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the Lesson of the Butterfly

by Aadler
Copyrigh December 2023

Fandom: Mission: Impossible (1966 TV series)
Rating: G
Setting: “Butterfly” (S5-07)
Length: 2,366 words
Disclaimer: Mission: Impossible is the property of Bruce Geller, Desilu Productions, and Paramount Television. This story is intended solely for entertainment and as tribute.

The hotel was clean, comfortable, tasteful, perfectly suited to Willy Armitage’s personal preferences. He always arranged his surroundings as fastidiously as the attention he devoted to the development and maintenance of his own body, and the artistic simplicity of Japanese tastes was perfectly in tune with the austerity that best suited him. With one caveat: almost religious in his devotion to keeping himself at peak levels of physical capacity, Willy seldom drank alcohol, but the exceptions were when a job specifically called for it (and there were ways to give the needed impression without fully imbibing), and occasionally when an operation was over and he could reward himself with a small indulgence.

For this, the room’s mini-bar was more than adequate, and Willy savored the whisky sour he’d mixed for himself, satisfied and at ease.

Very often, when an operation ended, a fast exit was called for, crossing the nearest border or transiting to a less fraught location for a more casual departure. This time, it wasn’t necessary. Masaki had been arrested by an actual honest cop, the team had broken no laws (aside from Dana’s faux blackmail) in the process that exposed the man’s killing of his own sister, and with the job completed they could actually relax for an evening before an uneventful flight out of Japan. And, oh yes, there had been other satisfactions to be found in the process, and Willy savored the memory of those as well.

When the knock came, he knew who it would be, confirmed when he opened the door to see Jim Phelps. “Hey, come on in,” Willy said easily, standing aside. “Drink?”

Jim stepped inside, nodding. “Yes, thanks.”

There were a few seconds of silence while Willy prepared Jim’s favorite — bourbon over ice — and Willy found himself certain he knew the reason for the visit. He passed over the drink, and returned to his own seat while Jim took the room’s other chair. While Jim focused on his first taste of the drink, Willy did an assessment so automatic that he didn’t consciously realize he was doing so.

For all that Jim nearly matched Willy’s own height of 6'4", the two men were physically different in almost all other ways. Willy was dark, Jim fair, with hair originally so blond that it had long masked the graying that came early to him; where Willy bulked with solid muscle, Jim was leaner, sometimes surprising unwary opponents with the strength contained in a deceptively lanky physique. Mostly, though, was the matter of innate elegance. Put a tuxedo on Willy, and he was still clearly a bruiser in a suit, while Jim in motorcycle leathers came across as an aristocrat trying to dress rough.

“Mission breakdown?” Willy asked mildly, and had his guess confirmed with a flicker of assent from the other man.

Jim did this after every operation, carrying out his own form of after-action brief with selected team members: sometimes more, sometimes fewer, but always with someone. It had been a while since he’d called on Willy for more than a quick check of minor issues … but then, Willy’s part in this particular episode had been more direct, more sustained, and definitely more public.

They’d worked together for years, on many different types of operation. Escapes, infiltrations, rescues, ferreting out information and exposing subterfuge and doing whatever needed doing. The roster underwent periodic shifts, with the occasional specialist brought in for carefully directed services. Jim always thanked the specialists, and noted them for possible future missions, though so far none had ever been called back … but the ‘core team’, the ones always or almost always together for an operation, were a center of particular attention for him.

It wasn’t a matter of trust, because that had been established early on and never lost. Jim’s meticulous planning sprang from a driving compulsion to understand his people as thoroughly as it was possible to do so: not just to rely on them, but to be absolutely certain of their capabilities so he could know exactly what — and how much — they could bring to the table.

Done organizing his thoughts, Jim came straight to the point. “You fought Osaki twice. What were the differences between the two fights, and what’s your analysis of the difference in results?”

Willy smiled. “You were there when the second match started, but you didn’t hang around to watch.”

“That’s because I wasn’t worried,” Jim answered. He wasn’t smiling; not disapproval, it was just that this part was serious business for him, and he wasn’t about to be distracted. “But I still want your impressions, I want to know it from your side.”

“All right,” Willy told him. He didn’t have to struggle for an answer; though sometimes categorized as ‘the muscle’ for his contributions, Willy’s specialty wasn’t actually strength, or even fighting, but effective application of force, and he put as much mental assessment into that as he did physical preparation, so he’d already thought through most of this. “The first match … well, that’s what it was, a match. We were fighting for the winning point, according to understood rules. That limited me in some ways, and in other ways it gave me a structure I could operate inside.”

Jim nodded understanding. “You said at the beginning that jujitsu was very different from judo, and spent as much time as you could working with a top practitioner to get yourself ready.”

“Mm-hmm.” Willy took another sip. “Judo was actually distilled from one of the major jujitsu styles, purified into a safe sport form. Even though it’s a lot more complicated than what I’m about to say, you can think of jujitsu as judo-plus. Throwing and grappling, plus joint manipulation and hand-strikes and kicks. I’m familiar with all of those, better at some than others; what I didn’t have was steady practice at combining those different things together in ways allowable under the rules of the contest.”

“I see.” Jim thought about it. “Advantage or disadvantage?”

Willy let out a short laugh. “I was facing a man who was the best there was in his personal specialty. That was automatically a disadvantage. On the other hand, if I wasn’t allowed to tear out Osaki’s larynx, I could also be fairly sure he wouldn’t do it to me. That wasn’t the main thing, though, not in that first match.”

“Yes,” Jim said. “Time.”

