“So what did you tell him? Uhhh …”
“John,” Liz supplied helpfully. She was having a hard time keeping the false names straight herself.
“Yes, John. How did you answer him?”
Liz laughed. These were good memories for her, and she enjoyed reliving them. Plus, she really had been naďve the day she’d met her mentor.
“I want to take some martial arts lessons,” she said, slowly, clearly confused.
“No, I mean, did you have a specific goal in mind?” he clarified. “One discipline in particular that interests you? What made you decide to come in now?”
So they talked for a while, and he had her perform a few tasks to assess her level of ability. She was interested to learn that a childhood of dance lessons had left her extremely flexible and physically sound, and her naturally high energy level promised fast progress in whatever kind of training she chose. He agreed that exercise probably would help her insomnia, and was very interested in the show that had inspired her to begin with. With a smile, she promised to bring in the tape the next day. “And afterwards, we can catch the last half of Charmed, ‘cause I missed it this week,” she joked.
She felt very comfortable with him and just nodded when he proposed a personalized lesson plan for her. From the beginning he seemed to know exactly how hard to push her and what she was capable of, and after a few demonstrations she couldn’t help but respect his obvious skill and love for his work. But he also treated her with unwavering respect and never lost his sense of humour or decency. So it was with great enthusiasm that she came in daily, to exercise in the small but well-appointed gym but also to learn how to fight – how to move, how to fall, and how to anticipate her opponent’s moves. She thrived under his expert tutelage and encouragement.
Within two weeks they were making contact hits, and he started using a little force, trusting her to defend herself ably. And, to her immense pride and delight, she found that she could and did. She was small, it was true, but she was flexible and she found that she could make it very difficult for someone, even someone considerably larger and stronger than herself, to maintain a hold on her. Plus, every body had its points of weakness, and she was a quick learner – as he discovered one day to his great amusement. He laughed even as tears flowed down his cheeks and she hovered over his prone body, stricken with guilt and anxiously fetching ice pack after ice pack from a small kitchenette in the next room. In general, though, she simply found that having someone to measure herself against helped focus her energy and made the experience more enjoyable.
Looking back, she had to laugh. At the time she’d been so caught up in the novelty of the whole situation, and the importance of keeping it a secret, that it had never occurred to her how unusual their first meeting, and consequently, her lessons, must have been.
“So, when did the lessons change?” the priest asked, curiously.
She looked at the wall between them suspiciously. “Why do you think they did?”
“Well,” he said logically, “I can tell you’re leading up to something. And I figure the obvious next part of your story has to do with your friends finding out. But also, from what I know about you so far, you wouldn’t be content unless you upped the stakes.”
“‘Upped the stakes’?” she echoed, dumbfounded. “Uh, sorry, Father, but, uh … is that how priests usually talk?” She grew pink with embarrassment when he responded.
“I am not unaware of the world beyond these walls,” he chided gently. “I thought you wanted to talk informally, but if you wish, we can continue with a ‘proper’ confession.”
“No, please, I appreciate what you’re doing,” she protested sincerely. “I’ve never told my story like this before, and I have to admit that it feels good.”
“All right then,” he continued, and she could hear the relief in his voice too. Apparently he really was interested in hearing the rest.
“Okay, then. Now, where was I?” she tried to remember.
“You were going to tell me about the next stage in your training.”
“Ah, yes. Well, one day I asked how much more there was for me to learn …”
Jay didn’t answer but looked at her seriously.
“Do you want to learn … more?” he asked, and for the first time she heard hesitancy in his voice, and the emphasis on the last word.
She cocked her head to one side and nodded. “Of course,” she said, as if it were a given, then asked as an afterthought, “what do you mean by ‘more’?”
“Here’s the thing,” he started, and his normally bright eyes lit up until they seemed to sparkle. “You’re a natural,” he said, and looked at her significantly.
“A natural what?” the priest asked.
“That’s what I asked,” Liz chuckled.
“A natural what?” she asked, and he looked thoughtful, as if he wanted to find just the right words.
“A natural soldier,” he said slowly, and quieted her automatic and indignant protest.
“I don’t mean that you should run out and join the marines, although they’d probably be happy to have you,” he continued with a hint of a smile, but she just looked at him. He sighed.
