his own table during mess hall, his mouth continually pressed in a brittle line.
Nikita wonders if he can hear their little wispy voices. She tilts her head, watching the way he glares at everyone. It's cute, almost, the way he sits hunched over his metal tray, an almost paranoid gleam in his eye, ready to strike out at anybody who even breathes the wrong way.
"So that's the underground fighter," Alex says. She has a habit of stating obvious things, but she says it in a way that makes Nikita smile. "Isn't he a little old?"
"Percy specifically asked for him. I guess he wanted a change."
From Operations, Nikita can see the way Michael stalks around the table, all sinew and wound up tension. Alex skeptically glances at him, not seeing what Nikita sees.
"He looks promising though," Nikita continues. "Lots of raw power. Do you remember the way he attacked Owen?"
Alex's eyebrows rise up, giving her a sarcastic look as she smoothes out her pencil skirt. "Owen's out for a month. Who doesn't remember."
Nikita laughs at the remark. Alex was like that, saying things that shouldn't be said. She wasn't the standard of professionalism, but she had a way about her that made people comfortable—it's what made her good at infiltration and why Nikita kept her around.
That and somebody needed to negate Percy's everlasting gloom and doom personality.
"How's training going?" Alex asks.
Nikita hums, poised and controlled, tracing the rim of her mug. "What do you think Birkhoff?"
Behind her, the computers softly whirr, running over video feeds. Birkhoff, sitting at his proverbial spot amongst the tech, swings his chair around.
She smirks. "Don't tell me you weren't eavesdropping."
Birkhoff sheepishly shrugs, tapping frantically at the keyboard in a manic pattern. "Couldn't help it."
He's skittish around Nikita. He's skittish around Percy and Amanda too, but it's Nikita who has the most access and interaction with the lower lackeys like him and Alex. Her presence there keeps them in check, glued to their jobs with little space to breathe.
Birkhoff chokes on his tongue when he realizes that Nikita was expecting him to continue. She watches him with a threat, her lips pursed in a disapproving line.
"I—uh-he's different. Really different. He's only been here a month, and he's sent Owen to the hospital, flew by all of the basic fighting regiments, and Amanda's taken a shining to him." He ticks off numbers with his fingers.
There's more potential than she predicted. It's rare for a recruit to go against her expectations. "Hmm."
Michael turns his eyes to Operations. He catches Nikita's eye and turns away too quickly. Although thoroughly enjoying Michael's discomfort, Nikita surmises that the awkwardness wouldn't be good for his training.
Michael abruptly shoots up, banging the table as he stands and startling the recruits in his vicinity.
He stalks off, throwing an indiscernible glance over his shoulder at Nikita. She hides her smile behind her cup.
Nikita teaches the recruits how to read people. She introduces them to the art of physiognomy—human expression—and explains to them how gestures give away tell-tale signs useful in any situation. How certain tics could be interpreted and how they could respond accordingly.
Then she delves deep into manipulation tactics, how to piece together a person's history and warp it any way they wanted, for exhortation or blackmail. Admittedly, it's a long lecture, and the new batch of recruits are anywhere from their teens to early twenties. Not the prime age for attentiveness.
But then she notices Michael, bored and uninterested, picking at a stray thread at the base of his shirt and spotting out patterns in the floor's speckled tiles. Of course, this was one of his first non-physical exercises, a whole lot of talk and not a lot of action, but for a recruit that Percy has such hope in, Nikita is somewhat disappointed, if not annoyed.
"Michael. Taking everything you've learned, what can you say about me?"
The recruits all shift, subtly parting to further the barrier between them and Michael. He had been called out and marked by Nikita, and none of them wanted to be connected.
But against expectations, Michael slowly looks up, unperturbed by Nikita's challenge. That look suddenly irks Nikita, that unpredictability he brings to her carefully constructed efficiency. But she's confident that she'll make an example of him to all the recruits about paying attention to their instructor.
Michael stares at her for a long moment, stretched thin by her increasing impatience.
