Nikita walked quickly into Section, only the years of training keeping her from running. The phone had rung in the middle of the night and she had reached for the phone, knowing without a doubt she'd hear Michael's voice telling her to come in. Instead it had been Madeline saying "Josephine," and the shock had made her hold onto the phone long after the call had ended. Why had Madeline called? She glanced around and noticed none of her usual team was on duty. Birkoff? Walter? Michael?
She stopped in front of Madeline's office and pulled herself together. Just because the woman could read her like a book didn't mean she had to make it easy for her. With a deep breath, she knocked then entered.
"Nikita, I'm glad you could make it."
Did I have a choice, Nikita thought irritatedly But aloud she merely said, "Is something wrong?"
"Why do you ask?" the older woman parried calmly.
Nikita gave up. "Michael usually calls me."
"I have a problem." Madeline noted the mixture of surprise, confusion, concern, and wariness cross the operative's face. Nikita had come a long way in her training. Yes, she still had too much heart but she had learned to temper it with a healthy dose of suspicion. The combination would serve Section well. "There is a child, a prodigy really, who is in danger because of her potential. She already possesses the knowledge of renowned scientists and professors. Suffice it to say, the wrong people want to control her so Section has decided to give her protection."
"Meaning Section wants control of her themselves," Nikita interpreted, earning a proud smile from Madeline. "Why am I here? Control is your job, isn't it?"
Madeline gave a small shrug, admitting nothing. "I am having trouble connecting to this young lady. She is seven but has the mind of a thirty-year-old. I cannot reach her as a child nor an adult."
"Where are her parents?"
Madeline held out a data disc. "Dead. Since the age of two she has been raised by an uncle who was also a genius. He kept her isolated to nurture her unique mind without interference. Unfortunately, he was killed in an attempt to kidnap the girl. She has no other relatives or friends."
"Why am I here?" Nikita repeated, slipping the disc into her pocket.
"I think you could become her friend, convince her to let Section take care of her. There is an excellent academy we could send her to where she would not only be safe but her mind would be sufficiently challenged as well."
Nikita stared openly at Madeline. "What do you mean 'convince her to let Section take care of her'? She has a choice?"
"It would be best for all concerned if she looked at Section kindly."
Ah, Nikita thought, finally getting the picture. So this is how Section recruited the best of the best. They seduced them at an early age so that when they were at the top of their game, they would willingly become pawns of Section. Since geniuses couldn't be as easily replaced as operatives, cancellation wasn't the best threat to hold over them. And, no doubt, if a genius wasn't completely loyal, he or she could wreak havoc. "Why do you think I can get next to her if you can't?"
"You have a certain honesty about you, Nikita. That is one of the qualities about you that irritates Operations. But, perhaps, it is the one thing that will draw Angela to you."
"Angela," Nikita repeated the name softly. Could she do this to an innocent child? Place her into the hands of Section without a blink, knowing what Section would eventually do to her? Depending on the girl's talents, she would either be creating new ways to kill or alternative ways getting the truth out of people. And she would have no choice in the matter. She, Nikita, would be responsible for forcing the child into that kind of life. But, apparently, Section wasn't the only organization wanting Angela. Perhaps, it was a case of delivering the prodigy into the hands of the devil she did know. "I don't know if I can be of help, but I will try. Where is the child?"
Nikita flew to her feet. "You put a seven-year-old child in that awful room and you expected her to cooperate?" She headed down the hall in a flash, shivering as she remembered regaining consciousness in that sterile, cold room. Poor Angela.
Madeline blinked as Nikita left, wondering if she should call and clear the way for her. No, she decided. This was now Nikita's assignment. It would be interesting to see how she would handle it on her own.
Actually there was little to handle. There was an agent guarding the door whom Nikita didn't know. But she told him she was going in and when he tried to stop her, he came up on the wrong end of a move Michael had taught her a few days ago. She opened the door and her eyes had to adjust to the bright light before she saw the child huddled in a corner. Without thinking about it, she swept the little girl up into her arms and went out the door. It was obvious the room had traumatized her and she needed to be somewhere comforting. As if there were a place like that in Section One. Then she realized where she always went when she needed comfort. It was a place she felt safe, even when she and the occupant were in the middle of a personal battle or two. Stepping over the still comatose operative, she headed toward that special haven.
She wasn't surprised to see his head pop up from the computer screen when she barged into the office. "Working late as usual, Michael?"
"So are you," he said, never betraying his curiosity.
She settled her bundle onto the sofa and smiled at the child who hadn't said a word through their short journey. "Hi, Angela. My name is Nikita."
The girl stirred and looked around. The office was nearly dark, only the lamp on the desk lit. "This is nicer than the other place."
"I know, dear heart. Are you hungry? How about milk and cookies, yes? Michael, some milk and cookies." The girl whispered softly and Nikita smiled. "Chocolate chip cookies, please."
Michael was standing outside the door before he realized he was blindly following Nikita's orders. He was equally stunned and proud. His student had learned something that he hadn't even realized he'd been teaching. Speaking of teachers… Madeline was coming down the hall. "They're in my office," he said, divining why she was wandering around at that time of night.
