It began with one of Percy's black boxes.
"Give me the box, Michael," came the whisper behind him.
After being shot in the alley that time, Michael learned, or at least attempted, to not let his guard down around his former protégé, Nikita. But these were no ordinary circumstances, so Michael did what came naturally to him, and outright ignored her-in such a way that left his back open and vulnerable.
Footsteps, however light, were moving towards them. There were more of them now. Quite possibly more than they could handle.
Although Michael seemed busy calculating the odds, his hand caught hers before she could reach into his jacket. He frowned when Nikita smiled impishly at him, shrugging off her failed maneuver.
"Don't," he hissed at her, trying to impress upon her the seriousness of their current situation.
Another set of footsteps, louder this time. There were also the click-clacks of AK-47s being poised and readied. They weren't even trying for the element of surprise anymore. And on cue, came the voice of the Russian leader.
"It is time to come out, my dear friends, you have no where left to go," came a loud heavily accented mockery of an entreaty, "If you give me the black box, perhaps I will be merciful."
Michael fought the urge to roll his eyes even as he tightened his grip on his SIG-Sauer P220. Backup from Division would be arriving soon, but not soon enough. He and Nikita were all that stood between a brigade of heavily armed Russian mercenaries and the secrets that could bring down the US government. Percy's foolproof self-serving plan was becoming a clusterfuck for all ages.
"Give me the box, Michael!"
"Do you know something I don't?" Because right now, the only way they could get out of this was via body bags. Who was he kidding, they'd simply be cleaned away by Roan.
Nikita evaded his question but replied in all seriousness, her dark eyes gazing straight into his, "You'll think of something."
In that moment he felt elated. Even with all the adrenaline pumping in his system, her words were like a rush of pure energy, shot right into his veins. He tried to school the smile, however small, that was on his face, but that was even more impossible than getting out of this building alive. It was almost enough to make him give her the box and everything it would entail.
"Will I?" It was as if they were back in training, dancing around each other, his arms open, waiting, inviting.
Something in his expression made Nikita draw back, her eyes somehow looking at him and avoiding him at the same time. It brought him clarity, whenever she did that. It was the same feeling as when she fell in love with Daniel and when she left without another word for three whole years.
Nikita was the one that always had a plan.
Before his face could form into a frown, the corridor they'd just exited exploded in flames, taking down half of the men. It was the distraction they needed. Guns blazing, they headed toward the blown makeshift exit, ducking debris, bullets, and the occasional fists.
They were almost in the clear, when he saw the gun sight on her, a stark red dot against her black jacket. It was almost identical to the time she kidnapped Victor Han. Only this time, he wasn't the one holding the gun.
Nikita was already trying to figure out how she could get the box away from Michael when she sensed, not so much as saw, a target on her. In the same way, she knew it was too late for her to move. But just as she was bracing herself, somehow Michael was now in front of her.
The shot was quieter than she thought it would be. His blood was much louder as they splattered across her face.
All Nikita remembered was Michael's blood, slick under her palms. She didn't know what happened to the gun fire, to the mercenaries, or to the black box. Her left shoulder burned, probably from a bullet wound, but she didn't care and didn't want to care. His bleeding wouldn't stop, even as she tried to stench the bubbling wound with a large torn piece of her shirt. She was pressing down so hard she'd heard the tattletale crack of a broken rib.
"Sorry, that's going to hurt," she muttered, although she knew that Michael couldn't hear her. It seemed almost funny and her chest was rumbling with mirth, except what started out as a laugh came out as a choking sob. The flood gates opened and she couldn't stop the sounds from clawing their way out of her throat—the sounds of a small broken animal.
The cold and rational part of her brain told her to get the hell out there, because she was wounded and outnumbered. But her arms and legs were like lead, anchored to the dying man beneath her hands. There was no plan and no escape route because this couldn't have happened. Michael wasn't invincible, she knew that much, but in her mind, he was a constant ever since Division gave her a new life. Constants are supposed to be just that, constant, always there. And she knew Michael couldn't help but fill that role and he did nothing to dissuade her from putting him in that vital but cold place in her heart.
Because he was in love with her. She knew. She always knew. He took whatever she would give—bantering and teasing—and never said another word, because he loved her. But he scared her. He knew her past, he knew her present, and he knew all the scars that came before and after. He'd look at her and see everything, past the bravado and the new confidence Division had managed to instill in her. She'd worked so hard to regain control of her life, but with him, she was always exposed, always bare.
When she met Daniel, it had been so easy to fall in love. Daniel would only see the new Nikita, the Nikita that she deemed worthy of his love, the one whose scar tissue had faded into nothing. He loved her and made her feel beautiful inside and out. Division shattered her dreams and brought her back to reality. And now because of Division, Michael was dying. Daniel was a dream she dared to want, but Michael was a raw necessity that held the pieces of her together. He couldn't die, not when she hadn't told him how much he meant to her, how she couldn't cross that line because she wasn't as fearless as he thought she was…
Anyone with a gun and a halfway decent aim could have killed her then. Thom was actually a pretty good shot.
Backup from Division had arrived in record time and record numbers, due to Percy's rather emphatic orders to recover the black box and neutralize the threat at all costs. Even Alex, who was still quite low on the totem pole, came armed and ready. No one was to get out alive, lest stories of the black boxes leaked out any further.
"Step away from him!" Thom bellowed, as he and a trio of men in black closed in on Nikita and Michael, their weapons trained on her chest and head.
The wind carried his voice away, and Nikita was still there, holding the wound, as if he hadn't uttered a word. His gun was at her temple now, but she didn't budge.
Thom didn't want to kill her, if only because it was clear that she was trying to save the Division's second in command. Michael had always kept things fair, watching over them so the other trainers wouldn't run him and the other recruits into the ground. And he kept Birkhoff from going into his rages and rants.
After a few seconds, Thom sighed heavily and laid down his weapon, although other men took no such chance on the famed femme fatale. He kneeled and attempted to drag Michael out and away from her. It was impossible. He shook her and yelled, "Let go! We need to get him to a hospital!" There was already so much blood. He tried to get her to look at him, but her eyes were wide and focused only on the supine man beneath her hands, as if she knew she might not get the chance to see him again.
"Shit!" He was out of ideas and he was pretty sure someone else was ready to step up and take the easy way out with a bullet to her head.
Suddenly, a MP5A3 rifle appeared above him and pistol whipped Nikita over the head. The woman fell sideways, unconscious, into the growing puddle of coppery red. Thom looked up and saw Alex readjusting her handle on the weapon. The expression on her pale face was unreadable.
"Take the both of them in," she said.
The room was bare; there was nothing that could be conceivably used as a weapon. A clear bulletproof glass covered the length of room. Nikita was curled up in a corner, her hair a black veil in front of her eyes. A foam tray of food sat next to a locked door, cold and untouched.
Amanda walked into the room on the other side of the glass, heels clicking with precision, and stood before the barrier, watching and waiting.
Finally, Nikita looked up, her jaw flexing as she recognized the woman in front her. It was almost reflex, the way she immediately sat up and straightened. Amanda allowed herself a small smile and tapped the intercom.
"Michael?" Nikita asked first, her eyes wide.
Amanda glanced at the dismissed food tray before meeting her questioning gaze. "You should eat."
Nikita glowered at the older woman, but Amanda's face was inscrutable, like she had all the time in the world. Capitulating, Nikita got up and started to eat the food on the tray, quickly at first, but she stalled as the tray began to empty. Maybe she didn't want to hear what Amanda had to say. She exhaled unsteadily as she finished the last bite. But when she made eye contact with Amanda again, it was all defiance and steel, "Well?"
In another circumstance, Amanda might have found Nikita's bravado amusing, but Michael's prognosis did not bode well. Although they weren't exactly close, she didn't relish the idea of losing someone who's been with Division for so long. His absence would leave a rather large hole in the Division's chain of command, not to mention training someone to replace him would be rather difficult given his long tenure. And despite what many have said about Amanda the Inquisitor, she was still human, a creature of habit who can be unsettled by disruptions to familiar surroundings and people. Nikita, on the other hand, was perhaps a case of 'familiarity breeds contempt'. Her displeasure with Division was evident, except when it came to a certain someone.
"I'm afraid I don't have any good news. He's still in critical condition," Amanda replied, softer than she herself had expected.
Her stomach rolled. Nikita swallowed hard to keep the food down. Michael was alive, but for how long? There was nothing to do now but wait, and replay the image of him bleeding out from under her, over and over. She dug her nails into her tightly clenched fists and willed herself not to make a sound, because if she did, she wouldn't be able to stop the lump of anguish in her throat from crying out.
Amanda observed silently as her favorite protégé's face turned a ghastly pallor. A long forgotten feeling of pity welled up in her, only to be suppressed by the responsibility she had for the job at hand. Nevertheless, her words seemed to embody both concern and threat when she said, "Perhaps you should be more worried about yourself."
The remark crackled in the air, and for the first time since arriving back at Division, Nikita wanted to laugh. So very Division, to kick you in the face and then scold you for not taking care of yourself.
"Thank you for your concern," she rejoined, bending slightly at the waist in a mocking bow.
Something akin to anticipation flickered in Amanda's eyes.
"Then let's get started, shall we?" She nodded to the henchman standing beyond the doorway. He threw a switch that made a loud bang, like a shot gun.
The corners of the jail room began to hiss with a smoky mist. The diaphanous clouds snaked through her arms and legs until she could no longer see in front of her.
Who ever thought that hell would be snow white?
"It's good...to be…home…again," Nikita said, smiling ruefully as she went down.
Alex ran alongside Birkhoff as he exited Operations. "Can I see her?"
There was no question who 'she' was. Everyone was buzzing about their prisoner, the ex-Division member and saboteur extraordinaire known as Nikita. Some thought she finally made a mistake and Division was there to catch her. Others thought this might be a part of her plan to take down Division, using herself as a lure. The older members, those who fought alongside her during the early days, had their own suspicions, mostly to do with their missing operations leader, Michael. They knew better than to talk, but then they didn't exactly avoid listening to the chitchat when the topic came up either.
Birkhoff gave Alex a once over, like he couldn't quite remember who she was or why she was asking such a question. He settled on being suspicious and narrowed his eyes at her. "Why do you want to see Nikita?"
"I don't know, I just thought maybe I could see what the fuss is all about. I clocked her in one move," she remarked derisively, giving her long hair a slight flip.
The tech's hackles rose immediately. "You have no fucking clue. You got lucky. Her little pinkie finger is worth more than ten of you."
She took an exaggerated step back, palms out. "Hey, I'm on your side, remember?"
He blinked at that, and rubbed a non-existent bruise on his cheek, reliving the phantom pain courtesy of his last encounter with the female in question. Finally, he shrugged, "You can't see her. Not today anyway."
"Why not?" she asked flippantly, full of irreverence.
"She's being inquisitioned," he replied, fingers drawing air quotes on the last word, "She'll be out for the rest of the day, at least." There was no love lost between him and the Inquisitor, not since the full body cavity search. One just doesn't forget a thing like that.
Her stomach dropped, but Alex kept her tone light as she pushed forward. "But I'll get to see her, right?"
"Jesus, she's not a zoo animal!" he exclaimed, his voice tinged with annoyance, exasperation, and maybe just a little bit of defensiveness. Then with a heavy sigh and a classic eye roll, he waved her off, "Whatever, ask me tomorrow."
"All right, thanks!" Alex chirped, playfully punching him on the shoulder before taking off, her footsteps deliberately light.
Birkhoff made a face and brushed off the offending punch. "Just don't do anything stupid," he grumbled to her retreating back. He just stood there until she was out of sight.
An Ops minion rushed up next to him, trying to prod him out of his reverie. With Percy out doing damage control on the black boxes and Amanda dealing with Nikita, he was the new go-to guy. Now he knew why Michael seemed to be perpetually pissed off. Decrypting top government secrets was a lot more fun than this bullshit. He better not die. Percy and Amanda were megalomaniac psychopaths and Michael was his only reliable buffer.
"Sir?" Another prod.
"What?" he answered shortly, whipping around to see what was so important.
The minion's face was grave, and Birkhoff found himself mirroring his expression.
"It's the hospital."
The jail room was obviously hermetically sealed, but Birkhoff swore he could taste the coppery taste of blood in the air. He tightened his grip on the food that he'd taken over from the guard, and stepped in front of the glass barrier.
Nikita was on the floor, eyes tightly closed, lying haphazardly on her side. Dried blood, maroon and brown, caked over the lines that the restraints had left on her bare hands and feet. There were no bruises on her face, but the ruins of her mouth told of a pain so great that she'd nearly bitten off her own lips. Her hair was spread about her like crinkled wrapping paper—dried and stiff from sweat. The young tech shuddered with vicarious dread. Maybe he'd gotten off easy with the Inquisitor after all.
He tapped the intercom, despite not knowing whether she'd hear him or not. It was a gamble, and he was playing a deadly game, he should know better, but he didn't think he could live with himself if he didn't try. God, what was the matter with him? He was never the bleeding heart type-that had always been Michael's thing.
The thought of Michael deflated him, but it also led him to push forward, albeit quite nervously. He would have made for a horrible field agent.
"Hey Niki, sorry, ah, I didn't come and see you earlier. Been busy with, um…Michael…ah, out of commission and all," Birkhoff started to say, groaning internally as he blustered through.
"And, well, the last time we met, you kinda tore my head off," he said, substantially louder now, meant to be captured by the 24 hour surveillance, "But I can be the bigger man here. See, I even brought you dessert with your dinner. Licorice dipped in Red Bull. Mmmm!"
He pushed the tray through the small opening of the door connecting the rooms. There was still no movement within the room, but it was too late to take it back. He leaned down against the glass, getting as close as he could, trying one last time to make sure she knew he was here so that she, as smart as she was, could discover what he'd done.
Up close, the broken skin appeared much worse, and the sunken crescent of purple-gray beneath her eyes conveyed a sadness that made his heart grow heavy. Birkhoff swallowed unsteadily. His own abduction seemed almost trivial now.
"I forgive you," he said, before shuffling out of the room, his head dipping and bowing as he went.
He might have even meant it too.
Nikita gingerly opened her eyes as the doors closed behind Birkhoff. The light in the room felt sharp and blurry at the same time. She had to blink several times before the stinging stopped and the room came into focus. It hurt, everywhere, instantaneously. She tried to breathe and found that she had to do that slowly too, because her insides felt like a raw thrumming wound. Time ceased to have meaning as she laid there, trying to hold herself together through the rising and ebbing waves of agony, enduring cramp after cramp as her body protested inside and out. Her hands quivered as she tried to make a fist, fingers still dancing to the drum beat of pain that continued to vibrate inside her.
Com'on, Nikita, I know you can do this.
A low voice whispered in her ear.
Arms still shaking, her fingers closed tight.
She choked back a sob of relief before gasping softly at the memory of Michael's voice, breathing deep into her. She flexed her fists a few more times. His voice didn't return.
At last, when she was finally able to put a coherent thought together, she saw the newly replenished food tray. She squinted at the two thick red vines that poked out of a small foam cup. Crawling up to the tray, she curled up around it, so it happened that her back blocked the view of the watching cameras. Pushing the reconstituted meatloaf around, she struck something more solid.
Nikita held it close to her chest and carefully rolled it around her fingers, her heart beating a furious mile a minute.
An earbud with a two way transmitter.
"Com'on, com'on. Niki. Niki. Ni…"
Her eyes sprang open. She'd fallen asleep. The earbud was alive with Birkhoff's distinctive whine. She could see him in her mind's eye, pacing frantically, trying to get her online. Nikita sat up and bent forward, drawing in her knees and allowing her hair to fall straight in front of her, obscuring her face.
"Nerd," she whispered with a miniscule smile. What was he up to?
The earbud went abruptly silent. No protest, no biting retort. It wasn't until Nikita thought she might have imagined the whole thing that Birkhoff spoke again.
"I'm at the hospital, Nikita."
A dreadful chill snapped through her. She shook her head slowly, unconsciously; her lips mouthed a soft 'no'.
She could hear his harsh inhales and exhales despite the growing thunder of her heartbeat.
"He crashed twice already. They said he's probably not going to make it through the night."
"No." She was louder now.
He continued as if he hadn't heard her. "They asked me if he had any family or friends," he exclaimed with a bitter laugh, "They don't know any better, you know. We're Division because we don't have any family or friends."
Her entire face was numb. "Stop," she gritted out.
And then he did as she asked. If it weren't for his heavy breathing, it would have been easy to think he had gone away or cut her off. But then he stayed quiet for so long that she began to panic.
"Birkhoff?" Her voice seemed frightened, tiny, and distant. A little girl who's lost her way, with no one to lead her home.
The tech cleared his throat a few times before speaking again.
"I couldn't get you out," he said, sounding genuinely sorry, "But, I thought maybe he'd like to hear your voice…since you guys were tight and all."
Her eyes began to prickle.
He was quiet again, but this time his breaths were so carefully small that they made no sound. Then, "I'm sorry."
Static and several thumps followed until nothing was coming through the earbud. Nikita turned her head and held her breaths until her lungs screamed for air, trying to hear what was going on.
It was very faint, but the more she listened, the clearer it became.
Nikita bit straight into her clenched fist. Hot tears trickled down her face, leaving trails of salty burns. She sagged until she fell to her side, the cold floor pressing against her cheek.
"You can't die, what'll happen to the recruits? Who's going to protect them?"
"If you die, I'll kill Percy, I don't care about his black boxes or who they'll hurt."
"You can't die until you've tried one of my veggie shakes."
Intermittently, Nikita would go silent, making sure she could hear the heart monitor, beeping steadily. That's when she'd wipe away the tears on her face, dried and new. She'd also stop when she could taste blood on her crack lips, only to wipe them away like her tears and start again because of a perverse feeling that if she didn't keep talking, whatever held Michael to this mortal coil would break. Who knew that that one day she'd have to play Scheherazade?
Finally, when she thought there were no more tears in her and no more words to string together, she told him the things that she'd buried deep inside of her.
"I was afraid. I was so afraid that I told myself I shouldn't trust you. I even convinced myself you had something to do with Daniel's death. But you didn't. You warned me and I didn't listen."
She was wrong, she did have more tears left in her.
"I can't lose you, I can't do this without you, I can't…"
He would always say she could do whatever she wanted.
She didn't want this. She couldn't do this. Not if it meant Michael would be in the ground.
"I need you, Michael," Nikita implored, his name an endearment she repeated over and again.
