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The Certain Stakes I Gained

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Nikita had come to expect a clusterfuck whenever she tried to get something done. It seemed like every move she made these days ended in some kind of unpredicted disaster. But she certainly hadn't expected to track Ari Tasarov to the Udinov mansion, to waste precious minutes searching for him while avoiding Semak's security, and then to find not Ari, but Alex, holding a gun on...Katya Udinov?

Well. She'd worry about Ari later.

Both Katya and Alex swung their eyes around, Katya's pleading, Alex's lit with a strange, almost feral kind of fire. "The hell are you doing here?" Alex snapped. Her gun hand didn't move, the barrel still trained on Katya.

"Looking for a black box," said Nikita, pushing down all her stress and confusion to make her voice as calm as possible. "What's going on here?"

"My daughter," gasped Katya. "She's Division, she--"

"Shut up," Alex said. She was almost snarling, but her eyes were bright with tears. Nikita had seen that combination often enough, back in the day. "This--this traitor helped Semak take my father out. She's fucking him."

"You have to understand, Alexandra," said Katya, and she gulped before continuing. "I had no choice, Sergei had so many of the security on his side--"

"Don't you--don't you fucking give me that," Alex interrupted again, and her stance shifted ever-so-slightly. Ready to take the shot.

Nikita didn't know how the hell her intelligence had missed Katya Udinov being alive all these years, or how the mother that Alex had remembered with such love could have let her child be sold into sex slavery, or how Alex had made it out to Russia without Division agents tailing her--Nikita knew she wasn't infallible, but she thought she probably would have noticed Cleaners converging on the Semak house. None of it mattered now. "Alex," she said. "Don't do this."

Alex's head jerked back around, her eyes meeting Nikita's. "Are you kidding me?" she said incredulously, and there it was, the same panic and desperation and rage that had fueled Alex through rehab. "She killed my father!"

"No," said Nikita. "I killed your father."

"You know what I mean!" Her gun hand was starting to shake.

Alex didn't want to do this. Of course she didn't. If Nikita had had five minutes right now to spend with her mom, she would have forgiven her anything. Anything at all, and Nikita didn't even understand what a family was supposed to be, hadn't spent her life in mourning the way Alex had. "Alex," she said again, "I know you're angry. I know you feel betrayed. But this is your mother. Do you really want her blood on your hands?"

A tear spilled over the eyelashes of Alex's left eye, and she swiped at it angrily with the hand that wasn't holding the gun. "My father trusted her," she said, and her voice broke. It was selfish, probably, but Nikita couldn't help hearing "I trusted you" behind it, and thinking about the long, long list of ways she had failed Alex. "He trusted her, and he trusted Semak, and see where that got him? Dead. Everybody he trusted betrayed him."

"You didn't betray him," said Nikita. "And I know he trusted you." Alex didn't respond, but her hands were still shaking, and Nikita felt she had room to press her advantage. "You can't avenge your family like this. Trust me. You'll regret it the rest of your life."

"She doesn't deserve it," Alex said in a low voice.

She clearly meant "to live," but Katya had obviously interpreted it differently and grasped whatever hope she could find in the situation. "No, please, I don't deserve to die, Alexandra!"

"Shut up," said Nikita harshly. Whatever bullshit had gone down around Project Pale Fire, nobody in this room seemed to be in the right frame of mind to untangle it now. To Alex, she said, "It doesn't matter what she deserves. It's about what you deserve. And you're a good person, Alex. You don't deserve this kind of thing on your conscience." No matter how bent on revenge Alex had become since she and Nikita parted ways, Nikita knew that, side by side with her desire for vengeance, there lived a conscience inside of Alex that would never let her do the kind of things Nikita had done, not without severe consequences.

There was a long pause in which Nikita had absolutely no idea what Alex was thinking, before Alex swallowed loudly and said, "What do I do?"

Nikita hadn't even realized how tense her gut had gotten until Alex spoke and a knot in her stomach came loose. "We take out Semak," she said. "And we use her to do it."

**

In the end, taking out Semak wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Katya was willing to tell them where he was, where his guards were, anything to save her own skin. His own security was bored and distracted, burned out on false alarms, and easy to pick off and knock out one by one, even dragging along Katya Udinov as a hostage. The few Gogol operatives who actually stuck around to fight were more of a challenge, but not much more--according to Ari's tracker, he'd already taken off, and probably taken the black box and his best men with him. If ever there was a man who knew how to cut his losses, it was Ari Tasarov. Nikita never thought she'd be in a position to give up a black box, but just in the last week, she'd given up two. What was the world coming to?

Alex was good--she fought with a total lack of hesitation and a confidence Nikita had never seen from her. It should have made her proud, and it did, but it also made her a bit sad. The last thing she wanted was for Alex to turn into her. Sometimes, though, life really didn't give you an option.

Semak himself was a disappointment. Clearly he'd gotten used to being in control--when he found himself alone, all his guards incapacitated and two trained assassins facing him down, all he could do was gulp and try to hide behind his desk. He couldn't even muster the presence of mind to beg.

Alex dragged him out from behind the desk and forced him to his knees. She shot a look at Nikita and said, "You gonna tell me not to do it?" It was a challenge, as if to say that if Nikita did tell her not to kill Semak, Alex would tell Nikita where to shove it.

Nikita didn't bother. She was doing her best these days not to be consumed by anger, not to kill when she could avoid it, to keep the protection of the innocent as her number one priority. Semak wasn't innocent. As long as he was alive, Alex wouldn't be safe. Nikita sure wouldn't shed any tears over his death. "Go ahead," she said, and Alex grinned viciously and put the gun to Semak's forehead.

"You had to know this was coming," she said before pulling the trigger.

Her smile faded as Semak's body slumped to the floor. Nikita hoped she didn't regret it. Surely Alex had enough on her plate without the burden of regret to carry as well.

"How do you feel?" she asked.

Alex took a deep breath. "Like I'm ready to take back my birthright."

And so Nikita kept an eye on Katya while Alex herded what was left of Zetrov's onsite security and tech guys into the dining room. She stood silently by Alex's side while Alex explained who she was, how she'd come to rescue her mother (what a laugh) and reclaim her father's legacy, to guide his company in a new, more profitable and sustainable direction. Nikita stood behind her as she stepped forward and said, "Some of you may have been told that I've been brainwashed by Division. That I'm their plant. That they raised me. But now you get to know the truth: my family and I were betrayed by the people we trusted most." Katya shifted uncomfortably, and Nikita tightened her grip on the woman's arm. She was probably leaving bruises, but she didn't particularly care. "I was sold into slavery. I was forced into drug addiction. I had to fight every day to survive. I used Division to find the traitor who killed my father, just as Semak used Division to kill him. But I am not Division. I am Zetrov." Something in her voice--the conviction, maybe, the purpose that Nikita had seldom seen except at the most unexpected moments--made Nikita shiver. "And anyone who suggests otherwise will answer to me. My name is Alexandra Udinov. My father built this company. But I will make it great."

