nell65: (by roulade)
[personal profile] nell65

Nikita felt some of her tension bleed away as she turned into the long drive at the cabin. She knew, in her head, that simply changing locations wouldn’t change what had happened. But her spirits lifted anyway.

From a distance, especially in the flat, gray light of a late winter afternoon, the cabin looked the same as it had on her first strange trip here with Michael, part quixotic lovers’ getaway, mostly a scheme to flush out yet another high-level traitor in the Section’s ranks. Even so, she had known immediately she wanted to return. She counted it among the great good fortunes of her life that she had.

As she drove closer, she could see more clearly the many alterations, large and small, they had made to the old stone house over all the years since that first, eventful visit.

Nearly a third of the original structure, the former attached barn, had been virtually abandoned when Michael first brought her here, right down to the unglazed windows in the cellar cow byre and owls in the rafters of the old hay loft. Today not only did the old cow byre have new, larger, glassed-in windows, so did the rest of the old cellar. They had converted the ground floor into bedrooms almost ten years ago. There were more new windows cut into the walls and roof of the old barn space as well, marking her and Michael’s bedroom in the expanded loft area above, and an extra all-purpose room on the main floor.

Pulling the SUV around to park on the far side of the house, she saw light was streaming out of the French windows that filled the space where the garage doors had once been. The windows opened out onto a snow-covered terrace from the big, farmhouse-style kitchen they had installed, mostly by themselves, the summer Isabella was a year old. To her left rose the separate, multi-bay garage they had added to the property just about five years ago. It had an apartment above, which Adam had largely claimed for himself, and had continued to use even when the rest of the family was away.

It had not been intentional on Nikita’s part, but because the cabin had been in a state of ongoing evolution since before Margaret’s birth, up through their very last visit, there was no space here that was marked as “Margaret’s” alone. Her absence haunted all of them, haunted Nikita, all of the time, but here at the cabin Nikita hoped it would be easier not to have to deal with reality of Margaret’s room, full of Margaret’s things, they way they did in the apartment in Paris.

Adam’s group had arrived already and as she looked around, she saw Isabella and Marco come around the corner of the house, carrying the big ladder for taking the shutters off the upper windows. Judging by the smoke pouring out of the chimneys, Adam was working on the furnace and the fires. Gabrielle was running around outside, making trails in the unbroken snow.

Nikita turned off the engine and just sat for a moment, enjoying the sudden silence inside the car and letting go of the adrenaline of a long drive. Kate and Sophie had hopped out almost before the engine had stopped running, slamming their doors behind them. In the quiet she looked over at Michael, who had claimed the front passenger seat after their first rest stop. “We’re here,” she said, knowing it was obvious but not knowing what else to say.

He nodded, still staring out the window. “Yes.”

“Margaret would be pissed we left Paris so fast.” That wasn’t what she’d intended to say to him, or even to herself, but, there it was.

He turned to look at her then. “Yes.” He nodded once. “She would.”

Nikita frowned then, something in his tone catching on her ear. “Did you want to stay in Paris?”

“You wanted to leave.”

“If you didn’t want to come, you should have said something.”

Not that she cared, really. Getting him in particular out of Paris, full of traffic and bridges and people and tall buildings, had been one of her primary goals. It was just easier to manage if he felt more cooperative than not.

“No!” His response was quick, almost angry. “No,” he said again, more gently. “It’s fine. It’s good to be here.” After another minute he opened his door. “I’ll go check on the water.”

She was carrying in the last of the bags from the car when a furious bellow of “mom!!,” dragged out a hair-raising number of syllables, rose up from the ground floor.

Hurrying down the steps she discovered Kate and Sophie locked in struggle in the doorway to the middle bedroom. Sophie was trying to get in and Kate was hanging onto the doorframe, blocking the way with her body. Nikita voice was sharp with disapproval as she called out, “Hey! What’s going on here?”

“This is my room this trip!” Sophie gasped, breathless from her continuing efforts to worm past her sister.

Kate, her voice rough and deep from effort and anger, insisted loudly, “No! It isn’t! Margaret and I were supposed to share so that Izzy could have a turn with a single. Just because Margaret’s dead doesn’t mean I don’t get the room.”

Sophie’s voice built towards a furious shriek. “It’s MY turn next for a single.” Suddenly, Sophie drew back enough to glare at Kate, then her expression hardened and, too fast for Nikita to stop it even though she saw it coming, Sophie reached up and pinched the tender flesh on the inside of Kate’s arm, really hard.

Kate recoiled instantly, pulling her injured arm close with an outraged shriek, then with reflexes Nikita admired in other circumstances, snatched the back of Sophie’s shirt as she tried to dart past and into the room and flung her backwards. Sophie landed butt-first on the carpeted floor of the narrow hallway, sliding until she caromed into the exposed stonework of the old foundation with a solid looking thump. There was a stunned silence, and then she sat up and burst into tears.

Nikita shook her head in disapproval at Kate, still blocking the doorway and looking both abashed and defiant. Then she bent to pull Sophie into her arms, tugging Sophie to her feet and hugging her, still sobbing, against her side.

Isabella’s voice interrupted before Nikita could say anything. “I’ll room with Gabrielle,” she said. “Then Kate and Sophie can each have their own.”