"You like throwing people off their game," he suddenly says. "It reminds you that you're in control. Either it's because you're a sociopath." The recruits stifle their laughter, biting on their lips when Nikita shushes them with a glare.
"But by the way you mother the recruits, that ain't it. So it's probably because there was a time when everything was up to chance, and everyone else had the cards when you didn't."
A couple of the recruits whistle, impressed, and they whisper among themselves. Nikita darkens, displeased.
"How'd you do that?"
"Wild guesses get you killed," she bites out.
Embarrassment flushes up her neck, and Michael's mouth quirks up at an edge into a lop-sided smirk, something Nikita's never witnessed before. The shock will wear off, but it's the fact that he switched the game around and made her the one that's been called out—marked as a victim. She's in a compromised position and realizes that Michael's a hell of a lot smarter than he lets off.
And he's still smiling.
"Dismissed. Do something productive with your free time," she tells the group of agitated recruits. They all literally sprint off in different directions, muttering to themselves about Michael's sheer insanity and how they'd rather keep their necks intact. "Except you Michael."
"Ma'am." He feigns a courteous nod and eases back into his chair. She saunters down the aisles and slots a polite mask on her face.
"You surprise me Michael. That comment was out of left-field and the most I've ever heard you say in one sitting." Her anger flares when Michael's smile curves farther up.
"I didn't mean to upset you," he says so easily. He leans in to her space, challenging her to back away. Nikita wants to scoff, because he assumes that she's weak-willed.
She could take him down in less than seven seconds flat, underground fighter or not.
"I can make you match your death certificate if you don't move back recruit."
Nikita takes it as a victory when his smirk flattens. But he isn't one to shirk back, forcing them into a tense standoff. Michael's shoulders relax, and he quickly shoots his head alongside her face.
"I wasn't wrong though," he breezily whispers into her ear before easing himself out of his chair and passing by her, ghosting his fingers along her arm, a dangerous flash in his eyes. It sets her mental alarms off.
She watches his back disappear around a corner, berating herself.
Michael leaves her taking back her initial opinion.
He's no longer the Afghan desert, beautiful with its orange hues. His novelty was beginning to wear off, unveiling something sharp about him hidden behind that brute force.
Suddenly and out of the blue, he starts to remind her of a rickety well in a small village she once rashly dived into, back when she was a private and they were low on rations and there was no other way of getting drinkable water. She drew the short lot and made a mistake, gauging the depths incorrectly—thinking it was more shallow than anything-and underestimating the force it would take her to kick back up to break surface. She remembers her mind screeching at her, that she'll drown. That she'll die. That she'll never get back home.
"There's something off about him," Nikita confides to Amanda in her office, sitting at the vanity next to a sleek desk. "Percy won't listen to me about it. He thinks it's because he has a different background, but that's not it. What sort of person is able to take down a trained operative the way he did?"
"An underground fighter who learned to fight for other's people amusement and kept tame through barbiturates," Amanda replies calmly. "The sudden change from chaos to the institutionalized setting at Division was probably enough to make him slightly unstable."
"It's not just that. At first, I didn't think much about Owen or the way he finished basic training so fast, but the other day, he undermined me."
Amanda is above juvenile things such as rolling her eyes, but the way she glances up at Nikita gets the point across. "Undermined you? Nikita dear, it's hard for anyone undermine you, let alone a recruit."
"He's been trained before."
"He's an underground—"
"I mean trained by the government. Intelligence. He knows how to work people, throw them off their guard." She's sure. She's seen that sharp gleam in his eyes before, because she is literally surrounded by people who have that same exact look, however subtle and indiscernible it may be.
"Impossible. I interviewed him. He comes from working-class white trash and actually believed that La Muerta could give him, quote, 'cash, bitches, and fame'. There's nothing in his past reviews that say otherwise." Amanda arches a graceful eyebrow. "Besides, didn't you say that he had a lot of potential? I think it's because you like him."
"Bullshit," Nikita replies rather inelegantly. "I've been training recruits for years. No one comes in with this sort of understanding."
