When she’s a child, it doesn’t seem so strange. Hope is always running, between people’s legs, through massive empty rooms, dodging around furniture and under tables and giggling the whole time. She’ll crouch in the little niche in the wall where all of Birkoff’s computer wires snake, and he’ll find her in there and complain, “No, dude, get out. You’re messing everything up and you’ll get electrocuted.”
Hope thinks it’s funny. She thinks everything is funny. She laughs and crawls away and jumps on the couch, and then she goes to her father and wraps her arms around his leg so that he has to drag her as he walks. That makes Hope laugh, too. When he shakes her off, like he always does, Hope moves on. She never stops moving for long. She bursts into Alex’s bedroom and crawls beneath the covers of the bed, and Alex says, “Hope, I can see you.”
Hope squeals with laughter, and then she falls out of the other end of the bed and crawls underneath. She squirms on her belly all the way through and then she grabs Alex’s ankle and cackles with glee.
Alex gets up in a huff, and storms out of her room and down the stairs with Hope racing after her and laughing.
“Can someone deal with her, please?” Alex asks. “I was on the phone.”
“Not me,” Birkoff says without even glancing at Hope. “She’s a jinx with computers.”
It’s Nikita who appears, coming out of her bedroom, and she says, “Hope,” and holds out her arms, so Hope runs into them.
Nikita is the only person who can make Hope quiet. She holds her tight, and close, so close that their cheeks press together and Hope can hold Nikita’s hair and feel Nikita breathing.
“Baby,” Nikita whispers, and she puts their foreheads together and says it just for Hope to hear, like it’s some big secret they’re sharing.
“Yes,” Hope whispers back, and she curls her fist into Nikita's collar and wraps her legs around Nikita’s waist so that they are stuck together and no one can ever pull them apart.
“I swear, it’s black magic,” Birkoff says, looking at them. “How can she do that?”
“She’s a wild thing,” Alex agrees.
“She’s my wild thing,” Nikita says, and smiles a secret smile.
“It’s genetic,” Michael mutters.
When Hope gets older, she starts to realise that other kids don’t live the way she lives. They don’t wake up at 4 AM to kiss their parents goodbye on a mission. They don’t spend days on end living alone with someone like Birkoff, or wear headsets for hours just to hear their parents’ voices.
Hope doesn’t think that other children get trained in espionage, either. She learns from everyone.
Sometimes, when her parents are out of the country, Alex stays behind with Hope.
“You don’t have to worry about them,” she promises. “They’re the best.”
Late at night, when Hope has tucked herself into bed because Nikita isn’t there, she might cry a little bit. Once, Alex hears her, and she comes into Hope’s room and sits down on the side of the bed.
“I’m afraid,” Hope sniffles.
Alex strokes her hair, and then she says, “Hope, even if something happened to them – to Nikita or Michael – you have nothing to be afraid of.”
“But I’ll be all alone.”
“You’ll never be alone,” Alex promises. “You always have me, understand? And if it’s really bad then you have Birkoff too.”
Hope giggles, reluctantly, just a little sound. “Do you think you could stay with me?”
“When I was your age,” Alex says, “my mother used to sing to me when I couldn’t sleep.” She sings, then, sitting on the bed, holding Hope’s hand and stroking Hope’s hair. It’s a Russian lullaby. Hope understands most of the words, but the soft sounds soothe her to sleep anyway.
In the middle of the night, when she wakes up in the dark, cold and afraid, Alex is still lying next to her. Hope presses her face into Alex’s side and thinks that maybe she’s lucky to have extra people to take care of her.
Hope has to be a secret. She thought it was a game, at first, but when she’s old enough her mother sits her down and explains it to her.
“If people know about you, they might try to hurt you.”
“Why would they hurt me?” Hope asks. She twists her hands in her lap. “Did I do something wrong?”
Nikita looks like she might cry. “Oh, baby,” she says. “Come here.”
Hope crawls into Nikita’s arms and curls up, tight. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Nikita tells her firmly. “Hope, you’ve never done anything wrong. It’s my fault. If bad people hurt you, it will be because of me. Do you understand? Hurting you is the worst thing they could do to me.”