"Why aren't you with them?"
"Nikita wants milk and cookies." Madeline raised an eyebrow at his errand boy status. He shrugged. "Nikita in maternal mode is a formidable force."
"Yes, I believe Alan found that out." He didn't ask but she continued as if he did. "Alan was guarding Angela. He is recuperating in Medlab."
A guard? "Is the child a danger or in danger?"
Madeline gave a patient smile. "This is Nikita's assignment. She will brief you when or if necessary."
Michael let Madeline go without asking her any more questions which she wouldn't have answered anyway. Besides, he had to find milk and cookies. Ah, Birkoff would be able to point him in the right direction.
"Well?" Operations asked impatiently.
"Nikita has things well in hand," Madeline replied smugly.
"Good. If she is to become his right hand, and I'm still not sure it's a good idea, he must learn to trust her."
"As if it were easy for you to learn to trust me," she said, linking her arm with his as they walked to his office. "Nikita is at her best when she is being protective. Michael understands that, even if he doesn't realize it. He will resist her command at first, but he will follow. He already does it to some degree."
"Don't remind me," Operations said dryly.
Nikita extracted herself from the tangle of arms and legs that was a sleeping child and padded over to the chair in front of Michael. She handed him the disc and both read the information on the computer screen. Angela was indeed a special child. "No wonder Section wants her," Nikita said breathlessly.
"Is that your assignment?"
She looked at him, her brow creasing in a frown. "You didn't know?" He shook his head and she was startled. She thought Michael knew about everything Section did, especially if she was involved. Unless they were testing him. She nodded. Yes, it was another of Operations' "two for the price of one" tests. God, she was getting tired of those. "They needed someone with a heart to connect with the child to seduce her into believing Section cares for her."
"And you were the only heart here," he stated.
"The only one who will admit to having one," she rebutted.
He ignored her. "I heard you two talking. Her file said she hadn't uttered a word since seeing her uncle killed. You must be reaching her."
"She's frightened, Michael. It's a feeling I know well. I think she instinctively senses I'm a kindred spirit."
"What is your plan?"
"She is to be taken to the academy tonight. I do not have a lot of time to bond with her. For some of us seduction is a slow art not an instant gift," she said pointedly. "I'm surprised you were not the one sent to get friendly with her."
"She is a little young, Nikita."
She shook her head. Michael did not realize his attraction extended to every female, regardless of age. "No matter. I know how to gain her trust. You see, she admitted to me her favorite fantasy and you and I are going to give it to her."
That sounded ominous, even to the unshakable Michael. "What is this fantasy, Nikita?"
"Something simple. She's never been to a mall but she's seen children on television, swinging happily between mother and father as they go shopping. That's what she wants to do."
"But her parents are dead."
"She knows that. However, she is willing to accept us as substitutes."
No one could accuse Michael of not thinking quick on his feet. "The child is a target. Is this outing worth the danger?"
"That's why you're going to watch Angela while I go wake Birkoff. I need the specs for the mall."
Michael considered the idea of going shopping and shuddered. Madeline always provided the clothing he needed. Surely she had something for a seven-year-old child. But Nikita seemed to think this was less about shopping and more about gaining Angela's trust. He looked at the child sleeping on the sofa. His heart skipped a beat as he realized that she could easily be Nikita's daughter. Her coloring, from her fair skin to her blond hair was a perfect match. And the innocence he saw on her sleeping face reminded him of the times he'd spent in Medlab staring at a recovering Nikita. A girl like Nikita and a boy like… No, he wasn't going to go there.
The child's eyes opened. Of course they were blue. "Hello, Angela. I'm Michael," he said as she looked around.
"I know who you are. Where is Niki?" she asked warily.
"Preparing for a trip to the mall, I think."
The girl grinned and lost all her reservations. "She said she would make it happen! Oh, it will be so much fun! She said you would go too?" Angela crossed her fingers. It would be fun going shopping with a mommy but it would be doubly special with a papa too. Besides, this was a nice man. Nikita had said so.
"I will go." He looked toward the door, hoping that Nikita would return because he was not used to carrying a conversation with an adult, much less a little girl. But she wasn't the usual girl, was she? "I hear you know computers. Come, show me what you can do."
Nikita hurried back to Michael's office, knowing Angela was probably awake and was either getting on Michael's nerves or he was getting on hers. She hadn't meant to be away so long, but waking Birkoff had been a chore. And she also wanted to be extra prepared for her first mission briefing. Although they wouldn't be present, she knew Madeline and Operations would be sitting somewhere observing her, critiquing her performance. Tests, always tests.
She opened the door and stood there stunned. Michael was at his desk and Angela was sitting in his lap, laughing at something on the computer screen. "Very good, Angela," Michael was saying. "But there is a way to do it faster. Let me show you."
Angela nodded but spotted Nikita out of the corner of her eye. "Niki! You're back!"
"I see Michael has kept you busy." She raised her eyebrows at him, but he pretended not to see the question in her eyes.