"He probably knows how to read people when he was in the ring." Amanda, with her clean hair and impeccable taste, signs a document with a piercing, deliberate movement. "But most of all, he's like a dog. He's probably having fun with you. I think he's bored being cooped up. It'll change once he starts going outside."
"That's rash thinking."
Amanda sighs, dropping her pen and pointedly clasping her hands together. "Look. I'll talk to Percy about advancing Michael ahead. Maybe training with the older recruits will give him a challenge. In the meantime, to quell your worries, I'll talk to him."
Nikita drops her head against the chair before heaving herself up. "Thanks Amanda."
"I'm surprised, really. I've never seen you this worked up over anything before. You're usually the vision of poise and military standards," Amanda says mildly. "You're sliding."
Nikita laughs on her way out, calling over her shoulder, "Never."
Any suspicions about Michael are blown to smithereens when Nikita discovers how terrible of a shot he is.
"Ease off the recoil Michael!" she shouts over the din in the firing range. Already four lessons in, and he still hasn't improved his marksmanship. No one is intentionally that terrible at shooting. At this rate, she'll have to demote him back down to the newer batch of recruits.
Owen, worse for wear and limping like his right foot is a lead weight, throws a harsh glance her way, warning her to stop invading his territory. "My class Nikita. What are you doing here?"
"Percy wants me to check up on you. You just got out of therapy. A couple of the recruits need correcting, and…" she trails off, watching a few recruits wince as bullets leave barrels. "You're not correcting them."
With an ounce of disdain, he replies, "You mean I'm not correcting Michael."
"Perhaps," she says slightly.
"Well boo-friggin'-hoo. I think it's better for him to not shoot straight. Pun not intended."
Nikita lifts an eyebrow like she's been practicing it whole life. It's a discreet threat that she'll kill him herself. Owen glowers, losing the verbal tenacity he had.
"Michael!" Owen shouts. "Get your head out of your ass and learn to shoot!"
Michael throws a dirty look over his shoulder, his teeth showing as he snarls. "Fuck off. It's only 'cause you're a lousy teacher."
Nikita gets the strongest urge to roll her eyes. "Michael, keep your eyes front and center. If you can't fire five shots on target within the next week…" she trails off.
By now, Michael knows the expiry date for inefficient recruits, the weak ones who can't perform as well as the others. He immediately shuts his mouth and turns back to his target.
After a moment, Owen says sarcastically, "Maybe we should just sic him on people."
Michael shoots, completely misses the mark, and finally chucks his gun at the target, frightening the other recruits. Nikita raises another eyebrow.
"Like a pit bull," Owen flippantly remarks.
Nikita leaves her office late at night after lights are out for the recruits. It's a common occurrence. Her apartment was only a place to sleep in, no matter how well-furnished or decorated.
She decides to unwind at the firing range, because she's not one for bars or alcohol, not since she's left the military. She didn't dig further into the implications this had on her social life or lack thereof. It just happens.
Once she's there though, she doesn't find herself alone.
Michael quickly slides off his mufflers when she taps his shoulder. "Nikita," he says, surprised.
She cants her hip against the ledge of one of the booths, crossing her arms. "It's past your bedtime Michael."
Michael wipes off the perspiration from his forehead while rolling his eyes. After sliding his mufflers on, he empties the gun, tearing the target to shreds. He slots in a new clip, distinctly ignoring Nikita, and he tries again.
He misses all vital points by inches and mutters obscenities to himself, increasingly frustrated.
"You need to focus."
"I am focusing," Michael growls and slams the gun down. "I was until you decided to come along."He glares at her, tensing up as if waiting for her to strike back at any moment.
Nikita's gotten the hang of his moods.
"You're not bad you know," she points out. "You have potential."
Michael furrows his brow and stares at her like she's a puzzle, unable to figure her out. He has that smart edge again, that shine in his eyes that tells Nikita his minds buzzing with thoughts sharper than a blade. He defies her assumptions and leaves her questioning.
