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

Less than two hours after Mick Schtopel walked out of the past and into Orly Airport, Nikita stood in the lobby of a small, left bank hotel. She was overseeing the delivery of more computer equipment. They had chosen the hotel at random, based on the combination of layout, size, location and the willingness of the owner to throw out his two sets of guests and (for a generous fee) turn the entire facility over to them.



They were setting up a communications center in the main sitting room; J.B. and a team of Michael’s operatives from MSF were already working the phones and the computers. Their goal was to put together anything and everything they could find that might help them figure out what Mick and the Agency wanted so very urgently from her and, apparently, her alone at this particular time and place.

Almost nine months earlier a man claiming to be a representative of the Agency had contacted her, asking her to resume her job as Operations and restart Section One. She had laughed in his face, told him no, and walked away. For several weeks she had heard nothing more, but then a different man approached her in different place with the same request. She turned him down and told Michael that the Agency was back in the Section business.

After that they had both spent time raking their sources trying to figure out why, even if someone was finally putting the Sections back online, they should want her, now. She was more than fifteen years out from that world and, moreover, had cultivated innumerable ties and obligations and a public persona that made disappearing into the daily operations of the Section completely untenable. They had hit blank wall after blank wall even as they eventually found hints, here and there, that the Sections were already operational and running live missions. Which meant they were up and functioning without her. At that point they had sat back, watching and waiting to see what else might happen. And then, nothing. Not for nearly six months. Until today.

Some piece of information they did not have, some key to the puzzle that would help them make sense of the sudden panic to claim her was still missing. So they were once again searching everywhere, calling everyone they could think of who might be able to help, no matter how tangentially related to what and who they had been in their Section lives, and in all the years since.

The young woman posted in the lobby opened the front door to yet another arrival, and Nikita smiled in relief. “Took you long enough.”

“I was busy.”

Nikita grinned wider and shrugged. “You could have said no.”

Quinn folded her arms and raised her brow. “You don’t have anyone else to call.”

“You don’t even like children.”

“No. I don’t. Thank God you got fixed and quit spawning after five.”

“I liked being pregnant.”

“Give it up, already. You’re never going to convince me that playing host to a parasite you have to squeeze out your twat after nine months of hell is fun.”

“Well…”

“And if you tell me about Michael’s pregnancy kink one more time I swear to God I’m walking right out that door and never looking back.”

“You have no poetry in your soul.”

“You’re a romantic, breeding sap.”

Nikita stepped into Quinn’s arms and hugged her hard. She whispered, “Thank you.”

Quinn returned her embrace, fierce and short, like always, and then stepped back. “Where are the kids?”

“Upstairs.” Nikita crossed to the staircase and yelled up to the next floor, “Girls? Quinn’s here.”

Running footsteps and excited shrieks converged overhead and in seconds Quinn was fully occupied trying to fend off five different girls all trying to hug her at once.

Nikita smiled at the commotion, made worse when Baron started barking. Once the noise eased, Nikita said, “Come on. Let’s go show Quinn where we’ve gotten you all set up.”

The girls and Quinn were already on the stairs when sound of Michael’s voice from the door to the lounge stopped her. “Nikita. We’re ready.”

“Michael, I’ll just be a minute.”

“No. Now.”

From halfway up the stairs, Quinn drawled, “Hi Michael. Nice to see you too.”

Michael looked up at her. “Hi. Thanks for coming so quickly.”

Quinn put her hand on her hip and pointed at Michael, pinning him with sharp glare. “You owe me. Big time.”

Michael smiled in acknowledgement as he nodded. “Yes.” Michael looked at Nikita. “Nikita.”

Nikita exchanged a long look with him, and then sighed. “Okay.” Looking up at Quinn she forced a smile. “You guys be good. We have the run of the place, but I’m sure the little girls are going to crash soon.”

Quinn nodded back. “We’ll be fine. Don’t worry about us.”

Nikita held Quinn’s gaze until Quinn raised her brows, rolled her eyes in exasperation, shook her head and turned to follow the girls.

*****

Climbing the stairs Quinn reminded herself, for approximately the one-hundredth time in the last ten hours, that she was a determinedly, blissfully child-free woman of a certain age, with significant accomplishments and considerable professional success. She possessed highly sought after skills and knowledge, and was exceedingly well paid for her time as a result. So, given all that, she asked herself, again, how the hell had she ended up so thoroughly entangled with traveling road show that was the Wirth-Samuelle household? How had she become their go-to babysitter in time of crisis? She didn’t even like kids!

She knew the answers perfectly well, of course. It all began the day she dreamed up the wild notion that she could play Nikita, brand new Operations of Section One, the same way she had played Paul Wolfe. She would seduce her, and then worm her way from Nikita’s bed and into her confidence. She would offer her acidic, chatty self as a bracing antidote to Michael Samuelle’s glowering, emo charms, and her skills as assets to be bargained with and for.

Her handlers had thought she was crazy, that Nikita was completely heterosexual and, more to the point, totally committed to Michael. Quinn disagreed. She had suspected for some time that Nikita had an unexplored interest in women as well as men, and she reminded her handlers that Nikita had fooled Michael as thoroughly as she had fooled Paul and Madeline. She blithely assured them that she would be offering Nikita exactly the type of sexual adventure Nikita craved, while providing her with a simulacrum of the female friendship she so pathetically desired. Her rapid success seemed to confirm everything Quinn had thought she knew and understood about the untried and undeserving young woman who had inherited a position earned the hard way by more talented predecessors.

It took her six and a half weeks to realize just how thoroughly she’d been swallowed by her own hubris. Nikita had used the affair to gain access to nearly all of Quinn’s files. From them, she had learned the names and extent of Quinn’s ties into Center personnel. Something Quinn discovered the day all her contacts disappeared in an internal purge, orchestrated by Nikita’s sister and uneasy ally, Michelle Jones.

Quinn had expected to be eliminated immediately herself. Instead, Nikita had offered her the position as second in command that she had been angling to secure. When Quinn asked her why, Nikita shrugged and said, “You’re obviously well qualified for the job.”

Then she’d asked Quinn out for dinner.

