nell65: (by roulade)
[personal profile] nell65
*****

As Nikita pulled the SUV into the garage that night, Kate let out a huge groan. “Oh god. I just realized! With Dad gone, supper won’t be waiting for us. I’m starving!” she wailed.



Nikita looked over to the passenger seat, where Kate was sagging dramatically against the cushions. Tuesday was always a late day for all of them. Kate and Isabella had two-hour sports practices after school and Gabrielle and Sophie had violin and then karate lessons. Snacks in the car helped stave off total breakdown, but Nikita had learned during Adam’s adolescence that energy bars and sandwiches did little to actually sate a teenager’s hunger.

She caught Sophie’s eye and grinned. “Ready to show off?”

Sophie laughed delightedly and leapt out of the SUV, heading for the big freezer that stood next to the gun locker. She flung it open and turned to beam triumphantly at her sisters, raising her arms like a spokes model and crying “Ta da!”

The freezer was full of food containers, and as they gathered around, they could see each one had a printed label that included heating instructions and the date they were supposed to eat it and what they were supposed to eat it with.

Nikita slung her arm across Kate’s shoulders. “Never underestimate your father’s ability to micro-manage all his responsibilities, even from a distance.”

“Hey!” cried Sophie. “It was my project!”

Nikita let go of Kate and turned to stroke Sophie’s hair, chuckling as she said, “Absolutely. You did all the planning this time.”

It was true. Michael had turned the previous week of Sophie’s homeschooling in to meal preparation for the entire period he intended to be away. He had even convinced Sophie to keep the project a secret until after he had broken the news to Nikita. Sophie had entered enthusiastically into the scheme, finding the whole process, planning, shopping, cooking and secret keeping, absorbing and engaging.

Kate was looking speculatively at the freezer contents. “What happens if we eat things on the wrong date?”

Sophie was aghast. “We can’t! Everything is planned out, even the leftovers!”

“Oh. My. God. You can’t be serious?”

Isabella made an exasperated sound and rolled her eyes. “Of course she’s serious. That’s how dad cooks every week. How have you not noticed?”

“What?” Kate looked shocked and Nikita frowned.

It had never dawned on her that Kate would be that oblivious to their home economy. Michael did do most of their cooking these days, and he did plan for leftovers that could be quickly recombined for new meals. He preferred it to the daily grind of driving back and forth to town. As with everything he did, he gave the task his full attention. And, after all their years in the humanitarian relief field, he always, always operated as if all resources were scarce and needed to be stretched to their limit. A lesson she had thought they were self-consciously teaching to all their kids. Somehow, they’d clearly missed one.

Kate was still looking at her smirking sisters in bewilderment. “Oh come on!” she exclaimed, flinging out her arms in exasperation. “Let’s live a little! Be wild! Eat our meals out of order!”

“No!” Sophie cried, as she turned to Nikita, her green eyes glowing and her pointed little chin thrust out in determination. “Mom! I planned it all out! Ten days, breakfast, lunch and supper!”

At the same time, Gabrielle asked, “If dad’s not home, do I still have to eat all the vegetables on my plate?”

Nikita smiled at Sophie’s fierce expression. “Yes. It’s your project and,” she turned her head and narrowed her eyes at Kate, “we will follow your rules. In fact,” and she smiled a slightly more wicked smile as a new idea formed, “I think it would be a good idea for Kate to be your assistant. That way she won’t have to help with the clean up, which we all know she hates, and you can explain everything to her as you work.” Then she looked down at Gabrielle’s solemn, thoughtful stare, saw a fight she didn’t wish to have, at least not tonight, and, waffled. “We’ll see.”

They trailed Sophie, bustling ahead with tonight’s designated meal, into the house, Kate whingeing in protest the whole way while Isabella and Gabrielle laughed at her.

*****

On Friday evening Sophie was so engrossed in a movie that she and Gabrielle were watching that Nikita sighed and said she’d take the puppies out, when Isabella offered to come with her. Nikita barely contained her squeal of glee. Isabella had skillfully avoided almost every opportunity to be alone with her for weeks now, and she didn’t want to scare her away.

She intended to let Isabella lead the conversation, but after walking in silence for five long minutes, she gave up. “So. What’s going on with you these days?”

“I was in the director’s office today.”

Nikita nearly stumbled on the ruts in the driveway. “What? Why?”

“Somebody tore up one of the projects posted in the atrium, they’re trying to figure out who did it.”

Nikita was aghast. “Do they think you did?!”

“No! No. She doesn’t. They were just ‘investigating’ and wanted to know if I could add anything. She said ‘sneaking around’ didn’t seem to be my style.” Iz twisted her lips into ironic smirk. “Obviously, she hasn’t met dad.”

Nikita snorted her laughter.

“Did you know I could have been arrested, for assault?”

She sobered immediately. “Yes.”

“Telling them about Margaret kept me from being thrown out of school, didn’t it.”

“Yes.”

They walked on in silence, pausing only to untangle the puppies’ leashes. They had almost reached the road and were about to turn around and head back up the drive when Isabella offered, “I’m not really seeing so much of Robert these days.

“I’d noticed.” Nikita had, and she’d wondered a bit, but had chalked it up to the fleeting nature of high school romance and let it go.

“Yeah. We had, not a fight, exactly, but –“

After waiting a beat or two, Nikita murmured encouragingly, “Go on.”

Isabella grimaced, but picked up the story. “We were talking about refugee politics in government class, and he told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, that there was no way a privileged French girl like me could know anything about it, about what it was like to see people die, about living close to violence…” She trailed off again, shaking her head in frustration.

Nikita made another encouraging noise.

Iz burst out, “Robert’s a freaking banker’s son, from Kinshasa. They used to take vacations to fucking Switzerland to ski.”

She scowled then, and suddenly looked close to tears, waving her hand defensively against phantom interlocutors. “I know! I know that his dad is in jail, and probably won’t come out alive. I know it was terrifying to have soldiers storm their house. I can hardly even imagine would it be like to know your mom was letting herself get gang-raped in the next room, to save your life and your sisters’.” She scowled again. “Not that Robert even knows I know that.” She shot Nikita a sour, tired look. “Thanks, mom and dad.”

