Kelly Glass, M.D. had shot her husband and her best friend to death in the bed where she'd come upon them together a moment before. Found guilty of second-degree murder, she had received the maximum sentence from a judge who could not forgive her for referring to her dead husband as "that son-of-a-bitch" in open court. After several months as a model inmate and voluntary assistant to the head of the prison hospital, she had been taken one night from her cell to a place called Section One. There she was also a model prisoner and assistant to the head of Medlab--until that unfortunate soul had fallen dead of a heart attack seven months after Kelly came to Section. "This is a helluva place to spend the rest of your life," she had conceded to Nikita after they had somehow managed to become friends during Paul Wolfe's chaotic final weeks as Operations. "But who'd've thought a lifer like me would ever get to be top doc of a world-class setup like this? Life sucks, okay? But here I can at least be myself without everybody wondering when I'm going to kill somebody else. Like, they don't sweat the small stuff here, you know?"
It was half true and half an act. Nikita knew that Kelly hated being held prisoner in Section, and that she lived in fear of the day when she would be called upon to break her oath to do no harm. But that had not happened yet, and if Nikita had her way, it never would. As long as she was doing the work she was born for, Kelly could live with what she called "the rest of this shit." Their usual greeting was a high five; they often exercised together, occasionally dined together outside the Section, and met regularly two mornings a week to discuss Kelly's research and other matters of common concern.
This morning, though, there was something in the air and it was not a good thing. Kelly's jaunty what-the-hell manner was noticeably subdued, her normally smooth, coffee-colored forehead creased with tension, and her eyes even larger and darker than usual. Seconds after Nikita entered her office she rose from her desk and shut the door. "Sit," she said bluntly, running a hand though her closely-cropped black curls--a nervous gesture that Nikita had never seen her use before. "This is real bad."
Nikita sat, and waited.
Is she pregnant? The question almost slipped out, and Nikita caught her breath, realizing how close she had come saying something that the ever-alert Kelly might have picked up on.
"What's wrong with her?"
"She has MS."
Shock obliterated every other concern. Jasmine, her protege, whom Operations might once have called "the future of the Section," had an incurable disease that would gradually drain her ability to function as a Section operative. Six months ago, even six weeks ago, she would have been put in abeyance before her next mission. Her illness, over which she had no control, would have been her death warrant years before it would have taken her life.
"Are you sure?"
"You think I'd be telling you about this if I wasn't?" The wicked glint that normally lit Kelly's dark eyes had been replaced by anger, even rage. "She's as good as dead right now, isn't she? You're going to have to cancel her, aren't you?"
"That's not gonna happen." Now it starts. Oddly enough, she was not afraid--even though she was realizing for the first time that she would not only have to change Section. She would have to re-invent it if she were going to be able to live with herself in it. "How long does she have?"
"Before she's impaired."
"She's slightly impaired already. What do you think she came to see me about?" Still the anger, the rage. As though she had not heard the vow.
"I'm not going to have her canceled, Kelly." Before the other could voice her incredulity: "Does she know what she's got?"
"Then I have to go see her right away. Was there anything else?"
"The rest can wait." Kelly stared, beginning to believe. "You mean it."
"Yeah, I do."
"Nikita, what can you possibly do?"
"Later, okay? I have to talk to her before she gets any wrong ideas."
The young woman sitting at the computer in Systems looked calm and in control. But when she turned to look at Nikita, there was a slight gray tinge to her golden skin.
"I won't let it happen, Jasmine." Nikita rolled a chair over and sat beside her, resisting the impulse to take her hand. Their voices remained low enough so as not to attract the attention of the others working nearby.
"You're not God." It was only a whisper. "Do me a favor and don't talk miracles."
"It won't take a miracle. Just some thinking outside the box."
"Accepted boundaries. The way everything's always done. It's not going to be that way any more."
"Yeah. Well." But "Well" was slightly interrogatory. At least she was listening, and her eyes held some expression besides dumb terror. "What's outside the box?"