"Yes, he has taught me several tricks." Most of which were probably illegal. But she knew how to keep a secret. "You were right; he is a very nice man."
This time it was Nikita who ignored the raised eyebrows. She held out her hand. "Come with me, angel heart, to the washroom and then we have a briefing to attend. See you in fifteen, Michael."
Nikita watched the reaction of her audience very carefully as she explained her plan. She had kept it simple. A single team would be stationed at the entrances to the mall while she, Angela, and Michael did the family thing. She was not expecting trouble because the opposition would have to be psychic to predict where Angela would be, but as Michael and Section had taught her, preparation was sometimes the only factor between life and death. Bowing to Angela's wishes, and as an extra precaution, she and Michael would be referred to as Mommy and Papa. They would simply blend into the crowd.
Nikita finished the briefing and looked at her team. Because they were backup, she hadn't handpicked them and with most, she only had a passing acquaintance. They were merely the next team up in rotation. She noticed one of the men frowning. "Is there a problem, Tony?"
"Yeah, if the brat's such a security risk, why take her outside? I say we leave her here and call it a day," he said cockily. Maybe later, he would ask Nikita out. She looked very athletic.
Michael started to react but at the last minute backed down. Nikita had to learn that sometimes command required more than just the title. Respect had to be earned-- often the hard way.
Nikita noticed Michael's readiness and knew she either had to take control or give over to him. Ordinarily she probably would have, but Angela needed her to be in charge. Taking a deep breath, she leaned across the table toward the insubordinate operative. "Your trainer obviously forgot to explain to you that Section is not, has never been, and certainly never will be a democracy. You are here to obey the orders of your team leader. That is me. There is no chain of command. There is no one you can complain to. You are to follow me without question until I am removed from command. If you have a problem with that, mister, you know what your options are!" She slapped the table for emphasis and every operative flinched.
"You wouldn't…" the man began.
"Question me again and you'll see how fast I will!" She stood tall and glared at all the people at the briefing. "You have your assignments. Dismissed."
Michael looked at Angela and saw the admiration in her eyes for Nikita. Even if the outing fell through, Angela would still be loyal to Nikita and therefore, to Section. Excellent work, Nikita, he thought to himself. "Wow!" the little girl whispered to Michael.
"Wow," he agreed. No one present, and after the grapevine was informed, no one in Section would ever think Nikita was a pushover again. That could only strengthen her position in the organization. He almost smiled as he imagined Operations' reaction.
"Angela, you do understand you have to obey everything Michael or I tell you, don't you?" Nikita asked as they walked to Madeline's office to find something to wear.
"Yes, ma'am," she replied solemnly. "I'm no Tony."
Nikita could have sworn she heard Michael laugh.
Michael took up position outside the department store as Nikita and Angela disappeared into the interior. He lay the collection of bags and boxes they had already accumulated onto the bench next to him and scanned the crowd. He was mildly annoyed when a man dropped down next to him. "Waiting on the wife, huh?" the man asked conversationally.
Michael merely nodded. "The only reason we're invited along on these shopping trips is because they need packhorses. If someone invented the automatic bag carrier, husbands would never go to the mall and I for one would be extremely glad." Michael still did not say anything. "Now if I had a wife who looked like that, however, I would gladly be a beast of burden."
Michael smiled as he saw Nikita and Angela approaching. "She already has her beast, thank you," he said as he walked over to Nikita and kissed her cheek possessively before swinging Angela up into his arms. Nikita looked at him curiously, but knew better than to question his action.
"My papa is so strong," Angela said to the man, knowing a game when she saw one. "He can carry me and all our packages, can't you, Papa?"
"Yes, my angel." He bent to retrieve the bags from the bench.
"Some guys have all the luck," the man said under his breath.
"Yes, we do," Michael replied and walked away.
Nikita adjusted an earring. "Check One," she said softly.
"One checking in," she heard in her ear.
"Two checking in."
"Check Three?" She waited but there was no reply. "Check Three?" She and Michael traded glances. He too had a comlink. "Check Four?"
"Four checking in."
"Two go to midpoint. Four, check Three. We may have a communications problem."
The silence in her ear was oppressive as Michael subtly herded them in the direction of an obscure mall exit. "Four here," the voice finally said. "Three is down. I think we've been breached."
"All switch to Beta," Nikita replied. "Birkoff, do you read?"
"Copy, Nikita. A team has been dispatched. They should reach you in ten."
Michael glanced quickly at Nikita. "You had Birkoff and a team on standby? I'm impressed."
Nikita shoved back the warm feeling she got until she had time to appreciate it. "Thanks, teach," she said softly as they went through a set of closed doors and found themselves in a deserted hallway. The mall was remodeling and this section had been abandoned until it could be restructured. Michael placed Angela on the floor and drew his weapon now that they were out of the public eye. Nikita did the same. The corridor was L-shaped and the two operatives knew at the end was a fire door. With Angela walking between them they headed for the escape.
Just as they turned the corner, they heard the doors behind them slam open. "Take her, Michael, and I'll cover you," Nikita said, gauging the distance to the outer door. There was no way they'd make it before the others rounded the corner.