Nikita turned to see Isabella sitting on the bottom step, peering down the hall, Gabrielle huddled behind her. “No,” she said, “You don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t mind,” Gabrielle said, wrapping her arms around Isabella from behind. Isabella flashed Gabrielle an approving smile and patted her arm.

“I know you don’t.” Nikita forced a smile of her own, “but it really is Isabella’s turn to room by herself.” She raked Kate and Sophie with a disapproving glare. “All seven of us shared three bedrooms for the last year, eight of us for the last month, and without this fuss.”

Kate dropped her eyes and shifted her feet, but she also crossed her arms over her chest and hardened her jaw. Sophie just whimpered into Nikita’s side. Nikita repressed a frustrated groan. “I hate to reward either of you after this, but Kate gets the room. Sophie, you’ll share with Gabrielle.”

Three voices burst out nearly at once, “Mom!!”

Nikita pinned Katherine with a hard glance, and watched in satisfaction as her daughter shifted from smug to guilty and uncertain in the blink of an eye. “Kate?”


“Until Sophie is strong enough to take you on, I expect you to pull your punches.”

“I did! I know!” Kate now looked ready to cry. “I did.”

“Yes. Barely. I saw.” Nikita put her hand on the top of Sophie’s dark head. “As for you. You should have come to me.”

Sophie’s voice was muffled. “It’s MY turn.”

In a stage whisper, Kate muttered resentfully, “Actually, it was Margaret’s turn next.”

“I know the schedule,” Nikita shot another quelling glare Kate’s way before tipping up Sophie’s chin so she could see her tear-stained face. “But, this was NOT the way to handle it.”

She leaned down and brushed a kiss against Sophie’s forehead, drying her cheeks with her thumbs. “We’ll talk about it again after Aunt Genevieve’s visit.”

Nikita went up the stairs feeling about a thousand pounds heavier than she had when she went down.

She and Isabella were in the midst of getting a hasty supper together when Michael came in. He called out to tell her that the water was on, but instead of coming into the kitchen, she heard him go up the stairs to their room. When she went up later to tell him the food was ready, he was sitting in a chair by the window, staring out at the dark landscape.


He answered without looking at her. “Yes?”


He shook his head. “No.”

She frowned, but turned to leave, when his voice stopped her. “Please don’t send Adam or one of the girls up to ask me again. I’ll come down when I’m ready.”

She looked back to discover that he was staring at her, waiting for her agreement, his expression tight and closed, and pain in the lines around his mouth. She nodded, and let him sit undisturbed.

Lying sleepless beside him, much later that night, she knew when he got up and slipped down to the kitchen, but she didn’t say anything to him then. She didn’t know when he went back to bed, because Gabrielle came to get her not long after Michael left, to tell her that Sophie was crying in her sleep. Nikita finished what remained of her night curled up around Sophie, soothing her just by being there, reminding herself that she could only manage one day at a time.


As she tucked Gabrielle into bed two nights later, Gabrielle looked up and with a contented, sleepy sigh, said, “I’m glad things can go back to normal now.”

Nikita nearly choked on a sudden, ferocious, terrifying desire to seize Gabrielle’s shoulders and bellow into her face, ‘how could you be so stupid? Nothing will ever be normal again!’ Barely breathing, reigning in her unexpected fury with every ounce of control she could find, she gently kissed her youngest daughter good night, then fled for the only true privacy she had.

Her rage at the unfairness of fate had no safe outlet beyond tears, so she let them fall as she stood under the hot stream of the shower. Her shoulders burned from the strain of not holding tightly to someone who was no longer there. The skin of her arms and breasts stung from want of Margaret. She waited with sick anticipation for the awful moment when her tears dried up, leaving the suffocating weight of her grief and her yearning trapped in her chest.

The moment never came. Instead, this time, her misery and heartache spilled outward and swallowed her whole. Wracking cries tore out of her throat and echoed in her ears, loud and ugly over the rushing of the water. Her sobbing shook her so hard her legs failed her and she slid to the floor, banging her elbows and her knees and her head on the way, the fresh sharp pains a welcome icy contrast to the raging storm of her anguish at the loss of her child.

She had no idea how long she sat, huddled and crying on the floor of the shower, missing Margaret so hard she thought that surely her own heart would stop just to avoid the pain, and then Michael was there. He turned off the water and stepped in and sat down next to her, pulling her into his arms to hold her while she wept convulsively into his shirt.

As her crying at last began to ease, Michael shifted her weight so he could get them up. “Come on. Let’s get dry.”

In a few minutes he had her tucked into their bed. He disappeared briefly, returning with a bottle of scotch and two glasses. He also put two pills in her hand, which she immediately recognized as her most powerful migraine prescription. He handed her a glass with a couple of fingers of scotch and said, “Take the pills.”

She raised her brows at him, holding up the liquor and the meds. “Is this a good idea?”

“No.” He offered her a tiny, crooked smile and touched her glass with his. “But, after crying like that, you’re going to have a terrible headache. You should make sure you sleep first.”

