The week before, Nikita had sent: "If one person can get in and then back out, could two get out and then back in?"
Michael's answer: "Not far. No time."
And from her: "Try to make time for them. They need it."
Not far was a small, isolated seaside community virtually undiscovered by tourists. Nikita made it a point to forget how they got there and the curious but respectful faces of the two who assisted them.
This time they had two nights, with an entire day in between.
A soft, gray road wound through town; the faded white stripe up its center seemed to have known where it was going since forever. Thatched cottages and well-trimmed hedgerows lined both curbs. A hill in the near distance was covered with low, dark green trees and topped with an ancient stone church, its clock tower square and solid against a hazy, nearly-white sky. The small bed-and-breakfast where they left most of their gear to go walking in the countryside was made of the same stone, with a pleasant front porch and two gables looking like pointed white eyebrows with scalloped edges.
The amiable proprietor recommended a walk along the top of the cliff, where a white path was flanked by steep, overgrown banks--one sloping upwards on their right and the other dropping to the sea on their left. Over the tops of low trees, they could see a deserted shoreline below, far enough from town that they could be reasonably sure that they would not be intruded upon. There was only a thin strip of sand where breakers lapped, and they had to scramble over a field of angular, chalk-white boulders to reach it.
Not yet overbalanced by her pregnancy, Nikita moved like an athlete as she always had, talking pleasure in watching Michael move like a dancer as he navigated their way over the boulders. Both wore light shirts, easy-fitting jeans and hiking boots, and they reached the beach only slightly winded even though the sun was warm and the salty ocean breeze nearly brisk enough to take their breaths away. What had looked like grayish sand from the cliff proved to be an untidy strip of shale, and after considering and dismissing the idea of wading in the surf, they climbed onto the boulders again and sat with their faces raised to the sun, their backs against flat stone, and their shoulders leaning comfortably against each other.
"He still has nightmares," Michael told her now, continuing the conversation they had been having on and off since they left the village behind. "But he's stayed with this family overnight before, so they know what to expect."
Six kids under ten, she thought, marveling. And two of the little boys were Adam's best friends. "I'm trying to make myself say that you shouldn't have left him anyway, but I can't." Releasing her hair from the thong that bound it up and away from her neck, she let it blow free in the wind.
"That would serve no purpose. I'm here." He took her hand, kissed it, and rubbed it against his cheek. The sensation proved to be as scratchy-pleasurable as she had anticipated; in addition to a light tan, he now wore a very short, well-kept beard and mustache. Collar-length as it had always been, his hair was now longer on top, curling toward the center of his forehead when there was no wind, now tousled by the breeze from the sea. And she'd thought he was a feast for the eyes before.
"You look happy," she said wistfully.
"Not without you there."
Smiling, she wondered if she would ever tire of hearing him say that he wanted her near. "Michael, what do you do with your time?"
"Breach corporate security."
In spite of the sun on her face, she felt a chill. "And you work for...?"
"Them. They pay me to penetrate the impenetrable and then tell them how to fix it." If he was aware of her tiny sigh of relief, he chose to ignore it. "It's very lucrative. Two or three commissions a year and I'm free to spend the rest of the time with Adam."
"Structural security or firewalls?"
"One of each so far."
"And the rest of the time? When he's in school?"
"I'm building a boat."
"Before scratch. From my own design." Looking away from her, he scanned up and down the beach.
Now, she thought. Get it over with. "Is Adam hyper vigilant too?"
"No." His gaze returned to meet hers, and his eyes looked dark again. "Aren't you going to ask me why I am?"
"I know why."
She had expected him to be angry at her for not waiting for him to tell her about his parents in his own time. Instead, she saw a mixture of apprehension and relief that she was momentarily unable to interpret. Then the answer came to her, and it was she who was angry.
"Why didn't you just tell me that you wanted me to read about it first? Why did you have to work me again?"
"Because I had to be sure you really wanted to know."
Anger gave way to confusion. "But I told you I did."
"Nikita, for all I knew, you just thought you did."
For a moment she seemed to be seeing a double image: Michael the manipulator superimposed on...what? But the insight slipped through her conscious mind like a fish through a net, leaving her with only the fast-fading echoes of discovery.
After a moment, he asked, "What did you learn?"
"That two men beat and stabbed your parents to death with you there watching." Just listen, Kelly had said. But he had asked the question, and it had to be answered. When he was silent for a long time, gazing out to sea where a few bright, triangular sails vied for attention on the blue-white horizon, she laid her arm around his neck and drew his head down and across her body so that she could cradle him against her with his head on her opposite shoulder, her face half buried in his hair. "Tell me what you want to. If that's nothing more than I already know, then don't tell me anything more."