"No. You take her."
"We don't have time to argue. Protecting the package is our primary function," she said, reminding him of the mission. "You are the best one to see to that."
He acquiesced because her logic was flawless. "When and where?"
"Two hours, where the children were." He nodded his understanding. "And, Michael, don't wait."
He glared at her and swept Angela back up into his arms. He was halfway to the door when he heard Nikita and the assailants exchanging gunfire. He never looked back.
Nikita heard the fire door creak open and knew Angela and Michael were safe. That made the pain in her side where a bullet had struck her protective vest almost bearable. Switching the gun to one hand, she tore off the bottom button from her vest. Using a hail of bullets to drive the opposition back, she charged around the corner and threw the button. Before she could step safely back around, a bullet slammed into her hand.
She didn't even feel it as a violent concussion flung her into a wall. As consciousness fled, she said a silent thank you to Walter and his little toys.
One by one the minutes clicked off in Michael's head as he and his silent companion drove around the city. The girl hadn't spoken since leaving Nikita behind. He had found an unlocked car and was boosting it when the explosion had rocked the mall, the heavy fire door blown off its hinges. For the briefest iota of time he had considered going back in, but with a sigh of regret, he tossed Angela into the passenger's seat and taken off. Three cars and one hundred and fifteen minutes later, they were slowly approaching the city's waterfront.
He stopped at the dock where a non-expendable target, Alec Chandler, had threatened to kill the truckload of caged children he was planning to sell into slavery before Section stepped in. But an angry Nikita had gotten to him first. The end result had been that the children had survived; Alec hadn't. Operations hadn't been pleased.
One hundred and twenty minutes. Nikita had told him not to wait. It was probably a good bet that she hadn't survived the explosion. Now it was his job to protect Angela and he would do so, not because of Section but because that was why Nikita had sacrificed herself.
One hundred and twenty-three. He looked at the child and wondered where he could safely stash her while he searched for Nikita. One hundred and twenty-seven. He aimed his gun as someone approached the car. "I thought I told you not to wait," Nikita said, opening the door.
"Mommy!" Angela yelled and flung herself into Nikita's arms. Michael noticed when she flinched but didn't complain as she lowered herself and Angela into the car.
"I knew what my options were but I didn't care," he replied as the car left the dock. He looked at her torn clothing and the cuts and bruises visible on her face. "Do you require medical care?"
The answer was slow in coming. "I can handle it."
She told him more than she realized. If slightly hurt she would have said a definite no. For her to admit there was something to handle meant she was in a lot of pain. But she would go on as long as she had to. His mind flashed back to when she had been tortured by Red Cell. Even then she hadn't given in to her pain. No, it had been his pain she couldn't tolerate. "Why didn't you say we would meet back at Section?"
What a typical Section question, she thought, not in the mood for games. "Because you know as well as I do that the opposition did not just guess we were at the mall."
"The information was given to them."
"From the inside."
Nikita adjusted the now sleeping Angela so that the child's elbow was not poking into her. "Yes, Michael. There is a traitor in Section One." There. She'd said it. A death sentence to someone but at the moment she didn't care. The betrayal had not only endangered her and Michael, but Angela as well. Of course the opposition wanted the girl alive and well, but bullets never stopped to ask who was in play and who wasn't. "Are you still in contact?" Her comlink was somewhere in the rubble at the mall.
"I can be."
"Good. Inform them of the situation and let them handle it. Tell them we are going to stay outside until the problem is dealt with."
He was surprised by her harsh words, but when he looked over at her he saw she had paled and beads of sweat were covering. Damn, she was getting worse. "If you have no objection, I know of a place we could go."
"Wake me when we get there."
Her sleep was restless and he had to help her out of the car when they reached their destination, an isolated cottage on the beach. "Where are we, Michael?"
"We'll be safe here." He noted the bloody bandage wrapped around her right hand and wondered what injuries her clothes concealed. "Come, Angela. We must get Nikita inside."
The fear in the voice worried Nikita and she reached out to brush the girl's hair. "I'll be okay, angel. Michael will take good care of me."
"Tell me how I can help, Papa."
Michael was glad to hear the child talking again but he was concerned with her continued use of "Mommy" and "Papa". It would not be in the girl's best interest to get too attached to them. But there were more urgent matters to which he had to attend. He tapped out a security code and opened the door. The lights came on instantly. The cottage was furnished but Nikita got the sense that it wasn't used much. "Angela, go into the bathroom and see if you can find a first aid kit."
The child nearly ran. Michael eased Nikita into a chair and knelt beside her. He took her hand and unwound the strip of cloth he recognized as once being part of her vest. The wound below was crusted in blood, fresh dots of it welling up each time her hand moved. "This is a gunshot," he said.
"Yes. The bullet went completely through and I can still move it even though it hurts like hell, so I don't think there is any nerve damage." She had been concerned about that. Section One would not be able to use a right-handed agent with a useless right hand. And she really didn't want to know the details of their retirement plan.
