All chapters are within this file.
This story contains characters from and references to "Protections," its much-shorter prequel. However, everything you need to know is in here somewhere.
Most of the characters portrayed herein belong to Warner Bros. and the USA Network in fact, and to us only in fantasy.
No copyright violations are intended, and no money will be made from this work.
"Your passion for life is very strong, Nikita.
It enables you to accomplish things
that no one else can.
It can also destroy you."
- Madeline, in "Off Profile"
Two weeks after her father's death, Nikita moved back to her apartment. The room in Section where she had lived for a month and loved for an afternoon now haunted and stifled her. Her apartment, at least, held neutral memories too, years of the familiar to balance the hazardous newness and devastating loneliness of the life she had allowed to be held hostage--payment in kind for the life of a little boy with bright, black-button eyes and a shy, tentative smile.
In her despairing moments, she wished she could hate Adam Samuelle. Her choice-that-was-no-choice had not been made for him. It had been made for Michael, whose love for her could not have survived had she sacrificed his son for her freedom. Michael would have tried. Preserving what they had together was worth any amount of effort, and they both knew it now. But he would have failed; Adam dead would have lain between them for the rest of their lives--not Michael's doing, but his undoing. She had perceived that instantly as her father spoke the words, "I can't go if you don't say yes." And she had given the only answer possible.
But hate Adam for that? "You're a sucker for little kids," she told herself. But it wasn't just that. Adam was part of Michael, and there was nothing of Michael that she could keep from loving.
And nothing of her in this cold, dreary room where she now did what passed for living.
So she packed the few personal possessions she had brought with her to Section while, during Paul Wolfe's final days, she'd only had time to fight the fires he refused to fight. She did not ask permission from the men her father had referred to as his colleagues--her immediate supervisors while Oversight remained in administrative chaos following George's demise. She simply moved out, realizing that if she began by asking permission for everything she did, she would establish a precedent as intolerable as it was untenable. Let them cancel her. It was probably going to happen anyway.
"Your predecessor found it more efficient to maintain residence in the Tower penthouse," the man she had privately nicknamed The Chair of Peter reminded her when she informed AlphaGroup of her move after the fact. She had little knowledge of the Pope of Rome and even less interest in him. But the idea of one individual issuing infallible decrees because of where he happened to be sitting when he issued them had always annoyed her, and the analogy was clear. This man had taken her father's place, elected by the Cardinals of Center from among their number for who knew what reason. Her father's "I'm not a king" came back to her now, and she thought, Neither are you, smartass. But moderation in all things might just be the key to keeping her alive.
"I'm not my predecessor," she said with a quiet smile, in a tone both firm and unchallenging. "If after a time you gentlemen feel it's imperative that I live on site, that option continues to exist." It occurred to her that she sounded a bit like her father, and she suppressed the grimace that thought brought with it. A man who had displayed almost no interpersonal skills in his interactions with her, he had nevertheless risen to the top of this Old Boy Network--against his will if his own words were to be believed. Given that, she could do worse than to selectively emulate some of his methods. Besides, That'd be like living on top of a snake pit did not seem to be a viable alternative response in the circumstances.
Chair made as though to answer her, but Paddy Perfect spoke before he could. His given name was indeed Patrick; white-haired, slim, and lethal, he was immaculately groomed and deceptively soft-spoken. Examining his manicured, faintly lustrous nails, he murmured, "An appearance of compliance is no substitute for the real thing, Nikita. If we give you some leeway here, are you prepared to accept the judgment of the Group should your lifestyle interfere with your function?"
"Yes," she answered without caring whether it was true or not. It occurred to her that now she sounded like Michael, and the impulse to grimace was replaced by an impulse to laugh. That, too, she suppressed.
"Excellent." It was the Hyena, who smiled constantly and had already tacitly given her notice that he had no confidence in her ability to make hard decisions regarding who would live and who would die in Section during her watch. "Shall we say a month's probation, followed by a review?
"Of course." Michael again. Where the hell am I in all this?
Chair frowned, eyebrows drawing together like black caterpillars converging. "Christopher, your thoughts?"
She turned her gaze to the most junior member of the panel, a cold op for fifteen years who had filled the vacancy left by her father's death. This man's name had been one of three gifts her father had given her over dinner in a very good Hungarian restaurant--the name, he had said, of the one man at Center she could trust. In his early fifties, sandy-haired and freckled, Christopher McKenzie looked earnest and ordinary and out of his element. He doesn't want his job either.
"I'm just the new kid on the block," he said with a wry smile that Nikita found herself returning. Chair snorted, Perfect frowned a bit while polishing his nails against his coat sleeve, and Hyena's grin became slightly feral. Be careful, Nikita thought. You were my father's protege. They're probably gunning for you, too. But she needn't have worried. His smile expanding, Christopher continued. "But I say give her some rope and see if she hangs herself." Broad, innocent grin, and yet she knew that what he was really verbalizing--to her--was almost exactly what she had thought to him only a few seconds before.
The fifth member of the Group said nothing, which was what he almost always said. Stare Bear was gray all over today--his vast, expensive suit and shirt, his tie, his hair and short beard, his eyes, even his skin--slack in places, bulging in others. She suspected that the man might not be in good health, but nothing in his manner suggested anything but the strength of steel. Experience had taught her well that a man who said little most of the time was to be reckoned with when he chose to say more. The Bear was as obese as Michael was trim, but there was nothing soft about him. Quite the contrary.
"Very well," said Chair. "Consider that topic on hold. I believe we have one other administrative matter to discuss this afternoon. As head of Section One, you have the right to make a recommendation regarding the disposition of the two individuals we discussed at our last meeting. Are you prepared to make that recommendation at this time?"
"Yes." Horror at what she was about to do rose in her like bile. This was her first test. If she could have believed that fighting them on this was in anyone's best interests, she would have fought to her own death if necessary. But it was not. You do what you have to do. "I recommend cancellation for both."
She realized immediately that Hyena was disappointed; he had wanted to catch her on this one. Chair's eyebrows rose, and Perfect stopped rubbing his nails and looked directly at her for perhaps the first time in their association. Bear stared, but intently rather than blankly. Christopher lowered his gaze, and she tried not to guess what he was thinking. It didn't matter. The two under discussion were Karyn to the power of ten. This had to be done before Section could even begin to turn around and head in the right direction.
"You were ambivalent about this matter the last time we met."
"I've studied their psyche profiles, and observed them at their work. Torture is how they..." Get off. "They get pleasure from torturing other human beings, and they're both beyond cure. Containing them would serve no purpose, and releasing them outside would be unthinkable even if it were possible. They're both too sick."
"And maintaining the status quo?"
"The status quo is part of what brought Section to its present state."
"And what do you propose to substitute for the current methods of interrogation of reluctant hostiles?"
"Drugs. I've had the head of Medlab research it, and she and I have discussed her findings extensively. There are alternatives to torture that could get us the same intel."
"And previously these alternative procedures haven't been implemented because...?"
Because Madeline liked doing it her way. "Previously I wasn't in charge." Her tone was unaggressively confident, her gaze direct. "Now I am."
The week after her move was more hectic than usual. Developing new routines to compensate for the fact that she didn't live in Section any more consumed as much attention as she had to give. Then too, there was something else nagging at her that she could not identify, and she did not have time or energy to try. Some kind of threat or anxiety hung on the fringe of her consciousness, barely out of sight but palpably present. She had been back in her apartment for several days before she could identify it, and when she did, she stopped dead in the middle of the first half of a push-up, staring at the open patio doors where the first balmy spring breeze wafted the curtains into the darkening room. Frozen in place for almost ten seconds, she finally lowered herself slowly to prone position, hands flat between her belly and the floor.
She was four days late, and she was never late.
Her universe toppled, crumbled, and fell in on her--smothering her beneath debris that seemed to be all that was left of a dream she'd not dared to dream, but that seemed to have been hiding somewhere anyway. Rolling onto her side, she curled into fetal position, ironically the only way her mind, wailing in despair, could think to protect yet another part of Michael now fused with a part of herself. "Oh, God." She had not believed in God for years, and even now a very small, very clear part of her mind stood back and wondered whose voice she was hearing. "Oh, God. Oh, God." The voice kept whispering it over and over as she rocked back and forth, her bare shoulder scraping against the carpet.
Two alternatives: the impossible and the unthinkable.
How big? she wondered. Rosebud size? No, not even that.
"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God."
"Not gonna happen," Crazy Ellie, who was not as crazy as she thought she was, had said long ago. "Your mom's never gonna stop drinking 'til she bottoms out, and maybe not even then. Could end up just like me, kid. Face it."
"Bottoms out?" she had asked, terrified of the image the words brought to mind and yet unable to stifle the question.
"Like the bottom of a pit, kind of. Can't go no lower. Nothing can happen that's worse'n what's happening. Either you get up and claw your way out the top or you just lay there and go nuts like me."
Third alternative. Go nuts like Crazy Ellie the bag lady. Just think outside the box and who knows what else you might--
She stopped rocking and lay still, taken by yet another memory.
It had been early in her training, one of the few tests Michael had given her that did not involve a sim or the conquering of a physical obstacle. Dumb test, she'd thought, popping her gum as she contemplated the neat rectangle he'd drawn on the computer screen. Bor-ring. But even then she'd known she had to be wrong: Michael never gave dumb tests. So. Connect the four corners of the box in every possible way.
"Can I use the same line to connect more than two points?" she had asked.
"If you want to."
Pop. "Extra credit for creativity?"
Smiling ever so faintly: "Of course."
Shadow of a frown. "Just do it, Nikita."
She had soon created a snarl of straight and looping lines within the rectangle, in an array of primary and pastel colors. Michael simply watched. She knew he was waiting for something, but what the hell was there to wait for? The stylus moved faster and faster. Think I'm going to mess up, huh, Michael? First thing I learned in school was to always color inside the...
Her stylus hovered for a moment. Then, switching to a stroke that was actually an explosion of neon-like shades and tints, she swept it outside the box at one of the corner points, made a huge, exultant, fan-like image that began at the upper right corner of the box and ended at the lower right--a cross between a lumpy butterfly wing and a rainbow of tornadoes. She went on, enjoying herself immensely, until the screen was covered, each line or arc beginning at one corner of the box and ending at another. Then, smirking, she challenged, "That's it, right? Gotta go outside the box to pass the test?"
Michael didn't answer, but she would always remember that day as the first time he'd looked at her with pride.
"Save the file," was all he said.
Pop. "What'll I call it?"
"Thinking Outside the Box."
"Pretty long name for a stupid little--"
"Just do it."
Thinking outside the box.
She had no idea what those words might mean under these circumstances, and suddenly she was exhausted beyond caring. Weeks of sleep deprivation and unremitting stress augmented the after-effects of her plunge into despair. But the image of those exultant neon swirls flooding the screen glowed behind her eyelids as soon as they fluttered closed.
It was a light, restless sleep, but still she dreamed--of a swirl of colors unbound, and a memory of Michael's hand on hers as he loved her with his voice. "We could even have children of our own.... It's no dream. We'll make it work."
It was dark when she woke, and she was shivering with cold. The balmy mid-March evening had become a chilly early-spring night while she slept, and the patio doors were still open, the curtains now billowing into the room like sails above a wind-driven sea. Rising, she drew on a heavy sweater over her workout clothes, realized that her abruptly churning stomach didn't know she'd had nothing to eat since noon, and bolted for the bathroom to offer gut-wrenching proof. Her stomach was unexpectedly difficult to convince, but once she accomplished that feat, the nausea passed with reassuring speed.
Turning on a single lamp, she moved toward the kitchen. Crackers? Toast, maybe. But she paused before the still-open patio doors and then moved through them, crossed to the railing and leaned on it, hands flat, her hair falling forward as she bowed her head. Then she lifted her face and spoke softly into the wind.
"Make it work."
Make it happen.
The surge of adrenaline dismayed her; profound mood swings would not help her survive this. But at the moment, it didn't matter. Hugging herself against the chill, she threw back her head and sighed.
I can do this.
The words had no objective meaning, and yet somehow they were the deepest truth she had ever known.
I can do this.
She did not sleep again that night.
The second half of her piece of toast went over the railing for the birds, and the cup of coffee she brewed with anticipation was dumped in the sink when she remembered that she was no longer alone in her body. Tea, then. No caffeine, though. Chamomile? Yeah. Something to bring her back down so she could get some sleep. But she did not want to sleep.
At first she paced--not urgently but slowly, arms folded across her chest, head bent and forehead furrowed. Think it through. Just think it all through, and don't worry about staying in the lines. Take nothing for granted. Assume no boundaries. Think outside the box. And it occurred to her that it was incomparably valuable to her that she had worn three hats in Section: skilled operative, undercover agent for Center, and now--for the past three weeks--Operations, spending virtually every waking moment learning her new job.
