True or Real
Chapter 5: I Wish I Didn't Have a Tail
It wasn't a statement. Nor was it a command. Nicole knew she'd get the full story from me whether she used her means of torture or not.
"There's nothing to spill." I told her, shrugging and returning my eyes to the book in my hands. I was reviewing one last time about Moscow. I had been before, but it never hurt to be more than prepared for a mission.
Nicole looked up from painting her toenails a bright red. She cocked a plucked eyebrow. "Oh really? Then why did I see Braiden skipping down the corridor to his room?"
My heart missed a beat. Braiden skipping? Was he that happy that we were dating now? Happiness fluttered in my chest and spread through me like circulating blood.
Nicole pointed a manicured finger in my direction. "I knew it! I knew it had something to do with him! Tell me, tell me!" she cried. She scooted closer to me on my bed, while trying not to ruin her toenails.
I refused to look up from the paragraph in my book talking about Saint Basil's Cathedral. "He just asked me a question on his math work, is all." I said nonchalantly.
"Look at me, Heather. He asked you out, didn't he?"
Nicole was never stupid when it came to people relationships like this. A smile touched my lips and it was impossible to hide it from my friend.
She squealed with delight. "I'm so happy for you! My little Heather is growing up! We need to make sure you look stunning tomorrow on the mission…New wardrobe, new make—"
"Nicole." I interrupted. "I don't need a new wardrobe or anything. Besides, we're on a mission. We can't go against the outfits we already decided on. Everyone has their part and we stick to it. We already decided."
She pouted her glossed lips. "You're no fun. But as soon as we're on the plane back, we're going shopping."
"Fine, fine. Shouldn't you be getting ready for tomorrow?" I asked her, looking at her feet.
"I am getting ready. Remember?"
Oh, I remembered. I'd never forget the plan we had developed just hours before. I only nodded and let Nicole murmur about the blonde-haired brown-eyed children Braiden and I would have in the future.
The following morning at dawn, we were in a commercial jet, flying towards Moscow. I was sitting between Braiden and Nicole, feeling as if the plane was traveling a mere five mph. In reality, it was traveling much, much faster than that.
Traveling in a commercial airplane versus a private one would give us anonymity. No one would suspect us to be famous, rich or arrogant had we traveled in our Agency's own planes. And commercial jets always had better pretzels. My team flew for nearly eight hours until our pilot declared over the intercom that we would be landing shortly. And land we did.
Nicole struggled getting her bag from the overhead compartment so Braiden got it out for her. She gave him a flirtatious smile and batted her eyelashes. "Thank you, Paul." She crooned.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and walked ahead of them both through the terminal and into the airport. People bustled about, many languages falling on my eardrums. Braiden and Nicole stepped beside me.
"I need to use the restroom, miss." I said in a gruff voice.
Nicole rolled her eyes. "Hurry up."
I followed the signs that led to the restrooms and entered the male one. I stepped in front of a sink and checked my appearance in the mirror. My short brown-haired wig was staying in place, which was a good thing. As was my matching mustache. I straightened the tie of my suit and only glanced at the man next to me, washing his hands. He too wore a tailored suit. I focused my eyes on the mirror again, not wanting to stare. The man rested his hands against the sides of the sink, sighing. Even his sigh sounded foreign. His dark eyes flickered to me as he gave me an accusatory stare.
I cleared my throat, meeting his gaze, and he left without a word. As soon as he had left, I checked beneath the stalls, making sure that no one else was in the restroom. I went to the sink the man had touched and checked the bottom of it. Stuck to the pipe with bubblegum was a silver key. Brows furrowing in confusion, I pulled it free of the gum and held it up to the light. Another man walked in then and gave me a baffled look.
I grinned. "I dropped my key, but I found it."
The man nodded, clearly understanding English. He stepped into one of the stalls. I dropped the key into my suit pocket and left the restroom. I found a very bored looking Nicole and an indifferent Braiden standing a few feet away on a bench. They both stood up when I approached. Nicole readjusted her pea coat that covered her fancy cocktail dress.
