nell65: (by roulade)
[personal profile] nell65
Genevieve handed Nikita a steaming mug before sitting down beside her at the big kitchen table. “Tell me. Tell me everything.”



Nikita inhaled the heavy, rich scent of the hot chocolate in her hands, enhanced by the faint bitter notes of Kahlua. “There’s not that much to tell.”

Genevieve raised her beautifully shaped eyebrows in an expression of dramatic unbelief.

Nikita tried laughter. “Really! It’s less than a week since we last talked on the phone. The only news since then is that you and your girls arrived safely!”

Genevieve shook her head in disapproval. “Nikita. It’s not about new things happening, it’s about the act of talking.”

Nikita sighed, and blew across her mug to cool the liquid enough to sip. “Just how much reading on ‘comforting the bereaved’ did you do, anyway?”

Genevieve laughed gaily. “I looked through everything at the book shop, and the internet.” She sobered then, and lifted her shoulder in an elegant shrug. “Also my own experiences. Michael and I were alone after our parents died, and he was a teenaged boy and, already,” she waved her hand, “himself about grief.”

Nikita snorted, “You mean, closing down and shutting everyone else out?”

Silently, deep in the privacy of her own head, she added ‘while wallowing in guilt and maudlin self-pity, spiked with a suicidal disregard for the well being of self and loved ones?’

“Yes.” Genevieve smiled briefly. “And then, when he ‘died’ in prison, I was in the care of another very young man. Well-meaning, wonderful, so kind, so loving, but,” she shook her head in fond memory, “so young. Which meant I did not fully grieve for any of them until after Rene died. Then, it all hit at once, very, very hard.”

Nikita sipped her coco, letting the burn on her tongue take the pain and guilt of Rene’s death. When they had reached out to Genevieve and her family some fifteen years ago, she had wanted to tell her about Rene, tell her who Rene was and how Rene had died, and confess that she had been the one to kill him. In fact, now that she was thinking on it, with an ever-green appreciation for all of Section’s monstrous ironies, she had killed Rene to save Michael from himself when he had been stuck in an earlier bender of guilt-and-grief fueled, reckless self-endangerment.

Michael had asked her not to take that step, for the sake of Genevieve’s memories of the man who had been her only living family for almost ten years. She had regretted not telling Genevieve ever since. The secret was so heavy, and the weight only grew with time. That she had subsequently stood her ground on not keeping secrets from their children did not lessen the burden of this one.

Genevieve went on, “I nearly lost myself, my marriage, everything then. Poor Henri! He did not know what had become of his cheerful, always strong, wife. Someone had taken her in the night and put a strange, morbid, weeping, frail creature in her place.” Genevieve shook her finger at Nikita. “So, I tell you now. Talk. And keep talking. Over and over again. To yourself, if to no one else.”

Nikita knew Genevieve was right. How could she not know? On the outside chance that five weeks of family therapists and grief counselors hadn’t made it clear, her entire life was one long adaptation to loss. Before the Section, in the Section, and all the years after, coping with grief was the constant. On her own, on the streets, denial was the only way to go. She had paid a high price, though, in unacknowledged vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities later exploited ruthlessly by Madeline. And by Michael.

The Section itself, under Paul Wolfe’s command anyway, had operated on the theory that grief, like any other human reaction, could be plotted, manipulated, and, most importantly, scheduled and contained.

MSF was not like that at all. If anything, it was a fun-house mirror image of what the Section had been. Grieving and the need to grieve were, if not celebrated exactly, held to be a central facet of the lives of the volunteers and career workers alike. Everyone was an amateur grief counselor; everyone had a personal story or stories to tell.

By choosing to have a large family, and to keep that family in the field with them, she and Michael had to some degree insulated themselves from that aspect of life with the MSF. They were neither blind nor stupid, however, and they both had absorbed the major tenets of how to cope with grief from their friends and colleagues and co-workers. Friends and co-workers who even now were reaching out to embrace them, pull them into supportive communities whether or not they wanted it. A huge percentage of the messages she’d received since she had fled to the cabin were from friends and colleagues, calling to offer an ear or a shoulder, sharing stories about Margaret, practically begging to come cook, or clean, or run errands. She was sure that Michael’s messages were filled with the same. Genevieve herself had called every three days, like clockwork, just to check in.

Nikita had only held all offers at bay because Adam and Marco were there, and then Genevieve and her daughters had arrived within days of Adam and Marco’s departure for Paris.

Nikita looked up, startled, at the sound of Genevieve clearing her throat. She realized, ruefully, that she had sunk into a fit of abstraction. “Right. Okay. Sophie. Let’s talk about Sophie.”

Genevieve smiled in encouragement and Nikita spilled out her concerns and worries. Sophie’s adjustment to the new world they were all living in was proving particularly hard going. She wasn’t clingy, exactly, unless she was running from Kate, of course, but she’d gone from a cheerful if somewhat dreamy little girl who played with her toys and her dolls and her sisters for hours on end, to a pale and watchful loner who stayed just out of arms reach. When she wasn’t picking fights.

It didn’t take Sophie especially long to whip through each day’s assignments on the fourth grade online curriculum they selected for her, though this was producing some head butting with her father over sloppy and careless work. This in turn meant she spent too much of each afternoon ghosting through the house, perfecting her ‘play with me for I am a lost soul’ expression. But, when Nikita offered play cards with her, or read aloud, or do their nails, or even, in desperation, to pay her for her help with extra chores, Sophie would promptly vanish. “Of course,” Nikita finished, “if I don’t see her around, it turns out she’s hiding out in either Kate or Isabella’s room, playing electronic games on a hand held.”