After a long pause, she suddenly offered Nikita a wry smile. “Of course, I can’t imagine it in part, because my mom can, like, kill people with ballpoint pens.”

“That’s a movie sweetie. I’ve never done that in my life. I prefer a gun. Or a knife. It’s your dad who likes breaking necks.”

Iz groaned. “Thank you, queen of TMI.” She looked over at Nikita. “I could only wish you were joking. Which you’re not. Are you?” Her voice rose hopefully at the end.

“I’m not joking. I have my reasons for not hiding who we are, or what we’ve done.”

Iz looked at the frolicking puppies and sighed. “Yeah.”

“You didn’t lie to Robert.”

“No. But I never told him the full truth, either. I told him dad’s a security consultant and you work with the UN on public health stuff. He doesn’t know I’ve actually lived in refugee camps – not as a refugee, but still – or that I’ve seen people die in tent hospitals, or sometimes outside them. He doesn’t know that I’ve travelled through war zones, or handed out supplies after natural disasters.” She paused and rolled her eyes. “Of course, he’d probably insist I was some kind of danger tourist.”

“We all get that.”

“And he’d never believe me that the hardest thing of all happened in Paris. He doesn’t know about Margaret. Or her murder. Or that I killed a man.”

Nikita waited a beat in hopeful silence. This was the first time she’d ever heard Isabella actually say those words out loud, and maybe once started more would come.

After it was clear nothing more would, she dragged herself back to Izzy’s boy troubles. A boy clearly not worth her troubles. “Can you tell him now?”

“Now it would just sound like a contest, who’s seen or done more crap. I’d win. That won’t make him like me more.”

Nikita winced in sympathy. “Probably not.”

As they made their way up the long drive toward the house, Isabella slipped her arm through Nikita’s and they walked on together, their shoulders pressed together and their strides evenly matched. After a while, Isabella said, “I wanted to be normal, for once. Like Kate’s trying to be. Like Margaret wanted us all to be.”

“I’m sorry. That’s not something we can really give you.”

“I know. Now. And, it’s okay. Really. I’m glad to know so much about the world. The bad and the good.”

Nikita glanced sidelong at her daughter and her heart skipped a beat to see Isabella looking back, meeting her eyes with a tentative smile.

*****

Michael’s voice was hard to hear over the phone, he was obviously talking as he walked, and the noise of the surrounding crowd – market? hospital queue? central plaza? – leaked through the connection as well. But, all the same, she was certain she had heard him tell her he wouldn’t be home as scheduled.

“Why? What’s happened?”

“That’s what I have to discover.”

Her heart started beating very fast. “Is something wrong with the mission?”

“No. That’s all straightened out.”

“Then-“

He cut her off. “Do you remember the data I showed you on success rates?”

“Yes.” She did, and now she knew he wasn’t talking about MSF missions any longer.

Suddenly the ambient noise died and his voice rang clearly. “Open up a secure channel.”

She raced for their bedroom and her computer. By the time she had finished tunneling in to their most secure messaging location, there was already a new message waiting for her.

By the time she closed the links, twenty minutes later, her hands were trembling.

*****

Nikita sat back and refilled her glass, shaking off the last few drops from the now empty wine bottle. In the week since Michael’s call, they had run out of Sophie’s prepared meals. They subsisted on frozen pizza and Chinese take-out until tonight, when Kate’s unending complaining about the chemicals in processed food landed her in charge of spending her weekend preparing meals for the coming week. The downside of this was that Nikita would have to supervise, or they would still be eating boxed food and still listening to Kate complain well into next week. She was also going to have to ask Kate and Izzy to take turns skipping school to stay home with Sophie, who was getting justifiably cranky after three weeks of spending half her day in the back seat of the SUV, riding back and forth to town on errands not her own.

For the last week, Nikita had spent her few precious hours while the girls were in school and at night after they were asleep, or, at least, in their rooms, re-running Michael’s searches and re-doing his numbers, calling in a few favors of her own to double check what she was seeing. She had only the minor pleasure of watching the new Section’s completion rate inch up a few, tiny, percentage points, after she found sign of a successful string of missions in the western Mediterranean.

She could also see that the trend lines were improving, slowly. She judged that some of the worst problems early on were more the result of ambitious over-reach than any fundamental operational incompetence. The problem was that Sections were improving too slowly and without focus, and in the meantime, had made too much noise in a world over-full of clandestine organizations.

Which had resulted in the inevitable approach to her or Michael, seeking information. A former cold op from her days as Operations had returned home to the Urals and spent his intervening years as consigliore to his uncle. His uncle was a local big-wig, loud, blustering, corrupt as hell, squatting all over all commerce in his locale, legal, illegal and in-between. The new Section had, for an as yet unclear purpose, targeted the uncle, and, missed. The former cold op had recognized the assault for what it was, and learning that Michael was in the region with MSF business, had sought him out to ask him what the hell was going on. Which is what Michael was trying to piece together, because MSF supply routes ran right through the uncle.

It all brought her back to the same place.

“Damn you to hell, Jerome,” she muttered, as she set her empty glass aside and pulled her computer closer.

She quickly closed all her work files, leaving open only her albums of Margaret. After taking a deep breath, she started scrolling slowly through them. Tonight she lingered longest on Margaret’s baby pictures, in particular a snapshot of her own mother, taken not long before she died. Roberta was sitting in a rattan chair on shaded veranda and cradling newborn Margaret, still folded up like a tiny lima bean, sleeping against her breast. A little Isabella and a smaller-still Katherine leaned over her shoulders. They were all looking up, laughing at whoever had taken the picture.

After a while she sat up and shook herself out. She printed the photo and carried it upstairs to prop it on her bedside table. She fell asleep crying softly about all the things that should have been and could no longer be.