"Finally, you're ready, Chris." She said.
I nodded stiffly and Braiden and I escorted Nicole through the airport. I scanned the cars for a green Junker. I raised my hand at the driver and crossed the busy street. I held the door open for Nicole, and we sat on either side of her in the backseat.
The driver, a middle-aged man, smiled as he drove away from the populous city. "So how do you vike Russia?"
His green eyes met ours in the rear-view mirror and it took all my being not to laugh at his thick accent. He drove us further from the city and into snow-covered hills. The road wound higher and higher, seeming to disappear into the sky.
"It's cold." Nicole stated.
"Yes, I suppose it iz in zee vinter." The driver said.
Nicole only rolled her eyes, which we all knew wasn't part of her cover. I only stared out the car window and watched as my breath fogged it rhythmically.
Fifteen minutes later found us pulling before a dilapidated cathedral. The bronze onion domes on the cathedral were starting to rust, and the stairs leading to the double doors looked as though they had seen better days. The driver took us closer to the door, across the gravel. The rocks cracked under the tires and he pulled the car to a halt before the stairs. All was quiet as we stepped out of the car, leaving the poor man in the car. I looked back at him one more time.
"Enjoy your stay veer. And save vus." He muttered, his emerald eyes pleading me.
How the Agency was able to pick out such good men like him out of a million was beyond me. I wanted to reach out and comfort the man, but knew I couldn't. Braiden put a hand on my shoulder and guided me up the stairs. Nicole's heels clicked on the concrete and she wobbled up them. Braiden knocked three times on the cracked wooden door. He then pushed it open, the hinges screaming mercy. Sunlight dappled on the three of us as we stepped inside. Most of the roof was obliterated, leaving behind the crossbeams. Snow covered most of the pews that were all facing the altar.
Only one window was still intact. I stepped towards the massive stain-glass window. My fingertips grazed the bottom of it, which was colored to look like lush rolling hills. Obviously the ones were in right now. Angels flew above the knolls, and the sun's rays struck the Earth. Simply, it was beautiful.
The scraping of a pew against the floor brought me to my senses. Braiden was uncovering the hidden door, towards the front of the sanctuary. I went over to him and saw the trap door that was revealed. He swung it open and rested it on the floor. We all peered into the darkness below, where only a small green light could be seen.
My father always told me the first step is a doozy. And he was absolutely right, I thought to myself as I descended down the ladder. Braiden was below me and Nicole was above me on the rungs, the only sound our breathing. After we traveled to what felt like the center of the Earth, the light now giving everything a green hue. We were at the bottom of what looked like a tunnel and now we could see where the light was coming from—the floor numbers above—
"An elevator?" Nicole practically screeched. She pushed some of her frizzy hair away from her face. "We're already at the center of the Earth! How much farther can we go?"
Braiden didn't say anything but pressed the down button on the panel. The doors dinged open and we stepped inside the plush elevator. The doors closed and we fell further underground.
At the end of our passage, we were greeted with a silver door. Two men in suits stood beside the door, as if they had been anticipating this moment their entire lives. They ushered us into the area behind the door, which was a long hallway. One of the men stopped halfway down the hallway and pointed to a door. "Mr. Peters."
Braiden stepped forward, his room for the night. We wouldn't officially begin our mission until tomorrow. He nodded at us, and went into his room without another word.
Sadness crept inside of me, at the thought of not being near him. I pushed away the emotion and then was finally shown my own room. Inside, the Agency had the decency of giving me pajamas that were fitted for females, not for the man I appeared to be.
The room was basic, including a bed, TV, and a small bathroom. I shed my suit for the comfy pajamas and flipped on the TV. I counted down the minutes until Nicole would show up at my room. 3, 2, 1…
I pulled myself off the bed and headed towards the door when I heard the knocking. I opened the door, "Hey, Ni—Braiden?"