"I'm not sure yet." Jasmine slumped a little in her chair. "Look. At. Me." Jasmine obeyed. "I'm not God, remember? I can't make this awful thing go away, and there are no easy solutions to this. But I have an idea. Half an idea, actually. I'll get back to you in a day, two at the most. Can you wait that long?" Before what? But the picture that would not leave her mind was of her younger self with a gun in her hand and Michael knocking insistently at her door.
They gazed at each other in silence, understanding one another all too well. Finally Jasmine said softly, "Yes."
"Do I have your word?"
"Yes. But Niki--um--ah--"
"That's still my name."
"I know. But--"
"Madeline was always just Madeline, and even George was always just George. Nobody messed with either of them except Operations, and he's not here to mess with me." A faint smile. Good. Good. Good. "What we called him was his choice. What you call me is mine. And your question was?"
Silence, but still the faint smile. Finally: "I think maybe you just answered it."
One of the perks of her new position was that she could sit and converse with anyone without someone else coming up to interrupt. She and Walter had been talking at his counter for almost half an hour--she brainstorming and he alternately grimacing with apprehension and grinning in appreciation. No one had approached them in all that time.
"Is there a precedent?" she asked.
"Matter of fact, there is. Adrian called it the CTTF--Covert Training Task Force. Next step up after the two-year mentoring period. Operations discontinued it. He wanted 'em in the field as target practice asap, ready or not." He frowned. "Sugar, don't start rocking the boat so soon. Wait 'til the honeymoon's over."
"Honeymoon never started. It's been real since day one." Tossing her hair back, she scanned the area with a glance, not looking for anything special, just looking. She had seen Michael do it a thousand times, and often wondered why. Now she knew. If you wanted to survive in Section, you watched even when there was nothing to watch.
Walter was watching her.
"Nikita?" Startled at his calling her by her given name, she snapped her gaze back to meet his. "Have you seen Michael?"
This is Walter. No threat here. No need for a fight-or-flight response. Her spiking pulse eased back toward normal. "In my dreams. Why'd you ask?"
"I dunno. You seem...different today. More..." He made a vague, expansive gesture. "Happier, I guess is what I mean."
Purely on instinct, she teased instead of fabricating a denial. "It's a secret. Need-to-know only."
"Aw, c'mon, Sugar! Tell Walter all about it."
"Promise?" Whatever had caused him to pick up on her mood so accurately was apparently placated.
"Promise. Thanks for the sounding board."
"When do you tell them? About your idea."
"They have a meeting tomorrow about something else, and I asked to speak to them then. But tomorrow's good. Gives me more time to think it through."
And more time to think through how much Christopher needed to know.
This day was her longest so far. When she reached her apartment it was after midnight, and she was exhausted. But her psyche refused to accept that, and by the time she unlocked her door, her heart was pounding and she was alert beyond exhaustion. Eat something, she thought. It's been almost ten hours. But when she tried to swallow, she couldn't.
There were two lines on the screen of her PDA, but at this moment she only saw the first one.
"I love you both."
The tension that had been building all day was swept away in a flood of tears. Her legs gave way beneath her, and she collapsed on the edge of her bed, weeping onto the PDA and the hand that held it in her lap. Her other hand covered her mouth, receiving its own baptism. By the time the tears stopped she was lying on her back, holding the PDA to her breast.
The next thing she knew, another dawn was breaking. She had slept without stirring for a little over eight hours, and only some inner alarm system set to Section time had awakened her to the knowledge that she had a mission briefing to give in two.
Calm now, even serene, she showered, applied her makeup with a steady hand, dressed, and took Michael's message with her to the kitchen. Ravenous, she forced herself to eat slowly, hoping to forestall a trip to the bathroom. That hope was in vain. Returning to the table, she read the second line of the message again, sighed, and began to mix herself a small serving of cream of wheat made with water. Cold cereal with milk? Must have been out of her mind.
When the microwave chimed 75 seconds later, she was leaning over the table, reading the second line yet again.
"When is now. You choose where or I will."
Well, hell. But she was grinning. What else had she expected?
The warm gruel she'd prepared was almost thin enough to drink, but she spooned it slowly into her mouth until it was gone. So far, so good.
Now. Balance. As with Jasmine, she must balance the time she needed to do what needed doing against the other's capacity for patience in context.