"Here's the kit, Papa."
Michael eyed the small white case with disdain. He was going to have to go out for supplies sooner than he'd thought. "I can't do much for you right now, Nikita. But I need to know the extent of your injuries in order to procure the necessary items. Where do you hurt?"
She shrugged. "My hand is my greatest injury."
"That is not what I asked." She didn't reply. He sighed and helped her to her feet. "Angela, go to the kitchen and make a list of the things we need. Nikita and I are going into the bedroom so that I may examine her."
"No, Michael," Nikita protested. "I don't want-"
"I don't care what you want," he interrupted abruptly. "Angela, do as I say."
The child ran out of the room. He grabbed Nikita's arm and gently tugged. Being stubborn would only cause more pain and in the end, Michael would have his way. He always did. She followed. "Take off your clothes."
He unbuttoned her blouse, moving her hand away when she tried to interfere. The garment slid to the floor as he undid her pants. He supported her as she stepped out of them. Then he slowly walked around the underwear clad woman. He had been with her like this many times in his dreams. But his dreams hadn't included a widening purple bruise on her stomach, a soft spongy spot on her side which signaled a broken rib or two, and a red streak across her shoulders where she'd been flung against the wall. Flakes of blood in the blond hair pointed to a painful knot. "How long were you unconscious?"
"Only a few minutes. I was awake and out of there before anyone could investigate the explosion."
"What about our people?"
She nodded and almost lost her balance. He guided her to the bed. "The backup team arrived. But I wasn't sure who I could trust. So I kept our rendezvous instead."
Michael marveled at the fact she still trusted him. After all the betrayals… "I don't want to give you anything to dull the pain until after you've been treated. But I will."
"No. I can manage as long as I don't have to move."
He opened a drawer in the bedside table. "I know your marksmanship with your left hand is somewhat less than with your right, but it is acceptable." He pulled out a gun and placed it under her pillow, then pulled the covers over her. "I will return as quickly as possible."
"Do what you have to do. I will protect Angela."
But who will protect you, he thought as he teased a tendril of her silken hair from her face. So far he had done a pretty poor job of it.
Nikita felt his lips brush across her brow but by the time she opened her eyes, he was gone.
Angela screamed and Michael rushed to her room only to find the child in the middle of a nightmare. He calmed her as best he could but in the end he sighed and carried her toward the bedroom he was sharing with Nikita.
He had returned earlier, laden with medical supplies and food. Nikita's wounds had been tended, her hand stitched closed and her ribs tightly bound. She had been injected with antibiotics and later, a sedative and painkillers. As soon as the pain had subsided, she'd fallen asleep and after feeding Angela and putting her to bed, he'd sprawled across the bed on the other side and watched Nikita sleep. Until the scream.
When Michael and Angela reached the bedroom they found Nikita sprawled across the floor, gun in hand. Even in a drugged sleep, she was trying to defend her charge. Michael bent to pick her up and even before he touched her, he could feel the fire from her skin. "Angela, fill the bath with cool water. Hurry!"
Nikita screamed as he plunged her into the water and he had to struggle to keep her in the tub. "Rats! Get them away from me. Please, get them away!"
He knew where the nightmare was coming from and he damned himself and Section again. "Nikita, it's Michael. The rats are gone. I promise you. You're safe."
He felt the tension leave her body. "Michael?"
"No, my love. No more rats." She relaxed completely and fell into a deep sleep. When the thermometer showed a nearly normal reading, he dried her off and carried her back to bed. It was then he noticed Angela had disappeared.
He found her in the kitchen, sitting silently at the table, tears streaming down her face. Although he was wet, he gathered the child into his arms and carried her to the living room. "Your mommy will be okay," he said, giving in to the fairy tale the child still insisted on living even though it had turned as dark as an original Grimms. "Her temperature is down and she's sleeping normally."
"It's my fault," the child wailed. "She was trying to get to me because I had that stupid nightmare!"
Michael wondered what he had done to deserve this, then realized the list was way too long. "You're a very smart girl, Angela, but you must learn to think with your head, not your heart," he said sternly. "Yes, Nikita collapsed when she tried to save you. But the fever came from her injuries. Remember, she was on the streets for two hours without any medical help. It is no surprise she had an infection. You played no part in that."
"But you gave her an antibiotic," she argued skeptically.
"Which will eventually help her recover faster. But the infection had already begun."
The girl gnawed her on her lower lip before looking straight into his eyes, desperate for reassurance. "She'll be okay?"
"Yes, I believe so."
Angela flung her arms around his neck. "Thank you, Papa."
Twelve hours later Nikita lay on a lounge on the beach near the house, still incredibly weak but feeling better all the time. And part of the reason for her quick recovery was in front of her. Michael was scampering in the sand with Angela, actual smiles and laughter coming as natural to him as subterfuge and stealth. He wasn't fighting Angela's fantasy anymore, no more scowls when she called him papa and she'd noticed him referring to her as mommy on occasion. Truth be known, Angela's fantasy was close to her own and since she was an invalid, she decided to lay back and enjoy it. Thanks to Section, it was as close to a family as she was ever going to get.