“I wasn’t there to win,” Willy agreed. “In fact, winning would have been bad. He was too much better than I was at what we were doing, the only way I could have beaten him was with a surprise blitz, and that would have had to be fast. Which was exactly the opposite of what we needed: to keep things going for at least three minutes.” He quirked an eyebrow at the other man. “There’s a phrase Muhammed Ali likes to use, just not in public so far: ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’. That’s how I had to play it, while making sure I went light on the sting.”

This time, Jim’s nod came with the faintest hint of a frown. “As it turned out, you had to ‘float’ for quite a bit more than three minutes.” (When a strolling guard interrupted the filmed re-enactment Paris and Dana had been creating, and they had to hide till the guard moved on, while Willy stalled for time to keep all attention centered on his match with Osaki.) “How close did he come to breaking your arm?”

“Closer than I liked,” Willy admitted. “He had me solid, if I’d done anything to try and turn out of that juji gatame, he’d have used that to get the extra leverage he needed … and it would have been hyperextension of the elbow, not a break, but I’d still have been left with an arm I couldn’t use.” He shook his head. “Even if he was better than me, though, I was stronger than I ever let him see. So I kept up the sound effects, so he wouldn’t realize we were deadlocked and go for something else.”

“And if he had?”

Willy shrugged. “Then I’d have had to adjust. As it was, the arm-lock he had me in? it let me stretch things out, and that was exactly what we wanted about then.” Which was leaving quite a bit unsaid: serviceable or not, his arm still ached from the pressure Osaki had put on it, and — though he easily could have suppressed them — his so-convincing cries of pain had been genuine.

“Right.” Jim sat for several seconds, concentrating. “And the second encounter?”

When Osaki had been pulling Dana through the garden, probably to be killed, and Jim had led Dana away while Willy squared off against Masaki’s champion in the rematch he hadn’t sought, but eagerly welcomed. Willy considered, choosing his words. “In that one, Osaki was facing disadvantages he didn’t even suspect. I could tell he’d fought before — real fights, not just match contests — but he was still going at it from a jujitsu perspective, because that had always worked for him. Plus, our first match, when I hadn’t gone all-out because I had to play for time, that hadn’t really shown him what I could do.”

“Ah,” Jim said. “You learned his capabilities the first time through … but, because you were playing a different game, he never really got the chance to learn yours.”

“That was a lot of it,” Willy confirmed. “In fact, probably most of it. He was confident, but his confidence was based on the wrong information. It didn’t hurt that I was five inches taller than him, with that much more reach … but mostly, that first one had been a match, that I didn’t need to win, and the second was a fight that I had to win. He was better than me, and I knew it … so I went for the areas where I was better.”

“All right,” Jim said. “Specifics.”

“Sure,” Willy answered. “Two major ones. First, hand techniques are faster than foot techniques, and I was faster than I’d let Osaki see; he came at me with a kick, and I blocked it and hit him with a backfist while he was still off-balance. And that brings in the second thing. The Japanese martial arts are big on precision; a swordsman will cut through a melon set on a man’s chest without ever breaking the man’s skin, because he has perfect control of the blade. In the same way, in a striking technique — punch or chop or kick — they’ll focus all the force one to two inches behind the point of impact: again, perfect control. Westerners, though, will go more for ballistic techniques, as if they were trying to drive the strike all the way through the target. The Japanese way is more efficient, but the Western way delivers a hell of a lot more force. Most important, it feels different when the hit arrives, and I followed up with more strikes before he could recover from the surprise.”

Jim was nodding again. “I see. Very well. Finally: looking back on it, can you spot any mistakes, or things you would do differently now?”

Willy laughed. “Okay, the second really solid hit I got on him … I came clear off the ground for that, kicked him straight in the chest with both feet and all my weight behind it. If I’d misjudged his recovery speed, he could have slammed me on that one, any kick is a risk — like I’d already shown him — and a double-kick is at least ten times chancier. I was right, though, about how much I’d taken out of him by that point, and after letting him get the win in that first match, I just really wanted to show him how badly he’d underestimated me.” Willy sighed, shook his head. “So, yes, that was a mistake and it could have been a bad one. I’ll remember that, and make sure I keep my ego under control. Past that, though, it was all punches, and he just didn’t have time to adjust to ballistic strikes from someone with the speed and muscle to back it up.”

“Right.” Jim gave Willy an assessing look. “So, any final thoughts?”

Willy took another few sips of his drink. “The whole operation hinged on me being able to hang in there against a no-doubt-about-it champion, on his own field, when I couldn’t even afford to win. You were betting a lot on me holding up my end.”

And now, finally, Jim smiled. “You said you could deliver. You always have. If you ever think you can’t, you’ll tell me.”

“You’d better believe it,” Willy said, and the two men touched glasses in a quiet toast.

*               *               *

When the knock came, Dana Lambert wasn’t sure who it would be, but wasn’t surprised to see Jim when she opened the door. He did these post-mission talks, more often than not, and even after a number of operations together — this most recent one made her seventh — she was still newer than any of the others, so she suspected she was getting more attention at this point. “Come on in,” she said, stepping away from the door. “The usual?”

“Yes,” he said as he entered. “Your convincing Masaki that you had serious blackmail evidence against him, that was pivotal to setting him up to reveal his guilt. All the while you were dealing with him and Shiki, you had to have known that your life was in their hands: that they not only were fully capable of killing you, but certainly would do so unless you managed them exactly right.”

“You’re right,” Dana confirmed. “I was very aware of that. It stayed at the front of my mind, every single moment.”

“So,” Jim said. “Did you have to push past or ignore this entirely rational fear, or did you use it to fuel your performance —?”

Every mission brought lessons. And every lesson learned, served to hone the focus and direction of future missions.

That was how it had always been. That was how it would always be.

– end –

As always, commentary is welcomed.

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