“Wake up!” I shake Nova’s shoulders and she opens her eyes. I also feel the cold steel of a knife under my chin and I am proud, even if a bit tense. “It’s me, don’t kill me. I’ll be very upset, and I’ll haunt you. Oooooo.”
I do my best ghost impression. It’s terrible.
“The fuck you want.”
“Language!” I relish the moments when she slips, hanging around with an assassin and his sort-of-Alfred brings out the best language from folks. It’s good to be the responsible one, as rare as that is. She rubs her eyes and looks at the clock, then pulls the blankets back over her head and offers another choice word. This one is unbecoming of a young lady.
“Language! And incredibly rude. Come on, get up. We have to try something.”
I wait for her to go through the morning ritual of waking up. Kids, right?
When she finally is awake, only two hours earlier than usual, I drag her to the range. She’s been doing quite well but this is a new idea.
“I want you to help me draw a pistol.”
“I’m no good at art.” She says.
“I’ve never done anything like that, on another person. I don’t know if I can.” A fair concern but I am an adventurous sort.
“We’re going to try it! It’ll be fun, trust me.”
“Not if I break your arm.” That was mostly mumbled but I heard it. I make the, let’s say wise, choice to ignore it. She won’t break my arm…I think. I hope.
I switched to a thigh holster before waking her up. I’m thinking it’s easier for her to manipulate the forces of an upward draw than a chest rig, simpler. Now I’m wondering if the updraft of her powers will tear my arm right out of the socket. I hold my hand over the butt of the handgun and look at her. She shrugs, nods and takes a stance.
Whenever she’s going to use the air stuff, and it needs a better name, she uses her hands. Not like some big grand movement like a cartoon wizard, she just has to direct it. I guessed it was like a focus issue. If she’s moving her hands she’s visualizing the air movement. I asked her last week and she said ‘sure’ and nothing else.
I take my shooting stance. There’s two targets straight ahead. It’s a simple draw. I drop my hand and go for the pull, hand tight on the grip and starting the upward motion. Quite suddenly I find my hand at eye level and the pistol nowhere to be found, as an unseen force drives my hand up on the draw. I look up to see a small dot that is my handgun.
It lands without any problems. Nova blushes. I grin, ear to fucking ear.
“Christ, kid, this changes everything!”
She grins back.
Now, now we might just have a shot at doing some real damage. If we can figure out how to stop me losing my damn gun.
We take a break from the range. We mostly have to, my guns can only take so much of a beating. On the fourth attempt it went through a window and into some long grass. The break comes shortly after I stop losing my gun to the air and just after six snapshots in perfect order. We eat lunch together. Cold egg salad sandwiches on white bread and a crunchy green apple. She carves apple slices and shoves them into the egg salad. I try to subtly copy her because it looks good. She notices. Through a pretty gross grin for a prim little girl, she prods at the grip of my handgun, one of a set that I had made years ago.
I unsnap the holster and drop the magazine, clear the chamber and hand the handgun to her. It’s a forty-five, custom made.
There’s an etching on the grip from a lifetime ago when Ronnie discovered I was a quick little bastard. Some kids like me end up working on a car engine with their dads, little fingers snagging all sorts of stuff that big hairy fingers weren’t suited to get. Others might draw or paint. I was on the shooting range.
“Mercury was a god of all sorts of things, like travelers and commerce and trickery, but he was known for being quick. It’s also a fluid element. It worked on a lot of levels. Ronnie used to call me Mercury until I got older and it faded away. I never forgot though. When I finished my first official job I had a pair of forty-fives made with an engraving on the grip of Mercury’s winged sandals. They were my sweet sixteen presents to myself.”
“Someone told me ages ago to not buy a gun you weren’t willing to lose. I ignored that advice and bought these, a matching pair. Those are the *Talaria*, the winged sandals that Mercury wore. They helped him fly as fast as a bird. Always thought it was fitting. I thought that if you bought something you loved, you’d fight to make sure you didn’t lose it.”
She runs her fingers over the engraving, carefully tracing the image.
“Cool.” She hands the handgun back to me and I holster it.
“Tell you what, kid, when we get the chance we’ll have something made up for you. When you figure out what you want. Cool?”
She smiles, all excited like. In that moment, she’s a kid again and I see myself reflected in that. That same little jerky dance that I did when Ronnie told me I was the fastest she’d ever seen. Those words had made me more proud than any since and any before.
She shoves the rest of her sandwich in her mouth and stands up, brushing crumbs off her pants.
“Alright, old man, what’s next?”
Thinking that we need a break from the draw before she breaks my arm in excitement, I decide a new test of skill. I lead her to a table of goodies.