Michael’s prediction turned out to be accurate. When she finally woke up, muzzy and heavy, the bright sunlight streaming in behind the light curtains made her recoil into the blankets and bury her head. More cautiously opening her eyes from under the protective shadow of a pillow, she realized she was alone and that it had to be long after Gabrielle and Sophie were usually awake. Isabella and Katherine slept the deep morning sleep of teenagers, though, and probably wouldn’t be up and around for at least another hour. Swallowing around the painful lump in her throat, she remembered that Margaret would still be sleeping too, if only she were still here.

Staggering down to the kitchen, wearing sunglasses against the bright glare of the winter day and suppressing groans as her aching abdominal muscles protested the movement, she discovered the cold remnants of breakfast scattered on the table. Following the sound of giggling into the next room, she found Michael sprawled on the couch, Gabrielle and Sophie crawling on top of him, laughing as they tried to provoke him by tickling him while he pretended to fight them off.

“Hey,” she croaked.

Michael took one look at her, then lifted the girls aside and stood up, ignoring their protests and the way their faces fell. “Did you take your meds?” he asked.

She had to think that one through, against the throbbing in her head. “No,” she said, not really surprised.

He narrowed his eyes in disapproval, then strode past her out of the room. Seeing her daughters’ stricken expressions, Nikita forced a smile. “Dad make crepes this morning?”

Gabrielle beamed gratefully. “Yes. Chocolate ones!”

“Want to watch a movie?” she asked.

When Michael came back with her pills and a mug of tea, she was nestled on the couch, one girl on each side of her, watching the opening credits of one of their favorite Disney films. Michael handed her the meds, waited until she had taken them, said, “I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” and left the room. A minute later she heard his footsteps cross the creaky old boards of the floor above, ending by the chair looking out the window. With an internal scowl, she knew that was probably the last of him they would see today.


Her meds held off the migraine, barely, but fighting it was exhausting. By the end of the evening she was almost shaking she was so tired. Too tired to sleep, it turned out. Rather than disturb Michael with her restless twisting and unwilling to take more pills, she crept down to the study, poured herself a generous brandy and opened her laptop photo files. Starting with Margaret’s infant pictures she began to build new albums, selecting all the images that reminded her of the things about Margaret that she intended to never forget, from her first smile to her last soccer game.

She was so absorbed in her task she nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard Michael’s quiet ‘hi.’


“Here.” He handed her a small bowl of ice cream. “You didn’t eat much at supper.”

Automatically accepting the bowl, she said, “I was still sort of nauseous.”

Looking at the ice cream in her hands, she realized she was hungry now. She started to eat as he sat down next to her, savoring the creamy frostiness as it slipped down her throat, still feeling as raw and tender as it had the night before after her long bout of sobbing. The leather seat cushions creaked as he settled in and transferred her computer from her lap to his own.

When her bowl was empty, she set it down and scooted closer to look at the screen. When he didn’t recoil, she leaned into him and dropped her cheek to his shoulder. They didn’t talk, just looked at pictures and snippets of video of Margaret as Michael clicked through them, pausing now and then to study one or another more carefully. When he got to the end, he closed the computer and set it down on the low table in front of the couch, then turned his face toward hers. She could see his grief and his exhaustion in the new lines around his eyes and his mouth, but he didn’t move away, so she closed the short distance between them to kiss his lips. His mouth was soft and yielding and he raised his hands to cradle her head, responding willingly to her advances. She trailed her fingers down his chest to kneed his thigh, then drew her hand up the inside of his leg to brush against his cock, which was as soft and yielding as his lips as she ran her nails over the warm flannel of his pajamas.

Before she had fully processed this unresponsiveness, he pulled her hand away and pushed it gently over her head as he twisted over her, his lips sliding down her jaw, her neck, between her breasts and then, sinking down on his knees on the floor before her, pushing the table aside, skimming up her shirt and dusting her belly with light kisses.

She said his name, making it a question, as he hooked his fingers in her pajamas and began to pull them down. He kept kissing her belly, so she raised her hips to let him work her clothes off, spreading her knees to give him room, humming in pleasure as he settled his mouth over her clit, his tongue flicking and stroking while he slipped two strong fingers inside her.

Afterwards she was too relaxed and too sleepy to protest as he helped her straighten her clothes, lifted her legs onto the sofa, and covered her up with a soft afghan. She must have fallen asleep immediately, because she never even noticed him leaving. When she woke up in the bright sunlight her computer was back on the desk, the coffee table was in its right place, and her glass and bowl were cleared away.


She actually welcomed the arrival of the first grief counselor later that morning, thinking that they obviously could all use a little help processing Margaret’s death.

Then Michael refused to leave their bedroom to speak to her. When she tried to insist that he needed it too, he said, thank you, no, he didn’t need a counselor.

“That’s a load of crap, Michael. You need help every bit as much as the rest of us do. And furthermore,” she went on, her voice rising despite herself, “it would be good for our kids to see you take it seriously!”

He got up and walked her out of the room, shutting and locking the door behind her. Nikita stared at the closed door for a long moment, re-gathering her shattered nerves, then went to round up the rest of the family.

It did not go well.

Kate took an instant dislike to the therapist and answered every question as obnoxiously as possible, beginning with her name. Then she picked a screaming fight with Sophie about who knew Margaret best.