Genevieve smiled sympathetically. “All to be expected. Anyway, I think you’re doing fine with her. With all your girls. It’s really you, and Michael, I’m worried about.”

“Us? Why?”

Nikita was genuinely startled, not so much at the sentiment, but that Genevieve was being so uncharacteristically blunt about it, and flatly refusing to rise to the red herring of Sophie’s situation.

“Since he came back, since I met you, you two have been always together. For more than fifteen years, always so close together, always looking to each other, always touching each other. Now? I know we have only been here little more than three days, but I haven’t seen you and him in the same room at all, except for meals, and while he still watches you, you don’t look at him at all.”

“He sits right next to me at supper! If I looked at him the whole time I couldn’t eat!”

Genevieve tapped her fingernail sharply on the table. “That’s not what I mean and you know it.”

Nikita sipped her cooling drink, giving herself time to compose an answer. Because she did know what her sister-in-law meant. Though she was taken aback that it was, apparently, so obvious to a sympathetic observer. She wanted to be better than that.

The truth was that she was so strenuously guarding her tongue, so valiantly holding in all the ugly, hurtful, angry versions of ‘why the fuck did you bring us all back to Paris?’ that filled her head and heart, she had no room left to say anything to him at all.

She knew that he was lacerating himself with his own guilt, knew he was drowning in his own grief, but she had no line to throw him. She never had. Not in the past, when everything she had managed to say had ended up sounding like, “I told you so,” or, “What did you expect?” And not now, not when it was taking everything she had not to push him under herself.

As for him, well, silence had always been Michael’s refuge of choice. He would not rage at her, he would not cry for her, he would not even meet her eyes, too afraid to see his own bitter judgment on his failures reflected back from her to him.

Instead, they’d kept sparring. They slipped out to the garage at dawn, in unspoken agreement that no one needed to be watching. She held nothing back and he took it all without a sound; every bruise, every scrape, every cut, every strain. And repaid her by fucking her hard and fast in the darkest part of the night, all teeth and muscles and finger-shaped bruises on her hips and thighs. Or he slipped in behind her when she was in the shower, pressing her tight against the wall and holding her up through orgasms that buckled her knees. At meals they sat side by side, their knees just touching, their feet pressed together, under the table, out of sight. And other than the business of the day, they didn’t talk at all.

For now, this all they had to offer each other. For now, this would have to do. Nikita swallowed and looked up to meet Genevieve’s kind, worried gaze. “You’re right. We’re in a hard place. But, I promise, we are dealing with it, best we can.”

*****

“Genevieve? Ready?” Michael walked into the kitchen, carrying his coat.

Genevieve looked up from the table, where she had just spread out her latest needlework project, showing Nikita the colors and the pattern she had selected for a new set of dinning room chair cushions. “Ah, Michael! I’d forgotten about our walk! I’ve just laid everything out!” She glanced toward Nikita, then back at her brother, her expression bright and bland. “Could Nikita join you instead?”

Nikita looked up at Michael and saw him blink, then he looked at her and shrugged, smiling in fond resignation as he gestured at his sister with a slight tilt of his head.

She looked at her sister-in-law and said, “you will never, ever win a prize for subtle.”

Genevieve opened her eyes wide in a very good approximation of shocked denial, and Nikita laughed as she pushed back her chair and stood up. “I’m going. We’re going. We’ll talk.”

They had walked for almost a mile along the muddy, early spring trail before Nikita finally broke the silence. “Have you made a decision about the reception in Paris next week, the UN Human Rights Commission one?”

“We should go.”

“Yes.” She glanced over and in the bright mid-day light she could see how drawn and tired he still was. “Annalisa made hotel reservations for us.”

He looked at her then, holding her eyes for a brief second before looking back to the trail winding away in front of them. “That was thoughtful of her.”

“Yes. But we could stay at the apartment, if you’d rather.”

He kept his eyes on the path. “No.”

That was good. She didn’t want to stay there either. “We have to at least stop by. The girls have lists of things they want, and all our evening gear is there.”

“Okay.”

“If we’re going, I’d like to schedule some meetings for myself. The report on the Cambodian project is overdue.”

He answered sharply, “We’re going.”

“Fine.”

After a few more minutes of walking in silence, he asked, “Do you want your meetings before or after?”

“Before.”

“Fine.”

When they were almost in sight of the house, she said, “I want to take my car.”

He shrugged. “Then you should drive.”

She had expected that. All his years riding in the back of the van, working, had taught him the value of chauffeurs. Which was all very well, right up to the moment she realized she should go ahead and buy herself the damn cap, at which point she usually quit driving him anywhere, on principle. He would drive as long as she stayed vigilant, but the minute she slacked off, her driving time went up and his went down. The only exception was his motorcycles, which he would take by preference almost anywhere, in almost any weather. But there was no way she was going to take a motorcycle trip in the cool, rainy spring weather, or get out of doing most of the driving on this trip either, so she might as well drive her own damn car. “Fine. But then I get to choose the music.”

Her voice sounded far more petulant and aggrieved than she’d intended, and she held back her wince only by assuming a hard stare.

He stopped and looked at her again, managing to appear baffled by her vehemence, then the corners of his lips began to rise in a faint, teasing smile and his eyes glinted a particularly bright, warm green in a stray shaft of watery spring sunlight. With a slight nod of acquiescence, he murmured gently, “Of course.”