Half of the Zetrov employees, caught up in Alex's fervor, applauded; the other half just looked scared out of their minds. Nikita took advantage of the confusion to lean forward and whisper into Alex's ear, "You know I won't let you make Zetrov another Division."

The look Alex gave her was full of contempt. "Give me a little credit," she said. "You think I never learned anything from you?"

Nikita really didn't have the nerve to think too hard about exactly what she meant by that.

**

When she caught up with Michael and Owen, they were in Amsterdam, camped out in a hotel two floors above five Guardians--plus, as it turned out, Roan, who was kind of amazing in his indestructibility.

"They're still waiting for instructions from Percy," Owen explained. "However he got out the original message taking them to Secondary Protocol, Amanda must have caught on to him. Maybe his mole got caught, maybe he's lying low, I don't know, but anyway, they haven't done anything since they got here."

"Do they all have their black boxes with them?" asked Nikita. The Guardians were all pretty hard opponents to beat, and she, Michael, and Owen would have to be really damn creative if they wanted to take out all five of them, but the possibility of gaining control of so many black boxes at once...well. It would make this a significantly better day as far as Nikita was concerned.

"All except Miller," said Michael. Just looking at him made half of Nikita stand up and jump for joy, and half of her want to curl up into a ball and die. No. This wasn't the time for that. "I take it you didn't get that one from Tasarov?"

Nikita shook her head. "No," she said. "The situation with Alex required more immediate attention. Plus, as Owen said, without Miller, Ari can't get anything out of the box."

Owen was like a puppy, or a little boy--the least praise was enough to make him puff up with pleasure, and he smiled warmly at Nikita as he said, "If we can come up with some plan to take out the gang downstairs, that's four boxes plus all the biometric material we'll need to get into them. That'd put a pretty big dent in whatever the hell Percy's planning."

"If we could split them up somehow, pick them off one by one," Michael suggested, but Owen was already shaking his head.

"No, no, come on, I was a Guardian for years, they're not that fucking stupid!"

Nikita let them butt heads for a bit while she thought. Miller was a scary bastard clearly not overburdened with conscience, but his loyalty to Percy wasn't the kind of devotion to duty that had governed Michael or Nikita (in her early days) or even Owen--it was the kind of self-interested indifference that she suspected had kept Birkhoff at Division for so many years. In the end, looking back on it, getting Birkhoff to switch sides had simply been a matter of giving him something he'd wanted more than technological gadgets and free room and board: a purpose that made him feel like a good guy, and people who cared about him. Miller wasn't looking for that, but the way he'd talked about Division...Miller wanted money. God only knew what the other Guardians wanted, but if even one of them could be turned, the way Owen and Dana Winters had been, then maybe there was an easier way of neutralizing them than a head-on confrontation.

"Maybe we could recruit them," she said. Their heads whipped around in stereo to stare at her, and she snorted out a laugh at how similar their confused frowns were.

"What are you talking about?" Michael asked.

"The Guardians." She shrugged. "They're isolated from the rest of Division. They have a lot of power over Percy, and I'm pretty sure some of them know it. Find out what they want and give it to them...who knows. It worked with Dana, didn't it?"

"Sure, and that black box was booby-trapped with a biological weapon." Michael's eyebrows drew together. "You don't think they're just going to up and ditch Percy and join our anti-Division crusade, do you?"

Our crusade? Was it still "our"? Whatever, she'd think about it later. "Why not? At least as a plan A--I think our chances of turning them are at least as good as our chances at taking them in a fight."

Owen laughed at that. Michael said, "Nikita, I don't think this is a good idea," thus guaranteeing that she'd have Owen's support. "The Guardians are recruited from the best of the Cleaners, they're not necessarily people you'd even want to work with--"

Oh, that was a mistake. Owen's face hardened. "Hey."

"No offense, " said Michael, not even looking in Owen's direction.

"Yeah, well, I might take some, anyway." For a moment, Nikita was afraid that their macho posturing would lead to actual violence--the expression on Owen's face didn't bode particularly well, anyway--but then Owen stood and gave Nikita one of those earnest looks he was surprisingly good at. "I like it. I don't know any of the other Guardians, but from my own experience--it's a lonely job, and they've been more cut off than usual since Percy's been out of commission. Some days I would have sold my left nut just to talk to somebody besides the grocery store clerk. The idea of being part of something big like taking down Division has gotta be appealing to at least one of them." He gave Michael a challenging look. "If you don't want to be a part of it, well, I'd understand."

Michael looked like he wanted to give Owen the finger. Then he looked back at Nikita, searching her face like he was trying to figure out what she was thinking. Good luck, she thought. If you work it out, fill me in. Finally, he nodded. "I guess it's worth a try," he said. "But we prepare for the worst. If this doesn't work, we need a plan to take them out."

**

In the end, the plan was for Nikita to go in alone to the suite the Guardians were sharing, with Owen and Michael listening in from the rooms on either side, ready to jump in with smoke bombs, machine guns, and small explosives the second they were needed. Michael didn't like it, but as long as he was willing to cooperate, he didn't need to like it.

Nikita paused outside their door. Gun by her side, another in a holster at her shoulder, extra ammo in her pockets. A knife in her sleeve and another in her shoe--never let it be said that she couldn't learn from her opponents. It was hard to tell from the outside whether her game face looked convincing, but she felt pretty good about it. She wasn't going to get any readier. She pushed the door open.

They reacted instantly, all of them pulling their guns out near-simultaneously. Roan was the only one to actually pull the trigger--of course, the bastard probably spent his free nights shooting at a target with Nikita's face pinned to it, so it wasn't surprising that he was quick to shoot. Nikita was quicker. His bullet only winged her; hers hit him right between the eyes.

She'd like to see him come back from that.

"Now, why don't we all put our guns down and play nice?" she said, giving them her best "don't fuck with me" smile. "I'm just here to talk, honest."

"The hell you are," said one of the Guardians she didn't know, a white guy built like a brick shithouse with a face that looked like it had been smashed in a few too many times.

Miller, who seemed pretty unflappable, raised his eyebrow at her, his gun hand steady. "And what can we do for you?"

"Well. A little bird told me that you've all been put on Secondary Protocol. Must be nice--have a little get-together, trade stories, sit around and wait for Percy to let you in on the plan. As much as he ever lets anyone in on his plans."