Isabella, resembling Michael more than ever, sat stone-faced and silent for about fifteen minutes of her sisters’ argument, when she stood up and walked out of the room without a backward glance.

Gabrielle burst into tears and crawled into Nikita’s lap, burying her face in Nikita’s shoulder.

As soon as it was polite to do so, Adam fled to town with Marco in tow.

When she told Michael about it, after picking the lock to get back into their bedroom in the early evening, he shrugged and said, “What did you expect?”

She figured it was either a great triumph of will, or a sign of emotional exhaustion, or both, that she did not yell or smash things in response.

The noise of Adam’s SUV coming up the drive woke Nikita from a fitful doze in the early hours of the following morning. Sitting up, she realized Michael had never come to bed. He was still in the chair by the far window, staring bleakly out into the night. After she watched Marco pull a staggeringly drunk Adam out of the passenger seat of the car and through the door to the apartment stairs, she said, “You should try to get some sleep.”

He looked up at her, “I know.”

But he hadn’t joined her before she fell asleep again.

Marco came into the main cabin for lunch, but they didn’t see Adam until nearly two o’clock the following afternoon.


“Thanks for doing the dishes.”

Adam looked up from the sink with a wary smile. “You’re welcome. Thanks for cooking.”

Nikita forced a chuckle as she headed for the refrigerator. Pulling out the open bottle of white wine and refilling her glass, she said, keeping her voice as casual as she possibly could, “you talk with your dad today?”

“Ah.” Adam turned around and leaned back against the counter, drying his hands on a towel. “I wondered why I was being thanked for following the chore chart you posted on the fridge.”

Nikita shrugged and lifted the corner of her mouth in a half smile of acknowledgement.

“And the answer is no.”

Nikita raised her eyes to his. “Would you, tonight?”

Adam looked startled. “What? Like, now?”


“About what?”

“Anything? How you’re doing? How’s he doing? The weather?”

He shook his head. “I know you’re worried about him. We all are. But…” Adam trailed off.

“But?” She prompted, after a longish pause.

Adam turned back to the sink and picked up another plate to scrape. “But, he’ll be fine. He doesn’t need or want any of us hovering over him.”

“Not hovering. Just, say hi?”

“Fine. After I finish here I’ll go say hi.”


“Again,” Nikita said, bringing her hands, protected by heavy pads, back into position.

Panting, Isabella nodded, then swung into the sequence again, kicking and punching as Nikita backed slowly around the mat.

“Good. Good.” She raised her hands. “Again. Harder this time.”

Isabella’s eyes widened slightly, but then she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and did the sequence again. Harder.

Nikita grinned. “Good!” She dropped her hands. “Take a break.” She turned to look at Kate. “Your turn.”

Nikita hadn’t intended to start training with Isabella and Katherine, but she was enjoying it now that they had begun. The afternoon after their first, disastrous meeting with the grief counselor, she had retreated, alone, to the garage and the heavy bag there, taking her frustration out on it instead of her family. She had looked up to see Isabella watching her. And then Iz had said, “Can you show me how to do that?”

She and Michael hadn’t intended for one of the bays in their new garage to morph into a small gym either, complete with mats, free weights and a bag. It had happened slowly, item by item, until one rainy day Michael and Adam, sparing with sticks, chased each other (they would never say who was pursued and who was pursuing) across the open floor and smashed in the drivers’ side window of Nikita’s much-treasured Mercedes roadster; memento, memory and warning from another life. At that point, they had accepted the obvious and put up a partition wall.

The day after Nikita started teaching Isabella some of the basics of kickboxing, Kate showed up and asked to learn too. They’d been at it for almost a week now. The girls were quick students, which wasn’t surprising. They had been training in and around the marital arts, in a low-key and somewhat haphazard way, all their lives. Michael and Nikita had never made an issue of it, instead letting their children watch and participate in their workouts when and how they wanted, and sending them off to children’s classes whenever there was a place they found they liked. Margaret, naturally, had been their most ferocious student. Soccer was her first love, but while they were in Cambodia she had followed some of her soccer teammates into a kickboxing school. It turned out she had the personality and the physicality for the sport, even taking ribbons in a handful of competitions before they left.

Isabella and Kate, in contrast, had drifted away almost entirely from any formal training at all after a sequence of tae kwon do classes several years earlier they hadn’t enjoyed. Instead they occasionally watched Nikita and Michael train, or some of Michael’s MSF staff, sometimes willing to come out and spar for a while, but usually fading away before it came to that. Michael and Nikita hadn’t been thrilled, but decided it was something that shouldn’t be forced. Both girls were careful, observant and smart, and it had been a straightforward proposition to train them to hone those talents, mostly without them even being aware of it as training.

Nikita raised her hands. “Again.”

As Kate began to push her backwards, Nikita saw Michael come into the workout area. As they moved into the middle of the sequence, Michael called out, “harder.”

Kate flicked her gaze toward her father in surprise, then looked at Nikita with a question in her eyes. Nikita nodded and they continued, Michael adding his commentary from the side. Soon he was out on the mat, repositioning Kate’s arms, adjusting her stance, and generally driving her close to tears of angry frustration. Finally she muttered, “Why do I have to learn to do this anyway? Doesn’t a gun make all this wasted effort?”

