As she and Christopher walked together after the meeting through Center's glassy hive of hallways, he said gently, "I know you don't know me very well, but your father was my friend for years. If there's anything I can do to help you now, just ask."
She stopped walking and faced him, the two of them standing close to the wall in order to keep out of the way of anyone who might walk by. "Even with a personal matter?"
"What do you need?"
Realizing she was in danger of babbling, she forced herself to speak calmly and slowly, hoping to give him time to process what she was saying as she said it.
"I need you to come to dinner and spend the night at my apartment. Tonight if you can. There's no quid pro quo, and that's not negotiable. I'm three weeks pregnant, and what I really need is to keep your colleagues from trying to find out who the father is. If they do, they'll probably think I'm gonna take the baby and run to him, and if they think that I'm dead. Or they'll lock me up and throw away the key. I know I must be under surveillance right now. My apartment's clean, but they must be having me watched. They'll know you spent the night, and it's still early enough for them to think you're the father. Are you with me so far?"
He seemed to be having trouble finding his voice. When he found it, he whispered, "Jesus Christ, Nikita."
"Yeah." She glanced away and smiled briefly at a Center employee passing by. "I know."
"Why are you trusting me with this?"
"Because my father told me I could trust you with anything, and the last thing he asked of me was to trust him."
She watched him turn sad, and thought I envy you. I wish I could grieve for him too. After a moment, he asked, "Will you?"
"Will I what?"
"Take the baby and run?"
"And keep running from cancellation with a child for the rest of our lives?" Her voice choked up. "I might as well have an abortion or eat my Glock right now."
"What about the father? If I--if everybody thinks--"
"He won't think that. He knows." She paused, her gaze holding Christopher's, and saw no question in his. "You know who we're talking about?"
"I can guess."
"You probably shouldn't." He nodded, and she went on with the rest of it. "If you're not there by eight o'clock...." She laid her hand on his sleeve. "Just don't risk your life to do this for my father. Find a reason to do it because you want to. Do I have your word on that?"
"By eight o'clock, then. Or not." She pressed his arm briefly and walked away, not greatly worried about what his answer would be.
When she got home that evening, she went immediately to look at her PDA, hoping that the display would be empty. Three days wasn't a lot to ask for, was it?
It was not empty. "Dammit, Michael...." But her disappointment was momentary.
The message read: "Need a cover on the inside."
This time she laughed aloud and blew the screen a kiss. "...I love it when I'm right about you." Still smiling, she went to start dinner. After all, she would have to eat anyway, whether she had company or not.
Just after seven-thirty, there was a knock at the door.
Christopher was standing beneath her spy eye, wearing jeans, a turtleneck, and a corduroy jacket. One hand was in his jeans pocket and the other held a small bunch of flowers. His body language was relaxed, and she thought she could hear him whistling between his teeth as he waited. Anyone watching would have been sure he was on his way to a first date.
Perfect. She opened the door and smiled at the flowers. "For me?"
"For you." He moved into the apartment, and as soon as she closed the door, he took her hand and shoved the bouquet into it. "This is crazy."
"Just crazy enough to work."
Still holding the flowers, she leaned against the door as he walked across her living room to the patio doors and looked out, making sure anyone outside could see him. "Nice view."
"Why are you here?"
"Because I owe you one." He turned, smiling a little. "I'm starved, lady, and I'm not going to say any more 'til I get fed. Deal with it."
"Okay." She moved toward the kitchen, knowing that he deserved not to be pressed for answers, but controlling her curiosity with difficulty. "Drink?" He nodded. "Tell me--what's a guy like you doing in a place like Center?"
She could tell that he was relieved to change the subject by how quickly he answered, and the conversation about his past lasted through dinner. When he was conscripted, he had been an American photojournalist in his late thirties, on track to win a Pulitzer due to several in-depth stories based on sources whom no one else could persuade to talk. After he was framed for murder and "died" in prison, he had undergone extensive training as an operative whose specialty was gathering intel.
Her father had told her little more, only that it was said of Christopher that he could get good intel from a parrot. Over dinner, Christopher himself told her that outside, he had been married with four young sons. He had the look, she thought, wondering what hell this man night have gone through being separated from his family while his children were growing up. But he seemed resigned, as though he had come to terms with his past and his present and could live with both. Why? she wondered. What could a man like this possibly find in his current life to fill that void?
"I haven't thanked you," she said as they lingered at the table over wine.
"Don't thank me yet. There's a quid pro quo after all, and it's not negotiable either." Holding his wine goblet by the stem, he twirled the liquid. "We have to tell Kelly asap."
"Christopher, I'm going to tell her just as soon as I need her as a doctor. But right now the fewer people in Section who know...." Her voice trailed off; he was looking away, waiting for her to finish talking. What she was saying, she realized, had no relevance to the conversation.
Not You have to tell. But We have to tell.