Just like that her irritation fled, her chest felt lighter, and she smiled back at him, a small, twisted, apologetic smile, but a real one. When she slipped her hand into his, his grip was warm and firm. Their shoulders brushed now and again as they finished their walk, in a silence more comfortable than when they began.

*****

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”

Nikita leaned down to the open window. “No Michael. I’m fine. Come pick me up when your meeting is over.”

She stood up and waved, then turned for the front door of their building. She heard Michael pull away from the curb, but she didn’t stop to take a deep breath or square her shoulders or in any way indicate that she had the slightest hesitation about walking into the apartment. She knew full well he was watching her.

She got all the way into the elevator before she let herself sag against the wall, raising her hands to watch her trembling fingers, willing her muscles to still and relax.

Once she got inside, it didn’t seem that bad. They’d had a cleaning service in after they left for Belgium, so the apartment had the vaguely foreign air of anonymous tidiness. She retrieved everything the girls wanted, raided her and Michael’s closets for the clothes they needed for the reception that night, and had it all packed up and by the door in record time. But she was too efficient. She finished well before Michael would be back to get her.

She told herself to call a taxi, to call him to let him know he didn’t need to come for her, and get out, but she was already walking to Margaret’s room.

*****

“Nikita! Nikita?” Michael’s voice echoed loudly through the apartment, and it took Nikita a moment or two to figure out it was really him and not part of her uneasy, groggy dream, running through the murk, trying and failing to find and save her scattered children from faceless, nameless threats.

He found her before she could answer, appearing in the doorway to Margaret’s room, concern, relief and irritation chasing each other across his face. “Nikita?”

She struggled to sit up. “Hi.” Her voice was raspy and dry and she started coughing.

Her head was killing her, the result of crying herself into an exhausted sleep.

Michael crouched in front of her, lifting her chin so he could examine her eyes. After a long minute, he stood up. “Where’s your bag? You need your pills.”

“If I wanted a personal drug pusher, I’d hire one.” Her voice was too loud, too harsh.

He snapped back, “If I wanted to be one, I’d hire out.”

Nikita dropped her eyes first, and caught sight of Margaret’s Real Madrid sweatshirt crumpled on the bed next to her. She had pulled it out because she hoped it would still smell faintly of their last day of travel. She had pressed her face into the soft, faded fabric and inhaled the traces of her lost child, and she had started to cry. Now she pulled it into her lap and folded it neatly, brushing away the fresh tear drops as they fell. Once she stood up, she placed it gently back into the bottom drawer of Margaret’s dresser, running her hand along the neat stacks of jeans and tee-shirts. Margaret never kept her drawers neatly. Her clothes were tidy because Margaret had never come home after their last trip.

Michael cleared his throat, so she closed the drawer and left the room, shutting the door softly behind her, wiping surreptitiously at her cheeks before she followed him out and down to her car.

The reception for the new high commissioner was a brilliant and glittery affair, and if they didn’t look their absolute best, they looked damned good. An exacting teacher had trained them in a harsh school. She and Michael both accomplished what they needed to: seeing those who needed to be seen, speaking with those who needed to hear, listening to those who needed to talk, and being seen by those who needed to see.

The cold night air, after the hot, crowded party, made her shiver as they stood waiting for the bellman to summon the next cab. Michael wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close, and after the briefest of hesitations, she relaxed into his embrace, reminding herself to take the warmth and comfort he could offer, even if it wasn’t exactly what she wanted or needed from him. Not that she knew exactly what that was, either.

He fell asleep almost immediately after they had sex, wrapped around her, practically pinning her to the bed with his arm heavy around her waist and his leg wound through hers. Her meds kicked in and she fell asleep before she’d finished working out, in her head, exactly how she would tell him how much she hated it when he did that.

They had breakfast with Adam before they left town, and learned he was planning to head back to Africa soon. Adam didn’t work for MSF, he worked with a group that assisted in distributing, installing and adapting technologies for third world nations, mostly in Africa, but also in central and east Asia.

When Nikita asked him if he was ready to go back into the field, he assured her that if he stayed in Paris any longer he was going to go batty from having nothing to do. Which wasn’t really an answer, but was the best she was going to get, obviously. He and Michael spoke only of the latest political news, though they hugged each other tightly before she and Michael left. Another instance where it was obviously insufficient, and yet the most she was going to get as far as seeing father and son work out whatever their issues were.

*****

Nikita scowled at her reflection in the bathroom mirror as she tossed back the sleeping pills. Every time she thought she was done with them, that she was sleeping well enough to get by on her own, something new would happen to disrupt her hard won balance.

Today it was getting called into the director’s office at the girls’ school to discuss, of all people, Isabella. Isabella had always been a classic oldest daughter, quiet, compliant, willing, and conflict avoidant with anyone but her siblings. Today, quiet, compliant, conflict avoidant Isabella had kicked, all too literally, the bloody snot out of another girl in her class. No one at the school had really tried to defend the other girl, who had been taunting a group of new students, refugees from the latest crisis in the Congo, and Isabella had been defending them. Apparently it had started with words and then escalated, but everyone was quite sure that Isabella’s final assault was out of all proportion to the event in question.

To keep Isabella from being suspended, or worse, thrown out of the school once the other parent showed up full of angry bluster, Nikita had given the director a very short version of Margaret’s abduction and death, limiting all her daughters’ roles to those of horrified observers.