One or two of the other Guardians looked confused, but they had pretty good poker faces for the most part, and as far as Miller was concerned, she might as well have just told him the day's weather forecast. "Have you got a point?" he asked.

"You and I had an interesting conversation the other day," she said. "About the sides we'd chosen."

"I'm still happy with mine," said Miller. "You looking to trade teams?"

"Not hardly," she said. "But since my recruitment pitch didn't work so well on you, I thought I'd try out the latest version on your friends. You don't mind, do you?"

That got a frown out of him. "That was your recruitment pitch? Wasn't much of one, if you ask me."

Five of them. She thought she could probably take out Miller, now that she wasn't bound in the back of a police van, but she didn't know about the others. She felt good about her chances with Brick Shithouse--she'd had good luck in the past with big guys, who tended to be a lot slower and less agile than she was--but the skinny blond guy, the short woman, and the South Asian guy who looked like he could be an Abercrombie and Fitch model? Hard to say. "Well, if you didn't like that one, maybe you'd like to hear this new version."

"Maybe we wouldn't," said the male model.

The woman looked from Miller to Nikita and said, "Recruitment? Really? What makes you think we want to join your little vendetta?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Nikita. "Maybe the fact that you've got every major criminal organization in the world after your asses? I've just come from a great little party with Zetrov and Gogol, and they're working together to take out as many of you as they can."

The blond guy made a contemptuous noise, and Miller grinned. "They've done such a good job so far," he said.

"Oh, I know they haven't," she said. "But Zetrov is under new leadership as of, oh, forty-eight hours ago. Alexandra Udinov. If you don't know who she is, you should know that Division took out her family eight years ago, and she's spent her life since then devoted to revenge. Semak wanted Division gone to cover his own ass--Udinov wants to burn the place down and piss on the ashes." She looked at her watch with exaggerated patience. "I'd imagine that, by now, she's relocating the bulk of her forces specifically to tracking you down and getting the black boxes by any means necessary."

That took a little starch out of their sails, she thought with satisfaction. Good to know she hadn't lost her touch at bluffing. "Plus," she added, "you've made yourselves a hell of a lot more conspicuous with this little shindig. Your chances of lying low were pretty good on your own, but now?" She shrugged. "Hell, the Gogol agents tracking me could have already figured out that you're here. And given the power shifts at Division lately, I wouldn't expect too much help from Division."

"What are you getting at?" asked the male model.

"If I know Percy--and let's face it, nobody really knows Percy, but I know him as well as your average person is going to know Percy--then he's called you all together to put him back on the throne. Take out Amanda, put himself back on the top of the heap."

Miller nodded, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, could've figured that out. Get to the point."

"Tough crowd," said Nikita, with feigned nonchalance. "My point is this--without your cooperation, Percy's got nothing. You've got all the proof, all the evidence of everything he and his cronies have ever done. And what's he going to give you for it? Well, if past experience is anything to go on, he's going to kill anybody you hook up with and probably kill you for good measure. But me?" Another elaborate shrug. "I can get you actual money for it. You wanna keep living in the ass-end of nowhere, guarding a box, or do you wanna see a little bit of reward from the company your labor helped build?"

"What, are you forming a union?" The woman laughed. She was pale, with slightly oily skin and messy hair. She sort of looked like she'd been carved out of cheese, and her close-set, dull eyes didn't make her look terribly bright. It was probably a great disguise--just about anyone who saw her would underestimate her. "The Assassins' union. I'm sure AFL-CIO would go for it."

"Mmm, of a sort," said Nikita with a smile. "Though I don't think unions typically take out the CEOs of their companies. Here's the thing--Division has a shitload of money. Right now, they spend a lot of it spying on you."

"Not us, per se," said the blond guy. He was dressed in a polo and khaki pants--he looked like a preppy college boy.

"Not you, per se," Nikita agreed. "Their employees in general. Which gives you, per se, an edge that your average agent doesn't have."

Miller cocked his head at her curiously. "What, exactly, are you proposing?"

"A mixture of blackmail and exposure. We take it mission by mission--they give us money not to air some of their dirty laundry--we air some of it anyway and sell the stories to the media. The more we release, the more their position is weakened, the more they give us." They'd worked it out in a phone conference with Birkhoff; some of the stories were too dangerous ever to be released to the public, the kind of stuff that took out governments, but some of them were simply the kind that took out individual House Representatives or moderately powerful CEOs. It was a riskier, broader-reaching game than they'd been playing so far, but Owen for one was more enthusiastic about it than he'd ever been about their small-scale missions, and Nikita had to admit it would more satisfying to release some actual truth than to spend all their time creeping around in the dark. She wasn't at all sure that Amanda would play this particular game--wasn't even sure if they should even try the blackmail thing--but Birkhoff was more than capable of getting the money to satisfy the Guardians, if they decided to go along with it.

"You really think they're just going to pay us off?" the blond guy asked skeptically. "You don't think Percy or Amanda would just have a hit put out on us?"

"Oh, come on," said Nikita, giving him a contemptuous look of her own. "You're world-class experts in lying low, you're Division's best assassins, and you're all on a drug that gives you superhuman strength and speed. What makes you think you have anything to be afraid of from Percy and Amanda?"

"Stroking our egos," said Miller with a grin. "I like it."

"I don't," said Brick Shithouse. "I think I've heard enough from this traitor." His hand moved. Nikita ducked instinctively as a shot rang out.

When she looked up, Brick Shithouse was dead on the floor, a bullet hole in his forehead, and the greasy little woman was looking at his body in exasperation, her gun still pointed at him. "Such a dumb fuck," she said. "Probably couldn't find his own dick unless Percy told him where to look." She put the gun in a holster at her belt and stepped over to shake Nikita's hand. "Celia Carver," she said. "I'm gonna need some more details about this plan of yours, but it sounds like a hoot."

**

As Nikita later explained to Birkhoff over the phone, Celia and Kevin, the blond guy, were both interested in working outright with them. For them, the appeal wasn't so much the money as the opportunity to get out of the podunk towns where they'd been hiding the black boxes, and the idea of sticking one to Percy ("That creepy motherfucker," as Celia, who had a mouth like a sailor, called him). Pranav, the male model, thought the plan sounded suicidally stupid, and he'd wanted to take his black box and work with Zetrov. Nikita was okay with the Zetrov plan, but she wasn't about to let him walk off with the box. The threat of facing Celia and Kevin as well as Nikita, Michael, and Owen was enough to make him hand it over before vanishing. Miller, predictably enough, wanted money in exchange for a bit of his blood and for his not going to Division to report both Percy's and Nikita's schemes to Amanda. A lot of money. Birkhoff complained, but eventually he coughed it up. Nikita thought it would probably be worth it to keep Miller at some island resort somewhere and out of their hair.

