nell65: (by roulade)
[personal profile] nell65
For Jaybee:

L'aéroport d'Orly, Paris, France, Nineteen Years After the Events in “A Time for Every Purpose.”

“Daddy! Daddy! Hurry up! I see Baron’s box!” A child’s lilting voice rose briefly above the general clamor of mid-day arrivals and departures.

In a moment a little girl, no more than six or seven, appeared. She wove determinedly through the thinning crowd, her soft copper curls bouncing as she moved, dragging an older man by the hand. She was heading for the airy, sunlit end of the terminal where the airline workers deposited traveling kennels.



Once they were free of the crush near the center of the main concourse, the man halted. His worn khaki bush hat, pulled low over his forehead, obscured but did not hide his strong roman nose or his long, square chin as he scanned the area around them. “Gabrielle. Wait for your sisters.”

“But Daddy! Baron’s right over there!” Gabrielle wailed. She tugged impatiently on her father’s hand, trying to brace her pink plastic sandals on the slick polished floor. She waved desperately with one skinny, tan arm toward a large, travel-worn blue dog carrier. “Daddy!”

The carrier suddenly emitted a few loud and impressively deep barks.

The man was wearing rumpled, off-white trousers and a pale, soft cotton camp shirt, a costume adopted almost universally by European men working in the tropics of Africa or Asia. He bent his neck just enough to catch his daughter’s eye and repeated, in a very firm tone, “Wait.”

Gabrielle glared, then pouted, and then, with a slump of her shoulders she dropped her eyes and stopped pulling on his arm. Her own brightly printed sundress, red splashed with large, white flowers, also suggested that they were recently arrived from somewhere much warmer than Paris in February.

The man turned to look back in the direction they had come, searching the crowds behind them for the rest of their party.

After a minute or two a cluster of adults and children broke free and surrounded Gabrielle and her father. A considerable array of canvas bags and well-used hiking packs thudded to their feet as they drew to a stop. The group gradually resolved itself and a large family took shape; father, mother, five brightly dressed daughters, and a dark young man in his middle twenties. Gabrielle, more than a head shorter than the next largest girl, was obviously the youngest child.

A rapid exchange of many voices, speaking both French and English, followed. Then, permission apparently in hand, the three younger girls took off at a near run for Baron’s box, Gabrielle in the lead. Their excited cries quickly blended with a series of yips, whines and low, loud barks.

The mother, dressed like the father in well-worn khakis and a soft white cotton shirt rolled at the cuffs, was tall and slim and carried herself with the easy grace of an athlete. She wore brown leather thongs on her tanned feet and a straw hat partially covered pale blond hair tied up in a low, careless knot just at the nape of her neck.

The two oldest girls, teenagers both, were still standing with the adults. Obviously their mother’s daughters, they easily matched her in height and build; broad shoulders swaying over narrow hips, long tanned expanses of slender, well-toned arms and legs revealed by their short skirts and sleeveless shirts. Their long, straight, light-brown hair was streaked nearly white in places by lengthy exposure in the sun.

The younger man was also about the same height as the older couple, but unlike the woman or her fair, laughing daughters, he was dark, wiry and intense looking. He wore his hair very short, and his thick, level brows matched his deep brown eyes. He was clean-shaven, but signs of a heavy beard shadowed his cheeks and jaw. Then he turned his head, and it was instantly obvious from his profile that he was the older man’s son. Like his father, he wore a light camp shirt with rolled sleeves and light colored trousers. He had no hat.

The woman squatted down to rummage through the various knapsacks. She twisted her head up to laugh at something the dark young man said to his father, showing a flash of white teeth. She grinned fondly at them both, the corners of her generous mouth curling up in a broad smile, before turning back to her task, which turned out to be finding extra clothes for her younger daughters.

The three younger girls rejoined the party, Baron padding alongside. Baron was a giant, longhaired German Shepherd with a huge, dark head; almost large enough that Gabrielle could have ridden him like a pony. The volume of the group shot up as the three younger girls attempted to divert the attention of their parents away from their older siblings and toward themselves and their pet.

The woman rose to her feet, shrugged on a deep brown, many-pocketed jacket, and began distributing fleeces and leggings to her youngest children. She paused to help Gabrielle into hers, dropping a quick kiss onto her shiny curls before she straightened up. The man in white pulled on his own worn canvas coat and began ordering the distribution of the heap of packs and sacks. At his direction the dark young man, now wearing a heavy sweater and a scarf, went to get a luggage cart from a nearby stand and then collected Baron’s travelling box, stacking a few of the family’s smaller bags on top. Everyone else had just gathered up their remaining belongings and were preparing to move out, when a loud hail from further up the terminal startled them.

“Nikita! Hiya, Nikita!”

A bald, barrel-chested man with sharp, dark eyes and a wide grin erupted out from the crowds. His deep maroon jacket was cut in a style better suited to a much younger man. Three beefy, pasty-skinned men in dark trousers and thigh-length leather coats, something faintly military in their rigid bearing and close-cropped hair, trotted at his heels.