But in an instant, gone are the calculating looks, the unreadable expressions that unsettle Nikita into an unknown territory. All that's left is Michael, his firm angles of his face, his eyes nearly black in the dim lighting, and his bone-deep exhaustion from a long life of drugs, crime, and abuse.
"Thanks," Michael says, his eyes dropping. "And I'm sorry. You know, about everything."
Of all the things possible, Nikita was not expecting an apology.
Michael fidgets under her scrutinizing gaze and awkwardly shifts the gun around. It's disarming, the way he acts intimidated around her, figurative tail between his legs.
"You mean that gross breach of personal space. The 'read' you got off of me," she says.
"Wild guess, I told you. I dunno…what was up with me that day. I was bored, and I wanted to piss you off."
Amanda's words echo in Nikita's head, telling her that there's not a whole lot of depth to Michael. That he was easy to get, to dissect, and to lay out on a sterile table for study.
But for some reason, Nikita thinks he isn't. Other than those odd, unquantifiable glances, she's not sure why, and that much she knows.
"I don't get you Michael." His head rises in an unspoken question. "You should take that as a compliment."
Michael raises the gun, about to squeeze the trigger before heaving a deep breath and setting the gun back down. Nikita watches the way he bows his head, his hair tapering into the stretch of skin on the back his neck.
"There was this guy I knew," he begins.
Nikita says nothing, listening closely instead.
"Jimmy. Grew up with him, my best friend and everything. He was this guy who had some major hook-ups. I was a real mess growing up, getting into fights. Eventually, we moved to LA. Didn't get any real money from odd jobs. I got hooked on heroin, started dealing, and I accidentally sold stuff on La Muerta's turf. Got into some more fights, beat up a coupla gangsters, and out of the frickin' blue, La Muerta's leader actually tells me that he can make me into a star, if I'd just go with them. And I did."
He looks up at her.
"That was the stupidest decision of my life. I lost contact with Jimmy after that. I was barely lucid enough to figure out what it meant when someone told me that he OD'd. And now, I think…I could've done something, if I just didn't…"
Suddenly, Michael reminds her of a kid that used to live down the block in Philly, brunette, gorgeous, hard lines along his jaw, made all the wrong choices. But another part of her tells her truthfully that Michael actually reminds her of—
"We have a lot more in common than you think."
"What? We have the same brand of heels?"
She finds herself chuckling, a small noise escaping her closed mouth. Michael almost smiles. Almost.
"I grew up in Philadelphia. Most of my childhood, I bounced from one foster family to another, until I got stuck with this one couple. I think…that was the first time I felt like I had a mother." Michael listens quietly, tracing the outline of his gun with a careful, purposeful movement. "She died a couple of years later, and the guy was a total sleeze. I got stupid, and I got myself hooked on ketamine. I nearly killed a man over it too."
Nikita mulls over her next words for a second, ignoring a surreal feeling falling over her—the fact that she's in a firing range with Division's oddest recruit, discussing life stories. She scolds herself; it was a good opportunity to calm Michael down, connect with him, maybe to get him to—she's not sure—maybe to be easier to control.
"I stole money from this guy who later on I found out was a veteran. He caught up to me before the police did, and I got the lecture of my lifetime. He helped me clean up, and I eventually joined the army."
Their words hang heavy in the room for a moment, pulled long by their silence.
"That's why you have the…" Michael points at the underside of his wrist, indicating her own, where a tip of a blue shield peeks through her starched sleeve. She laughs, and he smiles at that, open like a clear sky, charming Nikita.
"How'd you know?"
"My old man was in Desert Storm. He has a tattoo like that. You should cover it up better. A lot of the males around here think it's something you got when you were drunk in college."
"Hmm," she intones appraisingly, looking at her wrist.
"I never thought you were the army type," he teases with an uncharacteristic softness to his voice. She laughs, and he smiles at that, open like a clear sky, charming Nikita. A balmy burn appreciatively unfurls in her stomach.