He offered me a crooked smile and scratched the back of his neck. "Hey, can I come in?"
I was shocked. I stood there for a moment at the threshold, trying to regain my thoughts. His eyes traveled to my slightly revealing pajamas and I was zapped back into reality. I quickly turned from him and put a hand on my chest. "Yeah, sure." I managed.
There wasn't really anywhere else for him to sit, so he sat next to me on my bed. This deeply concerned me.
Braiden took in a deep breath after a moment. "Listen, I'm a little worried about our plans for tomorrow."
Why was he telling me this now? I glanced at the alarm clock on my nightstand—just hours before it began?
"Why?" I inquired.
He shifted and aimed his brown eyes at me. "I'm just worried about you; I don't want you to get hurt. We don't know what the Cores are capable of."
I shook my head, disagreeing. "We planned out everything, it'll be fine. We're not even in real danger in this mission. Remember Buenos Aires?"
"How could I not remember that? I about lost my arm in that one…" he absently rubbed his arm. "Still, I'm worried about you. Just be careful, alright?"
The concern that shone in his eyes about melted my insides. Who knew eyes could make me feel that way? I blushed at his worry for me. It was nice for once to feel cared for.
"I will. And you better, too." I smiled.
He nodded and slowly leaned towards me. His sharp eyes took in my features as his lips got closer to mine. We were breathing the same air now. A butterfly fluttered in my chest—was he going to kiss me? Uncertainty filled me. I had never kissed anyone before. What if I did it wrong? What if I am a terrible kisser?
I never got to finish my string of thoughts because his lips collided with mine. They were soft and warm, comfortable. Our lips moved in synch and happiness exploded inside of me. He pulled away for a moment, only to push me back on the bed. He ran his hand along my bare shoulders, and kissed my jawline. Something twisted in my chest and my pulse increased. He wasn't—he wouldn't?
He pushed some of my hair away from my face and kissed me tenderly again. "See you tomorrow." And he left soundlessly.
I woke the next morning, hoping the mission would take my mind elsewhere. I didn't want to dwell on the passionate kisses Braiden had given me the night before, or his never-ending concern for me. If I focused on things other than the task at hand, mistakes would be made.
I showered, and ate in the dining area of the compound. Nicole and Braiden ate with me, both of them appearing to be in a good mood. Nicole was talking about this market she wanted to visit before we left, and Braiden was complimenting the breakfast we were eating.
I smiled softly to myself; this was how things were supposed to be.
Braiden swallowed a bite of his sausage, and looked at the two of us. "Everyone knows the plan, correct?"
Nicole rolled her eyes. "We've been over it a million times. How could we not remember it?"
He shrugged. "Sometimes mistakes are made."
"But we haven't made one yet." She countered with a pointed look.
He didn't answer and continued eating. We fell into a silence and I wished the atmosphere didn't feel as heavy.
I got ready for the mission by putting back on my suit and disguise. I made sure all of my hair was tucked into my wig, and that my moustache was firmly in place. Sometimes the world had to be saved in weird appearances. I emerged from my room and walked further down the hallway to where the elevator was. Braiden was already there, pacing before the doors. He stopped when he saw me and ran a hand through his hair. His nervousness was starting to get to me. I put a hand on his arm and he stopped.
"It'll be fine," I assured him. "You have nothing to worry about."
"I'm worried about your role in this one."
"My role?" I asked, surprised. "My role is hardly important. It's Nicole you should really be worried about."
He shook his head, bringing some of his blonde hair in front of his clear eyes. "I worry about her, but not as much. She isn't my girlfriend, you are."
My heart skipped a beat and I could feel warmth spread across my cheeks. I was saved from answering by Nicole stepping down the hallway. Her long leather coat swayed against her knees and her black stilettos struck firmly on the ground as she moved towards us. She flicked a piece of her blonde hair away from her face. "Let's go."
The cab driver we had yesterday took us to the center of Moscow. The streets were bustling with people, many of them hurrying to different stores and businesses. Strolling the streets were some officers, guns strapped across their chests, reminding the people.