"Hah," said Owen, looking at the black boxes spread over his bed in the hotel. It sounded less like a laugh and more like a noise of disbelief. "Anyone know how we can get in touch with Percy right now? I would love to see the look on his face when we tell him we got four of his black boxes."

"Tasarov's still got the fifth," said Michael in dampening tones. "As long as he does, we're going to have to be really careful about how we release that information. We can't just sell off the stories by the dozen and send our new Guardian friends a check in the mail."

"'We,' he says," Owen muttered. "Because we did so much today."

"If I recall correctly, I saved our asses in Switzerland," said Michael, looking seriously pissed, but before he could get too far into the rant he was almost certainly brewing, his phone rang. "It's Cassandra," he said after pulling it out of his pocket.

"Cassandra?" Owen's expression went from sullen to murderous. His protectiveness was kind of cute, Nikita thought, but pretty much the last thing in the world that she wanted was a conversation between her and Owen and Michael about just what Michael's relationship with Cassandra was at this point.

"Of course," she said. "You should talk to her."

Michael shot her a grateful look and disappeared into the hallway. Owen made a scornful noise in his general direction and fixed Nikita with an incredulous look. "You kidding me?" he said. "Who the hell is Cassandra?"

"It's complicated," said Nikita, hoping she looked calm. She sure didn't feel it. "He's not cheating on me, if that's what you're thinking. Cassandra's..." The mother of his son? The woman he's currently living with? "A friend," she concluded.

"A friend. Right."

Suddenly, the hotel room seemed a lot smaller than it had a minute ago. "I'm going to get some air," she told Owen. He raised an eyebrow in her direction but didn't try to stop her.

Michael looked at her as she shut the door, a bit harder than necessary. He was smiling, but not at her--it was the kind of smile you gave someone who was talking on the phone with you, even if they couldn't see you. Maybe because they couldn't see you. "I'll call you when I land," he said before hanging up.

"Is Max okay?" Nikita asked, already knowing the answer.

"Yeah," said Michael. His smile was broad and open, nothing like the quiet, secret smiles he'd shared with Nikita. "Cassandra says he misses me. Can you believe that? He asked about me last night!"

Nikita could believe it. From what she could tell, Ovechkin had been a possessive father, but distant--interested in Max as an heir but not as a person with wants and thoughts of his own. Michael wouldn't be like that. Even in Division, Michael had had a way of making every recruit feel like they mattered. "You're a good father," she said.

He sighed. "I hope so."

It was like someone was stepping on her heart with a high-heeled shoe. "Michael. This can't go on."

And there went the smile. His eyes on her were as sharp as a hawk's. "What can't?"

"This back and forth. Me one night, Cassandra and Max the next. You know that. You and I have people after us, people who aren't going to stop until we're dead. Cassandra's got enemies of her own. Every time you come to help me out, you're leaving her and Max unprotected; every time you go back to her, you're taking our enemies with you. I never wanted to make you choose, but...."

"Nikita." His voice was hard. "You know me. You know I don't respond well to ultimatums."

She huffed out a breath of air, frustrated. This was the problem with Michael--once he'd made up his mind, he could be as stubborn as anyone Nikita'd ever known, and it took drastic things to get him to reconsider. She could respect that, being something of a stubborn person herself, but she liked to think that she didn't shut the smarter part of her brain off whenever someone disagreed with her. "This isn't an ultimatum," she said. "Think about it. You and I know both know that the life we lead isn't safe. You can make a safe place for Max to grow up, but it sure as hell isn't going to be with someone Division regularly tries to kill."

"He's my son," said Michael, like Nikita didn't understand that. Hell, maybe she didn't. God knew that her first response if she ever found out she had a kid would be to run away as far and as fast as she could, because being around her was dangerous. "I'm not just going to leave him."

Nikita had to take a moment to make sure her next words didn't come out with a sob or tears or something. "I'm not asking you to." She swallowed. It seemed like all of a sudden her throat had started hurting. "Michael. I love you. You know that, right?"

His expression softened. "Of course. I love you, too."

"But I don't..." Despite her best efforts, she could feel tears burning in her eyes. "How do I say this? I don't need you. Not the way Max does. I'd do just about anything to have a father who gave a damn about me, I'm certainly not going to deny Max his."

"Nikita...." He reached a hand out for her face, but she caught it before it could get there. If things got too...intimate here, it would make what she was trying to do impossible.

"Look," she said, "in five, maybe ten years, Max will be old enough to understand all this. If you still want this fight then, I know you'll figure out a way to get in touch with me. But for now, just stay with him. Okay? I don't call you, you don't call me. Division can't trace calls that we don't make. Cassandra and Max will be safer, and if you stay off the radar, Division can keep its attention on me."

Michael blinked a few times, staring at her like he was trying to see the inside of her mind. He did that a lot. She'd never really thought of herself as all that inscrutable.

"Nikita," he said, "Do you ever think that maybe, just maybe, other people might be able to decide for themselves what's best for them?"

What did Michael know about letting other people make decisions? If it had been up to Nikita, Alex sure as hell wouldn't be at the heart of Zetrov right now. "Sure," she said. "And sometimes they're wrong and I'm right."

He laughed at that, kind of a weak and watery laugh. "I think if you'll take a moment and think about it, you'll remember that just last week I was the one who was right, when you and Birkhoff pulled that dumbass op against Oversight."

He didn't get to talk about that. He didn't. He wasn't the one who'd had to set Birkhoff up with a doctor and finally coax him into sleeping that first night and watch him try to type one-handed . She was going to have to live with the guilt of that for the rest of her life, but Michael would never have to deal with any of the aftermath. He didn't get to talk. "Well," she said shortly. "I'm right this time, and you know it."

They were silent for a long time. Michael's eyes slid from her and he focused on some place on the floor. "Yeah, maybe," he said. "Nikita. I would have gone with you to the end. You should know that."

She wasn't even going to get a goodbye kiss out of this. If she kissed him now, she would never let him go.

**

Birkhoff's new safe house was in Oregon, and it looked like a log cabin from the outside but on the inside was the kind of contemporary, open-layout building he liked. He greeted Nikita with a crooked grin. "Come on in," he said. "Mi casa es su casa, or whatever." The scabs on his face looked better, but the glasses made him look like somebody's kid brother who'd taken a beating at recess. Nikita guessed it was difficult to put contact lenses in with a crushed hand.

"Did you go to your doctor's appointment?" she asked.

Birkhoff rolled his eyes. "Yes, Mom," he said, wiggling his bad hand at her. "She called a surgeon out here. First operation was last Thursday, the next one's in three days."