Reality, however, didn't take long to rear its head. As Michael tucked Nikita back in bed for an afternoon nap, she heard a shrill sound and realized he had in his possession a cellular phone. She had never asked how or if he'd contacted Section. She hadn't wanted to know because contact would mean the end of this idyllic interlude with Michael. Of course, in her more vivid dreams there hadn't been a child present or her being too sick to enjoy his expertise. But with Michael you took what you could get because eventually, Section would yank his chain.
Michael identified himself, listened for a moment, then hung up. "They've found the traitor."
Nikita was silent for a moment. "Because of what occurred at the briefing?"
"No. He only suggested not taking Angela outside of Section because he had made plans to steal her from there. The attack at the mall was a back-up plan."
"Has he been canceled?"
Michael's eyes caught hers. "That has been left for you."
"I understand." She really did. She had issued the challenge to Tony and she had to be the one to follow through. If she didn't, she would lose all credibility and any leadership she'd gained at Section. And while moving up in Section wasn't a career goal, she wanted to be able to take control in situations where innocents were involved. Like with Angela. If she hadn't impressed Section enough to give her the chance to be mission leader, Tony would have grabbed Angela right from under their noses and though they would have made the necessary noises, her retrieval wouldn't have been a top priority. No. She knew from the beginning that someday she would have to compromise her ethics, her morals, for the greater good. The funny thing was that all-knowing Madeline thought she never saw the big picture. On the contrary, the big picture was kind of hard to ignore but as a defense mechanism, she consciously chose to react only to the pixels surrounding her. This time, however, she made the choice of the whole canvas.
Michael nodded as he accepted this new, mature Nikita. He would miss the old one, but this version would get along better in Section. It had been hard watching her futilely bang her head against the wall, or more to the point, Operations. He'd taken the pain for her when he could, but it had never been enough.
"Why are worried about Tony?" Angela asked, reminding the adults she was in the room. "What about us? What happens to us!" the girl cried and raced out of the room.
Nikita looked at Michael and found no sympathy there. "Would you mind leaving the 'I told you so' until after you help me go to her?" she asked bitterly. She knew she'd done Angela wrong by allowing the girl to view them as her parents. But it was supposed to have been for a harmless two hour trip to the mall, not an anxious forty-eight hour encampment in a safe house.
Angela lay face down on her bed, her tears drenching the bedding. Her fantasy was over and all they could talk about was who was going to kill Tony. Who cared? He had called her a brat and made Nikita mad. He deserved to die. But she didn't deserve to lose parents for the second time. She didn't remember the first ones. She'd only been a baby when they were taken away. But she remembered every minute she'd spent with Michael and Nikita. From the moment Nikita had picked her up and carried her to Michael's office, she knew in her heart that the three of them belonged together. It was destiny, karma, fate.
And now it was over. She would be stuck in some academy with her "own kind" and be taught to her apply her intelligence in a 'meaningful' way. Why? Michael was awfully smart. He could teach her what she needed to know about school and spy stuff and Nikita could teach her stuff she had to know in the real world. But then she remembered those other people where Nikita and Michael worked and shivered. She knew instinctively they wouldn't let them stay together.
"Angela?" Nikita sat on the edge of the bed and placed her healthy hand on the child's back. "I know how hard this is for you, but it's for the best."
"You don't know anything!" the girl sobbed.
"Alright. I may not know how hard it is for you, but I know how hard it is for me. I used to dream of having a little girl and how I would take care of her better than my mom took care of me. Then I was recruited into Section and I had to let that dream go."
"You didn't have a good mommy?" Angela asked, lifting her head.
Leave it to the child to pick up on that, Nikita thought with a sigh. "No. She didn't look after me the way she was supposed to. Perhaps I wouldn't have turned out any better at the job than she did."
"You've been great as my mommy. I'm sure if you and Michael have babies, they would like you very much."
Nikita was not about to discuss having babies with Michael, especially when he stood in the doorway listening. "The work we do for Section is dangerous. What happened at the mall was nothing compared to some of the situations we've been in. It wouldn't be fair to bring a tiny baby into the world, knowing we may not be there to care for it."
Angela nodded, understanding all too well. "But my parents had normal jobs and they didn't live to raise me either."
"There's a difference between normal risks and what we do, Angela."
She nodded. "But what if you didn't start with a baby? What if you had me?"
"Then we would all be in constant danger, Angela," Michael said, wanting the conversation to end. It was difficult, even for a man with no soul, to watch the two break each other's hearts. "Our enemies would delight in knowing you could be held hostage against us. Section would fear our effectiveness. Also, you will be very much in demand one day. Your enemies could then use us against you."
"Oh." The girl frowned as she digested this logic. "I guess I forgot to think with my head, not my heart."
"What did you say!" Nikita yelled. "What have you been telling this child, Michael?" she asked angrily, knowing exactly who Angela was quoting.
