"Granger is just as bad. If he pats my ass one more time, I'm going to feed that hand to him."
Sue and Rachel turned quickly toward the new arrival in the women's locker room and seeing that it was only Nikita, they relaxed. Some on the women in Section were barracudas- eager to destroy anyone they considered competition. But even in this cutthroat world they'd been recruited into, the long-legged blonde managed to keep a certain sweetness.
"Hi, Nikita," Sue said, pushing back a limp auburn curl. The workout she and Rachel had just completed had been exhausting.
"If Granger is bothering you, make him stop," Nikita said, continuing the conversation she had interrupted. She opened her locker to look for a hair clip. There were no locks on the doors. In Section, locks were merely invitations.
"Easy for you to say," Rachel muttered.
"What does that mean?" Nikita asked curiously.
"It means if I had a trainer like Michael, I wouldn't worry about Granger or Tyler, or even Paul for that matter, even though I don't know why he hangs around jerks like that."
"What does Michael have to do with this?"
"Come off it, Nikita," Sue scoffed. "The only reason those three don't hit on you is because they know you'll tell Michael and he'll kick their asses."
Nikita was truly confused. "Why would I run to Michael with a problem like that? He'd probably laugh in my face."
"You mean he wouldn't defend you?" Sue asked sympathetically. "I thought he was better than they were. The few times I've worked with him he's treated the women on the team as if they weren't any different than the men."
"Of course he treated you the same," Nikita said. "We're all equal in the Section's eyes." Equally expendable. "But why should Michael defend me when he knows I'm perfectly able to defend myself?"
Rachel shook her head in disbelief, her short black hair plastered to her scalp. "Honey, you ain't that naive, are you? Tyler and the rest would rip you apart."
"What?" Nikita slammed her locker shut and deliberately joined them on the wooden bench that separated the rows of lockers . "Didn't you go through the same two years of training that I did?" They nodded. "Well, so did Tyler, Granger, and who was the other, Paul? Granted, some can fight better than others, but it has nothing to do with your gender."
"Come on, Nikita. The men are bigger, stronger, and have more weight. We can't compete directly with them. That's why our trainer taught us to use our femininity to distract our opponents in arm-to-arm combat. It's our only hope. But I think using our feminine wiles on these guys will just make the situation worse," Sue complained.
"And don't ask why we haven't reported their behavior," Rachel said, knowing how Nikita seemed to be so at ease with the bigshots like Madeline. That was one of the perks of being trained by Michael, she supposed. "Section doesn't have a sexual harassment policy."
Nikita thought back to the serial rapist who had accosted her in the city. He, God rest his soul, knew exactly why there was no harassment policy. With Section's idea of battle training, who needed written words? However, something had gone terribly wrong with the training of these women. "Who was your trainer?"
"William," they chorused.
Nikita frowned. She hadn't really known William well. He had been killed during a mission about six months ago. It had been speculated that maybe he'd been careless because he hadn't been in the field for a while. Now she wondered if the mission had failed because his operatives hadn't been trained properly.
She stared at the two women and realized she could talk until she was blue in the face and they wouldn't believe her. Hadn't she taken Michael's word as gospel during training? That's what these women had done too. Well, it was time to rewrite the book. "Keep your afternoon free, ladies," Nikita advised as she left the locker room.
"Michael, Madeline," Nikita said, finding them with their heads together in Madeline's office. "When you're free, I'd like to talk to both of you for a moment."
"Please, come in, Nikita," Madeline said, indicating the chair in front of her desk. "Michael and I were finishing up a project. What can we do for you?"
"I'd like to hold a training session."
Madeline looked intrigued. "You wish to be a trainer?"
Nikita was quick to shake her head, her straight blond hair shifting with the movement. "I just want to clear up a... myth that's going around Section."
"Is this something we should know about?" Michael asked quietly.
"No. And before you ask, it is not personally aimed at any of us, including me. But it is something I think I can stop before it becomes a problem for the Section."
Michael and Madeline exchanged glances and Madeline gave a subtle shrug. "You have authorization to commandeer any needed equipment and personnel," Michael said.
Nikita sighed, glad that she didn't have to go into detail. If the exercise went as she planned, no one would be in danger of being reprimanded or worse. She started to leave when suddenly she remembered they had been in conference before she interrupted. "I won't be needed this afternoon, will I?"
"At this time, I would say no," Madeline replied, not committing herself to anything as usual.
Sue and Rachel looked nervously at each other as they waited in the van for the rest of the mission team. It was strange that they hadn't been briefed before being summoned to the van, but everyone knew the foolishness of second-guessing the Section.