*****

Nikita rocked faster, her muscles coiling in anticipation as she pressed herself harder against Michael, bracing her arms against the wall above their bed for better leverage. Michael was below her, his cock so deep inside her that he jolted her cervix with every roll, sending tiny sparks of not-quite-pain across her abdomen and lower back, increasing the ache building in her cunt until she was gasping with every thrust. He tightened his hands against her hips, his fingers digging into her muscles, urging her to ride up and slow down, lengthening her stroke until her breathing eased. Swaying back on her heels to accommodate the new position put her out of reach of the wall, leaving her hands fluttering for purchase and balance. In response Michael sat up further, wrapping one arm around her waist, holding onto her thigh with his other hand, keeping her steady. As her hands settled on his shoulders he leaned in and sucked her left nipple into his mouth, biting down just hard enough to send new sparks cascading down to her belly, colliding with the tremors already fanning outward from below.

Earlier that evening, Nikita and the girls had been sitting at the kitchen table, finishing their supper and idly planning for the summer vacation ahead when they caught the sound of a car approaching. Rushing to the windows they watched as a battered, fifteen year-old Land Rover bumped over their dirt driveway. They had spilled out onto the graveled terrace as the vehicle pulled to a stop and a tired-looking Michael climbed out, holding open his arms and once again, not toppling over when hit by the human wave of their daughters. Over their shoulders, Michael met her eyes and smiled, just for her, and she grinned back, all her worries and concerns temporarily set aside in the wash of happiness at seeing him home.

She’d formed a very specific plan for dragging him up to bed as soon as she could, but he foiled it by beating her there and lying in wait. He had pulled her through the door with one hand while he shut it with the other, then he pushed her up against it and kissed her. Her hands were already busy with his clothes, anxious to see for herself that he was as unharmed as he seemed.

Her body was bright with tension; sweat filming her skin, slick between her breasts and pooling in the small of her back. She felt Michael’s orgasm coming in the way he bucked harder against her, his movements growing sharper and jerkier and she strained to squeeze her muscles tighter around him, rolling her hips to pull him deeper inside. Her own climax was not far off either and she picked up speed again as she sought greater friction. He let her nipple pop free with last twist of his tongue, then pulled her flush against him and lifted her just enough that they could roll over, ending with him on top. Their familiar rhythm quickly re-established, it wasn’t long until she exhaled on a sharp cry as her orgasm seized her, and Michael quickly followed her over. He held her so tightly that her whole body shook with his as they both shuddered in release, his forehead pressed into the crook of her neck.

Eventually their heartbeats slowed down and Michael raised his head to kiss her again.

After pulling on the nightgown she wore against the nearly inevitable arrival of not-nearly-so-small-as-they-had-been nighttime visitors now that Michael was home, Nikita crawled back into their bed. She nestled herself against him, draping her leg across his as he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her closer. She drew her hand over his naked chest and down to his hips and back again, slipping her fingers under the loose waist of his pajamas to trace the join of his thigh, molding the familiar contours of chest and abs, assuring herself all over again that he was whole and safe and home once more, she tried to wrestle up the courage to start the conversation.

After a long silence, Michael said, “It won’t stop, now that it’s begun.”

“No. It won’t.” She paused to raise her head on her hand so she could see Michael’s face. He went very still, but she was pressed so close to him she felt the tension humming through him all the same. “You were right. We do it your way.”

He nodded his head incrementally and his hand tightened on her hip even as the rest of him relaxed. “Thank you.”

“You knew I’d agree. In the end.”

“I hoped.”

She grimaced at him, gently tapping his chest. “Gloating would be more attractive than sympathy.”

“No. I know this isn’t what you wanted.”

She shrugged. “It’s the best of the options we have now.” She dropped her head back to his shoulder, and began rubbing her fingertips in slow circles along the hollow of smooth, soft skin just below his hipbone. As images of a future she could no longer escape played through her mind, her fingers, drifting along almost of their own accord, traced a new path down to his groin. An exploratory stroke along his thickening cock made her wonder if they’d gotten dressed too soon after all. When he slid his hand down to her ass, pressing his thumb into a pressure point that made her groan and arch her back, pressing her cunt closer against his thigh, she knew they had.

Swallowing a premature moan, she extended her reach to cup the still loose skin at the base of his cock and roll it gently between her fingers, pleased to feel it tighten at her touch. “Why did they target Stefan’s uncle?”

“He was in the way of someone else they wanted to do business with.”

“Botched assassination is a sad calling card.”

He grunted in agreement, shifting his hips impatiently under her stilled fingers.

“Do think we could do better?”

“That’s not the point.”

She wrapped her fingers around his erection, feeling his hips lift as she began to squeeze. “It should be. Part of the point, anyway.”

Michael regarded her quietly for a long moment, then he smiled and shifted completely out from under her, rolling to face her, so close his lips nearly brushed her cheek as he whispered breathily into her ear.

Nikita’s eyelids dropped closed as his lips met hers, another shudder of anticipation rocking through her as she pressed herself closer against him.

*****

After an early supper on first Sunday night in August, once the sound of Adam’s car faded away down the drive, Isabella said, “Does anyone else think it’s really, really eerie just how much Alice looks like Marco, only with longer hair and boobs?”

Adam got home from Africa about the same time Michael got home from the Urals, and had been coming up to the cabin most weekends since. At first he brought a rotating group of friends, all cyclists like himself, and they spent most of each Saturday on daylong rides through the Belgian countryside. Saturday nights he and his guests filled the patio with music and laughter and dancing and Nikita only cried a little bit thinking how much Margaret would have loved it, even more than her sisters did.

But by the middle of July Adam had started coming accompanied only by a woman who worked for the same organization he did. Her name was Alice and Nikita, along with everyone in the family, was pretty sure that she was a girlfriend, as well as a friend. Adam didn’t see fit to share any more information with them than usual and they had all long since learned the uselessness of just asking. Even Gabrielle had given up, and she had all the brazen determination of any youngest child in a large, sprawling family. Though there was a lot of giggling about it on his sisters’ parts, whenever he left the room, and wild speculation when they returned to Paris each Sunday evening.