“Throwing knives,” I flip one and catch the tip, moving smoothly to chuck the thing at a wooden target about fifteen feet away. It lands, point going the right way, and wobbles in place with that satisfying noise that those little door stoppers make. “Effective and deadly in the right hand.”
She scoffs, literally scoffs, at me. No one has ever actually, literally scoffed at me. Snatches one of the knives off the table and gives it a throw. You couldn’t blink as fast as she moved, as fast as that damn knife was gone.
It doesn’t wobble. Or twang like a door stopper.
It makes a solid *thunk* sound and I can’t even see it after that.
I mock her scoffing noise and we walk to the target. I check the front and can only find a small indent and the slightest glint of black metal. On the backside, there is about half an inch of blade sticking out.
I stop mocking the scoffing noise.
“Shit. Ok. So when we give you a blade, you’re Death’s physical embodiment. A twelve-year-old girl version of Death. Maybe we’ll get you a little bone vulture tattooed on your shoulder or something. Call you Grim. A black cloak and everything.”
She just grins. Getting cocky with all this training, thinks she’s hot shit. It might have something to do with the amount of compliments I’ve just shoveled at her.
I spend the next thirty minutes breaking the wooden target apart to retrieve the five-inch throwing knife from what had once been a sizable piece of wood. Firewood now. I have a thought when I spin the knife along my fingers, watching her reset the range for our next round of practice.
She just might be hot shit.
We sit around a burning fire, watching the painted circles of the throwing knife target blacken away in the heat. There’s the standard night noises of crickets and the crackling flames. She balances a throwing knife in the air above her index finger, just holding it there. You could run a finger between her finger and the tip of the blade, it’s surreal and should be impossible.
It will never get old to me.
“So, kid, what do you think?”
“About what, old man?” She twirls the knife in the air without moving her hand, spinning it like a top. Training went well enough, she understands how much to apply on my arms for faster shots and draws, reloading was where we drew the line. Given that the magazine missed with the extra help, slamming into the side of my hand and tore a strip out of my hand.
I nurse it through a white bandage that’s already staining red. It was a deep strip.
“This isn’t anything like what comes next. Are you ready for that?” I say, idly rubbing my hand and feeling the burn.
She spins the blade and stares into the flames. I don’t push. Every so often I get the brilliant idea to keep my mouth shut until others speak.
“Ronnie told me they killed my fosters. Two kids too.”
“She said they won’t stop coming after me. Ever. That the Chairman wants me dead, no matter what. You too. Since…you know. You helped.”
“Yeah.” I am a font of useful additions to this conversation.
“I’ve killed before. Eleven times. Your friends?” She says. It’s my turn to stare into the fire.
“Friends? Not really. But I knew them.” That’s the truth. There are rarely friends in this business. Usually just future targets and coffin weights.
“Okay, not friends. But I’ve killed. To live. They started coming after me when I was six. Six years I managed to stop them and every time I got shuffled back into the system. My parents…they died when it all started. My dad saw this.” She flings the knife into the stack of firewood. “And he tried to get us out of California. We were going to leave when someone shot him and then my mom, trying to get us. They thought they got dad, but he had this metal plate in his head. Bullet bounced right of. He killed whoever it was that came after us and he told me to run. Six years old. I’ve been doing this for six years, Avery.”
She looks at me, tears running down her face.
“So yeah, I’m ready for what’s next.”
We sit and watch the fire together. I have nothing I can say to her. She means it. There’s nothing more I can ask her, not much more I can tell her. She’s ready. Ronnie taught me something when I was a kid. The best teacher for an assassin is life. Good killers get old. Bad killers die young.
Great killers are legends, because they don’t exist. Too much fame makes you a bad killer. Just enough, gets you old. We might not have a chance to do either but we can sure as shit make a dent in the Agency, maybe even take down the Chairman. Even if they’ll just replace him.
She leans on my shoulder and wipes her face in the way that kids do, that whole wipe with the bottom of their sleeve. It’s very tough of her. It also might have ruined the sleeve of her sweater.
It’s very tough and she’s very strong right up until she falls asleep against me. Then she’s just a scared girl leaning against a trained killer. That’s probably grounds to call CPS. I just sit watch the fire burn down.
Even if she is ready, even if we take them on, no matter how ready we are…we’ll probably die. You can’t ever be ready for that. Not really. You can just accept it.
Sad part is, I think she accepted that before tonight. That she was dead. That maybe this is all for nothing in the end.
“Yeah, me too, kid.” I whisper out into the darkness as the embers fade down into the night.