Her body had already been pushed far beyond its limits, so somewhere along the line, she grappled with mental and physical exhaustion and lost. The white room around her went black, but the sighs of Michael's hospital machinery continued on, singing a lullaby as she drifted further and further into the dark.
Even in her dreams, comfort was elusive. She'd hear a familiar voice at her ear, only to see nothing when she looked. His voice was always there, encouraging her during training, scolding her during missions, teasing her during down times. Even when the dreamscape was that of her past before Division, when it made no sense, he was still there, comforting her after a row with Gary, disapproving of the ketamine she was trying to pump into her veins.
She was afraid to turn around and see emptiness again. But this time, there was a hand at her waist. Spinning around, she finally saw him, right as rain. His eyes gazed into hers like she was the most precious thing to him, but the bright smile she wore didn't seem to have an effect on his look of worry and concern.
He tenderly traced over the red needle marks that marred her skin. She shuddered at the contact. "That's not like you, Nikita."
She watched herself reply caustically, "You don't know me anymore, Michael." The dream was echoing her memories back to her. It wasn't her, it wasn't what she wanted to say.
To her surprise, there was no anger, confusion, or frustration. He seemed resigned and tired.
"You're right. Maybe I don't." He started to retreat, back into the smoke.
"No," she reached for him, "Don't go."
"Maybe I never knew you at all," he whispered, his silhouette already covered in shadows.
She tried to run towards him but her legs wouldn't move. "You did, you knew, you knew everything about me! But I couldn't…don't go."
Michael was gone.
Nikita gasped for air. The ache in her lungs yanked out her of the dreams, and she was awake once more. There were no clocks in the room, she didn't know how long she'd been out. Disoriented, she tried to get her bearings but a noise pierced through the earbud she still wore. Something was happening. A crash, loud beeps, doors opening, people yelling, jostling sheets.
She stopped breathing.
A faint voice filtered through.
"Time of death, 0400."
Eyes staring emptily at the space in front of her, Nikita ripped out the earbud and smashed it between her fingers.
She wanted to scream, her mouth opened wide, but nothing would come out. Her throat had closed so tightly that her chest pounded in protest. She was splintering and shattering, but everything that was breaking was trapped inside, churning and twisting until there wasn't an inch of her that didn't hurt. Even all the air her lungs clamored to take in seemed to burn on the way down. She backpedaled blindly, and upon reaching an obstruction, her head jerked up, slamming back against the wall with a sickening thud. The pain was welcomed, as was the oblivion that came after.
The henchman watching this on surveillance sat up in alert. It might all be just a ruse, but the blood on the wall was real. He raised the intercom in a Sublevel 6 interrogation room, where the Inquisitor was working on one of the captured Russians.
A guard in the room noticed the blinking intercom and got Amanda's attention. She backed away from the prisoner, gaining a small temporary reprieve from the stench of blood, sweat, puss, and fried skin that emanated from the slack body.
Amanda stripped off a stained latex glove, annoyed at the interruption as she spoke.
"Yes?" she replied coldly.
The man on the other side swallowed, but his voice was standard monotone.
"Ma'am, we have a problem."
Once the guards determined Nikita was truly unconscious, the Division physician moved in as Amanda watched behind the glass.
"Why would you do this?" She murmured and frowned at the scene before her. Nikita had given up nothing of consequence during their first session together and hadn't shown any signs of weakening. Why would she suddenly injure herself so seriously?
"She might have a subdural hematoma. We can do a brain scan to be sure, but if you're not planning on canceling her anytime soon, we would need to get her to a hospital. We're not equipped to treat this," the doctor concluded.
Amanda raised an eyebrow. Was that her gamble? She pursed her lips in mild dismay. They still didn't know who was financing and supplying Nikita with information. So far the Russians weren't forthcoming with anything Division didn't already know.
"Send an advance team to sweep hospital. Confirm her injuries and send her with the alpha unit. I want her under a twenty-four hour surveillance and guard. Be ready to return her to Division the moment she's been stabilized," Amanda ordered.
Her eyes trailed Nikita's unconscious form as the medical personnel moved her out of the jail room. She gestured to one of the agents to be assigned to Nikita's detail.
"Outside of the medical personnel, no one," she paused and contemplated saying Michael's name out loud, but decided against it as his chances at recovery were already quite low and she didn't want to give the agent the impression that the top echelon of Division was infighting, "is to see her. If she attempts anything, or if you run into anything out of the ordinary, your orders are to cancel her first and deal with the situation later. Is that understood?" Her icy tone offered no argument or room for error.
"Yes ma'am," the agent nodded stoically. Yet he was obviously nervous to be around her, as he placed an earbud into his ear, only to have it fall out. He recovered it quickly and didn't even try to see how Amanda reacted to his clumsiness before scampering off, nearly shouting as he notified the rest of his unit about the orders. Had Amanda been in more a pleasant mood, she might have been amused.
Alex observed curiously as a group of agents cleared out of Operations and another group, armed to the teeth, passed them on the upper platform.
"What's going on?" she asked no one in particular, frowning. If something major was going down, now would be a bad time with Nikita locked up somewhere in Division. She had to see her soon and figure something out. There was no telling what nefarious plots Division was planning for her sensei.
"Someone said Nikita tried to kill herself," Thom offered.
Alex paled and exclaimed incredulously, "What?"
Thom pretended not to notice her sudden interest and continued, nodding at the departing men and women, "They're sending a unit with her to the hospital."
She did a double take. "Wait, the same hospital where Michael is?" The instant she asked, she regretted it. Even worse, Thom was now warily looking beyond her shoulder. Alex hastily licked her lips and pasted an expression of nonchalance on her face before turning around, her pony tail swinging.
Birkhoff was behind her. His eyes were fixated on her behind his glasses, like she was a bug under his microscope. She blinked blankly at him, as if she had no idea why he was there or what he wanted. The corner of his mouth twitched.
"Yeah. That one."
On that ambiguous note, Birkhoff walked away from Alex and Alex gaped after him for a brief second before hurryingly heading off in the opposite direction, ignoring Thom's calls. When they each came to the end of their perspective corridors, they glanced up in a parody of an appeal to a higher power and said together, apart from each other, "Niki(ta), I hope you know what you're doing."
Medical facilities tend to eschew from having too many dark and depressing colors. Apparently no one ever told the two agents that stood in front of Nikita's room. They stuck out like sore thumbs, solemn expressions and dark suits against the white, bright, and clinical ambiance of the hospital. Then again, they didn't seem to care and appeared content to stand stock still in one spot for hours at a time.
Yet when a petite woman in a lab coat and pink scrubs walked up to them, their instantaneous reaction was nearly comical in betraying their impatience.
"Dr. Janus," the lead agent acknowledged.
Dr. Evelyn Janus smiled briefly with inconsequential politeness.
"How's my patient?" These two were keeping a closer watch on the woman inside than any nurse or doctor ever could.
Whether he heard the slight mocking tone in her voice or not, the agent was all business as he answered and questioned in rapid sequence, "She's been awake for a day now. When we can transport her back to our facilities?"
Evelyn walked through the door the other agent opened for them. "Let me take a look at her now. I'll arrange for another MRI to make sure there aren't any abnormalities from the surgery. If everything checks out, she can be discharged in a couple of hours."
"Thank you," the agent replied curtly, standing in what he determined to be enough distance for the doctor to easily perform her checks but still close enough to put a bullet between Nikita's eyes.
"I hope he's not making you nervous, Dr. Janus. I'd do something about it, but my hands are tied," Nikita deadpanned, greeting her with a loud clink of her handcuffs against the bed railing. Her arms and legs were secured to the bed with cuffs, a silver sheen against the black and purple welts that still marked her wrists and ankles.
"No worries," the doctor said with a tight smile. Her patient was irreverent, perhaps brave considering her situation, but that seemed to be a cover for something much worse. There was no light in her eyes, they were flat and still, as if she no longer cared for the world before her. Or perhaps because the one thing she truly wanted to see was forever gone. Whatever wounds she had on her body, it was nothing compared to what had happened to her soul.
An odd look flashed across Evelyn's face, but it was gone before Nikita or the agent could register the change. Evelyn inhaled deeply before coming to Nikita's bedside.
Nerves, the agent concluded.
Nikita observed dully as the doctor approached. Strange, that her hands would shake so much as a physician.
She rolled Nikita's head to the side. "Let me check the incision."
Nikita swallowed her surprise as Evelyn hastily and stealthily inserted an object into her left ear. But Evelyn wasn't as adept in the subterfuge as she would have liked. With the earbud threatening to fall out, Nikita twisted her head back, effectively holding the device between her ear and the pillow beneath her. She blinked quickly and gave Evelyn a small nod.
Evelyn gave her a shaky grin before announcing, for the sake of the agent in the room, "Everything looks fine, I'll be back in thirty minutes for the MRI."
As soon as both doctor and agent filed out of the room, the earbud crackled and a man's voice came through.
Nikita's eyes widened with surprise. This was unexpected to say the least.
"Get ready. The MRI room." He was a man of few words, but she understood. He was going to break her out when the doctor brings her to the MRI room. But what was he doing here in the first place? The last she'd heard of him, he was still on his own mission to destroy the black boxes.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, her curiosity getting the best of her. Not that she was being too self effacing, but she honestly didn't think he would take the trouble to keep track of her.
Silence. Then, "Who do you think told the Russians about the black box?"
The boxes were a secret that Percy would guard with his own life and everyone else's. Had there been enough time, Nikita would have wondered how the Russians became involved.
He continued, his words a lethal calm above vicious depths, "Percy was too careful. I had to make him nervous enough to make mistakes. Now I know where three of the other boxes are." He had used the Russians, and inadvertently used her and Michael in the deadly gamble.
His revelation rendered her speechless. But her thoughts weren't on the black boxes that started the entire sequence of events.
"He died. You…he died, because of you," Nikita murmured in disbelief, all the blood draining from her face. She felt sick, horrified, guilty, and angry all at once.
On the other end, Owen frowned with confusion, and then the frown deepened into a grimace. "Daniel?" he asked hesitantly. That would always be the unspoken wedge between them.
She gasped, as if she was being ripped in two. "Michael!" she grated out, her breath in short, abrupt pants, "Michael's…" The word, she couldn't bear to say it, it hurt so much, "…dead."
"Nikita!" he called out in a rush, and then paused, feeling like he was intruding on something he had no business intruding on. This wasn't the first time he's heard Michael's name on Nikita's lips during her time of distress. Maybe his potential ally's situation was more complicated than he thought.
He sighed, gazing at the gray colored sky above him, and spoke into wireless channel.
"Nikita, Michael's alive."
Nikita's doubt was evident in her non-response.
Owen explained further, "When I cased the hospital, I saw the other agents looking in on him. He's in the recovery wing."
Nikita would have shaken her head had she could without dislodging the earbud. "I heard them call out his time of death," she whispered with a chill, too scared to hope.
"People die in hospitals all the time. Are you sure it was Michael?" he asked, sounding more and more reasonable.
She had been sure, but now, she wasn't. The earbud that she was using to communicate with Owen had been too loosely placed in her ear by Dr. Janus. Her restraints prevented her from pushing it further into her ear canal—the same thing could have happened to Michael. She'd black out between the time when Birkhoff had placed the device on Michael and when she heard the pronouncement of death. It could have simply fallen out and been displaced, and the last words she heard were for someone else.
Nikita went silent and stayed silent, her thoughts in turmoil. Owen chose to remain quiet as well as he made his way into the hospital, preparing for the rescue. Soon, the two agents outside Nikita's room reappeared with a nurse holding non-metal restraints, readying her for the MRI scan. They stood in careful attention, wary as the nurse replaced each metal cuff and re-restrained her against a large plastic cast. Finally, when the nurse was done, the trio pushed her rapidly down the hallway, the agents were eager to finish their hospital stint once Nikita could be discharged and relocated back to Division.
"No guns, guys," Evelyn Janus joined them and waved at the warning sign in front of the MRI room. The lead agent unholstered his sidearm and backup, handing them over to the other agent. He gestured for Evelyn to wait and entered the room first to clear it. She smiled stiffly at the other agent as they waited.
The man returned promptly. "It's clear," he said as he held open the double doors. To the other agent, he said, "Hold your position and check back in ten."
Evelyn pushed Nikita through, the agent following. But as soon as they were out of the visual range of the agent outside, Owen emerged from the previously locked the electrical room and swiftly stuck a needle into the man's neck, catching him before his fall could make a sound.
Evelyn and Owen made quick work of Nikita's restraints. He handed Nikita a duffle bag and joined Evelyn behind the observation glass to give her some privacy as she donned the wig and clothes he had picked up for her.
"Whatever she did, she didn't deserve what happened to her. No one does," Evelyn said as he came in.
As Nikita's attending physician, Evelyn saw her bruises and the tattle tale signs of torture. Although she knew that her patient was a captive of some government agency, she couldn't help but feel enraged at how they were treating her. She could perform surgery on Nikita, but she couldn't help her from the people inflicting the injuries on her. So when Owen accosted her outside the hospital and threatened her to help Nikita escape, it took her only a minute before telling him no threats were needed. Someone helped her when she was trapped in a cycle of violence; it was only fitting that she does the same for someone else.
For a moment, Evelyn appeared to be lost in an unpleasant memory as she watched Nikita redressed with haste. She visibly shook off the memories before asking Owen, as an aside, "What would you have done if I hadn't agreed to help you?"
Owen's eyes went to the fallen agent on the floor. She followed his gaze and admonished herself for asking the obvious with a wry grin, "Forget I asked."
Owen unsheathed the knife he kept in his boots. His brows furrowed as it glinted in his calloused hands. "I'm sorry," he said, contrite that after all she's done for them, he'd have to hurt her. Such a sentiment had been foreign to him before Emily.
Evelyn held her head up high. "It's for my own good, right?" She squeezed her eyes shut, ready for the blade to fall. Owen took a breath and sliced open her upper left arm with the ease of a seasoned professional. She gasped as blood sprang from the fresh wound. Her right hand grew slick as she placed pressure over the opening.
"Owen!" Nikita had finished dressing and was now staring in wide-eyed horror at the bleeding doctor. She was rushing forward to help Evelyn when Owen caught her in his arms and began to pull her towards the back exit.
"It's her cover for helping us. We need to go, the agent outside will check back in ten and the others on your detail in twenty."
Nikita reluctantly stopped struggling, but threw off Owen's restraining arms and approached the doctor until they were standing face to face. "Thank you, for saving my life," she said to Evelyn with solemn sincerity.
"I was told it's best not to mention it," Evelyn joked despite the burning pain in her arm, "Go."
Nikita and Owen nodded their good-byes and then they were gone.
Evelyn dropped down on to the cold floor, listening as her blood dripped and dropped. She stared at the growing puddle of red. She could barely believe what had just happened. Doesn't this stuff only happen in movies and TV shows? She started to giggle as the endorphins kicked in, whispering to herself, "I helped two secret spies escape and all I got was a knife wound."
As for the two secret spies she helped escape, they weren't exactly speaking as they navigated through the labyrinth of the hospital, ducking Division agents on the way. Owen knew Nikita was upset over the Evelyn's injuries, but she also knew it was the only way to make sure the doctor was safe from suspicion. Nonetheless, the silence stretched uncomfortably between them.
They came to a fork in the corridor, the exit within visual range when Nikita came to a swift stop. The placard on the wall above her held directions to the various parts of the hospital. One of them was to the recovery wing. Despite the fact Owen told her that Michael was alive, she'd never seen him with her own two eyes. She trusted Owen with her life, but she couldn't control the fact that she wanted to verify his words, nor could she readily deny her burning desire to see Michael. To see him, and touch him, and make sure he was real.
Somewhere, fate was listening.
She froze upon hearing her name, spoken only in the way he could, her mind a mad cacophony of fear and elation. If she faced the source of the sound, would he disappear as he did in her dreams? Would he fade away into the darkness and never to return no matter how much she called out to him? Her heartbeat palpitated in her throat as she turned around, her eyes unblinking.
Michael braced himself against the white hospital walls, his green eyes wide in disbelief. He hadn't been sure it was her, but something made him call out anyway. This was the first time he had been able to force himself to stand upright and walk without debilitating pain, so he'd almost thought he imagined her in a tired haze. What was she doing here? When he had finally woken up, none of them had said anything about Nikita, and he'd just assumed that she escaped again. But now she was here. Her long trademark locks were gone and in its place a crude brown wig. Her clothes hung haphazardly on her thin frame, and she looked like she'd just seen a ghost.
He was thinner, Nikita saw at first, his complexion a dull and sickly white. His almost familial scowl conveyed his consternation, as if he had no idea what she was doing here, as if she should know better than to show at a facility the Division regularly used…as if he hadn't stepped out in front of her and taken the bullet meant for her. Just another meet and greet between antagonistic colleagues, never mind the once gaping, life threatening hole in his chest.
"Nikita!" Owen called out breathlessly. They were running out of time.
As luck would have it, she was standing between the two men, equal paces to reach either of them. Lucky, given that the choice was entirely hers, there were no physical variables to consider, no disadvantaged distance. Any decision would take an equal amount of time to implement, but there was no going back. The floor seesawed beneath her feet, beckoning her to decide, soon, before the agents find her gone.
Nikita swung her head back to Owen. His shoulders were tense with energy as he waited, his eyes simply urging her to hurry. The black boxes awaited. Then she spun around to see Michael, whose initial foray outside the confines of his hospital room proved to be premature as he clutched at the gnawing pain in his chest. But he never took his eyes off of her.
Owen or Michael.
Michael or Owen.
A girl should be so very lucky.
Once Nikita made up her mind, her pulse roaring with the force of it, she took the first step in his direction. That momentum was all that was needed to send her flying towards him. Her feet were light as air, but her heart drummed with a lingering regret for the path not taken.
Michael didn't believe in happiness. At least, not for himself. It was part of the reason why he felt so protective over the recruits, because they were still at that point in their lives where they could still feel the thrill of their first bull's eye and hold their head up high after winning combat session. Let them have their moments of light before plunging into the perpetual darkness he knew so well.
Happiness was for people who weren't in his line of work. He would only sleep well knowing that he was repaying what he owed Percy, so that when the day came he could go into his grave, debt free. He'd never imagined himself being happy, so it came as a surprise when Nikita showed up and he'd find himself smiling for the smallest reasons. But it wasn't meant to be, he told himself over and over, and he felt vindicated when Nikita disappeared after Daniel died. Having no expectations meant not feeling disappointment.