Michael stilled, and the hairs on Nikita’s arms prickled at the way the tension in the air shot up about a thousand percent. After looming over Kate for a moment, he walked over to the rear wall of the garage and opened the gun cabinet, pulling out a nine millimeter. He rummaged for a clip, slammed it into the gun, and said, “here,” as he tossed it to Kate, who caught it automatically, gaping in surprise at her father. He said, “It’s empty. Try to shoot before I get to you.”


“You can’t hurt me.”

Kate held the gun down at her side, her eyes wide.

“If you can’t raise that gun, it doesn’t matter that you have it.” His tone was perfectly reasonable, but an underlying menace reminded Nikita all too well of her early days of training as a recruit. She fleetingly considered and as quickly rejected the notion of intervening. This lesson was essential and Kate had provided a nearly perfect opening, even if Michael was going to overplay it.

Kate squared her shoulders and started to raise the gun, her arm trembling slightly, but before she’d hardly gotten it into position, Michael had crossed the floor and kicked her square in the abdomen, seizing her gun arm as she collapsed inward, breaking her grip on the gun and tossing it aside, sending it clattering across the concrete floor. He used their momentum to spin her around and slam her up against the wall, his forearm in her throat. He met her eyes in a long stare. “How useful was your gun?”

Kate, wide-eyed in shock, could only manage to shake her head a tiny fraction as she struggled weakly to push her father’s arm away from her neck. That was when Nikita realized he wasn’t just holding Kate still, he actually had her feet off the ground and was really pushing against her windpipe, which sent her flying across the floor to knock him away from their daughter with a sharp elbow jab into his side. “Michael! What the hell are you doing?”

Michael glared at her as Kate sagged to the floor, gasping for breath and holding her stomach.

Her blood pounding and her hands shaking, Nikita yelled, “You were crushing her windpipe! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Michael blinked, and Nikita watched awareness, shock, shame and anger chase their way across his face as he took in Kate curled up on the ground at their feet. He stepped back, spun on his heel and strode out of the garage.

Nikita dropped to the ground beside Kate and helped her to sit up. “Izzy, hand us some water, please?”

As Kate swallowed, leaning against Nikita and wincing as her throat muscles worked against the fresh bruises, Nikita hugged her close and wondered if they were all going to survive this.

“Mom?” Isabella asked.


“What was that?”

“I don’t know.” Nikita sighed and pressed her lips to Kate’s temple. Resting her cheek on Kate’s hair, she said, “But it’s time to find out.”

She found him upstairs, standing still and staring out his new favorite window, his hands locked behind him, parade-rest style.

She shut the door with a not-quite slam. “What the hell?”

Michael, who had obviously been expecting her, handed her the tablet he was holding. As she took in the data in the top files, all the sympathetic understanding she’d been working up to offer him vanished in a wave of angry shock. “You’ve been sitting up here, tracking Section activities.”


She looked up from the data, but he wouldn’t turn to meet her face-to-face, guilty son-of-a-bitch that he was. “Despite our agreement that you wouldn’t.”

“We can’t protect ourselves if we don’t know what they’re up to.”

She made no attempt to keep her incredulous disgust out of her voice. “And is that your excuse for hitting Katherine?”

He turned his head to look at her then. “We assumed they could do the job. They can’t. Their success rate for cold-ops is barely fifty-two percent.”

She felt like he’d just kicked her in the solar plexus too. Scrolling fast through his data, seeing nothing that she could question, she muttered, “You’ve got to be kidding.”


She looked back up at him, shaking her head as she put it all together. “That’s why they offered you command of Section two weeks ago. Fucking assholes! Why should you have to clean up their mess?”

And he had nearly shot them in the face for their trouble. Now she wished she hadn’t stopped him. She handed him back his PDA, all her anger with him thoroughly redirected towards the incompetent bastards running the Agency. How dare they even approach him with their own problems, and only days after Margaret’s death? Which was also entirely their fault! “Can’t they see all the ways that wouldn’t work? You’re as compromised as I am. More, even!”

She did not like at all the way her voice had wavered at the end there. He was probably one of the few people on the planet who could fix their stupid, shitty, self-created problems, and the thought made her shiver in a cold wind that was entirely inside her head.

“Why was the gun cabinet nearly empty?”

The abrupt change in subject gave her needed time to regroup. “Adam is obsessed with teaching Marco how to use each gun. They’ve been going out to the far pasture, using that old range you and Adam built when he was a kid.”

His face went blank with surprise. “Oh.”

She shrugged, still surprised herself by this development. “Yeah. I know.”

He tilted his head in acknowledgment, and then turned his gaze back out the window.

Talking about the guns had given her time to remind herself that she was also one of the select few who might be able to deal with the mess the Sections were in, but that hell would freeze over before she did. “Their problems are their own, Michael, and not ours.”

He didn’t answer, didn’t even turn his head, and she welcomed back the warm rush of anger at his obstinacy. She turned to leave, stopping at the door to say, “You should apologize to Katherine.”

“For showing her the limits of a handgun?”

“You nearly crushed your thirteen-year old daughter’s windpipe.” She paused, then added, “Luckily, you have a lot of experience apologizing for the inexcusable.”