When Isabella discovered that, as she put it, ‘their cover had been blown,’ and that Nikita had ‘betrayed them’ she actually started yelling at Nikita in the hallway at the school, something she had never once done in her entire life in public and extremely rarely in private. Then she rode home in stony silence: a silence unbroken, at least towards Nikita, in all the hours since.

Michael’s only contribution had been to offer to help Isabella plan a better, untraceable assault, the next time she wanted to take someone out for behaving badly. This made her stamp out of the room, hissing loudly about her violently twisted family.

Kate, Sophie and Gabrielle then spent the evening offering Nikita unsolicited hugs and kisses, which she could only assume was their reaction to what must have been the stricken expression on her own face at Isabella’s behavior.

When she walked back into their bedroom after swallowing the pills, Michael was working at the small table he had set up by the window and turned into a desk. She pretended not to know he was still tracking Section activities as he attended to MSF business, he pretended not to be doing it. Another reason she was back on sleeping meds. He looked up and said, “She will get over it.”

“Which ‘it’?”

“Killing Jerome.”

“She won’t talk about that, not with me, not with the counselors, not with anyone. Neither of them will.”

“Give it time.”

“Time.” She sighed and collapsed onto their bed. “I’d hoped there had been enough time that I could dismiss of all the therapists.”

“I think you should. They’ve done all they can.”

She closed her lips on ‘how the hell would you know? You never met with one!’ and said instead, “Yeah. I will. Right after Isabella meets with them, one last time.”

The following week, nine weeks after they arrived in Belgium, Nikita dismissed all the counselors, much to almost everyone’s relief. Only Sophie seemed to want to continue the sessions, so as a way to get her out of the house, Nikita started taking her to a clinic in town once a week.

Isabella apologized to the other student, to her classmates, the teachers, the director, her volleyball coaches, anyone who had even been tangentially related to the scene that day, and the breach in decorum seemed to heal over quickly. She even tried to apologize to Michael and Nikita, but they assured her that she didn’t owe them anything for doing what she thought was right. The director apparently kept the information about Margaret closely held, to the girls’ relief, for no one ever spoke to them of it.

By the time the trees were fully leafed out and her favorite April flowers had come and gone, Nikita decided they could all do without her for a time, booked a ticket on the ferry, and headed for London.

*****

Quinn closed her phone and said, “I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to change our plans for this weekend.”

Zoe paused with her fork half way to her mouth, her eyes wide in surprise. “What? Why?”

“Nikita’s coming.”

“With a two-day warning?”

Quinn shrugged. She’d actually had more warning than that, Nikita just hadn’t confirmed until now that she would really be able to get away. However Quinn had seen no reason to say anything to Zoe until Nikita’s plans were finalized. “Yes.”

“And our plans just go ffft?”

Quinn raised her brows. “Our plans were to go running with the dogs and maybe go see a movie. Hardly earth shaking.”

Zoe frowned. “That’s not the point.”

Quinn sat back and folded her hands over her crossed knee. “So what is the point?”

“That you just drop everything for her.”

“She’s one of my oldest, dearest friends, and she just recently experienced major trauma. She needs a weekend escape. Don’t make this a big deal.”

“She’s more than a ‘friend’. It is a big deal. To me.”

Quinn shook her head. “Zoe. Don’t do this.”

“You fuck him, sometimes, too, don’t you.”

“I won’t bother to lie, so don’t ask me if you don’t want to know.”

“I want to know. I need to know.”

“Very rarely, and not in a long time.” Quinn was well aware that for this answer to be true, ‘fuck’ had to be very narrowly and quite literally defined, but she was not going to explain or defend her own choices, not even to her current girlfriend. She also, she smugly reminded herself, did not go around sharing the details of her sex life, not without the consent of everyone involved, and never while in a crowded bistro at lunchtime.

She was guiltily aware that more often than not Nikita and Michael both disapproved of just how much information she chose to withhold from her other lovers, and that awareness threatened to take the sheen out of her self-righteous glow, so she firmly squashed it.

“Why?”

Zoe’s tone was a bit too anguished for Quinn’s taste, so she decided to try a new approach. She winked as she grinned salaciously. “Heat of the moment.”

“That’s it?”

“Well. Yes! He’s a very sexy man.” Quinn laughed. “What more does there need to be?”

“So, why not more often then?” Zoe eyed her suspiciously. “You like sexy men.”

Quinn remembered Mick’s confusion and smiled. “He’s not my type. Even when I do choose men for myself, Michael’s way too top dog for me.”

Zoe stabbed viciously at her salad. “So it’s her. Always her. Nikita.”

“You make it sound like some sort of fatal attraction. We take vacations together a couple of times a year, usually in some place distant and warm. We lie in the sun, drink caipirinas, tell each other bad jokes, and fuck. That’s it.”

Well, again, not exactly. That made it sound like it was always just the two of them. Which was often true, but not always. Sometimes Michael, or the kids, or all of them, were on the same vacation. Frequently the ‘distant and warm’ place was their current house, which happened to be in such a spot. And once again, Zoe was not enough a part of her life to be briefed on those details, on that past and that present. Not yet, anyway.

“And you won’t stop.”

Quinn narrowed her eyes. “Why should I?”

“Because I asked?”

“This is not a place you should go.”

“Yes. It is.”

“I was very clear with you about Nikita, from the beginning.”

“That was then, this is now.”

