Prologue: Operations' Office
"You won't like the results."
The tall blond leaned across the desk to make sure she had the gentleman's full attention. "Fine. But if they react badly, I win the right to turn down five assignments of my choice," she challenged.
"And if Section does not fall into anarchy and disarray because of your new attitude, the agent I want, the agent I require, will become a permanent fixture around here. Agreed?"
The silver-haired man's sharp gaze was so self-assured that for a moment she balked at the deal. If she won, what would she get? Maybe the chance to get out of a few of his "the bloodier the better" missions. But that was a big "maybe" because he had reneged on a deal before. Of course, he didn't know she still had access to his son. However, that was leverage for a day somewhere in the future. If she lost, it would mean her soul, or what little there was left of it after nearly three years in Section. She sighed. This was worse that one of their tests. Actually, that was exactly what it was: a test of who knew their "family" better-- the father or the sister/daughter? He analyzed the group with his head; she with her heart. Which organ gave the more accurate reading?
In the end, she had to believe in the heart or all her efforts before had been futile. "Agreed," she said firmly.
Day 1: Section Central
Birkoff did not take his eyes away from his computer screens, but he knew the exact moment Nikita walked into Section. There was a certain buzz he felt in his presence, similar to the one he'd received when he'd forgotten to ground himself while disemboweling a system in an abandoned Red Cell lair. A mild, but stimulating shock-- that was Nikita.
"Hi, Nikita," he said, anticipating her greeting and wanting to get it over with because he was in the middle of monitoring a team, and he didn't want to be distracted. When there wasn't a reply, he turned to see her disappearing around the corner. He frowned curiously, and was about to jump up and follow her when he remembered the team he was monitoring. He turned back to his computer, but the feeling that something was wrong wouldn't go away.
Nikita walked into the briefing room and barely acknowledged Michael and Madeline with a slight nod of her head before sitting down. At once the two "M"s knew something was wrong. Nikita was not sitting in her usual slouching way. Instead, her back was ramrod straight, her knees primly together, and throughout the whole mission brief, she was totally focused on Operations' report.
"Don't you have any questions, Michael?" Operations asked as he concluded. Michael always knew what the assignment was ahead of time, but he usually asked a question or two to clear up a point for the other team members.
But this time Michael had been concentrating more on Nikita than the situation report or the others' reactions. The mission was standard, but Nikita was not. Where was the look she always flashed him before a briefing? Sometimes it held the hint of a smile, and at other times there were daggers in her eyes, but she never just ignored him. And what had happened to the defiance she telegraphed in every movement when Operations was nearby? Where was the scowl and flinch of horror when their boss had declared all subjects in the mission were expendable?
"Michael?" Operations repeated with a growl.
His best operative shook his head as if coming out of a daze. "I reviewed the situation with Madeline earlier. Everything is clear."
"Make sure that it is!" Operations glared at his people and stalked out of the room.
"Nikita, may I see you in my office?" Madeline asked, smiling politely.
"Certainly, Madeline." Nikita got up smoothly and glided out of the room.
The "M"s exchanged glances. Then Madeline nodded as if to say, "Yes, I noticed the odd behavior, and I will get to the bottom of it." Then Michael gave her a nod as if to say, "Thank you."
"How are you, Nikita?" Madeline asked as she walked into her office and found the young woman waiting patiently.
"Is there anything about the mission which disturbs you?"
"You seem more focused today."
Nikita gave a small, amused smile. "If that's a compliment, thank you."
Madeline stared at the younger woman and didn't like what she saw. Nikita had been making strides in hiding her emotions, but Madeline had never had any trouble reading her. Until now. Nothing showed in the operative's face. She was as emotionless as Michael. Madeline smiled. This was almost too easy. "Michael was concerned that you would be troubled by your assignment."
"He needn't have been."
Madeline's fingers tapped her desk until she realized what she was doing. Nikita's reactions were all wrong. Where was the light that shone in her eyes at the mere mention of Michael's name, even after he'd been particularly awful to her? And when he showed even the least concern for her, she usually melted. But that wasn't happening. The situation would require study. "I'm sure you have some details to go over. You may leave." Her eyes followed the silent figure out the door.
Six Hours Later: Madeline's Office
"She didn't hesitate, Madeline," Michael said, his voice rising in concern. "She took out all the guards, and when I signaled I had the disk, she swept the room, killing Guttiero and his remaining men. And you know what she did on the plane back? She read a paperback novel!"
"Our Nikita seems to be going through a change of some sort," Madeline said for want of a better reply. But she had no answers.
"Not one for the better," Michael said adamantly.
"I agree. Perhaps you could shock her back into her normal patterns."
"You mean seduce her?"
"I isolated her on the plane. She told me I was disturbing her reading." Michael tried to keep the hurt out of his voice. His taking second place to a book was a blow to his ego; Nikita choosing a book over him was simply devastating.
"Perhaps she's tired," Madeline guessed, trying to find some reason for Nikita's sudden transformation. "The two of you work so well together, we tend to forget she doesn't have your strength. Let's ground her for a couple of days, and we'll see how she reacts."
"This better work," Michael muttered as he left the office.
Day 4: Operations' Office
Operations flung a packet of papers across his desk and began angrily pacing. Three days to go and he was losing the bet. During every debriefing he'd ordered Nikita to be more like Michael. When she had finally countered by saying she was more effective as Nikita, that Section would be unbalanced without her, he had laughed at her lofty notion of self-importance. Hence, he'd made the bet.