She wasn’t certain, in the growing dark of their room, but she was pretty sure he flinched.


After an almost sleepless night spent worrying about how to keep her family from ripping itself apart from strain, Nikita called a morning meeting and announced that starting the next Monday, the girls were going back to school.

There was a startled silence, then Isabella said, “What about Aunt Genevieve’s visit?”

“She and your cousins won’t even be here for two more weeks. That’s too long to wait to get back on some sort of routine.”

Depending on where they were living and what options were available, like Adam before them, the girls sometimes attended actual schools, sometimes did their work at home through one of the many internet options, and most often a little of both.

Today, Isabella and Katherine exchanged another quick look, then Isabella spoke again. “We’d like to try the school in town. You know, the one with the big sports fields we pass on the way to the supermarket.”

Adam interrupted, “The work won’t be in English, we’re in the French speaking part of Belgium.”

Kate snapped, “Yeah. Duh. We know!” Then she turned to look at Nikita and Michael with a bright, earnest smile. “We went to a French language school in Cambodia, so it should be easy to transfer our work.”

Gabrielle broke in, “I want to go to that school too, mom.”

Nikita was pleased. Despite how much the driving into town twice a day, nearly forty minutes each way, was going to suck, this was her preferred solution. It was a huge relief the girls had already chosen it for themselves. But one person hadn’t spoken up yet. “Sophie?”

Sophie had been staring at the tabletop, but now she looked up with a pleading expression. “Can I home school? Please?”

Nikita looked at Michael, but they couldn’t reach a quick, silent agreement, so Nikita said, “We’ll talk about it and get back to you. Everyone get dressed and be at the car in thirty minutes. We’re going to get registered and shop for school supplies today.”

The next afternoon Nikita was coming down from the loft just as Sophie erupted from the basement stairs, Kate hard on her heels and bellowing at the top of her lungs, “You stole my bracelet! You fucking little thief!!!”

Catching sight of Michael, who must have come from the kitchen, Sophie quickly ducked behind him, shrieking, “Daddy! Daddy! Save me! She’s going to kill me!”

Kate skidded to a stop, her chest heaving from exertion and emotion. She spat, “I’m not going to kill you, you stupid little twit. I’m going to beat the crap out of you.” Then she suddenly lunged forward, flailing her arms and growling, “Rwarrr!!!”

Sophie shrieked again and clung tighter to Michael’s waist.

Nikita looked at Michael, and together they reached an effortless, instantaneous and mutual decision that Sophie could home school while her sisters went to town without her.


Driving the already familiar route home from the girl’s school the following Friday afternoon, Nikita listened to Katherine and Gabrielle’s happy chatter and smiled in satisfaction. Gabrielle had already located at least three new best friends and was thrilled with everything, but especially lunch and recess, when there was time to talk and play with other kids her own age. Kate, also a quick adapter, was full of new information about the latest bands and movies to catch the attention of Belgian seventh graders. Both girls also approved of their new physical education teacher, whom all the grades shared, and as they told each other stories they had heard about her from new classmates, Nikita glanced over at Isabella. “You’re being quiet. How was your day?”


“You realize I am going to keep on asking until you tell me more than that, right?”

Nikita caught her eye when Iz turned to look at her in exasperation, and winked.

Iz managed a weak grin. “Yeah. Okay.”

While Isabella began to talk, slowly at first and then with mounting enthusiasm as she began to describe upcoming projects in her new classes, Nikita congratulated herself, again, on a job well done. All three of them seemed to be off to an excellent beginning. Dressed anonymously in the same uniforms as everyone else, and without the notoriety of looking as out of place as they had in Cambodia, or anyone’s awareness of Margaret or her murder, they were just three girls, recently moved to the area and new to school. They clearly found it a huge relief.

The driving hadn’t been nearly as awful as she feared, either, especially because Adam and Marco had taken over more than half of it. Fortunately, Nikita and the girls all liked Marco. Adam had met him bicycling in Spain a few years earlier, and in the dark it would be hard to keep them straight, their build and size was so similar. In the light it wasn’t a problem at all. Marco had a round, cheerful, open face and a bright toothy smile, and he laughed easily and often. He was halfway through a graduate program in chemical engineering, and was a restful person to be around.

With Adam and Marco’s help with all the driving, Nikita had not only been able to get Sophie going on her own program, she’d even begun returning her own vast backlog of phone calls and messages. She didn’t want to actually talk to very many people yet, so she stuck to email, but, it was a beginning.


Nikita smiled and tipped her re-filled glass to Marco. “Thanks.”

Marco topped off his own wine, flashing his infectious smile. “You’re welcome. Besides, it was fun to take a big group of teens to the movies. I’m the youngest kid in my family, so I’ve never been the big brother before.”

“When you all got home, Isabella and Katherine looked happy. And they said they liked the movie.”

“I think they had a good time. Or, at least.” Marco shrugged charmingly and grinned conspiratorially, “there was a lot giggling.” After taking a sip of his drink, he asked, “How did Gabrielle’s friend’s visit go?”

“Good. She seems like a nice kid.”