At Iz’s question, everyone started in surprise, and then started to snicker, and then to laugh, and then to laugh so hard they fell back in their chairs, holding their bellies and wiping their eyes. Because it was true. Alice really looked like Marco, or Marco really looked like Alice, and there was no way for them all not to think this was the funniest thing that had happened to them in months.

*****

Two nights later Nikita strolled into the kitchen after the girls had all gone to their rooms, planning to close up for the night. She found Michael waiting for her, a startlingly large collection of empty wine bottles lined up on the counter next to him, along with the boxes of her various medications, prescription and off the shelf.

He was leaning up against the counter next to this unpleasant collection of things, his hands in his pockets, his expression serious, and, more immediately horrifying to Nikita, kind.

He gestured at the counter beside him with his head. He said, “That’s from the last six days.”

“Really?” She did her best to sound interested and surprised.

“Yes.”

She shrugged. “Adam and Alice were here for the weekend.”

“Alice doesn’t drink, and so Adam wasn’t drinking much either. Neither was I.” He gestured to a group of five bottles slightly separated from the rest. “That’s from yesterday and today. I didn’t have any of it.”

He paused, but Nikita didn’t say anything, because what was there to say, really? So he picked up her medicine packets, and held them out, as though for her inspection. “These all recommend against drinking while using them, and against mixing them with other medications.”

She shrugged again, striving for nonchalance. “I know that.”

“But you have been. Drinking, and mixing them.”

Not wanting to keep just standing there in the kitchen, as though she were still an operative being reprimanded in his office buried deep under Paris, she turned and headed for the main room, tossing off over her shoulder, “It helps me sleep.”

He followed her, of course. “If you’re still having that much trouble, you should be talking with me about it, and with a doctor.”

She flopped down onto the sofa, deliberately modeling her disaffected sprawl after Isabella’s, knowing it would irritate him. “What’s there to say? I miss her, Michael. I miss Margaret so much. It hurts my heart, all the time.”

He frowned, crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. “So do I.”

His unvoiced, ‘and I’m not taking drugs or drinking too much’ hung oppressively in the air.

Refusing to rise to this bait, she shrugged and kept her tone light and dismissive. “Without the meds, in the middle of the night, I wake up. I close my eyes to sleep again, and I watch Margaret fall. Then, when I do sleep, I dream about not catching her. About not catching any of them.”

She paused, and shot a quick glance his way. He was glowering down at her, unforgiving and hanging on the thin edge of angry. So she went on. “On the really bad nights, I dream she’s here. Alive. With us. And then, I wake up. I lose her all over again.” Her voice broke as she spoke, though she hadn’t planned it. Because, it was all true. She had dreamed that dream again last night. In her dream, Margaret had been practicing with a soccer ball in the lawn below the cabin. It had been glorious. Waking up had been agonizing. She looked up to meet Michael’s gaze head on. “I don’t want to dream.”

After a long searching stare, he said, “and the migraine pills?”

“My head hurts all the time. Not full-on migraines, but always. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but never gone.” She sighed, and went on, anticipating his next question. “The wine blunts the edge, and doesn’t make me feel as loopy as the migraine pills do, so I only take those at night.”

He sat down next her, resting his forearms on his thighs as he leaned towards her. “Did something happen during your trip to the Hague you didn’t tell me about?”

Which meant he’d figured out when she started taking sleeping meds again, after doing without them most of the late spring and early summer. She blew out a long, noisy sigh as she stared at the high widows, black with the night and reflecting odd, watery images of the room below. “No. Everything went exactly like I told you.”

“I see.”

The knowing sympathy in his tone suddenly infuriated her and she folded in on herself and snapped, “I’ll be fine. I’m just having trouble sleeping. Exercise isn’t enough, and the meds help.”

She needed something. She really did. Training with Iz and Kate, working out on her own or with Michael, running, gardening, even occasionally cycling with Adam and Alice, none of it was helping. But it wasn’t fair to abuse Michael’s enthusiasm by using him to fuck herself back to sleep several times a night, either. So, drugs it was. She had also lost her appetite again, but she clung to a pitiful hope that Michael would not dredge that up now.

He stood up and frowned down at her. “It’s all potentially addictive, which you know as well as I do.”

“Yeah.” She glared up at him. “What’s your point?”

“That if you don’t get control of this now, you could end up like your mother.”

Rarely in her life had a metaphorical knife felt so goddamn real. It actually took her a minute to get enough air into her lungs to spit, “I can’t believe you just fucking went there.”

He snapped right back. “Given her history and your own, I can’t believe you let it go as far as it has.”

Her entirely justified outrage blunted by searing guilt, and a sudden spiking pain in her head, she ground out, “I haven’t! And, it’s not!”

“Then stop now. Stop drinking, stop taking the sleeping pills, stop drinking coffee all day to fight off the drugs from the day before. And start eating better.”

So much for hoping he hadn’t noticed she wasn’t eating well.

He sat down next her again, taking her hand in his own and looking earnestly into her face. “You can do this.”

She couldn’t bear to sit next to him, listening to that patient, loving, encouraging tone. She jerked her hand free from his and jumped up, fight or flight instincts sending adrenaline racing through her veins. She ended up at the window, staring out into the dark, mostly seeing her shadowed reflection and his brighter one, behind her, in the glass. Glaring at his image, trying hard to ignore the throbbing in her temples, she said, “Look, I know you think that just because you’ve pried me off drugs in the past, you can do it again, but this is not the same situation.”

“No.”

“I’m not dependent on this stuff, I don’t need to be handcuffed to a chair, and I don’t need to go through any kind of detox.”

“I know that.” He paused then added, “but our children don’t.”

She whirled to face him. “What?!”

“Kate and Izzy have both spoken to me about your drinking, Adam has talked to me, and Kate even contacted Quinn, asking her to come stage an intervention.”

“Good God! Michael!”

“I’ve held them all off so far, but,” he sat back and crossed his legs, folding his hands in his lap, “I won’t much longer.”

“Shit.”

“Quinn called me. I told her you’re going to be fine, we’ll be fine.”

She looked into his eyes, and willed him to believe her, willed herself to be telling the truth. “I am, Michael. I really am.”