"My father had developed the profile on them," he said in the same soft, expressionless voice she had heard him use often to ask questions in mission briefings. "So he knew what they were going to do to him and my mother. At first they threatened to rape her in front of us, and then they threatened to use their knives to cut off my parents' body parts one at a time. When they left us alone for a while, my father told us they wouldn't do any of those things because that wasn't the way they got satisfaction. He told me that they would beat him and my mother very badly and then smash their heads with knives. He said I was there only as their messenger to the world, and they wouldn't kill the messenger." His voice faltered, almost as though he were on the verge of laughing; she sat perfectly still, eyes closed, listening with her entire mind, body and soul. "He said I'd be in great pain for a long while, but that it would become bearable with time. He said I should always remember how much I was loved. My mother tried to say these things to me also, but all she could do was weep for me. Then the twins came back and finished their work." Gulls wheeled overhead, crying out sharply to each other as though in pain. "When I met Rene and joined L'Heure Sanguine, I still had to believe that I could somehow make everything right. I still thought that when I came to Section. I didn't know for a long time that I wasn't meant to make everything right because no one can. The best I could do was make some things right and learn to accept how wrong everything else will always be." He sighed. "Kita, don't cry for me. Right now you're in more pain than I am."
"But you were, then" was all she could manage to say.
"Then was then. Now is now. When Simone died after suffering so much, I thought I didn't know what love was any more, but I was wrong."
"Oh, God, Michael. First your parents and then--she was--"
"My first love." Raising his head from her shoulder, he took her face between his hands and used his thumbs to wipe away her tears. "And you were my sunrise after the night."
In spite of everything, she could not help but smile.
Incredulous, he shook his head, pulled her to her feet and hugged her hard. "Do you still doubt that?"
"No. I just like hearing you say it."
"I'll have to remember to--" And then he stopped. Something had thumped against her from inside, hard enough for him to feel it too.
They held each other tightly in silence for a long time, and it seemed to her that the gulls were no longer crying with pain, but shouting congratulations. Finally he said huskily, "We should go back." As they retraced their steps through the lengthening shadows, she wondered why it was that the trip out to an unfamiliar place always seemed longer than the trip back.
Their room was small, the foot of the bed extending slightly across the full-length mirror at right angles to it and opposite the window. The late afternoon sunlight still poured in across the yellow coverlet to the pale yellow walls, and even after they closed the lightweight drapes, the room seemed to glow with sepia and gold, as did their nude reflections. It pleased her that her waistline was the only part of her body that had changed very much. Her breasts were fuller and her nipples darker, and there was a slight curve to her belly. But standing behind her, he seemed to want to run his hands over all of her at once. When one of them dipped between her legs, they began to tremble, and she gasped, "Why are we still standing?"
"I want you to see how beautiful you are." But he turned aside and dropped onto his back on the bed, still holding her against him. Pulling one of her knees up to her chest and spreading her even wider than she was spreading herself, he teased and then stroked her with his other hand until her submission to pleasure was complete, and then rolled over buried himself in her.
For the first time since they had become lovers, he fell instantly asleep lying between her legs. Savoring the sweetness of it, she soon realized that reality was hot on their trail: the leg against which most of his weight was resting was still spread so wide that her hip was beginning to cramp.
"Michael." Nothing. "Michael? I'm sorry, but--ow!" It came out a squeak, and he shot awake and up on his elbows.
"How long did I sleep?" He ran a hand through his hair, looking as disoriented and disheveled as she had ever seen him.
"Only a few minutes. It's just that--oooooh!" He sat up, which allowed her to do that same, her hip silently protesting the treatment both of them had so eagerly inflicted on it. "No. Just wait a minute. It'll be okay." But he took hold of her leg, now lying across his lap, slipped out from under it, laid it on the bed and then sat down on the edge of the mattress, half smiling but concerned. "Uh. Oh." Flexing the protesting leg gingerly, she discovered that it was already well on its way to recovery. "Well. I guess we better not try those moves again." But she was grinning.
Mock-serious: "You think?"
"Of course. Not." She hugged him, and got hugged back. "How 'bout a shower?"
They spent the better part of an hour washing each other, drying each other, and using a blow dryer on one another's hair with a couple of scalp massages as a bonus. Then, ravenous, they bought food at a small market just closing as the sun went down, and took it to the beach across the road from the town square. Michael had chosen a backwater rural village where few tourists came, and by the time they had built their fire and stood back to admire it, the whole town appeared to have fallen asleep. Up on the hill, the little church with the squared-off clock tower kept vigil against the stars.
Later, as she lay with her head pillowed on his thigh and his hand playing idly with her hair, she looked up at the church and the stars and surprised herself by asking, "Do you believe in God?"