Curious, Quinn had accepted, half believing that it was merely the traditional last meal served to the condemned. It was, in a way. As they sat over their wine and desert, Nikita cocked her head, looked Quinn over very carefully, and observed, “You were angling to fill a number of positions in my life.”

After carefully swallowing a non-existent sip of coffee, she had said, “Yes.”

“Other than my second, are you actually interested in any of those other roles?”

Quinn had said yes, of course she was.

Nikita laughed. “You really don’t have to say that. You have the job as second either way.”

Of course Quinn had insisted that no, really, she was interested in exploring the more personal relationship they had begun. What choice had she had? To back off at that point would have been to be cut completely out of Nikita’s inner circle. With her contacts at Center eliminated, she would be truly out in the cold.

Nikita shook her head, almost as if in regret. “Quinn,” she’d said, “you’ve read my files. Being my lover is a dangerous, and probably disastrous, career move. Look at what happened to Michael.”

All idiotic bravado, Quinn had said, “I’m not Michael.”

Their affair resumed more or less as if nothing had happened. By the time their first year in charge was over, Quinn realized that she was no longer pretending to like or respect Nikita. By the time they learned that the Sections were being closed, she hoped they were really friends, as much as they could be, in the context of the Section.

Nikita really was an extremely talented cold-op and team leader, and she really was a nudgey do-gooder with a massive problem with authority, just as her files said. But her files hadn’t revealed her warmth, or her empathy, or her charisma, all of which made her a commander of considerable talent and charm. Nor had the files captured her full capacities for ruthlessness and duplicity; or her deep and biting cynicism for the Section, its mission, and its overseers, and, most especially, for herself as their handmaiden. They had also been quite silent on just how very good Nikita was at sex.

All of which meant Quinn had needed to spend some hard time looking into her own heart and mind when, after learning they might escape the Sections instead of dying in them, Nikita returned from her flying visit to Michael almost literally shedding light as she strode through Section One’s cold corridors, unable to banish her tiny smile of boundless, private joy. The realities of the Section ended that phase soon enough, but it brought on a welter of confusing emotions that it had taken Quinn some time to sort out. Eventually she had decided that she clearly wasn’t jealous of Michael Samuelle, exiled former contender for the top job, she was merely envious of her friend’s excitement about the future. And that, unlike jealousy, was something that Quinn had been able to acknowledge and deal with.

As it turned out, she had not sailed so far up the river of denial that there was no hope of return.

A few months before they walked out for good, Nikita had rolled over on to her side, propped her head on her hand, and said, “Would you be interested in bringing this relationship into our new lives?”

Quinn had felt her heart leap with what, after almost three years of constant exposure to Nikita, she was prepared to call personal happiness.

And that was why, now, when the Section had returned, zombie-like, from the dead to hunt Nikita down, Michael and Nikita had turned to her to watch over their daughters.

*****

Quinn followed the sound of the girls’ voices into a large, front-facing guest room. When she walked in the voices stopped and, to her very mild surprise, the girls were ranged around the room in a semi-circle, clearly waiting to interrogate her. Gabrielle and Sophie were sitting on the big bed, Margaret at the small table in front of the window. Isabella and Katherine, twin sentinels, were standing facing the door, their arms crossed and grim expressions in their light blue eyes, cool and appraising under their father’s level, dark brows. They looked so much alike, and were such close friends, it was often hard to remember that they were quite different from one another in temperament and taste. Isabella had been a serious, thoughtful, book-reading child and was a serious, responsible teen. Kate was louder, and more social, making friends easily and preferring movies and music to reading.

Isabella spoke. “It’s bad, isn’t it.” She made it a statement, not a question.

Quinn nodded. “Yes.”

“Do you know what it’s all about?”

“The past. The Section.”

“Is mom in trouble?” That was Margaret.

“She’s in danger, not in trouble.”

Sophie piped up, an anxious frown marring her pretty little heart-shaped face. She had green eyes and dark brown curls, and an unquenchable love for dresses, jewelry and nail polish. She asked, “Then why is dad mad at her?”

“He isn’t. He’s just really focused right now on saving her from whatever it is, reaching out to try to take her from him. He’s really obsessive that way. Fanatical even.”

Quinn stopped herself before she went even further, words like ‘insane, freakish, terrifying’ trapped safely behind her teeth.

“What are they doing downstairs?”

“He’s about to put your mom through her most intensive debrief in nearly twenty years. It’s going to take a long time.”

Katherine interrupted, her expression hard and a little angry. “She didn’t do anything wrong!”

“No.” Quinn really hoped this was true. “It’s just that whatever started this, it’s from a long time ago. Details are important, but much harder to recall with accuracy.”

“Mom wouldn’t hold out on him!”

Quinn sighed. “If your dad handed your mom a knife and asked her to open her own veins, she’d do it. Just because he asked. She’d bleed out believing he had a good reason for her sacrifice. But...”

Quinn trailed off, not sure if she could ever put it into words, words that someone who had never been there would ever be able to understand, much less a bunch of kids born long afterward.

“But...?” Isabella prompted.

“But – we all learned, in a hard school, to keep secrets. To tell lies. It’s, like breathing. Easier even, and sometimes just as unconscious.” Quinn smiled then and walked into the room, tossing her bag on the bed and plopping down between Sophie and Gabrielle. “Your mom will do her best, which is always very, very good. And while we wait, you’re going to fill me in on the last nine months.” Quinn looked around at the worried faces of the five clever offspring of Michael Samuelle and Nikita Wirth, and she grinned. “Now. Enough with the worry. Tell your auntie Quinn. What mischief have you all gotten up too lately?”

*****

Four hours later one of Michael’s people summoned her downstairs. Quinn found Nikita in the small dinning room, leaning back in one chair and her feet propped in another, long legs stretched out in front of her and a wet cloth over her eyes.

“Why do you let him do that to you?” she asked.

Nikita answered without moving. “Michael didn’t do anything to me. Paul and Madeline fucked me over with their fucking mind-rape bullshit twenty years ago. I’m just still paying.”

Quinn pulled out a chair at the same table and sat down. “Wow. Now I know your head hurts. You don’t usually have such a potty mouth.”