The split second that Nikita made her decision, all that determined energy burning through her, Michael closed his eyes, so he wouldn't see her leave again.
When she runs, he gives a dutiful chase.
When she leaves, he always stays behind.
He preferred it when she runs, at least then she would look back, fire off a warning shot or a snarky comeback. At least then he could imagine himself catching up to her, coming up right next to her, and finding a reason to smile again. When she leaves, he would find himself back in the darkness, sustaining on the glowing embers of memories she left behind.
Whatever strength he had gathered in his weakened state evaporated with a dull prolonged pain that had nothing to do with his physical injuries. He grasped the cold hospital wall beneath his fingers, and listened in blind silence for her steps to fade away.
They didn't fade. Instead, they got louder, and before Michael could open his eyes, he felt the touch of another human being that didn't involve sparring, shooting, cutting, or prodding. His body had been an armor to be trained, reinforced, and repaired for so long that the simple contact was both strangely foreign and achingly familiar.
When Nikita wrapped her arms tightly around him, his mouth fell open with shock. When he felt her smiling widely into his neck, he couldn't help but smile with her, his arms automatically coming around her with unconscious and affectionate mimicry. When she sighed heavily with relief and started to shudder in his embrace, he couldn't help but think that he was missing something terribly important.
He almost asked her what was wrong. But the training was in his bones so instead what came out was a mixture of admonishment and accusation, albeit one so lacking in force that an answer seemed to be optional.
"What are you doing?"
Nikita reluctantly released him and casually rubbed at her cheeks with her hands, brushing off sparkles of light. She tried to wipe the silly grin off her face before answering him, but only succeeded moderately.
"Consorting with the enemy."
Even a straight reading of a phrase like that would have sounded suggestive when it was said with a crooked smirk like Nikita did. And she said he was the tease. And if his face hadn't been so pale to begin with, she might have missed the subtle rush of blood to his face.
Nikita tilted her head to one side, her eyes playful, as she remarked with a clinical matter-of-fact intonation, "That's a good color on you."
Michael's face contorted hopelessly, trying to scowl and smile and be expressionless at the same time. It turned out to be quite the exertion. He coughed and his physical weariness struck an all too familiar cord of wariness in his heart and clarity in his mind. He couldn't capture her, not in his current state, if he had to explain to Percy. But she couldn't stay here, especially if he read the situation right. A glimpse of a solid white bandage under her wig told him that she had also been admitted to the hospital, which in all likelihood meant there was a Division unit assigned to her. If they discovered her missing, their orders would be shoot-to-kill. He hesitated for a beat, savoring the closeness of their proximity, before feigning disgust at his weakness and her light hearted overtures.
Michael pushed her away with all the force he could muster, avoiding her pointed gaze. When Nikita made no move to leave, he tasted bile. She had to make him say it, to confess, to put it into words that he cared more for her than for any Division directive. He wondered sometimes if she took too much after Amanda in that regard, the effortless way that she would pick at his scars until they bled once more.
"Get the hell out of here!" Michael snapped, eyes averted, unwilling to see the triumph in her eyes as he lets her go again, again and again. In the long run, it didn't matter, he told himself. Division would be crawling all over them at any time, if words were what she wanted, then he would give them, if only it meant that she would leave and live to run another day.
Nikita watched the gamut of emotions flash across Michael's face and felt his hurt like it was her own. Whether she was fully cognizant of it or not, there was always something cruel about the way she expected him to give in to her and to understand her without opening herself to him. She chose to protect herself and blissfully ignored the person who stood by her through thick and thin. How could she be so righteous of what she was doing to Division when she was perpetuating her own brand of manipulation on the person least deserving of it?
Drawing in a shaky breath, Nikita leaned down and propped Michael up with her shoulder.
"I'm helping you stand up straight, old man, because I want to say this to your face."
Her solemn countenance dared him to denounce the 'old man' quip. He figured the worst was yet to come and said nothing.
"I want your help," she announced succinctly. He gaped incredulously at her as she forged on, "I can't do this without you."
Michael blinked in rapid succession, his pulse flailing behind his eye sockets. He was so much at a loss for words that he ignored the way his memory pinged at her last sentence, and nearly stuttered as he exclaimed in disbelief, "Are you insane?" Her entreaty scared him, scared that she would take such a risk on him, and scared that he might actually do it for her.
"I've never been saner in my life. I should have done this a long time ago," she concluded for him before stepping forward, erasing the distance between them so that they were closer than close, breathing the same air.
Michael froze, his brain still stuck in a jumble as Nikita leaned in languidly, a dangerous smile on her lips. Her fingers reached for his face, the tips massaging through the dark stubble that had accumulated around his hard jaw and cheeks. She waited, watching from under her lowered eyelids as his lips parted instinctively, on cue. With a victorious glint in her eyes, she closed the last inch between them.
And all his thoughts flew out the window.
She was kissing him.
She methodically approached him with a shuttered gaze, prepped him by drawing delicate circles on his stubbled jaw, waited for his skin to register her body heat, and swooped in for the kill.
Nikita wasn't just kissing him. She was seducing him.
There just weren't enough brain cells in Michael's head to compute the situation. He wanted her gone, but now she was the antithesis of gone. Her lips were on his and it wasn't a dream and he had no idea what was going on. Yet it didn't seem so important right then and there. Somewhere a short fused stopped burning, because there was no fuse left to burn.
Nikita kept the kiss shallow, hesitating, almost shyly, vulnerability hidden in a cloak of wanton temptation. She could feel his surprise. During her Division missions, many of her marks were always surprised that she would give them the time of day. But Michael wasn't a mark and it was inconsolable to her that he reacted the same way. Had the distance between them always been so great, had she always kept an arm's length between them?
No more, she wasn't going to do it anymore. She'd gotten a second chance, to her Michael effectively rose from the dead. There weren't many second chances in life and she was not going to make the same mistake again.
But before Nikita could attack her vow with renewed vigor, Michael whipped the both of them around with such a bruising force that she gasped. She was caged between him and the wall. With a dark glare from his shadowed eyes, he kissed her so deeply and thoroughly, she didn't know where he began and where she ended. Liquid heat blossom hotly through her veins, wild flowers floating in the haze of the summer sun. When Michael's calloused fingers captured her slender neck, his thumb pressing intently at the hollow behind her ear, Nikita arched against him with the tension of a finely plucked string. His kiss, his mouth, his fingers, were making her body dance and her heart sing.
Seduction was a skill they had both perfected, but until now, never used against each other. It was as if they knew it would light a powder keg and unleash all that they kept secret and hidden, even from themselves. Once opened, the Pandora's Box was never to be closed again.
The once restless ardor became a fevered burn, and then there was an explosion. Not a metaphorical one, but rather, an actual detonation that rocked the ground beneath them. The lights above them flickered and somewhere an alarm went off. The kiss alone couldn't have done so much. It had to be from someone who knew how to make a distraction.
"I guess my ride's getting impatient," Nikita thumbed in the direction of the bomb blast as she panted heavily for air. She looked mildly annoyed at his only slightly unsteady breathing, courtesy of his 'Navy' trained lung capacity.
"I'll be back, and we'll finish this…" she said, getting last word in as she cheekily glanced downward, "…when you're more up to it."
There was a definite flush high in Michael's cheeks as Nikita vanished from whence she came. But as he watched her leave, his pulse thundered in alarm as the full realization of what happened settled over him.
Had the world turned upside down while he was unconscious? The barrier that stood between them, as long as he could remember, was eviscerated. In a way, he had relied on that barrier and allowed himself to straddle that impermeable line when he should have been much farther away. If for whatever some reason that line was gone, there would be utter chaos. Even if she did truly return his feelings, there would be a heavy price to pay. Yet, even as his mind grew more troubled, his heart swelled with the possibility that finally, finally, he could feel the heat of the fire instead of watching the flames flicker from afar.
People were rushing past him, away and to the blast, Michael simply stood there like a coma patient who had just woken from a long sleep and couldn't quite understand the rules of reality just yet.
One of the nurses noticed him stuck on his feet and hurriedly ushered him back into his room. "Stay inside, sir, this is an emergency. I'm going to lock the door behind me, we'll come check on you as soon as we can."
The click of the lock broke Michael out of his reverie. He rummaged the drawers next to his bed and found his cell phone. If there was ever anyone who could give an unvarnished account of what happened, it was Birkhoff. He punched in the tech's private line.
"Michael, I'm kinda busy here, on my way to Operations…on second thought, you should probably hear this. Looks like Nikita's escaped right from under our noses, again. Man, is Percy going to be pissed. And Amanda, I wouldn't want to be the next slab on her table. She's the one who decided to send Nikita to the hospital instead of canceling her right on the spot."
Michael feigned ignorance and asked, "When did we catch Nikita?"
"When you got shot and some recruit got lucky. Jesus, Michael, you went all zombie on our ass. Shot, dead, then undead. They had a spot in the morgue already set out for you and you were all, on second thought, I'm going to live."
"That bad, huh?" His doctor probably told him something of sorts, but Michael tended to tune him out. As long as he could still hold a gun and fight, he didn't care how close he came to dying. Division didn't need him for anything else.
"Yeah! I even had Niki-" Birkhoff came to a sudden stop, realizing he had just revealed something best left unrevealed. "Aww shit, nothing starts with Niki except Nikita…I can't save this…" Michael frowned as Birkhoff trailed off unintelligibly, muttering to himself, though he was sure he heard Nikita's name.
"Birkhoff! What about Nikita?"
On the other end of the phone, Birkhoff fidgeted and pulled at collar of his t-shirt. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, "I kinda had her-talking-to-you-when-they-toldmeyouweredyingokaybye." Then he hung up.
Startled by Birkhoff's abrupt disconnection, Michael stared at his cell phone, frowning in concentration, trying to decipher what he had just heard.
It hit him. The pieces fell together, the uncharacteristic way she nearly broke in his arms when she saw him. He sighed deeply and spoke into the cold, empty hospital room, "She thought I was dead."
The ride from the hospital was mostly quiet. The sound of the car engine filled the space with a white noise that was comforting but indicative of the stillness between them.
Nikita was grateful that Owen rescued her, but with the rescue came a few unpleasant truths about how different they were, even if they wanted the same things. Not to mention she had a few other things, and a certain person on her mind.
Owen wasn't sure what to make of Nikita's little detour back at the hospital. He didn't even know how to bring it up, or if he should bring it up. He had only track down three black boxes when he got wind of her capture. He hadn't meant for her to get in the crossfire between the Russians and Division, so he came to help free her. Though she'd mention Michael before, he never knew what went on between them, but the fact that she was willing to risk her life just to be close to him, spoke volumes.
The silence was near oppressive when he finally spoke up.
"Can he be trusted?"
Nikita wished she had her tranquilizer.
His stiff shoulders told her he was offended. The way his eyes appeared to roll and float, just a little bit, as if he knew a lecture was coming, reminded her of Michael.
And just as she would with Michael, Nikita continued anyway, "I don't know what they taught you in cleaner school, but when you lie down with Russian mercs, you'll get up with a mouthful of bullets."
"It worked, didn't it?" The end justified the means. Once all the boxes are destroyed, he could do what he's wanted to do since Emily died in his arms, make Percy bleed for taking her away from him.
Owen reminded Nikita of herself, at the beginning, surviving only on the haze of anger and pain, letting his wounds fester so that he could pay repentance to Emily for failing to save her. Knowing how he felt also meant she knew how to push his buttons, just so.
"There are a lot of ways to get what we want, Owen. Don't do it their way," she paused, before dousing alcohol on his wounds, "You owe her that much."
"Don't." Knuckles white, Owen gripped the steering wheel so tightly the car swerved between the dashed lines of the road.
Nikita said no more. She pulled her knees up and looked out the car window, taking in the scenery.
Owen stared unseeingly at endless road in front of him. His chest felt like it was being squeezed into a tiny suitcase as Emily's soft voice flickered on and off in his ears. But he knew he had to calm down before his haphazard driving attracted any attention. He uncoiled his fingers slowly, releasing the tension in his hands, and the path of the car straightened. The sound of her voice was gone and gradually, his lungs stopped protesting.
Silence filled the air again.
It used to be, that he could still hear Emily talking, laughing and see her at her table, working her butterflies when he closed his eyes. But now, he could only catch glimpses and pieces, like still pictures or a recording gone bad. Time was doing its work and it made him angry, angry at the world, at Percy, and at himself. It was his fuel and it was what drove him to the Russians.
He took a quick glance at Nikita, the scars on her wrists, the bruises on her arms, and the dark half moons beneath her eyes. Even now, she was trying to guide him back from the crooked path. Because he knew she saw her mission as a noble one, one that she was doing to honor the memory of Daniel, and not to feed the pain of her loss.
He still remembered what she said, when he gave her the location of his black box.
'We're going to go get it, together.'
His anger was blurring the purpose of his mission. He did owe it to Emily to not just make it right, but do it right. Because even if he could no longer remember the details of their time together, he would always remember his love for her. That was what he should be fighting for, so that Emily could rest in peace, knowing that he made sure no one else would suffer their fate.
A peace like no other finally settled over him.
Owen cleared his throat. Nikita turned and faced him, her face expressionless and he was suddenly contrite for what he did, and what she went through as a result.
"If your offer is still on the table…" he started.
Nikita answered him by placing her hand above his on the wheel.
Percy's days were numbered.
The man at the forefront of Nikita's wrath stood in his office, facing the wall opposite his desk, his hands laced behind him. Percy said nothing for a few silent seconds, before turning around to face the woman standing at ease before him. He asked softly, his brows furrowed in an exaggerated frown, "Why wasn't she canceled?"
"A leak is still a leak. I thought was more prudent to extract her sources."
That was true. So reasonably true. Given the chance he'd like to know Nikita's backers too. So he could riddle them with bullets and set them on fire with the might of his fury.
"Precautions were taken, but…" Amanda gave Percy a significant look, "…she had help."
Percy's eyes immediately narrowed to slits before walking over to the decanter at the edge of his desk. He poured a generous amount. Knowing Amanda, the only people who could circumvent her precautions would have to be someone how knew Division all too well. Had it begun already? The defection of his most loyal lieutenant to a mere street trash pawn? Would that he could turn back time and let Nikita rot in prison.
Amanda was in no hurry to relieve Percy from his infuriation. It was almost enjoyable, to see him squirm, watching him contemplate losing Michael over to the woman he created. There was a Greek tragedy somewhere in there and she was nothing if appreciative of the dark recesses of the human psyche. She swallowed a small smile before turning on the widescreen of his office.
"Michael couldn't have helped her escape, before the security feed was disrupted, hospital surveillance and our men's accounts placed him on the other side of the hospital when the escape took place."
The screen showed a picture of Michael, grimacing as he tried to sit up in his hospital bed.
"So who the hell was it?" Percy seethed, but not without a note of relief in his voice.
Amanda didn't appear to hear him and simply continued on what appeared to be a tangent, "I was able to extract some useful information from our Russian captive. He had security cameras on site when he met with his contact about the black box in New York. Birkhoff downloaded feed."
Amanda switched on the grayscale footage on the other half of the screen, allowing digital enhancements to capture a lone figure talking to the mercenary before turning to Percy, "Someone we know?"
"Owen," he nearly spat, his eyes wide with dismay.
Her lips thinned, "If I recall, you said he was dead, years ago."
Percy raised his eyebrows at her, a silent 'are we being petty now?' They both knew he would sometimes remove the cleaners from the roster for his private projects. In Division, dead could mean anything.
Since Owen had been Percy's favorite, most likely he was assigned to guard one of the black boxes. This puzzled Amanda. A cleaner wouldn't just end up working with the Russians for any reason, Division trained them better than that. Then she remembered the incident in Montreal. And the odd reports that resulted. The male agent who'd gone rogue with a black box because they'd killed his girlfriend, his name was curiously absent but confirmed as dead by Percy himself. The pieces fit perfectly, but for the way the reports appeared to be redacted, clean of Owen's name. The only reason to redact the report was so that even if someone had the right level of clearance, they still couldn't connect Owen to the operation. There was no reason for Percy to hide Owen from her, she knew him from liaising with the cleaner program. Then that left only one other person.
Amanda followed Percy's gaze, scrutinizing the two faces on the widescreen before casting a rare startled look at him, the truth suddenly dawning.
"I've always thought there was a certain similarity between your two favorites," she said slowly, testing the waters. She caught the microsecond flinch across Percy's face. It was all she needed to confirm her suspicions. Her lips curled. "They have no idea, do they?"
All the smug ease went out of his posture; his eyes were a bottomless pit of dark as he said with simmering menace, "I'd tread carefully, Amanda."
She nodded easily with acquiescence, but added smoothly without a hint in fear, "And as should you. This was a bad call."
Percy glared at her for a brief moment before deciding it was rather pointless to out intimidate the Inquisitor. She was covered in a coat of gloss so thick, nothing stuck. It was all very galling, but she was right. "You don't think I know that now? This would have never happened if it weren't for Nikita."
She all but rolled her eyes before asking, "What are they?"
Percy didn't particularly want to tell her. It was one of his best dirty little secrets. He felt a great sense of accomplishment, the way he took the two highly capable men under his wing and trained them to excel in his craft, marching with exacting efficiency to his every order. And to make sure his power over Division couldn't ever be usurped, he kept them apart, one as his favorite cleaner, and one as his second in command, each unknowing of the other. Owen knew only of the Michael in Operations while Michael didn't know Owen at all. Even with their names, he'd make the effort to be circumspect.
But Amanda was right, now that he knew Owen was alive and most likely helping Nikita, his stratagem could potentially become a great hazard to the continuation of Division. Amanda was his only ally, and she very well knew it.
Percy downed the amber liquid in his glass before divulging the secret he'd kept for years.
"They're half brothers."
There was a knock at Amanda's office. The door cracked open and Birkhoff surveyed the room warily before entering. "You wanted to see me, Amanda?"
"Birkhoff," she acknowledged as he shuffled in, "Have a seat."
"I'd rather not," he answered smartly.
A sideways glance from Amanda had him sitting down anyway.
Amanda sat down cross from him and placed a piece of a mangled earbud on the pristine coffee table. She idly observed as the color drained from Birkhoff's face.
"What…what is that?"
She didn't appreciate his dismal attempt to obfuscate. "You know what that is, Birkhoff."
"Well, yeah, of course, it's a shitty looking earbud-"
"It was in Nikita's cell. We cleared her for devices before taking her into custody. According to the surveillance logs, you were the last person to see her."