“Why does hurting me hurt you?” Hope asks.
“Because you’re the most important part of me,” Nikita says quietly. “I love you so much, okay?”
Hope’s always called her parents by their first names, since that’s what everyone else calls them. Sometimes, she calls Birkoff ‘Nerd’. Once, she called Alex ‘Alexandra’, like Alex was in trouble and it made everyone laugh.
She’s out walking with Nikita one day when a lady stops them, and asks Hope, “Is this your mommy?”
Hope isn’t sure how she should answer the question. Yes, Nikita is her mommy, but she’s also just Nikita. “Who are you?” she says instead.
When they get home, Nikita scoops Hope up and plants kisses all over her, on her cheeks and face and belly. “I’m so proud of you,” she says. “You’re such a clever girl.”
“I can do missions someday,” Hope says immediately. “Like you.”
That makes Nikita go quiet and still, and Alex comes over and says, “When you’re older, Hope.”
“Yeah,” Hope agrees. “When I’m a big girl.”
She’s not so big, as it turns out.
“Birkoff,” Alex calls, and she’s running through the door and grabbing her jacket. She sees Hope in the chair in front of the computer. “Where’s Birkoff?”
“He had to go,” Hope says unhelpfully. “What’s happening?”
“I have to go,” Alex sighs. “Can you stay by yourself?”
“No!” Hope exclaims. “Nikita says I am most definitely not allowed to stay by myself ever.”
“You never follow rules that anyone else makes,” Alex groans.
“Yes, but she’s Nikita.”
“Oh, I know,” the woman mutters, and then she holds out her hand. “Okay, come on, Hope. Bring your headset.”
Hope grabs it and jumps off the computer chair. “Where are we going?” she asks.
“A place where you have to be very quiet,” Alex says. “Put on your shoes and I’ll get your jacket.”
It’s cold outside, and Alex makes Hope put her jacket on before they get in the car. Hope crouches down in the back seat until they are far away from the house and then she knows she can sit up.
“Is it a mission?” she asks Alex. “What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to do exactly what I tell you,” Alex says. “Can you promise?”
Hope thinks about it and squirms in her seat. “Weeeeell,” she says, dragging out the word, “maybe.”
“Just pretend I’m your mother.”
Hope looks at Alex. “I’ll try to do what you say.”
When the car stops, the brakes all screech and Alex says, “Get out fast and follow me.” She leads Hope to a ladder, and tells her to climb. When they get up onto the roof, Alex pushes Hope down into the little space where the brick wall meets the roof. “Stay down,” she says. “Hope, you have to stay down.”
“Okay,” Hope says, and she stays down.
In her headset, she hears Michael say, “We’re completely pinned down.”
“I see you,” Alex answers, and she puts her sniper rifle together. “Hope, hand me the sight.”
“All we need is one guy down to create confusion,” Nikita says in the headset.
Alex says, “Hope, cover your ears,” and then she says, “Okay, ready? Now.”
Hope flattens her hands over her ears when the shot rings out, and then she hears more shots, both in real life and in her headset, and then she hears panting and knows that her parents are running to join them.
“Come on,” Alex tells her. “We’ve got to get back to the car.”
Hope climbs down the ladder first and waits at the bottom for Alex, and then her parents hurtle around the corner.
Michael exclaims, “Hope!”
Nikita yells, “Alex! What the hell are you thinking, bringing her here?”
“I can’t stay at home by myself,” Hope points out.
“Get in the car,” Nikita tells her.
Nikita sits in the back with Hope, and when Hope has to lie down when they get near the house, Nikita lies down beside her and wraps her arms around her. “I did just what Alex told me,” Hope says proudly.
“I love you,” Nikita whispers in her ear. She says it over and over again while she holds Hope so tight. “I love you. I love you.”
Normally, both of her parents go on missions together. Most of the time, they take Alex too. It’s unusual when Nikita and Alex go off alone and Michael puts Hope into the car and says, “We’re going down to the beach.”
“Why?” Hope asks.
“It’s a surprise.”
She crouches in the back and says, “Shouldn’t you be with Nikita?”
“Hope,” Michael smiles, “I learnt something a long time ago about Nikita.”