I can do this.
And yet another memory. Until now, she had not thought of Jurgen in months, but for a moment he was with her once more.
"They told me I'd died. I don't remember any tunnels or white light, but I was different."
She hadn't died. She'd bottomed out, like Crazy Ellie said. But the result was the same.
"Everything was clear. I realized it didn't matter where I was. It was a state of mind."
Jurgen had lost his state of mind when its props were removed. But unlike him, she had no props to lose.
By morning, she was thinking almost completely outside the box.
At dawn, she sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed, holding in her hands a PDA with but one highly-encrypted i/o channel. She knew that any message she sent would not end up on the laptop in Michael's office; he would have deleted all reference to it there before he left on what he thought at the time was a suicide mission to which she had assigned him--to save his life and to set him free. Now her message would go elsewhere. She thought she knew where, but just now where didn't matter. All that mattered was that she knew that Michael would have arranged to be the only one to receive it.
She envisioned her signal speeding on its way, and then being intercepted by accident. Encrypted? Fine. But she was not about to take any chances.
She typed slowly, "After November, SV's grandson won't go solo any more."
Could he possibly misunderstand?
She sat staring at the words for a few moments, and then looked up into the dawn creeping in at the windows.
Sunrise. Good omen. Had to be.
Her finger hovered over Send, but instead she pressed Enter twice and sighed. In memory, lies swarmed like flies. Michael's lies, manipulations, rejections. Time and time and time again. Well, I've lied to him, too. Did she believe everything was different between them now? Could she trust him to be there for her? Yes. The shadow of a doubt hung over that answer like thin smoke. But it would clear with time, and the keeper of her heart and soul deserved more than a lie of omission.
"I'll need you sometimes. Don't know when or where yet."
I'll need you. Scariest thing she had ever said to him. And then she remembered that it was Michael, not she, who had first used that word between them.
She hit Send and felt her heart skip with apprehension. Can't take it back. It was done.
Her hand shook a little as she returned the PDA to her bureau drawer. Part of her wanted to keep it with her all day, to know his answer as soon as he sent it. But that way lay disaster. The success of this most important mission ever depended on her ability to focus on what she was doing every moment she was in Section. The PDA would have to remain at home today and every day.
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.
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.
From her own personal laptop at home, she sent email to Helen Collingwood in London. "I'm your niece. Philip's daughter. You won't believe that, but please let me come see you sometime on Saturday." She gave thought to whether she should sign her given name, but decided against it. She was using an anonymous, virtually untraceable screen name; better to err on the side of caution.
The reply came back within half a day. "I jolly well don't, but you've got nerve and I'm curious. Half past seven on Saturday. I dare say you know where I'm to be found of an evening. Keep an eye on the dog. He bites." There was no signature.
And if I didn't know where you're to be found of an evening? But Nikita couldn't help smiling even as she frowned.
On Saturday afternoon, she took a commercial airliner to London, wearing a backpack, a sky-blue sweat suit purchased that morning, running shoes, and her light-weight, hoodless white jacket; the sooner she got used to the idea of a less-than-skin-tight wardrobe, the better. Knowing that she was probably under surveillance, she nevertheless felt barely a qualm about putting her aunt in danger. The days of Operations and Madeline were over, and she'd recently discovered that high-level operatives in other Sections were permitted closely-monitored Relationship Privileges with selected blood relatives on a case-by-case basis. A widow for a quarter of a century, Helen was eighty-six years old with no family of her own. According to Section's database, she had few close friends and no apparent interests outside of the profession she still practiced almost full time. Even if the Group resented Nikita's leaving the country to visit a relative who was neither parent nor sibling, she was certain they would not believe she would risk her aunt's life by telling her anything classified.
The Helen Collingwood Clinic was on the first floor of the owner's home--a tall, elderly, well-kept house on a quiet, residential street. The entry door was unlocked, the hallway just inside it mellow with dark wood and a tile floor buffed to a low shine. One light shown from an open door--the "surgery," Nikita guessed. It turned out to be the surgery's waiting room, also mellow and dark; the source of light was an office through a door on the right. Her hand on the tiny, one-dart dog tranquilizer gun in her jacket pocket, Nikita heard a low, rumbling growl as she approached the office door, followed by a few words from a barely-audible human voice. The dog stopped growling, and she entered the office, hoping that her father had been right that once Helen saw her, she would need no words to know that Nikita was who she claimed to be: the niece of Evelyn Jones Wallace.
The woman who sat behind the large oak desk, her back straight and her penetrating dark eyes fixed on Nikita as she entered, wore her snow-white hair in a long braid coiled at the back of her head. Even sitting down, she looked tall, elderly, and well-kept like her house. She wore a plain tailored blouse under a dark green cardigan and, Nikita guessed, probably a tweed skirt beneath the desk on which her hands were folded. A cane was hooked over the back of her chair.
Her expression was neutral as Nikita entered the room and approached the circle of light thrown by the desk lamp and the burning logs in the fireplace. But even after what her father had told her, she was unprepared for the widening of those dark eyes and the sudden pallor of the woman's sallow face as her own face and figure became visible to her aunt. The older woman drew in her breath sharply, and the black Lab at her feet barked once--a sound like a cannon in the small room. Helen silenced him with a touch on his head. But she seemed almost unaware of his presence as she whispered, "Dear God" with a mixture of disbelief and awe.
Silently, Nikita handed across the desk the paper on which her father had written the name and address of the clinic -- and then, below it, a single, brief line: "Helen, just look at her."
Nikita glanced at the chair next to her and then, questioningly, at her aunt, who nodded, eyes again fixed on her niece's face. Finally she said, "Her own daughters don't look half as much like her as you do." The voice was strong but hushed, as though the speaker were in church, or beside an open grave.
"Do you believe me now?" Nikita asked quietly.
"It's his handwriting." A frown, but the dark gaze did not return to the paper in hand. "Is he dead?"
"Yes. About a month ago." Her aunt's expression didn't change. ("They weren't especially fond of each other," Christopher had told her. "She and her husband were his guardians after Evelyn moved to the States, but I think there was no love lost. After the third sister was killed in the blitz, Evelyn was the only one left who everybody loved.") "I only knew him for about a month before that," Nikita went on. "He didn't know I existed until a few years ago. He and my mother weren't married. They never even lived together."
The snowy brows rose slightly. "Philip?" The first emotion to become evident in her tone was mild incredulity. "The hell you say." Feeling an impulse toward a nervous laugh, Nikita pressed her lips together and nodded. "Poor soul. One would've thought he didn't have it in him."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you." But those eyes would not leave hers. "What's your name?"
"It's Nikita. And I don't know why my mother named me that. She never told me much about anything important."
"Was she gone a great deal?"
"She was drunk a great deal."
They stared one another, Nikita with no idea why she had said such a thing to a stranger. For a moment she wanted to run away. But she had come here to avoid running away. "I need your help--as a private medical consultant for the next few months. I can pay you. That's not the problem."
"What is the problem then? Why come to me if you can afford a doctor?"
"I can't tell you that," Nikita answered, her voice firm but without defiance--similar, in fact, to the voice she used when talking to the Group. That thought disturbed her, but now was not the time to wonder why. "I can tell you why I'm here, but not where I live or what I do. Can you live with that?"
"Well, we'll have to see, won't we? Are you pregnant?"
"You want an abortion."
"No. That option would be available elsewhere. I told you, I need you as a professional consultant for a time--until I have to tell my employers about the pregnancy."
"Do you know who the father is?"
"Did you intend to have a child?"
"No. I--got a little bit careless."
"Quite. And now you're a little bit pregnant."
"Is this kind of personal interrogation part of the arrangement?"
"As of this moment, my girl, no arrangement exists. Are we clear on that? Now. I don't want some irate chap stomping about in here demanding to know what you're up to with regard to his potential progeny."
"That won't happen."
"The pregnancy happened."
"He was gone." Nikita tried to keep her annoyance in check. "I didn't expect to see him again. I was very busy--"
"Oh, come now. You and I both know that's no excuse for this kind of nonsense. Did he leave you or what?"
"No. I sent him away."
"And he just happened to turn up again while you were in mid-cycle, and you did nothing to protect yourself."
"We get an annual shot," Nikita said, trying not to shout. "We're supposed to have thirty days' grace after our record gets flagged in the computer. I'd only used up twelve days when he came back. We should have been safe."
As the pace of the dialogue increased with the tension level, the dog had raised his head to look at Nikita. Now he shouted another bark, and she jumped involuntarily.
"Shut up, Chauncey." But Helen's voice was mild when she spoke to the dog. She stroked his head again, and he lowered it once more to his paws. Frowning, she returned to the business at hand. "What annual shot? An anti-ovulant?"
"No. It's a slow-release spermicide."
"There is no such thing."
"There is where I come from. Can't you understand? I didn't expect to see him again. And then--so many things happened at once. I was promoted. My life was chaos, I wasn't getting any sleep, and I got careless. Then my father died. How the hell many details do you need, anyway?
A faint smile. "You sound like Evelyn too."
"That's great. I think." Flinging herself back in the chair, Nikita slid down on her spine, head bent, knees akimbo, and glowered. "Are we done with this yet?"
"Have you had the shot?"
"No. I thought it might somehow be dangerous for the bu--baby, so I hacked my record in the computer. Flag's gone."
"You've got some nerve, all right." Helen rose, took up her cane, and limped across the room. She was indeed tall, and her skirt was tweed. Her limp was virtually identical to her brother's, and like him, she apparently had a penchant for walking away from the person she was talking to. "Come along. Come along. I don't do consultations unless I've examined the patient first."
They sat facing one another in the surgery, Nikita back in her sweats and her aunt now wearing a white coat instead of the cardigan. Nikita perched on the edge of the examination table, her stockinged feet hanging, her elbows on her knees, chin on her clasped hands. Helen faced her in a straight chair, her cane hooked over the back of it, a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. The clipboard, Nikita had noticed, held a plain sheet of paper, not a pre-printed form. Taking careful notes, but off the record.
Proceed to second mark.
Helen's expression was thoughtful; the pen tapped lightly on the clipboard's metal clasp. She had turned off the lights in the room, and the fire in the office fireplace threw moving shadows into the room next door where the two women sat.
"Is the father in as fit condition as you are?"
"Do the two of you work together?" Silence. "Very well. Alcohol? Drugs?" Nikita shook her head. "Any genetic disorders in his family?"
"Not that I know of."
"How well do you know him?"
"Better than anybody else does."
Helen had been writing on the clipboard; now she glanced up sharply but did not comment. The pen scratched. Shadows danced across the walls. "Other than her drinking, was your mother in good health?"
"That's how she used to justify the drinking. 'Healthy as a horse and happy as a clam.'"
"And your father?" Helen did not look up as she asked the question.
"He used a cane like you do. He never mentioned anything else. Is it--was it arthritis?"
"The family curse, one might say. His father was limping by age forty. You have no symptoms?"
"How did Philip die?" The pen had stopped scratching, and the dark eyes met hers directly once more.
"It was job-related. He died saving someone's life."
"Fancy that. Whose life?" Silence. "Quite."
"You didn't like him very much, did you?"
"He was an agreeable child." Helen's forehead furrowed, and it seemed as though a fine mesh of pain settled over her face. "Evvie got the looks, you see, and Connie got the charm. 'Til Philip, I thought I'd got the brains. Cleverest of the lot. Everybody said so. And after all, fair's fair." Her gaze had fallen to the clipboard, and her voice was low. "It didn't matter, though. I didn't matter. Evelyn was the only one he loved."
"He sent me to you, Helen."
"And why did he do that, Nikita?"
He said he wanted us to know each other. The easy lie was on its way to her mouth before she stopped it. "He said Evelyn would have wanted us to know each other."
"You couldn't know that," Helen whispered, "unless he'd told it to you."
Oh, but I could. I could have had her daughters grabbed and tortured until they spilled everything they knew about her and some things they didn't know they knew. "Well, he did."
Helen sat looking down at her clipboard, the tapping pen silent. Then, finally: "Family members can't be patients."
Elbows still on her knees, Nikita covered her face with her hands. When she thought she had her voice under control, she ran her hands back through her hair and said, "I wouldn't be your patient. I just need you to consult with me about once a month until I can go to my own doctor."
"I do not understand why you can't do that now."
"I know you don't. But I can't tell you."
"Now look here--"
In the waiting room, the dog burst into a frenzy of barking, filling both rooms with menacing noise. Nikita's pulse raced as she slid off table; her jacket was in the other room, and the dog trank was in her jacket. Oh, god-DAMN! But instead of going to investigate the source of his agitation, Chauncey scrambled to a stop in the doorway between the hall and the surgery and stood there shaking the rafters with his cannon-like bellowing, eyes entreating his mistress to give him permission to plunge on down the hallway to what Nikita was sure must be the back door--a back door that both Helen and Chauncey no doubt believed was completely secure.