Nikita's eyes flashed angrily. "Your truth maybe, but certainly not hers, not yet. We may only have a little time left together, but I will not let you turn her into a Section drone this early in life." She urged Angela to sit up and then she looked directly into the child's eyes. "You have a heart, Angela, and it is just as much a part of you as your head. Never think, never pretend, otherwise. You must use it as a balance to your brain. In fact, I'll tell you a secret I just learned since I met you: the right way to make a decision is to think twice, once with your heart and then with your head. Sometimes that's the only way you can live with your choices."
The child struggled to comprehend and then she smiled. "It's like I read about the television when I was downloading information from the internet, but my uncle refused to let me have one. So eventually I figured out how to bounce satellite links to the computer so I could get television. My heart wanted TV, and my head figured out how to get it. I thought twice."
It wasn't exactly the example Nikita would have used, but it would do. "Yes, you did, angel. And it didn't hurt a bit, did it?" She looked at Michael triumphantly.
"Angela, Nikita has a point, but so do I. You have to know, and be prepared for, the times in the lab or in life when you can identify the problem but there is no solution," Michael said, trying to soften the harsh reality of the words.
Angela nodded, her papa's words still unconvincing. There was always a solution, if one had enough time. She looked at Nikita. "Do we have to leave now? Niki should have her nap before she goes back to work."
"She won't be going back to work for a while," Michael said, noting how pale his partner was. "But you're right. She needs to rest before Operations and Madeline debrief us. Come, Nikita."
Hours later Michael stared at the sleeping woman, her pale hair a halo on the pillow, and felt a twinge in the place where his heart used to be. He often wondered what would have happened to her if he hadn't chosen her as a recruit. He liked to think she would have grown hard and cold in prison or perhaps ended up dead in some dark alley. He felt less guilty when he thought that way. At least with her in Section, he could keep an eye on her, protect her even when she wasn't aware of the danger around her.
"I've got it!" Angela yelled, running into the room. Michael frowned at her as Nikita awakened. "Oops, sorry," the child said, but couldn't rein in her excitement. "There is a solution, Michael. We just took the wrong approach!"
"A solution to what, Angela?" Nikita asked, yawning into a stretch until she was pulled up short by the hurt ribs.
"We were all trying too hard to figure out how we could stay a family," Angela explained quickly, not giving the others a chance to deny it. "If anyone found out about the relationship, there would be danger, right? So... we just don't tell anyone."
"Angela-" Michael began.
"No, listen to me. A lot of children don't live with their parents. That's why they have places like boarding schools. Just think of the academy as a boarding school and I'll tell the other students that my parents are government agents and can't contact me. Sometimes the truth sounds so much like a lie, it is perceived as one. But we'll know better."
Michael sighed. This was no different from the fantasy world in existence now. Maybe it was a phase all orphans went through. "So we'll be your parents and no one will know." Angela nodded eagerly. "How is this different from you pretending we're your parents without our knowledge?"
"Because we'll just be pretending to pretend."
"Gee, Michael," Nikita said dryly. "She already sounds like she's a Section operative. Just what have you been teaching her while I slept?"
"She's seems to have a better grasp on how Section does things than you. That will make her transition easier."
"Transition? What in hell has Operations in store for this child?"
Angela started to scream then changed her mind. Her chosen parents usually reacted to a scream by pulling their weapons. Something a child of theirs would just have to get used to, she supposed. Then she laughed as she realized they were fighting over her future-- just like real parents. She pulled out the knife she'd taken from the kitchen. A second later, it dropped to the bed and her wrist was securely entrapped in Michael's grasp. Another lesson learned. "Sorry, Papa. I didn't mean to scare you."
He released her wrist, pleased to note he hadn't bruised her. "What exactly did you mean to do with the knife?"
"Make us a family." They both looked at her silently. "We all make a little cut and mix our blood to become family. You are healthy because you work for Section and I know I'm healthy, so there is no danger of contagion."
Michael tucked a stray lock of her blond hair behind her ear. This little person was such a dichotomy- at once a child with fairy tales dancing in her head and at the same time a scientist worrying about contagion. "Even if we do this, we can never claim you, Angela."
"You can claim me in your heart."
"I don't..." Two sets of pleading blue eyes sought his. One pair begged for his love, the other for him to admit to having a heart just once. Never had the odds been so against him. "I don't have a problem with that," he lied quite convincingly.
Angela stuck the tip of the knife into her finger, never wincing as the blood welled up. "Now you, Papa." Michael followed suit and Angela put her finger against his. "I, Angela, pledge to be your daughter. I will learn what you have to teach me, follow where you lead, and love you with all my heart." She smiled and looked expectantly at him.
Panicking, Michael looked quickly toward Nikita. She was smiling too and her eyes sent out to him a silent message of encouragement. "I, Michael, pledge to be your father." There. He had committed to being a father again. May God have mercy on young Angela's soul, he prayed to himself. "When possible I will teach you, guide you, find you if you get lost. And I... I will love you to the best of my ability."