“She can take care of herself. Besides, I wanted to spend time with you today. That’s important to me too, you know.”
“Will you tell me what we’re going to do?”
He laughs. “It’s still a surprise.”
When they get to the beach, Michael produces wetsuits in both of their sizes. He walks with Hope into the tiny shed and they change their clothes, and then they go back to the car and Michael takes two surfboards out of the boot.
“Michael!” Hope yells. “Surfing!” She grabs him around the waist and squeezes. “Thank you!”
“It’s going to be difficult at first,” he warns, “but I think you’ll get the hang of it pretty fast.”
They don’t get back home until after dark, when Nikita and Alex have already returned. Alex is holding ice to her ankle, and Nikita has a cut on her lip and a big bruise on her cheek, but both of them smile when they see Hope, still in her wetsuit, salty and exhausted with her hair damp and her eyes bright with joy.
Nikita and Alex let Hope help them get ready, sometimes, especially when they have to look pretty.
“It’s formal dress,” Nikita explains when Hope tugs on her dress and asks why she has to wear it.
“A formal dress?”
“Not quite,” Nikita laughs. “Formal dress means that you have to dress up when you go to certain parties.”
“Oh,” Hope says. She climbs up to sit on the counter while Nikita leans into the mirror and does her make-up. “And you have to put formal make-up.”
Alex comes to join them, and her dress is blue, which is Hope’s favourite colour. “I like it,” she tells Alex.
“I’ll keep it for you,” Alex says, “and you can wear it when you’re bigger.” She turns around and asks Nikita, “Zip me up?”
“Oh, I can do it!” Hope announces.
“Well sure, wild thing,” Alex agrees. She steps closer to the bench with her back to Hope, and Hope pulls the zipper up, carefully and slowly in case she breaks anything. “Great job,” Alex praises.
Nikita puts her earrings in. “How do we look, Hope?”
“Very formal,” Hope says seriously. “Why don’t you wear a suit like Michael?”
“Girls usually wear dresses to parties,” Alex says.
“I’d like to wear a suit,” Hope decides, but then she looks again at Alex’s pretty blue dress. “Maybe I can wear both some day?”
They laugh at her, and then Nikita lifts her up and hugs her close. “Be safe, baby,” she says, which is what she always says before they go away.
“I know,” Hope tells her, and then Nikita puts her down and Hope goes to wait with Birkoff.
Birkoff is the one who tells her stories about the past.
“Michael cried when you were born,” he says once.
“Why did he cry? Was he sad?”
“A little bit,” Birkoff admits.
“Because of my sister who died?”
“I think so. But also because he was so happy to meet you.”
“What else happened?”
Birkoff thinks about it. “Well, your mom was in the room, and she said it hurt, but she’s a tough cookie, you know? And she didn’t want any drugs to hurt you. Your dad was in there with her, and Alex was too, to hold Nikita’s hand or something, I guess.”
“And then I got born?”
“Well, yeah. I heard you screaming, so I knew that you were tough just like Nikki. Alex came out and told me I could come in and meet you, that you were very cute.”
“Did you hold me?”
Birkoff looks amused. “No one could hold you at first! Nikita wouldn’t let you go for about an hour. She just held you and stared at you. Eventually Michael persuaded her to give you to him, and then he held you.”
“And cried,” Hope laughs. “Then Alex held me.”
“Right,” Birkoff agrees. “And then Owen turned up and gave us a mission.”
“So what happened?”
“They all went on a mission and left me alone with you!” Birkoff exclaims. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“Did you feed me?”
“No, stupid, I didn’t have anything to feed you with.”
“Did I cry?”
“The whole freaking time.”
“So then Nikita came home.”
“Yeah, she did. She made them finish the mission fast and she came right back to you, and she walked in, and you were screaming your head off, like you’d been doing the whole time. Nikita went over to you and she picked you up and you just went quiet, suddenly, just like that.”
“Because she’s my mommy,” Hope says proudly.
There are things which scare Hope, nightmares and thoughts which wake her up and send her scurrying down the hallway from her bedroom to her parents’ bedroom. She pushes open the door and says, “Mommy,” with tears streaming down her cheeks. It’s the only time she calls Nikita that.