“Nikita!” The man in the eye-catching maroon coat cried again, flinging his arms wide in welcome as he hustled toward the family, now gone wary and still. “Nikita, my Love! Doll face! I can’t believe we didn’t get here to meet you at the gate!”

*****

For a timeless moment, Nikita could only stand frozen, blinking madly to clear away the fantastic image of a long dead Mick Schtopel bearing down on them, three rent-a-goons trailing in his wake.

It was Michael who reacted first, putting himself between Mick and Nikita, his voice low and firm as he said, “empty your hands.”

After the briefest of stunned hesitations, they all moved rapidly. Nikita stepped up to stand at Michael’s shoulder. Nine-year-old Sophie pulled Gabrielle behind them, into the center of the loose ring formed by her older sisters and Adam. Fifteen-year-old Isabella was on their left, eleven-year-old Margaret to their right. Katherine, at thirteen nearly as tall as Isabella, fell in behind the little girls. Adam tugged Baron’s lead from Margaret’s hands and took up a point position between the strangers and his father, his fingers wrapped securely around the already growling Baron’s collar. As they moved, everyone adjusted their shoulder straps or dropped their bags to the ground, kicking them aside to clear their paths.

Her adrenaline surging at the reality of a fast approaching Mick Schtopel, for unless ghosts were walking the streets of Paris in broad daylight it was definitely Mick Schtopel, Nikita firmly re-gathered her scattered wits and begin evaluating escape options. She knew if they could find an exit route, they had a good chance of making it. After a lifetime of travel through some of the world’s more dangerous places, their children had responded exactly the way she and Michael had taught them.

The quick rush of confidence steadied her just as Mick drew up in front of them. He kept a wary distance between himself and Baron. Baron was coiled on his haunches at Adam’s side, snarling and growling and clearly tensed for a chance to leap for the intruder’s throat.

“Well, well, well! Quite the family you have here, Nikita!” He glanced archly at Michael. “Your work, I presume?”

Michael didn’t dignify that with a response, so Mick sidled a bit until he was standing more or less directly in front of Nikita.

“Nikita, love! I know it’s been a long time, and we’ll have to have a coffee and catch up sometime soon – though I can see where you’ve put your time and energy, and to such fabulous effect too! Lovely girls. Lovely.”

Mick paused briefly, casting such obviously calculating glances at Isabella and Katherine that Nikita had to stifle the urge to break his neck on the spot, but then Mick rushed on, “Ah, no time now! We must get you back to your perch, Operations.” Mick heavily underlined the word with significant nod in Nikita’s direction. “We require your immediate presence.”

Ignoring the way her heart rate spiked still further with that old title hanging in the air, Nikita just shook her head and said evenly, “I’ve already told the others they sent no. It won’t change just because you’re here,” she paused and raised her brow, “Marty.”

Mick frowned at her, but otherwise ignored her taunt. “Ah, but, my dear, the terms of your leave of absence were quite explicit.”

Nikita crossed her arms. “A lot changes in sixteen years. Obviously.” She nodded her head in the general direction of her daughters. “I’m not going back.”

“It’s yours. You have no choice.”

“No, it’s not, and yes, I do.”

“Well, you know, love, yes it is. It doesn’t properly belong to anyone else, you see, for you were the last to own it. It falls back to you now.”

“Come off it, Marty.” It was petty, but she did like the way the name seemed to make him flinch. “It’s been up and running for months. You don’t need me now. You never did.”

“Nikita. Please.” Mick abruptly changed tactics, adopting his best hangdog expression of charming desperation. The same expression he had once used to wheedle her into spending an entire evening with him, waiting for his – no doubt fictional – mother. “It’s very important that you come with us now.”

This time Michael said no.

Mick dropped his sad, pleading face and returned his hard, bright gaze to Michael. “Ah, old man, I know! Difficult to give up the little woman again, just because duty calls, ain’t it? But you’ll be wanting to keep this lovely covey of birds safe now, won’t you? Let me see if I’ve got all their names right, shall I? Isabella? Katherine? Margaret? Sophie?”

Mick nodded at each of her daughters in turn. With each name, the heat from Nikita’s helpless fury that he should be here at all, much less threatening her children, spread further across her shoulders, then down her arms to the palms of her hands. Seemingly unperturbed by this, Mick ducked his head and waved cheerfully, “and is that little Gabrielle I spy? Hello my dear!”

Mick turned suddenly to stare at Adam. “And this young man must be Sala Vacheck’s grandson! Adam, yes? Don’t look much like your father do you? Must take after your mother’s people, hmm?”

Michael said, “Their names are widely known. Nikita can be of no use to you.”

Mick wagged his finger at Michael. “Once again, Michael, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree. For we need Nikita and none other.” Mick paused, as if debating with himself about what to say, then with a weary sigh and a tired shake of his head, he added, “and we may well need you too, before all is said and done, my old friend.”

Mick was quiet for a beat or two, staring at the ground and contemplating something none of them could see. But when he looked up, his bright smile was once again firmly in place. “Come on, come on! We need to go someplace calm and quiet to talk this through. Shall we leave? Please,” Mick raised his hands imploringly, and for one brief second, Nikita almost believed he was as genuine as he sounded, “let us have no unpleasant scenes?”