"Please don't let him!" Nikita too entreated her. "I know who it is. We're not in danger. Please!"
"Chauncey!" Moving surprisingly fast, Helen went to the dog, who waited in the doorway; the surgery was obviously forbidden territory, and even now, Chauncey knew where limits were set and obeyed them. "Ease up, old boy. Ease up." Turning, she demanded, "Young woman, what the hell are you up to? This is my home--" And then she stopped.
Michael was standing in the doorway to the waiting room. Little more than his silhouette was visible--a silhouette with shining eyes even though the lamplight and the firelight were behind him. Nikita forgot her aunt. She even forgot the dog. She was barely aware of crossing the distance between them before they were holding each other, her face hidden against his shoulder and his face buried in her hair.
Chauncey gave a low growl, but stayed put.
"Shut up, Chauncey." Again the order was given in a subdued voice that belied its abruptness. There was a silence, and then Helen said mildly, "Hair o' the dog, is it?"
Answer her. She deserves to be answered. But all Nikita could manage was a muffled, "What?"
"It's an old wives' tale. The best remedy for the morning after is the hair o' the dog that bit you."
There was no answer to that one.
She heard Helen move across the surgery toward where they still stood in the doorway, the dog preceding her to snuffle suspiciously around their feet. Michael raised his head to look over her shoulder at her aunt. Face still hidden, Nikita tried to imagine what might be passing silently between the other two, and failed. Then Michael shifted her gently until she was leaning into his side, his left arm tight around her shoulders, and holding out his right hand, he did something she had never heard him do before.
"Dr. Collingwood--Michael Samuelle."
They shook hands, Helen peering at him in the dim light. Nikita had the impression she liked what she saw, but all she said was, "There's a guestroom at the top of the stairs. I dare say you won't need two?" As one, they silently shook their heads. "Quite. Good night, then." To Nikita: "We'll talk again in the morning. Chauncey, come help me lock up." And she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Naked and basking in each other, they made love on the floor before the fire as though it were the first time or the last. But it had almost always been that way for them--the first time after something or the last time before something else. Beginnings and endings were nearly all they'd ever had, even when they didn't know it. So little time in between. Oh, Michael.... Her legs around his waist, his weight along her body making it sing, she drew him in and in, knowing that the time before this had been their last affirmation, and this their first celebration.
Afterwards, the tile floor seemed much colder than it had been when he'd stripped them both, the firelight caressing his skin and dancing in his eyes. But there was a large, washed-to-softness comforter folded on the end of the waiting room couch. Spread on the polished tiles, it was large enough for them to lie close together on half of it and pull the other half over them. For a while they lay on their sides facing one another, mouths tasting mouths and hands caressing shoulders and backs and thighs. Then she lifted his chin with her finger and approached the question that had to be asked.
"I love you for being there for me."
"I'll always be there for you."
"Do you think abortion is wrong?"
"No. I think it was your decision. You'd made it. Fait accompli. Is that morality?"
"And if I'd gone the other way?"
"Michael, if the decision was yours, what would it be?"
He drew her against him, his lips close to her ear as they had been when he told her for the first time that he loved her. "This could be the only chance we ever have," he whispered. She closed her eyes as she had then, and they held each other in silence.
After a time he said with a smile in his voice, "We should call her Grace."
"I'd only been flagged twelve days."
"Then we should call her Fate."
"Yes. I couldn't care less. I just know."
You sound like my father. But she was not about to say that out loud. "He should be Luc, after your father."
"My father's name was Nicholas."
"But you told me--" It took her a moment to see where this was leading. "Nice try, but no little Nickys in this family. He's Luc. It's in the profile." She shivered.
Before she could do more than squeak in protest, he was up and bundling her back into her sweats, then dressing himself, but only in his jeans and shirt. Their underwear and socks he gathered into one neat pile and left it there, causing her to grin in appreciation of his foresight. They sat on the floor together, leaning against the couch and each other, and then she moved to lie with her head in his lap. But he stopped her wordlessly and lay down with his head in hers, pressing a quick kiss to her belly. "Now," he said, "tell me about you."
"You have to get all the hearts and the Queen of Spades. If you can't, you lose everything."
"I think you may already have the Queen in hand."
"Good thought." She stroked his hair, wondering at the expression that had come into his eyes as she talked about her work and her plans for the Section, her interaction with the Group, and Christopher. Admiring? A little sad, maybe? Both? "I just hope I can stay like I've been this week. I feel so--so--"
"Focused," he said softly, and broke eye contact, his gaze wondering to the fire and then around the room. "Do you realize how much you've changed?"
"Changed? I haven't changed. It's just an adrenaline high."
"No." His gaze returned to meet hers. "You don't need me any more." Admiring, and a little sad.
"Shh." He sat up, laying his fingers on her mouth, and then ran the tip of one of them over her lips. "You don't need me in Section any more. You're on your own there, and you love it."
"I hate it there! I always have!"
"You love being in charge of yourself." She tried to speak the denial she wanted to be there, but could not find it. "I was going to make you come back with me."
All other thoughts screamed to a halt. "You have no right." It had to be said, but it did not have to sound like a hurled accusation, and she was pleased to hear that it didn't.
"This is my child, too. So I would have had the right. But now I don't. Not with you like this."
"What did you expect? Another Terry?"
"I expected, 'I fear I've lost the courage for our dream.' If I'd found you here like that, I would have risked all our lives to bring you home."
Leaning her forehead against his, she whispered, "I fear that was me in a previous incarnation."
"So it would seem."
They were silent for a few moments, and then she raised her head to look at him again. "What does scare me is that it's all going too well. The Group, for instance."
"You should keep working Cornu."
"I'm not working him."
"What do you call it?"
"I don't call it anything. He's starting to respect my views, and he's starting to trust me. I'm just using--" Using? Hearing herself say the word, she stopped.
"What do you call that?"
"What, then?" When she simply looked at him, aghast, he went on: "We filter in and censor out, Kita. It's how relationships survive."
Censored out: "Don't call me 'Missy'!"
Filtered in: "He said Evelyn would have wanted us to know each other."
Censored out: "You sound like my father."
"So I should just go back and work Stare Bear like he's a hostile?"
"Whether he's a hostile or a colleague is within your control." His hand had been lying on her shoulder. Now he lifted her hair and smoothed it behind her ear. "It doesn't matter what you call it, just that you do it."
She raised her own hand, took his in it, pressed it to her lips, and laid it on his knee, still clasped in hers. "Don't Valentine me, Michael. Talk to me."
Again he broke eye contact, but she had expected that. "I thought I was."
"You were. Until just now." When he sat looking down at their hands, she shook his a little, and he slowly turned it to clasp hers. "That's better. Let's go check out the guest room. I get sleepy pretty early these days."
"Have we taken this as far as we should?"
"For now--yeah, I think we have. Don't you?"
He rose with his usual grace, pulled her up, folded the quilt and returned it to the couch, rolled the pile of underclothes into a neat clump and grasped it one-handed. "A la vie."
She was tempted to giggle as the two of them tiptoed up the stairs, shoes in hand, noting the location of the bathroom on their way past it. That temptation got the best of her when they fell onto the bed together, the springs creaking, the mattress sagging in the middle, and Michael grunting in mingled amusement and disgust.
"And you think I've changed?" The giggles were taking over now.
"Shh. You'll wake her up." He eased them both parallel to the cave-in and then rolled them into it, holding her close. The giggles died away, and she found herself torn between desire and her need for sleep. She would just close her eyes for a moment....
In a moment, it was the middle of the night.
Something about the muted quality of everything, she thought. The light from the window, the muffled clang-clang from the hot-air radiator beneath it. It all just seemed to say middle of the night...? She started awake, spooned against Michael, his arms enfolding her, both of them still in the clothes they'd lain down in. If he had been asleep, he'd waked as soon as she did.
"It's okay. Go back to sleep."
"It's not really fair, you know," she murmured.
"What's not fair?"
"You've been so much more patient with me than I ever was with you."
"Tell me what you mean."
"After two years, being undercover gets to be hell. It got so I didn't know what I was any more. No safe, warm place like this in the whole world. Couldn't find me any more. But you've never complained. You've been so good to me."
"You were always here." His arms tightened. "Why couldn't you share it all with me?"
"The danger, you mean? Wondering when Operations and Madeline were going to catch me at it and find some way to cancel me before Center could interfere? Like they almost did? No way was I going to share that with anybody, Michael, least of all with you."
"How did Center recruit you?"
She turned in his arms and moved a little away from him, lifting her head and resting her cheek on one palm. The room was not completely dark, and a wide shaft of light from the window fell across him at shoulder level, faintly illuminating his face.
How could such light eyes sometimes look so dark?
"After Jurgen, they said I could go anywhere in the world I wanted to. I went to a place in California where they have killer whales all penned up, close enough to the ocean to smell it, but they're never going to be let out of their pens. I think most of them are like Birkoff was. They've never even been in the ocean, and they have no idea what it's like to be free. But some of them are like us." He nodded--his gaze, intent and direct, never wandering from her face as she talked. "Whales are supposed to be so smart, maybe as smart as people. I wanted to watch them to see how they could stand it. See if I could learn by watching them. Couldn't, though. They all looked happy as clams."
"How long did you watch them?"
"Oh, about an hour, I guess. There was really nothing to see. Then I went shopping for a swimsuit and some books and a bottle of water and went to the beach. Great weather there. Not hot at all."
"Romance novels from a food market." At his questioning look, she grinned with satisfaction. "Don't tell me there's something I know more about than you do."
"All the same story. She starts out kind of innocent, he's kind of mysterious, doesn't talk much, and they have all these misunderst-- No. Really. They have all these misunderstandings but they end up living happily ever after. Always the very same story. I only read about half of one of them, skimmed the rest, skimmed the other two. Between them and the penned-up whales, it didn't seem like much of a vacation, you know?" She lay down again, head on his shoulder, arm across his chest. "After I finished skimming, I fell asleep right there on the beach. When I woke up, this guy in a Hawaiian shirt was squatting on the sand next to me. He said, 'Smile. It should look like I'm hitting on you and you like it.' He wasn't pointing a gun at me, but he was carrying. It was like watching a replay of the worst movie I ever saw."
"What did they offer you?"
"Answers. About why I was brought in. Freedom eventually. All they were interested in was Operations and Madeline. How they treated the rest of us. How they treated hostiles. How they ran the Section. You were never mentioned. Nobody else either. The reason the Group is going along with me now is because of my intel on the two of them. I impressed the hell out of everybody, including my very own father it turns out, and now I'm paying the price for a job well done."
"Mick was your contact?"
She shook her head. "He was the watch Center put on me. Not that I ever knew that until he morphed into 'Mr. Jones' after they stopped Madeline from trying to electrocute me."
"Who was your contact?"
"Didn't have one. All dead drops. Had to be the fine hand of my father. He wasn't exactly into personal contacts."
"You agreed the first time you were approached?"
"Mostly because of us. It all just hurt too much."
"I was so in love with you, and I wanted you so much. I couldn't think about anything else, and I needed something new and important to focus or I was going to screw up and get myself killed. They only wanted to know about Operations and Madeline, and they said I'd be free. By the time Birkoff died I was starting to suspect it was all a lie, and I got--I got really down. Grenet's timing was perfect."
"I wish you could have told me how you felt."
"I mean when I first brought you back in."
"Told you? I told you over and over!"
"No, Kita. You never told me how you felt. You just told me how you thought I felt. Over and over."
She searched her memories for proof that he was wrong, and found none. "And I've been thinking that all you needed was patience."
"Each of us needed more than the other could give."
Something in his voice made her raise her head to look at him. In the half-light, his face was set, his eyes bleak. And it came to her that "There are things about me that must remain hidden" referred to more than Adam and Elena.
"This isn't the time."
"It happened when I was young, before L'Heure Sanguine. But this isn't the time." His eyes were like night. "Be patient with me."
"I will." This time, I will. Stripping herself from the waist down, she moved to sit astride him, pulled her sweatshirt over her head, then his shirt over his. "Now let me love you."
"Why not?" But she knew it was not to be. This was as far as she had ever gotten before, and so she was not surprised when her eager mouth got no farther down than his chest before he rolled her off and onto her side with her back to him. Once he was as naked as she, he pulled her against him, his hands gently kneading her breasts even as she laid hers over them, pressing herself into his palms. He began to enter her slowly, but when it became obvious that she was more than ready, he moved all the way into her, pressing forward steadily until a warm tide of pleasure surged upward through her body, making her cry out softly and press her head back against his shoulder. Now he was barely moving, pressing into her as one hand began to wander downward.
"Don't wait," she whispered. "I want you."