The concern she could read in his face shaded into something more urgent and more demanding. “I know. But you have to start now.”

“Great. That’s just,” she shook her head in frustration, “Great.” She turned away and crossed her arms, repeating, “I don’t need an intervention. I just need for my daughter not to be dead. Or for me not to be still living, going on without her, the hole in our lives just sealing itself, like she was never here.”

Nikita closed her eyes, and saw Margaret falling again, her pale blond hair glowing against the hot lights of the stadium. “You can’t do a damn thing about that, can you.”

“No.” He was suddenly in front of her, gripping her upper arms to emphasize his words. “But neither can you. Not sleeping won’t bring her back. Neither will wine. Or pills.”

Resisting the urge to lean into him and weep, she opened her eyes and snarled, “I hate this.”

“It was always the plan, Nikita.”

“Right. Our plan. That I’d have so many children the Section could never take us inside again. That if we lost one or two along the way, it wouldn’t hurt.” She ignored the tears that were beginning to roll down her cheeks again, her voice rough as she said, “It was a really sick plan, Michael.”

His grip on her arms tightened painfully. “We didn’t plan it wouldn’t hurt, we planned to survive it.”

She glared at him and wrenched herself free, stepping back as she spat, “What kind of sick people are we, that we could see the need to make that kind of plan? That we could carry out that kind of plan?”

His expression was steady as he answered. “The kind of people who survived the Section.”

She looked away, twisting her lips in disgust. “The kind of people who survive the death of their child.”

His voice didn’t even waver. “Yes.”

After a long silence, she said, “You know what I hate most, about this plan?”

“No.”

She sagged in defeat, brushing her hand against her wet cheeks in a vain effort to dry them. “That it’s going to work.”

*****

Quinn gestured with her chin and raised her hand to wave, “There they are.”

Zoe followed her gaze across the crowded bar and watched as Michael and Nikita made their way to the table Quinn and Zoe had already claimed. “Wow.” Zoe said, after a few seconds. “They really work the aging rock-star grove, don’t they?”

Quinn looked at Zoe in surprise, then back at Nikita and Michael. Then she had to laugh, because it was an accurate, if unkind, description. They were still wearing their sunglasses as they wove hand-in-hand through the crowd, Michael in front, effortlessly cutting a path through the tangled maze of people and chairs and tables. He had on a battered brown leather motorcycle jacket and well-broken in work trousers over heavy-soled boots, his un-tucked, faded work shirt unbuttoned far enough to expose the tan column of his throat. His hair had gone nearly white at his temples, and was long enough to curl against his collar and a full, white beard covered his cheeks and jaw. Nikita’s jacket was black, with dark red stripes on the sleeves, and she continued to rock black leather trousers better than most women who tried them. She was wearing combat boots, her bright hair was caught in a sloppy braid and her deep red lipstick matched the red in her jacket. Heads turned to watch them as they passed.

Rising to greet them as they drew up at their table, Quinn was relieved to see how much better they both looked up close. Nikita’s face wasn’t as tight and drawn as it had been in the spring, and Michael’s eyes, once he took off his glasses, were as clear and sharp as ever, his warm handshake as firm as it had always been. They were both tanned from their summer in the countryside and windblown from their trip; they’d come on Michael’s bike because the weather was fine. She resolutely ignored the twist of regret snaking low through her belly that she’d brought Zoe along, reminding herself that the point was to introduce them all to each other.

After quick hugs and introductions, they settled back down and gave their orders to a hovering waitress. Michael asked Quinn about her work, which led pretty quickly to international news and politics. Quinn and Nikita would have gone on for hours, but Michael soon recognized that Zoe wasn’t participating and deftly changed the subject to her. Zoe gamely answered all their questions, then switched the subject back to them and their family. It didn’t take much prodding to get Nikita to pull out her phone and start showing off pictures from a recent house party with Michael’s sister and her husband and children.

Looking over Zoe’s shoulder as photos scrolled past, Quinn exclaimed, “Who’s the new girl with Adam?”

“Alice. She works with him, in Africa.” Michael answered.

Leaning forward to squint more closely at the small screen, Quinn said in surprise, “She looks a lot like Marco.”

Michael started sniggering so hard he couldn’t speak. Rolling her eyes at him, Nikita explained. “Yeah. She really does. In person it’s even more obvious. Izzy finally said it out loud, and the next time they were up to the cabin, Gabrielle cornered Alice and said,” Nikita changed her voice to mimic Gabrielle’s accusatory challenge, “did you know you look just like Marco?’ And Alice, totally deadpan, says, ‘Maybe I am Marco. Maybe, like Orlando, I went to sleep a boy and woke up a girl.”

Quinn cackled in delight. “I like her already.”

“Yeah, well, Gabrielle wanted to know who Orlando was, so we watched that old Tilda Swinton film. Now she’s trying to go to sleep a girl and wake up a boy.”

“How’s that working out?”

“About like you’d think.” Nikita snorted, and took another sip of the beer she’d been nursing all evening. “But we’re calling her Oliver anyway, because that’s what she wants.”

“Oliver?”

Nikita shook her head, laughing, “No. I have no idea where that came from either. I am about to ask Adam to have them both up at the same time, though, to clarify that Orlando is fiction.”

“Do you think it means anything?”

“About what? Her future?” Nikita shrugged. “No, I don’t. I think it means that, right now, she wants to be someone else for a while.”

The band they’d come to hear started their first set about then, and Quinn dragged Michael onto the tiny, already crowded dance floor. She leaned in to his ear to ask, “How’s Nikita?”

He smiled reassuringly. “Doing well.”

Quinn looked back at the table, where Nikita had stripped down to a deep violet tank top that revealed lots of lightly tanned, freckled skin and very buff arms. She was smiling deeply at Zoe and flirting up a storm. Zoe, no mean flirt herself, was preening under all the attention.

Quinn turned back to Michael, whose gaze, like hers had been, was on Nikita. “And you?” she asked.

He met her eyes, his face open and calm. “I’m fine.”

She actually believed him, so she went on to her next question. “Where else are you going, on this little late summer bike trip?”