Nikita looked around once more, but seeing no avenue to safety, she opened her mouth to bargain with Mick, her compliance in exchange for her family’s escape, when another loud hail startled the little group.

“Michael! Michael! Thank heavens we’ve found you! The traffic was unbearable!”

Out from the crowd behind Mick and his glowering assistants burst a gray-bearded Frenchman, short, stout and broad shouldered. His battered hat and well-worn hiking boots gave him the indefinable air of a man who had spent much of his lifetime out of doors. He rushed over to Michael’s side, crying as he came, “Michael, my friend! I am so sorry we are late! Had a bit more trouble with security than we expected. When was the last time that happened, eh?”

Michael took the man’s outstretched hand and said, “You’ve made it in time.”

Nikita nodded gratefully at J.B., recognizing him as a potential diversion, when five more men and women slipped quietly out of the crowd and took up positions around her family. These newcomers were all slimmer, younger, taller versions of J.B. Their work pants and worn boots also testified to long hours out of doors. Their lean, hard faces suggested something of the same military past as Mick’s beefy goons. But there was no appearance of uniformity in their street clothing, the hue of their skin, or their hairstyles, which ranged from bald through in-need-of-a-cut to dreads. Like J.B., all of these younger people were familiar to Nikita and she let herself relax, just a tiny bit, in relief.

Michael and Mick exchanged a long cool stare, and then Mick dropped his head and opened his hands, conceding the moment with a light little laugh. “Well, Michael, it seems your formidable reputation as the director of security for Médecins Sans Frontières is as well deserved as was your previous one. You are one step ahead, as always. Perhaps we could arrange a meeting to discuss our needs later this evening, or tomorrow?”

Michael was silent for so long, Nikita wondered if he was going to deny Mick again and attempt to hustle them all out of the country. She knew it would never work, that there was no place to go and no place to hide, and she knew Michael knew the same. She was about to tell him so when he said, “Tomorrow morning. Nine o’clock. My office.”

*****

They watched in silence as Mick and his goons exited the terminal. Then Nikita said, “Michael?”

He turned to look at her, his expression, even shadowed by his hat, grim. “Not here.”

Nikita swallowed her impatience and nodded. What they needed to discuss was really not something for the open terminal at Orly airport. Directing her gaze to J.B., she smiled warmly, “J.B. Thank you.” She turned her head to include all six newcomers in her smile. “Thank you all.”

J.B. waved his hand as though he were batting at a troublesome fly. “It was nothing, and we were almost too late – something for which I’m sure you will have harsh words later, eh, my friend?”

J.B. shot a quick grin at Michael, who rewarded this weak sally with a faint upward twitch of his lips. “Yes.”

“Come,” J.B. went on, barely daunted by Michael’s response. “We must get you out of here. I’ve got two vans, one for you, one for your baggage. Should’ve brought a third for Baron, here, yes? I’d forgotten just how huge that beast is!” He turned to give Baron a cheerful smile. “Like a tame bear or a small horse, you are!”

J.B. laughed heartily at his own wit, and his warm deep rumble was like fresh breeze, blowing away the frozen tensions of the last few minutes. Everyone seemed to shake out their limbs, Gabrielle giggled, and even the usually serious Margaret smiled at J.B.’s teasing reference to her beloved pet.

“To baggage, then?” J.B. asked.

Michael nodded and the whole group, wary now and keeping their protective rings well in place as they moved through the halls, made their way down to where their baggage was travelling in an endless loop on a large, nearly empty carousel. The encounter with Mick had delayed them enough that most of the other passengers on their plane had claimed their bags and were making their way slowly through customs. The space around the carousel itself was now fairly open and their numerous items of luggage easy to spot.

Nikita stood a little way back, holding onto Sophie and Gabrielle’s shoulders. Margaret, who had regained Baron’s lead, stood with Nikita and the little girls, while Adam joined his father at the luggage carousel.

As Michael and Adam began heaving the large duffels onto the ground, Isabella and Katherine claimed some more empty luggage carts and pushed them over to begin loading them up. In a pause while they waited for more bags to reach them, Isabella, her voice clouded with worry, said, “Dad? What’s going on?”

Michael turned to look at his two oldest daughters, one nearly as tall as he was and the other who would be soon, and he smiled reassuringly. “Old business. Nothing you need to worry about.”

Isabella crossed her arms and fixed her father with a rather hard stare. “Dad.”

Michael sighed, and then said, “This is not the place to explain. Be patient.”

He reached out and gently touched Isabella’s arm as they stood together in front of him, his expression serious as he looked back and forth between them. “We’re good at this. Your mother and I will take care of it.”

In Nikita’s opinion, Isabella and Katherine did not look fully convinced that this was so, but they both nodded and turned to seize more bags as they trundled by.

By the time sixteen large bags were pilled up on five carts, J.B.’s eyebrows had nearly disappeared under the rim of his hat. He glanced dramatically around the group and then said, in a tone of mock chastisement, “had it not been for the bully boys by the entrance, my friend, I would have suspected you of wanting nothing but porters today.”