"Give me three days," she typed. "I'm all right. Please please don't come here. There's so much more at stake now." After a bit more thought, she deleted "I'm" and substituted "Everything's." Enter. Enter. The tears came to her eyes again. "We love you, too."
Now think. Think.
Fetching a tissue, she wiped her eyes and blew her nose, again staring down at her words on the screen as she ran over in her mind the plans she had made the night before last. Three days? Christopher. And then--
Rising, she went back to her bureau and retrieved the two things other than Christopher's name that her father had given her the only time they'd dined together: an obituary for one Evelyn Wallace of Cheyenne, WY, and the London address of the Helen Collingwood Clinic for Women and Children.
His two sisters, both much older than he. One dead ten years, the other in her mid-eighties but very much alive.
Only two possible answers from Auntie Helen: yes, or no. Three days should do it.
Her finger hovered over Send, a half smile on her lips. Best case scenario: seventy-two hours and ten seconds from...now.
"It would be a pilot program, but there is a precedent. At the time it was called the Covert Training Task Force--CTTF." She went on, elaborating, using her extensive knowledge of Section operations and what little she already knew of these men to try to reach them in the high, virtually airless place where they sat in judgment on her and Jasmine and nearly everyone else she cared about. Matter-of-fact, she reminded herself. Confident but non-threatening. Bastards. At their ages, you'd think they'd be over their testosterone highs by now. "I know these four. They've worked together before, and were forming a cohesive team when they were separated. On their last mission together, they'd only been in training a short time and yet they saved my life and the life of their other mentor."
It was the Bear--the first time she had ever heard him speak aloud.
"Yes." She met his gaze, knowing that if she were going to lie to this man, she would have to do it very carefully indeed. The truth, then. Couldn't hurt. "I can't help but wonder how you know the specifics of that particular mission," she said, and smiled. Madeline's smile? The hell with it. If she had to smile like Madeline to keep the bud safe and flowering for the next eight months, then she would do it in a heartbeat.
"Well, Missy," said the man who suddenly no longer reminded her of Michael at all, "do you imagine you got this job without a very thorough vetting?" He had a slight eastern European accent, but now he drawled his words lazily, dropping the lids partially over his eyes as he leaned back in his creaking chair. His tone was both condescending and patronizing, and it came to her in a rush that she was not only being tested, but deliberately taunted. "Nothing personal, you understand."
Pick your battles, Missy. She could almost hear him thinking it.
Their gaze held, and she knew that her smile was now genuine. The guy was awesome. This was the first openly lethal thrust of the match, and if she'd fallen into the trap he'd set by calling her 'Missy,' it would have been the end of her.
"Yes," she said quietly. "I understand."
He inclined his head slightly toward her. "Very good...Nikita." She wondered whether the others present were aware of the subtext, but she dared not look away from the Bear just now. "Now tell us a bit more about this task force of yours."
She told them again about keeping the same Level 1 team together for a sequence of low-risk missions where they could operate on their own, stretching their wings without a mentor in constant supervision. "Having experienced operatives right beside you gives you a sense of security, but it doesn't give you confidence. To get that, you have to know you can make it on your own." Now she forced herself to look around the table, knowing that if she kept on talking only to the Bear she might irritate the others beyond the point where she could reach them again. But far from being irritated, Chair, Hyena, and Paddy Perfect appeared to be bored to death. Only Christopher was watching her, and when she looked toward him, he gave her a thumbs-up, hidden by his other hand.
Sweet man. Too bad she was going to have to weird him out in just a few minutes.
She got her task force, with Jasmine on permanent Tactical--because she was the only one qualified due to her experience in Com and Systems at Section One. Patrick "Darwin" Donoghue, Nikita had learned, had been getting experience in demolition and in demolition containment--the former with elegance and flair, the latter with resignation that spoke of maturity gained since their last meeting. Trent Hammett was a happy hacker who also did well in the field. Claire Brooks, to Nikita's disgust, was being groomed as a Valentine operative at Section 5. Each of them, including Jasmine, had managed to survive several no-contest missions and been promoted to Level 1 status. So they were perfect for the "task force" that would keep Jasmine on Tactical, free from the stresses and dangers of field operations, for as long as possible.
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