“Brussels, Munich, Geneva, Rome, Barcelona.”

They must have started in Paris, and were in London now. She narrowed her eyes. “What are you up too?”

He smiled disarmingly, “MSF fundraising.”

Not have been born anything even close to yesterday, Quinn didn’t believe him for a second. Or rather, she was perfectly prepared to believe that there was real fundraising going on, but that was the cover, not the purpose of this trip. As for the real purpose, well, given those destinations, and the data she’d been tracking all summer, she had some good guesses. “Don’t blindside me, Michael.”

“I won’t.”

Zoe took his place and they danced until the end of the first set. When they got back to their table, Michael and Nikita weren’t there, though their gloves and jackets still were, so Quinn knew they hadn’t yet left for the night. Dropping into her chair and looking at their empty ones, and then back at Quinn, Zoe said, “They’re a little, a little…” she waved her hands helplessly, “a lot, if you know what I mean!”

Quinn nodded in half-laughing agreement. “Yeah. I know what you mean.”

“Do they ever stop touching each other?”

“At a bar? Away from their kids?” Quinn paused and Zoe made an impatient face, urging her to finish her thought. Quinn shook her head emphatically. “No.”

Even as the flippant response rolled off her tongue, Quinn frowned, suddenly quite sure that something was off somewhere. Thinking back over the evening, she realized that a lot of the touching was one way. In fact, if she’d seen Michael behaving like that with another woman, she would have assumed he was seducing her according to some profile. With Nikita, it meant he wanted her to do something, something she was resisting. And where logical argument failed, Michael was perfectly willing to use any other method at his disposal to get his way.

Zoe was scanning the dance floor. “Where are they?”

After looking for and not finding Nikita’s blond head, Quinn shrugged. Nikita would give in, in the end. She always did where he was concerned. “Getting it on somewhere, probably the alley.”

“What?!”

“You were just complaining about all the foreplay.” Quinn smirked. “They think it’s hot. And funny.” Trying to ease Zoe’s horrified expression, she added, “It’s an old joke.”

Zoe frowned disapprovingly. “You’d never know they lost a daughter a few months ago.”

Quinn knew her voice was too sharp when she snapped, “Yes. You would. If you knew them before.” Softening her expression with effort, she tried to find the words to capture all the ways Margaret’s death had marked them, and floundered. The changes were many, but most were small and together added up more to mood and energy than anything visible or tangible. She finally settled on the true and yet utterly empty cliché, “It’s aged them years in just a few months.”

That wasn’t it, not really. Michael’s hair was going white and the lines bracketing Nikita’s mouth were more clearly etched than before, to be sure. But it was instead an intense focus, a vibration, darker, angrier and more dangerous than she’d felt in them for years, since Section, that Quinn felt in them now. She knew it was that energy Zoe had picked up on in her crack about rock stars, and not their clothes or their sunglasses at night. It made her shoulders tingle, in that someone-just-walked-on-your-grave sort of way. She wondered again what the future would hold now that Section One was back in the game.

*****

Quinn recognized Nikita’s number and picked up her phone. “Hey. What’s up?”

“How would you feel about a winter holiday in India?”

“India?” That stumped her, coming right out of the blue like that.

“Yeah. We’re headed to Kabul for at least the school year.”

“Wait. What?” Quinn frowned. “I thought you were planning to stay in Paris this winter? Hadn’t the girls picked out schools and everything?”

“That was the plan, but we got back to Paris a week ago, and…” her voice dropped, “it turns out no one wants to stay here.” Nikita switched to videophone and her face filled the small screen. Behind her, Quinn could see the familiar bookcases of their living room in Paris. Nikita shrugged dispiritedly. “It hurts to be here without Margaret. She wanted to be here so much.”

Quinn switched to video as well. She made her voice as sympathetic as she knew how. “I understand.”

“We started to clean out her room, so Sophie and Gabrielle wouldn’t have to share anymore, but then we realized no one wants too, no one is ready for that. We settled for getting rid of everything no one could remember her wearing or using, which turned out to be like, one small sack of things, and leaving the rest right where it is.” Nikita shrugged again and tried for a small smile. She gave up after a second or two and continued, blinking to clear her glassy eyes. “So between the Margaret Museum and the surveillance I know is everywhere...” she trailed off.

“You’re leaving,” Quinn finished the thought for her. “How do the girls feel about Kabul?”

“Pretty good. We gave them several options, and this is the one they liked best. They say they’re ready for mountains again. And there is a good French language school there.”

“Even Kate?”

Nikita shrugged. “Kate wanted everyone else to want to stay in Belgium, but once she accepted that wasn’t happening, she got on board.”

“Hmm.” Based on the alternately furious and petulant emails and texts she’d received when the decision about leaving Belgium for Paris came down, Quinn was pretty sure that was an exceptionally rosy picture of Kate’s actual feelings. But teenager wrangling was not her bailiwick. Thank God. “And you? How are you?”

Nikita smiled, more genuinely this time. “I’m better. Walked past kids playing soccer yesterday and didn’t realize until later that I didn’t cry. When I did cry, but, small steps, yeah?”

Quinn murmured an agreeing sort of sound, and shifted the subject. “How’s your work?”

“Mostly grant writing this year, which I can do from anywhere with more or less regular power. And unlike where we were in Cambodia, it’s relatively easy to get in and out of Kabul.” There was a pause, and Nikita narrowed her eyes. “What aren’t you telling me? Work okay?”

Quinn laughed and shook her head. “You are feeling better.”

Nikita raised her brows expectantly. “And?”

“Work is fine.”

“Any movement in the force?”

“None I haven’t already forwarded to Michael.”

Nikita fixed her with a hard stare, giving Quinn her best mom-face. Which looked a lot like her best Operations-face, actually. “Go on,” Nikita said.

“I stopped seeing Zoe.”

Nikita dropped her stern expression to exclaim, “What? Why? I’m so sorry!”

“It’s okay. It happens.” Quinn waved off any offer of concern. “Zoe was another one who went from thinking an open relationship was all modern and exciting and sophisticated to feeling all oppressed and jealous at even the idea of it.”

