I can’t take my eyes off her. Here she sits bloody and broken, but alive. Even now she’s beautiful. Probably the most beautiful I will ever see her. She’s a survivor. She’s strong, and in this moment, I know; if love were possible she would be the one. The dress she’s wearing; the black mini that scoops at her lower back just shy of where her back ends and her ass begins, is now ripped. The bottom of the dress--which was form fitting--now, barely clings to her scraped up thighs. The front of the dress scoops at the breast, and used to clasp at the nape of her neck, but it’s now broken. I can see her breast swell with every deep breath. Her deep green, strappy sandals that laced up her ankles, she no longer wears. Likely left behind in the rubble, along with any respect she had for me.
At the table, she sparkled with emeralds that graced her neck and wrists, now they only grace her neck. She keeps her deep green clutch, which matched her shoes, fixed firmly in her grasp. The varying shades of green eyeshadow, bringing out the green of her moss-colored eyes and the black eyeliner that causes the black ring encasing the green, bold--as if they were outlined with a sharpie--is now smeared with sweat and blood. She had taken time with her choice in outfits tonight, and I noticed when I first saw her in the corridor. My initial instinct was to touch her. To tell her how fucking beautiful she is, but instead I shackled my hands in my pockets to refrain from doing so. I let my mind imprison my mouth from speaking the words. Now I wish I had. The phone sits as a barrier between us, but I’m grateful. Grateful I didn’t lose her tonight.
“Congratulations. You’re officially the newest member of the Collective.” I’m completely cold when I say it. I have to be.
“Go to hell, you bastard,” she whispers as she looks out her window.
She speaks softly, but the intent for me to hear is clear. I wish I could explain. Tell her how much I wanted to go to her. To kill anyone who even thought to raise a gun in her direction. How my heart stopped as I heard the explosion. That I was out of the car on my way to her before the driver, Shawn, insisted that I return.
“Sir, you know the rules. You must not interfere, or she’ll die for sure.”
He was right. She had to do this alone, mostly for her own confidence. If she could handle this, she would be able to handle most anything. I look at her for a moment longer before I turn my gaze to my own window because what else can I do? Our conversation from the restaurant plays across my mind. The look she gave me when I told her what she must do. The hurt in her eyes will forever be imprinted in my mind. I wanted to look away, but I caused that pain. The least I could do was look her in the eyes as she stared at me with contempt, and take it.
The limousine comes to a stop in front of a tall building in downtown London. Still, neither of us say a word as I step out of the limo. Shy starts to exit, and I hold my hand out to help her. She’s badly injured and I can see the slightest movement hurts her. She looks me off, barely managing to get out on her own. She’s angry, and has every right to be. Once she sees where we are, I’m hoping it’ll take some of the sting out of the night she’s had.
She stares up at the tall building, and asks, “What is this place, Michael?”
I don’t answer. I walk away, heading toward the building. She probably thinks this is another job. Her trust in me has been depreciated, so I’ll let the gesture speak for itself. Nervously, and reluctantly, she follows me into the building. The place is nice enough. No five-star hotel atmosphere, but it’s cozy, and exactly what I expect from the Collective. We reach the elevator. I push the button as we wait in silence. The door opens a few short seconds later, and I step in with her following close behind. She stands as far away from me as the elevator will allow. The door closes and all I hear is her ragged breath sounds on the way up. Her breathing is shallow. Her ribs, bruised. We stop on the third floor, exiting the elevator. Shy looks around and I see it in her eyes. Her wheels are turning as she realizes it’s an apartment building.
“Michael, why are we here?” she asks, again.
The front of the apartment door has the numbers 304 on the front. I fish the keys out of my jacket pocket. It’s when I stick the key in the door, unlock it, and push it open does Shy eye me. Her tone is angry when she says, “I’m not going inside your apartment.”
I want to laugh. So, that’s what she’s thinking. I can be a dick, but mine doesn’t rule me.
“It’s not my apartment,” I explain. “It’s yours.” I pull the keys out of the door, handing them to her.
“Mine?” she asks, skeptically.
Her tone, softening. I nod as she cautiously steps over the threshold. She scans the layout as she enters the apartment. The kitchen is to the left of the entry. It’s long and narrow, a galley style. At the end is a breakfast nook. Straight ahead of where she’s standing is the living room with French doors that open to the veranda. To the right, and up three short steps is her bedroom. In the center of the bedroom is a mattress sitting on a dais. Her bathroom is located in front of where her bed sits with the closet a few feet over. The place isn’t huge, but compared to where she’s been for the last eighteen months, I’m sure it feels like a mansion. All the walls are bare and white. A blank canvas for her to leave her mark on. Her eyes are curious as she takes it all in, and they say a lot. I can tell she loves it. She stands in front of the bar style counter in her kitchen area. I can feel her eyes on me as I place a briefcase on the counter. Opening it, I turn it to face her. It’s full of passports, money, and another gun. The Beretta model 92A1 alloy .9mm pistol is a true work of art. It had been her favorite during training. I asked Godfrey to make sure she got it. She still has the Bersa in her clutch, and that will serve as her backup gun. I pull out a cell phone, holding it in my hand. I take a few steps closer to her.