Gentle fingers stroked her hair back from her forehead, and when he spoke his voice was gentle too.
"Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable.
He is immense and lonely as a cloud."
"Is that from a poem?"
"Will you read it to me some time?"
"I don't have to read it to you."
It took her a moment to realize what he was saying. When she did, she sat up slowly, as fascinated as if she had come upon a jewel mostly hidden in the sand. Michael in starlight looked back at her almost shyly, and again his eyes seemed very dark. She laid her hand on his cheek, and he closed his eyes and kissed her palm.
"Will you tell it to me?" she asked softly.
"It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
I arise, I face the sunrise,
And do the things my fathers learned to do."
Adam, she thought, and in fantasy she saw him waking his son, giving him breakfast, and taking him to school in a morning mellow with Mediterranean sunlight.
"Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie."
The spell broke as though it were a shimmering bubble, and she looked at him askance, mildly incredulous.
"It's a metaphor, Kita."
Quickly replaying the words in her mind, she found only gentle teasing--not so much as a hint of condescension--and regretted having looked for it.
"I know what a metaphor is, Michael," she replied in kind. "But don't tell me you don't see a tie in your head when you say those words."
"It's that striped one, right?"
He laughed softly, took her face between his hands and touched his forehead lightly to hers. "Do you want to hear this or not?"
"I want hear it."
"There are houses hanging above the stars
And stars hung under a sea ...
And a sun far off in a shell of silence
Dapples my walls for me ...
"It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
Shall I not pause in the light to remember god?
Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,
He is immense and lonely as a cloud.
I will dedicate this moment before my mirror
To him alone; for him I will comb my hair.
Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence.
I will think of you as I descend the stair."
"Do you do those things?"
"Then why memorize the poem?"
"I like it."
She kept silent for a few moments, sifting paradoxes. Then: "Go on."
"The walls are about me still as in the evening,
I am the same, and the same name still I keep.
The earth revolves with me yet makes no motion,
The stars pale silently in a coral sky.
In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,
Unconcerned, and tie my tie."
Don't we all, she thought, nodding but no longer smiling. "Go on."
"...It is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness
And depart of the winds of space for I know not where.
My watch is wound, the key is in my pocket,
And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.
There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,
And a god among the stars; and I will go
Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak
And humming a tune I know."
"You never hum." But this time it was she who was doing the teasing. "Metaphorical hum?"
Sighing, she moved to sit leaning against him, and he laid his head on one of her shoulders, encircling both with his arms. "That's what I need, love. Somebody to give me humming lessons."
They both slept deeply that night and woke to make slow, gentle love in the dawn. By midmorning they had rented a sailboat, and by afternoon they were well out into the harbor, becalmed there by choice, flecks of brightly-colored sails dotting the water between them and the shore. The sun moved lazily across the sky, now hiding behind a cloud, now beaming down warm. Removing their jackets and rolling up the sleeves of their shirts, they leaned on the railing in the stern, shoulder against shoulder, each of them filling in the details of their everydays for the other.
"Kelly was right," she told him as he caught a strand of hair blowing across her temple and guided it behind her ear. "Whoever would have thought they'd look on us as parents? You'd have thought I was telling them that I'd cheated on their daddy. Darwin was devastated. Wouldn't even look at me until I told him the truth."
Michael's hand paused behind her ear. Suddenly it seemed that every living thing in the vicinity was holding its breath, and she realized that she had just made a very serious mistake. "You told Darwin...because...?"
"Need to know." Silence. Michael broke eye contact, his gaze moving out over the water, his face expressionless. "Michael, you're his hero. He said you're the only one in his life who never let him get away with anything. If you could have seen how he--"
"You told Darwin." His gaze returned to meet hers, and she realized that he was both frightened and furious. "You probably signed your death warrant when you did that."
"That's what you said about Jurgen."
"That was a cheap shot."
"No, Michael, it wasn't. You didn't understand then, and you don't understand now." Stop, she thought. It was as though they had lost brakes and were rolling free down a steep hill. But there was no way to stop. Even the pace of their exchange had escalated although the pitch of their voices had not.
"Tell him you were lying."
"No. He trusts me, and I trust him."
"Figure out how to break the bond without his knowing what you're doing."
"No, I won't!"
"Just do it, Nikita."
"Go to hell, Michael."
Again he looked away, and for a long time neither of them spoke. Then he said very softly, "You need so much to be free of me."
She knew that he was trying to manipulate her, yet.... And the double image finally came together.
He doesn't use my feelings to get to me.
He uses his.
But there was no time to sort out that insight now. What needed her immediate attention was that the feeling he was expressing was fear.