The tech squirmed in his seat, his heart pounding with dread as cold sweat began to prickle down the back of his neck. He should have seen this coming, why didn't he see this coming?
"I can explain," he croaked.
"I don't need your explanation, Birkhoff. I know why you did it." Her soft tone was almost comforting, understanding.
Birkhoff stared at the ground, shoulders hunched in. "I was just…they told me Michael was dying. It seemed like a bro thing to do."
If Birkhoff had chosen to look up at that moment, he would have seen an enigmatic smile grace Amanda's face, as if he said something remarkably amusing or incredibly apropos.
"Michael has always been appreciative of your initiatives."
Birkhoff snorted, taking refuge in the familiarity of empty accolades, "Yeah right. I'm just a nerd to him. He has no idea the amount of work I put into Shadownet just so he can get his satellite images faster than he can ask for them. That one time, when I cracked a closed security feed and added real time subtitles, did he say 'thank you', nooooo."
Amanda held at ready a water glass as he rambled, but just as Birkhoff distractedly took the water from her, he came to an abrupt stop, right before his lips touched the drink. His palms were clammy, fingers twitchy as he carefully set the glass down. His arm snapped back immediately, away from the table.
Birkhoff stared at Amanda, the whites of his eyes laced with red. He swallowed tightly and asked, "Are you canceling me?"
Amanda didn't answer his question, instead she stood and retrieved a flash drive from the top of her desk, moving at a deliberate pace so he could easily track her movements. All very non-threatening and yet Birkhoff couldn't keep his pulse from thundering as she sat back down and placed the drive in front of him. It was a generic, black, unlabeled flash drive, but he regarded it like a snake pit.
"I think you should continue to take the initiative until Michael realizes what you can truly accomplish."
His faced twisted with confusion, but under Amanda's directed gaze, he hesitantly reached for the drive, breathing an inner sigh of relief when she finally cracked a smile. When Amanda remained silent, Birkhoff knew he was being dismissed. He couldn't quite believe his good fortune and some part of him still thought a cleaner was going to jump out and snap his neck. Nervously, he stood up, willing his legs not to wobble as he headed for the exit.
He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath before turning around.
"Yes, Amanda?" he replied, forcing a smile through his clenched teeth.
Amanda was clearing the table, not giving him a second glance, but her words were clear and concise. "Sometimes it's best to keep your personal projects under wraps until the time is right. Premature exposure can be…" she paused and appeared to consider her word choice, "…hazardous. Then where would you be?"
Dead. He would be canceled and dead. She didn't say it but he heard it. He didn't need to understand her psychobabble to know that she was warning him. Whatever was on the drive it had to be so mind blowing that she was basically blackmailing him to…he wasn't sure what she wanted him to do. But it had something to do with Michael and the sooner he got on it, the sooner he'd get her off his back.
He skedaddled out of her office and went back to Operations. Within five minutes, he came up with a lame excuse about a wonky server, and headed to the server rooms, with no one the wiser. Without an active operation, it wasn't unlike him to spend hours with the servers.
Birkhoff powered up his favorite terminal, situated in a blind spot from the surveillance cameras, and settled in. Amanda's flash drive had two files in it. A personnel file and a strike team report. The man in the personnel file seemed familiar, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it, ditto the report. Nothing was amiss at first glance, except for some minor discrepancies in the standard protocol. The metadata on the files were also strange and sometimes just completely absent, something that Birkhoff picked up immediately while others might have ignored it. They were like digital breadcrumbs, leading him to one seemingly unrelated report after another, but for the electronic threads that stitched them together.
It was sometime around midnight, the witching hour, after cracking his own security protocols and covering his tracks whilst cross referencing data from the Division's fortified networks and restricted archives, that Birkhoff found the final thread in the tapestry. He had barely gotten off his high of seamlessly hacking into the highest of classified Division files when the smoke settled before his eyes. The eerie blue computer light bounced off Birkhoff's glasses as he gazed with opened mouth shock at the data before him.
The moment Michael stepped into Operations, newly recovered from his stint in the hospital, he could sense that something was wrong.
"What do you mean their trackers are offline?" Percy was yelling over Birkhoff's terminal.
"I can't locate them on the primary or secondary frequencies…"
Michael could see blue-tinted sweat beading off Birkhoff's forehead as the tech bathed in glow of the of the computer screen, typing furiously at the keyboard. The other members of his team were also pounding away at their terminals.
"What's going on?" he asked walked up next to them. Whatever it was, it was huge. He'd rarely seen Percy so enraged and off balanced, not even when Nikita was involved.
Birkhoff's eyes widened with surprise at his presence. "Michael!" he called out, joyously as though he'd suddenly found a lifeline whilst drowning. Then his shoulders deflated almost instantaneously and he appeared to grimace at nothing in particular as his eyes met his. Michael didn't know what to make of the tech's odd behavior, so he turned to Percy.
Percy was berating two of the junior techs, "I wanted those satellite images yesterday!"
"Three agents on Percy's black box duty missed their check-in," Birkhoff murmured surreptitiously at Michael's elbow before turning back to his computer.
An entire repertoire of government secrets was potentially missing. All three sets. This was worse than bad. There were only a few outside of Division that knew about the black boxes. Michael chose his next words after a second of deliberation.
Percy turned and regarded Michael with an expressionless stare. Finally, he seemed to calm down enough to give consideration to his suggestion, "Amanda confirmed that the group we captured only knew about the box you brought back."
"Their original source could have done it with another group. Do we know who it is?"
It was a straightforward query for someone who's been out of commission since the incident with the Russian mercenaries. But Percy and Birkhoff's reactions were unexpected. Michael didn't think it was possible, but Birkhoff appeared to slowly meld with his computer screen while Percy waved off his question like it was hardly worth consideration.
"I think we both know who could have done this," Percy said, disappointed that he had to be the one to bring her up.
Everyone's' heads turned to the communications tech who cried out the very loaded name. Operations was suddenly as quiet as a tomb.
The tech swallowed tightly, and reported, "She's on the phone. She wants to talk to Percy."
"Get a trace! Get everything!" Percy commanded, initiating a second wave of intense activity in the room. He answered the call as Birkhoff gave the ready nod for the recording, the trace, the everything.
"Hello Percy. Enjoying the show?"
"Nikita, you've made me very upset. There will be severe consequences."
"Yes, the consequences will be quite severe, but only for you. Love to stay and chat, but I'm all out of threats for the day. Good-bye Percy, I hope the next time I get to say that will be right before I empty a clip into your face. Huh, what do you know, I did have another one in me," Nikita snarked. Then the line went dead.
The afternoon and the night that followed were hectic as Division analyzed every single detail of Nikita's call and the incoming reports of the investigatory team sent out to the last known location of the three black boxes.
Michael was there well into the twilight hours when Amanda arrived in his office.
"Welcome back. You gave us quite a scare."
He doubted Amanda felt anything of the sort, but answered politely, "Thank you." A wave of dizziness hit, and as much as he hated showing weakness in front of her, he couldn't stop himself from swaying in place.
"And as much as Percy would appreciate your dedication, I think it's time to call it a day. You are still recuperating from your injuries," Amanda held off his protest and continued, "It would be bad for morale if you were to collapse at an inopportune moment."
She always had a way of putting it. Then again, a few hours out of this pressure cooker didn't seem so bad. The weaker he was, the harder it was to stay objective, investigating Nikita's handiwork while trying not to remember the heat of their last encounter. He acquiesced and proceeded to head to his apartment, at a complex near Division's headquarters.
As soon as Michael left, Amanda entered Operations and found Birkhoff, blurred-eyed and building a small tribute tower to Red Bull in the corner.
Birkhoff jumped at the sound of Amanda's voice. His fingers also twitched, but he was pretty sure that was from the Red Bull. Maybe 50% sure.
His eyes grew impossibly round. "What?" he asked in a whisper.
"Michael's gone home," Amanda leaned in closer, until her well manicured fingers were firmly pressing into Birkhoff's shoulder. "You should too."
The pressure filtered through the caffeine daze as he gazed at the smiling woman. Why was she smiling, it hurt, oh man, the flash drive, she wanted him to show Michael what he found, didn't she? The question must have been in his eyes, because she gave him an otherwise unperceivable nod. It fell on him like a bucket full of Alaskan ice. He shivered.
There was light coming from underneath the door to his apartment when Michael got there. He quickly scanned his periphery but found nothing out of the ordinary. He almost called for backup when it came to him. What Nikita told him before she left him in the hospital. But would she really be so reckless as to break into his apartment on the same day she left such a taunting message for Percy? Michael stifled a groan. Yes, yes she would.
He could turn around and head back to Division. But damn it he was tired, and he wasn't going to be chased out of his apartment by Division's most wanted or anyone else for that matter. He activated silent entry and punched in his access code before doing a final swipe of his keycard. He snapped back and held himself against the wall as the door cracked open. No gun fire, no shelling. Twisting around, he quickly entered the apartment, weapons hot.
Whatever he thought he would see, this was not it. Nikita was standing at the counter of his rarely used kitchen. A boiling pot and colorful vegetables spread all around her as she massacred a bundle of carrots on the chopping block.
"Hello Michael," she called out between the lethal chops.
He stood there, a silent statue as she turned and raised an eyebrow at his raised pistol.
The way Amanda was talking to him in such a close proximity, made Birkhoff feel like he was getting an up close and personal encounter with the creature from Aliens. Already scary in the original form, but even more horrifying up close, what with the inner set of pharyngeal jaws hissing secret instructions into his ear. Metaphorically speaking. But he wouldn't be surprised if he found mangled corpses stashed away in her lair somewhere.
There was no way Michael was going to take this news sitting down. So all of this was just the calm before the shit storm. And Amanda, what was her endgame? To sit back and watch, then take the reins from whoever was left standing without getting her hands dirty? One thing was for sure, she was using him as the catalyst, which meant for now, he was on her team. So if she succeeded, he'd be fine, she might even promote him or something, seeing how useful and obedient he was. Then of course, there was always the possibility that this was all just a larger conspiracy or test and she was going to chew him up and spit him out. With Amanda, it was hard to tell.
It was with that thought that Birkhoff realized he needed a backup plan of his own before setting all the pieces in place. All his time spent in Division and amongst all these twisted individuals, something should have brushed off on him, even just a little. He racked his brain, pacing back and forth, before a proverbial light went off in his head. It was something that he had suspected for a while but have yet to bring it up. This time, his reticence might have just saved his life.
After a rushed preparation in the always empty server room, Birkhoff visually scanned the hallway of the recruit quarters. The coast was clear and his target was coming out in response to a message he'd just sent, about an impromptu training session. He had to time this just right. Gripping the paper documents loosely in his hands, he headed on a collision course for Alex as she exited her room. He was almost jogging, trying to catch her before she could see that he was coming at her. It worked, and as their paths crossed with an impact that caused the papers in his folder to go flying, Birkhoff almost sighed with relief.
"Where did you come from? And since when did you start carrying paper?" Alex remarked dubiously, trying to act nonchalant as she scanned the papers for intel before handing them over to the tech. This was an opportunity too good to pass up.
Upping his klutz ratio, Birkhoff scrambled with deliberate ineptitude to gather the papers. He obliquely observed Alex as she glanced at the rough diagram he drew on one of the papers, the saddest looking family tree ever, crooked lines and all, ending with Michael and Owen. Next to Owen's name was another two scribbles: 'Banque Metropolitaine de Montreal'and 'Timur Ahmedov'. Try as she might, Alex couldn't keep the astonishment from showing on her face just from the first piece of information. The second piece she couldn't figure out, but it had to be important if they were in the same picture. Birkhoff scanned up and down the walkway before inching closer, catching her unawares. He waited impatiently for her to snap out of it before snatching the paper away from her. Startled, she struggled to keep her face neutral as Birkhoff leaned in conspiratorially.
"This is on a need-to-know basis…" he whispered, before deliberately stopping, his expression expectant.
"…and I don't need to know?" Alex continued for him, full of wide-eyed innocence and a proper dash of fright.
"Yeah, tell it to someone who cares!" Birkhoff snapped loudly in a tone he knew to be obnoxious and dripping with sarcasm before brushing rudely past Alex and continuing hastily down the hallway.
Alex, her ears still ringing, frowned with bewilderment and muttered contemptuously after his fading silhouette, "That doesn't even make any sense…'tell it to someone who cares'..." Although if his tone had been a little different, the words at their face value would be exactly what she was going to do, tell someone who cared, namely, Ni—
Alex gasped, so taken aback that she nearly choked. Clasping her hands over her mouth, she stared, heart pounding with distress, in the direction of the empty threshold where Birkhoff had just turned the corner. Whipping around, she ran out to the training area, her footsteps echoing in the deserted halls and her chest heaving with exertion and adrenaline as she reached the open area. The dimmed lights and empty space before her confirmed it. There was no training session and she didn't run into Birkhoff by accident.
Her cover just got blown.
Michael blinked in rapid succession, although he wasn't sure if he wanted the scene before him to be proven real or fake. In either case, Nikita proved to be, in actuality, standing in his kitchen, cooking something that didn't smell particularly appetizing. It was just as well that Division never thought going undercover as a chef would be a possibility. The black mark would have marred the virtually pristine list of skill sets that she had perfected. The way she was stabbing into the flesh of a green pepper nearly made him wince. You could take the woman out of Division but you couldn't take Division out of the woman.
That thought sobered him. She was a rogue agent and he was to capture and cancel her.
Michael re-centered his aim, and ignored the fact that if he did pull the trigger right then, it'd be a clean through and through rather than a kill shot.
If Nikita took note of his movement, she didn't show it. Instead, she pushed a glass of red wine in his direction, coaxing him to take it with a sympathetic nod.
"The first day back is always tough."
A vein at his left temple pounded.
"No thanks to you," he said, not bitterly, not at all.
Nikita leaned across the counter, chin poised angelically on her hands as she at peered up at him with round doey eyes. "Bad timing, I know. I'm sorry."
His lips twitched. Michael recovered with a sharp inhale, lowering his gaze and breaking the eye contact, but only to have his treacherous eyes drawn to the round shadows of her cleavage, displayed like an enticing offering on his bland kitchen counter top. The dark of his pupils stretched as the air in the room constricted.
"Your guns," he prompted, trying to stick to the script. What the hell was she wearing?
Nikita smiled darkly as if she heard his question. "I have no guns today," she said, sounding apologetic as she slinked out from behind the counter. He should have stopped her then, when she smiled like that and moved like that. But it was like witnessing a tigress pounce in slow motion, he couldn't help but admire at the grace of her movements, and the heated intent in her eyes.
Michael had to stop himself from taking a step back. No guns? That would be an understatement. The way her dress was poured over her svelte curves, he doubted she could fit a piece of paper in there, much less a gun. A molten flame flickered beneath him, stirring a growing fever into his veins.
Nikita took measured steps towards him, hips swaying ever so slightly as her mile long legs closed the remaining distance between them. Her eyes were locked on his, full with the promise of raw desires and violent pleasures. But as she neared the black barrel of his still raised P220, the stark contrast of hardware and the glowing skin of her décolletage brought him up short.
"You don't need to do this," he gritted out, averting her sweltering gaze.
That stopped her advance. "I don't need to?" she asked after a pregnant pause, her face dangerously expressionless, though her voice was still soul stirringly low and breathy.
Michael finally broached on what he thought was the unwarranted impetus of her action, "I'm not dying anytime soon."
"That can be rearranged," Nikita retorted flatly, but no sooner did the words come out of her mouth that she physically recoiled at the thought. Her stomach roiled at the memory of his blood, sticky and slick under her hands, the way the blood seeped between her fingernails and how the coppery scent surrounded her like perfumed death. Her knees gave away and she crouched, shrinking further into herself with each heaving breath and silencing the whimpering cries with her fists.
Stricken by her sudden anguish and panic, Michael hastily and without a thought holstered his gun and embraced her trembling shoulders. Her arms immediately gripped around him.
"Don't leave. Don't," she gasped, clawing at him, her face upturned and pleading, her eyes glistening.
"I'm not, I'm here," he soothed softly, gently stroking her hair, though he himself was overwhelmed by the turbulence of emotions that ran through him. He was being pulled in multiple directions, none of them ideal or perfect, but each tugging at him until he was lost in an eddy of memories, obligations, promises, and regrets.
Nikita buried herself in his neck, her breath steadily slowing as she breathed his heady male scent. He was alive and she felt like her pores were opening and expanding just so she could take in as much of him as she could. She savored this moment, letting the feeling of contentment wash over her.
They stayed there, curled up against each other until the tempestuous tide of emotions seceded to a mere maelstrom underneath calm waters.
Michael looked down at Nikita, just as she glanced up. His calloused thumb brushed over the stray strands of hair that fell beside her cheeks. She leaned into his palm like a tamed cat, her lips parted in a silent purr. He felt himself smiling, helplessly and wondrously.
Then his doorbell chimed.
They stared at each other, awakening from what seemed to be a dreamscape. Whether it was the awkwardness or a sense of self-preservation, they withdrew back into themselves, picking up fallen pieces of armor on the way.
The chime rang again.
And claws came out, just a little bit. "Are you expecting someone?"
"Maybe it's your ride again," his tone just a little on the snide side.
Nikita appeared to consider the possibility, "He's not really a doorbell ringer."
"Good thing I have locks," Michael growled back.
When she said nothing, he turned to face her. She placed her hand over his and squeezed tightly. "That never stopped me."
He looked down at their joined hands, a grimace drawing harsh lines over his countenance.
"I wish it did," he murmured.
The chime came again and this time, a male voice accompanied it over the intercom, "Michael, it's me."
Michael and Nikita immediately got to their feet, instantly breathless as their eyes met with surprise and alarm.
It was Percy.
Michael and Nikita moved silently with swift synchronicity and effortless efficiency, telling of a partnership that communicated with no more than a small gesture or a quick glance. The wine glasses were placed into the top cabinet. The boiling pot was covered and handled with pair of oven mitts that just happened to be tossed over—and then it was shoved into an alcove under the sink, next to the trash compactor. This was where they had a difference of opinion, silent as they still were. One thought it was appropriately situated, and the other was quite miffed that he had thought so.
The traces of her visit were gone, but just as Nikita started to retreat to an appropriate hiding place, Michael grabbed her wrist. She swirled around at the unexpected tug, and he could see the stark whites of her eyes as her pulse leaped under his tight grip.