“Keep this phone with you at all times. No matter what you’re doing when it rings you answer it. This phone is priority one. Your code name is Nadia. Only the General, Sonja, and I will know your code name. When you hear that name, you’ll know you’ve been activated. If at any time you don’t answer your phone, we will assume one of two things. One: you’re hurt or dead. Two: you’re on the run. It better never be the latter. So, to sum it up; answer it and always keep it with you.”
I hold the phone out to her, but don’t come any closer. She’s kept her distance long enough. I want her to come to me. Shy takes a few steps forward before reaching for the phone, never saying a word. She grabs for the phone, but I hold on, pulling her closer to me. I have an overwhelming need to touch her. To show her how extremely grateful I am she’s still alive. She’s standing in front of me, so close. I steal the opportunity. We both still have a hand on the phone. With my free hand, I reach up gently running my fingers down her arm. I pull slightly on the phone and she releases it, allowing me to place it on the counter. We hold each other’s gaze as I reach up with my newly freed hand to push a piece of blood-tinged hair from her face. I trail the back of my finger down the side of her cheek to her neck until my hand rests on her shoulder. With both hands, I stroke her arms, causing her to shiver. I know it isn’t because she’s cold. Her breathing quickens, and I smile at her reaction to my touch. I deceived her, yet she still responds to me. I drop my eyes to where my hands intertwine with hers, bringing them up to the front of our bodies. I trace her hands with my fingertips, so precisely, so delicately, memorizing every line and curve of her delicate fingers. She isn’t the only one who reacts. Touching her does things to me I don’t have a name for.
She closes her eyes, feeling only the touch of my hands as I bathe her with my caress. My touch is light and soft as it dances over hers again and again. Her eyes are heady as she opens them slowly, watching me as if I’m a snake charmer and she’s the snake. But in reality, I’m the snake and she’s charming the hell out of me. I’m completely mesmerized by her. Never once do I take my eyes away from the intimate dance I’m doing with her hands.
Releasing my right hand from hers, I slowly and gently move it to the small of her back. When she doesn’t protest, I pull her closer to my body until we’re slightly touching. The feel of her body touching mine is incredible. I feel her breath on my neck as she rests her head on my shoulder, and I can feel myself start to get hard. Still holding her other hand, I intertwine my fingers with hers, bringing them down to rest at our side. Instinctually, our bodies move and before I know it we’re swaying. Her heart is hammering in her chest, and because of our close proximity, I’m able to feel it. Never have I felt more at ease than in this moment, here, with her. Unfortunately, this isn’t real, and can never be. I pull away and head for the bathroom. With all Collective housing, it comes fully stocked with emergency first-aid kits. Shy is a mess, and for obvious reasons, I can’t take her to the Emergency Department. Grabbing what I need, I head back downstairs to find Shy resting on her sofa. She never questions what I was doing as I rummaged through her bathroom.
I take a knee in front of her and begin to gently wipe the dried blood from her face with a warm, wet washcloth. She focuses on something beyond me as I clean her face. We say nothing in this span of time just let the events of the night wash away with each wipe of the washcloth. She continues to intrigue me. Why is she letting me touch her, clean her . . . care for her? I know if it were me, the betrayal would be too much. I hate the fact that I’m the one who has to let her down. She hasn’t been hardened the way I have. Been aggrieved the way I have. She’s still soft around the edges. This place will steal that from her, eventually.
I examine the cut in her hairline. It’s small and will heal without any further intervention. I clean it and leave it alone. Her knee is another matter. I call her name softly.
She looks down at me for the first time since I knelt in front of her. So much fire in her eyes.
“I’m gonna need you to take a deep breath. This may hurt,” I explain.
She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t even blink.
“Did you hear me?”
“Just do it,” she responds, chopfallen.
I return my focus to her knee. I gently pull the flap of skin that was pushed under, and glue it closed. I glance up at Shy. Her face is stone, but she grips the cushion until all the color leaves her knuckles. She’s in pain and doesn’t want me to see. I wonder if it’s because she wants to seem tough in my eyes, or because she doesn’t want me to think I broke her. I place both hands gently on her thigh, letting her know I’m finished. There are many other small cuts and bruises on her body, but those she can manage on her own. I wanted to make sure the major ones were dealt with properly. I get to my feet as her eyes, intently follow my every move. Grabbing my coat, I head to the door, but before I go, I hear her ask, “Michael, what am I supposed to do now?”
My answer is callous. I don’t want her reading too much into what happened here. I give her a gentle reminder of what will happen should she try and leave.