"Well. Good." She didn't really like the idea of Birkhoff recovering from surgery out here all on his own, but it wasn't like she had any room to talk. Anyway, with any luck she'd be around later this week to help him after the next operation.

After ushering her and Owen in, Birkhoff stuck his head out the door like a dog sticking its head out the window, turning it side to side like he was looking for something.

"Expecting somebody?" Owen asked.

Birkhoff drew his head back in with a frown. "I guess not," he said, turning back to Nikita and Owen. "What, you're trading Mikey in for a new model?" He gave Owen a dubious look. "Can't say I approve."

Nikita knew she'd have to talk to him about it sometime, since they were actually kind of friends at this point, but she really, really couldn't handle thinking any more about Michael right now. "Please, Birkhoff," she said, "Don't. " She wondered if she sounded as pathetic and desperate to him as she did to herself.

Birkhoff looked sort of taken aback. He darted a quick look between her and Owen before sighing. "Okay, yeah, whatever, your room's the first one on the left upstairs, and Blast Hardcheese here can have the one at the end of the hall." He gave them one last look before scurrying down to the house's lower level, which was presumably where he kept the computers.

"What the hell did he just call me?" Owen asked.

"I don't know," said Nikita. "It's probably from Star Wars or something."

"Have you ever actually seen Star Wars?" Owen grinned at her. "I'm pretty sure it's not from there."

Nikita shrugged. She didn't get half of the references Birkhoff made, but she'd never really cared enough to devote that much thought to them. "Whatever." They lugged the duffel with the black boxes upstairs. One of the black boxes went into Nikita's closet, another into her dresser. They put a third in Owen's room, in a chest under a window seat, and the last went into what had to be Birkhoff's room, on his nightstand. Unsurprisingly, the room was full of computers. Nikita wondered if he had a storage unit somewhere where he kept all his computers when they were on the run, or if he simply bought new computers everywhere he went.

"Hey," said Owen. "He looks okay."

"What?"

"Birkhoff. He looks okay." He shrugged. "I've definitely seen worse. Are you okay?"

She'd sent Michael off to London for the last time. For all she knew, she'd never see him again. It was a harder, more painful break than when she'd left Division, and at that point she only ever saw him when he was trying to kill her. It was like a wound she couldn't touch without breaking open some stitches and bleeding out on the floor. "Fine."

"Right," said Owen skeptically. He was way too sarcastic these days. They'd have to work on that.

"Really," she said. "I'm fine."

"Whatever you say, Boss," he said, poking dubiously at what looked like a disassembled hard drive on Birkhoff's desk. "Whatever you say."

Birkhoff actually had a huge kitchen, which of course he never used. His freezer was full of frozen pizzas and Fudgsicles. Owen took one look at it and said, "Yeah, I can work with this," before vanishing to the grocery store for over two hours. Nikita had been about five minutes away from going after him with all the weapons in her arsenal, but he'd eventually reappeared with enough groceries to feed an army. Well. That was sort of what they were. A little army.

Owen cooked dinner for them, lasagna with spinach and pine nut cream, and a side salad with wild greens and a raspberry vinaigrette dressing. Or something like that--Owen could wax as rhapsodical about food as Birkhoff could about electronic equipment, and Nikita was getting really good at listening to both with half an ear, just to get the important points. Whatever it was, it was delicious. Birkhoff was extremely uncertain about the food at first, but after his first bite, he'd eaten with gusto, and after they'd finished, he'd leaned back in his chair and said to Owen, "Okay, Brute Squad, you can stay."

"Hey, I know that one," said Owen. "It's The Princess Bride, right? I've seen that."

"Oh, good for you, you've seen one of the biggest cult classic phenomena of the last thirty years." Birkhoff rolled his eyes so hard Nikita was afraid he might strain something. "What, did you get a degree in film studies or something?"

"No, I got a degree in killing people who piss me off," Owen said, wielding his fork in a vaguely threatening manner.

Nikita really, really wasn't in the mood to mediate another dick-measuring contest, but lucky for her, Birkhoff just smirked in Owen's direction and said, "Yeah, whatever. You made dinner, I'll make the margaritas."

"Margaritas?" Owen looked nonplussed.

"Dude, we've got four black boxes," said Birkhoff, gesturing expansively. "If you can think of a better reason for a celebratory alcoholic beverage, I'd sure like to hear it."

Birkhoff had gotten surprisingly efficient at making margaritas one-handed. Nikita didn't make a habit of getting actually drunk--nursing one drink the whole evening and then faking drunkenness was more her style--but the margaritas were good, and of all the people in the world that she trusted, half of them were in the room with her, and thinking about the other half made her want to be drunk.

So between the three of them, they went through an alarming amount of tequila.

"Man, Michael is a dick," said Owen, punctuating his statement with a finger jabbing at the air. "He just, he just has a kid with this other woman? Dick."

"He's not a dick," Nikita said. The inside of her head felt fuzzy, and it was blunting the edges on some of her grief. Which was nice, sort of. "He's a family man, okay? We weren't even dating then, okay, and Cassandra was just a mission. But Max is really cute."

"That's true." Birkhoff nodded as if she'd said something profound. "Max is really cute. Kind of a pain in the ass, but cute."

"And. Whatever." Nikita's head was already killing her. She didn't even want to think about what her hangover was going to be like. "Some people are good at, like, normal, healthy relationships, right? And then some people are not. Like me."

Owen's finger jabbed again. "Bullshit."

"No, seriously," she said. "This is totally how I fucked things up with Alex, too. Well. No, 'cause she doesn't have a kid. But I pushed her away, you know, I didn't tell her things. I wanted to keep her safe. But that's not...it doesn't work, when you want to trust people. Or you want them to trust you. Or, you know."

"No. No, no, no," said Owen. "'Cause I am all about the truth. You know that. But! Cassandra didn't want Michael to be involved, or she would have told him. And that's, that's her business. Her kid, too. That's not your fault. It's not like everything would be fixed if you'd told him sooner."

"Wait," said Birkhoff. "Back up a sec. Were you and Alex dating?" His eyes looked sort of glazed-over behind his glasses. "That's...a mental image."

Nikita punched him in the shoulder. Not too hard, because he was still recovering.

"If Emily were here right now," Owen said, "I wouldn't ditch her for some woman I screwed on an op. When you love somebody, you don't just leave them like that."

"It was my idea!" said Nikita, louder than she'd really meant to. "I told him to! He didn't want to! But he has to be Max's father now. If he could just leave his son like that--if he made Max feel like there was something wrong with him, or like he was less important to his dad than...me, or taking down Division, or whatever, he wouldn't be the man I loved!" It kind of sounded like she was crying now. Oh, yeah, she was definitely crying. She hated when this happened.