Michael shrugged and adopted an expression of long-suffering, saying, as though it explained everything, “ les femmes.”

His three eldest daughters immediately cried, “Dad!” and Baron let out a low “woof!” at the noise.

Everyone laughed at that, even Michael managed a short-lived grin. Then their group headed for customs and their vans.

They were waved quickly through customs, national pride giving the French director of security for Médecins Sans Frontières something dangerously close to a free pass through French security. Normally this irritated Nikita and Michael both, as unbearably sloppy and unprofessional; today she had no quarrel with their speed.

It was only a short hike to the vans, for J.B. had managed to park unconscionably near the terminal, no doubt waving his MSF badge at everyone in sight. But again, as that had placed the vans under the steady surveillance of the Orly airport security as well as the two drivers, today Nikita was grateful for the privileges. Quickly flinging open the doors, three of J.B.’s squad filled one with their luggage while two others pulled out a small, battered pair of duffels and began discretely distributing handguns.

Sophie and Gabrielle regarded this development with unblinking calm, having traveled under armed escort most of their lives and hardly remembering the last time they lived in Paris. But Nikita saw that her three oldest daughters all immediately recognized the unusual nature of doing this here, in the heart of France. As she grimly accepted a gun herself, she saw their faces grow pinched with worry as they darted looks of increasing alarm back and forth among themselves.

J.B. asked, “Where to?”

The whole party turned to look at Michael, waiting for his direction. Michael looked at Nikita, and she said, “Left Bank?”

Michael nodded and gave the drivers their instructions.

Nikita had been looking forward to getting resettled into their big, airy apartment, but she knew that it was now hopelessly compromised. They would probably have to give it up altogether because they would never be able get rid of all the spyware.

So, instead of heading home after a very long trip, they were off to find a small, randomly chosen hotel. They needed a secure location to figure out what had set Center on her back and to plot her escape, plot all of their escapes.

Seeing this exchange, Margaret cried in a voice full of shocked dismay, “we’re not going home?”

Nikita turned her head to look at her middle daughter. “No honey, we can’t. Not today.”

“But…but…I don’t understand!” she wailed, her pale gray eyes wide and suddenly glassy with angry, panicked tears.

Nikita exchanged a quick glance with Michael, who was already on the phone with someone, no doubt an informant of one sort or another, and she read his mute appeal to calm their middle daughter herself. Nikita looked at Sophie and Gabrielle. “Go get in the van, girls. Iz,” Nikita looked up, half in command, half appeal to her oldest daughter, “will help get you settled.”

Seeing Isabella nod, Nikita released Sophie and Gabrielle and gave them a gentle push toward their sister. With the youngest girls moving obediently to Isabella’s outstretched hands, Nikita stood and turned to face Margaret.

*****

Dropping her arm across Margaret’s shoulders, Nikita pulled her around the end of the vans, where they could have a bit more privacy. Margaret had grown over the previous six months, and the top of her pale blond head reached just below Nikita’s shoulder. Despite the color of her hair and the sprinkling of freckles across her nose, Margaret of all their children most clearly took after Michael. Her hair, despite being blond, was thick and wavy like his, and she had his high broad forehead and long square chin under a beak of a nose, all still a little too large for her. She was a fit, active child, but Margaret also had Michael’s solid, muscular body-type, and it was already clear that her figure was going to be fuller than her older sisters’. So she would stand in front of mirrors along side Isabella or Katherine and announce that she was fat, fat, fat, and nothing could kill her notion that she was, as she had once phrased it to Nikita in a fit of agonized crying, a ‘bulldog in the middle of grey hounds.’

Out of compensation, or personality, or most likely some self-reinforcing combination of the two, Margaret had gravitated to a jocky, tom-boy presentation and even now was wearing faded jeans, beat-up sneakers and an old, washed-out, Real Madrid sweatshirt. She was an incredibly aggressive, talented football player and during their just-finished year in Cambodia had played on a boys’ team an age rank up from her own.

Of all her children, Margaret was the most easily thrown off balance by the unexpected, the one who most longed for what she called a “normal” life and most resented her family’s peripatetic journeys through the world’s worst trouble spots. When Margaret was eight, they had spent nearly a year in Paris and she had ever since looked back on this as a period of civilized sanity in an otherwise crazy universe. Her conversation for the last eighteen months had been so heavily peppered with the declaration, “this would never happen in Paris!” that even Michael’s near inexhaustible well of patience began to run dry and he actually interrupted her more than once before she could finish the sentence.

Ever since Mick’s departure a tendril of worry for Margaret’s reaction to their changed plans had been weaving through Nikita’s consciousness. Looking down now at Margaret’s furious scowl, that tendril burst into full, hideous flower. Nikita visualized Mick painfully dead on the side of a dark road, long ago and in a different place. It soothed her a little, even though it did nothing to relieve Margaret’s crushing disappointment or help them out of their current predicament.

