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Unpaved Roads

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Nikita’s hands were full of bubbles and a protesting mutt when her cell buzzed in that mechanical trill she both dreaded and anticipated. The dog stopped squirming, its soft brown eyes looking up at her suddenly tense countenance. She tapped a finger over its foam covered nose, smiling again as it burrowed beneath her palm. The cell rang insistently in her pocket. Important. Now. Pick up. She hadn’t answered yet and she could already hear Michael admonishing her for her lackadaisical attitude.

“Always so serious,” Nikita muttered as she pressed to connect. She sighed dramatically into the speaker. “You just knew I was having too much of a good time, didn’t you?”

“My apologies for interrupting you at the animal shelter, Nikita,” came the unexpected smooth reply.

Nikita straightened like a soldier at attention. The tracker in her hip throbbed. “Amanda.”

“I’d like you to come in.”

As if it was an option. Nikita waved over another volunteer to help finish the bath. “I can be there in fifteen,” she replied.

“Excellent.”

Nikita heard someone else talking before Amanda properly cut them off. Before she could decipher what she heard, Amanda finished tersely, “I’ll be expecting you.” Nikita blinked at the abrupt dial tone.

She made it to Division in ten minutes and was greeted with echoes of hurried footsteps as she proceeded. On the way to Operations, she spots several agents rushing in and out, their faces lined with tension.  Her pace increased until she spotted a familiar figure hunched over the blue glow of his computer screen.

“Hey nerd,” Nikita called, snapping her fingers at Birkhoff when he didn’t respond. The computer tech jumped as her face came into focus. He blinked at her, his face flashing into a grimace before working its way to nonchalance. “What’s going on?”

“You’re actually here,” Birkhoff muttered under his breath.

“Yes, I came because Amanda called me,” Nikita explained with exasperation. A quick glance about Operations set her heart racing. It was Michael’s face, the snapshot of his passport, security credentials and background information, spread across the wide screens. “Where’s Michael?”

“Question of the day.” Birkhoff surreptitiously looked around before leaning towards her, speaking in a low whisper, “Michael’s gone rogue. He tried to kill Percy.”

Nikita regarded Birkhoff with a bark of laughter and a playful punch that would bruise later. “Are you kidding? Com’on.”

He didn’t protest, there was no mirth on his lips. A chill gripped the base of her spine. She floundered. “Michael who?”

“Our Michael. The Michael.” Birkhoff made a noise between frustration and disappointment. “Percy’s in surgery and there was some old dude ranting about a stolen black box prototype. Amanda’s called everyone in and she wants everything we have on Michael, what he has for breakfast, like some cereal could have set him off. By the way, I’d stay away from the Coco Puffs.”

Nikita crossed her arms. “This is impossible. The only reason Michael’s in Division is because of Percy.” Michael had told her everything that night in St. Petersburg, the source of his loyalty to Percy. What could have triggered this 180?

Birkhoff turned away, touching his headset as new instructions came in. Nikita stared at Michael’s unsmiling profile above her, remembering his stern warnings when she came too close to breaching Division protocols. When she jokingly entertained the idea of escaping from Division, he in turn regaled her stories of those who have tried and been caught.

It wouldn’t be him doling out the punishment. It would be Amanda, who had surgical precision in breaking open old scars and carving out new ones. It would be cleaners like Roan, who had neither pity nor remorse and needed no rhyme or reason to kill. The force of the retribution would be many times greater than that of Division’s formal enemies. An example must be made. A precautionary tale must be told.

He was Michael. He could have bowed out of Division in ways that didn’t include getting on its most wanted list. Why did he do it?

 Birkhoff elbowed Nikita, breaking through her thoughts as they listened to the familiar click of heels approaching Operations. “The Inquisition has begun,” he announced softly.

As more agents filed into the room, Nikita noted both the familiar and the unfamiliar faces. Division had deeper levels of secrets than she realized. It was that moment that the frayed ends of her thoughts were suddenly entwined, reconnected.  Michael, Kasim, and Percy, a tapestry woven from lies and treachery. Why Michael chose to kill Percy if Percy had been key to getting Kasim. It only made sense, if Percy had been behind it all, the puppet master to Kasim’s deceit.

Nikita’s throat was unbearably bitter as the taste of bile bloomed from her chest. She didn’t know where Michael was, but she felt his anguish. How it must pale next to his, knowing that Percy took from him his family, his loyalty, his soul. Nikita turned to Birkhoff, his shoulders stiff as he keyed in the information that brought up more data onto the big screen. “Don’t get too attached to this place, Birkhoff. We’re all just a means to an end,” she murmured shakily.

The only sign that Birkhoff heard her was the pause in his keystrokes. When he started typing again, Michael’s picture shrank as additional text was added to the screen. Nikita closed her eyes, but his afterimage continued to burn behind her retinas.

Amanda arrived, impeccably dressed, ever the leader as she spoke.

“As of this morning, the agent all of you know as Michael has gone rogue. He took with him a data storage prototype. The data held within the prototype is highly classified information. We must capture Michael and secure the prototype. He is extremely familiar with our SOP and must be approached with caution.”

Regardless how fast word traveled in Division, there were still eyes wide with shock as Amanda made the announcement. Division’s second in command had gone rogue, but no one asked Amanda about Percy.

“Michael is our new priority target, threat level six,” Amanda continued. “Every operative engaged at that level or lower will be working on this full time.” There was a pause and trained agents or not, the sense of unease rippled through the small room. A shitty assignment if there ever was one, going up against the man who trained nearly half of them in the room.

 “Nikita will be heading the detail.”

Nikita swallowed a gasp, her eyes staring stonily out front. The others, they didn't stare, but she felt their focus as she stood ramrod straight, singled out in the crowd not by the space around her, but by the weight of the objective.

“You have your orders.”

The operatives and analysts scattered like ants. Nikita stayed, waiting as Amanda’s eyes finally settled on her. Amanda smiled, a stretch of her lips that drove ice down Nikita’s spine. The older woman clutched Nikita’s hand in an act of reassurance. Nikita compacted her recoil into a mere twitch of her ring finger.

“Nikita, you’re our most talented agent. Percy has remarked on your trade craft and I concur. You’re more than capable of bringing Michael in.”

The calculating glint in Amanda’s eyes was there for Nikita to see. She was the lead agent and she was bait—how she wanted to play it was only for Amanda’s amusement. The puppet strings were silken threads, she, caught in a spider’s web.

“However, Michael trained you and has intimate knowledge of your capabilities.”  The involuntary flush of Nikita’s cheeks didn’t escape Amanda’s watchful eyes. It only confirmed her decision. “So, I’ve assigned a partner to you.”

“I work better alone,” Nikita protested dully. The script was black and white. She didn’t snap and she didn’t cry.

Amanda offered sympathetically, “No doubt Michael is also aware of that.”

Nikita had nothing more to say. Her eyes registered a movement. She never even noticed him, standing silently in the shadows. His movements were like that of a stalking panther, slow circles with the deadly promise of a swift pounce. The shadows clung to him like home until the Operation’s dim lights filled him in muted color.

“This is Owen.”