He frowned deeply, looked away, and released her wrist, but not before shoving his sidearm into her hand. He didn't look back as he went to unlock the door for Percy.
Michael breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw Percy was alone. "Percy, you could have called, I would have gone back to Division-"
The older man strolled in like he owned the place. "No, this is probably better handled on the outside. There's a leak somewhere, and this is too important."
So important that he had to come within eavesdropping distance of his arch nemesis? A corner of Michael's mouth jerked. No doubt Nikita's bunny ears were perked and ready. He fought to keep his eyes from rolling and asked with a tinge of a resigned sigh, "What is?"
"This," Percy said, taking out a nondescript black box and placing it on the coffee table.
Michael raised an eyebrow. The last time he saw the thing was right before he got shot.
"Can you promise me, after everything I've done for you, that you'll keep this black box safe and guard it with your life?" It was a simple but loaded question. It was implicit and explicit, the way Percy stacked the coins of his debt, letting them fall one by one with a crisp clink. Clink. Clink. Clink. And yet, Percy was giving him what amounted to a loaded gun, trusting him to guard his back and fight off his enemies at his most vulnerable state, should it come to that.
Taken aback, Michael stalled with a soft complaint, "Haven't I done that already?"
"Yes or no, Michael," Percy was adamant in getting an answer, and was by all indications very much sincere in his request.
It was unpleasant to witness such a manipulative, yet effective, entreaty. He knew he couldn't and wouldn't say no.
"Yes," Michael replied, like he did almost all of Percy's orders, almost all of the time. He stared dully at the black box. Perhaps one day, it would be the last thing he would see.
The doorbell chimed.
It was almost funny, Michael thought, as he and Percy repeated the same movements that he and Nikita made when it was him at the door. Although the presence of the black box on his table, Percy in his living room, and Nikita in his bedroom made the situation far more intense. Did he miss the memo about a party in his apartment?
"Are you expecting someone?" Percy asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Are you?" Michael hoped Nikita was right about her ride not being a doorbell ringer.
The voice on the intercom solved their questions right away, although it only served to puzzle them even further. "Michael, come on, let me in!"
"Birkhoff?" Michael called out as he let the tech in. Percy sat down, leaning leisurely against the sofa, he had a feeling things were going to get interesting.
"Michael. You would not believe what I found out about Montreal," Birkhoff tittered manically as he bounced into the living room, only to stop dead at the sight of Percy reclining on the couch. The voice in his head sing-songed a string of expletives while he cautiously picked up his gaping jaw.
"I'm interrupting something aren't I?"
The head of Division sat up slowly, an uncoiling viper. "You found out something about Montreal?"
"Yeah. A whole network of the world's most polite webcam girls. I just had to share, mano-a-mano. Off Division time." Birkhoff tried to work in a smile, but his face couldn't move. Michael's skepticism was all over his face.
Percy tilted his head, his eyelids heavy as he stared at Birkhoff. He opened his mouth to speak, but was stopped by the buzz of his cell phone.
"I'm going to take this." Percy got up and started to walk back into the bedroom to have a private conversation. But what Michael saw was him heading towards Nikita's hiding place. He forced himself to stand still, knowing whatever move he made, it would only make Percy suspicious. Percy wasn't exactly being stealthy, having started talking on his phone. Nikita should have had enough warning and time to climb into a closet or move under the bed. None the less, Michael was distracted enough not to notice the sheer panic exploding out of Birkhoff.
"Michael, I'm fucked! Jesus, what is Percy doing here? Huh?" The tech was quietly hysterical.
Michael reluctantly turned back to him. Another crisis in progress, he sighed inwardly. "You couldn't have called? What the hell was so important?" he whispered, knowing full well that Birkhoff wasn't here to talk to him about the webcam girls of Montreal.
Birkhoff stared at the open door of the bedroom, where Percy just happened to glance up in his direction even as he was listening to his caller. The older man did not seem especially pleased by either the caller or Birkhoff.
It was indeed possible for Birkhoff to grow paler. "I can't do this right now. I'm sorry. I have to go back to Division and find Amanda."
That just confused Michael even more. "What does Amanda have to do with this?"
Birkhoff winced as he backpedaled towards the exit. "Nothing! There's nothing. Everything's fine," he raised his voice substantially, "Tell Percy I'm heading back to Division to do more work on tracking down Nikita."
At the mention of Nikita's name, Michael held off. The less people crawling around his apartment, the better. So he did nothing as Birkhoff scrambled off back to Division without telling him why he was here in the first place.
In the bedroom, Percy wasn't planning on doing the same. "Roan, make sure Birkhoff heads straight back to Division. Do not let him speak to anyone. Then have someone shut down all the networks he's had a hand in and take him to Sublevel 6."
"Birkhoff to Sublevel 6," Roan repeated, his way of asking for confirmation. Birkhoff was no ordinary Operations tech. There was no coming back from Sublevel 6.
There was no hesitation or clarification necessary. "You got it," Percy said with lackadaisical ease, and hung up without hearing a reply. His orders were to be taken, not questioned. He returned to the living room with a smile that didn't reach his eyes.
"The box is in good hands. Thank you, Michael."
Michael nodded silently and much to his relief, escorted Percy out without another incident. He closed the door and engaged the locks. Before turning back, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Nikita appeared from the bedroom and eyed the black box on the table. Michael's gun was warm in her hand. He kept a baby in his back, a spare, but the advantage was clearly hers.
"Looks we're back to square one," he said, keeping his back to her.
Nikita tore her eyes from the box and gazed at his back. His black suit stood in stark contrast against the white door and walls in front of him, casting a dark shadow. He looked so alone. All this time, she had someone, him, Daniel, Alex, Owen, but he was always cut off by necessity and by choice, so driven by the possibility of vengeance and by proxy loyalty to Division that everything else paled in comparison.
She had to show him that he wasn't alone. That he mattered, more than the boxes, more than killing Percy ever would be.
"No," Nikita breathed as she walked up next to him, ignoring the way he stiffened at her closeness, "You'll give me the box when you're ready." She stood on tippy toes and gently kissed his cheek.
When Michael finally turned to face her, Nikita smiled beautifully without a hint of regret, with an emotion in her eyes that he didn't want to face. She didn't care that he didn't reciprocate. She hugged him tightly, inhaling his scent and all of him, before turning the doorknob and walking out.
Michael didn't know what to think. He didn't want to think. So he mechanically returned to his living room, now cleared of everyone except him and the ominous black box. He sat down in front of it, only to be distracted by something lodged in his jacket pocket.
Reaching in, he pulled out a flash drive he had never seen before.
The moment Nikita got into her car, she quickly changed into more navigable gear and fired up her netbook to contact Alex. While Roan would undoubtedly follow Percy's instructions to the letter, Birkhoff's high clearance level and involvement in daily operations meant he would have to be declassified and placed under indefinite containment before cancellation. Division had to make sure everything could still run smoothly without him. That would buy her some time until she could figure out how to get him out of there and hopefully grateful enough to join in her mission, but she had to notify Alex of this latest development.
Alex was not online just yet, but another partner in crime was eager to get in touch with her. Nikita answered her cell phone while keeping an eye on the idle chat program.
Owen didn't ask where she'd been, though her cell phone indicated his dialing thumb had been very busy. He went right to the point, "Your CIA friend just passed us a message. I'm running the decryption now."
CIA? Nikita had a sneaking suspicion that the CIA knew about the three black boxes that she and Owen destroyed. But the last she'd heard, they weren't exactly thrilled about Percy's boxes in the first place. Honestly, she was doing them a favor, but she doubt they were contacting her to send her a thank you note. Still, they found her interesting enough to share intel when it suited them, she just didn't put a lot of faith in an organization that basically allowed Percy to run amok.
"He says they've turned last two Guardians. They have the last two boxes that were in the wild," Owen read to her, his voice telling her he was skeptical.
Owen had a reason to doubt. Percy wouldn't just hand a box to anyone who would readily defect, interagency cooperation or not. Loyalty to his person would be the first thing Percy would consider in choosing a Guardian.
"That was too easy," she readily agreed.
"It doesn't feel right. Even if the CIA came to me back then, I wouldn't have given up the boxes," he added somberly, he didn't like to talk about his Guardian days all that much.
Even as Nikita said the words, she knew that the alternative scenario was just as unlikely, "Are you saying the CIA's being played?" They were a milquetoast agency compared to Division, but with something like this, they'd confirm it six ways until Sunday.
"But the only other person that could have persuaded the Guardians would be…"
"…Amanda," they concluded together. She was the de facto principal of the Cleaner program that all the Guardians graduated from. That, along with the way she could make you see five lights when there are four, made her the ideal linchpin in the CIA's latest coup. And there could be any number of reasons why she would help the CIA. Unlike Percy, Amanda was difficult to read, her goals were always murky and her methods slippery, but when she saw something she wanted, she was as ruthless as they came. It seemed that whatever game Amanda was playing, Percy was an obstacle that needed to be exorcised.
The enemy of my enemy, Nikita thought.
Owen ran the numbers in his head. "This means there's only one box left, back in Division."
The box that had been stained in Michael's blood. The box that was no longer in Division.
Nikita didn't correct Owen's assumption. She wasn't sure why, but her initial hesitation grew into a prolonged silence, and then she couldn't find a way to say it without feeling like she was hiding it from him in the first place. All of this was happening faster than she had anticipated, somehow she didn't think Michael would end up being one holding the last box.
Owen continued, with a tone that sounded like he was sitting up a little straighter, "Looks like the CIA's been keeping count too. They're planning to take Percy and the last box down in one fell swoop. He says Operation Unity's a go."
It was surreal. She had worked so hard, eating and breathing for the take down of Percy that she couldn't quite believe it when it was finally coming true. The silence from both ends of the cell phone indicated that Owen felt the same.
Speechless, Nikita quickly seized on the name and mocked, "Unity? That's what they're going with on their take down of Division? I take back anything nice I've said about them."
Owen replied as if it was news to him, "You said something nice about the CIA?"
Nikita smiled tightly. This was it, but as much as she wanted Division to burn in any way it could, some matters were personal and had to be handled accordingly, the CIA be damned. "When's the op taking place?"
"Doesn't say. But he wrote, and I quote 'stay the hell away and let us take care of this'."
"That's not very collegial of him," Nikita said, rolling her eyes. God save her from know-it-all and do-it-all CIA agents.
Owen didn't care for the message either, "Are we on the CIA payroll? Because I haven't been getting the paychecks."
So they were in agreement. But they needed to move fast to get the drop on Percy before Operation Unity. Just thinking about the unforgivably earnest codename made Nikita feel unwashed.
"There should be enough chatter for my interagency intel guy to pick up some info if I give him the details. Get everything ready, we'll need to move soon."
Owen grunted his acknowledgment before hanging up. Nikita gunned the engine of her car, speeding towards a non-descript building with a rooftop parking lot.
The usually happy-go-lucky Henry was a sleepy and therefore grumpy man when he heard the ring tone of Nikita's video call. His eyes were mere slits compared to Nikita's alert gaze as they met on the video screen of an understated compact car parked on an empty roof.
"Henry, I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't urgent. I need to find out about a CIA op, codename Unity. Should be going down within the next few days. Whatever you can get me, I need it now."
Henry rubbed his eyes, but was otherwise game to Nikita's request. He punched up his system and taped into the mainframe. "All right, I've got something. It's not in a few days, it's going down tomorrow…well, actually, tonight, 1900. Units to be deployed include CIA, FBI, and SWAT, hardcore stuff. And they've also got an agent meeting them on the inside, codename Persephone, went undercover in September of '10. That's all I can get right now."
"Thank you, Henry, you're a life saver," Nikita shot Henry a tight smile before disconnecting, her feet already swinging out the car door. Normally, she'd stay to exchange a few witticisms, but there was too much to do before 1900. She tossed a glance at the netbook. Still no Alex.
When Nikita arrived back at her loft, Owen was already there, packing weapons and ammunition into black duffel bags. Her blueprints and recent surveillance photos of Division were already spread out across the large desk in the corner.
"We don't have much time, Operation Unity goes down at 1900."
Owen's head snapped up, surprised at the tight deadline. His frown mirrored hers. It was too tight. Despite whatever possible infighting that was happening at Division, they could still face resistance from the entirety of Division if they went in. This meant they needed more time to plan, time Henry just told her that they didn't have.
Nikita looked at the blueprints without seeing them. Finally, she said, "We can't do this independently of Operation Unity, so we'll use them as a diversion."
Owen came to stand next to her as she leaned over the blueprint of the main Division facility.
"We'll move in at 1830, through the main air duct tower. Plant the C4 here, here, and here," she said, pointing to the water, gas, and electrical mains, "By the time we're finished, Division would have noticed the troops moving in. Most of the agents will move to protect the outer perimeter. This will give us a better chance at finding Percy and overwhelming his guards."
"There's just one thing. Division will most likely go to Code Black lock down. It'll cut off access to the sublevels."
"Hopefully, that's where Alex will come in." Nikita shot another look at her computer screen, still nothing. "I overheard Percy's cancellation order for Birkhoff. He'll be in Sublevel 6. Alex knows the layout, she can get to him and convince him to hack the system to prevent lock down."
Owen raised an eyebrow. "Percy's been digging his own grave."
The black window of the chat program chose that moment popped up. Owen and Nikita grinned at each other before she rushed over to sit down in front of the screen.
"Birkhoff knows about you and me!" The first message read.
At first Nikita started, alarmed, but Alex wouldn't be 'talking' to her if her cover was completely blown. That was strange. First he knew secrets in Montreal that were enough for Percy send him to Sublevel 6, and now this? What had Birkhoff been up to and why didn't he expose Alex in the first place? Unless…he knew he was in trouble and wanted her to know, Nikita realized, smiling. Alex wouldn't have to do much convincing after all.
"Percy sent Birkhoff to Sublevel 6. Extract him and have him hack the lock down sequence. The CIA is taking down Division at 1900, we'll be there one step ahead of them," Nikita typed rapidly, and she almost hit 'send' before adding, "FYI, CIA has a mole, codename Persephone, sent in two months before you. Keep an eye out if you run into trouble."
Alex tried to keep the astonishment from her face. She had never expected it to happen so soon, and who was the mole? But there was more she had to tell Nikita. She started to type again, and was for the umpteenth time annoyed at the convoluted restrictions their chatting program had, such that she needed to wait for the program to decrypt Nikita's message before typing something new.
"Michael and Owen—"
The lab's overhead lights flickered and the computer screen blinked out before she could finish typing her message. Alex got up warily until she noticed the blank screens of the other computers. One of the guards on the upper level appeared to be listening to his earpiece, nodding to the relayed instructions.
"Okay, everyone clear out. We're running a drill." But the expression on his face belied his words, this was no ordinary drill.
As Alex exited the lab, she could feel her pulse pounding in her ears. It was really happening, after all this time. Tears started to gather in her eyes, but she swallowed hard and shook it off. No time for that, she had to begin preparing for extraction.
On Nikita's end, the cursor on her computer had stopped blinking. The disconnected message popped up along with a notification of a ping timeout. Nikita expected this. It meant not only was Alex offline, Division's entire network was offline. Birkhoff had arrived back at Division—leading Roan to order the shutdown of the networks per Percy's orders. It didn't matter though, she'd told Alex what she needed to do.
"Looks like everything's set," Owen said. He glanced sideways at Nikita, opening his mouth to say more, but nothing came out.
She stared straight ahead at the blank computer screen. All the pieces were falling into place, except for one. The elephant in the room that's been there since Owen joined her side. But they had to talk about it now, before they crash into Division with their lives on the line.
"Spit it out," Nikita murmured.
Sighing, Owen shifted uneasily on his feet before he spoke.
"What do you want to do about Michael?"
Nikita abruptly turned towards Owen. Either consciously or unconsciously, she suddenly remembered what Birkhoff had said in Michael's apartment, the single word that set Percy off. It gave her the opportunity to sidestep Owen's original question. She asked him another one instead.
"Did Percy have you do something in Montreal? Besides guarding your black box?" She knew Owen didn't like the subject, but it was too much of a coincidence.
Owen was quiet for so long Nikita thought he displeased at her lack of an answer to his question. But then he did speak, in a monotone, like he telling a story of a time long long ago. "Once in a while, I'd be a carrier for an exploit that hacked into the Banque Metropolitaine de Montreal's monetary transfer system. Just before that last update to the black box, I had initiated an exploit that anonymously transferred two million dollars to some shell company in Uzbekistan owned by a Timor Ahmedov. The time before last was another Middle Eastern country and another shell company. I just assumed it was money that Division needed for overseas operations."
Nikita's breath sharpened somewhere in the middle of his recall, and much to Owen's astonishment, she blindly swiped the blueprints and photos off the desk with a strangled cry. He stepped back, unsure of the unexpected change in her demeanor.
Trembling with unbridled rage, Nikita started to pace. Her jaw was clamped so tightly that her entire face ached. The timing fit too well, there was only one explanation. Percy had given money to Timor Ahmedov to lure out Kasim, so that he could dangle the possibility of revenge in front of Michael. Her eyes burned at the memory of what occurred in Uzbekistan. Percy sent Michael without backup and yet a team easily dropped in when he realized she was there. When she first thought back to that day, she thought Percy was merely being his miserly and hypocritical self, but Owen's accounts meant that he had been doing this for a while now, buying an appearance from Kasim when it suited him.
Nikita wanted to believe that Michael's loyalty to Division meant something to Percy. That his dedication was misguided, but not completely wasted. She was wrong. It was all a game to Percy. Michael was just another piece to be manipulated and used because he wanted to avenge his family. She never hated Percy as much as she did at this very moment. Percy could hurt her and it might be par for the course, but to do this to Michael was beyond repugnant. She wanted to rip his guts out to see if he still bled red.
"Nikita?" Owen called out cautiously. The woman was livid, and frankly, just a little scary. While it was obvious that Nikita was not a woman to be crossed, it was apparently another thing to fuck with someone she…cared about. He doubted he was going to get anymore than that out of her, but he could clearly see now that hell hath no fury like a pissed off Nikita. But she needed to remain calm if they were going to pull this off.
And just like a switch, Nikita's fury flash froze into a still and icy wrath. Owen was impressed, though he knew it wasn't for his benefit.
"Percy's a monster, Owen. That money you transferred was all part of Percy's ploy to control Michael." Even if it would hurt for Michael to hear it, she had to tell him. She couldn't let Percy do this to him anymore, not if she could help it. "You don't need to worry about Michael. The truth will set him free."