Nikita shook her head as she smiled in fond exasperation. “You really are an underhanded bitch sometimes.”

“What?” Quinn pretended not to know what she was talking about.

“You have a nasty habit of introducing lovers you want to dump to Michael and me, so we can frighten them away for you.”

Quinn sniffed. “All I’m doing is heightening the contradictions, helping them see the future they prefer is not the one I choose.”

“Fancy talk, girlfriend. You’re still making us the bad guys.”

“Like Michael doesn’t love that.”

“He does not.” Nikita’s frown broke and she smirked. “Much.”

“Anyway, you two are scary.”

“What? We are not!”

“Did you or did you not fuck Michael in the alley at the bar while you supposed to be dancing?”

Nikita’s expression wavered between smug and irritated. “In the men’s room, and the only way Zoe would have known is if you made a point of telling her.”

“See! You are way out there-“

“We are not. Sex in public places is like, what, kink for beginners? Half-kink? Pre-kink? Anyway,” Nikita waved her hand through the air, dismissing the topic, “we’re talking about you and your habit of dumping pretty young things who want to fall in love with you.”

Quinn snapped, “You bet. I don’t do love, just good times.”

Seeing Nikita take a deep breath to challenge this, Quinn announced, “Just this week I heard from that lawyer I met last year, and then the very next day Tim-the-marathoner rang me.”

“Which lawyer? The bodybuilder?”

“Eww. No! Turned out to be a pinhead. No. Mina. You met her, remember? The one who does human rights work.”

“Oh yeah! She’s hot.” Nikita got a speculative look in her eye. “If things go well, you could invite her to come to India with us. Or Tim-the-marathoner. It would be nice to meet someone you aren’t trying to get rid of.”

“God, I swear, sometimes I think you’re my mother, not my girlfriend, trying to marry me off before my sell-by date passes.”

Nikita opened her mouth, no doubt to defend herself, then obviously thought better of it. Instead she said, “You’re doing thorough backgrounds, right? What with-“

Quinn cut her off again. “Yes. Mom.”

After a shocked second, Nikita’s affronted expression abruptly faded and she burst into laughter. “That would work better if you didn’t manage to sound exactly like Iz.”

Their conversation drifted after that, roaming through work, to politics and finally gossip about friends and mutual acquaintances. When Quinn hung up the phone, she hadn’t quite promised about the winter holiday, but a tune from her favorite Bollywood musical was lodged in her head.

*****

Three days before they were to leave for Kabul, the door buzzed just after supper and to Nikita’s dismay, the hearty tones of Mick Schtopel boomed over the intercom.

She opened the door to him and stood blocking his way. “What do you want, Mick?”

“Have a message, and some information, for both of you.”

She glared for a moment longer, then gestured him inside and led the way to Michael’s office, where he was waiting for them. She sat on a corner of the desk and left Mick standing in front of them. Michael said, “What do you want, Mick?

He beamed his widest smile. “I’m here to extend an invitation you simply can’t refuse.”

Neither of them bothered to respond to this.

“Right. Moving on. I’ve been empowered to invite you to serve on the Center’s board of directors.”

Nikita looked at Michael. His expression was as bland as always, but she saw the question in his eyes. She shrugged, indicating that he should speak for them.

“Why?” Michael asked.

“There is a consensus that your current work and identities, in combination with your past histories, will provide a useful, and, perhaps, corrective perspective on the work of the Sections.”

Michael leaned back in his chair and smiled a faint, derisive smile. “Why should we believe the other members of this board would listen to or respond to anything we have to say? I think it would be a waste of our time, and theirs.”

“Ah.” Mick tapped his lips, barely hiding his knowing smirk. “Ah. Well. The people who have proposed your memberships, people, it turns out, with whom you may already be familiar, are fully aware of your considerable powers of, ah, persuasion. Both of you.”

Nikita exchanged another glance with Michael, and considered shooting Mick in the head should she ever see him again. “And if our recommendations were to close the Sections because they are redundant security agencies with no meaningful role in the world?” she asked.

“You’ll be invited to craft a new role for the new Sections. To have the opportunity to make the new Sections better and more useful than the old ones.”

Nikita huffed a small, disbelieving snort, but otherwise held her peace.

Michael shifted in his chair. “And if we say no?”

“You were both supposed to serve life-sentences in prison. Nikita served less than a month of her original sentence, and Michael, you served no more than six months of yours. While it is unlikely that anyone can revoke the official, if sealed, pardons you both managed to secure on the basis of your ‘time served’ as it were, in the Section...” Mick trailed off, opening his hands wide and ducking his head with a ‘what can you do about it’ expression.

“Remarkably unsubtle.” Nikita smiled without meaning it. “Rather like the new Section itself.”

Mick shrugged.

After letting a long silence build, during which Mick tried to stay still but ended up fidgeting, Michael asked. “Our children?”

“Are as hands-off as we can possibly make them.” Mick dropped into a chair with a sigh of relief. “I remember, you see, because I was there,” he shot Nikita a conspiratorial nod as he waggled his finger at her, “that you,” and he spun to waggle his finger at Michael, “working nearly single handedly,” he paused to wink broadly at Nikita, “brought Section One to it’s knees to find Adam.” He stopped waggling his finger at Michael and put on his serious face. “You have much more power and many more assets now. And you wouldn’t be working alone.”

Nikita held Mick’s gaze. “No. Not alone.”

Mick bowed his head in acknowledgement, a tiny smirk hovering at the corner of his mouth.

Michael said, “What sort of commitment will this be? Given our current identities and occupations,” he pinned Mick with his haughtiest stare, “we have many worthwhile demands on our time.”

Mick waved his hand airily. “Oh, understood, understood. It’s all very modern, very corporate, three or four times a year for a long weekend in an exotic, posh locale. Nothing more.” Mick laughed then. “And very handsomely recompensed, I might add.”

Nikita blinked her eyes against her still-ready tears as she spat, “What’s the going rate for a daughter, Mick?”