Her hands still on the railing, she pushed away from it, bent, and let her head hang between her arms for a moment, the breeze swirling her hair across her face. She tossed it back and moved to stand behind him, laying her arms around him, her palms flat to his chest. "It had to be said, but not like that. I'm sorry. I don't need to be free of you, love. I just need you to quit giving me orders."
"He's a loose cannon."
Did you hear what I said? "Not about this. Anyway, I'm pretty much of a loose cannon myself." She rested her forehead against his shoulder. Did you even hear what I said?
"That boy is not you." His hands came up to clasp hers, their fingers intertwining.
"But he is, Michael. They all are. Darwin is me defiant, and Jasmine is me miserable, and Trent is me obsessed with getting out, and Claire is me except with a mouth full of candy instead of gum. Can't you see that?"
"No. I see you still trying to protect every child you meet when you're the one who needs protection."
Another kernel of truth.
I don't need protection. But she didn't have time to plead a hopeless cause. "They aren't children."
"And the candy?"
"Candy's history. I told her to get rid of it. 'Just do it.'" Grinning in spite of herself: "Works great. Thanks."
He turned to face her, still holding her hands in his. "Make me understand why you trust Darwin."
With a sigh: "If I haven't yet, I don't think I can. I think you'd have to have seen him."
The clouds had now completely obscured the setting sun, and they returned the boat to the dock and set off walking toward their lodgings, hand-in-hand but without having spoken since they came to shore; there seemed nothing more to be said. Summer rain sprinkled them and then came streaming down, molding their hair to their heads. But as they approached the shelter of the porch, they slowed as one, exchanged brief smiles, and turned instead toward the path they had walked the day before. Erosion made it unsafe to walk there in the rain, but they stood together overlooking the gray sea, arms around each other's waists, until it was almost dark.
Just as they entered their room, her cell phone rang. Soaked to the skin, she grabbed it apprehensively. Who in the world...?
"Helen? What's wrong?"
"You had a call just a bit ago. A most arrogant gentleman by the name of Charles. He said you'd know who it was."
"I know who it was." Forgetting how wet she was, she dropped down on the edge of the bed, mouthing The Chair silently at Michael. "I'm sorry he troubled you." Son of a bitch. Every member of the Group had her cell phone number.
"He didn't trouble me at all" said the Queen of Spades. "I think I might have been the one who did the troubling."
"I told him you were unwell and had made an early night of it, but he had a great deal of difficulty accepting that."
"He really had no choice, you see." There was a silence, during which Nikita rolled her eyes at Michael. It wasn't at all funny, but somehow it was all she could do to keep from laughing. The Chair of Peter. Accepting.
"Yes. I see. Did he...leave a message?"
"No, but I thought he might try to call you directly, and perhaps you'd want to know that in advance."
"You're a sweetheart," Nikita told her, grateful that two weekends alone together had brought her and her aunt to the point where she could speak from her heart without filtering and censoring.
"Hardly that." But she was pleased. "Nikita--is this man a danger to you?"
"He could be. But I'll take care of it. Please don't worry."
"Very well. Good night."
"Good night." She folded the phone, laid it on the bedside table, and put her hands to her face, elbows on her knees. "Shit." It didn't have the force of an expletive. It was merely a statement of fact. "If it was important, he'd have called my cell. This has to be Big Brother pointing and saying, 'Peek-a-boo! I see you!'"
A towel fell over her head, and strong fingers began to rub her hair dry. "He didn't tell your aunt anything?"
"No." She took the towel and continued rubbing her hair while Michael went to get one for himself. "She said she thought he might call me directly." She sighed, wiped her face, and rose to remove her sodden jacket. "I don't know what to do." With a small, rueful smile: "What should I do?"
"I thought that was outside my purview." There was no particular expression in his voice, but he wasn't joking.
"Dammit, Michael!" She flung the jacket on the floor. "I'm not asking for orders, I'm asking for advice!"
"Thank you for clarifying." Blank stare.
Shaking her damp head in exasperation, she went into the bathroom where her robe was hanging, half closed the door, stripped, put the robe on, and yanked the sash into a knot. When she heard him approach the door, she growled, "Don't even think about it."
"My advice," he said as though she had not spoken, "is to call him before he calls you."
She opened the door to find him leaning against the jamb with one hand, the other thumb hooked into a belt loop. Looking wet, innocent, and still blank, he bowed slightly and gestured back into the bedroom. Not quite convinced by the innocent part, she circled carefully around him as he moved into the bathroom. "Why?"
"Would your being asleep keep him from calling you right away?"
"Then why isn't he calling you?"
"I give up. Why isn't he calling me?" She bounced herself onto the bed on her back, avoiding the large wet spot she had left on the other edge of the quilt when she sat on it.