But she wasn't as delusional as he'd thought. Section was in an uproar over the "new" Nikita. Walter refused to issue her anything more powerful than a pistol, declaring she was too unstable to be trusted with his precious instruments of mass destruction. Birkoff almost let a team get captured because he was too focused on Nikita's blip. Madeline was close to ordering Nikita off all assignments, and had even scheduled her for a CAT scan in order to check for the presence of a tumor or implant which could be affecting the agent's behavior. And his favorite operative, his self-chosen heir, had nearly fumbled the ball on three consecutive missions because he couldn't keep his mind off the changes in his Nikita. Damn, that bleeding heart blond bimbo had known his people better than he had.
Now, there was only one way to salvage the bet and his ego: Nikita had to slip and revert to Nikita-like behavior before the seven days were up. That way the bet would be null and void. Taking a key from around his neck, he opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a red file. Then he grinned. He had just the assignment to do the trick.
Day 5: Briefing Room
"There has been a rumor that there is a faction in Section One which is organizing the overthrow of Section. We have discovered proof of this rumor, and we believe the operative known as Jason is the head of this group."
"What time is his cancellation?" Michael asked.
"First, we need the names of his cohorts. Interrogation would be futile; after all, we trained him. So instead, we will use Nikita. She will seduce him, find out the names of the traitors, and then cancel them all."
Madeline looked stunned. Operations hadn't filled her in. "That's not the usual way we handle such occurrences," she said calmly.
"You're always telling me what a good agent Nikita is, Madeline. This week she has proven herself. Maybe it's time she was moved up."
"Nikita can get the names,' Michael said. "I will handle the cancellations."
Operations looked at Nikita, and she saw the smile in his eyes. "Nikita, I get the feeling that these two don't think you're quite ready for the assignment. What do you think?"
"I'll do whatever Section requires of me," Nikita said blandly.
Operations heard chins hitting the table and struggled to keep his own jaw from dropping. "Very well. The room will be wired. Michael will monitor from an adjacent room. Let's get this over with, shall we?"
Day 6: A Hotel Room
"Damn, Nikita. I'd heard you had changed," the dark blond man said as she climbed into his lap. "But isn't this a little sudden?" He jerked as her hands plucked open the buttons of his shirt.
"We can play games, or we can each get what we want," Nikita said silkenly. She reached down and grabbed the hem of her top and pulled it over her head. "What do you want, Jason?"
"You. Always have. But I was warned you belonged to Michael."
"I belong to no one. Including Operations. If I have my way, he soon will belong to no one but God."
Jason's hands stroked her shoulders. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"Operations thinks I'm an inferior agent. His defenses are never up when I'm around. That will be his fatal error. My only problem will be getting his minions out of the way once the deed is done. I may have to do some recruiting of my own."
"What would you say if I said I'd already done that?"
"I would say I would be very grateful." She nipped his nipple to show just how grateful.
He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her away to stare into her eyes. "How do I know this isn't a trap?" he asked warily.
She leaned forward and kissed him, allowing him full entry into her mouth. After a long moment, she leaned back. "Did that feel like a trap? Why do you think I chose this hotel room for us to meet? You and I both know Section monitors our homes. No, I don't even think it is Section. I think Operations has it done for his own perverted pleasure. That is one of the reasons he must be taken out."
Jason trailed a finger along the outline of the lacy bra she wore. She moaned and thrust her chest out a little further. He made a decision. The names fell from his lips as she nibbled his neck. Nikita urged him from the chair and to the bed. Her hands reached around to the back zipper of her skirt. The next, and last, thing he felt was the bullet ripping into his heart.
Day Seven: Briefing Room
"You knew what my orders were!" Operations yelled at Michael and Madeline. "Nikita was supposed to handle the cancellations, not the two of you! How dare you defy me!"
"We were angered by their betrayal. We reacted without thought," Madeline said quietly.
"The day I believe you react without thought, is the day you're canceled," Operations threatened. Madeline merely shrugged and Michael looked downright pleased. Nikita didn't even blink. Operations sighed. "Michael, Madeline, go. Nikita, stay."
Operations sat in his chair and stared sullenly at the operative who'd just proven her worth, not to mention her talents. "The bet is over, Nikita. I concede."
"I have choice over my assignments?"
"If possible," he said.
She didn't like that codicil. "I have choice, Operations. Or would you like me to become 'Michaelized' again?"
"Fine. Whatever. Just get out."
The old Nikita beamed at him. "You're a real swell guy, boss. See you tomorrow, huh?"
He pointed toward the door. "Go!"
Nikita loped over to Birkoff's station. "Hey, Birkoff, I hear there's a new club opening tonight. Wanna come with me?"
Birkoff turned, and saw the usual smile and fondness in her eyes. "Sure, Nikita."
"Good, I'll swing by in a couple of hours to pick you up." She saw Walter passing by. "Birkoff and me are going out clubbing tonight. Wanna join?"
He stared silently at her, scrutinizing the way she stood and the cock of her head. "Sure, sugar. I still know how to rock and roll."
"What about me, Nikita?" a soft voice asked from behind her. "Am I invited too?"
Nikita turned to face Michael and involuntarily, she took the few steps necessary to be next to him. She brushed back a curl from his forehead, instinctively knowing how much it took from him to kill the nine agents involved in the insurrection. He didn't know it, but much of the debt he owed her had been paid. "You look tired, Michael. I think an evening out would be good for you." She turned back to Walter. "If this outing gets any bigger, we may have to borrow one of your vans."
"Anytime, sugar, anytime."
She left, feeling their eyes on her back. But there were more. She looked up and saw Madeline watching from above. She waved and her mentor waved back, curiosity and relief showing in her face for once. Just down from her stood Operations and she flashed him a quick salute as she faded from sight.
Then Section One returned to work.
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