“I’m seeing double.”

“He should have stopped the debrief hours ago then.”

“And picked it up, when?”

Quinn frowned and didn’t answer, knowing as well as Nikita did that there was no more ‘when’ to wait for. After a minute or two she asked, “Did you turn up anything?”

“Narrowed it down.” Nikita pulled the cloth off her eyes and sat up a bit so she could look at Quinn without craning her neck. Her face was pale and drawn, and her eyes red-rimmed and watering with pain. “It has to be something from the years at Section One after I was level two and before you and Jason got there. But we still can’t pinpoint what. And it feels like we’ve excluded everything.”

Quinn could hear all of Nikita’s exhausted frustration in her low, raspy voice. “Why just those few years?”

“Before that I was too junior to know much of anything not also known by lots more people than me, and no one has contacted you or Jason.”

“I know. I called him after Michael called me. We’ve heard nothing, even though we’ve both caught the traces of the rebooted operation. I know he told Michael the same thing. Which also definitely means Section One, and not Center or Oversight.” Quinn hesitated a moment, then asked, “Did either of you call Michelle?”

“I did. She says she’s heard nothing.”

“Which she’d say, true or not.”

“Yes.”

“How did Michael know something was going to happen today?”

“Apparently the new Section leaks as badly as the old one. Rumor got to one of the Uzbek mafia-types MSF has to deal with, and yesterday he actually gloated to Michael over the phone that some big bad was coming to steal his woman.”

“I see.”

After another short silence, Nikita asked, “How are the girls?”

“Worried. But, for now, asleep. And you were right; Sophie and Gabrielle were out before eight. Took the big girls a bit longer and a really stupid movie for them to fade.”

“It’s a long trip. And the roads in Cambodia still suck.”

Michael walked in then, carrying a glass of water, which he set down at Nikita’s elbow, and a pill package. Seeing him opening it, Nikita said, “I already said no, Michael.”

He answered, his voice soothing, “It’s over the counter migraine medicine, nothing more.”

Nikita closed her eyes and said, “Quinn?”

Quinn held out her hand and raised her brows, waiting. After a minor staring contest, Michael sighed quietly and handed her the pills. After examining them, Quinn said, “He’s lying. It’s your prescription stuff.” Responding to the plea she’s seen in his eyes, she went on, overriding Nikita’s objection, “but he’s right. You need to take them.”

“I hate them. They make me loopy.”

“Which is worse than the seeing double, blinding-pain thing, how, exactly?”

Nikita scowled and then held out her hand for the pills, tossing them back with the water and a heavy, resigned sigh.

Michael put his hand on Nikita’s shoulder. To Quinn he said, “Thank you.” He gently brushed Nikita’s hair back from her forehead. “I’m running a bath for you. Come on.”

Nikita put her hand on his for a moment, then, leaning heavily on both Michael and the table for support, pulled herself to her feet and headed for the lobby stairs.

Michael looked at Quinn. “Would you look over the notes?”

“Of course.”

“Adam has them.”

Quinn barely controlled her gasp of surprise. She was pretty certain her eyebrows flew up to her hairline anyway. “Adam?”

“Schtopel ID’d him as Sala Vacheck’s grandson in the middle of Orly airport today. At this point further ignorance is deadlier than more knowledge.”

*****

When Nikita was half way up the stairs she spotted Isabella and Katherine waiting for her. They were sitting on the top steps and leaning against the wall, just out of sight of the main lobby. She slowed to a stop and looked at them carefully, straining hard against the pain in her head to focus her vision. Her reward for this effort was to see clearly the stress and worry in their expressions. “Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”

“That’s what we want to know,” Isabella replied.

Nikita countered, “Quinn told me you were asleep.”

Katherine smirked. “Quinn isn’t always as hard to fool as she thinks she is.”

Isabella rolled her eyes. “You were so snoring during the movie.”

Katherine stared down the bridge of her nose, Samuelle hauteur rolling off her in waves. “Fake snoring. Obviously fooled you too.”

Nikita decided her head still hurt too much for thinking up clever, and true, misdirection. She sat down heavily on the step across from Izzy and Kate. “Alright. What do you already know?” she asked.

Isabella said, “Only that something from the past, from Section One, has started up again and somehow you’re involved, and you and dad and the rest are trying to figure out what, so you can get away from it.”

Nikita nodded. “More or less, yes.”

“Did you figure it out?” Katherine asked.

“No.” Nikita sighed. “We’ve narrowed it down, but mostly all we’ve been able to do is exclude every possibility we’ve thought of so far.”

Isabella asked, “So, what can we do?”

Nikita looked up at her clever, beautiful daughters and fought back overwrought tears. Tall and slim, they looked more like her than like Michael, with upturned noses and big, bright blue eyes. The only sign of their paternity, in their faces anyway, was their dark, level brows, and something about their high cheekbones, especially in Isabella’s slightly longer, slightly narrower and flatter bone structure. What they both had, and that had definitely come from their father, was an incredible natural assurance. In her own troubled youth, Nikita had made do with bravado and defiance, but her oldest daughters, at least, walked through the world as though it had been made just for them. So far anyway, the world seemed to agree.

She looked down at her hands, unable to meet their eyes any longer. She answered Isabella’s question, “We keep gathering intel, and in the meantime take steps to keep us all safe.”

Looking back up again, she remembered that defiance could sometimes hold long enough for a better plan to come along. “We also fight them at every turn, using every tool we have.”

“How does trapping us upstairs with Quinn do that? We could help you!” Isabella said, as Katherine exclaimed, “Whatever it takes mom. We have your back.”

Nikita felt her heart swell with a familiar wave of love and pride and general amazement how much she adored her children. She smiled what she suspected had to be a watery smile, Quinn would have called it inanely sappy she was sure, and gripped Kate’s knee. “Thanks, honey. I know you do. As for why you were upstairs,” she looked at Isabella, “partial knowledge can actually be more dangerous than none. Today we didn’t have the time to give you all the background you would need to make sense of the details we were working with tonight. I know – trust me, I know! – It is incredibly frustrating to be kept in the dark for your own good. I promise that we will make the time as soon as we can to tell you as much as you want to know.”