“Have you ever watched La Femme Nikita?” he asked, and she would have laughed at his pained expression if she hadn’t been so appalled by his words.
“Now you think I should train as an assassin?” she tried to joke, but for the first time, she felt a little unnerved in her instructor’s presence. In fact, she could barely believe she was even having this conversation; it was that ridiculous.
“No!” he said forcefully, to her utter amazement. Apparently the thought had actually crossed his mind before, and he found it an upsetting one.
“I’m trying to say,” he stressed, “that in my opinion you have the potential to be a great operative of just about any kind, and it would be a shame not to explore your talents further. In fact, I think it would be wrong to turn your back on it when you could do so much with it. You're old enough to be thinking about these kind of things,” he said before Liz could interrupt, and she was shocked by his intensity. He’d never spoken to her like this, and it was as if a dam had broken, spilling out what was so carefully held back.
“Don’t you have anything to fight for?” he asked heatedly. “Anyone you’d do anything to protect?”
And she stopped protesting then, because of course she did. And it was probably written all over her face because Jay didn’t push her to reveal more. Some secrets were worth keeping, and he must have suspected that this seemingly ordinary girl held more than a few of her own, which probably explained why she showed up in the first place. But he showed no interest in them except in how they motivated her training.
Meanwhile, Liz felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. She was so used to feeling helpless against Max’s alien destiny that not once in the past months had she considered her afternoon forays anything but an end unto themselves. Certainly not as a means to yet another, far more important goal …
And it occurred to her that maybe she wasn’t the only one who could use training. She’d have to think about this.
But for now she focused on the man in front of her. “What are you?” she asked.
He paused, and then looked at her. “Ex-CIA,” he admitted.
“Ex-CIA?” the priest interrupted. “Didn’t that seem a little suspicious?”
“Wait,” Liz advised. “I’ll try to explain.”
She stared at him, a little stunned but not really sceptical. It did explain his expertise and air of competence, although privately she’d figured on a military background; half of Roswell was associated with one of New Mexico’s many military bases in some way. “You’re very young. Why ‘ex’?”
His expression grew haunted, but he forged ahead. “I started college young, took an accelerated program. They recruited me a week before I graduated. I finished basic training a month shy of my twentieth birthday, had my first field assignment by 21, started heading field operations by 23, and was burnt out at 24.” He anticipated her next question. “I’ll be 25 in a few months.”
“Burnt out? How?”
For the first time, she saw bitterness cross his features. “My superiors thought I showed potential.” He spoke flatly, without pride. “They had me on the fast track, forced me to perform above and beyond my comfort level. And soon,” he said in a hollow tone that chilled Liz, “I found myself going after objectives that I didn’t, couldn’t, believe in. So when my brother-in-law died, I quit. I filed for a compassionate discharge and moved here to be with my sister.” He looked at her significantly. “She and I are orphans. We don’t have any other family, other than her son and a distant cousin that we lost touch with years ago.”
And although he would never know it, those words, and the quiet emotion that underscored them, persuaded Liz more than any of his arguments. It was one aspect of the podsters’ lives that had always saddened her, and she had never been able to understand how Maria’s father could leave his own child. She felt a renewed pang of grief, and her heart went out to her friends, and to Jay.
“It sounds really lonely,” she said before thinking, and winced, hoping she hadn’t sounded patronizing.
“It was,” he said, and smiled at her.
Sighing, she had to ask, “Why are you telling me this?” She needed to hear him talk about his reasons before she could trust what she thought he might be proposing, even a little.
He looked at her intently. “I think you might have a few battles worth believing in. And maybe we can put what I know to good use.”
She considered his obvious sincerity. Okay, good. For a moment there she was worried he’d say something insane, like he had a crush on her, and she would have to admit only fraternal admiration and affection for the older man. “Why are you in Roswell again?” she pressed, seeking a more specific answer, searching his features for signs of deception or evasion.
Jay recognized her question as the test it was, and his interest was piqued if not his curiosity. He repeated himself emphatically.
“To help Justine.” He smiled at her surprise, and she slapped herself in the forehead.
“Justine’s your sister?”
She smiled warmly, but spoke evenly. She knew enough for now. She had decided.
“Where do we begin? Do you have any neat spy gadgets I can learn to use?”
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