After a long, awkward pause, Owen said, "Too much tequila?"

Nikita nodded and wiped away tears, leaving her face feeling raw. "Way too much tequila."

Birkhoff burped.

Somehow after that they made their way to the living room. Nikita collapsed on the couch; Birkhoff sat on the other end of it while Owen took the armchair. Owen, being the kind of guy that he was, started telling a long, involved story about his last break-up. Apparently, pre-Division, he'd been a cocaine dealer, and his girlfriend was in the business, too. She'd constantly been on him to expand their sales, to bring in more money, "to grow up, like it was totally immature of me to keep our cocaine dealing to a minimum!" Eventually, she'd taken a huge chunk of their merchandise from under Owen's nose and brought it to one of their competitors, effectively ending both their business and their romantic relationships. "And the worst thing is, I don't think she even cheated on me with him--like, I don't think they ever dated. She just legitimately thought he was a way better cocaine dealer than me."

"Oh, ouch," said Birkhoff.

Nikita laughed, and told the story of her last pre-Division breakup, back when she was nineteen and dating a music school dropout who divided his time between busking and begging money off his upper middle-class parents. He'd been distressingly close to his ex, who apparently became his ex-ex on Nikita's bed while she was at the mall one afternoon.

"Jesus, Nikita," Owen said, "are all the guys you date complete idiots?"

"Well, Daniel wasn't," said Nikita, and Owen winced.

"Ah. Yeah." Nikita thought maybe she'd have to cut off a guilt trip before he got too into it, but instead, he cleared his throat and started another story, this one about his complicated love life in high school. Nikita found herself drifting off partway through, but Owen didn't sound pissed when he said, "Tired, huh?" and Birkhoff's couch was really comfortable.

She must have woken up at the end of one of Owen's stories, because Birkhoff was barking out a laugh, and when she sat up, he said to her, "Holy crap, this dude sucks at romance."

"Hey," said Owen, "we ever gonna get an embarrassing breakup story out of you? Nikita and I have been laying our love lives out all night, I think it's your turn." He gave Nikita a conspiratorial grin.

Birkhoff shifted uncomfortably. "Eh. Nothing that interesting to tell."

"Oh, come on," said Nikita. She was actually curious; she knew that Birkhoff had some kind of life when he wasn't providing tech support for missions, but she had very little idea of what was in that life other than a lot of computer hacking.

"No, really," said Birkhoff. "I dunno, I never actually had a relationship. I mean, I had sex, don't get me wrong, but, like...girls really weren't into me in high school, and then of course there was prison, and once I was in Division, I didn't see the point of going to all the effort to date or whatever when I could just watch porn online or hire a call girl."

Owen snorted. "Wow. How'd Percy feel about you hiring pros on the company dime?"

Birkhoff shrugged exaggeratedly. He was clearly still a little drunk. "Didn't care, as long as I kept doing my job." He stared into his margarita glass, which he'd apparently retrieved while Nikita was dozing off, and his expression got more melancholy. "And I did, no problem. Man, I watched you guys do some fucked-up shit on closed-circuit camera. And I watched...." He trailed off, but the look he darted at Owen and Nikita before taking another sip of his margarita made Nikita think the sentence probably could have been finished "I watched some fucked-up shit happen to you."

It was weird to think of Birkhoff carrying the same kind of guilt that Nikita and Owen did. He'd always seemed pretty untouched, emotionally speaking, by all his time in Division, but Nikita really ought to have known better than anyone the kind of turmoil someone could hide under a snarky mask. "Aww, Nerd," she said, too fuzzy-brained to think of something smarter to say to him. Her head felt really heavy, so she laid it on his shoulder. She could almost hear him rolling his eyes, but his good hand came up and stroked through her hair once or twice.

"Whatever. I just...do you ever look back at yourself and really, really not like what you see?"

"All the time, dumbass," said Owen. "That's why we're here and not at Division."

**

"Hello, Jill."

Jill Morelli obviously hadn't clawed her way up the ranks of respectable journalism because of a pretty face. "Nikita," she said, sounding like she couldn't decide whether to be thrilled or angry.

"I told you I'd call if I needed your help."

On the other end of the phone, Jill sighed. "What do you need? Is this...payback, or something?"

"Hmm. You could say that." Nikita couldn't help but smile. This was the kind of 'payback' that turned respectable journalists into Woodward and Bernstein. "I think you'll be able to help us both with this."

"Well?" asked Jill. Whatever attempt she'd made at anger was obviously over now; she sounded like a kid awaiting a present.

"What would you say if I could give you enough stories to last you the rest of your life? Government cover-ups, corporate cover-ups, tax payer dollars used to fund senators' sex lives--you name the conspiracy, I've got the e-mails, the videos, the phone records, and the names of who gave the orders."

"What's the catch?"

"No catch. I wouldn't mind some money--taking down government conspiracies isn't exactly cheap--but I'm willing to negotiate. I'm not going to give you every story, so you'll have to live with me keeping some secrets, but I'll give you more than enough to bring some really terrible people to justice."

"Well," said Jill gravely. "Let me think. What would I say?" She laughed suddenly, bright and happy. "I'd say, let's do it."

**

Christmas that year was more than a little odd. She hadn't made a point of celebrating it during the years she was on her own, and Christmas at Division was a cold little affair with a plastic tree they weren't allowed to put up or decorate until the 24th, and gifts like Walkmans from the 90s and posters to hang on the blank gray concrete walls of their cells. Still, she and Alex had had a nice time when she was still prepping Alex to go in undercover at Division, and she'd kind of hoped to spend the holiday this year with Michael. It was kind of sickeningly painful to think that after five years of friendship and sexual tension and saving each other's asses, all the dreams that Nikita had let herself think might actually come true, their actual relationship hadn't even lasted a year.

This year, the week of Christmas found her with a mopey Owen who couldn't seem to stop himself from baking vegan snowman-shaped cookies--it came as no surprise to her when he said that Emily had been really into Christmas--and an irritated Birkhoff who'd already bought himself eight days' worth of Hanukkah presents and, in his words, hadn't "signed up for any of this commercial yuletide bullshit."

When Nikita was a kid, her mom and her had been the ones in charge of Christmas. Gary had never given a shit about decorating or gifts or the foster kids who spent the holidays mourning for the families they'd lost. As long as they kept out of his way, anyway. Caroline had been the one to help Nikita get presents for the other foster kids, who'd put their cheap Target Christmas music compilations in the stereo and sat to wrap the gifts while Nikita got to stick on the bows, who'd baked muffins for them on Christmas morning. She'd told Nikita every year, "I'm so glad I got to spend another Christmas with you," and kissed Nikita's hair. Nikita had always thought herself pretty hard done by, but looking back, she'd been lucky in some ways. Not everybody got a foster mom like Caroline, and not everybody had happy memories to hold on to, even when they hurt.