Izzy said, “Like, for example, who is Sala Vacheck?”

Nikita exhaled sharply. “See – that’s what I mean about partial knowledge. We are almost one hundred percent certain that, at this moment, Sala Vacheck has nothing to do with what’s happening. For one thing, he’s been dead for more than twenty years.”

“Then why did that man bring him up?”

“Mick. The man’s name is Mick Schtopel. He was reminding us that even though he couldn’t drag me back to Section One today, he can still hurt us if we don’t make some effort to negotiate with him. He could also, he thinks, stir family turmoil by bringing up your dad’s past.”

“What about my past?” Michael came up the stairs, stopping just below where they were sitting.

“Who is Sala Vacheck?” Kate asked this time, her gaze darting back and forth between her parents.

Nikita looked up at Michael, waiting for him to take the lead. He said, “You know the story of how I came to meet and marry Adam’s mom, Elena?”

“Yeah.” Katherine frowned. “You married her as part of a mission to get to her father.”

“Yes.” Michael hesitated, then, after a quick glance at Nikita, went on, “Sala Vacheck was her father.”

“Why does anyone care now?” Isabella asked.

Michael said, “His nephews have rebuilt much of his old organization. They could be persuaded to see Adam as a threat to their power.”

Isabella rolled her eyes. “Because terrorism is hereditary, now?”

“No more than any other family business, but no less.” Nikita shook her head, then hissed because it made the world wobble a bit. “Anyway, it was a warning, not a statement of anything that has actually happened. Yes,” she held up her hands, “we’ve checked. And re-checked.”

“Your head hurts,” Katherine said.

“Yes.”

“Mom?”

“It’s just stress.” Nikita took the hand Michael offered her and pulled herself to her feet. “Really. Stress headache, nothing more. Tomorrow is likely to be a very crazy day, so you should really try to get to sleep. Come on.” She gestured toward the upstairs hall with her hand and smiled at them. “Do you want to be tucked in?”

They both rolled their eyes as they filed past her and down the hall, but neither of them objected when she slipped into the room they were sharing with a sleeping Margaret a few minutes later, after checking on Sophie and Gabrielle. She pulled the covers up over their shoulders and kissed their foreheads. “Sleep well. I love you,” she whispered, and they whispered back, “We will, we love you too.”

*****

Nikita closed the bathroom door and sagged against it, watching impassively as Michael zipped his fly and reached to flush the toilet. Over the noise of the rushing water, Nikita said, "Did I pass your test? Was I truly shocked by the reappearance of Mick Schtopel?"

Michael finished washing his hands and toweled them dry, then looked up and fixed her with a level gaze. “Yes.”

Nikita tried to muster a blistering glare, but her vision was still fuzzy on the edges and Michael didn’t even blink. She suspected the result was closer to a tired pout. “Why did you bring us back here? We were still in Bangkok and had almost four hours to change plans after you got your tip.”

"If they are determined to speak with you they will – in Paris we have resources as well."

“We have resources lots of places, some of them much further from the Agency than here.”

“Only they have the information we need.”

“You still should have told me.”

“Why?”

“So we could have decided together what to do? So I could have come alone?”

“Obviously, you do know why I didn’t tell you.”

“Michael…” She trailed off, sighing, realizing that there was nothing else to be said.

After a moment, he offered, “Your bath is ready.”

Nikita looked over at the ancient claw footed bath, long and deep, then she looked back at Michael. “It looks like the one in your old apartment.”

“Yes. I thought so.”

After a pause she said, “There’s room for two.”

“Yes.”

“Will you stay?”

“If that’s what you want.”

Nikita stepped close to him, slipping her fingers inside the waistband of his trousers and pressing her cheek against his as she spoke softly into his ear. “Yes. That’s what I want.”

Folding his arms around her, Michael murmured, “We should plan for tomorrow’s meeting. And then you need to sleep.”

She closed her eyes and let Michael take more of her weight as she relaxed into him. “Yes. And you should sleep too.”

Michael brought up his hands to tangle in her hair as he pressed his lips to her forehead, then her cheeks, then to her mouth.

She had to swallow to speak; even then her voice was a dry husky shadow as she asked, "What approach do you think they’ll use?"

"More of what Mick tried today, pressing on your old ‘leave of absence’ and demanding your compliance."

"And no information until I offer it.”

“No.”

“So, I lie, they lie, and at some point they will have to get bored and tell me what they want from me.”

Finished with unbuttoning her shirt, Michael slipped it down off her arms, trailing his fingers along the skin on the inside of her elbows and staring at her lips. “Yes.”

After shaking her hands free from her shirtsleeves, Nikita ran them gently over his shoulders and down across his chest, slipping her hands under his sweater and smiling when she felt his hiss in the contraction of his abdominal muscles. “Then, that’s our plan. Wing it once we have more intel.”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She nodded and reached for his belt buckle.

*****

Nikita stretched her back as she wiggled down against Michael’s chest, seeking a more comfortable position. The tub was shorter but wider than one Michael had once had, and it was nice and deep. The hot water and Michael’s strong fingers had washed away the grime of travel and the drugs were working and her brain no longer felt like it was trying to explode out her eye sockets. Breathing deeply she closed her eyes and said, “I had started to believe this day would never come.”

Michael was skimming his fingers gently across her shoulder. “I know.”

“You never did.”

“No.”

“How worried are you?”

Michael breathed deeply for a heartbeat or two, and then he said, “Let’s not talk about it now.”

Nikita thought about that for a moment, then twisted her neck so she could look up into Michael’s face. “What should we do instead?”

His answer was a kiss, followed by his hands running along her sides under the water, slick and sure as he reached for her inner thighs. He pulled her legs up and open, shifting his legs underneath hers at the same time, using his knees to trap her legs against the hard, smooth surface of the tub walls. Nikita made a sound caught somewhere between a smothered laugh and erotic moan as she felt his fingers tangle in her pubic hair. He tugged gently, stroking and playing long enough that she lifted her hips to push her cunt more firmly into his hands. She said, “Stop teasing.”

She felt as much heard his quiet laughter, but then he palmed her pubis and pushed his fingers inside her and she quit paying attention to anything else.