After a blank pause, Mick spoke gently, his voice and his expression both full of apparently sincere regret. “I’m truly sorry Nikita. Everyone is. This is a pale substitute, but it is the best anyone can do.”

When Michael walked back in after showing Mick out, Nikita was blowing her nose and drying off her cheeks with a damp handkerchief.

Michael came to a stop in front of her, just out of reach.

Nikita raised her chin. “The world can’t be changed by a handful of people sitting in a fancy resort.”

“No. But a handful of people can act to remove obstacles to people changing their own worlds. If they have the right tools.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Are you offering to bring me heads on a platter?”

He shrugged, and his expression relaxed into a faint smile. “If you point me to the right heads.”

His tone was light, but when he raised his eyes to hers she saw his grief and his pain and, with a queer little flutter of anticipation and adrenaline licking at her skin, his hunger and his excitement at the new opportunities in front of them. He was one of the very best operatives Section One had ever produced and now he was older, stronger, wilier, and tempered by a life lived fully engaged with the world.

He made her breath catch and her palms burn.

*****

Two vans pulled up to the departures level of the international terminal at Orly airport and a crowd of people spilled out of them, milling around as well-used bag after well-used bag was pulled out and handed over to the porters.

In the midst of the unloading, a yelping dog broke free from the group and started to make a run for it. Amidst a child’s screams of “Duke! Duke! Come!” and before the animal had made it more than meter or two, a tall, slim girl, wearing tight dark jeans and a short, fashionable jacket, took two long strides and slammed her heavy boot down on the line. Catching up the leash in her hand, she spun back to the group, her long, light brown ponytail swishing through the air, crying, “Oliver! I told you he was going to make a break for it! Why didn’t you give him to me, like I told you to?!”

“I thought I had him!” declared the little boy who must be Oliver, as he reached for the leash. His close-cropped, wavy auburn hair framed light hazel eyes and the scattered freckles on his nose. “Kate! Give him back,” he cried as the older girl held the frisking dog’s leash up in the air, out of reach of the smaller child.

A tall, broad shouldered, older man, whose short, nearly white hair and beard stood out in sharp contrast to his black sunglasses, expensive black suit and dark grey tee-shirt, reached up and took the leash from the taller girl. “Oliver, can you hold him?” he asked, as he turned to face the younger child.

“Yes!” Oliver cried.

“Dad!” Kate exclaimed, her dark brows snapping down into a frown over bright blue eyes, “You saw what happened! She can’t hold him in this crowd.”

Oliver took the leash his father gave him in both hands, gripping it firmly. “Yes, I can too!”

Kate threw up her hands. “Fine. But you have to catch him if he gets away again.”

Her father smiled and dropped his arm around Kate’s shoulders, pulling her close enough to speak quietly into her ear. Kate, her eyes nearly on a level with his, turned to look at him in surprise, saying in shocked tones, “Dad!” and then she burst into laughter. Her bright blue eyes still sparkling with good humor, she said, “yeah, okay, whatever!” and stepped aside to get out of the way of another large suitcase being passed in their direction.

The last of the bags in the hands of the curbside porters, the vans pulled away and the group turned for the terminal. As they flowed through the doors and in to the ticketing area it was difficult to sort out the relationships of the shifting array of adults, teenagers, children and dogs. Leading the way toward the counter, the older man in black paused to remove his sunglasses and to wait of the rest of his party. A handsome, middle-aged woman caught up with him and linked her arm through his. Her bright blond hair, caught up in a smooth chignon, glowed in the morning sun. She was also dressed in black, a fitted, hip length black leather jacket belted over slim black trousers and black boots. She pushed her own sunglasses to the top of her head and something faintly electric passed between them when their gazes locked. When she turned to look for her children, the source of her daughters’ large, light eyes was clear.

More than one head turned toward them as they passed through the terminal; in her high-heeled boots and piled hair she was taller than he was, and he must have been nearly six feet tall himself. In their tailored, black clothes and their almost-a-swagger stride, they had the kind of glamour that drew the eye.

Trailing after the couple in black was a mixed group made up of two young men in their middle twenties and four younger children of various ages. Kate and Oliver, another tall, pretty girl about Kate’s age, and a third girl, a head taller than Oliver but clearly still a child and not yet an adolescent. The six young people caught up with the older couple in black as they closed in on the ticketing counter. While they waited in the shorter line for those with first class tickets or frequent flyer status, Oliver continued to hold firmly to the leash of a half grown, mid-sized dog of indefinable bloodlines, frisking and lunging with excitement and interest at all the new sights and smells of the airport. The leash of a matching dog, one equally excited by the terminal, was held by the next oldest girl. Her long, wavy, dark hair was held back from her heart-shaped face with lavender bows that matched her lavender sweater and her lavender nail polish. The last daughter was as tall and slim as her mother, and something in her face, her firmer jaw line and more prominent cheekbones perhaps, suggested that she was older than Kate. Like Kate, her long, light brown hair was caught in a sleek ponytail that showed off her fine bones and her own bright blue eyes, large and well shaped under dark, level brows.

The two young men standing and chatting with the oldest daughter were lean like her, but dark where she was fair. The younger of the two had an open, cheerful face in marked contrast to the imperious gaze of the older one. Who, when he turned his head to catch something the oldest girl said, revealed a profile that was a ringer for that of the older man and at the same time caught a faint echo of his sister’s face as well.

The family clustered around the counter, getting their boarding passes, checking in their luggage, and after a last round of squealing hugs, the two dogs, safely locked away in their traveling kennels. Once they were done there, they wandered towards the security line. The youngest child walked hand in hand with the mother, the father and his oldest son followed slowly, talking with their heads close together. At the line, they all exchanged hugs, the older son spending slightly longer with each of his parents than with his siblings, and it became clear that neither of the younger men were leaving on this trip.

Then the couple and their four children passed through the security line for frequent travelers, handing over their tickets and well-worn passports to the security agents stationed there. Once through, they re-collected their coats and bags, turned and waved goodbye to the young men, and then vanished from sight, blending into the crowded concourse beyond.

~~~~~Fin~~~~~~~
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