She got both, twisting in his arms even as they tightened convulsively around her and he groaned against her throat. When she could think again, she realized that their entire dance of love had taken only a few moments, asking nothing of her except that she love him back.
And that was a good thing; she was now almost dizzy with fatigue, even though her sated body still exulted in the touch of his.
"Sleep well." It was their ritual, and the lips that lightly touched her ear lobe were smiling.
"I'm not sure I can." The first time she'd said it, he had started to move away and had to be coaxed back.
"Try." He straightened his legs, rolling slightly onto his back so that she could rest more comfortably against him. She straightened too, sighed, closed her eyes, and was instantly asleep.
In the morning, she discovered how agile she could be at pulling on her sweats while she ran for the bathroom. Returning moments later, she closed the bedroom door and leaned against it, patted her tummy and sighed, "Michael, meet the bud. He and I differ on how I should start the day." She gestured toward Michael. "Bud, meet the man who made you what you are today." She crossed to the bed and collapsed on the edge of it next to her lover, who had pulled on his jeans in her absence. Now he tried to draw her head to his shoulder, but she pushed him gently away. "Ugh. Don't. Not 'til I brush my teeth."
"Are you all right?"
"What do you think? Come on. This isn't exactly virgin territory for you, is it?"
"I wasn't there for her very much." Hand on her knee. Lashes brushing his cheeks. Voice all but inaudible.
Excellent, Nikita. Just excellent. "I'm sorry."
"It couldn't be helped."
"That's not what I meant." Laying her hand on his bent head, she shook it gently. "Pit stop? You do not want to be in the way if I have to make another rapid egress."
While he was gone, she remained slumped on the edge of the bed, elbows on her knees, head hanging dejectedly. When he returned, she beheld with awe Michael Samuelle, master spy, barefoot and shirtless, looking like a lost boy.
"She doesn't have a shower."
This time she did not giggle. She laughed, and then tried to smother it with her hand, fearing that Chauncey might shout again if he were startled. But as soon as she succeeded, laughter turned to tears. Keeping her hand over her mouth, she continued to weep even after Michael sat next to her and pulled her into his arms.
Finally the storm passed. She raised her head, sure that her face must look ravaged, and saw in his eyes that she was beautiful.
They stood in the kitchen doorway, hand-in-hand, while Helen--wearing yet another tweed skirt and cardigan--puttered about a gas stove on legs, her back to them after wishing them a brisk good morning.
Did the whole family have a thing about turning their backs on you?
"On the bedside table. You eat one slowly before you sit up, and another before you stand. Will you have mush now?"
Realizing what they'd been asked, Nikita felt her stomach lurch. "Uh, no thanks. Not for me." Michael shook his head. "Can we make ourselves some toast?"
"It's here in the oven. No butter, mind. Smitch of jam won't hurt, though, if you fancy it."
The toast felt like sandpaper on the outside but was inexplicably soft and crumbly within, hot enough but not too hot. The smitch of jam tasted like heaven, and Helen's tea smelled wonderful.
When Michael told her as much, she gave him a speculative look but did not answer. His "Thank you for your hospitality" elicited an approving "Mmmmmm." Then she departed for the pantry, where she proceeded to putter some more.
Chauncey lay with his head on his paws, favoring them with a mournful but alert stare.
When it became clear that Helen did not plan to return any time soon, Nikita said, "Now tell me more about you. Not just the yes and no part."
His expression became guarded. "There's not much to tell yet."
"Okay, about Adam, then. How is he?"
Michael sighed. "Confused. Conflicted. He doesn't understand why his mother can't come back from the dead too."
"Poor little kid." Since Michael did not appear to be any more talkative than usual, she went on--again expecting him to look away as soon as she spoke. "You don't have a Mediterranean tan yet. But I bet he does." He did not look away, but his expression became even more guarded. "The couple you helped--are they still there?"
"Oh, Michael. If you really didn't want me to know where you are, you wouldn't have gone there." Looking down now, he took her hand and began to stroke the back of it with one finger. "What are you doing?"
"Valentining you." He looked up, his expression all but blank, but with a faint quirk at the corner of his mouth.
"Was that a concession speech or a cheap shot?"
"Cheap shot. What else?" Looking away again: "I have to go."
She'd known this was coming, but hoped not this soon. Keeping her voice light: "So soon?"
"I have contacts in M15 who owe me. That's how I entered the country undocumented and got past the watch Center has on you. But once I choose the time, it has to be on their schedule, not mine." She nodded, mute. "Nikita--keep a tight rein on Darwin and the others."
"You wouldn't believe how much they've grown up."
"Just do it."
He rose, pulled her to her feet, and kissed her as though there were no tomorrow because there might not be. Then he kissed her forehead, her closed eyes, her open hands. And then he was gone.
Chauncey looked after him, yawned, and relaxed.
After a time Helen returned from the pantry, glanced toward the back door, poured herself a cup of tea and sat down at the table opposite her niece. "Doesn't hang about long, does he?"
Unable to answer, Nikita shook her head.
"I think you must do some sort of undercover work. Philip, too. That's why he disappeared without a trace, and why you won't tell me how he died. You're in it, but Michael's not. Is he on the run?"
"Is he on the run from something?"
"No. Helen, stop."
"If this man and your child mean so much more to you than your job does, why can't you just resign and go to him?"
"I can't ever resign, and I can't protect you and Chauncey if you won't stop this!"
"Ch--? Why--who would want to hurt Chauncey?"
"If I answer that, you're as good as dead. Chauncey, too, if he tries to protect you. Will you please just leave it alone?"
Neither of them moved for a time. Then Helen asked, "What will you do with the child when it's born?"
If in doubt, censor out. "I don't know yet." She hoped that the next lie would be easier. Even more, she hoped there need be only one more lie. "Have you decided to let me come back in a month?"
"I thought perhaps I might, yes."
"If you don't promise to stawp questioning me, I cahn't come back!"
"Was your mother Australian? Or is that a forbidden subject too?"
Lowering her head, Nikita ran her hands through her hair. This day had only just started, and already she was exhausted. "I was living with a foster mother while I was learning to talk."
"Did she take good care of you?"
"You loved her."
"Yeah, I did." It felt like a betrayal even now. Tit for tat, Mom. See? You didn't love me enough to keep me, but I got you for it, didn't I?
"And she loved you. Someone must have. You love so strongly."
"Because of Katie?" The thought had never occurred to her.
But before she could make it her own, Helen asked, "Why did your mother abandon you when you were what--less than a year old?
"She had a new boyfriend, and she wanted to live alone with him for a while."
"I told you. Several years."
"Same man all that time?"
"And when it suited her, she took you back. When you were what--three or four?"
Helen made a small, disgusted noise. "What could Philip have been thinking of?"
"They were friends. She wasn't with anyone else at the time."
"How do you know that if she never told you anything important? Did Philip tell you?"
"Helen, I can't do this now. Some other time. Please?"
"How do you keep going under so much stress?"
"I'm not under this much stress most of the time." What the hell was she saying? "I guess you can get used to just about anything if you have to."
"You're good at what you do?"
"That's what makes things bearable, you know." Without waiting for agreement or denial, Helen rose, took up her cane, and limped toward the door to the hallway. Over her shoulder: "Come along. We need to talk about vitamins."
It was three months before Michael could come to London again. Meanwhile, the sky fell several times in Section One, although mostly in small chunks.
Walter became Nikita's Chicken Little.
"You can't let everybody schedule their own down time, Sugar. You'll lose control."
"They don't. They run it past me, and I schedule it."
"That and everything Operations and Madeline used to do."
"Not! We don't do torture any more, remember? And I haven't killed anybody since I got the job."
"Just get yourself a second-in-command, will you please?"
"I'm working on it."
"You can't do it all. You gotta learn to delegate!"
"That has to be the tenth time you've said that."
"Okay. Okay. I'll say this, though. You sure do look great lately." He glanced right and left, leaned across the counter, and muttered sotto voce: "All things considered." Smirk. Almost a leer, but not really. Reputation to uphold or not, this man had wept, holding her tenderly, when she told him her secret.
"Walter, sink the dirty-old-man routine, okay?" She glanced around and then, unobserved, smooched his cheek. "Guess what. I'm taken."
"Sugar, you been taken since the day you hit this place."
A few days after that conversation, three of her best young operatives had come to the Perch to inform her that her down time policy was too demanding. She had promptly put all three of them on close quarter standby for a week. When one of them had suggested that her response was approaching dictatorial, she had shot back, "Since when is this a democracy?"
"But it's not fair!"
"Spence, real life isn't fair, and this is Section."
After that, her down time policy was no longer a topic of conversation.
Missions came and went. The Casualty-to-Mission ratio spiked, filling her with dread, and then tapered off to what it had been when Operations was in charge. Other ratios and statistics flowed past her in an unending stream, all hissing for attention. The Group asked her for an annual budget proposal. She got behind in her administrative work, pulled an all-nighter, got behind again. What was left of the Collective descended rapidly from the high they were on after assassinating her father in broad daylight, fell on each other with tooth and claw and then self-destructed--producing three virtually leaderless splinter groups composed of thugs well-trained by their predecessors in the mechanics of terrorism, but not in strategy or even tactics. The result was total chaos beyond that faced by her predecessor in his worst nightmares.
"Relax, sugar," said Walter. "You're doing fine."
"When in doubt, punt," said Christopher--who, as an armchair covert strategist, was one terrific journalist.
"Get on top of it," said the Group. And she did--seeking advice from the leaders of the other sections (albeit largely to no avail), and even brainstorming with her own troops. By May, total chaos was reduced to mostly chaos, and mission success ratios began a slow climb back toward normal.
"What's normal?" Kelly asked over their desktop lunch one day.
"I'm not sure I remember. But our intel and Jason's numbers seem to be more and more accurately predictive, and my people are getting used to having me in charge even if they don't like it. It's a start."
But administratively, she was in over her head. Operations' personal daily records consisted of brief, cryptic jottings on the computer equivalent of the backs of envelopes, all piled into one directory with filenames that looked to have been created on the fly; her only clue to what each might contain was its filing date. Madeline's psych profiles, on the other hand, were masterpieces of detail, the files named according to a consistent naming convention that Nikita was able to deduce without difficulty. With relief and gratitude, she gave access to Kelly, who had worked as a psychotherapist for years before starting medical school in her early thirties. But the administrative tangle continued to plague her.
"Walter," she asked one day, "how can I access Adrian's daily records?"
"Ahhhhhhh...." Fascinated by what he was working on, Walter went silent.
"You were saying?"
"The backfiles. Get Jase to assign you a password." As she started to leave, he looked up. "What do you want with records that old?"
"A map. A compass. Perspective. A system. I don't really know."
"Operations kept records, didn't he?"
"It's a jungle in there."
"He was never into desk work." Walter turned back to his latest toy, and she went to find Jason.
Adrian's files were little better than her successor's; apparently he'd learned everything he cared to know about Section administrative record-keeping from her.
Resting her forehead on her hand, Nikita went doggedly from file to file and then, about to give up, came upon a disproportionately large file that refused to open. Unadorned filename, no extension. Recognizing traces of Section's encryption scheme, Nikita returned to Jason.
It took him almost ten minutes to decrypt the filename. "Man oh man, she fixed this so anybody who opened it really hadda wanna."
And memory spoke: "It was important that you show me you had the ability and the desire to contact me." Eerie thought. Her father and Adrian probably didn't even know each other.
The translated filename was Journal. The file content was not encrypted--freely available to any successor who wanted to read it badly enough to make the effort to open it.
"Can you find out if the filename's ever been decrypted before?"
Jason typed a series of characters. "Nope. It's clean."
"Thanks, Jason. I'll need to access it from home."
Brief additional keyboard activity. "Any time, ba--" He wore a lazy smile until his gaze met hers. "Yes, ma'am." He returned to his work, minus the smile.
The journal was not what Nikita had been looking for, but she spent an entire evening skimming and reading it. On the surface, the entries revealed little of Adrian's personal life, being confined to comments on her interaction with coworkers during the hours she was in Section, at Oversight, or at Center. But knowing some of the people referred to in it, Nikita was able to deduce how Adrian felt about them from what she chose to record. Fond of George. Hated Madeline. Alternately attracted to and repelled by Paul. Nothing new there, but still fascinating reading. Then she drew in her breath as she came upon yet another name she recognized.
"After the meeting, I dropped in on Philip to see how his work is coming along. He's even got a name for the thing. Calls it Veytoss. I told him that sounds like a pet peacock, and he actually chuckled. I'd just made the mistake of trying to discuss the compassionate exercise of authority with the Group and been all but sacked for it. So it was on my mind, and when he asked how the meeting had gone, I told him. I also told him how Paul had laughed in my face and George had scowled and lectured me when the subject came up with each of them. I was fed up, and Philip isn't the sort to carry tales. His comment was, 'What did you expect, old girl?' The man is surprisingly perceptive, all things considered. When I said as much, he smiled and gave that little shrug of his, then went on to say that it was well that I'd verbalized the concept with 'compassionate' as the adjective and 'authority' as the noun or I should probably have been tossed into the street. We argued a bit. He has little more idea of what I mean than the others do, but he's at least willing to listen. If he weren't so walled up, I might even call him friend."
