Six weeks of extra practice had honed Ana’s skills. An hour of warm-up had loosened her muscles and primed her body. Adrenaline surged as she balanced on the balls of her feet, watching Deacon for the first hint of movement. A twitch of muscle. A shift in expression.
Any indication he was going to attack.
Anticipation crawled up her spine, twisting as the seconds dragged on. Deacon was a blank-faced wall of muscle two feet in front of her, his seemingly unprepared stance a trap that had ensnared plenty of new recruits. If Ana took a swing at him, he’d move, and with more speed than a man his size had any right to possess.
She’d ended up flat on her back more than once after falling for that trap, her pride stinging as she endured the knowing laughs of her fellow Riders. It didn’t matter that they’d all ended up in the same position--they were men. They were allowed to get their asses kicked.
Ana couldn’t afford to fail as often as they did.
Deacon stretched his neck slowly, first to one side and then the other--and waited.
He was testing her patience--or was it her courage? Maybe that was his goal--to see if she’d put pride and aversion to humiliation before her training.
Either way, she’d lose. With Deacon, she always seemed to. Might as well get it over with.
She shifted her balance just enough to suggest an attack was coming, a feint most of the other Riders would have bought--and had, at some point. But she knew as soon as she launched her real attack that Deacon hadn’t.
He moved, a blur of tattooed skin and flexing muscles, and the fight was over before it even started. Her back hit the thick mats so hard it drove the air from her lungs, but even that discomfort was mild compared to the burn of frustrated embarrassment.
She’d let him get in her head. Again.
Deacon leaned over, bracing one hand on his knee and holding the other out to her. “That was good.”
Yeah, so good she’d ended up flat on the floor with the wind knocked out of her.
She bit back the need to slap his hand away and snap at him not to patronize her. The only thing worse than failing as a girl was looking like a bad sport about it. She let him haul her to her feet before calmly--oh, so very calmly--saying, “Not good enough. I want to go again.”
Ana flexed her fingers. Spreading them wide and focusing on the gentle pull of muscles kept her from balling them into fists. “I need the practice.” Obviously.
“You’ve been practicing plenty. You’re up here with Ashwin nearly every day.” Deacon went still, then inclined his head. “Consider this a different sort of lesson.”
She couldn’t stop her embarrassed flush. “What lesson is that?”
He said it like it was a universal truth, with a tiny shrug and a crinkle between his eyebrows. “Not every fight can be won.”
Each Rider faced that truth--if not before they joined, then during initiation, when they stood in front of their own portrait on the memorial wall in the temple. An outline that would be painted in upon their death, just like the others that surrounded it, all the dozens of portraits of Riders who had already died.
Maybe that was the lesson she’d embrace. Riders spent their lives too easily. There was nothing smart about throwing yourself against a brick wall until it broke you. Smart was retreating until you could find another way around the damn wall.
Ana forced herself to relax and nod. “All right.”
Deacon’s expression didn’t change. “No argument?”
Another trap. Strange how she could see it, recognize the wisdom of silent obedience--and still not manage to hold her tongue. “Nope. Sometimes you just can’t win a fight...yet.”
“Yet,” he echoed, crossing his arms over his massive chest. “Explain.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t lose. I withdrew. Fight’s not over until you’re dead. Sometimes something’s important enough to die for. But sometimes you need to pull back and regroup.”
He shook his head, reached for a clean, folded towel, and held it out to her. “Now you’re deliberately twisting what I said. Not every fight can be won, Ana. When you’re my age, you’ll see the truth of it.”
When you’re my age. Like he was some ancient, tottering grandfather and not a man who’d barely broken a sweat tossing her around. She took the towel and wiped her forehead, wishing he was ancient.
If his wise and ancient years would slow him down, just a little, maybe she could dump him on his ass for once.
The flush of embarrassment was gone, drowned by a fresh wave of anger. Anger at him, sure--Deacon was a patronizing son of a bitch who couldn’t stop treating her like a little girl playing dress-up. But that was nothing compared to her anger at herself.
Deacon was the brick wall she couldn’t stop throwing herself against, no matter how emotionally bruised it left her. She knew better by now. She was never going to win his approval.
And fuck him for making her want it.
“You’re learning a lot from Ashwin. Maybe we should make those informal training sessions formal. Get everyone in the room.”
The compliment was meant more for Ashwin than for Ana, but at least it didn’t sound patronizing. She let it smooth the edges off her anger as she started to pace in a loose circle to keep her muscles from tightening up. “Everyone could benefit from his lessons. Hunter’s already working with him. So is Gabe, but only with blades, I think.”
“Don’t forget Reyes.” The words were flat, almost sardonic, but Deacon’s eyes twinkled.
Ana had gotten this far for one reason--anger never overtook her sense of humor for long. She huffed out a laugh and stretched her left arm until the pull turned into a satisfying burn. “Yeah, I don’t know if we can call flirting with Kora until Ashwin is ready to pick a fight with him a comprehensive training plan. I mean, sure, the rest of us like watching them go at it...but structure is good, too.”
“Careful, or I’ll put you in charge of organizing it.”
“You just want me to have to put up with all the bitching about extra training.”
“When have you known me to give a shit if they complain?” Deacon draped his towel around his neck and eyed her appraisingly. “No. You need a project.”
Ana tamped down the first rush of excitement and stretched her other arm. Deacon could think she’d be good at it--or he could want to give her a job that kept her busy at the compound and off the front lines of every fight. “I have a project,” she reminded him finally. “My dad’s information network.”
“You need a project that’s yours,” he corrected. “But the information is too important to set aside, and his contacts trust you. You’ll have to do both.”
“I can handle it.” The words were reflex. “I’ll talk to Ashwin and see what the options are. I’m sure he can teach us a lot more than just brawling.”
“He’s Makhai,” Deacon said simply.
A year ago, Ana had barely understood what that meant. The Base’s most elite soldiers were more myth than reality to the people who’d grown up in the sectors. She’d listened to stories about grim, terrifying men with psychic powers who could make you disappear from your own bed behind a locked door while your family slept nearby, oblivious.
Ashwin didn’t have psychic powers, just highly enhanced genes and the kind of brutal training Ana couldn’t wrap her head around. Her father had never gone easy on her, for sure--she’d been practicing marksmanship by shooting bottles and discarded pottery to earn spending money from the time her hands were big enough to hold a gun.
But after she finished, her father would join her as they sorted through the broken shards for pieces the mosaic artists could use in their work. He’d crouch next to her, picking through the pieces of glass so she wouldn’t cut her fingers, and tell her stories about her namesake, Santa Adriana, daughter of the Prophet, who had personally attended Ana’s birth to bless her first breath.
He’d tell her stories of the world beyond Sector One, beyond any of the sectors. He’d tell her stories of the world before the Flares, and how quickly it had all changed when the lights went out.
“You’ve always gotta be ready, babygirl.” Every time he put her in the dirt during training, he’d haul her back to her feet with those words. William Jordan hadn’t been ready for the world to end when he was twelve years old. He’d fought through those dark years to survive, fought until the fighting made him hard. But when he’d pushed Ana, she could always feel the love behind his toughness.
Ana didn’t think Ashwin’s training had involved a lot of love, tough or otherwise.
Maybe that made her excitement over what he could teach her a little morbid, but Ashwin didn’t mind. If anything, he seemed to relish the chance to pass on his hard-won skills. So she would accept Deacon’s project, and poke and prod her fellow Riders until they were all benefiting from Ashwin’s tutelage.
If Deacon thought that would distract her from the front lines, he’d be sincerely disappointed.