As the last tremors of her orgasm faded Nikita began rocking harder against Michael’s cock, rigid and thick against her lower back. His sharp groan made her smile. Sitting up, she turned and twisted, slipping around and over him, until she was facing him, straddling his lap.

With her eyes locked on his, she opened herself with one hand and guided him in with the other, flicking her thumb across the tip of his cock, slick with pre-cum, before flexing her hips and sinking down and onto him. With her hands on his shoulders for balance, she arched her lower back, angling to take as much of him in as she could, humming in satisfaction at the way he stretched and filled her. Still holding his eyes, squeezing her pelvic muscles tight around him, she said, “Sixteen years is a really long time for people in our line of work.”

He started rocking his hips, bracing her with his hands. “Yes.”

“It’s not enough.”

“No.”

“So don’t give up on us.”

“I never do.”

*****

Quinn watched Michael follow Nikita up the stairs, then she went into the salon and found Adam still working with a handful of Michael’s employees. They were grouped around several large computer screens, staring at a collection of maps.

“Hey,” she said.

Adam turned at her voice, and his tired face lit up with a bright smile as he straightened up. “Hey! I heard you’d shown up for babysitting duty.”

Quinn smiled back as she exchanged air kisses and a brief hug with Michael’s oldest child. “Which is a ridiculous waste of my talents.”

“Yes. But no one else could’ve kept my sisters upstairs all night. So, you would’ve spent all your time swearing at them anyway.”

Quinn laughed. “Too true.” Sobering up, she said, “What are you looking at?”

“Maps of the known locations of former ops overlaid with known current Section activity.”

Quinn looked at the map for a moment, then looked at Adam in surprise. “How many former ops do they keep up with?”

“Probably about half of the cold ops who survived the shut down. They know a lot less about the tech and support staff.”

“Why so many?”

“You’d be surprised, or,” Adam shrugged, “maybe not, at how many former cold ops ended up doing humanitarian relief work, at least for a time.”

Quinn thought about that for a moment then she shrugged and said, “From Nikita’s section? Maybe not.”

Adam smiled at her. “Exactly.”

“Michael said you have the notes?”

“And the summaries.” Adam turned to one of the laptops open on a smaller side table. “Everything is here. It isn’t organized as well as I’d like, but it’s the best we can do with the software we have.”

As she headed for the chair in front of the computer he pointed her to, Quinn said, “so, how’s it feel to be a full member of the team?”

“Scary as hell.”

Quinn looked sharply at him. Adam was a handsome young man, not quite as tall as his father, with olive skin and dark eyes that he must have inherited from his mother’s side of the family. His finer, smaller-boned frame and bicyclist’s lean, whipcord muscles might have made him seem less than fully consequential, but he had inherited Michael’s Roman nose and square jaw, and his imperious gaze. And perhaps his maternal grandfather’s charisma as well; at least based on what she could remember from old reports she had read long ago. Quinn could see that the experienced, trusted MSF operatives of Michael’s personal team were already responding to what had to be a genetic ability to issue instructions and have other people follow them with barely a token show of resistance.

She cocked her head and raised her brows. “And?”

Adam grinned and shrugged self-consciously. “And very exciting.”

Quinn nodded in satisfaction, then changed the subject. “So, bottom line. What do you think we’re looking at?”

Adam took a deep breath. “I think we’re looking at, and for, something that was very small and very localized at the time. Something so small that everyone thought it was completely dealt with then. But some element survived and some new, recent catalyst sent it into overdrive.”

“Makes sense.”

“Problem is, I’m worried, and I know they are too, that they can’t figure out what it is, because they don’t remember it, because whatever it was, it was so minor and unconnected at the time.”

“Nikita could barely see when she went upstairs. Are her headaches getting worse again?”

Adam shook his head. “No. Or,” he shrugged, “as far as I know anyway. She hasn’t had anything like this since her hospitalization four years ago.”

“As far as you know.”

“Or Izzy or Kate. They’d tell me.”

Remembering a series of adventures in Madagascar and then Paris that took place about two years ago, Quinn winked. “Well, the three of you together make a damn fine intelligence gathering unit, so, I think we’d know if they were trying to hide anything.”

She could tell from the quick flush on Adam’s cheeks that he remembered too. He almost smiled, but quickly sobered. “She’d tell you, right?”

Quinn shook her head. “Not necessarily.”

“Oh.” Adam frowned.

Quinn shook her head at him, and resumed her course for the computer. “Never mind that now. We’ll pursue that later, after we get out of whatever it is ahead of us tomorrow.”

After a seventy-five-minute review of all the data, Quinn had little to add to Adam’s assessment and suggested that they all needed to get some sleep. New intel would arrive in the morning and they should to be ready to respond to it. Adam and the remaining man and woman from MSF agreed. There was a general scraping and standing and stretching and groaning as they all headed upstairs after checking in with the night security team.

She looked in on the girls, relieved to find they were all five of them still sleeping soundly. Tapping on Nikita’s door a minute later brought no response so she pushed the door open as silently as possible, only to discover the lights were still on, the bed was still made and no one was there. Letting out an exasperated huff, she knocked on the bathroom door, quietly calling Nikita’s name. No one answered so she opened that door too, and found them.

They had fallen asleep in the bath. Or rather more likely from what she could see, Nikita had fallen asleep on top of him, her head on his shoulder and her body trapping his under hers, and Michael hadn’t wanted to wake her and ended up unintentionally dozing off himself.

Shutting the door behind her, Quinn strode over to the tub. Squatting down to shake them awake, she hesitated for a just moment, caught by the way sleep eased away the stress and the most dramatic signs of ageing in their faces. Michael’s hair and beard stubble were more grey than brown now, but asleep he otherwise could have passed for his much younger self, his tanned skin still firm and only the deep laugh lines around his eyes and mouth giving hints of his full life. With her face scrubbed clean, Nikita’s faint freckles stood out against her paler skin, and the faded purple shadows under her eyes were more obvious, and neither detracted from her soft cheek or the faintest of smiles on her full lips.

Shrugging off her brief descent into sentimentality, Quinn poked both of them sharply. “Psst! Wake up!”