Sitting cross-legged in the middle of her bed, Nikita stared down at the laptop, fighting the irrational idea that Adrian had written the passage for her. The compassionate exercise of authority. She had the computer scan the entire journal for that phrase, and retrieved one other passage in a portion she had only skimmed before.
"No one seems able to comprehend what I'm getting at, and it's such a simple thing. The compassionate exercise of authority. Paul laughed and said, "Catch more flies with honey? You can't be serious." George lectured me on how important it is for AlphaGroup to believe that I think like a man. One wonders what might become of Section if either of them were in charge of it."
More. Please. But there was no more.
And yet: As though it was written for me....
She searched on "Philip." Nothing but what she had already read. On "authority." Nothing more. On "compassion...."
"Compassion is so seductive. One so easily comes to believe that there must be a magic bullet, an answer to everything. If not love, then compassion? But one has to keep reminding oneself that Section could not survive by compassion alone. Aquinas wrote of substance and accident, what one might call noun and adjective. Compassion is the leavening agent, the accident, not the substance. Authority is the substance. One must just keep kneading it until it's flexible enough to rise to all occasions."
Nikita hit Find Again, and found only the end of the file.
But it wasn't the end of the file. Following the last visible line, there were several more where only an ellipsis appeared at the left margin.
Hidden text? She turned on hidden text.
"I don't know who you are. Perhaps I never shall. If you're reading this, I am dead or banished. You are probably in charge of Section One. If so, I hope that something I've written here may be whatever it is you've overcome obstacles to read. If not, perhaps I never found it. Or perhaps it's waiting to be found within you."
"I need your advice," she told Kelly at their regular meeting the next morning. "It's about the CTTF. They're not meshing, and I don't know why. Their missions have gone well, but when I meet with them, all they do is bicker. They even try to pick fights with me."
"Giving Mommie a hard time when Daddy's not around?"
"Oh, come on. They know better than that."
"What is it they should know better than? You and Michael were their first mentor-trainers. Team teaching, right? I'm guessing here, but there's a good chance they imprinted on you as a couple."
"They didn't know we were together."
"Huh. Everybody knew you were together."
"Well...okay. Let's say you're right. It kind of fits in with what I wanted to ask you about. I've been wondering if I'm going too easy on them. Sometimes it's hard to know when to...to exercise authority and when to be compassionate. Jasmine is sick, and they're all such kids."
"Kids with guns." Animals with guns.... "Could you be giving them mixed signals? From what you tell me, your group debriefs sound more like group therapy sessions. You are not qualified to be doing that, Nikita, and it could blow up in your face. You're not their momma either. You're their boss. Act like it."
"But they need--"
"They need to know who's in charge."
"Keep a tight rein...."
"Okay. Let me think about it."
"Think fast." Kelly's gaze moved restlessly around her office. "Let's get this done, okay? Running a cross between an ER and a research facility makes for a helluva lot of administrivia. I'm swamped."
"I'm bored out of my skull." Bravado. Guilt. And somewhere below all that, defiance and a whiff of fear.
Oh, Kelly. "I'm thinking about making Rick head of Medlab. He's a good doctor. He thrives on adrenaline rushes and taking risks, and that makes him very good at emergency medicine. What makes him unique is that he also thrives on documenting his every move."
Kelly's face had gone still. Then, quietly: "You'll have to watch him." Her assistant was an addicted day-trader who had robbed and killed, unable to wait even long enough to embezzle what he needed to support his habit.
"No. You'll have to watch him. I want you to be my second."
Expression totally blank: "You mean...what Madeline was?"
"No way. That's the whole point."
She had not known what to expect, and still Kelly surprised her. She simply gazed back, frowning faintly but eyes alight. "This is gonna be a whole other something, right? You and me--we do it our way, right?"
"Right. So, do we have anything to negotiate?"
"The plants have to go. I don't know why, but they really creep me out."
"They're gone." Nikita shivered. "They were all dying, and I didn't have time to try and save them."
"Save plants? Girl, you got a one-track mind."
"So what else is new?"
They both grinned as they high-fived each other, and then Kelly's gaze drifted over Nikita's shoulder, her smile softening. "Hey."
Nikita did not have to turn and look to know who stood in the office doorway.
"I have to go." She rose, choking on envy, the longing for Michael's presence so strong that her throat ached with it. "Hi, Chris. Later, Kelly." Slipping past Christopher, she walked steadily toward the Perch, chin high. If any operatives noticed and remembered later, they would dismiss it as simple jealousy of a former boyfriend's new relationship. Cover story intact. More than intact: if her child's father were with someone else in Section, there would be no danger of the two of them going rogue together when their child was born.
When she reached her sanctum, she turned it dark and sat down with her back against the wall, arms around her drawn-up knees. Luc had taken up residence immediately beneath her rib cage, and her expanding waistline was as yet the only part of her figure that truly revealed her condition. Duplicating half her wardrobe one size larger and gradually phasing out the other half was buying her time, and also making her clothing fit more comfortably; she hadn't been able to sit like this in trousers for seven years. Comfortable was also comforting, and the darkened room, the light filtering through the window and glowing from the readout screens, and her own thoughts eased her down into calm.
Only two days until they were together again, and he'd promised this time. The other times he hadn't promised....
Five days before her April trip to London, he had sent:
"I'm needed more here. SV's gr saw end of O plus numerous others. Assumed end of A next. Suppressed for weeks. Now all hell is loose. Research post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I am there with you always."
And in May: "Next time. I promise."
Only a few more days until next time. If he wasn't coming, he would have said so by now.
She rose, turned on the lights, and got back to work.
"You always were a tight-ass bitch." As he spoke to Jasmine, Darwin's voice was light, languid, teasing, but with an undertone of something else far less pleasant. For a week after being informed of her illness, he had treated her like a fragile oriental princess, as had Trent and Claire. But within a month, the four of them were again sparring almost constantly when they were not on a mission together, and Jasmine's precipitous dive into the depths of self-pity had exacerbated the situation. Now Trent fired at holographic hostiles from a treadmill inside the geodesic globe where Jurgen had once retrained Nikita. Darwin, Jasmine, and Claire were taking a break, sprawled on the balcony floor behind Nikita as she watched Trent over the railing.
"And you always were a slimeball," Jasmine responded tightly, making no attempt to disguise her pervasive unhappiness. Darwin was her favorite target, but no one was exempt from a tongue-lashing these days.
Claire murmured impatiently, "Give it a rest, Jazz. It's not his fault, okay?"
"I'm just so sick and tired--."
"That's right, cupcake." Now Darwin's voice was cold. "Keep reminding us of how sick y--."
Nikita had not raised her voice or turned around, but Darwin stopped in mid-sentence. At least there was some respect there to salvage. A word from her would still silence any of them--for a few minutes. And then it would just begin again. "Trent, take a break. There's something we all need to talk about together." She turned from the railing...and caught Claire staring at her waistline as though she had never seen one before. Damn. Claire looked up at her face, smiled faintly, and then looked away.
With all four of them sprawled at her feet, she hesitated, considered alternatives, and then squatted down, still on her feet but with her knees bent and her thighs at right angles to the floor. Trent's dark face shone with sweat and impatience; he was on a fitness kick and disliked being interrupted during any physical workout. Jasmine was close to tears, as she almost always was these days. Darwin lay flat on his back, hands clasped beneath his neck, one knee up with the other ankle balanced across it, to all appearances thoroughly bored. Claire's mouth was half full of the large candy disk attached to the stick she held in her hand, her eyes continually straying toward Nikita's middle.
On second thought...
Rising quickly to her feet, Nikita drew her personal weapon, a small silver pistol, from her jacket pocket and fired once at the floor in their midst. She had anticipated having to resort to this, and had alerted Section security to the possibility. The gun was equipped with a silencer, so all that was discernible to anything other than electronic monitoring equipment was a loud THUMP. But the other four each sprang to a crouch within the same second, hands going for absent weapons checked in after their last mission.
"HEL-lo! Have I got your attention now?" When they merely stared up at her, she put the gun away but remained standing this time.
Darwin began, "What the fuck--"
"This," said Nikita in her heaviest, most intimidating growl, "is a workplace, Darwin. In the workplace, you don't say 'What the fuck' and you don't call anybody a bitch. Am I getting through?" Darwin nodded, silent for once. Much more gently: "Jasmine, we already hurt for you. You don't have to keep reminding us to do it 24/7." Jasmine's eyes were huge, almost round. The leavening agent, Nikita reminded herself. Not the dough. Again she hardened her voice. "Trent, sink the program you're working on that's supposed to blow all the security locks on Section's perimeter. If you'd pulled that stunt six months ago, it would have gotten you canceled, and you know what? It still could." Trent opened his mouth, but at Nikita's "Yes?" he closed it again. "Claire, get rid of the candy. It's not your 'only vice.' It's an affectation of innocence. Mine was bubble gum. Yours is lollipops. Lose 'em."
Incredulous, Claire whispered, "Bubble gum?"
"Just do it." Nikita went on, explaining in detail how things were going to be different from now on. Nobody moved. Nobody else spoke. At the end, there were no questions.
"We meet in Systems in ten minutes. Dismissed."
Ten minutes later, she found her four charges huddled around one Systems work station as though they had never been anything but bosom buddies. As she approached them, she realized that for the moment none of them was aware of her presence.
Claire was the center of attention, but as Nikita paused, trying to decide how to handle the premature announcement that Claire was obviously making, Darwin murmured, deadpan: "Please pass...the sugar."
The effect was instantaneous.
Jasmine: "Shut up, Darwin!" But she was laughing. Jasmine was laughing.
Claire, genuinely confused: "Say again?"
Trent: "Put a sock in it, man!" But he was laughing too.
Jasmine leaned over and whispered something to Claire, who nodded, grinning. "Ah, but of course!" And all four cracked up at once.
"What's this about sugar?" Nikita asked.
They all startled perceptibly. Darwin said, "Uh! Um. Ah," and seemed to run out of noises to make. No one else said anything.
"Claire, I wish you could have kept that to yourself. Now I'm going to have to trust all of you with something you shouldn't know yet." Pulling a rolling chair over so that she could sit near them, she gave her second prepared explanation of the day--this one an abstracted version of the one she had been working over in her head for months in preparation for its future presentation to AlphaGroup. Long before she finished, it was obvious that nobody was laughing anymore. Nobody was even smiling. Trent, Claire, and Jasmine were giving her their polite attention, but Darwin had refused to look at her from the moment she'd first mentioned Christopher. Too late, she realized what she had done to all of them.
Fool, she told herself, trying to stay focused. Kelly had warned her, and instead of listening, she had just told four not-quite-grownup kids that Mommy had cheated on Daddy right after his last visit home.
But it was done, and she did not know what her alternative had been.
"So I'm asking all of you to keep this dark until I tell the Group," she finished. "I have no choice but to trust you."
Jasmine said quietly, "Nikita, we didn't save your life so that Center could take it away." They all nodded solemnly--even Darwin, who still would not look at her.
She thanked them, and they went silently to their work stations.
For an hour she moved from one to the other, giving them guidance on how to create a mission sim from a previously prepared template, today walking them through the morphing of standard primitive shapes into heads, lampshades, clock towers, paths leading over hills into trees. Jasmine, Claire, and Trent continued to listen politely and asked polite questions. Darwin continued to type when she drew up a chair to beside him. "Thanks," he said. "I don't need any help."
"Mind if I sit here for a little while?"
"Yeah, I mind." Still typing. But the scenario he was creating made no sense. Turning her eyes from the screen, she saw tears standing in his.
"Compassion is the leavening...."
"If in doubt, punt."
"Darwin." He looked down at the keyboard. "Look at me, Darwin." He stopped typing and looked past her left shoulder. Slowly, deliberately, she raised her right hand into his line of vision and gave him a thumbs-up sign. "Don't believe everything you hear. Not even from me."
When he finally raised his eyes to hers, they were still moist. "Why do you trust me?"
"Because you care."
"I don't care! Why the f--why should I care?"
"I'm not sure."
He stared blindly at the screen for a while, and then, finally, whispered, "Michael's the only one in my entire life who never let me get away with one freakin' thing."
"Well, here's somebody who just got in line behind him."
"I noticed." He looked straight at her for the first time in well over an hour. "Take care, okay?" His eyes were clear now, but suddenly hers weren't. "If there's anything any of us can do, just give a holler."