The truth, Owen thought, sometimes came at too high a price. His fingers grazed over a concealed spot on his upper left arm, where a butterfly tattoo had been etched into his skin. He gazed at Nikita, all riled up and determined for the man who was her enemy in name only. Maybe this time, the fairy tale won't end with a death. He smirked encouragingly at her and said lightly, "Then let's hope he's in the mood to hear it."
Division's networks were in a flux, coming on and offline in sporadic sequences. The lights were flickering, but Alex had been trained long and hard enough to do prep work in the dark. She assembled a gun from the parts she had smuggled out of training, piece by piece. Then she dug out the various psychotropic patches that were leftovers from her previous activations. Finally, an earbud, open to only the frequency that Nikita specified when they were planning for extraction. It was silent, for now.
The network limbo was the perfect cover for her to infiltrate Sublevel 6. There was too much pain and sorrow in her life for Alex to believe there was a higher power at play. So she chalked it up to serendipity, maybe even a small step toward Percy's karmic deliverance. Either way, she wasn't going to let this opportunity go to waste. She just hoped Birkhoff's prints were deep enough in the Division systems that the confusion would last until she got to him.
Cracking her door open, Alex glanced down the hallway. One minion, standing half guard, half listening to the reports on his earpiece. She pulled out a straw and pushed a drug patch into one end. A low tech spit ball launched and hit the guard in the neck. His hand went to his neck, but immediately fell back to his side before he could touch the patch.
Alex walked over slowly, a ready excuse on her lips if he should start questioning her presence in the hallway during a drill. But it proved to be unnecessary. The guard just stood there, glassy eyed and numb, but to the security cameras, if they were online at all, he was just doing his job. She moved easily passed him, jogging quietly down the hallway. Just as she was about to make the turn into the alcove of the air duct tower, she unexpected collided into another body and found herself facing down the barrel of a gun.
"What do we have here?" Jaden grinned crookedly before her eyes turned flat with all seriousness, "Making a run for it?"
Alex made a move to reach for her gun, but stopped in mid motion. November 1st was the date on her death certificate. She assessed Jaden, who made it a point to tell anyone who would listen that she had been the program longer, by over two months.
Instead of backing off, Alex rushed forward, ignoring the gun pressed against her chest, and asked softly, "You a company man?"
Jaden's stony face gave no expression, but Alex was close enough to see a flicker of unease in her eyes. Bingo. Jaden tried to recover with a hard shove to her shoulder, but Alex raised her hands lazily and said with a laugh, "I think it's time to bust out of Hell, Persephone, Percy's way too old for you."
This time there was no masking her shock. Jaden's mouth fell open. "Who the hell are you?"
"Someone who wants to see Division taken down," Alex replied, opting to be vague. It was always safer that way, especially since Jaden still had a weapon aimed at her chest.
Jaden tilted her head and smirked, not unkindly, "Nikita?"
It was Alex's turn to be surprised, and Jaden rightly took that as a confirmation. Whatever the connection Nikita had with the CIA, it was enough for Jaden to put the gun away. She muttered, "Figures, they always treated you like you were Nikita 2.0."
Alex made a face. "How about you? Aren't you supposed to lay low instead of being on my case on the time?"
Jaden shrugged. "I might have overcompensated on the narrative."
Had it been any other time, Alex would have punched her, in a friendly way. Maybe. But tough times called for restrained measures. "I know what's going down tonight. What did they want you to do?"
Jaden answered with a snarl of discontent, "Nothing, they wanted me to lay low until the big boys get here. Backup if something goes south. I was trying to confirm if this air duct was a viable access point when you showed up."
Alex's eyes lit up. "You can help me."
"Do what?" Jaden tried her best to appear disinterested, but her ramped up body language said she was ready to do some ass kicking of her own.
"Birkhoff. He's in Sublevel 6. If Division comes under attack, it'll go to lockdown. Your guys will have a hell of a time getting in en masse, unless we can get Birkhoff to hack the system."
Birkhoff had also been with Division longer than the both of them combined. Regardless of his cantankerous behavior and dubious hygiene, the amount of intel, knowledge, and skill he had would be a boon to whoever had him. Besides, he probably didn't deserve to die.
Alex knew this, and Jaden had always been smarter than she had let on.
"I would like to see Birkhoff's face when he's being rescued by us," Jaden contemplated out loud.
Alex rolled her eyes, albeit discreetly. She decided that despite everything, she still didn't like Jaden very much. Offhandedly, she wondered if all CIA agents were bred to be smug or they just attracted smugness like flies to honey. But beggars can't be choosers, she concluded as she removed the panel from the wall. She gestured graciously to Jaden, "After you," and blew a silent raspberry as the CIA mole disappeared into the tunnel.
The evening was approaching, though in Division, it was always perpetual night and artificial light. Percy just arrived back from his all day meeting with Oversight. The meetings were a necessary evil toward the funding and operations of Division, but he always returned little projects that he would want the agents to start on right away, because he was Division and they should all live and breathe for Division.
The rebooting of systems was still underway. Birkhoff's had a hand in several critical systems, and it was taking a great deal of effort to erase his prints from everything. Percy thought it was just as well that he passed one of the black boxes to Michael. Michael hadn't returned to Division yet, probably still out scouting a deposit site. It would be much easier for his second in command to accept Birkhoff went AWOL if Division was running just as smoothly without him. He sent another note to Ops to accelerate the reboot.
It was a surprise when Michael showed up in his office, just half an hour after his own return. Percy raised his eyebrows skeptically.
"I hope you found a good deposit site."
"The box is safe," Michael said, staring unwaveringly at Percy.
Percy took note. "What is it?"
"I just didn't think you would have trusted me with this."
Percy smiled inwardly. There were two other boxes he could count on. Using this third one to appeal to Michael's sense of loyalty and trust was just another part of his plan to keep him under his thumb, away from Nikita's corrosive influences.
"Of course I trust you," Percy said emphatically, "Who else would I trust?"
Michael's lips twisted into a half smile, his eyes, unreadable.
A tech chose this moment to barge in and report, "Sir, we have a perimeter breach."
When Percy and Michael got to Operations, it was chaos.
"Both our satellite and surveillance feeds are down. So far two guards at the northern perimeter have failed to check in. We managed to get this shot before it all went down."
There were men in black gear with heavy artillery in ready formation. The scene also included unmarked equipment trucks and overhead helicopters.
The setup was pure CIA, and they weren't here for a party. Michael shot a sideways glance at Percy.
Percy glared back at the picture with a feral grin. "Who do they think they are messing with? They want to take Division down? So be it." He whipped out his phone and dialed the number of one of his Guardians. There was no answer, so he calmly called a second number, though his fingers twitched for a mere second. The call was picked up on the first ring.
Percy frowned at the voice. It was familiar, but not his assigned Guardian. His heart started to pound in earnest. Something was terribly wrong. He gripped the phone tightly in his hand, not wanting to believe what his mind was telling him about the voice. But there was no denying it. The betrayal was coming from inside Division.
"Amanda," he growled lowly, "What the hell are you doing?"
Amanda laughed softly, "Percy, the moment the Russians came into the picture, you were as good as dead. The government gave you some leeway because you were one of their own, but you shouldn't have let the Russians know about those boxes."
"I didn't! It was Owen and Nikita!" Percy shouted into the phone, no caring who heard him. Michael watched silently, his eyes flat and devoid of warmth.
"It's even more telling that you couldn't control them," Amanda replied smoothly, or rather she was bored by Percy's excuses and she couldn't wait for this pointless conversation to be over, but she supposed he deserved something after years of working together.
"You were a part of this, you think you can come out of this clean? Why are you doing this? Don't tell me those pieces of street trash," Percy spat.
She explained as though he was a petulant child, "They're highly trained assets, not disposable toys. Your mercenary games were pedestrian at best and your Machiavellian antics with Michael," she paused, and continued with distaste, "juvenile. They deserve better than you."
"You think you can do better?" Percy hissed, his face the color of puce.
Amanda smiled icily, "I know I can do better. Goodbye Percy."
She hung up without another word and gathered the collar of her coat against the chilly night wind. It was strange for a well dressed woman such as herself to be here, on a deserted street in the early hours of the evening. But the lack of people was the perfect reason for her to be here at this moment. Amanda was soon joined by a similarly well groomed man. He appeared to emerged out of thin air, from the murky shadows beyond the thicket of trees.
"Nicely played, my dear," the man complimented as he took her hand in his and kissed it. His Russian drawl made the gesture almost aristocratic.
Amanda withdrew her hand after a few polite seconds, "Flattery, Ari?"
The Gogol bigwig chuckled, "Just trying to put myself in the good graces of the new head of Division. It's too bad we never got around to retrieving those black boxes for you."
"The ink hasn't dried on that that yet. And it's just as well that things were handled inhouse." Amanda trusted Ari Taserov as much as he trusted her, as in, only when it suited her.
"Come now, I did move things along for you. It's nice to know a hint of Russian plot can still bring the good old boys out to the yard."
Amanda wisely didn't reply to that, but offered him a consolatory prize, "I'll be sure to forward you Percy's old clients."
Ari nodded his acquiescence. The list could prove to be quite profitable. Still, it didn't hurt to get some additional details. "So Division's completely out of the mercenary business?" His tone was light, but with a persuasive insinuation.
Amanda shot him a frosty glare, "Only if Gogol's completely out of governmental espionage."
Ari laughed heartily at that.
Alex and Jaden had already spent half their day doing mostly recon, mapping out the levels and air ducts beneath their feet, making it back before the scheduled lunch time. And in the afternoon, they shared their mental maps, made a plan, and waited for night to fall.
Now, the minutes were ticking down as Alex and Jaden stood in a dark alcove in Sublevel 6. There were no guards, because it was a place for what Division deemed to be human garbage, and why would Division waste its resources on garbage? Cancellations were more often than not, clinical and swift. There were only a handful of people that would trigger containment rather than immediate termination, and luckily for Birkhoff, he was one of the few. All that accompanied him down here were a handful surveillance cameras, left there almost as an afterthought.
Still, it was so quiet down here that Alex wondered if Birkhoff was still alive. The whole place gave her the creeps, and with each breath she took, she felt like she was disturbing a tomb. The people that ended up here, did anyone of them deserve it? The thought made her think of the question she'd wanted to ask Jaden since she discovered her mole status. She wasn't sure if she would like the answer.
"Hey, what's going to happen to the recruits? And the Division agents?" she asked hesitantly, whispering, despite the fact that there was no one to overhear.
"Standard psych evals, then jail, other black ops divisions, or released back into the general population. It's hard to say," Jaden shot her a knowing look, "I've put in a good word for Thom. His current op is legit, so they're going to let him run with it and pick him up when he's done. That's a good sign."
And it was pretty much all Alex could hope for. She shook her head to clear her mind. Focus.
Jaden didn't comment, but she takes another glance in the direction of the cameras. "I think we might need a bigger distraction," she concluded. The cavalry might have already drawn Division's attention, but if anyone was still watching, this rescue mission could face some serious pushback.
Alex fiddled with her earbud. Still no Nikita.
"Told you the Agency would be jamming all frequencies," Jaden muttered.
Alex had hoped Nikita would have a workaround for that, but it appeared the CIA was covering the bases. She would just have to hope that everything was going according to plan. Sighing, she gripped a beam in the wall, "Then we wait."
Jaden raised an eyebrow, "For what?"
Suddenly, the entire building shook with a force that nearly threw Jaden off her feet. The lights above them fell with a loud crash and the walls groaned and whined, cracks splintering the gray panels. Sparks of electricity crackled as the eyes in the sky watched for the very last time. Camera or not, no one would be watching now.
Alex yelled cheerfully over the chaos, "FOR THAT! LET'S GO!" Her heart was racing as she sprinted toward the cells. The explosion meant Nikita was here and she was depending on her and she was not about to let her sensei down.
When she finally found Birkhoff's cell, Alex backed up and motioned Jaden to do the same. She blew off the lock with two shots, the noise barely registering against the cacophony all around them.
Birkhoff was tied to a chair, his eyes round with incredulousness as he registered what was happening. He had given up hope. No one ever came out of Sublevel 6. Even if he had been working for Amanda, he figured she was the type to push you into the deep end of the pool—if you could swim, excellent, if not, go ahead and drown. But his plan, his spur-of-the-moment backup plan worked! Niki 2.0 was here, rescuing him, with Jaden of all people!
Alex knelt down to cut his ties, shouting over the destructive noises of the crumbling building around them, "Come with me if you want to live!" He didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Also, he fell just the tiniest bit in love with Alex just then.
"Get your pasty ass up," Jaden pushed an inert Birkhoff off the chair, only to find out why he didn't get up in the first place. His legs had gone asleep and now because of her, he was faced down on the cold ground.
No love for Jaden. "Just give me a minute," he mumbled into the floor. This was quite a lot to take. One minute he was staring to the gaping mouth of the abyss and the next two hot girls were busting into his cell to rescue him. Was he sure it wasn't a dream?
Alex's eyes met Jaden's, and they each proceeded to take one of Birkhoff's arms, lifting and dragging him out the door. The motion made him sick, and his empty stomach did not help the transition. He wasn't even sure which one of them was on which side.
"We don't have a minute!" One of them said.
"You need to hack into the lock down system so our people can get in," said the other one.
Alex's people, he got. His head ping ponged from side to side until his brain told him he was now looking at Jaden. Blurry eyed, he asked her, "Who's your people?"
Jaden glared at him, "CIA, so stop screwing around. Can you hack it or not?"
It was like she was questioning his manhood. This gave Birkhoff the jolt he needed. His brain was now awake. He shook off their hold on his arms as they rounded a corner.
"Can I hack it?" he mimicked, bristling, "Does a bear shit in the woods? Is the Pope Catholic?"
Alex had to stop herself from slapping the tech upside the head, "We get it!"
The trio headed one level up to the nearest security station with a possibly viable computer terminal. They breathed a sigh of relief upon discovering it was already empty. The overhead lights were already broken but the computer screen was still reading out, and that was all Birkhoff needed. The women stood guard as Birkhoff did his magic. Alex glanced out the door nervously as Jaden grumbled, "How long is this going-"
"Done," Birkhoff rose and met their astonished expressions with a shrug, "What can I say? I'm that good."
Alex didn't want to encourage him, even if it was true. "Fine," she said, as they moved out and came to a fork in the road, "Let's go meet up with Nikita."
"Wait a minute," Jaden protested, "He's coming with me. I bet he's got enough Division intel to keep the boys busy for months."
"I'm the one that wanted to save him in the first place. He's coming with me."
Birkhoff had always wanted to say it, and was filled to the brim with glee when he finally saw the golden opportunity. He grinned hugely and leered, "Ladies, ladies, there's enough of me to go around."
The response was a perfectly synchronized and thoroughly disgusted, "Shut up!"
On cue ceiling crashed down, the large beams crisscrossing in the hallway as hot vapor poured out of the exposed pipes. The obstruction managed to cut the trio into two groups, Jaden on one side, Alex and Birkhoff on the other.
"Looks like he's coming with me after all!" Alex called out, taunting and maybe just making sure the other woman made it out okay.
On the other side, Jaden gritted her teeth, brushed off the dust that covered her head, and yelled, "Good riddance!"
And they went their separate ways.
The lack of guards from Sublevels 5 and 6 had them looking out for collapsing lights and wayward plumbing instead of other people. It would prove to be detrimental for one of them, namely, Birkhoff. He had been following after Alex, when his sense of self preservation, or as he would like to call it, his spidey sense, told him to get down. He leaped on top of Alex, just as a bullet struck his back and entered his left side. She recovered far more quickly than him, but still couldn't get her shooting arm up soon enough to take out the lone guard.
A relieved smile broke across Alex's face as Nikita miraculously appeared, rushing at the guard and knocked him out.
"Good timing," Alex felt a heavy burden lift off her shoulders.
Nikita saw the blood on Birkhoff as he busied himself, trying stench the bleeding. She sighed, "Not good enough." He snorted his agreement with that last statement. Why didn't she show up before he got shot?
With the guard out of commission, Alex recalled their last conversation and hastily looked around, "Is Owen with you?"
"No, we got separated, he should be around. Somewhere. He always is." He never seemed to understand her directions, like a rebellious little brother she never had.
Alex stood up straighter, her face anxious, "Nikita, Owen's Michael's brother-"
"Uh, half-brother," Birkhoff interrupted with a cough.
Nikita felt blood drain from her face, her ears started to hurt and she thought her brain must confused her thoughts with their words somehow, "What are you talking about?"
Birkhoff took a few short breaths, struggling against the bullet in his side. But this was his discovery, and he'd be damned if Alex was going to take all the credit, "When Owen got recruited, Division did an extensive background check, dug into some stuff he didn't even know about. Long story short, it got Michael on Percy's radar. When Michael came onboard, Owen got bumped to being the backroom Reaper. Then you happened and that degree of separation probably freaked Percy out, so Owen gets Guardian duty and all his records became privileged NOC files, Percy's eyes only."
"He deliberately hid them from each other," Nikita whispered with burgeoning horror.
"Yeah, and I bet he got a huge laugh on those money transfers from Montreal. Brother versus brother and they didn't even know it." Birkhoff was no angel but when he finally connected the dots that afternoon in the server room, he thought the man was truly a sadist. Twisted beyond definition.
"I can't believe he would…" Nikita shut her eyes. No, he would. It was exactly the type of thing Percy would do. She found the situation so repulsive, she wanted to vomit. All this time, Michael had family, but when he needed family the most, Percy actively worked against bringing them together. It was worse than she originally thought. It was worse than what Owen already knew. Her ears buzzed and the walls spun, and she never thought she had enough room in her body to hate Percy even more, but now she was boiling with it.
"Nikita…" Alex didn't even know where to begin, but whatever she was going to say was cut short when Birkhoff started to tilt sideways, his face pale with cold sweat.
"There's a reason why I don't like being the messenger, because the messenger always gets shot!" he uttered with painful displeasure.
Oddly enough, the stench of blood calmed her. She wanted blood, but not from Birkhoff. Nikita took stock of the tech's wound and his clammy complexion. Not good. She turned to Alex, "The car's where we planned. It has medical supplies. Go, and keep the engine running. I'll be right out."
"Nikita!" Alex clenched the older woman's arm in alarm. No way, she wanted to see her parents' murder hang, she wanted to be standing next to her when she killed the son of a bitch.