"He may be trying to decide how to proceed. In which case...." Clad in one towel and carrying another, he returned to the bedroom. "You should try what your friends Christopher and Kelly would call 'heading him off at the pass.'"
"Before he gets his act together."
"Yes." Standing looking down at her, not quite expressionless: "May I join you?"
She tried to frown but couldn't quite manage it. "Can you be good?"
"In the short term." Spreading the towel he carried over the wet spot, he lay down next to her, half on the towel so as to leave some distance between them, picked up the phone from the bedside table and handed it across to her.
"'Just do it'?" she asked with a sigh.
"You said that. I didn't."
With a small huh, she punched up her pillow, leaned back against it, and then punched up the international version of Chair's cell phone number. When he answered, she said, "Charles" in a quiet, conversational tone, and waited, letting the silence lengthen. Holding her gaze, Michael gave a very slight but approving nod.
"Nikita?" Definitely startled.
She suppressed a smirk, knowing that it would show in her voice. "The phone woke me, and my aunt said you wanted to talk to me. Is anything wrong?"
"Possibly. Possibly not." Composed now, and a bit disapproving. HEL-lo, Charles. "It's unusual for you to stay in London for two nights. In fact, I don't think you've ever done that before. I thought perhaps there might be a family problem."
Seeing her set her jaw, Michael, who could hear both sides of the conversation, shook his head once. He was right, damn him. No point at all in getting mad at The Chair for being his own sweet self. Downright dangerous, in fact.
Manufacturing a smile, she let it show in her voice. "I appreciate your concern, but no--there's no problem. My aunt and I like each other, and it's pleasant to spend a little extra time with her." Odd. It was a bold-faced lie in context, but because the words were true in fact, her tone carried the ring of truth.
"She said you were unwell."
"Just tired. I haven't been sleeping as much as...usual." Her wandering gaze met Michael's, and for a moment she thought she might laugh out loud. But he looked away quickly and she was able to smother the impulse.
"In that case, I think it might be well if you were to join us at our meeting on Monday morning. We need to spell out the conditions under which you leave the country without notifying the Group."
Perfect. Perfect. Now that someone had picked up on her secret, she had been trying to think of a pretext for requesting to be present at a Group meeting as soon as possible. "Of course." Good. She actually sounded pleased. "Was there anything else?"
"Nothing else, no. Good evening, Nikita. Enjoy your weekend." He was pleased with himself too. Peek-a-boo. I see you, and I might even ground you. Smartass.
"You too, Charles. Bye." She tapped the phone off, folded it closed, and sighed. "Cell phone technology probably just saved my life, and you'd think he was just some CEO and I was just some mid-level manager getting her wrist slapped. Not too bizarre."
"Maybe you don't need humming lessons after all."
She glanced at his expression, saw that he was proud of her, and felt herself blush. "I need all the help I can get, Michael. Thank you."
He shook his head as though to dismiss her thanks. "Are you hungry?"
"Not yet. I'd kinda like to...." A memory stirred, and she grinned wickedly. "I think I'd like to relax before dinner."
The corner of his mouth quirked, and she tried to hand him the phone to return it to the bedside table. To her surprise, he refused to cooperate, and she realized that he wanted her to have to lean across him. With an exaggerated sigh, she made as though to comply, and then stopped, her heart beating a little faster as various possibilities presented themselves. Before he realized what she was up to, she one-handedly deprived him of his towel, untied her bathrobe sash, spread the robe open and rolled over to lie prone on top of him while she laid her cell phone to rest. He drew in his breath, and his arms went tight around her underneath the robe. It was only then that she realized that his pillow was no longer underneath his head, and because of their relative positions, she had nowhere to rest hers.
Well, whoever said romance and logistics would always be compatible? Letting her head hang down over his shoulder toward the mattress, she whispered into his ear, "Guess what? We're gonna have to regroup."
"It's okay." Taking her hands in his, he stretched their arms above their heads, interlacing his fingers with hers. In an instant, her own shoulder and upper arm were beneath her cheek, her unsupported weight lying along the length of him. Damn the man. In charge even when he was on the bottom. But she was grinning in utter satisfaction. "Now relax," he whispered, and touched his tongue to her ear.
"I'm not sure I can," she whispered back, expecting his usual answer: Try.
"Then don't try." He blew lightly against her throat, his fingers tightening on hers when she tried to wiggle away. The results of the wiggle were intensely pleasurable to both of them, and it was several minutes before he rolled them both over and into serious lovemaking.
There was no dinner for either of them that night.