When they reached an area of relative quiet, Nikita drew Margaret around in front of her, so she could look her in the eye. “I know how much you were looking forward to getting settled in our apartment. I was too! But right now it just isn’t a good place for us to be.”

Glowering, Margaret crossed her arms over her chest. “Why not?”

“Because we need to find a place where Dad and I can put our heads together, privately, and figure out what’s going on.”

“About that man.”

“Yes.”

Margaret frowned accusingly at Nikita. “Why does the Section want you back so badly?”

Nikita blinked in surprise that Margaret had put it all together so quickly. She said, “It’s not important now, because I’m not going back to work for them.”

“Why? Would it be so bad?”

Forcing down another rush of angry panic, Nikita replied as calmly as she could, “Yes, Margaret. It would. It would be very, very bad.”

Nikita nearly closed her eyes against the slight tremble of fright in Margaret’s voice when she asked, “Can he make you?”

She made her voice as firm and sure as years of training could make it. “We won’t let him.”

Margaret flicked her eyes to Nikita’s waistband, where Nikita had tucked away the weapon she had been handed. “Is that why you have a gun now?”

“Yes.”

Margaret dropped her gaze to her toes. When she looked up at Nikita, it was with eyes old beyond her years. “You can’t just say no and then we can all go home, can you?”

“I’ve already said no several times. He obviously doesn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer. There is too much to explain and this isn’t the place. Margaret, I need you to be strong, because things are going to be pretty crazy for a while, for all of us. We need you to do exactly what we tell you, just as if we were in the bush, or in a war zone.”

“But, . . .but, Mom!” Margaret’s momentary flash of adulthood vanished. She waved a jerky hand around, taking in a wide circle around them, and said with a child’s incredulous anger, “this is Paris!”

“I know, honey.” Nikita couldn’t help but chuckle a little at Margaret’s open resentment and shock, for a part of her felt exactly the same way. “I know. We are all just going to have to roll with it for a while.” She gripped Margaret’s shoulders reassuringly. “I know you can do that. Okay?”

Margaret thrust out her lower lip, but nodded, and with her voice breaking on swallowed tears said, “Yeah. I guess I can. I just… I wanted to go home, you know?”

Nikita pulled Margaret close and hugged her tight, resting her cheek against the top of Margaret’s head and whispering, “Yeah. I know. Me too.”

At first Margaret was rigid in Nikita’s arms, but after a few seconds she let go her tension and slumped against Nikita with a muffled half-sob, wrapping her own arms tight around Nikita’s waist in a return hug as fierce as it was desperate.

Margaret was just stepping back when Adam came round from the other side of the van. Catching Nikita’s eye, he offered her a quick reassuring smile before he turned his gaze to his sister. “Hey Maggie May. Would you come ride in the second van with Baron and me? He’s picked up on the tension and his growling is scaring Dad’s staff.” Adam sighed dramatically, “Again.”

Margaret smiled gratefully at Adam. “Sure. No problem!”

“We can check the football stats once we get going; yesterday’s results are all available now.”

“Awesome!” Margaret high-fived her brother, then vanished around the van in the direction Adam had come.

From the time he had offered to walk for hours, carrying a colicky baby in an infant sling and singing along with a staff member’s Rod Stewart tracks, Adam had shown a special talent for soothing Margaret. He’d been a gangly fourteen year-old then, and preferred comforting an infant to the comparatively far more exhausting task of chasing after then four year old Isabella and two year old Kate. Nikita knew that long, hot, humid summer in Thailand would have been far harder without his good-natured help. He was twenty-five now, but he still seemed to have a sixth sense for when Margaret needed a little extra attention. She said, “You’re an awesome big brother.”

Adam assumed one of his better smug expressions. “Yeah. I am.”

Nikita buffeted his shoulder. “Shall we discuss, again, the wisdom of telling ghost stories to Sophie right before bedtime?”

“She asked!”

“Next time, I’m sending her to sleep with you in the middle of the night.”

“Okay. Next time!” Adam grinned again, then turned to follow Margaret.

“Adam?”

He looked back at her.

“Thank you.”

He waved his hand at her and disappeared around the side of the van.

*****

Crawling into the seat Katherine had reserved for her a few moments later, Nikita looked around at the little girls as she pulled off her hat. Facing forward again, she said, “Michael? We need to stop for a meal as soon as we can.”

Michael, sitting in the middle of the first bench, his own hat now on the seat beside him, turned and looked back over his shoulder. His quick glance slid over their children’s strained faces before focusing on her. “Do you still have anything with you?”

“Only a few crumbled granola bars.”

Michael was silent for a moment, and then called out, “what would you like to eat?”

As one Sophie and Gabrielle began crying, “McDonalds’s! McDonald’s!”

Katherine scowled and said, “that’s not very French,” even as Isabella called from the back, “doesn’t matter to me, Dad. Whatever you think best.”

The chorus of “McDonalds’s!” reached a crescendo and Isabella reached over to ruffle Gabrielle and Sophie’s hair, hushing them softly as she did so. “McDonalds’s is fine, mom. Really.”

After consulting the location finder on his phone, Michael said to the driver, “There is a McDonalds’s with an auto-window a few blocks out of our way.”