Rewarded by both of them shifting irritably away from her prodding, she observed, “Post-coital drowning is an absurd death, even for you.” Smirking, she added, “Of course, given your hard-earned reputations for high-risk fucking, there is the black comedy factor.”

Michael opened his eyes, and then broke into a slow grin. “Best death profile yet,” he whispered.

Quinn sniffed, “Somewhat undignified.”

“Death is undignified.” Nikita’s low murmur made Michael laugh. He said, “So is sex.”

Nikita sat up slowly, and something about the way she moved left Quinn convinced she was still riding Michael’s cock. Michael’s laugh died and his eyes momentarily lost focus, so either he had still been hard or he was again now. Nikita reached out and wrapped her damp fingers in Quinn’s shirt as she said, “I prefer sex.” Then she pulled Quinn in and kissed her.

*****

When she entered the dining room just before six o’clock the next morning, Quinn found that Michael was awake, showered, shaved and had beaten her to the tables. With no one around to witness it and accuse her of going soft on Michael Samuelle, she felt free to return his warm hug, and even kiss him back. Once. Briefly. Even genuine affection for the man could only go so far.

Sitting down across from him a minute later, with a cup of coffee and a croissant and some fruit from the spread that someone had already set up on the buffet, she asked, “Have you seen my report?”

He nodded at the laptop computer in front of him. “Yes.”

“And?”

“I agree.”

Quinn said, “Internal politics.”

“Yes.”

“She’s just a pawn in someone else’s game. Again.”

“Yes.”

Quinn scowled. “Screw them.”

“I’d rather just kill them all.”

“Do you have the resources to cover up something that big?”

Michael scowled in turn. “No.”

“Too bad.”

“Yes.”

“Any new reports come in over night that might help?”

“Not really, mostly more confirmation for all the things we had already excluded.”

“Can I see it?”

“Of course.” He pushed the computer towards her and then rose to refill his coffee and get himself a plate of food.

After looking over the data, which as Michael had said, added nothing new, Quinn said, “That was an interesting map Adam put together last night.”

“Yes.”

“Not very helpful right now, but impressive all the same.”

Michael just grunted, absorbed in something he was scrolling past on his phone.

“I could fill it out further, and if you added intel from some others, like Jason, or Jasmine, or Mintz, it would be a valuable, and dangerous, file.”

Michael looked up sharply. After holding her eyes for a moment he said, “Sink the whole file, and destroy the drives.”

“You sure?”

Before Michael could answer, one of the men watching the front door stuck his head into the dining room. “Michael? There’s someone at the door who insists he has to speak with you, right now.”

*****

Nikita woke up feeling the mattress move as someone crawled onto the bed. Opening her eyes she said, “good morning baby,” and reached out to stroke Margaret’s hair.

“Hi Mom.”

Nikita squinted at the bedside clock, which read 6:17am. She said, “You’re awake earlier than usual.”

“I’ve been awake for an hour already. Can’t get back to sleep.”

Nikita lifted up the blankets. “Well crawl under the covers and get warm, maybe you can fall back asleep here.”

Margaret did as she suggested, snuggling down and saying, “where’s Dad?”

“Getting ready for our meeting today. He let me sleep in a little.”

Margaret rolled over and pinned her with an accusing glance. “Does your head hurt?”

Nikita ruffled Margaret’s hair and then stroked her face, savoring the feel of her satiny, still child-like skin under her fingers. She raised her brow and asked, “You know what the best thing about technological surveillance is?”

“No. What?”

“It doesn’t plague you with concerned questions.”

Margaret’s expression relaxed and she rolled her eyes. “Mom.”

Nikita leaned closer and kissed her forehead. “Try to go back to sleep. Before you know it we should be able to go home.”

Margaret obediently closed her eyes. “Okay.”

“I love you sweetie.”

As she settled further into the mattress, Margaret sighed out, “I love you too, mom.”

After swinging out of the bed, Nikita straightened the covers and pulled them smooth over Margaret, tucking her in and kissing her temple, whispering, “go back to sleep.”

She found some clothes, then slipped out of the room. Examining herself in the bathroom mirror a moment later, she decided she did look better this morning. Her eyes were clear, and she could focus, and her skin wasn’t as colorless or as puffy. She still looked tired, but that couldn’t be helped, only disguised later with cosmetics. She washed her face, brushed her hair and teeth, and then headed downstairs to see what the overnight intel had brought in.

She was half way down when Michael came out of the dining room, following one of his men to the front door, and trailed by Quinn. She had just reached the bottom of the stairs when Michael’s man opened the door to reveal Mick Schtopel dancing impatiently on the front stoop. As soon as he caught sight of Michael, he flung out his hands and cried, “Ah Michael! Good to see you again so soon! Sorry to be here so early, really I am, but it’s really, very, extremely urgent that I speak to you. Right now.”

Michael looked back at Quinn, and seeing Nikita caught her eyes too. After a quick, silent conference, Michael turned and nodded. “Okay.”

Mick stepped inside as Michael tilted his head to indicate the way, then he led the whole parade back to the dinning room.

Michael and Quinn resumed the chairs they’d obviously already been sitting in, leaving Mick standing uncomfortably in front of them. Nikita turned to the buffet to get herself coffee and a plate of food before she sat down in the open chair between Michael and Quinn. Kissing both of them in turn, lingering a moment longer on Quinn, she said, “good morning.”

Michael smiled briefly at her, laughter in his eyes, then turned to look at Mick, who was elaborately pretending to fight being shocked. Michael raised his brow said, “okay. We’re waiting. What’s so urgent?”

“Ah, well,” Mick rubbed his hands together, looked around the room nervously, rubbed his nose, then looked back to Michael and said, “well, yes. You see, I’d rather thought I’d just be speaking to you, you know,” Mick dropped his shoulder and mimed a bad boxer move, “mano a mano, you know?”

“No.”

“Okay then.” Mick took a deep breath, then plunged on. “I know this is a bit indelicate, but I have to know, to know what to tell you.” Mick stopped.

They all waited for a long beat. Then Michael said, “Mick?”