She had scheduled her flight from London for late Sunday evening, hoping against hope that she and Michael would be able to spend the entire day together this time. But the following afternoon she returned alone to Helen's sitting room after saying good-bye to him in the hall. Desolate and drained, she stood in the doorway for a moment, watching Helen knit in her chair before a fireplace now empty for the summer. Emptiness everywhere. Hardly knowing what she was doing, she crossed the room, dropped to her knees, and laid her head in her aunt's lap.
Helen put her knitting aside, laid one hand on Nikita's head and the other on top of the first, and said quietly, "I can't be a mother to you, you know. If I'd had it in me, I'd have chosen to be one."
"I've had enough mothers for three lifetimes. The last one's name was even Helen."
"Something else I'm not to ask about?"
"Trust me. You don't want to know."
They were silent for a time, and then Helen spoke with a tenderness in her voice that Nikita had never heard before. "Tony and I had each other and our work, you see, and he didn't fancy children. He wasn't your sort at all. Great, untidy fellow. Very fair. Let himself go. Smoked two packs a day."
"Not after he died of it."
Nikita closed her eyes. "I'm so sorry."
One hand patted the other now, acknowledging Nikita's sympathy. But it was clear the subject was closed.
"If you don't like children, why did you include them in your practice?"
"Dear girl, I didn't say I didn't like them. I merely said I didn't want one. Besides, being a woman, one didn't have much choice of a specialty in those days." Another silence. Then: "You're going to give it to Michael to raise, aren't you?"
"Him. And please stop asking me questions. It's not safe for you to know even as much as you've guessed."
"I'm eighty-six years old, Nikita, and Chauncey is twelve. One's own death isn't the worst thing that can happen, you know. It's just the last thing."
"Then tell me what it is that could cost us both our lives. Don't you think I've earned that by now?"
"So your own father got you to do what he wanted. After all he'd been through in the same venue, he still got you to do what he wanted."
"Christopher says it was his way of loving me."
"The hell you say. It was his way of getting his way. He always was bloody good at it."
"I don't think it was quite that simple."
"My dear child, are you defending him?"
Wearily: "I'm not a child, and explaining isn't the same as defending."
"And your mother? She loved you too, I suppose?"
Helen sat in her chair, hands clasped tensely in her lap. Nikita sat on the floor, hands clasped around her drawn-up knees. Now she put her head down on them. "Yes, she did."
"Forgive me, Nikita. I should not have said that to you."
"Hard sayings are in the air these days."
"Be that as it may." After a moment: "Did you and Michael quarrel?"
"He doesn't do quarrels."
"Can't the two of you just run away and hide somewhere?"
"Not with an infant. Not from the Group."
"Would you if you could?"
"Not yet." The words came so hard, but they were there to be said, much as she might wish it otherwise. "I made a promise to a dying man, and that man was my father."
"Can you ever expect to take his place as he wished?"
She gave a short, bitter laugh. "No way. That part was his fantasy. But this, now...I'm doing it. I'm doing what I promised. It's...." Her voice trailed off.
"It's important to you."
"Doing what he wanted done has been important to me since long before I met him."
"I see." But she didn't.
"I'm going to miss my flight if I don't leave soon." She rose from the floor--still with ease, still her self. I am the same, and the same name still I keep.
"Will you come back as often now that you'll have your own doctor?" Helen actually sounded wistful.
Clasping her aunt's hands in hers, she bent and kissed her cheek. "Think you'll get rid of me this easy? Not a chance."
And there was still a lie of omission left to tell--a betrayal of Helen's trust that had to happen or all the thinking outside the box in the world would come to nothing.
She hated Monday mornings worse than she hated mornings in general, especially on the rare occasions that she'd been down for the entire weekend. Culture shock was what it was, she decided. Even when she spent the weekend at home, going back to Section was unreal in the literal sense of the word, and it usually took her half a day to re-accept the fact that she was not only there but in charge. This morning was no different, except that she had spent the weekend in an alternate reality and normally did not join AlphaGroup at their Monday meeting. As if that were not enough, Section was abuzz with the news that two women in the upscale neighborhood where her apartment building was located had been raped and beaten to death on the street over the weekend.
"You gotta stay here at night until they get this guy, Sugar." Walter was deeply worried, and deserved to be taken seriously even though she didn't have time for this conversation on this particular morning.
"Walter, I can take care of myself. Besides, Center has a watch on me, remember?"
"They say he must be really big," Walter went on as though she hadn't spoken. "Those two girls were just about pounded to pieces."
"I can take care of myself."
"You're pregnant, Nikita."
"So? That doesn't make me an invalid. Please. Don't. Worry."
Walter remained more than a little dubious, but she forgot the conversation as soon as it was over.
"And you didn't see fit to tell us until now?"