Sophie and Gabrielle cheered this declaration and Katherine sighed theatrically, though Nikita knew that with the unquenchable hunger of a thirteen-year old she would eat everything she asked for and more, if anyone else ordered more than they could eat.

Michael sank back into his seat after giving the driver the exact address. Nikita leaned forward and clasped his shoulder, his flesh firm and comforting under her hand. She whispered quietly into his ear, “Thank you.”

She knew how much he detested the fast food chains, not only as an insult to local cuisine around the globe but also because as he’d inched deeper into his middle-fifties, he couldn’t tolerate it very well and it often made his stomach cramp up. It would also send the little girls into a salt and sugar high followed by a major crash, but the immediate calorie and carbohydrate injection would be worth it.

Michael reached up and put his hand over hers, pulling her fingers around so he could press a kiss against her knuckles. Turning his head slightly so he could look at her, he said, “It should entertain Mick.”

Nikita snorted despite herself. Wrapping her other arm around him, she squeezed his fingers and leaned her cheek against his; relishing as she always did the feel of his skin on hers, even with two day old stubble and the faintly sour smell of more than twenty-four hours of travel time behind them. In a voice only he could hear, she said, “You are a terrifying man and an excellent father.”

“Yes.”

Nikita hugged him tighter and kissed his jaw before whispering, “I love you.”

Leaning back in her own seat, she scrabbled for pen and paper in her bag and then started taking food orders.

*****

Almost exactly nineteen years earlier, Nikita had said good-bye to Michael and Adam in a train station in Paris and watched them walk out of her life. At the time, she had been certain that if she ever saw either of them again, it would be decades into the future. She told herself it would have to be enough to have said ‘I love you,’ and heard Michael say the words in return, and known them to be true.

She had re-entered a Section in complete disarray, reeling from the loss of too much senior personnel in too short a time, and turning in on itself in a frenzied panic. So, just as Paul and Madeline had done after the disastrous theft of Section’s directory file in her first year as a probationary operative, and again after the destruction of their entire facility two years later, she focused on getting everyone moving as quickly as possible. She had Jason and Quinn comb the system for as many high-success missions as they could find, priorities be damned. They sent out their few fully functional teams and teams that were badly fractured by loss of both members and confidence, filling in new people as they finished their training, and recombining and closing and redefining substations as they went. Every team got twelve to twenty-four hours rest before she handed the team leaders new assignments, enough to recover physically, not enough to start thinking ahead.

Flash missions continued to crop up, of course, and Nikita regularly fielded hysterical demands from the latest Agency mouthpiece that she respond to some crisis situation or another. At first she had tried to actually achieve whatever outcome the Agency asked for. Sometimes things broke their way and the Section achieved closure, other times the hastily profiled, over-ambitious missions blew up in their faces.

Then one night, dragged from her bed by yet another exhausted Agency operative, she realized that they had no idea what outcome they wanted. They simply wanted a response, any response, to the situation. Armed with that insight, she had her profilers design flash missions that Section could accomplish, regardless of whether or not they addressed exactly whatever the Agency said they wanted. If anyone at the Agency noticed, no complaints ever made their way to her.

Gradually confidence and calm returned and within six months she was once again in a position to start thinking about priorities and long-term goals.

Only, she didn’t have any. Section was a hammer that pounded every nail it saw, but built nothing.

When she approached her senior contact at the Agency, wondering quite belatedly why Center had not yet offered any long-term policy guidance, she finally learned what had been keeping the Agency and Center in a state of chaos and producing its musical-chair leadership.

They were running out of money.

The primary backer of the Sections since their founding had been NATO, and at the heart of that, the United States. But the U.S., stung by the most dramatic instance of foreign terrorism on their soil in their history, and without the strong countervailing weight of confident and sure Agency leaders, was pulling in all its resources and circling the wagons. The then President and his advisors were determined to make their own decisions about their own security unhampered by what they perceived as the general spinelessness of their long-time allies; or hidden agencies over whom they had no direct control.

The Agency and the Sections were surviving only by raking up long lists of dead terrorists. Ironically, Nikita’s strategy to improve Section One morale by sending her operatives out to kill whomever they could kill successfully, as opposed to whomever might be most strategic or significant, had been all that was keeping the Agency’s funding intact.

Then the United States went to war in Iraq. The day Saddam Hussein was pulled out of a pit in the ground, unshaven and bewildered, Nikita retreated to her quarters and laughed until she cried and cried until she was sick, vomiting up all the anguish she had endured over Paul Wolfe’s efforts to hold back the darkness and save civilization by propping up another nasty, small-time dictator.

Civilization did not fall with Saddam Hussein.

But the Sections did.

The U.S. government was desperate for cash to pay for their activities in the Middle East. The black money that had fed the Sections for decades was an obvious source of funds. Confident that their efforts had successfully shifted the mantle of fighting terrorism to their own shoulders, and in many distressing ways quite oblivious to the extent and reach of the Sections, the U.S. pulled the plug and the lights went out.