Nikita lifts up the covers and says, “Come here, baby.”
Hope scrambles into bed next to her and curls up tightly right against Nikita. She puts her head on Nikita’s chest.
“Can you hear my heart?” Nikita asks.
“Uh huh,” Hope nods.
“That’s the first sound you ever heard,” Nikita tells her.
“Just me,” Hope breathes. She listens for a long time, and then Michael rolls over onto his side.
“It’s gone now,” Nikita promises, stroking Hope’s hair. “No one can hurt you when we’re here.”
“What if one day you’re not here?”
There’s a pause, and Hope’s parents look at each other. “There will always be someone to take care of you,” Michael says at last. “Even if it can’t always be us.”
There are things which scare adults, too. Hope knows because she hears Alex screaming, once, in the middle of the night, and she creeps down the hallway to peer into Alex’s room.
“Alex?” she whispers, but Alex has her eyes closed and she’s thrashing in the bed and screaming, screaming.
Nikita comes charging down the hallway. She stops when she sees Hope, and crouches down to say, “Stay out here, Hope.”
“Okay,” Hope nods, but she watches from the door when Nikita runs into the room and grabs Alex’s arms, holding her still. Alex screams louder, and tries to fight.
“Alex,” Nikita says. “Alex, it’s Nikita. Alexandra. You’re safe, calm down. Wake up, Alex.”
It takes a little while for Alex to open her eyes and then she gasps and sucks in air like she’s choking. Nikita pulls Alex close and holds her like she holds Hope sometimes, and she strokes Alex’s back and her hair. “It’s okay,” she soothes. “You’re okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Alex says after a minute, but she has her arms wrapped tightly around Nikita and she doesn’t look like she wants to let go. “Did I scream?”
“Everyone here has nightmares, Alex,” Nikita reminds her. “No one blames you.”
“Nikita?” Hope asks quietly.
“You can come in, baby.”
Alex tries to smile. “Hey, Hope.”
Hope climbs up onto the bed. “Bad dream?”
“Do you want a hug from me too?”
That makes Alex’s smile bigger. “Actually, I do, Hope.”
“Okay,” Hope beams, and she wriggles in-between Nikita and Alex so that she can hug both of them at once.
“We’re a family,” Nikita tells Alex seriously. “Don’t ever be sorry for dreaming, Alex.”
“When I have bad dreams I wake up Nikita and Michael,” Hope pipes up. “You can do that too.”
“Thanks, Hope,” Alex says. She looks at Nikita with a serious face and adds, “Thank you. Really.”
Hope’s brother is a big boy. The first time she meets him, she’s nervous.
“Tell me his name?” she begs Michael when they’re in the car and driving to the special meeting spot.
“You know his name,” Nikita laughs, turning around from the front seat.
“Tell me again? In case I forget?”
“Max,” Michael says.
“Why doesn’t my brother live with me?”
“Because he lives with his mommy,” Michael tells her.
“Why is his mommy not Nikita?”
Her parents look at each other. “Baby, before me and Michael were together, he knew another lady,” Nikita says carefully. “And they had a baby too.”
“You mean my sister who died?”
“No, that was another other lady.”
Hope takes a minute to think about this. “Michael knows lots of ladies.”
“Yeah,” Nikita says. She’s laughing. “What a player.”
Michael rolls his eyes. “Hope, he’s your half-brother,” he tells her. “Same father, different mother.”
“Nikita, do you have any other children?”
Nikita shakes her head. “No, baby. You’re my only one.”
“Good,” Hope says with feeling. “I want you to love me the best.”
Max has blond hair and blue eyes. He has to squat down so that he and Hope are nearly the same size.
“Hi,” he says. He holds out her hand for her to shake.
Solemnly, Hope shakes it. “You’re my brother,” she tells him, in case he doesn’t know.
Max smiles. “Yeah. Is that cool?”
“Uh huh.” Hope’s actually not sure if it’s cool, but she doesn’t want to be mean. “What do brothers do?”
“Well,” Max says, “big brothers look after their little sisters.”
“Okay,” Hope accepts. “Will you give me a piggy-back ride?”