Angela felt the tears running down her face and was embarrassed by them until she saw Nikita had them too. She squeezed her finger to make it bleed again as soon as Nikita's blood flowed. "I, Angela, pledge to be your daughter," she repeated softly to the woman she wanted as her mother. "You have already given me more than I have ever had. You hear my heart with yours. You let me be a child when everyone else demands I be an adult. You defend me, you protect me, and I know it isn't because you're just doing your job. I love you but you love me better. Teach me how to love that way too."
Nikita's eyes glittered as she stared at the little girl. "I, Nikita, pledge to be your mother, Angela. I will not be able to be at your side whenever you want me to be, but I will be in your heart as you are in mine. Also, know this: if you ever really need me, I will be there." She flicked her eyes briefly to Michael before concentrating on the child again. "No force, other than death, will keep me from you if you are hurt or in danger. This I pledge to you with my love." She reached out to pull the girl into a hug.
Angela moved away from her. "No. You two have to make pledges to each other now," she said, shoving Nikita's and Michael's hands together. "The circle must be complete."
Nikita saw Michael's protest and hurried to head it off. "Michael, I pledge to be the mother of your child Angela," she said meaningfully, showing him how to keep the pledge focused on Angela, not each other. "As you already know, where you lead I follow, what you teach I learn, what you ask of me, I try to give." He couldn't read anything into that because it could all be found in her trusty Section handbook, if they had bothered to give her one. Of course, half the time she didn't give a damn about Section and backed Michael up simply because he needed her. That, however, would remain her secret. "My best is all I have to offer and I offer it freely."
Michael tried to follow her example. "I, Michael, pledge to be the father of your child Angela." So far so good, he thought. "I will protect you from enemies known and unknown whenever possible. I will try to strengthen your weaknesses and learn from your strengths. Whatever is ... good... in me, you already own." It was a tough admission, but he felt he owed her at least one piece of honesty.
Nikita's wide eyes held Michael's until Angela gathered them together into a group hug. And then all she saw was tears.
Michael opened the door to his office and immediately noticed the blond sitting comfortably in the visitor's chair, her feet sprawled on his desk top. "I would ask for a lock for this door but since I was your trainer, I feel the effort would be futile. Would you like an office of your own?"
Nikita laughed. "No, this one is fine. How was your mission, Michael?" Because of her injuries, she had been off active status since the night they had returned Angela. She sorely missed the child, but she'd been doing a lot of thinking during her forced rest and she'd come to the conclusion that the academy was the best place for her surrogate daughter. Maybe one day she would walk into Section and see Angela manning the computer banks. Now that was something to look forward to, something to survive for...
"The mission was satisfactory," Michael said in typical Section-speak. "How is rehabilitation?"
She held up her hand for inspection. "I hate physical therapy but I should have full use in two weeks or so."
He sat down at his desk and readied his computer for his report. "Was there something in particular you wanted to see me about? Or is this just a friendly visit?"
She smiled. "I think you can catagorize this as 'a friendly visit'. Madeline happened to mention you would be returning today and I thought I would drop by to say 'Hi'."
He didn't buy it for a second. One long, lingering glance told him what he wanted to know. "You're bored." She didn't deny it. "I will talk to your doctor. Perhaps you may be permitted to monitor or observe our next project."
Nikita was glad he knew her so well. To admit she wanted Section work would be damaging to
her image. "Thanks, Michael." She removed her feet from his desk and prepared to leave him alone with his report.
"Nikita." She turned away from the door as he called her name and pointed to his terminal. She came up behind him to read the computer screen over his shoulder.
Dear Mommy and Papa:
Papa, I told you I could break into Section's computer system! Now we can keep in touch forever! The academy is okay. There are fifteen of us and I have made friends. Some have parents. Some don't. I'm glad I have you. Well, I have to go now because long messages may get traced. When I'm old enough, I will help you fix the holes in the system. Talk to you later!
Your daughter Angela
Nikita laughed and threw her arms around Michael's neck. "There's the proof, Michael. She's definitely your daughter."
He laughed too and placed his hands over hers. "Our daughter, Nikita. Our daughter."
Operations glared at the monitor, his fist clenched against the table. "What do we do about this?"
"Nothing," Madeline said calmly.
"We just let them think they're getting away with this? Why? You know their attachment to this child can only mean trouble."
"On the contrary, this is a great beginning for Section. It's working out better than I anticipated," Madeline said, smiling at the image coming from Michael's office. The operative would be very upset if he knew about the camera but it was only a temporary situation. Now that she knew what was going on, she would have the equipment removed."
"Explain," Operations demanded.
"Think about the future. One day we won't be in control, they will. Michael's technical expertise. Nikita's people skills. Angela's overall brilliance. All three bonded together to protect their family, to protect Section One. The possibilities are mindboggling."
"My sentiments exactly," Operations said dryly.
Madeline laughed. "But for now, my friend, Section One still belongs to us."
Operations nodded and turned the monitor off. He picked up a stack of papers from his desk. "So let's go find some operatives to play with. I have devised a series of tests."
Madeline looked at the one on top and clapped her hands. "That one would be perfect for..." She whispered a name in his ear and they both burst out laughing.
The sound rang throughout Section and those who recognized it, shivered.
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