It hadn’t been quite that dramatic, of course. Nikita had been given almost a year to shut the Section down, successfully arguing, along with the heads at the Agency, Center and the other Sections, that simply vanishing would create too great a gap in global security, one that the U.S. was simply not yet ready to fill on its own.

At first she had been terrified that the Agency would demand that she exterminate everyone who had ever been a part of the organization, killing them off one by one as their jobs were eliminated. But they didn’t. She was told that it was entirely up to her how she closed the Section. At that point, those at the Agency hadn’t even wanted to know that they knew about the Sections and their work, much less that they knew what had happened to them.

Anxious for someone with more experience than she or Quinn or Jason had to bounce her ideas off of, she searched out Michael and asked him to review her plans.

It had taken almost an entire precious month to find him, and when she eventually did she was shocked to the core and yet, in some way utterly unsurprised. He was in the hell that was Liberia in those years, in Monrovia, providing security for the intrepid volunteers working for the Medicines Sans Frontiers hospital there. To her outraged dismay, he even had Adam with him. When she demanded to know what possessed him to endanger Adam like that, he told her he owed a debt to the director of the hospital, and was now in a position to pay it back. He also informed her that Adam was better off with him regardless of where, than alone with strangers, even in a safe place.

Michael had refused to come to her and abandon the responsibilities he had taken on, so she took a security team and went to him.

Over the course of two long days they refined and solidified her plans for closing down Section One and re-integrating as many operatives as they could into the outside world.

She had wanted desperately to spend the one night with him, in his bed and in his arms, but been afraid to ask after their first, very public, meeting. She had flung her arms around him, so glad to see him alive and well and healthy in front of her she wanted to laugh with joy despite the place and the circumstances. He had returned her embrace, but with enough hesitation and surprise that she had not been certain if he was being polite or if he really wanted to hold her. She did go a little glassy eyed, from embarrassed relief, and from overwhelming lust, when he held out his hand to take her to his quarters at the end of that first, long day.

In the deep black night of a city without power, wrapped tightly in each other’s arms despite the heat, they also made whispered plans and promises about her future, about their future.

While she had to make various adjustments to her profiles as a result of circumstance and better information, the framework she had prepared with Michael’s help stood the test of time, dictating almost all of her actions over the next ten months.

The Agency was also shutting down, so, much to her satisfaction, she heard very little from them over that time period. She was only weeks from walking away forever when they asked her to come in again. It was at that meeting that she learned that the Agency, once again, had new leadership and as a result, once again, had changed course. It wasn’t shutting down so much as it was going dark; they were planning to keep the Agency alive by hibernating with a skeleton staff, ready and waiting to be revived when the world changed again.

Her superiors had informed her that she was to consider herself on leave, not released, from her position as Operations, and the last thing they wanted from her was a plan to restart the Sections if that time ever came. Disappointed, but too exhausted by the demands of trying to meet the same threats with ever fewer resources to be surprised, Nikita had complied – drawing up plans that relied on Section hardware and installations and ideal operating conditions, but required entirely new personnel. She submitted her plans believing that they would be ignored when the time came, and determined that she would have no part of some re-booted Section One.

With the Sections closed and most of their old opponents fully occupied by playing cat and mouse with U.S. intelligence and military operations, Nikita hugged Walter, Jason and Quinn goodbye, then booked a ticket under her own name and flew directly to Michael’s side.

*****

By the time Nikita joined him, Michael was no longer in Monrovia. The intervening months had seen some improvement in Liberia’s stability, and with a solid team in place there, Michael had moved on. He was overseeing security for MSF hospitals in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both countries were in a state of near total breakdown then, and various factions struggling to gain a hold in the post-Hussein Middle East increasingly came to view aid workers as acceptable targets. Because MSF and other humanitarian agencies and personnel were being explicitly targeted in Iraq and Afghanistan both, MSF leadership had contacted Michael directly and asked him to do for their facilities there what he had done on an independent basis for the director of the hospital in Monrovia.

Nikita found the irony of the two of them – of all people – taking part in attempting to reconstruct Iraq painfully funny, and at the same time deeply significant. In the few quiet times during the frantic months of closing the Section, she had considered her own future and she had decided that Michael’s work with MSF was an omen. She would put aside killing in favor of healing, slowly earning her way to redemption with every life she helped patch back together. There was really no more satisfying place to begin that task than Iraq. That every day, and every small success, felt like a quiet ‘up-yours’ to Paul and Adrian both, was just that little extra zing that made every task a little bit sweeter still.

Despite the very real dangers and too many heartbreaking losses, Nikita loved the first years they spent with the MSF. She threw herself into the work at the MSF hospitals, doing everything from cleaning floors to bookkeeping. She eventually focused her attention on nursing, training by mail and by internet and under the supervision of the professionals on the staff. Quite serendipitously she also became involved with some United Nations sponsored initiatives addressing women and children. With time, she found ways to combine her interests by focusing on public health policy and preventative care.