"Alex, we don't waste life," Nikita glared at the heavily injured Birkhoff with exasperated annoyance, "Even if he's a pain the ass." He was too weak to come up with a rejoinder.
Alex shook her head forcefully, her jaw set. But her tears fell in dark streaks, clearing paths through the grime on her face. Nikita knew that look, her student's stubbornness matched her own. But the tears, they were there because in the end, she would do the right thing and get Birkhoff to safety, even though she had worked so hard to witness the moment of Percy's denouement.
Hugging the younger woman, Nikita vowed, her voice dripping with hard, nitrogenic ice, "I'll make sure Percy gets exactly what he deserves. I swear it."
"Make sure it hurts, make sure it hurts like hell," Alex spat, her eyes full of venom, her heart full of grief.
Nikita's eyes were as dark as hers when they parted, "I promise."
"Go to lock down," Percy ordered, his voice booming in Operations, "No one gets in, do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," said the chorus of Division techs.
And yet, seconds after the lock down alarm blared overhead, the walls of Division shook violently, rattling them like caged mice. Percy and Michael braced themselves up against a wall as the ceiling creaked and groaned. The smarter of the techs were already under their desks, but more than a few just sat there, gawking at the way the walls appeared to dance before their eyes.
Just as suddenly as it started, the rumbling died. As the nerve center of Division, Operations was heavily fortified, but all they had to do was look out the tinted window to the wrecked training area below to see how powerful and strategically placed the bomb was. Snapped electrical cables, water pipes, and warped wall panels littered the site.
Michael said what they were all thinking, "That came from the inside." Either the CIA had already infiltrated the building, or Amanda wasn't the only traitor in their mists.
For the first time since Percy came into Operations, he appeared to be at a loss, no longer in control. Even as the techs looked to him for further instructions, he simply gazed passed them as if they were transparent. Without new orders from the boss, the techs turned to Michael.
Michael stole a glance at the shell-shocked Percy, then he ordered steadily, as if all this was simply routine, "Signal the Omega team to do a sublevel sweep. Dispatch the rest to the building perimeters. The rest of you, continue the lock down process."
Orders were better than no orders. Relieved, the techs proceeded to follow Michael's instructions.
"Percy," Michael handed the older man his backup, "Just in case."
Percy blinked, finally snapping out of his reverie. He grimaced at Michael's offering, but upon further reflection, he took it, and said with genuine gratitude, "Thank you." It was for more than the gun, but if it affected Michael in anyway, he didn't show it. Percy observed the non-reaction with silent misgivings.
"Lock down is complete—"
"Wait, it's not working!"
"Someone's overridden the protocols!"
And without another warning, all the computer screens went dark. It happened so fast that before they could adjust their eyes, the screens, including the large plasma displays, relit with a series of nine black letters and nothing else: S H A D O W N E T.
Michael accepted this in stride as if nothing surprised him anymore, and commented rhetorically to a seething Percy, "Birkhoff's gone too?"
"The little rat bastard," Percy growled through clenched teeth.
Watching the futile efforts of the techs to get the systems online, Michael knew what they were all trying not to say. Division was completely blind, inside and out. He leaned in next to Percy and whispered, "We can't hold the strike teams for long. It's time to go under."
Percy conceded this and they quickly moved out to what was the Division equivalent of a panic room. Somewhere Percy can stay safely secured until the dust settled. Taking Percy's six, Michael watched out for any surprise visitors as they hurried down the ruined corridors of Division. Just as they passed a subdivision, he heard it. Footsteps, light, female, very close. Very familiar. He thought quickly about where they were and gave Percy a hefty push, just as her voice rang out.
He whipped around, placing himself between the line of fire, his back to Percy, and fired.
Nikita instinctively leaped against the wall, but the sudden hiss of bulletproof glass doors closing between the subdivisions made her realize he wasn't shooting at her. She pounded her fists against the cold glass, yelling. But it was no use, Michael and Percy were already at the very far end of the hall.
"No…don't follow him, don't protect him," Nikita pleaded softly, knowing there was no way he could hear her.
Much to her astonishment, Michael looked back, ever so slightly, his eyes holding contact with hers for a brief moment. No, she mouthed. He gazed back at her with breathless intensity. Not disappointment, not admonishment, not annoyance. Just an intense burn that left her heart pounding with an unknown anxiety.
All of this didn't go unnoticed by Percy. He rubbed his forefinger over the trigger of the gun Michael gave him as they descended to the bunker via the hidden elevator behind the logistics bay. Black box or not, Michael was acting a little too strangely for his taste. He looked and Michael was again, blandly expressionless. The elevator stopped with a thump. Percy turned to exit, and in the reflection of the brushed chrome walls of the bunker, he saw, much to his unsurprised dismay, Michael standing behind him, his gun raised, aimed directly and intently at him. He quickly twisted around, his own weapon preemptively discharging.
Michael didn't so much as flinch, the barrel of his gun never wavered. He smiled humorlessly as Percy continued to backpedal, firing blanks until the click of the empty chamber echoed between them and around the empty bunker.
"Never fire a weapon you didn't set yourself," Michael instructed as a matter-of-fact.
Percy stared wide eyed at him, "After everything I've done for you…"
Nodding, Michael contemplated this, slowly lowering his gun, before shooting Percy in his midsection. Twice. The wounded man dropped to the ground, howling in unbearable pain.
"It's a stomach wound. You'll die in excruciating agony, with more than enough time for me to explain myself. You'll know exactly why I did this, you deserve that much," Michael explained flatly as he knelt down to Percy's eye line. He watched his former boss writhe, blood pooling beneath his expensive silver three piece suit. He waited until the pain plateaued and a meager amount of lucidity returned to Percy's eyes.
"I knew about the money you sent to Uzbekistan and the many other times before that," he started, observing the surprised twitch of Percy's left check, "You think I didn't know about that? It was interesting to know what I'm worth."
Interesting was the most polite way Michael knew how to phrase it. It might have been the blood loss, but he'd like to think that the cold sweat breaking off Percy's brow had just a little something to do with his revelation. He continued, "I took it because I wanted Kasim, and I thought that was as far as you would take it. But then you…crossed a line I didn't even know I had."
A tremble grew in Percy's limbs as Michael drew closer, his eyes bright with the burning intensity of murderous hate and wanton mayhem. He pressed the steel body of his gun into the blood spewing hole of Percy's stomach until the man was choking on his own screams.
"You do not fuck with my family."
Standing, Michael stretched his neck, slowly tilting his head to-and-fro. He stared straight ahead, his breaths shallow against the tainted air, and walked out of the bunker. He shot the only controls that opened the bunker and never looked back. The bunker was to be Percy's tomb, though considering the type of injury, it wouldn't be his tomb yet, not for a few more excruciating hours.
Michael's ascent from the bunker was greeted with the sight of two guns, aimed at each other. Nikita had a gun. Roan had a gun. He also had an unconscious Owen held up like a shield in front of him. Michael surveyed the area for a brief second before stepping out of the shadows.
Roan considered him and asked carefully, "Where's Percy?"
"In the bunker." Michael continued with a sardonic smile, "It's only made for one."
Somewhere above them, they heard the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Roan decided he didn't really care about Percy at the moment, he just wanted to avoid capture, "Exits are already covered, she's going to show us the way she got in."
"Is that right, Nikita?" Michael asked, deliberately slow, "Maybe you came in with the CIA and you're working for them now. It could be a trap, Roan. We should be careful around her. Never know what she's up to, what plan she's hatching next."
Nikita's eyes swung from Michael to Roan.
"I'm not CIA and it's not a trap!" she exclaimed, "You think after escaping Division I would want to work for another secretive government agency? I'll show you the way out of here. It's not far, we can get there before the strike teams gets down to this level. We can all get the hell out of—"
"Enough," Roan interrupted. When did these two get so chatty? "Give him your gun," he ordered her, and to Michael, he said, "Tie her wrists."
Michael nodded and cautiously, almost overly so, approached Nikita.
Roan frowned with irritation, why did everything seem to move so slowly?
Going through the motions of tying her wrists, Michael breathed, "Behind him." As Nikita surreptitiously raised her eyes to see, he saw in the reflection of her dark eyes that Owen had finally awakened and he was not happy.
Owen snapped his head backwards and smashed his head against Roan, driving the crux of his left elbow into the Cleaner's ribs. Roan doubled over just as Owen reached back and twisted his wrist. Owen caught Roan's pistol in his open palm and pulled the trigger as he closed his fingers around the weapon. The trajectory of the bullet met Roan's head at a perfectly terminal angle.
As Roan fell to the floor, Nikita finally saw what Michael had seen when he first came into the room. Her eyes rounded with alarm. Time was suddenly thick in the air, slow and silent. Nikita didn't know who she was trying to save or who she could save, all she knew was she didn't want Michael facing down the barrel of a gun right in front of her. She reached out to Michael just as he twisted around, his weapon aimed in Owen's direction, his shoulders braced for the kickback. But she was too late. She couldn't stop him, no more than she could stop Owen's automated reflex to shoot back at the person who appeared to be shooting at him, namely, Michael.
"NO!" Nikita cried out, just as the lights in the bay flickered off, dousing them in the darkness and the reverberating echo of two gunshots.
Hearing was the first sense to return. Nikita heard the voices, faraway but familiar voices as the fog of unconsciousness started to lift.
"You shot her."
Michael sounded angry, but hesitant. Hesitantly angry? He knew about Owen.
"It's only a graze. And I was aiming for you."
Is that supposed to make him feel better?
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
Great minds think alike.
"I thought you were shooting at me. How was I supposed to know there was another guy behind me?"
You should just know!
"You should have been able to feel it."
Okay, that was spooky.
Silence, then Owen's 'Bite me.'
Her lips twitched.
"Man, I wish I had a brother, I'm totally missing out on all the scintillating conversations."
Birkhoff's biting wit.
"Guys! Nikita's awake."
Alex was relieved, she would no longer be the only woman in a group of men with serious authority issues. Also, she didn't know Owen that well, saved Birkhoff because she felt obligated, not because she wanted to, and was kind of lying to Michael all this time by being a mole. How does one act around such a strange group of people?
Nikita opened her eyes. Her head felt like a ceiling had dropped on it. She gingerly touched the sore area and came away with plaster. A ceiling did drop on her, probably right after the shootout. Thankfully it ended in the best way possible. No fatalities. Under the group's careful eyes, she got up slowly and looked around. They were in the woods, a secondary meeting point she had planned with Alex. Safe, but still close enough to see Division burn. She took a few steps to the north and saw beyond the trees, below them, small flames flickering where Division would be.
"Percy?" she asked the shadow behind her.
"He's in the ground."
She closed her eyes, wishing that she had been there, "Was it merciful?"
She smiled, "Good."
She turned and took a step towards him. He moved a step back.
"There's still something I need to do, on my own."
She knew what it was. And she knew she couldn't ask to go along after what happened last time.
"I can get you intel," she tried.
"CIA liked what I did with the black box, they'll get me all the intel I need."
The leaves rustled as he started to walk away.
She couldn't stop herself from following, at least for a few steps. She asked in a rush, "Will you be back?"
For a moment, he didn't speak. Then, "Tell Birkhoff I said 'thank you'. I owe him."
He disappeared into the night.
Nikita rejoined the group. Owen looked up as she walked over, worried when there was no one behind her.
"He said he had to take care of something, by himself," she said, unable keep the disappointment and sadness from seeping into her voice. Owen wasn't sure what to say, given his strange new status, so he stuck with, "I'm sorry."
Nikita gave him a long sideways look. He glared back with a questioning shrug. She inhaled and exhaled with great vexation, "You're family, you don't count as other people."
"Oh. Okay," he said, scratching his head absentmindedly.
She gave him a hard shove, "Go."
Owen quickly gathered a few things, and was about to set off when Nikita called to him.
"Bring him back in one piece, or else. You've seen what I can do," she said, smiling with all her white teeth.
He made it a point to swallowed at that, but then shot her a roguish grin with a parting salute, "Yes, ma'am."
The next time Nikita saw Owen, Michael wasn't with him.
A couple sat on the sand, watching as a little girl played in the shallow waters of the pristine beach.
"Hawaii's a nice place," the woman said, curling into the man's embrace.
He kissed her temple and tightened his arms around her, "It's peaceful."
She didn't say anything else at first, but the silence only made her antsy, so she sighed, "It's been two years. You're bored out of your mind."
Running his fingers through her long hair, he said pleasantly, "A little boredom never hurt anyone."
Hayley waved a seashell at him. He waved back with a lock of Elizabeth's hair. His little girl giggled and his wife playfully punched him in the arm. It all felt familiar, like he's done it before.
Elizabeth turned around and took Michael's face into her hands, "You should remember us because you love us, not because we're gone, not like this. Let go, Michael."
He couldn't turn his head, she wouldn't let him, and every time he averted his eyes, she would follow his gaze. Finally, he grinned with false cheer, "You should give me a sign."
She gave him a lovingly exasperated smile, "I'm here, telling you, isn't this a sign?"
His grin faded, "You being here, just means I don't ever want to wake up."
At first, Elizabeth looked like she wanted to give in, her eyes full of love and concern, but instead her lips thinned and she exhaled heavily, like she would when Hayley asked for something she couldn't refuse, "Okay."
He blinked, "Okay?"
"You're as stubborn as an ox. So here comes a sign, Michael. Please take it. You will always have my love, Hayley's love. But you need this." She kissed him, running her hand slowly through his hair, in that comforting, gentle way he remembered, "You deserve this."
Elizabeth broke the kiss and glanced somewhere behind him. With laughter twinkling in her eyes, she threw her arms around him and whispered into his ear with comically forlorn sigh, "She does look really hot."
Michael turned around and grains of sand pelted across his face. His eyes flickered open to the cloudless cerulean sky above him. Another flick of sand hit his face, this time real enough to sting. He sat up quickly, rubbing the specks out of his eyes. Finally, he saw her. He held up a hand to shield his sight against the sun, just to make sure she wasn't a mirage.
Nikita was standing under the beaming tropical sunlight, wearing what appeared to be three layers of clothing, one large overcoat with an upright hood, a fluffy red scarf—and upon closer inspection, a pink nose to match. He felt himself breaking into a sweat just looking at her.
"I could have knocked you out three times already," Nikita boasted, her voice sounded oddly nasal.
"And then what? Drag me back to your cave?" He scowled as he realized what was wrong with her. She was sick, possibly with a fever.
"It's a nice cave. Warm," Nikita stuttered, shivering and drawing her incredibly large coat closer, "I had to beg them to let me on the plane," she complained.
He wanted to shake her. What was she doing flying when it looked like she could barely walk straight?
She pouted at his unsympathetic frown, "I told them I was dying and I had to see the person I love one last time."
His face went carefully blank, but not before a ghost of a smile danced through.
"They bought it and gave me first class all to myself," she chuckled triumphantly at a job well done as she swayed unsteadily on her feet.
Michael quickly got up to catch her, but she went sideways and he fell onto the sand with her. Her eyeballs were scrambling as he helped her sit up.
"Whoa," she gasped as the world righted while her brain was still down.
Michael frowned with worry. How did she even get here, to this remote beach, in her current state? "Nikita, do you even know where you are?"
Her face scrunched childishly as she tried to remember. Then, the proverbial light bulb lit up and she grinned toothily.
"I know!" she exclaimed brightly.
Her head lolled to the side, her right cheek resting against his tanned shoulders. She gazed up at him as he looked down at her, the sun shining behind him like a halo. Her fingers brushed against his stubbled cheek as she tried suppressed the smile that threatened to split her face. Blasé, she should be more blasé, or the gods would be jealous. But her nose started to run again, and her eye were watering, and she was a horribly unattractive, disgusting, and feverish mess, but all she could feel was Michael's strong arms around her and his warm liquid green eyes staring at her like she was land and he had been stranded at sea for as long as he could remember. She could die here—it felt like she was dying—in his embrace, and she would go with a smile on her face.
She made a noise somewhere between a gasp and a sob, unable contain the pure undiluted happiness that was bursting through her very being. But her head was already spinning and she could barely breathe, so she grabbed his muscled forearm for internal leverage, and croaked like an emphysemic old lady as she peered up into his adoring eyes.
"I'm with you."
Chapter 25: Epilogue
It was close to midnight when Michael and Nikita finally arrived at his apartment. It wasn't how he envisioned himself spending his Friday night, spending hours in the emergency room, trying to look properly admonished when the attending physician, for all intents and purposes, scolded him for not taking proper care of Nikita.
It was a very near thing, this particularly debilitating form of the flu, the doctor had said, he should have brought her in sooner. If anything, the worry in his eyes only made the doc more annoyed. She'd continued to explain that it was easily treatable and he could take Nikita home tonight provided that he followed the regime of the prescribed medication and gave her the proper TLC. Relieved and properly chastised, he'd nearly replied with a 'yes ma'am', but he didn't think the mercurial doctor would appreciate it.
So that was how Nikita ended up dozing in the passenger seat of his car, and him watching her sleep soundly, without a care in the world. There was nothing standing between them anymore. No Division, no handler and agent, no vengeance. It had been two years since he'd personally killed Kasim. He'd told Elizabeth that one day they would go to Hawaii, so he'd came to Hawaii and stayed. It was paradise but it was also penitence.
The fragrant Hawaiian breeze whispered in the air like a gentle sigh.
Despite the soporific drugs in her system, Nikita slowly opened her eyes to his shuttered gaze. The air stilled as their eyes met. She didn't ask where she was, or any other possibly pertinent questions. His presence at her side wasn't a question as much as a completion of a picture she had always kept in her mind and in her heart. She reached out and touched his unshaven jaw, whispering, "Found you."
Blinking drowsily, her arm started to drop, but not before Michael caught her hand in his. Once lethal and gun weathered, his hand now gently clasped hers, the rough pad of his thumb brushing against the pulse in her lissome wrist. Eyes closed, Nikita smiled contently. And as Michael spun her out of the car like the turn of waltz, she was only too happy to be wrapped up in a warmth that was distinctly his. She burrowed into his neck as he carried her up in his arms.
Michael laughed quietly at the ticklish sensation and responded with a playful chin bump to the top of her head. "You came all this way just so I would have to play nursemaid?"
Her arms tightened around his neck as she murmured, "Only you are allowed to see me at my weakest."