"The others still think--the more people who know--"
"I'll care of the others, Teach. You just take care of you and--uh--"
"No shi--uh." He was grinning now. "That's French, right?"
"How could you tell?"
"The way you said it." Still grinning: "Cool. That is so cool."
"So you were right," she told Kelly when next they met over lunch. "So how do you feel about Darwin's calling me 'Teach'?"
"How do you feel about it?"
"I'm not sure. I think it might be okay, but...I'm not sure."
"Wait and see, then." Distracted, Kelly waved a long-fingered, pink-palmed hand toward Nikita's repast of microwaved healthy choices. "I approve, by the way. Yogurt and an apple might be enough to keep you all day, but it's not enough for the kid."
"You mean Luc."
"Ah. But Week 16 was pretty early for conclusive ultrasound."
"To quote Helen: 'Not shy about it, is he?' We'll check it again next weekend, though."
"You look good."
"I feel good."
"So be good and let Rick and me take over."
"No records in Section until I go public."
"Isn't it about that time?"
"Might be. Claire's catching on made me work through it again. After I get back, I think."
Kelly shook her head, but she was obviously resigned to what they both saw as a compromise. "Have you felt the baby move yet?"
"I think so, but I'm not an expert. Kelly--there's something I want to talk to you about before I see Michael again."
In the course of her Michael-mandated research into PTSD, she had perused and mulled over a list of signs and symptoms that had disturbed her. Then, on a hunch, she had done a search on Luc Samuelle, date-limited to the decade between 1974 and 1984. The results had disturbed her even more, but not having seen Michael since March, she had had no opportunity to talk to him about them.
The newspaper coverage of the deaths of Luc Samuelle and his wife, Patrice, had been quite detailed, appropriate to the stature of its subject in the community. As a young child, Michael's father had been active in the French underground during World War II. In the period during which her own father had been an evacuee to the English countryside, Luc le premier had been a pint-sized courier between two very active resistance groups. Parentless since early in the war, he had learned quickly to survive by his wits, and had acquired an extensive reputation as a diminutive covert operative before his tenth birthday. During the post-war period, he had grown up to become a renowned police detective, his specialty the hunting down and apprehension of urban serial killers.
"As soon as I read that," she told Kelly, "I wanted to stop. I think I knew what I was going to find out, and I didn't want to. But I had to."
One fall afternoon in 1982, ten-year-old Marie Samuelle was taken to a hospital suffering from acute appendicitis. Later that evening, having come through an emergency appendectomy with flying colors, Marie said goodnight to her parents for the last time. Then they and her brother Michael, age 17, left her in her hospital bed to sleep a healing sleep, thereby enabling her to escape her share of the horror that was to befall the other three in the course of that interminable night.
"It was a pair of very sick twins." Nikita spoke softly into the hush of the office where Kelly had gotten up and closed the door. "Michael's father was on their trail, but he hadn't caught up with them yet. They wanted to show the whole city what would happen to anyone who did catch up with them. The paper said that after they were done with his parents, the twins told Michael to go and tell everybody what he'd seen. He couldn't, though. When the articles I read were written, he still couldn't speak at all, and that was three or four days later."
"It even made the papers in the States. I didn't remember the family name until now. Did you read any other articles?"
"You want to hear it all?"
"The twins had a thing about authority figures. They'd beat them senseless and then inflict multiple stab wounds to their heads and faces. And some people still believe in God." Nikita said nothing. "There wasn't even a trial. They just locked 'em up in the nearest mental hospital."
"He still has nightmares. He doesn't sleep more than two or three hours at a stretch, and he's hyper vigilant--"
"Whoa!" Kelly had been shading her eyes with one hand, but now she reached out swiftly with both hands and grabbed Nikita's almost hard enough to hurt. "Just stop right there, you hear me?"
"But if he has PTSD like Adam--"
"You are not a therapist, and two or three symptoms do not make a syndrome! DAMN! You're the best example I ever saw of 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.' Did you ever see anybody with PTSD?"
"Well...no, I guess not."
"I guess not. Actually, it's a wonder you haven't in this place. Look, Nikita--Michael not only functions, he functions superbly and has for all of his adult life. He doesn't do drugs. He doesn't get drunk. When he lost Adam the first time--did he get drunk? Okay. And he's never sick? There is no way this man is still a victim of PTSD if he ever was."
"He didn't function emotionally for a long time. Especially after Simone."
"Most of the people in here are emotionally dysfunctional. Did Michael stand out all that much?"
"Only as a leader. Everybody respected him even if they didn't like him. He always got the job done and pretty much always kept his whole team alive."
"Okay. Why did he kill hostiles? I'm not talking about orders. Why did he kill? To get revenge? To hurt them?"
"To stop them. He stops them and then he walks away."
"Without looking back."
"Never looks back."
"Do you have to kill them to stop them?"
"If you want to survive, you don't leave hostiles alive on the floor behind you."
"He doesn't enjoy it? Okay. Does he not enjoy it?"
"Most of the time I don't think he has feelings about it one way or the other."
"What does he enjoy doing?" Nikita opened her eyes wide and gazed back innocently. "Okay, okay. What else does he enjoy doing?"
"Being with Adam. Sailing. Walking on the beach. We went camping once. Lived in a tent for eleven days. He...he thrives in quiet places. He talks to me there. One afternoon he watched some beavers building a dam for two or three hours."
"Didn't you watch them too?"
"Some. I mostly watched him. He's...very watchable."
"For two or three hours?"
"Well, we were talking."
Kelly made a sound somewhat reminiscent of Helen's Quite. "Whatever. This is not a sick man you're describing. He's probably dysfunctional in some ways, yes. I've barely spoken to him and only observed him in passing, so I'm guessing here. But my guess is we're talking lots of scar tissue, not open wounds. Do you know anything about what he was like before his parents died?"
"I might. He lost his memory once, for three days. He wasn't who he is."
"Did he regress?"
"Might have, yes. He seemed very...young."
"He could have been. Didn't have much chance, though. He was too scared to be happy. But he was so...different."
"From what he was before that? And since? Well, I can only guess again. If he had seventeen years of good life before the trauma, that might explain how he could grow enough scar tissue without therapy. Over time. He's not invulnerable, though.
"The articles I read said something about helping the person to relive the experience."
"Don't...even...think about it. There lies Pandora's box. Promise me you won't try anything you're not trained to do."
"But what if he wants to tell me about it?"
"Listen--if he wants to tell you. But don't push, not even a little. Promise."
"I promise." It was almost 1400. "I shouldn't have stayed so long."
Kelly grinned. "You da boss. Besides, I didn't have anything to do this afternoon except shitwork."
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.]
On a bright blue Friday toward the middle of November, Nikita arrived at the penultimate mark of her mission. It was time to face down Kelly, and soon it would be time to face down Helen. She had accepted the fact that she might lose them both emotionally, but that was a worst-case scenario. Both would feel that trust had been betrayed because it had been, but it had to be done, and she hoped that they would both realize that eventually.
The intervening months had demanded much of her, but they had not been unusually stressful and her health had remained excellent throughout as she gradually became more knowledgeable about and more relaxed at her job. At thirty-nine weeks she was still wearing the same loose tops and jackets that she had worn in the fall, and if her slacks and skirts had paneled fronts, no one could see them when she was fully dressed. Her body was more oval than pear-shaped, due in no small part to the strength of her abdominal muscles, developed over years of continuous exercise. From the front she looked rectangular, but her height nicely complemented her increased girth: she looked big rather than pregnant, and although she was now unable to bend at the waist, she had experienced few balance problems. On the morning her contractions began, she weighed barely fifteen pounds more than she had nine months before, and according to Kelly, between seven and nine of those pounds were Luc's.
"You're 3 centimeters dilated, but you've been that for a week." Kelly seemed pleased and confident as Nikita dressed after being examined. "Go back to work, but come see me in a couple of hours, okay?"
"How long do I have?"
"Hard to tell at this point. Could be twelve, fourteen more hours, or it could be more. Or less. Depends on how strong your contractions get and how far apart they are. Average labor for a primip is fourteen hours, but there's a lot of variation. Not planning on going anywhere, are you?" It was a rhetorical question, asked with teasing affection.
"I'm going to London this afternoon. My flight leaves in an hour and a half."
"It's not supposed to be funny," Nikita assured her calmly. "I've had the reservation since October. If I wasn't in labor yet, I was going to get Helen to induce this weekend. The Group thinks I'm not due for another month, so they'll think I went into premature labor. I've told them that the adoptive parents live in London, so it all works out."
There was a silence, and then Kelly asked in a dangerously quiet voice, "Are you out of your mind?"
"So what did you think I was going to do? Have Luc in Section and just give him up?"
"That's what you told me you were going to do, Nikita. We've even talked about what kind of post-partum counseling you'd need." Kelly's voice was now trembling a little. "You were lying to me the whole time."
"It wasn't all a lie. I won't have him with me when I come back. He'll be with Michael." The black abyss tried to open, but she resolutely averted the eyes of her mind, and when she looked back, the pit had closed once more.
"And you couldn't trust me enough to tell me what you had in mind?"
"The less you knew, Kelly, the safer you were."
"I can't believe your aunt would go along with this."
"I didn't tell her either. She doesn't expect to see me again until Christmas."
"What if she'd refused to induce you?"
"I'd have convinced her. But that's moot now, isn't it?" Nikita frowned at another cramp-like contraction, but blessedly, she was as yet in no pain. "This isn't all that bad, you know? It doesn't even hurt."
"You fool." Kelly voice had begun to rise. "You could have this baby on the plane!"
"I won't have him on the plane. I'll have him at the Helen Collingwood Clinic."
"You can't control that! Who the hell do you think you are? God?"
"No, I'm Nikita, and I am not going to give my son away."
"If we'd had this conversation before today, I'd have--"
"You'd have found some way to stop me. This way you don't have time to figure it out." Having fully dressed herself before the conversation began, she slid off the examining table. "I have to catch a plane."
"What about the Group?"
"They know I'm going. It's been a month, so they don't suspect anything. Aren't you gonna wish me luck?" She heard her own voice falter.
"Just like that? You play me like a fish on a line and then--" Nikita turned away. "Good luck." It was only a whisper.
Looking back, she saw tears in her friend's eyes. Oh, Kelly, do I ever know the feeling. "Thanks." Without another word, she left the office, and ten minutes later she was passing through Van Access, the door clanging shut behind her.
Advance to final mark....
All the way to the airport, she timed contractions and the minutes between them. By the time the plane gathered itself and took off roaring into the early winter dusk, the contractions were lasting thirty seconds and the time between was averaging less than six minutes. Still she was in no pain, but the woman sitting beside her glanced her way as one of the contractions hit, and she realized she must have winced. Smiling, she made small talk until the woman booted up her laptop.
Keep seat belts fastened, the pilot reminded them. She eased the buckle and kept her seat belt fastened as the daylight faded below and thinned around them where they flew above the clouds for almost an hour. Smooth flight. No peanuts, thank you. Light dying outside the window. As the plane touched down and its engines roared into reverse, she timed a contraction at 45 seconds; it had only been four minutes since the last one. It's okay, she told herself. Active phase, first stage. Could take up to six hours.
Somehow, she didn't think it would.
Friday evening, airport mobbed. Uniformed chauffeur holding a sign with her name on it. Black taxi waiting. Plush interior. Soft seat. Bright lights outside. Sign on a bridge over the highway: "Welcome to Britain." Sixty seconds, and only three minutes since the last one. If her water broke now, she would mess up this lovely cab. Nothing broke, but as the cab finally, finally turned into Helen's street, she had a hard, ninety-second contraction only a minute after the last one and something changed. In the light of a street lamp, she tipped the driver who tipped his hat, and then began a long, slow walk up to the doorway when all she really wanted to do was squat and push. But she was there. She was there.
When she opened the door, Chauncey came to greet her, licking her hand. Voices from the office paused, and then Helen was coming toward her with Michael close behind.
"You lied to me!"
Nikita stood leaning against the examining table with Michael holding her arm and an infuriated Helen facing them both. It took a moment to realize that her aunt was not speaking to her, but to Michael.
In spite of herself, Nikita grinned. "Why did he tell you he was here?"
"He said he wanted to talk to me about you." To Michael: "You knew she was coming. You knew what she was up to, but you told me--"
"Helen, this man...." Nikita grimaced as pain spread from her back to her belly. "...Filters in the truth and then censors it back out again. The trick is to...oh, Godddd...listen to what he says first, while he's still filtering in. Right, Michael?" She set her teeth to keep from groaning. "Say yes, Michael."
Michael said nothing, and Helen said, "Get up on the table this instant."
"Don't want to lie down. Want to squat and push."
"Young woman, you came here and put yourself in my hands against my will. Now do as I say!"
"I'd have to sit first. Can't sit. Luc is getting in the way."