During those years people she met often asked her why she didn’t go to school and pursue a degree in her field, but this option had never appealed to her. She couldn’t imagine why she should want to leave Michael and Adam to go to school, and said so. Having, by an utterly unexpected twist of fate, the opportunity to live openly and freely with the partner she loved was a gift too precious to ever abandon, no matter how noble the goal.

She and Michael married within days of her arrival, in an untended garden in full bloom under a bright afternoon sun. Cliché though it was, it was the happiest day of her life.

And the nights, the long hot nights when they discovered and rediscovered the joy they found in each other, kept them both on a sex-fueled high that lasted for months, up through the birth of their first child and beyond.

Nikita also learned, to her delighted surprise, that she relished being pregnant. In the bad years at Section, she had both loved and deeply resented her body. Madeline’s welcome to Section made it clear to Nikita that she was initially valued for her body alone, recruited for it alone, as if it was a thing separate from herself, and she had blamed it for trapping her in the Section. And Section used her body. If she never, ever again heard the phrase “he has a weakness for tall blondes,” it would be too soon. It would never compensate for all the humiliating and degrading things she had been asked to submit to in the pursuit of the Section’s agendas, or the contempt she had learned to feel for the appetites of men.

At the same time, she had loved her body. She was tall and strong and supple and even in the intensely macho environment of the Section, with speed and skill and talent on her side she was more than a match for any operative there. Over the years she had honed her body with constant and intense exercise, finding peace in the physical exhaustion itself and security in knowing she was a formidable athlete at the peak of her form.

In Iraq she discovered that her body was far more remarkable that she had ever imagined. Watching herself grow and change in the mirror, free from any morning sickness and feeling the first faint stirring and, later, the determined thumping of new life inside her was the most fascinating, most powerful thing she had ever experienced with her body. It also left her feeling unbelievably aroused, literally bursting with life; feelings Michael supported and encouraged with abandon.

She once teased him about keeping his pregnant-lady kink a secret from her, and he smiled his slow, sweet smile and told her he hadn’t known he had one until now, until her, and she thought she might well die from loving him so much. Only to learn the spring following her arrival in Iraq, when she stared into the tiny face of her newborn daughter, that she had never known what it was to fall headlong, permanently, unquestioningly, and forever in love.

The only dark cloud over those first years was Adam. When she joined them in Iraq, Adam was a wary, quiet nine-year old, clinging to his father as the only rock in his unstable world. It proved quite difficult for him, and for Michael, dealing with his own issues of guilt and regret and fear, to let a new person into their relationship. Nikita finally decided, difficult as it was for her to do, that the only way she could make headway with Adam, and through him Michael, was by backing off and proving as stable and reliable as his father was. The first time Adam hugged her of his own accord, more than a year and a half after she and Michael married, was moment of triumph forever engraved on her heart.

Once begun, their family grew steadily in the years that followed. This was a source of great happiness and sometimes burning frustration for Nikita. They moved regularly as Michael acquired ever-greater responsibilities within MSF for protecting and securing their humanitarian and relief efforts world wide, making it difficult for her to give her own work the attention it deserved and at the same time, meet their own needs, or those of their children. She and Michael had decided early on that ten days – a compromise number resulting from many heated discussions – was the longest either of them would travel away from the family, and that one of them would always be with the children. If he needed more time to inspect various MSF missions or to establish a new one, they all went with him. If she needed more than ten days to attend training or conferences, once again, the whole family came. This kind of mobility made pursuing her own work so difficult that she came close to simply giving it up more than once, only to have Michael convince her not to, and to redouble his own efforts to help her maintain her own career.

For many years, they also had to deal with the challenge of long-time MSF workers who resented the need for armed security, and as a result, resented Michael and Nikita. They viewed armed guards as a nearly mortal affront to the very humanitarian impulses and principles that created their organization in the first place. At the same time they had thought Michael and Nikita recklessly oblivious to real danger as they carted their young family around to many of the world’s most damaged locations. Michael had responded to both sets of criticisms with a raised brow, a cool stare, and a roll of his shoulders.

It had been up to Nikita to explain to their critics that they felt more secure if they were all together, regardless of the circumstances, and that a gun was no more and no less a tool than a scalpel, and increasingly just as vital to the work MSF was doing. She left it to them to work out for themselves that a chief of security who traveled with child seats in his Land Rover was maybe not so far removed from their core mission as they feared. Eventually, MSF staff and volunteers had made their peace with Michael and his teams, and found it in their hearts to embrace his children. One unexpected consequence of this was that in many ways their children were being raised in the midst of an extremely large extended family of interventionist-minded adults, something that had resulted in turning them into worldly wise, sophisticated, and generous busybodies. They never met a problem for which they couldn’t think of a solution, and Michael and Nikita had long since grown used to having the family pulled into one adventure or another through the earnest efforts of one of their children to live up to the ideals of the adults around them.

It had been, for her and for Michael, a remarkable life. It wasn’t conventional; they had never owned a mini-van, or a house with a picket fence, or a dog as harmless as a cocker spaniel, but they had been together. They had children of their own. They had found a way put their skills and their knowledge to work saving every life they could.

It was a life that Nikita was determined to protect with every resource she could command.

*****
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