"You mean you have to tell her."
"Nikita, my wife is remarried. My kids are grown. I love 'em all, and I always will. I still have nightmares where they're in terrible danger--all the kids canceled, actually. But I'm what my grandpa used to call 'no spring chicken anymore.' I need something besides cruising, and Kelly needs a guy she can trust. What we have--it's called serendipity."
"You think she'd kill you for cheating, too?"
"Hell, no. She has enough nightmares for five women as it is. She'd just...hurt a lot."
Kelly. Nightmares. Wow. "How long have you been together?"
"Not long enough to weather a storm as big as this would be if she thought I was sleeping around."
"Do you love each other?"
"I dunno. But we're havin' a helluva good time deciding." He finished his wine, set the goblet down, and pointed to the door. "If you can't agree to my terms, I'm outta here. I'd never tell anyone what you've told me, not even Kelly. But you wouldn't have your cover story either. So what'll it be?"
"It must be nice," she heard herself say, "to be top brass and get to have something you can call a life."
They stared at each other for a moment, and then he asked softly, "Now where did that come from? Not all that far below the surface, I bet."
"I'm sorry." Leaning back in her chair, she let her head fall farther backwards, wound her hair into a semblance of a knot, and then let it fall free again. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He nodded, watching her with a frown. "I need to know why you're here at all before I answer you. You said you'd tell me when you were fed, and you're fed. So why are you here?"
He rose, paced to the patio doors again and closed the curtains. With his back still toward her, he said very low, "I deprived you of your father, so I owe you big time."
She shot straight up in her chair. "WHAT?"
"He could have cared. I took that away from both of you."
Held out his hand. "Come and sit down. I'll tell you, but it'll take a while."
"Philip pointed at you on the computer screen with his cane, and he said, 'That's my sister Evelyn. They could be twins.' His cane was shaking, and his voice was shaking." Even in the midst of her incredulous anger, she was aware that Christopher was in pain. "I said 'You have to stop this,' and he said 'I think I may have just begun.' But I made him stop."
"To save your life. At the time I was convinced that the Group would eliminate you if you distracted him from his work on Veytoss."
"At the time?" she whispered.
"I was obsessed with keeping my kids safe. I had a recurring nightmare about finding them canceled in their beds. I still have it sometimes. I thought--I played God, was what I did. He cared, and I convinced him to turn it off in order to keep you alive."
"Turn it...like a faucet ?"
"I told you. That was how he survived emotionally in the safe house his sisters sent him to when he was a little kid during World War II--by turning off his feelings. Abandonment. Isolation. Those kids went through hell for five or six years because their families wanted to keep them safe from the bombs. The conditions in those places were beyond belief. Like a concentration camp for little ones. Horribly understaffed. Benign neglect, but neglect just the same. Babies died from Failure to Thrive syndrome. A lot of the older ones never recovered emotionally. Your father never recovered emotionally."
"You want me to thank you," she rasped, "for saving my life? Or what? Or WHAT?"
"I want you to let me help you--now, when you probably need it more than you ever needed help before."
Elbows on her knees, she hid her face in her hands. There was a silence, and then she asked brokenly, "You're telling me that my father condemned me to hell as a substitute for loving me?"
"Something like that. He twisted what he really felt for you into an obsession with having you succeed him."
When she spoke again, there was as much wonder as anger in her voice. "Evelyn was his favorite person, but as soon as he'd earned unmonitored clearance, it was my mother he tried to find out about?"
"Yes. That's how he found out you existed. Seven years ago."
"It doesn't make sense. If Evelyn was the closest thing he ever had to family, to a parent, why...?"
"I don't know. I don't think he did. All I know is that's what happened."
"I asked him why he left my mother on the street, and he said it was for security reasons."
"He was afraid she'd be canceled if he tried to contact her."
"But he was in the Group!"
"Nikita, we're talking twenty-six, twenty-seven years ago. He wasn't in the Group then. He was a new recruit, scared shitless just like we all were. You can remember that, can't you?"
"He said it was painful, and I threw it back in his face." Finally, the tears came. "Why couldn't he tell me? Why couldn't he tell me?"
"I've been telling you why for the last half hour." He took her hand. "When Evelyn left for the States with her husband back in 1945, Philip was twelve. He told me he wanted to kiss her good-bye, but he couldn't. He didn't want the physical contact. Not even with her. It's not your fault, Nikita. He was just too screwed up to respond normally to anyone."
She raised her free hand to stroke her cheek, the tears falling freely now. "Except my mother."
"Maybe. I think so. When he talked about her--there was something there. They were friends."
"And except you. I think you might have been the only other friend he ever had. After all, he listened when you shut him down."
"Can you forgive me--"
"Don't." She tried to wipe away her tears with the back of her hand. "Just...don't push it, okay?"