Still without speaking, Michael slipped one arm around her back, the other under her knees, and lifted her onto the table. Helen removed her shoes, socks, slacks and underpants with unbelievable swiftness, took one look, and muttered, "Dear God in heaven." But she didn't sound worried. She sounded awed. Then she went to wash her hands, barking instructions at Michael over her shoulder. Sterile gloves in a drawer. Gowns and drapes in a cupboard. Michael lifted Nikita's hips and something clean and smooth was laid underneath them. Feet in the stirrups.
"I hate these things," she shouted. "It's like wrist clamps in the White Room! I need to stand up! Pleeeeze!" It turned into a scream.
Helen wheeled a stool into place. Snap, snap went her gloves. "Put those on," she told Michael. But Michael, properly gowned, did not put gloves on.
"Kita, close your eyes." When she obeyed, he leaned across her, grasped her ankles, lifted her feet out of the stirrups and stretched her legs out full length, her feet on either side of Helen's head. "You're free now. You're standing. Are you standing?"
"Yes," she gasped.
Now grasping both her feet at the instep, he moved back away from Helen toward the head of the table, pulling against Nikita's feet until her knees were bent wide apart. "Can she push now?" he demanded without raising his voice.
"If you let go," Helen said tightly, "she could kick me silly."
"Can she push now?"
"Next contraction, she'd jolly well better," said the Queen of Spades. "It's got complete coronation."
"He's got--!" Nikita shouted, and pushed against Michael's hands with all her might as he braced himself and strained. She had the sensation that Helen was peeling back a thin rubber sheath from an object too large to expel, and then it was over. She heard Helen's triumphant, "No tearing, by God!" And then Luc Michael Samuelle burst out howling, supremely annoyed at being ejected into life on a star unstable.
"I want to see him," said his mother as soon as she had breath to speak.
And Helen said, "Michael, put on the damn gloves or I'll show him to her."
"Lullay my dere sonne, my sweeting.
Lullay my dere herte, myn own dere derling."
- from a 15th century English folk lullaby
In the days that followed, she could not get enough of looking at him.
Both Helen and Michael insisted that he looked like her, but she could not understand why they thought that. Helen showed her a photograph of one of Evelyn's grandsons as a newborn, but again she was not impressed with the likeness. Why did people always want babies to look like somebody else? she wondered, rapt with his uniqueness. To her, he didn't look like anybody but himself. Or...like the freshest of peaches, faintly fuzzy on top but with eyes like sky.
She held him as much as she could, marveling at how he seemed to just fit into her arms. When she wasn't holding him, Michael was, and he seemed to fit there too. "You two hold him too much," Helen informed them with mild, mostly rhetorical disapproval. For that bit of intel, she received one indulgent, affectionate smile and one blank stare.
He suckled hard on both bottle and breast, slept a lot during the day and hardly at all at night, and smiled a great deal, especially when he heard his mother's voice.
"You need to think about weaning him," Helen told her one Sunday afternoon while Luc slept upstairs on his sleeping father's chest. "I can give you something to help you dry up, but only after you stop nursing."
"I'm not going to stop until I have to."
Helen knitted in her chair, and Nikita sat on the window seat, staring out at a day gray and white with falling snow. There was a bustle in the street. The outdated box that Helen called her "telly" was already informing them constantly that Christmas was coming, even though that event was still weeks away. Bits of red and green blinked through the snowflakes from the lapels of passers-by. They meant nothing to her. It was as though the house in which the four of them were living these last days together were suspended in time and space.
"The chaps in the Group you describe," Helen said bluntly, "will not take kindly to leakage."
"I know. Let me think about it."
"My dear, you must begin to prepare yourself for what's to come. It will take all the strength you have just to get you through it, even if you're prepared."
Quietly: "My dear, leave it alone."
"Aren't you the least bit curious about what Michael said he wanted to talk with me about while you were on your way here?"
"I think you're probably going to tell me whether I am or not."
"He said he was concerned that you don't seem to be preparing yourself to give Luc up."
"'Preparing yourself' is your phrase, Helen. What did he actually say?"
"As I remember it, he said that when the time comes, it will be a great deal more difficult than even you can imagine. Something of that sort. One had the impression that he knows someone who's been through it." With lingering bitterness: "Of course it was all a sham to justify his coming here alone."
"No." Lightly: "He always tells the truth going in. It's just that he might yank it out from under you later. Not lately, though."
Helen stopped knitting and stared. "Nikita, you are in denial. Sooner or later that will catch up with you, and it could destroy you."
"Did Michael say that?"
"Actually, no. He'd been glancing about the way he does. When I said you were in denial, he looked directly at me and said, 'Not Nikita.'" Smiling a little, Nikita nodded. "At that point I sensed that he understood more than he was telling me, but just then you ...arrived on the scene. I hadn't thought more about it specifically until now."
"You were right. He always knows."
"What does he always know?"
"Me." Turning from the window, she dropped her feet to the floor, bowed her head, and ran her fingers through her hair, now as long as it had ever been. "Helen, I have one more week with the two people I love most--something I may never have again. I will not spend the best days of my life 'preparing' for the worst thing that's ever happened to me. Call that being in denial if you want to."
"What do you call it?"
"I don't know. Soaking up the sun?" In a whisper: "Soaking up my son?"
"How I wish I could do something to help you."
"Two weeks ago I maneuvered you into delivering my baby, and in return you've given me the home I've never had. So how do you define 'help'?"
Luc slept on his stomach in a blue knit suit with feet, his butt in the air, cheek to his father's burp-cloth-covered shirt, mouth open. Michael's hand rested lightly on his back; his eyes were closed, but when Nikita entered the room, they opened and sought hers. Not wanting to wake Luc, who had eaten well two hours before, she lay down next to them on the free arm Michael had stretched out toward her, and he pulled her close enough to allow her to whisper in his ear.
"When will Adam get here?"
"Sometime this evening."
"Are you sure he won't get scared? He doesn't know Jenny and Basil, does he?"
"He knows they're my friends, and that they're bringing him to see his brother."
"So he was really happy when you first told him?" She knew the answer, but she liked hearing it again.
"Yes." A pause. "My sons are the happiest people I know."
"Then he's really okay?"
"He still has nightmares."
"Don't we all." It was a simple statement of fact. When will I hurt? she wondered. When would the black hole open and refuse to close?
He turned his head and pressed his lips to her forehead. "How do you feel today?" Something in his voice....
"Really skinny. It's still an illusion, but I love it. Shall we put him to bed and, um, explore interim solutions?"
She sighed. "Mostly, I guess. But--"
"Kita, you should sleep."
"He had you up half the night."
"And you the other half, love. Family night every night." Just saying the words made her yawn. "So...time for a family nap?"
Adam was entranced.
At first Michael was insistent that when the four of them were together, Nikita should be as physically close to Luc as he and Adam were. It was only after she explained how much it meant to her to watch the other three together that he reluctantly agreed to sometimes let her sit at some distance from them as he and his sons enjoyed one another. She watched as Adam's awe turned to nose-wrinkling disgust as he learned how his brother smelled after Luc gave a particular grunt that both his parents had learned to interpret. But the disgust was short-lived, and soon Adam was happily "helping" while Luc's parents fed and changed him. When the baby cried, his brother frowned and wiggled uncomfortably; when he smiled, especially at Adam, the little boy's dark eyes glowed. "I think he likes me," he confided to Nikita one day, thrilled with discovery. "I think he loves you," she answered, and let Adam hold Luc's bottle while they fed him together.
One evening Michael spread a blanket on the sitting room floor and lay down with a wakeful Luc prone on his chest and a delighted Adam carrying on a largely one-sided conversation with both of them. There was a stamp of enforced maturity on him now, and once or twice Nikita thought she saw shadows in his eyes. But he was talking much more than he had when she last saw him, and this particular evening he was full of non-stop chatter. Trying to deal with her own encroaching shadows, Nikita lay on the couch, her head elevated on two pillows so that she could see all three of the others. Only half following what Adam was saying, she heard the phrase "...come to see us?", followed by a quiet, barely-audible answer from Michael. From where she lay, Nikita could see Adam's face light up as his dancing eyes went from his father's face to hers.
"Daddy and me can keep him?" he asked incredulously. Feeling her world begin to shatter, she tried to smile back.
"If you want to," she managed to say.
"Cool!" He got up, padded across to her in his stocking feet, laid his head on her chest, and hugged her. "Thank you!"
"I'm all right, love." She hugged the child back, trying to force the words out: You're welcome. It was what he was expecting to hear, she knew. You're welcome. So simple. Just say it. You're welcome, Adam. But saying it was beyond her. "I know you'll take good...." But she could not say that either. In fact, she couldn't say anything more.
Then Michael was there, leaning over them, Luc in his arms and tears in his eyes. "Adam, Luc needs to have a bottle, and you need to get ready for bed. Come with me." Nikita closed her eyes again; she felt Adam sit up and move away from her and her baby laid ever so gently in her arms.
"Thank you," she whispered, and felt a beloved hand brush a stray lock of hair back from her forehead. As they left her, she could hear Adam talking excitedly all the way up the stairs.
Luc was not hungry; he had had a bottle less than an hour before. But she held his cheek against her breast until he slept, her fingers lightly tracing his features, stroking his other cheek, and feeling the softness of the fuzz that now covered the top of his head.
The following day, another infant came into the house in secret, and his eager adoptive parents came into it through the front door, in full view of whomever might be watching.
Helen had selected the parents, and Michael had selected the child--born a week ago to two M15 operatives, neither of whom wanted to keep him. When, a few days before, he brought a copy of the baby's impeccable medical history for her approval, Helen had asked quietly, "Do I have your word that these records are genuine?"
"You have my word."
"And you won't...yank that out from under me at some future date?" Having said everything he had to say, Michael now said nothing. "Very well." Frowning but resigned: "Let the games begin."
The games began and ended on a frigid evening sliced with sleet. It was also the night before Michael would take his sons home.
He and Nikita were not present at the exchange, but watched the happy couple carry their new son to the car--as they were no doubt also being watched from some nearby window or doorway. Luc was asleep, safe in his bassinet near the bed, which had been pushed against the wall to make room. But as the car drove away, Nikita came to the brink. "I'm losing it." she whispered. "I'm gonna lose it now, Michael. When I can't see him or touch him, it'll be like he's dead." It was all she could do to keep from screaming the last word.
"I know," he whispered, lifted her onto the bed and lay down beside her. They were used to the mattress by now, curling up together in its sagging middle. Once she started, she could not stop crying--as though to make up for all the tears she hadn't shed yet. The pit yawned and would not close, and the only thing that kept her from falling into it was that Michael had been where she was now and survived.
Luc chose that night to be a model baby, sleeping peacefully for a little over six hours. Once they realized they needn't check every ten minutes to be sure he was still breathing, his parents began to rediscover one another at their leisure.
"Is this sick or what?" Nikita murmured. Even as she wept, her body still responded to the beloved touch as it always had. Her tears still flowed, and there was an occasional small sob. And yet she was almost smiling.
"What," he affirmed softly, kissing first one breast and then the other. It was another last time--the last time for who knew how long--and yet the only urgency they felt was that of keeping as close together as they could. Pleasure came and went, and still they curled together, touching in every way possible, until eventually they slept.
At five in the morning she fed Luc for the last time while Michael packed and dressed. When he went to wake Adam, she sat cross-legged on the bed, still in her nightgown, rocking back and forth as her son slept against her shoulder. Her tears still flowed as though there were no end to them, but she made no sound, only rocking back and forth on the edge of the pit.
She heard Michael come up the stairs, and she knew that Adam must be having breakfast in the kitchen with Helen, as had been agreed the previous evening. He came to the bedroom door, and something shattered in her soul.
Frantic, she pulled her legs under her and inched backwards on the bed toward the wall, Luc still warm against her shoulder. There were no tears now. Her eyes felt as though they were stretched wide as she crouched with her back to the wall, trying to stay out of Michael's shadow as it moved across the bed toward her. Strands of hair fell over her eyes, but she could not let go of Luc long enough to push them back. As the shadow fell across her, she rasped, "Take him. Just take him!" But how could he take him when she couldn't let go?
Then the shadow disappeared.
She had been looking down, soaking up her son. Now she looked up, still through her hair, and saw Michael kneeling next to the bed, a supplicant at the altar of love, his arms outstretched toward her and Luc.
"Why can't you just take him?" she whispered, and wondered if he could hear her; the whisper didn't seem to want to come out of her throat.
"Because you'd never forgive me, and you'd never forget."
Still tearless, she stretched out her legs, hooking her heels over the edge of the mattress and pulling herself toward him. Part of her mind saw the faded bruises on her bare feet as though they were new--one on the top of each instep, and four on its under side where Michael had gripped and held her rather than leave her feeling trapped and helpless as she bore their child.