“I really, really hate that I have to ask you this question. You have no idea how much I hate it. I want to make that very clear, right up front.” He paused and looked at each of them in turn. Seeing their irritated nods, he looked straight at Michael and said, “Were you, ah,” Mick paused and grimaced one more time, “pleasuring the lovely Nikita around 4:30 this morning?”

When no one answered him, trapped as they were by the reality that was Mick, he plunged on, “you know, rogering the missus, giving her the old what for, banging-“

Nikita was hit by one of the more unwelcome waves of déjà vu of her life. She cut him off. “Mick. We get it.”

Mick shot her a helpless glare. “Seriously, I really, really hate that I have to ask, but I do.”

Quinn folded her arms across her chest. “You are a disgusting little man, you know this, right?”

Nikita exchanged a long incredulous look with Michael, who finally shrugged, looked at Mick and said, “Yes.”

Now truly exasperated, Quinn turned on Michael, “and you are apparently pathologically incapable of going soft. I am given to understand that this is a serious medical condition, and you should seek treatment as soon as possible.”

“Hush.” Nikita put her hand on Quinn’s arm. Looking across the table she said, “Mick. Your excuse better be really good.”

Mick sighed, and then glanced longingly at the empty chair at the table. Nikita said, “yes, fine, sit. And then start talking.”

“Coffee?” Mick asked as he pulled out the chair and sat down.

Feeling Quinn tense up preparatory to launching herself at Mick, no doubt to box his ears, Nikita gripped her arm and held her down. “Later,” she said.

“Okay.” Mick held up his hands in acquiescence. “Do you remember Section Four?”

Nikita frowned. “Section Four? Psy-ops?”

“Yes. You met one of their projects, years ago.”

Nikita blinked as she set down her fork with suddenly nerveless fingers. “Jerome? This is all about Jerome?”

“Yes. It is all about Jerome. All of it. In every way.”

Michael said, “Details, Mick.”

“It’s a long story. Could I please have some coffee, and maybe one or two of those lovely sticky buns? And perhaps some pink grapefruit?”

“Fine.” Nikita pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. “Talk.”

“When they rolled up the sections, they also shut down Section Four. Most of their projects were terminated, but a few were old enough and stable enough, like Jerome, to be humanely released into the world. To be tracked and studied of course. Jerome and his keeper, who was, in a particularly unfortunate coincidence, named Josephine, were for many years the great success story. Most of the others ended up permanently institutionalized.”

Michael raised his brows. “Were?”

“Yes. Josephine died of breast cancer almost five years ago.” Mick held up a spoon to avert any questions. “Yes, all that was possible was done, no expense was spared. But she contracted it before she was thirty. It was very aggressive and in the end, all was for naught.”

Quinn said, “So, Jerome was left alone.”

“Yes. Alone in every way. Josephine wasn’t just his keeper, she was his mentor and his mother, his sister, his friend, and from more or less the time they entered the world when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, his lover.”

Nikita exchanged wary glances with Quinn and Michael. Sex, love and grief weren’t a good combination, even for the most stable of minds. She set a cup of coffee and a plate of food in front of Mick before resuming her own seat.

Mick went on, “Until she got sick, they were doing well. She helped him stabilize and manage his gifts enough to operate outside of a completely controlled environment. In time, he was able to enter university and actually go to classes, finishing up a degree in just a few years. She eventually found a career of a sort of her own, caring for medical research animals, and I want you all to know that I’m really fighting the urge to wander off track here, and he was beginning to work on a graduate degree, genetics I understand, when she got sick. He dropped everything to care for her, and after her death his watchers were fully prepared to institutionalize him, but to everyone’s initial surprise he pulled himself together amazingly well.”

Nikita frowned. “Initial surprise?”

“Yes. Now we know why. He found a new focus object.” Mick turned his sharp gaze to Nikita. “Do you remember the Oslo Conference on women’s health you attended four years ago? You were on one of the plenary panels, about some of the new cancer vaccines?”

Nikita frowned. “Yes. I do.”

“There were photos.”

“Of course.” She shrugged. “There always are.”

“Jerome saw one with you in it. He’s been fixated on you ever since.”

“What? Why me?”

“As far as we can tell, you are literally the only other woman in his entire life with whom he has ever had any significant physical contact. And you were Section. Like him. Like his Josephine. He wants to go home, and he has decided that you, and the Sections, are his home. So he set out to systematically rebuild them.”

“Jerome did this?”

“Yes. Planting a suggestion here, an idea there, in the right minds, at the right time, and…”

Michael finished for him. “And men in power saw possibilities.”

“For what it’s worth, more than a few women as well.”

Nikita exclaimed, “Why didn’t he just pick up a phone and call me? I’m easy to find!”

“He isn’t sane, Nikita, and he wants to go home. All he remembered was that your code name was Josephine, which he decided was an omen. And when he began looking for you through the minds of his watchers, because to Jerome, that is the obvious place to begin and not, say, the internet, he learned that you were the last Operations. So it seemed to him that if he rebuilt the Sections, you, Josephine, would be recalled and would be there to take him in.”

“When did he realize that I’m a completely unsuitable candidate for the job? And, more importantly, that I don’t want it?”

“When he finally discovered your family.”

“What? That’s not a secret!”

“He didn’t think to look. Remember. Not sane. Never was. Also. Raised in a glass box.”

“So when did he realize that I’m married to Michael, and that we have children of our own?”

“When he figured out that he’d started more than he could control, and that the men with the money weren’t going to recall you. He demanded to know why – and they told him. About ten months ago.”

“I see.” Nikita titled her head as she considered Mick. She said, slowly, “The men who came to ask me to go back to the perch were sent by Jerome, and not by the Agency, weren’t they.”

“Yes.”

“Why couldn’t he control it better?” asked Quinn.

“He is, of course, much stronger now as an adult than he was as a child, but as far as we can tell, he can still really only affect one thing, or one person, at a time. And, more or less, whatever it is has to be within unassisted visual range. The closer to him, the more he can affect, and the further away the less control he has. And the more people or objects he tries to manipulate or read, and with more precision, the more erratic the results. So once the Sections really started taking shape – your plans, by the way, have been most helpful, love – there were too many people in too many places, with their own goals, agendas and plans.”