Christmas Day fell during Hanukkah this year, apparently, so Nikita didn't think Birkhoff would object if she got him a present. She wasn't at all confident about her ability to select anything electronic that he couldn't pick out or build for himself, so she googled some of the weird stuff he said and got him boxed DVD sets of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Doctor Who. He probably already had them, but it was the thought that counted, right?

Owen was easier. She got him a really nice handgun and a vegetarian cookbook.

She didn't even know what she would have gotten Michael. She hoped he and Cassandra were making Max happy. They probably were. Cassandra was probably an expert in Christmas parties, being the former first lady of Belarus and all, and Michael was the one who'd talked Amanda and Percy every year into the pitiful Division Christmas celebrations they threw. She bet Max would be the happiest kid in the world come Christmas morning.

Her Christmas present to herself was to ask Celia to look into Zetrov while she was in Eastern Europe and let Nikita know what was going on. They'd gotten a good bit of advance money from the couple of stories they'd sold to Jill already, so Celia was easy enough to persuade.

When she wasn't shopping, she was planning, since Owen and Birkhoff were still looking to her to engineer the plans. Fair enough--Owen, at least, came up with some pretty lousy ideas on his own. The next step in the overall scheme, Nikita thought, would be to recruit again within Division's ranks. She didn't expect another Sara, not without an eye on the inside to direct her towards particularly vulnerable recruits, but even with Amanda's stricter standards about who was promoted to agent status when, Nikita knew how to get to them. She'd been them, once upon a time, angry and lost and determined to make something of herself, and even a minute alone with one of them would be enough to plant the seeds of doubt regarding Division's virtue. Any one of a thousand stories would do the trick--how they had killed Daniel for being a distraction, how they'd killed Emily for being in the way, how they'd almost killed Sara for not being a cold enough killer, how they'd killed Michael's family and used it as a recruitment tactic, how Percy had engineered a terrorist attack in CIA headquarters. Any one of them might make a new agent, young and scared and without much blood on their hands yet, think a little harder about the orders they got, be a little readier to join her side when the time came.

She'd have to be more careful with this bunch. Another Alex really might break her heart.

In the meanwhile, though, there were still everyday injustices to rectify. On Christmas Eve, she and Owen got a restaurant owner who'd gotten framed for a Division hit out of prison. Or, well, they came up with all the evidence any decent attorney would need to get him out of prison, which was almost as good, and made his wife and children happy enough to make Nikita feel like it was a job well done.

"Thank you!" said Mrs. Davis, crying into Nikita's shoulder while Owen looked on, warmly amused. "Thank you so much! This is the best present I could ever have gotten, and I'll never forget it."

"I'm glad," Nikita said, rubbing Mrs. Davis' back. "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Davis."

Mrs. Davis and the little Davises wanted to treat Owen and Nikita (and Birkhoff out in the van, once they realized just who Nikita and Owen had been talking to on the phone all day) to dinner at the family restaurant. As it turned out, all three of them were constitutionally incapable of turning down free food, so that evening they enjoyed an actual Christmas goose with all the traditional sides. It was like having dinner in a magazine feature. Nikita'd been eating pretty well lately, courtesy of Owen and his mad cooking skills, but she still thought this would probably stand out as one of the most memorably wonderful meals of her life. Even leaving the food aside, the company was pretty hard to beat. The oldest Davis girl, Cynthia, was kind of a geek and spent a large chunk of the meal talking with Birkhoff about their bootlegged Star Wars Christmas specials or something; the 12-year-old, Nick, had a million questions about how the whole "vigilante" thing was working out for them, and the five-year-old, Lucy, sat in her mother's lap, laughed a lot, and told them stories about her dad.

It was a pretty great night.

When they got home around ten, Birkhoff made them hot chocolate with cognac and they watched Die Hard on one of the 8,000 channels they got on the big TV in the living room. It was past midnight when the ending credits played, so Nikita said, "What the hell," and dug out the gifts from under her bed.

"Hey, thanks, Boss!" said Owen when he'd torn his gifts open, examining the gun before putting it aside to flip briefly through the cookbook. "This is awesome. I, uh, I didn't know what you'd like, so, um...." He rustled around in his duffel bag before pulling out a gift set from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Looked like some perfume, shower gel and body lotion, all in a scent called "Twilight Woods." "I mean, I don't know, women like this kind of stuff, right?" said Owen, looking so out of his depth that Nikita had to laugh.

"It's great, Owen, thank you."

He grinned back and tossed an Iron Man DVD at Birkhoff, who was looking simultaneously touched and uncomfortable. "Thanks, you guys," he said. "I mean, I could totally just stream these off the internet, you really didn't have to."

"But you like them?" asked Nikita hopefully. The last time she'd actually gone out and bought a Christmas gift, she'd been fifteen, and so angry at (maybe afraid of) Gary that she'd spent Christmas at a friend's house and just left Caroline's gift on their doorstep.

"I do." He looked up at her quickly before his eyes returned to the DVDs in his lap, still looking awkward, but she thought she could see a little smile on his face. "I didn't get you guys anything, but, I mean, I do pay the rent on the house, and just last month I had to pay your Guardian friend a shitload for the privilege of his blood, so...."

"Hey," said Nikita, hugging him. They weren't necessarily the kind of friends that hugged, but sometimes it just felt like the thing to do. Birkhoff didn't seem to mind, his bad hand coming up to rest on her arm.

"What are you talking about, man?" said Owen with a broad smile. He lifted his drink as if in toast. "I've got booze and chocolate in one place, what more of a present do you think I need?"

"Happy Hanukkah, Birkhoff," Nikita said quietly, and Birkhoff exhaled a laugh.

"Thanks, Nikki," he said. "Merry Christmas."

The best gift, though, came with the mail the day after Christmas.

Owen and Nikita were in the computer room-slash-planning room in the basement, working their way through the tangled mass of information about the pollution caused by one of Division's partner corporations--apparently, their waste was leaking into the ground water and causing birth defects in some town in southern Indiana--when Birkhoff poked his head down the stairs. "Hey, Nikki," he said. "Did you order something from Russia?"

"No," said Nikita, feeling vaguely alarmed. She wasn't sure what the relations were like between Zetrov and Gogol now, but at this point she'd given Ari Tasarov a lot of reasons to want her dead. Come to think of it, Owen probably wasn't high on his list of favorite people, either.