“Now is when Nikita needs a safe place to get away, and I’m offering her one. Deal with it.”

*****

Two days later, Quinn opened the door to Nikita and had to swallow the first words that popped into her head, which were, “Oh my god, you look terrible.” Instead she said, “Hey you,” and offered her a glass of wine.

Nikita looked exhausted. She was thinner, and very pale, so pale that her eyes looked almost bruised above the dark, bluish-purple shadows underneath. She had let her hair go without color for so long that her darker blond roots stood out dramatically against the brighter color she usually preferred. More shocking to Quinn than her roots, though, was how much grey she could see in them, threading through the darker strands.

Quinn had almost no maternal instincts, so her immediate desire to push chicken soup, white bread and a good long sleep were surprising to say the least, especially as she had neither chicken soup nor white bread on hand.

Nikita was also distracted, though she was trying hard to keep to their normal script of raunchy banter and acid political commentary. Finally, halfway through supper, Quinn took a deep breath and asked, “How is everybody?”

Nikita smiled gratefully at her. “Kind of a mess, actually. I mean, on the surface things seem better. Michael’s up and around and back at work. Adam is back in Africa. Izzy, Kate and Gabrielle are in school in town and seem pretty happy there, but…”

“But.” Quinn counted quickly in her head. “Sophie?”

“Sophie will barely leave the cabin. She refused to go to school in town. She’s started sleeping on the day bed right outside our room. She hides out when the other girls bring new friends home. She still cries in her sleep. She’s watching football with Michael.”

“Sophie’s watching football?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

“Right.”

“What else?”

“Iz has mostly stopped talking. I mean, she hides it well enough that no one will bother her about it, but she’s really withdrawn. Even from Kate. Who is retaliating by running with a tight group of girls from school and flirting like mad with all the boys she sees, isolating Iz even more. Michael is still easily distracted. He called me one day last week from the road because he couldn’t remember where he was supposed to be going. He was supposed to pick the girls up from school, but had got headed for Munich somehow. Gabrielle wants to spend all her time at her new friends’ houses, rather than come home, and there is something ugly between Michael and Adam.”

Quinn refilled Nikita’s wine glass. “What’s between Adam and Michael?”

“I think they both think that if Michael had let Adam fall, he might have been able to save Margaret.”

“There is no way to know that.”

“Which everyone knows, even them. Which doesn’t stop either one of them from wondering about the choice Michael made.”

“That’s crazy.” Quinn wished she sounded more emphatic. It was crazy. It was also all too believable. She refilled her own wine glass. “And you? How are you?”

Nikita wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Mostly fine.”

Quinn cleared her throat meaningfully.

“Okay.” Nikita raised her eyes to Quinn’s. “I do most of my serious crying in the shower, so no one will see me and get upset. I’ve lost my appetite and I have trouble sleeping. If I don’t take anything, I wake up a lot, adrenalin pumping, trying to run, trying to reach my arms out, just that little bit further. Then I can’t relax enough to go back to sleep.”

It took Quinn much less than a second to decide which part of that to respond too. She knew how much Nikita hated that that particular bit of video had circulated throughout the Section for years afterward. So she asked anyway, smiling lewdly as she did. “Michael can’t help with that?”

“Ha Ha.”

“Really.”

“It’s... Complicated.”

“Spit it out.”

“Yes, we’re fucking again. Almost as much as before. But, it’s all, very,” Nikita twisted her lips, then grimaced, “efficient. No wasted motion. No extra time.”

Quinn looked at the way Nikita was staring at her empty wine glass, idly spinning the stem between her fingers, and said, “what else.”

“He’s not talking to me.”

Fifteen years ago, this complaint would have made Quinn laugh meanly. Of course the great stone-faced one wasn’t talking to her. But she’d learned many things in the years since then, including some things about Michael Samuelle. Michael wasn’t the type to strike up idle conversations with strangers, or with people in whom he had no interest, but he was perfectly capable of being a charming conversationalist when it suited him. In the company of the few people about whom he really cared, he was positively chatty. For him to be not talking to Nikita now was a big change, and not a happy one. Maybe it was not a surprising one, but it was not a good one either.

Quinn sighed, and said, “So, what are you going to do about it?”

Nikita reached for the wine bottle. Refilling her glass she smiled lazily at Quinn and said, “This weekend? Not a damn thing.”

Nikita never did answer the question, and so when Quinn dropped her off at the train station on Tuesday morning she had no idea what, if anything, her plan was. If she even had a plan. On the bright side, Nikita had slept soundly while she was with Quinn, so that was four nights and most of Monday of catching up. On Saturday, Quinn booked them into her favorite day spa, and then they went shopping. They also ate as much rich food as Quinn could find an opportunity to push. More rested, with her hair it’s normal color again and wearing a more fashion forward outfit, Nikita looked a lot more like her old self when she left than when she came. On the other hand, she was drinking too much, easily putting away a couple of bottles of wine by herself each day she was there. A search of her bags had revealed recent migraine prescriptions, sleeping pills and anti-depressants. The pill count suggested she wasn’t taking all of them every day, but still, closer to every day than not.

Quinn wasn’t anyone’s savior, and she wasn’t going to start now, not even for Nikita. Especially not for Nikita. Saving Nikita was Michael’s job, and she had no desire to challenge him for it. Or, at least, not until circumstances were far more dire than this. But, she was more worried than she wanted to be. Frowning, she told herself to push it aside. Time would determine what, if anything, she should or could do.