"Looks like a chick fest, gentlemen," Tyler said as he folded his lithe body into the van, followed by Granger and Paul.
"Guess the ladies need bodyguards, especially with bodies like those," Granger commented with a staged leer that had the women cringing.
Nikita stood in the van's doorway and eyed the scene with disgust. Both sexes were thoroughly pissing her off. "Good. I see we're all here," she said curtly and issued an order to the driver.
"You're in charge?" Tyler asked.
"Yeah. You got a problem with that?"
"It's just that you usually take orders from Michael."
"Forget Michael, Tyler. In fact, for the duration of this exercise, Michael's existence can be ignored altogether."
"So we're not going to see any real action?" Paul said, relaxing against the van's rear panel.
"I didn't say that."
Despite a handful of questions and resentful stares, Nikita said nothing else until they reached their destination.
"Where the hell are we?" Granger said when he saw their surroundings, a grassy clearing in the middle of nowhere.
"Who is the best fighter?" Nikita asked as they piled out of the van.
The men looked at each other. Paul was solidly built and liked to pump iron in his spare time. Granger was athletically inclined, lean-muscled but strong. Tyler, however, had defeated both of them in training exercises. "I guess you must be looking for me, Nikita," he said proudly.
She shrugged as if it didn't matter to her which one it was. "Come with me, Tyler. The rest of you remain here by the van." She led him to the center of the clearing. "See the trees surrounding us?" The nearest group was about two hundred meters away.
"Yeah, I see them," Tyler replied in a tone that said he was humoring her.
"Your mission is to reach them."
He looked at her warily. "That easy, huh?"
"No, not easy at all. You see, you gotta go through me to get to them."
Tyler laughed uneasily. "What's the catch?"
Nikita's face showed no expression, another lesson learned from Michael. "No catch, Tyler. Touch a tree and you've successfully completed the exercise."
"Okay, what kind of weapon are you hiding?"
Considering they were all in skin-hugging assault suits, it was pretty obvious she wasn't carrying. But she held up her arms anyway, inviting him to search her. He did so, with enough extra hand movement that she had to restrain herself from flattening him right on the spot. However, to prove her point, she had to fight him when he was prepared and watching. There would be no excuses. "Satisfied?" she asked when he stepped away from her.
"Quite," he said suggestively.
"Go for it, Tyler," she ordered.
He tried to fake her out, but she watched his body, saw when he committed to a direction, and quickly blocked him. He tried to push her out of the way, but she didn't bulge. He gave a half-hearted swing and she ducked, her fist unexpectedly contacting his stomach. He gasped and stepped back.
"Is this the best you can do, Tyler?" she taunted, knowing he was still treating this like a game. She needed to get him angry. Not only would it give her an advantage, but he and the others had to know this was a real fight. "Maybe I should have been the one feeling you up. Would that have gotten a rise out of you? Or are you all talk and no action, big guy?"
"Listen, I'm not going to hurt you and then have you running back to Michael complaining."
"Are you scared of Michael, Tyler? I didn't realize you were that smart. But Michael doesn't matter. He's not the one who's going to kick your ass right here in front of your friends."
"Tough words, bitch."
"No, tough bitch," she corrected, crossing her arms across her flat stomach, her stance a challenge without words. "I'll up the ante for you, Tyler. Touch a tree and you get to touch me. We'll go to a hotel and I'll spend the entire night with you and the only people who'll know will be the seven of us." She included the driver who hadn't and wouldn't say a word.
He rushed her. She stepped aside, then stuck out her foot. He fell hard to the ground but rolled to his feet quickly. Unfortunately, he got up straight into her kick, the spinning move leaving the imprint of her boot against his jaw. He shook off the pain and grabbed her shoulders. She brought up her knee and he stepped back avoiding the move. Freed, she brought her hands together and swung. Her locked fingers clipped his chin and before he could recover, she hooked her leg around his and brought him to the ground hard. She put her foot on his chest, indicating that if she shifted, she could easily drive his sternum into his heart. He signaled his capitulation.
"I do not wish to speak ill of the dead," she said, addressing her stunned audience. "But research revealed that you were all trained by William and quite frankly, he did a disservice to all of you. When we return, I will recommend that you all be retrained in hand-to-hand combat. I'm sure your martial arts instructor taught you that physical power has very little to do with the damage we can inflict on others. However, William's initial training apparently caused you to block that lesson. Since you're all here, I'll give you a quick refresher course.