His heart constricted with soul stirring ache. He knew Owen had planted a tracking device in his suitcase when he left. As much as he wanted to be angry as his half brother for doing that, it would only be hypocritical, since he'd planted one on him as well. There were still people out there who wouldn't mind seeing them dead. But if Owen knew where he was these past two years, chances were that Nikita did too. She knew him well enough to stay away, but never gave up on him despite everything that had happened. And now here she was, at her must vulnerable state, trusting that he would be there for her, reminding him that he still had her and always had her.
Nikita added, her low scratchy voice at his ear, "Besides, Alex said I was being a pain in the ass and no one in their right mind would put up with me."
No one in their right mind indeed. Michael hid a half smile. "I see."
Nikita smirked into Michael's shoulder, unaware as he surreptitiously adjusted her weight in his arms. She gasped in surprise as he expertly flipped her on to his left shoulder. She hung on precariously on his shoulder, her ass in the air.
"Caveman," she muttered, then mocked, "Help! Help!"
They stopped unexpectedly. Nikita realized someone else was in the hallway in front of them, but she didn't have enough strength in push herself up to see. None of them spoke for a few seconds. That is, until Michael cleared his throat and said, "Hello Kono."
"Hi," came a woman's voice. She sounded startled by Michael's late night proclivities. Knowing him, it probably wasn't every day that he brought home women on his shoulders. "Is everything all right?" Nikita could just hear the narrowing of the faceless woman's eyes.
When Michael didn't respond, Nikita piped up from behind him. "Fine, thanks!"
She heard the woman, Kono, step sideways to let them through, but not before she touched Michael's arm and replied apologetically with a hint of embarrassment, "You know I had to ask."
Michael nodded awkwardly and continued forward. Nikita turned her head just in time to catch the dark eyes of a slender Asian woman. Her flawless skin was tanned by the Hawaiian sun and she smelled like the salt of the sea. Nikita could still feel her inquisitive eyes upon them as they entered Michael's apartment. She'd like to think that Kono wasn't admiring Michael's testosterone filled exhibition. But then, as she eyed Michael's taut gluteus maximus flex with each step he took, she couldn't really blame her, could she? Christ, this flu was doing a number on her.
"Your neighbor seems…interesting," Nikita said as Michael dutifully pulled the covers up under her chin. "Inquisitive."
He gave her an odd look but said nothing.
"Attractive," she added through teeth ever so slightly clenched.
Michael blinked at her and smothered the beginnings of a grin behind his hand before replying, "She's a cop."
"Obviously." That wasn't the point. She'd roll her eyes, but now that she was warm and in bed, fatigue was once catching up with her and she wasn't sure she had the energy to pursue her own ridiculous line of thought.
"Go to sleep." At Nikita's feeble attempt to stay awake, to have him in her sights, Michael gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "I'll be here when you wake up." He handed her a box of tissues and tried to keep a straight face as she unprettily blew her nose.
Nikita sniffed, her eyes gazing up at him with childlike supplication. "Promise," she whispered as she drifted into sleep.
Standing, Michael took in the vision of Nikita curled up in his bed and felt a light like no other expanding and filling the emptiness in his chest. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.
"You have me."
The days passed as Michael administered the prescribed care the emergency room doctor had ordered, most of which involved waiting on Nikita hand and foot. He had a feeling she was enjoying it a little too much and feigned weakness when she felt otherwise. It only served to amuse him, how she'd flutter her eyelashes at him with each request, when he would have done her bidding just the same. But as she began to recover in earnest, their eye contact grew more heated, and her touch started to linger for long electric seconds.
Things came to a head one bright and sun shining morning.
Michael sensed the bed dipping at a new weight next to him. He kept still, until he felt the wind of movement above him. His eyes opened with a snap and his left hand caught the arm that was aiming for his windpipe. He twisted and pushed Nikita's shoulder down, flipping her completely underneath him and knocking over a bedside lamp with a crash.
Michael leaned over her, his hands pressing her wrists into the pillows. "Good morning," he greeted, his voice still gruff from sleep.
Nikita lifted her hips to his, and replied with a saucy smile, "Yes it is." She waited until his eyes darkened before hooking her right leg on to his, and with the momentum of his fall, propelled the both of them onto the floor with a loud thud. Now on top, she sat astride him, her hips grinding against him as she pushed her arm up against his neck, keeping him down.
"You've gotten rusty," she said with a reproving grin.
"Rusty?" He pressed his thumb into a precise spot on her bare waist, beneath the shirt that she'd pilfered from his closet.
She yelped in surprise and valiantly ignored the way his touch shot straight to her groin. But it was all he needed to buck her off him. She quickly rolled away and up to a standing position against a table before he could catch her. A cup and plate fell to the ground with a noisy clash. She was panting now, but was pleased to see Michael's eyes flicker to the heaving movement of her chest. Her stomach, amongst other things, tightened under his smoldering gaze.
"You remembered." Sometime during their rough and tumble training sessions as recruit and trainer, Michael had uncovered that particularly sensitive spot.
He smiled dangerously. "I remember a lot of things."
She shuddered with anticipation, tingling right down to her toes. He always knew how to tease. "I'll have to take you up on that."
He chuckled lowly as he approached her, his eyes filled with heated promise. "I've got nothing but time."
Her body flushed with a fever that was no longer flu induced, and her fingers were flexing and aching to touch him. She unconsciously licked her lips, her mouth suddenly gone dry as he pressed right up against her, hip to hip, chest to chest. So close that the buttons and threads of the shirt she wore were imprinting into her skin. They hadn't even kissed and already she felt out of breath. He circled her waist and lifted, first dragging her up against him, her pelvis bumping against his hard contours, then pushing her out to sit on the table. His left hand caressed the underside of her knee while the right swiped off the bothersome contents of the table. Dishes, utensils, and papers unceremoniously crashed on to the floor.
He tugged at the collar of her shirt, exposing a wide expanse of skin. His shirt, actually. He bent down and licked a spot on her neck.
"This is mine."
She'd laugh if she wasn't already a bundle of nerves, teetering on the edge.
Then came a loud knock at the door. She nearly hissed with frustration and dug her nails into his shoulders. Don't you stop, they said.
Another knock, louder this time. "Michael, it's Kono. Is everything okay in there?"
At the sound of the woman's voice, Nikita abruptly pushed Michael away. At his puzzled expression, she tossed back a mischievous grin before bounding up to answer the door. He stared after her, the shirt tail fluttering against her bare legs.
She opened to the door to find Kono, and to her surprise, another man standing at the beyond the threshold. Another cop, his posture told her. Wide stance, hands free, unobstructed path to his piece. Armed, but wasn't a threat.
Kono took in Nikita's appearance, along with the small red welt on her neck and her flushed cheeks. She had the grace to look embarrassed. "Oh. I'm sorry," she said, attempting to tug the other man away.
He couldn't be moved. "Ma'am. We heard loud crashes, is everything all right?"
Michael appeared and smoothly stepped in front of Nikita. Kono looked like she wanted to be anywhere but here. To her cousin, the other cop, he said with straight face, "Sorry, we'll try to keep it down."
The cop caught the amused twinkle in Nikita's eyes before nodding back at Michael. "Just making sure." Kono hastily pushed the man back and turned her head to mouth 'I'm sorry' at them before taking off in a hurry. Leaning out, Nikita could still hear them conversing down the hallway.
"That was so embarrassing. Why did you even have to ask?"
"We're cops, we should be thorough."
"Wasn't it obvious what they were doing? Oh God, why am I talking to my cousin about this? Ew."
Michael's neighbor was unlikely to forget this little interlude. Nikita turned around only to face Michael, glowering at her in mock exasperation. "Show's over?"
His shirt pooled at her feet.
"We're just getting started."
Chapter 26: Coda One
"Isis. Come to mommy, Isis," Nikita called out, hunched down under the table, trying to lure her cat out from the breakfast nook.
The gray shorthaired feline blinked at Nikita, and perhaps upon seeing that there was no food in her hands, rebuffed her owner's overture with a haughty flick of her tail, and continued to traverse between Michael's long legs under the table, purring in that low and happy sound.
Nikita rose ominously. She narrowed her eyes at Michael. "I'm the one that rescued her and feeds her and cleans her litter box. Why does she like you better?" she asked suspiciously.
Michael reached down to scratch Isis without taking his attention off the newspaper. And yet, by the blissful noises that Isis was making, one would have thought she was getting the cat version of the Swedish oil massage. Was possible to be envious of her cat?
Michael met Nikita's eyes around the edge of the paper. His lips twitch into a half grin that was much too smug. "I suppose I just have a way of taming wild females," he proposed cheekily.
Nikita's gaze darkened beneath the shadow of her long lashes. With slow and calculated deliberation, she leaned over the table, peeled his right hand off the newspaper, and singled out his index finger. If she noticed Michael's breathing had silently halted, she gave no indication. Instead, she advised lazily, staring into his widening pupils, "You better be careful. The thing with wild females, they bite."
She demonstrated, setting her teeth to the calloused flesh of his finger, hard enough to leave indentions.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Michael replied hoarsely, his eyes reflecting a dark pool of tender affection and fierce desire.
Nikita made a half hearted effort to school the smile growing on her face. "Good answer. Let me make it all better." With an impish smirk, she drew his finger forward, graciously licking the redden teeth marks before kissing by the way of making it better.
Michael smiled tightly, as if in discomfort. "Nope, still hurts. I'm afraid I'll have to take drastic measures to alleviate the pain."
"You're such a tease," Nikita breathed over the top of his hand.
"It's not teasing if I have every intention of following through," Michael growled, turning his hand over and pulling her chin forward, capturing her lips for a deep, languid kiss. When they part, breathless for air, he spotted Isis from the corner of his eye and chuckled, "Don't look now, but your cat is watching us."
Nikita rounded the table with her back obstinately turned from the observing cat. She seated herself into Michael's ready embrace and sighed contently as he rubbed feather light circles against the exposed skin at her waist. Nikita spared a glance down at Isis.
Isis sniffed at her before turned tail, barreling into her cushioned bed for a cat nap.
Nikita sighed melodramatically. "They grow up so fast. But she's your cat now, you'll have to take care of her, clean up after her…"
Nikita could feel Michael raising an eyebrow behind her. Without looking back, she placed her hand over Michael's at the right side of her small waist. With uncharacteristic nervousness, she pulled his hand forward until it rested under the still flat area beneath her belly button. With an unsteady inhale, Nikita twisted, looking up at his reaction.
Michael's eyes rounded, slowly at first, then quickly into comical proportions. His face was radiating with joy as his questioning gaze met Nikita's small confirming nod. His hands span over possessively over her flat stomach as his chest rose and fell in quick succession, his lungs gasping for air. Michael stared at the place where his child grew, his liquid eyes full of wonder and love. Nikita bit down on his finger, much harder this time.
"This is for making me do all the work. Again."
Chapter 27: Coda Two
Watch Nikita! Six seasons and a movie!
"Boss, you really didn't have to take me home…" Kono muttered to the taller man by her side while trying to navigate the hallway to her apartment with crutches that were simultaneously too tall and too short.
"Right, because with Chin and Danny off island, I'm going to let the only member of my team left get home from the hospital by herself," Steve replied drily as they approached her door. He took one the crutches as Kono struggled to stay upright to get the keys out of her jacket pocket. As she sorted through her keys, the door on the opposite side of the hallway opened.
Kono spared a sideways glance to see Michael heading out. "Hey Michael," she greeted.
Kono's unexpected escort brought Michael up short and his back stiffened at the tattletale bulk of a gun beneath the man's jacket. A second look had him almost gaping in surprise. "McGarrett?" Recognition sunk in. "Steve?"
Steve blinked in quick succession before breaking into a grin, "Michael!"
The two former Naval intelligence officers commiserated their reunion with a bear hug and loud, hearty pats on each other's backs. Kono watched all of this with avid curiosity.
"Boss… How do you know my neighbor?"
"Michael's your neighbor? That neighbor?"
"That neighbor?" The emphasis wasn't lost on Michael. He quirked an eyebrow at Kono.
Even her golden tan couldn't keep the guilty flush off her face. "I don't remember saying anything to you about my neighbor." Kono glared at her boss. It did nothing but bounce off Steve's commanding and always-in-the-know veneer.
"I heard you talking to Chin," he replied baldly, as if it had been transmitted in the clear and all he did was receive it and used it at an opportune time.
The glare wilted against such logic. Kono smiled weakly at Michael. "I've mentioned a few things that were worthy of envy."
Unfortunately, it appeared that Navy men had no propensity for subtlety in relation to the use of language. Kono's words didn't penetrate as Michael's raised eyebrow rose another notch.
Fortunately, as she wont to, Nikita came to Kono's rescue before she dug herself a deeper hole. "Kono! What happened?" Nikita came up behind Michael and stared roundly at Kono's leg cast, "Are you okay?"
"Oh my god, don't worry about it, Nikita, I'm fine! Please don't make any sudden movements," Kono pleaded frantically as Nikita tried to maneuver around both Michael and her own massively protruding belly. "I can't be responsible for delivering twins in my current state."
Michael stared. "Twins?" he murmured incredulously.
Groaning at that monumental slip of the tongue, Kono shuffled to position herself behind Steve. "I knew I shouldn't have gotten out of bed today."
Stunned, Michael whipped around to see Nikita already nimbly backpedaling. Whatever obfuscation Nikita used, obviously it came back to him now. The times Nikita insisted on having private time with the doctor, the sonogram with a malfunctioning speaker—so he couldn't hear the two heartbeats.
Michael's face twisted like he couldn't decide whether to be angry or deliriously happy. "When…when were you planning on telling me?" His growl of his voice trembled. Most likely a combination of both.
Sighing softly, Nikita came back to him. "I wanted it to be a surprise," she answered, making a face at Kono before pulling his face down to hers. Rising to her toes, she wrapped and crossed her arms around his neck, bringing him close. "A good surprise. We haven't had many of those in our lives," she whispered into the shell of his ear, ever so gently.
"Nikita, every morning I wake up with you in my arms is a surprise. It's been a long time since anything as good as you has happened in my life." Michael took Nikita's face into his hands, and gazed adoringly into her eyes, the eyes of the mother of his children, the eyes of the one he could no longer live without—and there was no doubt as to the veracity of his words.
Steve and Kono didn't know where to look.
Thankfully, Michael ruthlessly spared them both. "Steve, we'll catch up later." The door was quickly shut and all signs, including the way Michael drew Nikita into his arms for a heated kiss, pointed to it being shut for the immediate future.
"I need to get laid," Kono muttered as the pair disappeared into their apartment. She turned and met Steve's eyes with a start. "Um. Can we pretend you didn't hear that?"
Steve stared blankly at her. Kono stared back. His eyes crinkled. "Sorry Kono, did you say something?"
Kono rewarded him with a playful punch to his shoulder, a gesture to say there was hope for him after all. What happened next though, specified a limit to that hope.
A pair of costumed young women, Kono's neighbor adjacent, came down the hallway and called out cheerfully, "Hi Steve!"
These women had never met Steve McGarrett outside of a picture frame Kono kept of the 5-0 team. "Ladies," he nodded gamely at them. They smiled beautifully at him as they passed, their grass skirts swinging. Steve, being a red blooded male with no other immediate concerns or nearby criminal to catch, watched as their claim-to-fame hips sashayed down the hallway.
Kono snorted. "Aren't you lucky, usually they get to work before donning the full hula dancing apparel."
His face was one of genuine surprise.
"That's right. They're not so innocent. They even plied me with homemade muffins until I got around to asking Nikita if Michael has a brother. They've got dibs on him now," Kono sighed.
Steve frowned. That was an incongruous piece of information.
"He has a brother?"
Some Days Later:
Owen dropped his non-descript black duffle bag with a loud thud.
"Let me get this straight. You're pregnant with his children, plural. Due any day now, like today, today is considered an 'any day.' And he's out gallivanting with some Navy buddy from a hundred years ago. It's called fratricide if we're related, right?"
"Yeah, Mikey kinda dropped the ball on this one, Niki," Birkhoff piped up from under a too-large pilot's hat as he strolled in, "You want, like a new house or something? Cause I can do that. You'll be amazed what you can buy on the internet these days, I'll hook you up."
Alex skillfully circumvented the men and greeted Nikita without a word, but with a tight embrace, though mindful of said due-any-day-now babies. Nikita's grin widen with pride as she primped the soft curls of hair framing Alex's confident and happy countenance. Alex mirrored her grin, and regarded Nikita with an expression of delighted awe as she gingerly touched her swollen belly.
"Sports cars, private jets, mega yachts, tropical islands, small countries…"
"My nieces and nephews!"
Alex rolled her eyes at the men. "What can we do to help?" she asked Nikita as she pulled up a chair for the hugely pregnant woman to sit. Alex's careful gesture spoke to how big Nikita's stomach had gotten when compared to her usual small frame. The men abruptly stopped talking and followed the progress of Nikita to her seat, sighing with relief as she touched down.
"Michael's friend, Steve McGarrett, heads a local PD unit. There's been a recent rash of kidnappings, happening almost simultaneously, frying HPD's response times and resources. What's worse, they seem to know exactly when Steve's team gets too close."
"Sounds like there's a mole in the department," Alex concluded.
"So Steve recruits a nobody like Michael to flush them out," Owen snarked, though without much bite.
"Dude has no other friends to call?"
Everyone stared dubiously at Birkhoff, he of less than many friends. Birkhoff quickly amended, "I mean, hello, pregnant wife due any day now."
"Michael wouldn't go," Nikita explained on Michael's behalf.
Owen grunted his approval.
She continued, "I told him to."
That Nikita would always put the needs of others ahead of her own, it was understood. But who would fault her if she looked out for herself and her family, just this once?
"Nikita…" Alex started worriedly.
Folding her arms protectively around her abdomen, Nikita was aglow with a maternal halo. Her smile was both weathered and new, full of grace.
"I want them to be born into a better world."
All but for the rustling sway of palm trees outside the sunlit window, the room was quiet.
Finally, Owen coughed. "When you put it that way…"
"My equipment is right outside," Birkhoff grumbled, heading out that way.
Alex hugged Nikita from behind so Nikita didn't see her face, too full of emotion to bear. "You're going to make the best mom ever," she whispered hoarsely.
Nikita exhaled unsteadily. "You think so?" Holding Alex's hand in a tight grip, she felt Alex smiling into her hair.
"I know so."
The twins kicked in agreement.
Nikita closed her eyes, but there was no darkness as the warmth of the light she felt all around her flowed through her pores, past the scar tissue of old wounds, and illuminated the brimming love from her heart.
End Coda Two