Flipping open her phone, she hit speed dial. When her call was picked up she said, “Hey Zoe! Can I make you dinner tonight?”

*****

Nikita caught sight of Michael standing outside the station as her train was pulling in, and her heart began to beat just a little faster. He looked really good. He’d finally visited a barber and the beard he’d grown since February was neatly trimmed, and his hair, though greyer than before and much longer than he’d worn it for years, was also freshly cut. He looked fit and alert, and she thought leaving him in charge by himself had been a very good idea and something she should definitely return to from here on out.

When she met him, accompanied by Sophie and Gabrielle, outside the barricade, he was smiling broadly in warm welcome. “Hi,” he said, pulling her into a firm embrace, “you look really good.”

She hugged him back, hard. “You too.”

He really looked at her then, meeting her eyes for a long beat and then dropping his gaze to her lips, tilting his head just enough to kiss her. His lips were warm and soft and their kiss got very interesting, very quickly, but Sophie and Gabrielle were dancing around them, singsonging, “Mom! Mom! Mommy! We have a surprise for you!”

Michael turned to look at them, leaving his arms wrapped securely around Nikita. He shook his head at them as he laughed. “You weren’t supposed to say anything until we got closer to home!”

The girls didn’t answer, just chortled delightedly and swooped in to hug Nikita, then taking her hands, dragged her toward the car.

All the way back to the cabin the girls giggled and whispered in the back seat, obviously eager for Nikita to ask them questions, but she held her tongue, enjoying their excitement. It was the first time she’d seen Sophie’s eyes sparkle like that since Margaret’s death. Instead she told Michael about her visit with Quinn, and her two days of meetings in Paris on the way back. He told her about what they had done on their days without her, and passed along the latest MSF news and gossip.

When they got to the cabin, they piled out of the car and the girls rushed to the door and then stopped, looking back impatiently as Nikita and Michael caught up with them. At the door, Gabrielle said, “cover her eyes!”

Michael moved in behind her and wrapped one arm around her waist, pulling her close against his chest to guide her, and covered her eyes with his other hand. She felt the heat from his body seeping into hers from knee to neck, the solid planes of his chest and thighs pressing close against her and her pulse accelerated and her palms heated at the contact. She could definitely hear the girls’ barely stifled laughter as they opened the door and clattered inside, and then she heard other noises that were incredibly familiar but that she couldn’t quite place.

He guided her through the door and turned right, toward the kitchen, then stopped almost immediately and pointed her toward the wall under the stairs, and removed his hand. She had barely registered the wire kennel in front of her, or the two wiggly brown bodies inside it, before the girls were yodeling, “Puppies! We got two new puppies!”

It was, indeed, puppies. Two squirming, adorable puppies, complete with wavy hair falling over their shiny eyes, lolling tongues and frantic puppy energy.

Nikita looked at Michael, laughing in surprise, even as she dropped to her knees to get a closer look. “Puppies?”

“We passed a house with a sign that said, ‘free puppies,’ and Sophie wanted to go see them. These were the last two, and we left with them.”

She reached out to open the kennel. “Why were they free?”

“The mother is a registered Belgian sheep dog. They didn’t know who the father was. They think, possibly, the spaniel mix from the next farm over.”

Sophie cried, “watch out, they’re escape artists!” just as the first puppy attempted to make a break for freedom. Nikita caught its collar and Gabrielle got hold of the other one. Holding the one she caught up in the air so she could look into its adorable little face, Nikita asked, “What are their names?”

“Duke and Duchess.” Sophie said.

Nikita smiled at Sophie’s triumphant expression. “Good names,” she said. “Margaret would approve.”

Margaret surely would have. Their dog during Margaret’s youngest years had been a Rottweiler-Black Lab mix named Prince. His name was quite random; his previous owner had given it to him. Nonetheless, when it came time to name their next not-so-tiny puppy three years ago, Margaret had vehemently insisted that they choose in the same vein, so Baron it was. Duke and Duchess carried on the pattern, and that was something Margaret treasured.

The noise had obviously attracted their attention, and Isabella came in from the kitchen and Katherine came up the stairs from below, both of them smiling at the puppies too. Nikita looked up at Isabella. “What do you think?”

Izzy grinned at her. “I think they’re adorable.”

She looked around at all of them. “You all think we’re ready for this? Two puppies?”

A chorus of ‘yeses’ followed and so Nikita shrugged, and laughed again. “Okay. Well. Then. Duke and Duchess.” She said to the puppy in her hands, “Welcome to the family.”

******

Michael looked up from the papers spread across his lap. “Are Gabrielle and Sophie settled?”

“Yes.” She pushed the door closed, then added, “for now.”

He was sitting against the headboard of their bed, his hair still damp from a shower and wearing only loose drawstring pants and a pair of reading glasses, his legs stretched out, bare feet crossed at the ankles. In the low light of the lamp she could still make out the yellowing shadows of two-week old sparing bruises on his torso. She drifted to the foot of their bed. “Do you have a lot of work to do?”

He met her eyes, shaking his head and smiling. “No.” He began to gather up the scattered files. “Just waiting for you.”

Nikita grinned back and toed off her shoes, pushing them under the edge of the bed. “Miss me?”

He leaned over to set his stack of work on the floor, giving her a good view of the muscles rippling in his back, along with another faded bruise. He removed his glasses as he sat back up, setting them on the bedside table. “Always.”