Leaving Shy behind in her apartment, unfortunately, doesn’t complete my evening. I have to head back to the Collective to debrief the mission with the General. I decide to take the long way, trying to get the feel of Shy out of my head. I can’t let them suspect any feelings I may have for her, or it could very well get her killed. When I arrive at Olympus, the General and Sonja are watching something on the monitor. I don’t get a chance to see what it is because as soon as I enter the room they turn it off.
“Michael, how did it go?” Sonja asks.
“She completed the mission.”
“There’s something we want you to see. If you would come over here, please,” Sonja says as she turns back to the monitor, pressing play.
I see Shy, and know it’s the recording of the mission. The tape starts with her pointing her gun at the target’s head. I can’t help, but notice how badly her gun hand is shaking. No one says a word as the tape continues to play. Shy hit the target on the head with the butt of her gun instead of taking him out. Mistake number one. My hands fist as I watch her dodge bullets. I’m back in that moment. Feeling how I felt while waiting to see if she would make it out that door. Her weaknesses are clear. They’ll frown on the fact she didn’t return fire. She’s made her way to the kitchen, and still hasn’t fired a single shot. I know what she’s waiting for. The innocents are her concern. No bystander will get caught in her crossfire. They won’t take that as an act of strength. It’s impotence to them. She’s focused and precise when she finally pulls the trigger, taking out the hostiles. I smile as she shoots the gas stove, causing the explosion. Very clever, Shy. Seeing what she did fills me with confidence in her ability to think quickly on her feet. I enjoy seeing how it happened much more than hearing it in the moment. Her creativity shows potential; although, I don’t think that’ll be enough for them. Sonja turns the video off as they both turn to look at me. I’m motionless. To them, I’m seemingly unmoved as my mind fills with all kinds of possible outcomes for her. No way to know for sure how they’ll view this until one of them speaks.
“Michael, take a seat.” The General gestures to the chair across from his desk. I do as instructed.
“Is she all settled into her apartment?” he asks.
“Yes. I took her there myself. Made sure she understood the rules to living on the outside.”
“And how do you think she performed tonight? Her gun hand was very shaky,” the General notes.
“She was thrown into a situation, having no idea what to expect. This was her first mission, being shaky comes with the territory,” I explain, trying my damnedest to detach myself from the situation.
“Her shakiness isn’t what concerns us, Michael,” Sonja says. “She refused to pull the trigger.”
Ah, and there it is. That’s the whole reason for this conversation. I knew it the moment I saw it on the video. A strange pressure--a kind of weight forms in my gut at the thought of her downfall. Never having felt this before, I don’t know how to process it. Instinct kicks in, and all I want to do is protect her.
“No, she didn’t pull the trigger, but that wasn’t the mission, was it? The mission was to retrieve the phone and she did that, well within her ten-minute window. I don’t see what the problem is.”
“I want her expired,” the General says, casually, leaning back in his chair.
In here the man is God. If he speaks it, it is done. That white haze is back. The same one I saw when I killed McDaniel. I respond, not thinking as I leap from my chair.
“Why? Because she didn’t kill him? I didn’t tell her to kill him. I told her to get the phone, and she did.”
My anger comes out of nowhere. I’m dumbfounded by lack of control. What is it about this woman that makes me behave so atypical? I realize what I’m doing, and relax my stance. The General takes measure. I see it in his eyes. He’s found what he’s looking for.
“Luckily for her, Sonja feels differently than I do. She thinks she can do the job. She showed good execution with taking out the guards, and intelligence in her diversion. So, because of that, I’ll allow her to live, for now, but make no mistake, Michael. If we find she can’t pull the trigger, you will kill her.”
The General takes the slouch out of his seat with a smirk on his face. It would give him great pleasure to make me kill her.
It’s all I can muster as I watch that smug look play across his face. I stand there a little longer, my eyes going cold as I hold the General’s gaze. I feel something starting to snap inside me. It’s time to leave before things are said that get both Shy and me killed. Furious, I walk toward the door, forgetting why I’m here in the first place. Just before reaching the door, I turn around and head back toward the General’s desk. I pull the phone out of my pocket, slamming it on the desk in front of him before walking out. I stop outside the General’s office for a brief moment, trying to gather myself when I hear them talking. Sonja speaks first.
“He’s formed a bond with her.”
“I would have to agree,” the General says, and I can hear the smile in his words. Arrogant prick.
Why the hell did I let myself get so riled up? I know how to keep my emotions in check. It’s almost like he was goading me. Saying he wanted her dead just to get a reaction out of me, but why? More importantly, why the hell did I fall for that shit? This isn’t the first time they recommended a new recruit be expired after their final test, and I complied without hesitation. Shy is different, though. Something is happening within me, but that’s no excuse. I know how to compartmentalize. Now they suspect something and she could die because of it, and just to drive the point home they’ll make me be the one to pull the trigger. I fucked up. What the fuck is wrong with me? Enough is enough for one day. I need to get the hell out of here.