The driver dropped us off at the corner of the street, and with a good luck, he was gone. Braiden took in a deep breath and muttered, "Phase one."
We each walked a different way, stepping into this foreign country. I headed to the eastern side of Moscow, where I was supposed to go. People didn't pay attention to the man wearing the suit, who strode purposefully through the crowds. They didn't notice the thoughts running through his dark eyes. I passed through the streets, buildings rising on both sides of me. They were impressive with ancient windows and contained multiple towers. After I strode through several streets, I rounded one more corner and found a dark emerald building, which was unusually flat. I kept on walking, not putting any thought into the building. Behind it, there was a group of men, some of them smoking cigarettes. They all turned towards me when I approached in the alley.
"Happening tonight, yez?" I asked in a deep voice.
The men all nodded, some of them murmuring to others and paying them cash. Of course it happened tonight—it happened every night. I gave them a curt nod, and they continued their dealings. They didn't question me, even if they didn't know me. The naïve men never questioned a man in suit; they often never personally met their bosses.
My end of the first phase was completed, time to regroup. I wound my way through the streets, purposefully taking a different route.
Children called for me, as I passed a small market. They walked up to me, wearing tattered clothing and no shoes on their dirty feet. They asked for me to buy some things from their booth.
I shook my head. "Het."
Frowns settled on their young faces, but I couldn't let them bother me. I had somewhere to be. I kept on walking, the colors of the passing things a blur. People. Stalls. Buildings.
I took a left, finding a man holding a flower up to his nose at one of the shops. He put down the flower as I walked past. Veering right, I found cars lining both sides of the road, leaving little room for me to maneuver through. I stepped carefully between the cars yet picked up my pace. I had to be there in four minutes. Another pair of footsteps sounded further behind me as the street ended and opened into a large courtyard with a fountain in the middle. Now there were civilians everywhere, conversations ranging from the weather to jobs. I stopped in front of the fountain casually, putting my hands in my pockets. I surveyed the area around me, trying to find that man. And there he was. He was chatting nonchalantly with a woman, smiling. The flower man.
I tossed a spare coin into the fountain, and walked away from the two. I walked hurriedly to my destination, I was close now. I stepped into a red shop that appeared to be selling jewelry. Cases held beautiful necklaces, a rainbow of colors. I asked the owner of the sparkly green necklace that had caught my eye. He smiled widely and showed it to me. It was beaded, with a diamond shaped emerald in the center. The man asked me if I wanted it. I smiled, only to feel the hair on the back of my neck to prick up. One of the employees asked the new customer if he could help him.
I turned slightly, pretending to be glancing at the rights sitting across the shop. The flower man was speaking to the employee, pointing to a ring. He then made eye contact with me, his green eyes as deep as the necklace I was being persuaded to buy. They were too…something. I didn't know what, but there was something off about them. I flicked my eyes away, and thanked the man politely, and didn't buy the necklace.
I took in a deep breath after I left the store, and allowed the rush of people to consume me. It would be easy to get lost in this city. One minute left.
I hurried down the sidewalk, knowing our spot was only a few streets away. I walked down the roads confidently and felt relieved when I sat down on a bench lining a street. Taxis passed me and people walked between them as if they weren't at a risk of being run over. Braiden took a seat beside me a few seconds later, a grim look on his face. Following a few feet behind him was Nicole, still sporting her fancy outfit. She sat between us, seeming to forget that Braiden and I were a couple now. We were watching the citizens, just three normal people taking a rest.
"Something's off." Nicole noted, as her eyes flickered from one person to the next.
I was going to ask her what she meant, when a man whose eyes were green enough not to forget was seen across the street. Nicole's eyes narrowed on a dark-skinned woman, who was talking animatedly to another woman nearby. Braiden's dark eyes followed another woman, with glossy black hair and curves in all the right places.
"We were tailed." We said in unison.