Nikita shrugs, warming up to him. "I used to train soldiers like I'm training you and your fellows."
"Oh" is all he says. Another moment holds out, and slowly, Michael's grin fades. Distracted, he lets out a slow breath.
Nikita notices that his hair is gently lit under the fluorescent lights, turning his brown hair almost blonde. He seems older, more years piled on him than on her, the shadows marking out the lines by his mouth and the crow's feet at his eyes. He suddenly turns to her like it's the first time he's seen her before, unsure and a little vulnerable and his eyes the color of woodlands, old and remarkable.
And when he stands to his full height, she has a vision of him, like a delicate memory on the verge of breaking apart. His hair is cropped short. His tattoos are covered up by a sartorial suit as black as ebony, and a gun in his hand. He's lethal, unexpectedly so, and he's the promise of a steady presence in her life.
Suddenly, she understands what Percy saw in Michael.
"Nikita?" he asks, confused by the apparent non-sequitur.
She gestures to him. "Go practice, and shoot the target."
"I can't Nikita," he says a little desperately. "I don't know what I'm doing alive. But after I heard you telling me to get better, I panicked. I'm not getting any better, and I'm screwed if I can't—God."
"It's okay. I'm here to help you. You're tensing up too much when you shoot. Relax your shoulders and we'll start from there," she encourages him, discovering Michael to be much more pleasant than she originally thought.
The novelty and mystery may have disappeared, but in its place was something capriciously honest and human. Something with a lot of potential. If Michael listened to her, he would be the best.
She hopes he understands that in the way she smiles imploringly at him.
Michael loosens up, and gradually, the corner of his mouth whimsically twitches up, eyes bright. "I can do that."
By the end of the month, he does.
It proves that to Nikita that she wasn't wrong.
The next couple of months go by, the seasons pass, and accoutrements start piling up in Michael's room. He's particularly fond of the Simon and Garfunkel CD she presented to him after a successful exercise in covert stealth—something Nikita was worried about, because after all, Michael was never very successful at hiding himself or his temper.
Percy congratulates Nikita. He had his doubts too, you know. He's impressed. Everything was going swimmingly.
Now, less of an animal stalking all over the place, Michael fights with surprising grace, a little more intelligence, and a lot less force. He starts controlling himself, stops being a wound-up ball of nerves and anger and is actually able to hit on target. He walks taller, moves faster, and thinks quicker.
And he likes talking to Nikita. A lot, in fact. They swap jokes whenever there's free time or when she's personally overseeing his training, and it makes Nikita grow particularly affectionate of Michael. She looks at him now, and she can't help it when a small glimmer of pride wells up.
Percy decides to send the recruits out on a test-run. He lets them loose on the outside for a recon exercise and picks Michael as a team lead.
Nikita isn't there for it, having travelled to Amsterdam to "persuade" an arms dealer into giving some goods, but when she touches base, she discovers that Michael is locked up in solitary for going against orders.
"What orders?" she asks.
"It doesn't matter," Percy evades. "He disobeyed them, and there are consequences for disobeying."
Six recruits don't make it. Percy says its fine. There are always more teenagers to save, he says with an ironic leer. It's not the first time he's said something like that or this has happened in Nikita's career. But it's the first time that she has to swallow down a sick feeling caught in her tongue.
When Nikita releases Michael, she escorts him to his room. He moves slowly, as if nursing a bad leg, and carries his right arm cautiously.
"Don't wanna talk about it Nikita," is all he says with a hard set to his face and a sickly yellow bruise stamped on his eye, fresh from the way its colored. She doesn't comment on the way his fingers are bent at odd angles or the way the guards by his cell barely hide their smugness.
When they arrive, Michael wordlessly slips into his room. Nikita's temper flares, but she does nothing about it. Ultimately, there wasn't a whole she could do.
Eventually, Michael heals up. Amanda tells Nikita that she shouldn't worry, sometimes recruits had to learn the hard way, and Michael would be fine.
Beware of sporadic updates!