"I didn't believe it was relevant until I started to show." Four pairs of eyes stared holes through her, and Christopher was a tight wire strung to the limit. She should have warned him, she realized belatedly. The poor guy was as pale as he had been when she'd first sprung her idea on him. "I didn't even tell Chris until just before I left for London," she lied smoothly. "He convinced me I should tell the rest of you as soon as I got back."
"I should hope he did." The Chair was livid. "Nikita, this is totally unacceptable, and I find it impossible to accept that you believed it was irrelevant. You are not stupid, and that is a stupid reason for an unforgivable fabrication."
"I fabricated nothing."
"You led us to believe--"
"I had to in order to get the chance to prove myself. If I'd told you right off, I'd never have had that chance." Silence. She had their attention anyway. "How has my pregnancy interfered with my job performance?"
"How is the fact that I'm pregnant relevant to my performance of my duties as the head of Section One?"
"That's not the point. The point is--"
"Let her talk, Charlie."
The de facto head of AlphaGroup had not raised his voice above conversational level, and that somehow made his imperious contempt all the more lethal. Nikita despised the man she thought of as the Chair of Peter, but watching him shrink almost physically in stature, in his own eyes as well as in those everyone else in the room, was exquisitely painful for her. Incredulous, she turned her gaze to Alex Cornu, knowing that her searing anger at the man who had bitterly humiliated a colleague before his peers must be visible, and knowing too that to challenge him now would accomplish absolutely nothing.
Censor out, she thought consciously. Censor out for Luc. Just do it. She was sure that the expression in her eyes did not change, but although she raised her chin a little, she said nothing.
"Tell us more about your motivation," said the Bear. "And it better be good."
An hour later, she had a deal. "Give me a month," she had told them. "That's all I ask. If you're dissatisfied after a month, do what you must."
"And at the end of a month?" the Bear asked. "What will you be asking for then?"
He snorted. "And another after that?"
"You can't be serious." But he was listening. They all were. Even The Chair was listening now.
"I'm completely serious."
It went on and on. How much downtime? Two to three weeks, she told them--enough to complete the adoption proceedings and regain her strength. And on and on.
Finally it was done, and all but Cornu filed out, Christopher having regained some of his color. He raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question, and she nodded, knowing that the Bear was watching them and that he probably knew that she and Christopher always had coffee together after Group meetings. Just a few more moments--
"Nikita, stay." The Bear was still seated at the table, and she slowly sat down again. When they were alone, he asked quietly, "Is there something you want to say to me?"
"No." She met his gaze directly, but closed her lips on the word.
"For what it's worth, you were right about having to push the envelope in order to prove yourself. But don't think the job is done."
Not knowing what to answer, she answered nothing.
"Will you join me for dinner this evening?"
Gazing back at him, she listened to every rational part of her shouting at her to censor out and sell her soul-- even as every intuitive part insisted that, against all odds, this was the time to filter in.
"No." With a small, quiet smile: "Thank you."
His faintly quizzical expression did not change, and with the realization that she had guessed right came a giddy sense of having saved herself from going head first over a cliff. "May I ask why not?"
Still with the same small, friendly smile, she answered, "I don't do business that way."
Another snort, but an amused one this time. "What about Christopher?"
"Christopher has no power in the Group. The rest of you barely listen to him. So he and I can be friends, and no one will see it as anything else."
"Excellent." He heaved himself to his feet and headed for the door.
She rose. "Was this another test?"
"Don't worry about it. You passed." Pausing, he studied The Chair's empty seat for a moment and then looked back at her. "You've chosen your battles perfectly so far, Nikita. Have a nice day." And he was gone, leaving her to slump against the edge of the table until her knees were steady enough to support her.
"Do you think he was really hitting on me?"
The coffee shop was directly across the street from the building where Center was headquartered--the only access to those headquarters being through the personal powder room of the non-existent CEO of a plush-officed, totally hollow corporation where the members of AlphaGroup supposedly ran the show. Now, at mid-morning, the restaurant was almost empty, with pleasantly innocuous clinking sounds from afar the only accompaniment to Nikita and Christopher's muted conversation.
"If he had been, you'd know it."
"Then it was all a test. Even what he did to Charles was a test."
"Probably." But the conversation did not interest him.
"Chris, I'm sorry. I should have told you what I was going to do."
"Damn right you should have! Goddammit, Nikita--!"
"Yeah, I know."
"Then why the hell did you do it?"
"I wasn't thinking."
"Well, start thinking. Y'know, sometimes you act like this is all some game you're playing. Not part of your real life. Well, I got news for you, lady. It's part of mine. Your boyfriend may be safe and sound someplace, but Kelly isn't. I know you have to use people to get what you want, but there are limits."
"This is about Kelly?"
"Damn right. How are you going to get your baby out of Section, Nikita?"