She rose, feeling stiff even though she had only been sitting still for a little over half an hour, and with her back still toward him asked, "Did he ever even think about trying to protect me?"
After a slight hesitation, Christopher answered, "He had one rule. No interference."
"So he told me." She faced him again. "So it's me you think you owe."
"I don't know." Clasping her hands together, she shut her eyes and let her head fall back, hair hanging free. "I don't know anything--except you're right." She returned to the couch and sat down next to him again. "I need your help to survive more than I ever needed anyb--almost anybody's." She held out her hand. "Deal?"
"And now, Christopher, I'm so tired I can hardly see." Rising again with some difficulty, she retrieved pillow and blanket for the couch and pointed toward the bedroom. "I changed the sheets on the bed. Have a good night."
"I fall asleep on the couch all the time. Just--"
"No way, m'dear." He took the couch bedding from her and pointed her toward the bedroom. "See you in the morning."
She kept going in that direction, fell across her bed and into blackness.
Five hours later, she was wide awake and staring at the ceiling.
The light in the living room was on--still or again, she had no idea. Chilled, she rose and put on a heavy terry robe over the clothes she had slept in, smoothed her hair with her hands, folded her arms across her chest and went to lean against the wall opposite where he still sat on the couch, reading a paperback book, blanket and pillow piled where she had left them.
Looking up, he smiled. "I always bring something to read."
"The man I call Stare Bear--he's the de facto leader of the Group, isn't he?"
Startled, he lost the smile. Then it came back, spreading into a grin. "If you mean Alex Cornu--yes, he is."
"Then why isn't he my father's successor?"
"He didn't want the job."
"Should've joined the club. Place is lousy with people who don't want their jobs."
"Alex never does anything he doesn't want to do. Patrick and Steven would have voted him in, but he wouldn't vote with them. I don't have a vote yet, and Charles wanted the job so bad he could taste it. He finessed, bargained, and he got it. What do you call Patrick?"
He nodded, still grinning. "Steven?"
"It's not very nice." He shrugged. "He's Hyena."
A grunt. "And Charles?"
"The Chair of Peter."
He burst out laughing, so loudly that she was glad all the windows were closed. When he could speak again, he said unsteadily, "Watch yourself. You could slip."
"I won't slip."
He gestured toward the place next to him on the couch. "You should know by now that I won't bite."
"I know." She sat next to him, drew her knees up under the robe and clasped her arms round them.
"When are you going to tell them?" he asked.
"Never. They'll have to figure it out for themselves."
"You're kidding, right?"
"I'm in as good shape as I've ever been. Gradual change of wardrobe and I've got three more months before I start showing. With lotsa luck, maybe even four."
"To do what?"
"To prove I can do the job. That has to happen before I tell them or I'm contained or canceled before I can prove anything."
He was silent for a time, just looking at her. Finally, he nodded. "And after you give birth--what will you do then?"
A pit blacker and deeper than the first one opened in her soul--the abyss she would live in for the foreseeable future, unable to crawl out, once the bud was in full flower. But one thing at a time. Things had to go one thing at a time or she was going to lose it.
"As far as they know, adoption."
"As far as they know?" She nodded. "Have you discussed this with...."
"Michael. No, but he knows."
"He knows that there's only one person on this planet that I could g--" Her throat closed, the pit yawning. "That I could give this baby to."
"And he'll agree to this?"
"He already has."
"But I thought you said you haven't...." Silence. Finally he shook his head in wonder, but with eyes slightly narrowed. "You sure the two of you are on the same page?"
"He's outside. I'm inside. There is no other page. He always does what has to be done."
"Can you do what has to be done?"
"I'll have no choice." Clasping her knees to her chest, she hid her face against them.
They were silent for a time, and then he said, "What you're doing is called Shooting the Moon." She raised her head to look at him. "It's from a card game called Hearts. The idea is to stay alive by making sure that you have no hearts." He wasn't smiling. She nodded, understanding only too well. "Or--if you have the Queen of Spades and all the hearts, then you win big. But if you think you can Shoot the Moon and you miss the black Queen or even one heart, your losses are doubled."
"Thanks. I've been wondering what to call whatever it is I'm doing."
After two more hours of sleep, she woke to the smell of meat frying. The tin in the cupboard, she thought, and bolted for the bathroom. A few moments later, she eased herself to a sitting position on the bathroom floor, her back against wall, sweat pouring down her face and throat. Letting her head fall back against the wall, she said aloud, "Bud, you and I are gonna have to call a truce."
"Who're you talking to?" Christopher called from the kitchen, and she almost answered with the truth. Then it came to her in a flash what her greatest temptation would be: to share with the man near her things that only the man far away should share.
"Myself," she called back. "Gimme a few minutes, okay?" Now sitting cross-legged on the floor, head up and back straight, she closed her eyes and put to use the Zen disciplines that were yet another part of Jurgen's legacy.
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