Then she was on her knees too, laying her son in his father's arms. The left arm pulled Luc against his chest, and the right gathered her against him until they were cheek to cheek, her arm around his waist, both of them looking down at the baby, who slept on in the whistling void.
"Hold him too much," she whispered, dry-eyed. But when he nodded, she felt a wetness in the stubble on his cheek.
Christopher and Kelly stood close together near the front of the group of limo drivers meeting arriving international passengers. Nikita would be looking for a placard with her name on it, but they had canceled her limo, and they didn't need a placard.
"Sweaty palms?" He squeezed her hand. "Sure you don't want me to do it?"
"You can't, hon. If you said it, it would be true, and that won't work." She shivered. Then she saw Nikita coming through the arrival gate, and breathed, "Oh, God," her trained eye telling her instantly that not much could be worse than this.
It was as though she were in a trance, or on some drug that made everything look and sound and feel one step away from reality. She knew the airport was crowded with pre-holiday travelers; she was even jostled accidentally in the jetway by a man eager to greet a woman and two little girls who waited just as eagerly beyond the security barrier. She watched them hug each other, feeling only despair, but that not deeply. There was no depth to her anymore.
"Chris?" Even her voice sounded strange, as though she were hearing it from the wrong end of a kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope's for seeing, not hearing. "Kelly? I ordered a limo." It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense any more.
"We canceled it," Chris told her quietly. And from Kelly: "We thought you might need a little company right now."
"Okay. I mean--thanks." She looked from one to the other as each took one of her carry-ons in one hand and one of her arms with the other. Her gaze paused on Kelly. "Are we talking?"
"You did what you had to do. It took guts, and it worked out. 'Nough said?"
"Yeah. Thanks." Was it the small end of a megaphone she'd been thinking of? Ear trumpet, maybe. Whatever. "Can we go straight to the apartment? I need to sleep." She'd done almost nothing but sleep and need to sleep for the past forty-eight hours. The only thing that had been worth looking forward to was evening, when she could go back to bed without any argument from Helen.
Why had they come for her in Kelly's car? she wondered as she dragged herself into the cramped rear seat. Chris' car was larger and more comfortable for three people, and he liked driving on the "wrong" side of the road while Kelly didn't. Something scratched at her mind. Something didn't make sense. But she was too sleepy to try to figure out what it was.
Before they'd cleared the airport, Kelly was asking, "How much are you sleeping these days?"
"I don't want to hear it, Kelly."
"Well, boss-lady, you're a captive audience and I'm not on duty. How much are you sleeping? Twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours?"
"Back off, will you?" A spark of pure rage shot through her and then was gone as quickly as it had come.
"Look, Nikita, snap out of it. You're just depressed. I know how you feel, but you're gonna have to pull yourself together before the Group sees you."
"Just depressed." The anger came seething back, and this time it did not recede but instead gathered force by the second. Turning her gaze from the window to the backs of their heads, she listened to her voice growing louder, sounding more and more like her voice. "You know how I feel? You know how I feel? God damn you! How can you possibly know how I feel?"
They drove on down the road, Chris and Kelly saying nothing while Nikita plumbed the depths of her rage, shouting words she had not used since she was homeless on the street. About what Kelly had said to her. About Kelly and Chris and their unbearable togetherness. About the Group, and about her father, and every stifling, smothering thing that held her captive. She was a volcano, with rivulets of lava coursing through every vein, burning away the blackness of the pit. She was incandescent, transcendent with fury, and feeling better than she had in days.
"Where the hell are you going?" She demanded abruptly, looking around and out the window for the first time since they hit the road. "This isn't the way to my apartment." Then realization dawned. "Why are we going to Center?"
"They want to see you first thing in the morning," Chris told her, and even in her rage, she realized that his voice was tight with tension. "They want you to spend the night there so they can meet with you first thing in the morning."
"Bullshit! What is going on?"
The car was now on the down ramp to the underground parking garage beneath the building where Center concealed itself in a hollow corporation on the twelfth floor. And suddenly everything became blindingly clear.
"...Before the Group sees you."
"That meeting isn't tomorrow." She spoke in her normal voice as the lava turned to white diamonds. "That meeting is now."
"You didn't hear that from me," Chris said thickly, "until you were inside the building. Have you got that? We were inside the building before you found out about the meeting. That was the deal I had to make. Otherwise Cornu would have met your flight."
Kelly brought the car to a flying stop that almost went through the parking stall.
Into the silence, Nikita said softly, "You did that to me on purpose."
"So sue me. Great natural stim, adrenaline. You got a hairbrush and some face paint in that case?" Realizing for the first time why they had placed her hand luggage in the back seat with her, Nikita nodded, mute. "Use it, baby. You look like hell, and show time's in less than ten minutes." To Chris: "How long did you say you'll be?"
"Not more than half an hour. They just want to see what kind of shape she's in."
"An hour, then. Have to have time for the cozy post-meeting coffee date, right?"
In the act of opening her cosmetic case, Nikita froze, her gaze meeting Chris's in the rear view mirror. That the two of them always had coffee together after Group meetings had never been kept secret from anyone, least of all from Kelly. And yet...the forced lightness in Kelly's tone suggested that there was a secret to be kept.
For a moment she thought Chris would pick up on it verbally, but then she realized that she should have trusted him to know better; they did not have time for this now. Kelly should have known that. She did know that. But she'd had to say what she'd said anyway.
This needed to be attended to as soon as possible after the meeting was over. Having thought that thought, Nikita put the matter out of her mind and concentrated on lipgloss and eyeliner.
"So you thought we might go rogue together." She sat there calmly facing them all, knowing that she looked well-groomed if rumpled. But rumpled was okay. After all, she hadn't expected to be sand-bagged on arrival. "May I ask why?"
"Your psych profile strongly suggested it," said The Chair a shade wistfully. "So, I might add, did Christopher's. Your loyalty is gratifying. My compliments to you both." He now sounded a little less grudging. "Nikita, the thinking here is that if you did return, your watch should continue in force only when you leave the country."
She nodded, smiling a little. Keep calm. Keep very, very calm.
"I appreciate the confidence you've shown in me." Not a shred of irony managed to slip past her. "I understand about being out of the country, but is there a time frame?"("...See if you could improvise.") "My aunt and I have been talking about getting a time-share in the Greek Islands. It would be nice to be able to go on holiday there knowing that I was trusted not to run away."
"Where in the Greek Islands?"
"Oh, we thought maybe...Rhodes."
"You appear to give quite a bit of thought to how you spend your down time."
"Mine and other people's. You've seen how it's paid off."
"Point taken." Chair's gaze went from Hyena to Perfect to Stare Bear, and stopped there. "Perhaps in the spring?"
In the spring, she thought. In the spring.
"Mr. Chairman," rumbled the Bear in a pleasant, vaguely respectful tone, "I move that Christopher become a voting member of the Group before this matter is addressed."
She could almost see Chair's Gotcha! "Well, Alex, I believe it would be more appropriate to discuss this without non-members present," he said, almost smirking. Poor fool. He didn't even know when he was being reeled back in.
"Of course," the Bear answered smoothly. "My apologies, Mr. Chairman. Motion withdrawn."
It was Sunday, and once the Group members were gone the building was empty except for a man mopping the floor in the lobby. Nikita and Chris waited for Kelly outside the revolving doors, each leaning against the arched entryway but on opposite sides of it, the winter wind whipping their coats around their knees. Briefly they both looked toward the coffee shop, which was in a hotel and therefore open for business on Sunday afternoon. But neither of them moved to cross the street.
"I'll miss us there," Nikita said softly.
He nodded. "Me too."
"I was thinking--I should have the two of you to dinner again soon. Like, this week."
"Are you up for it?"
"I am today. There're blacker ones coming, but I'm up for it today, and nothing ventured, nothing gained. Chris, thank you again and again and again. I don't think I can ever say it enough."
"You shot the Moon, Nikita. I just stood around watching your dust."
"No. It was the synergy. The two of you together."
She whispered, "I don't think I want to think about 'together' just now."
"Are they on Rhodes?"
"Can't you get to there somehow?"
"I can't go there, and Michael can't come here. Where we live, too many people know us. One wrong move and we'd be compromised."
"Couldn't Michael bring him back to London from time to time?"
"How'd you like to do overt access and egress with an infant who might start crying any minute? Helen had to--." She suppressed a shudder. "He was pretty sedated. It was the only way Michael could get him out, but we will never, ever do that to him again."
"Is he okay?"
"Michael says 'alert and beautiful.'" Her voice broke.
There was a silence, and then Chris said gently, "I hear the Islands are awesome in the spring." She nodded. "Think you and your aunt can get your act together by then?"
"The only 'act' happened in the meeting. I don't even know if they have time-shares on Rhodes. But I'll think of something."
"You mean you improvised that?" She nodded again, and he went on soberly: "Do you have any idea how much better you look now than you did when you dragged yourself off that plane?"
"This can't last."
"Of course not. But it can come back."
"With a little help from my friends?" she asked wryly. "Whoever thought up that one might have saved my life."
"Kelly's the resident shrink, but we brainstormed the mission profile together."
As though on cue, Kelly's little car turned the corner and began to cruise along the opposite curb, its driver scanning the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. Not seeing anyone she knew, Kelly parked in an empty spot and got out of the car just as Nikita and Chris left the shelter of the archway entrance. Catching sight of them, she folded her arms against the wind and watched them cross the street toward her. Her gaze went from Chris to Nikita and then back to Chris, and when they were close enough she said, "I am so sorry. I swear to God I didn't know that was there."
"Shut up and drive, sweetheart." Chris kissed her cheek, whacked her lightly on the behind, opened both driver's side doors, and then went around to the sidewalk.
As he climbed into the car, Nikita leaned forward in her seat, made a fist, bounced it lightly on Kelly's shoulder and then let it rest there. Without turning, Kelly bounced her fist off Nikita's. Then, as Nikita settled back into her seat, Kelly started the car.
The adrenaline high wore off as she had known it would, and by nine o'clock that night she couldn't make up her mind whether she wanted to cry forever or sleep forever. There was unpacked luggage in the bedroom, unopened mail all over the kitchen counter, a peculiar smell in the refrigerator, and no food to speak of in house. But that was fine, since she wasn't hungry. Everything was gray except the ache in her soul, which was as red as an open sore. At least gray was better than the black hole, she told herself. If she could somehow manage to banish the blackness, then she just might--
Standing at the sink, in the act of making herself a cup of instant coffee, she froze, staring unseeing at the bottom of the cupboard door directly in front of her.
"If you're reading this, I am dead or banished."
Her hand let go of the coffee mug, which dropped into the sink and shattered into half a dozen pieces.
She got out alive.
Adrian got out alive.
"IDIOT!" She raised both fists and slammed them against the cupboard door so hard that they throbbed. Lowering them, she found that she was shaking.
It was right in front of me all this time. It's been right in front of all of us all this time.
Adrian got out alive.
Banished for doing what?
"George lectured me on how important it is for AlphaGroup to believe that I think like a man."
"You've chosen your battles perfectly so far...."
Paul wanted in, and Adrian had lost that battle.
But how? Why?
She had no answers. All she knew was that she was going to find them. It wouldn't happen tomorrow, next week, next month, not even next year. And as long as Section was not what it could be, she still had a promise keep. But Adrian had gotten out alive, and she was going to find out how.
Still shaking a little, she went into the living room, turned off all the lights, and retrieved her PDA from her travel tote. Michael had sent on arrival: "All safe. A's brother alert and beautiful." Barely able to keep her eyes open, she had sent "Thank you" and nothing more, knowing that she should have roused herself to say more but unable to do it. Now she sat on the couch in the dark and told herself that she must not--must not--type "I've found a way." and hit Send. She had found nothing but what had been hiding in plain sight for years, even from him, and there could be a dozen reasons why that discovery would ultimately lead right back to nothing.
Letting her head fall back against the cushion, she closed her eyes and for the first time allowed herself to remember her last sight of Michael. Shortly after dawn on a chill winter morning. Matted grass in a country field, hard with frost. Chopper squatting, its blades slapping the frigid air. Michael looking back at her, Luc in one arm and the other around Adam, the bitter, chopper-generated wind tugging at his hair and the new sun reflecting in his eyes. ("I face the sunrise/ And do the things my fathers learned to do.") Lips moving. Three words, no sound.
Hugging herself with empty arms, she had answered him. Three words, no sound....
She opened her eyes, brushed away her tears, and typed words that appeared on the faintly illuminated screen.
Four words this time: "I love you both."
Then came another memory: a little boy with dark, dancing eyes. "Daddy and me can keep him? Cool!"
She backspaced across the last word written, typed "all" instead, hit Send, and went off to write a grocery list. She didn't need to wait for an answer, for she knew what it would be.
"If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
- Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"
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Shooting the Moon, Part Two,
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