Adam walked into the kitchen then and came to lean against the counter next to Marco. As he often was, he was just close enough to leave the clear impression that they were lovers, without ever stooping to, or allowing, anything that might possibly be construed as a public display of affection.

“How did Sophie do?” Adam asked.

Trust Adam to go right to the difficult heart of the matter, Nikita thought. She said, “Okay. She was too shy to go outside with Gabrielle and her friend by herself, so I went out with them.” Nikita smiled, recalling the afternoon’s somewhat muddy snow battle. “It was fun, playing in what’s left of the winter!”

“Did dad come downstairs at all, while Gabrielle’s guest was here?”

Something in Adam’s tone made her straighten up, even as she answered as casually as she could. “No.”

Adam nodded sharply. “Of course not.”

Nikita frowned, but said nothing.

“Do you know what he’s doing, up there, all day, every day?” He jerked his chin up, indicating their bedroom on the floor above.

“He’s working.”

Adam raised a skeptical brow. “On what?”

“MSF projects, budgets, planning, a little crisis negotiation. The usual.” Nikita waved her hand airily, dismissing the question. It was true, more or less. He had started taking J.B.’s phone calls again. He had spent part of the week engaged in the kind of complex negotiations of give and take with local leaders that were the core of what he really did to secure MSF missions. He’d also spent a good deal of his time, as far as she could tell, staring off into space. This was, she discovered, preferable to the one afternoon he had announced he was going to take a walk and then terrified her by being gone, on foot, for eight hours, without his phone. Arriving home long after dark had fallen, mouthing casual and obviously unfelt apologies for frightening her.

Adam folded his arms and narrowed his eyes. “And all of it is so important he can’t take a turn on the driving, or helping with Sophie’s home school?”

“He did help out with Sophie.”

“One afternoon out of five! By watching a bunch of football games with her! Sophie doesn’t even like football. Hell, she cringes and ducks if a soccer ball comes anywhere near her! It was Margaret who loved football!”

Marco tossed back his wine, then cleared his throat. “I think I’ll be going out to the apartment now. Good night.” He set his glass down next to the sink, and headed for the front door.

In the silence that followed, Nikita watched Adam stare at his toes. He looked lost and angry, and a little bit like the lonely nine-year old he’d been when she and Michael had finally begun their lives together. Her heart hurt for him, but she didn’t have any words at all to give him. What she really wanted to do was offer a hug, but she could see from the set of his shoulders it would be as unwelcome right now as it had been then. After a long few moments, he looked up and shrugged. “The Mediterranean flair for public emotions escaped Marco entirely. He hates scenes. I should go out and let him know there wasn’t one. See you in the morning.”

As he walked past her, he reached out and brushed the tips of his fingers against her shoulder. “Good night, mom.”

He was gone before she could respond.


Kate’s voice caught Nikita’s attention when she walked into the garage with an armload of recycling.

“Just once, that’s all I want.”

“Once is all you’ll get.” Adam’s voice carried a hint of laughter as well as threat. “You haven’t taken any training seriously enough to do better.”

“How long would it take?”

“To touch him? I could show you one or two moves right now that should work. Once. To get through Dad’s defenses regularly? Years.”

“Arrrgghhh!” Kate wailed. Her voice got serious sounding again. “Can you?”

“Can I what?”

“Take dad?”

There was a pause, and then Adam said, “yes, but not always. He’s still really quick.”


Nikita shot around the partition wall to see Michael standing at the back of the workout area, staring down Adam and Kate.

Michael pushed himself off the wall, stripping off his jacket and hat, and ambled out onto the training floor. There was something loose and dangerous in his movements that made the hairs on the back of Nikita’s neck stand up. He said, “try.”

Adam frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Try to drop me.”

Adam stepped back and folded his arms. “No.”

Michael’s tone was perfectly reasonable, but his eyes were cold. “You told Kate you could. Prove it.”

“Prove what, dad?” There was something new, something a little taunting and hard, in Adam’s voice. “That I’m thirty years younger than you?”

“If you can.” Michael raised his hands and faced Adam, who after a long beat, raised his own and started moving into the center of the mat.

Nikita launched herself between them. Her heart pounding furiously, she held out her hands, trying to ward them back and way from her, away from each other. “No. No. This is not going to happen.”

Adam was circling now too, forcing Nikita to pivot to keep her eyes on both of them. He said, light and mocking, and underneath, angry, oh, so angry, “Oh come on, mom. Let him try.”

“I’m not the one with something to prove,” Michael said.

“Kate!” Nikita called. “Go get Marco, and tell him to bring the car keys. Right now.”

Kate vanished, and Nikita heard her running up the stairs to the apartment above. Adam and Michael spun lazily around her, and Michael said, “Nikita. You should get out of the way.”

She turned and squared up in front of him, raising her own hands. “Make me.”

“Nikita!” Adam’s voice was sharp and he was openly angry now. “This isn’t about you. Get out of the way.”

Nikita kept her eyes on Michael’s, moving her feet to keep facing him and her body between him and Adam. “No. Neither one of you is in any state to do this.”

Marco came hustling into the garage, Kate hard at his heels. “What’s happening?” he asked.

“Marco.” Nikita didn’t turn her eyes away from Michael’s as she answered. “Please take Adam out of here. Into town, back to Paris if you have too, but take him away. Right now.”