"You mean how am I going to use Kelly to get my baby out of Section? Guess what. I'm not."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Resigned, she told him. By the end of it, he was shaking his head in admiring disbelief.
"She'll never forgive you, and neither will your aunt."
"I'll have to take that chance. It's the only way."
"Risk your life and your child's in order to save both."
"If I time it right, it won't come to that."
"Does Michael know what you're planning?"
"I told you once: he always does--"
"What has to be done. Yeah, I remember. And the details are on your panels. Piece o' work is what the two of you are. You deserve each other."
"You got a better idea?"
"So...you won't tell Kelly."
"As long as you never tell her I knew beforehand."
"Deal." She rose. "Are we done here? I have to get back."
"Hey!" Half laughing in spite of himself: "I thought I was the one who had a reason to be mad."
"I'm not mad, Chris. I'm just so bloody fed up with telling lies. Even true ones." She patted his hand. "Like the man said, have a nice day. And thank you. Again and again." Before he could answer, she was on her way out the door.
It was another long day, and culture shock dogged her for most of it. By the time she left for home the summer evening was fading into night, and by the time she reached her building it was completely dark and the courtyard was deserted. Walking more slowly than usual because of her fatigue, her head bent and her thoughts miles away, she sensed rather than heard a footstep just behind her, scented sweat and sour breath, and then lost all of her own breath as what felt like a steel cable snapped around her throat from behind and closed on it.
The man's other arm was around her chest and she knew she was held helpless--until he would let go long enough to hit her. She'd be lucky if she had one second--
For a moment the huge arms convulsed, squeezing her even more tightly. Then they lost all strength, and he slid to his knees, nearly taking her down with him. As she gasped for breath, shook free and turned, he slipped to the ground--three hundred pounds of solid muscle, vast unshaven face frozen in surprise, the top of his head gone. Once his breathing stopped, the courtyard was again silent, and for a moment the only sounds that reached her where she stood, swaying slightly, were the muted voices of automobile engines passing by on the street fifty yards away.
Sensing a presence there, she turned to her right and saw a youngish man in a gray T-shirt standing at the open end of the court, pointing his weapon at the ground and staring at her as though she were a ghost. They gazed at each other in horrified silence for a moment, and then he turned and ran. It was not until he was gone that she realized two things: her watcher's weapon had not been equipped with a silencer, and the bullet that had killed her attacker had not been fired from the direction of the street, but from within the court.
But even shaken and disoriented, she knew that it was not Michael who had saved her this time. The figure that emerged from the shadows as she turned in his direction was a little shorter and considerably more slight.
"Darwin," she whispered.
"You better call housekeeping, Teach. They don't like me very much." Gun still in hand, he approached the pile of flesh on the ground and nudged one of its arms with his foot. "They think I'm a wise-ass. Dunno why."
"Are you here every night?" she breathed.
"Nah. We just started tonight, and my next turn doesn't come up until Friday."
Every four days.
"But this was your idea."
He frowned, scratching his head with his free hand. "Y'know, I don't really remember whose idea it was. By committee, I think. You gonna be okay now?"
"Thanks to you."
"Darwin, come up with me and talk for a while."
"Uh-uh. Somebody might think I'm buckin' for teacher's pet. Thanks, though. See ya." And he melted into the shadows where a corner of the building was tickled by a tree.
After calling housekeeping, she sat on her couch in the dark for a while, shivering a great deal and weeping a few tears. Then she closed the drapes, turned on a single lamp, and brought her PDA to the table. She had never been fond of I told you so, and Michael didn't deserve it. But Darwin deserved vindication, and she was going to see that he got it.
"D saved my life tonight. Random street attack not job-related. I'm only okay because the four of them are taking turns watching over me. Not sure, but I think it was all D's idea."
After she hit Send, she stretched her upper arm along the table and laid her head on it, letting her forearm curve over her head and her fingers play idly with her hair. She was exhausted, and cold through and through; once her life had been an infinite series of near-death experiences, but it shocked her how quickly she had lost the ability to accept the fact that death was ever in pursuit. Not the worst thing, she told herself. Just the last thing. But not now. Closing her eyes, she laid her other hand on her belly, feeling her son begin a late-evening workout. Not death. Not yet. Not now...
The PDA made no sound, but somehow she knew that the screen was no longer blank.
Raising her head, she read, "Maybe I was wrong about him."
Without hesitation, she typed, "Maybe I was wrong about the bear and me," and hit Send.
After a few moments, the screen told her, "Sleep well."
She sighed deeply and smiled a little, feeling the chill in her soul give way to warmth.
"Not sure I can."
And the answer came like a gentle kiss: "Try."
[The lines quoted in the previous section are from Senlin: A Biography by Conrad Aiken, © 1918.]
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