“Good idea,” Max agrees. He turns around. “Hold on to my shoulders.”
Hope decides that she likes having a brother when Max piggy-backs her all around the room and then plays hide-and-seek with her. She’s sad that he can’t come home with her, but she hugs him goodbye. She hides behind Nikita when Cassandra says goodbye to her, suddenly shy, with her thumb in her mouth. Max hugs Nikita.
“Do you like my brother?” Hope demands when they are back in the car.
“Yeah,” Nikita smiles. “He was a very sweet little boy when I met him.”
Hope’s happy with that answer, because she wants Nikita to love her brother. But she has to check, “But you love me more, right?”
“Yes, Hope,” Nikita promises. “I will always love you more.”
“Michael do you like my brother too?”
Michael laughs. “I love my son, Hope, yeah. But I love my daughter too.” He waits, and then says, “Both of my daughters,” in a very quiet voice.
Nikita reaches across the front seat and holds Michael’s hand.
“My brother gave me a piggy-back ride,” Hope boasts. “My brother is a big boy. He goes to school. When will I go to school?”
“We’re still thinking about that, baby,” Nikita tells her. “One day, maybe.”
When Hope is very small, Ryan Fletcher comes to visit her.
“You look just like your mother,” he says.
“Yeah, she’s adorable,” Birkoff says sarcastically. “Run along now, Hope, grown-ups are talking.”
Hope ignores him, and looks to Nikita.
“He’s right,” Nikita says gently. “Ryan has brought us some important news. Why don’t you go upstairs and wake up Alex?”
“Da,” Hope says, and she runs for the stairs.
Alex is sprawled face-down, with her hair all messy and her covers all tangled around her legs. Hope pokes her shoulder.
“Kotoryy chas?” Alex mumbles.
“Utro,” Hope answers her. “Chelovek zdes’.”
Alex wakes up a little bit then. She pushes her hair back from her forehead and says, “What man?”
They’re speaking English again. Hope shrugs. “He’s a man. Downstairs with Nikita.”
“Is she okay?”
Hope shrugs. “He’s a nice man.”
Alex gets out of bed. “I’ll go down and see what he wants,” she says. She glances over her shoulder at Hope and adds, “Stay here, okay?”
As soon as Alex leaves the room, Hope skips after her. She crouches at the top of the stairs and presses her face against the bannisters so that she can look down and see the grown-ups. They’re talking, fast, and gesturing a lot. Alex looks angry. Nikita is pacing with her hands on her hips.
Michael nudges Hope with his foot. “What are you doing down there?”
She looks up at him, still holding the bannisters with both hands. “Watching.”
“I can see that,” he says, and holds out his arms.
Hope beams, and stands up. She grabs at her father. “Cuddle me.”
He does cuddle her, and walks downstairs with her in his arms. “Fletcher,” he says, giving the man a nod. “Nikita, I found this tiny wild thing spying on you upstairs.”
Hope squirms and giggles. “Down!”
Michael doesn’t put her down. He hands her to Nikita instead.
“I told her to stay in my room!” Alex exclaims.
“She never does what she’s told,” Michael says.
“Hope,” Nikita says sternly.
“Do you want to stay down here with us?”
“Will you be very quiet and let us talk?”
Hope nods again.
“Okay,” Nikita says, and she shifts Hope to her hip. Hope wraps one of her fists in Nikita’s hair.
“You’re a natural,” the man, Ryan, says. He looks impressed.
“I don’t think so,” Nikita laughs.
“Hope doesn’t listen to anyone else,” Alex tells him. “It’s funny, actually. They’re a lot alike.”
Some people, her parents don’t trust. Hope isn’t very old when the man arrives offering a deal, but she’s old enough to be scared when Nikita takes her down to the loose panel in the floor and pops it open. There’s a dark black space below.
“You’re going to hide in here, baby.”
Carefully, Hope crawls inside the hole. “Nikita?”
“It’s going to be fine,” her mother promises. “You just need to be very quiet.”
Hope curls up in a tight ball. “I’m afraid.”
Nikita leans in, strokes her hair, and whispers to her. “I love you,” she says, and then she says it in other languages – in Russian and Polish and Chinese and languages that Hope doesn’t even know. She says it again, and again, and again, and then she very carefully fits the floor panel back into place over Hope.