Nikita risked a glance at Marco and saw his jaw drop in surprise, then some sense of what was happening must have come to him for he moved toward Adam, and Nikita returned her concentration to Michael. She heard Marco speaking urgently under his breath, and Adam answering angrily and loudly, but she kept her focus completely on Michael. He was still poised and loose, ready to strike, but he had come to a stop and was obviously watching Adam and Marco.

There was scuffling and more hissed angry words behind her, and then she heard Marco call out, “We’re going. I’ll phone later.”

The outer door slammed shut after them, and as Michael turned his gaze back to her, Nikita said, “Kate, go into the house and all of you stay there until I come inside.”

She left without a sound, and Nikita was alone with Michael, who started stalking her again. She gaped in disbelief, nearly dropping her hands in surprise. “You really want to spar, right now, with me?”



So they did. Nikita was glad that she’d been working out for a few weeks already, because Michael was still a formidable opponent. He wasn’t in the field nearly as often as he had once been, and for the most part MSF security teams didn’t engage with anyone, ever. They worked behind the scenes to keep connections open, staying abreast of their situations and serving as visible reminders to all and sundry to not mess with the missions and people under their care. But their presence was only as effective as anyone believed in their resolve and their skills. So they trained openly and constantly, Michael right along with them.

He was barely in control, but the dark thing swirling between him and Adam didn’t enter into this between them. The match ended when she dropped him, mostly because he got winded more quickly than she did, thanks to spending most of a month more or less checked out from the world around him.

Sitting on his chest, holding him to the mat with her weight, she asked, “Want to talk about it?”


“How are you going to handle it?”

“I’ll deal with it.”

“I hope so.”

She stood up and offered him a hand, pulling him to his feet. They walked back to the house without speaking. Once inside he immediately retreated upstairs and left her to face their children on her own. It made her wish she’d hit him a lot harder when she had him on the mat.

Many hours later, Nikita slipped back into bed after another of her middle-of-the-night wanders through the house. She was too wound up to sleep but she was afraid of the heavy slumber and slow waking that meds produced, she didn’t know what crisis she might be called to next. So she had tiptoed through the cabin, looking in on her sleeping children, counting heads, checking that they were still breathing, and carefully not looking for the one she knew wasn’t there.

Then, for the first time, the cold night air and the silent house reminded her of the Section in the quiet hours of the night watch, when she’d paced out her anxieties and walked through her insomnia. Furious with herself for even thinking the comparison she had fled up the stairs to their room. Settling in on her back and telling herself that this time she would stay still until she went to sleep, Michael rolled over and looked at her. “You’re not sleeping well.”

She met his eyes, dark in the dim starlight that was all that lit their room. “No. I’m not.”

“Can I help?”

She examined him as carefully as she could in the dark, uncertain what to make of his offer. “How?”

“Help you relax?” His voice was thick with sour mockery, but his hand on her hip was firm and warm and made her skin ache for more.

A toxic sludge of old bile and new grief rushed at the back of her throat even as she arched into his kiss, tasting tears and blood, his or hers, real or remembered, it didn’t matter and she didn’t care.

There was no teasing, and no foreplay. Michael pushed her onto her back, helped her wiggle out of her long underwear, shoved down the front of his pajamas and thrust inside her. It was so sudden she was hardly wet at all and the dry friction of his first few strokes made her eyes water from the peculiar pleasure pain. Within seconds, though, she was slick and open and he was driving into her hard and fast, muscles bunching under her hands and his breathing ragged in her ear. When he sagged against her after he came, she was still pulsing and aching from arousal, twisting against him in frustration. He slid out and off to her side, catching her wrists and pinning her arms above her head with one hand while he brought her off with the other, his fingers working her clit until she cried out in relief and release. She fell asleep tucked up against his chest, his arm wrapped around her, holding her close, keeping her warm.

When she opened her eyes in the grey dawn light, she saw him pulling on running pants and a long-sleeved workout shirt. She sat up so abruptly her head swam a bit, which she ignored. “Can I come with you?”

Only a plain refusal could have stopped her, and maybe not even then. He didn’t say anything at all, so she scrambled for her clothes.


Adam and Marco hadn’t gone to straight Paris, but they did leave a few days later, vacating the garage apartment for Michael’s sister Genevieve and her two daughters, Caroline and Marjorie.

Hugging Adam goodbye before they left, Nikita asked, “are you going to deal with it, whatever it is, between you and your dad?”

His attempt at a reassuring smile was more like a grimace when he leaned in to kiss her forehead. “Yes, mom.”

“And take care of yourself too?”

“Yes, mom.” Adam’s smile widened into his more familiar teasing grin as he sighed theatrically, casting his eyes upward in an appeal to a heavenly figure Nikita was reasonably certain he didn’t much believe in. Obviously sensing this wasn’t actually very reassuring, Adam grew more serious and continued. “It’s called PTSD. I’ve been listening to people tell me how to deal with it since I was six years old. I could lead workshops on how to deal with PTSD. I know what I have to do. I’m doing what I need to do.”

“Okay.” She hugged him one more time and stepped back. “Call if-“

He interrupted her, “you too.”



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