She quickly stripped off her trousers and shirt, tossing them more or less towards the chair behind her. Down to her underwear, a new set from a shopping side trip on the way through Paris, she sank onto her knees on the mattress and crawled up Michael’s legs to straddle his thighs.

He wrapped his hands around her hips, hooking his fingertips inside the edge of her panties. He drew the backs of his fingers over her hipbones and across her belly under the edge of black lace, making her belly contract from the tickling sensation even as she scooted closer to him. He dragged his fingers up her torso to cup her breasts, his thumbs brushing firmly across her nipples, which promptly stiffened at the contact. Tilting his chin up to meet her gaze, he said, “You had a good trip.”

“Yes.” She settled into his lap and framed his face with her hands, his beard tickling her palms. Then she ducked her head, her lips hovering over his as she dropped her voice to mummer, “and I’m glad to be home.”

*****

“Okay, I’ll send Annalisa the amended file tomorrow. Let me know what you think.” Nikita ended her call as she walked into the kitchen, and then stopped in surprise. Kate was sitting at the table, hunched over a scattered pile of half a dozen or so gun parts, a field stripped Styer AUG assault rifle if Nikita had had to guess. “What’s all this?”

Kate looked up. “House rule. I put the gun back together, dad teaches me how to shoot it.”

“Oh, right.” Nikita smiled. “Walter’s rule, actually.”

“Yes. I know.” Kate sighed deeply and rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard it all before, mom. Remember? I’m the third one.”

Nikita ignored the attitude and asked, “How’s it going?”

“I’m stuck.” Kate looked up with her most winsome smile and batted her eyelashes beguilingly. “Can you give me a hint?”

“No.” Nikita grinned back at her. “That would be cheating. Besides, you’re really good with puzzles.”

Kate exchanged her smile for a sarcastic lip curl. “So, where’s my box top picture?”

Nikita laughed and shook her head.

Isabella walked in and laid a fully assembled M16 on the table, then headed to the sink to wash her hands.

Kate frowned. “Show off.”

Isabella smirked. “You have twenty minutes before we head out.”

Nikita was close enough to hear Kate mutter, very quietly, under her breath, “bitch.”

She put her hand on the table and leaned close, so only Kate could hear. “I heard that. That wasn’t very nice.”

Kate muttered, “Sorry.” Only, it was quite clear she wasn’t.

Nikita went on, still speaking for Kate’s ears alone. “It isn’t Izzy’s fault you haven’t started yet.”

Kate scowled and reached for the first two pieces.

Nikita pulled out a chair and sat down. She looked up at Isabella, who was drying her hands and watching them curiously. “Would you give us some space, please?”

Iz shrugged. “Sure,” she said, and left the room, but not without pausing to pick up her gun and smirk meaningfully at Kate on the way by. Nikita suppressed a groan.

Once Iz was gone, Nikita said, “What’s going on?”

Kate reached for another part. “What?”

“With you and Iz. Why are you sniping at each other?”

“Nothing’s going on.” Kate locked the barrel in place.

Nikita reached out and put her hand on the rifle, holding it still until Kate raised her eyes. “You can’t go shooting with your sister if you’re angry with her.”

“Mom!”

Nikita kept her hand on the gun, and waited.

After a short staring contest, which Nikita won, Kate ground out, “Fine. Yes. I’m pissed at her. She kicks the crap out of another kid at school, and instead of getting into major trouble…. Nothing. And now she’s like, Isabella, the weird violent girl!”

“Hmm.”

“If they knew you were teaching her how to fight, and dad was teaching her how to shoot assault rifles and sniper guns, everybody would run away from her!”

“I’m teaching you to fight, and dad is teaching you to shoot…?” Nikita didn’t add, ‘and you both killed a man,’ hoping Kate might bring it up on her own.

Kate opened her mouth to reply, then paused, obviously struggling to think through her emotions. Just when Nikita thought Kate was about to speak, there was a sharp rapping on the glass of the French doors behind them, and they looked up to see Michael, gun bag slung over his shoulder. They read his lips more than heard his muffled, “Let’s go.”

Nikita looked back at Kate. “What are you really pissed about?”

For a fleeting instant, Nikita thought Kate might actually tell her, but then adolescent self-protection shields dropped down over her eyes and her face closed off. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

While Nikita struggled to find something to say that might reopen the tiny crack, Kate said, “Mom. Please let go of my gun. I’ll be fine, but if I don’t get outside in the next few minutes dad will make me do pushups or run laps or something equally hideous for being late.”

Nikita let go of the gun and stood up, contemplating her daughter’s bent head. Michael wouldn’t, of course, do anything like that if Kate were late to the range. He would use the power of his most condescending, most dismissive stare and a cutting remark about dedication and motivation to make his humiliated student wish he would assign something as stupid as pushups or laps. “Okay. For now.”

Kate looked up, faint alarm in her eyes.

Nikita shrugged a shoulder and smiled as reassuringly as she could. “Whatever it is, it won’t stop bugging you until you deal with it.”

Kate’s stare got a little harder, then she dropped her gaze, pushed the last piece into place, tightened the bolts and stood up, reassembled rifle in her hands. “I’ll be fine.”

Recognizing a wall of denial when she saw one, Nikita merely nodded in acknowledgement and stepped aside so Kate could leave the room.

*****

“I can’t believe it! You actually did a background check on Robert?”

Nikita shrugged. “Yes. We did. He’s someone you’ve been spending time with.”

Isabella looked like she didn’t know whether to explode or stomp out. “How did you even find out?”