Hope doesn’t know how long she’s under there. She wants to cry. She wants her mommy. In the dark, she sucks her thumb, and wishes that Nikita would come back. The sound is muffled under the floor, but she thinks she can hear people talking over her head. A man. She’s heard his voice before.
There’s a creak, and it makes Hope jump, because someone is standing right over her. She starts to breathe faster. She wants to get out! What if they never move, and she’s trapped under here forever? This can’t happen. She has to get out.
“Nikita,” she whimpers, and a sob catches in her throat. It’s a tiny, quiet sound, but she thinks maybe they hear her. The voices above her stop.
She has to be brave. Hope thinks about all the brave people she knows – Nikita, and Michael, and Alex, and maybe even Birkoff is brave. She can be brave too. She thinks about her brother, who is a big boy, and brave, and she thinks about Alex’s mother, who used to sing lullabies in Russian. She thinks about her sister, who died. Then she thinks about Nikita again. If all of those people are brave, Hope can be brave too.
She covers her mouth with her hand to stop herself from crying. She closes her eyes and after a while the footsteps creak away from where Hope is hiding.
It feels like hours later when Nikita lifts up the lid of the hidey hole and hauls Hope into her arms. She strokes Hope’s sweaty hair back off her forehead and rocks her and holds her so tightly that Hope finally feels safe.
“Oh, baby,” Nikita murmurs. She kisses Hope’s hair, and her cheeks, and her forehead. “You’re safe now, okay? It’s over.”
“Was I brave?” Hope asks. She holds Nikita’s arm tight so that she can’t leave.
“You were very brave.” Nikita starts to stand up, but Hope shakes her head and clutches her mother’s neck.
“Please don’t leave me!”
“I have to go,” Nikita tells her. “It’s very important.”
“Please don’t go!” Hope starts to cry. “Please, Nikita, I need you.”
Nikita looks like she might cry too, but she unclasps Hope’s hands from her neck. “Stay with Alex.”
“Please!” Hope screams. “Come back!” She watches Nikita walking away and yells at the top of her lungs, drumming her arms and legs on the floor. Secretly, she hopes that if she makes enough noise the bad man will come back, because then Nikita will have to stay and protect her.
Nikita doesn’t say anything else when she leaves. She has her hand pressed up against her mouth like Hope did earlier.
All right. If Nikita is leaving, then so is Hope. She stops screaming, and swallows hard, because her throat feels raw. She gets to her feet and scrubs angrily at the tears running down her cheeks and then she marches through the kitchen and goes towards the back door. She is going to leave.
Alex catches her around the waist. “Whoa, Hope, where do you think you’re going?”
“Away!” Hope shouts.
“Why do you want to go away?”
“Because Nikita is always leaving and I want her to stay!”
“Running away isn’t the answer.”
“Yes it is! Let me go!”
Instead, Alex picks Hope up and sits her on the kitchen counter. “When I was a little girl, my father used to leave a lot, too. Sometimes I would be very angry with him.”
“Did you run away?” Hope demands.
Alex smiles. “Not quite. Usually, when I was upset, I would go and see my mother, so we could talk.”
“My mother has gone,” Hope wails. She kicks her heels against the kitchen cabinet.
“Yeah, but you have other people who care about you,” Alex says. “I care about you. I’m still here.”
Hope sniffles a little bit. She peers up at Alex through her fringe. “You go on missions all the time.”
“I’m here right now, aren’t I?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then you don’t have to leave. Stay with me. We can play a game, and we can listen on the headsets for when Nikita and Michael get ready to come home.”
“Why do they leave me?” Hope asks. She wipes her nose on her sleeve and turns her tearstained face up towards Alex.
“Because they think they have to save the world,” Alex tells her.
“Will they really save the world?”
“Who knows,” Alex says. “They’ve done a lot of very good things.”
“Alex says you do good things,” Hope tells her mother a few days later, when she’s being tucked into bed. “What is the best thing you’ve ever done?”
Nikita smiles. She touches Hope’s nose. “Don’t you know? It was you.”