Quinn cut in, “So, his mommy and lover fantasies took a major hit when he realized she’s already married and has a litter of children with another guy.”

“Yes.” Mick grimaced in Quinn’s direction, then looked at Nikita again, “And the fact that you’re married to Michael….”

“Let me guess,” Michael said. “I’m the only other person alive who has ever had meaningful physical contact with Jerome.”

“Yes. Freudian daddy issues galore.”

“So, what’s going on now?”

“He got wind of your return to Paris and insisted that he needed to speak with you, with you both, and with your ‘other’ children. The people at Center and Oversight agreed that it might be best for all concerned to allow a meeting to go forward under controlled conditions.”

Nikita’s blood turned to ice. “Meaning, inside Section One.”

“Yes.”

She went on, “Our whole family.”

“Yes.”

Michael inclined his head and said, “Thank you Mick.”

Mick grinned broadly. “You’re welcome.”

Quinn said, “What?”

Nikita answered, “Mick tipped the lowlife.”

Mick faked some modesty. “Well, not him directly, one of his suppliers.”

Nikita smiled at him and held out her hand, which Mick took and gripped firmly. She said, “The message got through.”

“Hate to break up this unexpectedly horrifying love fest,” Quinn interrupted, “but what happened at 4:30 this morning that had you on our doorstep barely two hours later?”

Mick’s smile vanished and he pulled his hand back. “Jerome slipped his leash. We all knew where you were, you aren’t hiding, but now we’ve lost Jerome. We couldn’t think of what would have set him off in the middle of the night, our teams here reported nothing unusual happening. Which is when, having once been Nikita’s neighbor, you see,” Mick paused to share a conspiratorial wink with Quinn that made her sneer at him, “I recalled that 4:30 in the morning is not an unusual hour for, ah, nocturnal activities, if you get my drift, between the couple at the heart of Jerome’s obsessions. Which sent me here at the double quick to confirm, and then, with clearances in hand, to tell you everything.”

Quinn’s tone was very, very dry. “So. Jerome flew the coop when he sensed Mommy and Daddy fucking.”

Mick made series of uncomfortable and yet leering faces that made Nikita want to hit him upside the head, then he said, “Yes.”

Nikita looked at Michael, something tugging at the edge of her consciousness, and saw the same uncertainty in his eyes. Then she was on her feet even as Michael said, “the children.”

Michael was still faster than she was and he was half way up the stairs before she had reached the foot. He was inside the little girls’ room, sitting on Gabrielle’s bed and waking her up while pressing a wide-awake Sophie close to his side when Nikita flew past to the big front room Izzy, Kate and Margaret were sharing. Kate was still asleep, and Izzy was getting dressed when Nikita flung open the door. She said, “Get your sister dressed and into the dining room. Quickly.”

Then she headed for the room she and Michael had shared, willing Margaret to still be there, safely asleep in their bed. Behind her, she heard Michael and Sophie knocking on Adam’s door and Adam’s sleepy voice answering. Pushing the door open, she saw only an empty bed. Telling herself all would be well, she turned for the hall bathroom, only to see a confused member of Michael’s staff walking out and into Quinn’s glare. “Margaret?” Nikita said.

Quinn said, “not in my room.”

“Margaret?” Nikita called down the hallway.

There was no answer and the passage fell silent, the adults shooting tight, anxious glares in every direction. “Margaret?” she called louder. “Has anyone seen Margaret?”

“Mommy?” Sophie’s voice was quiet and frightened. “Margaret took Baron outside a few minutes ago. He needed to go.”

Michael said, “Everyone else, dining room,” as he pushed Sophie toward Adam and scooped up Gabrielle and gave her to Quinn. To another MSF staffer, who had just come up the stairs, he said, “Did you see Margaret take the dog out?”

“Yes sir. Eric and Karol went with her.”

“Do you know where they were going?”

“To the river walk, sir, it’s just a block over.”

Adam put his hands on Sophie’s shoulders, gently squeezing before letting go. He said to Izzy, “take her,” then he vanished into his room.

Michael plunged down the stairs, calling for his team, with the staffers at his heels, while Nikita turned to Quinn, who nodded and hustled the rest of their daughters after them, Gabrielle still in her arms and clinging to her neck. Nikita went to her room and quickly changed into street clothes. She was pulling on a coat as she rushed down the stairs, reaching the lobby as a fully dressed Adam and Michael met at the front door, a team of three with them. “Michael?”

Michael nodded and handed her the extra gun he was holding. The rest of the group was already armed. “Eric and Karol aren’t answering their phones. Quinn, Mick and five others are with the girls. Mick is calling his personnel for updates and reinforcements. J.B. is rounding up another team.”

Just then Quinn walked out of the salon and handed each of them an earpiece. “Here. They’re not military quality, but they will cover a two kilometer range.”

Michael called, “Mick? Anything?”

Mick appeared in the entry to the dining room, phone in hand. “Yes. They headed west on the river walk five minutes ago.”

Michael nodded at the group by the door. “Let’s go.”

They ran.

They all spotted the fallen bodies about a hundred meters in front of them as soon as they turned onto the river walk, but Adam got to them first, his father hard on his heels. They knelt and checked for life signs. Adam looked up as Nikita drew nearer. “Eric and Karol. Both dead. No sign of Margaret or Baron.”

Reaching Michael’s side, Nikita saw that Eric and Karol had died the same way she remembered Section operatives dying; blood leaking from their noses, mouths and ears, even, in Eric’s case, from the corners of his eyes.

Nikita stood up straight and turned slowly in a circle, taking in the environment around her as fully as possible. At last she came to a stop, looking up the street that led away from the river directly in front of them. She took a deep breath and, pitching her voice low and full, to carry as far and as clearly as possible, she called, “Jerome? Jerome? Can you hear me? It’s me, Nikita. If you want to talk to me, please call me. Or come to the hotel. Michael’s here too. We would both like to see you again.” She paused, but the only sounds she heard were the river and the noises of the city coming to life on a bright, sunny Saturday morning. “Jerome? Please don’t hurt Margaret. She doesn’t know who you are.”

*****
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