"Take your friend Tyler here." Nikita eased her hold on him just a little. "He is bigger and stronger than I am. I knew that going into the fight and he should have known I was looking for ways to use that strength against him. Number 1 Rule: learn to spot your opponent's weaknesses and exploit them. That's what I did. Tyler has a prob..."
She didn't get to finish the sentence because at that moment Tyler took advantage of her distraction to propel her foot off his chest. Nikita managed to turn her body in mid-air so that she landed on her hands and not her back. With a quick sweep of her long legs, she knocked the rising Tyler back to the ground. In one more move, she had her feet wrapped around his neck
"Doesn't feel as good to get between my legs as you thought it would, eh, Tyler?" she growled, watching the dawning awareness on the man's face. "Ladies and gentlemen, please watch closely. If I turn to my left, I can cut off the oxygen supply to his brain; he will slowly lose consciousness and if I apply pressure long enough, he will die. If I turn to my right, his neck will snap and death will be instantaneous. The choice depends on the situation. If time is of the essence, turn to the right. If retribution, say for reneging on the cry of 'uncle', is your motive, go to the left." That was exactly what she did. Tyler lay limp.
She untangled herself from the unconscious man and stood, brushing off the dust and grass that clung to her black suit. "Granger, can you tell me the purpose of this exercise?"
Granger looked at his pale friend on the ground. "To show that you can beat the crap out of any of us?"
Nikita shook her head sadly. "Wrong answer, my friend. Sue, you and Granger come out here. Seems he didn't get the lesson after all."
"Uh, can't I do this after we've had the retraining?" Sue asked, with a heavy dose of doubt.
"Sue, I've watched you in your workouts. Do what you do best."
Sue's face brightened when she realized what Nikita was saying. "It'll work?"
Granger reluctantly followed Sue into the field. Before he could generate a plan of attack, Sue was pivoting. A high kick, the result of a dance career cut short by the Section, got Granger right under his chin. His neck snapped back and he hit the ground in an unconscious heap. Sue giggled in delight.
"Paul, what is the purpose of this exercise?"
Paul held up his hands in the global sign of surrender. "I don't need an ass whupping to know that women can be just as good a fighter as men, Nikita. My mama taught me that a long time ago and I don't know why I was foolish enough to listen to William and those two guys lying at your feet. I apologize to the women here and any other women I may have offended. Please believe that this is a repentant sinner you're talking to."
Nikita smiled. "Sorry, Rachel. You won't have a chance to sharpen your skills today."
"That's okay," Rachel quickly replied, grateful she wouldn't have to take on Paul at the moment.
"Gather up the fallen and let's head back," Nikita ordered. She walked over to the driver. "Better drop us off at MedLab," she whispered.
Michael watched the van unload. Nikita exited first, waving the stretcher to the door as Paul and Rachel literally carried Tyler to the gurney. Next came a limping Sue supporting a dazed Granger.
"You need a wheelchair, Sue?" one of the medtechs asked.
"No, we'll make it." She and her burden slowly made it down the hall.
Surprised (or was she?), Nikita looked at her trainer. "Michael, what are you doing here?"
"We have a briefing in thirty minutes." She nodded, remembering his meeting with Madeline. "How did your training go?"
She smiled at Paul and Rachel. "It was successful."
"Any permanent injuries?"
"No thanks to Tyler," Rachel said impulsively, then regretted it the moment Michael's cold eyes fell on her.
Rachel looked to Nikita in apology. "Nikita defeated Tyler and he signaled he was beaten. But he hadn't really given in and he attacked. She almost killed him, but she didn't."
Michael switched his focus to Nikita. "Admirable restraint." With a nod, he dismissed Rachel and Paul. When he was alone with Nikita, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a data disk.
"Our assignment?" she asked curiously. She usually didn't find out the details until the briefing.
"No, yours." He handed her the disk. "This is a list of the operatives William trained. They belong to you now."
"Michael, no," Nikita whined. "I told you-"
"Section takes care of its mistakes, one way or the other."
That silenced her. So either she would be their primary trainer or they would be canceled. Why did she have the sinking feeling that Madeline had manipulated everything, beginning the moment she walked into the locker room? It was part of Madeline's favorite "we are family" scenario. Now the responsibility for some of the "family" rested on Nikita's shoulders. Could she handle it? Better than she could the alternative. "Fine, Michael," she said with a resigned sigh. Then she realized there was a small silver lining to the situation. "Can I be the one to tell them?"
Michael shrugged. "They are your material now. I'll see you at the briefing."
Nikita nodded and headed for the showers. She imagined seeing Tyler's face when he found out she was in charge of his retraining. Life was about to get interesting in Section One.
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