“How do you think?” Michael asked.

Isabella narrowed her eyes and snarled, in a tone full of promised retribution, “Kate.”

“No,” Nikita answered, “my own eyes, thanks.” Though, it was true, Kate had been dropping anvil-sized hints, hints Nikita had chosen to ignore in favor of her own observation.

“Is this because his family is from the Congo?”

“No.” Michael answered. “It’s because he’s interested in you.”

After another long stare of disbelief, Isabella’s expression hardened. “Are you going to do this to anyone who has any interest in me?”

“Yes.”

“Because I’m your daughter?”

“Yes, but the emphasis should be on ‘ours’ and not ‘daughter.’” Nikita said.

“Yeah, sure, like you did this to Adam?”

“Until he was twenty,” Nikita said, flicking her glance toward Michael, who kept his face blank.

Iz narrowed her eyes, then she abruptly pulled out her phone and hit a pre-programmed number. She just stared at them, daring them to ask her whom she was calling.

Nikita exchanged another quick glance with Michael, then sat back in resignation.

After a long minute or two while the phone rang, Isabella’s expression changed as whomever she called answered. “Hi, Adam, it’s Iz.”

“Yes, everything’s fine. I mean, no, it’s not, but no mayhem or death or anything.” She shot Michael and Nikita another condemning glare with that comment. “I have a question. Did mom and dad really do a background check on anybody you went out with until you were twenty?”

“Yeah.” Iz listened for a moment, frowning, then looked up. “Adam says to look dad in the eyes,” which she did, dramatically, “and ask to see the file on Marco.”

Michael looked at Nikita, then with a shrug and a wry twist of his lips, reached for his tablet and called up a file, then handed it to Iz.

After examining it in silence for a minute or two, Iz said, half to Adam on the phone, half to Nikita and Michael, “No. They didn’t stop when you were twenty.”

Iz rolled her eyes and sagged. “Jesus.” Then her expression grew serious again, “How do you know that?” She listed intently for a while, then said, “yeah. Okay. I get it. I’ll call you later.” She ended her call, folded her arms across her chest and looked at her parents again. “Adam says hi.”

Nikita bowed her head in acknowledgment.

Iz said, her glance flicking toward the tablet she had returned to Michael, “Do you have that much on Robert and his family?”

“Yes.”

“And does he ‘check out’?”

“Yes.”

Iz looked at them for a long beat, then nodded slightly. “So. That’s how it will be.”

Michael said, “Yes. That is how it is.”

*****

Michael dragged his hands down her back, making her hum in pleasure. They had sparred today, while the girls were at school and Sophie was playing with the puppies, and Nikita was happy to have him work the knots out of her muscles. Nudging her over on to her back, he pushed her legs apart with his knees, settling between them and running his hands up the long muscles of her thighs, digging deep into her quadriceps with his thumbs and palms, making her back arch in response to the conflicting signals flashing toward her spine – relax into the massage/tense up in anticipation – as his hands slid ever closer to her cunt. In the candlelight his eyes were darkly shadowed but she could clearly see his cock, so erect it was almost brushing against his belly as he prowled over her. She started to reach for him, but he batted her hands away.

“No. I will tie your hands down if you can’t control them.”

Nikita dropped her arms above her head and made a noise that was supposed to be part objection, part frustration, and part laughter, that turned into strangled moan when Michael pulled her labia open with his thumbs. He scooted backwards as he bent down to drag his tongue up along her skin until he circled her clit, making her gasp and dig her heels into the mattress, pressing herself against him. He kept licking her until she was rocking her hips against his hands, the first tremors of her future orgasm sparking deep in her groin. After another minute she was thrusting and twisting, trying to push faster against his tongue, wanting more pressure, and she had agreed not to use her hands, on him or herself.

He lifted his head and began dusting kisses across her belly and up between her breasts, and then sat up on his heels, lifted her hips and pulled her close, thrusting hard into her, making her gasp, “Oh, fuck!”

He leaned over her and laughed breathily into her ear. “Yes.”

“My hands. I want to use my hands.”

He kissed her, wet and long, then said, “no.” To make sure she wouldn’t, he caught her hands with his own and pushed them deep into the pillows above her head, using his weight to hold her still and angling his own thrusts to grind hard against her. She squeezed her thighs tight against his hips, rocking hard into him even as she tightened her pelvic muscles, clinging to his cock as pulled out, trying to hold him in, releasing when he surged back, smiling into his kiss at his faint sounds of pleasure, gasping quietly herself as her orgasm circled closer.

Then he pulled out completely, sliding back and down her body just enough that he could pull her left nipple into his mouth, tugging gently with his teeth and making her squirm and moan. That’s when she knew it was going to be one of those nights, the ones that left her limp and completely wrung out from erotic exhaustion.

When it was over, and she lay boneless and hovering on the edge of sleep in his arms, he said, “I have to go to Kyrgyzstan. The missions there are having some troubles.”

It took her a long breath to process his words, but once she had, she pulled away and half sat up. Leaning on her elbows, she reached for the candle, which she raised high so she could get a better look at him in the dim light. He held his expression still and bland and sincere under her scrutiny, but she had long ago learned to spot the difference between apprehensive and smug. Looking him straight in the eye, she said, “you fucker.”

He smiled sweetly, and smugly, at her, then pinched out the candle, caught her head in his hands, pulled her down and kissed her.

He left two days later, planning to be gone for ten days.

*****
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