Birkhoff seemed to pick up on her anxiety, because he said, "Relax, I already ran a scan. It's not a bomb, and I'm not picking up any toxins. Not that I can test for everything Gogol might have come up with, but...." He shrugged. "The handwriting looks sort of familiar. I think it's from Alex."

Nikita bolted up the stairs and tore open the package. Inside was a black box--hard to say if it was one of Percy's or not, but it sure as hell looked like one--and a piece of paper with a phone number on it.

"Is that--" Owen started.

"--Patrick Miller's black box? I think so," said Nikita, and she called the number.

"Nikita?" Nikita couldn't think of a time she'd been as happy to hear another person's voice as she was to hear Alex's right then. "Did you get my package?"

"I did. Is this what I think it is?"

"If you think it's the black box Ari Tasarov took from that Guardian in Switzerland, then yeah, it is. I thought you'd probably be able to do more with it than I could."

"Alex." Nikita was completely overwhelmed. If Alex was still willing to help bring down Division...sure, it could still be just a continuation of her ongoing fixation with revenge, but it had to mean something, that Alex still trusted her on some level, that she was willing to let Nikita handle this. It was a good sign. "Thank you."

"Sure," Alex said, and then, after a pause. "One other thing. You know how Tasarov kind of simultaneously has the hots for you and hates your guts and wants to kill you?"

She...really hadn't picked up on that first part, but the "wants to kill you" part? She was definitely aware of that. "Yeah?"

"Well. You don't have to worry about that anymore. He's not going to be a problem."

Nikita felt a slightly hysterical laugh work its way up through her chest. "You mean he's not gonna ask me out or he's not gonna kill me?"

That seemed to startle a laugh out of Alex, who said, "Neither. Merry Christmas."

"It's the twenty-sixth," Nikita pointed out.

"Oh, bite me. Happy Boxing Day, then, or whatever." On that note, Alex hung up the phone.

Happy Boxing Day, indeed.

**

The surprises kept coming with the new year. The second week of January, Birkhoff called Nikita down to what he had started calling "The Bat Cave" and said, "Hey, I really think you're gonna want to see this."

Nikita was, at this point, going on two and a half days without sleep, having just taken out a gang of Division hit men who were after the Prince of Georgia again. ("Seriously," Prince Erik had said when she and Owen were done, "Anything you want. Ever. Just say the word." She told him to look out for Michael and Cassandra.) She really, really, was not ready for Birkhoff to shove a new mission in her face. "Can't it wait?"

"Uh. Don't think so. I think she'll probably hang up."

"Wait, what? Who?"

Birkhoff made some jerky beckoning motions at her and said, "If you come downstairs, I can frickin' show you."

On one of the half-dozen monitors Birkhoff had set up on his desk downstairs, a pretty, vaguely familiar black woman was tapping her fingers impatiently in front of her.

"Is that live?" Nikita asked.

"Live and streaming via webcam from a Division safe house as we speak," said Birkhoff, and oh, that was where Nikita had seen her before. On screen, the woman looked up.

"Nikita?" she asked.

Nikita stepped forward to the semi-circle of monitors and aimed for a serene expression. "Sophia, wasn't it?"

"Sonya, actually," said the tech. If she was irritated, she hid it well. "I was hoping to speak with you."

"What about?" Nikita didn't know much about Sonya, other than that she'd risen to prominence after Birkhoff's defection and that she had to be one of Amanda's right-hand people after Amanda'd cleared out all the upper levels of Division still loyal to Percy. Without more personal knowledge of her, it was hard to predict what, precisely, she might want.

"I'd actually like to work with you," said Sonya. "In this whole...." She waved a hand. "...taking down Division, righting wrongs thing you've got going."

Nikita was stunned into silence for a moment, thinking about all the ways this could possibly be a trap. There were a lot. "Yeah?" she said finally.

"Yes. I understand that, since you and Alex parted ways, you haven't had a man on the inside--or a woman, as it were--and I've been privy to quite a lot of sensitive information in the last six months. I thought perhaps you and I could be helpful to each other."

"I know how you could be helpful to me," said Nikita, sitting down. "How exactly would you like me to be helpful to you?"

Sonya was silent for a long moment, and Nikita felt a knot of tension grow in her chest. Behind her, Birkhoff gripped her shoulder with his good hand. She wondered if Sonya had been part of Amanda's interrogation with him. It would certainly explain how nervous he was--Birkhoff could talk a pretty good game, but he was as vulnerable to PTSD as anybody, and he'd had a rough couple of months.

Finally, Sonya looked up on the screen. "Here's the thing. I like what I do. I like having access to all the latest technological gadgets, and I like having the chance to use my skills for something other than playing pranks on the NSA. But. Things have been...rather strange around here lately."

"Strange how?"

"Well. You know, of course, about Percy. But relations between Amanda and Oversight have been, well, tense, to say the least. She's been rather focused lately on figuring out Percy's games, on the one hand, and gathering leverage against Oversight on the other, and God help anybody who gets in her way on either count. When reports got back to us that Alex Udinov has taken over at Zetrov...you see, Amanda had plans for Alex, and for Zetrov. Alex killed Semak before Amanda was ready to implement those plans, and without Division help, which means that one of Amanda's long-term strategic goals has been royally fucked, if you'll excuse my French."

"I'm fluent in French myself," said Nikita, feeling tenuously hopeful. "Go on."

"Well, since then, I think she's working out a plan to take out Alex, as well. She's been tailing our Oversight liaison, Sean Pierce--I think she suspects him of conspiring with Percy. Or maybe Alex. Or maybe both. And honestly, I'm a bit concerned for my own welfare. I suppose I could probably make it out alive until the next brilliant young thing comes along, if I keep my head down and my mouth shut. But then again, maybe I couldn't." Her eyes lost their focus, and Nikita was confused for a moment, until she realized that Sonya was staring at Birkhoff.

"I've gotten a glimpse of what happens when people like me outlive our usefulness to Division," Sonya finally continued. "And frankly, I'd rather be on the side rescuing their friends from the jaws of death than the side crushing people's hands with hammers, if you take my meaning."

"I think I do," said Nikita, her brain working a mile a minute. They'd have to be careful. It would take quite a few shows of good faith from Sonya's side before they could honestly trust her with information that could potentially burn them or anyone else. But if she was telling the truth--Sonya was better placed to get information out of Division than Alex had ever been. This, combined with the fact that they currently held all of the black boxes, not counting whatever Percy held onto in that twisted head of his, could be the best shot they ever had at bringing down Division once and for all.

"All I ask," said Sonya, "is that, if Amanda catches on, you get me out and find a safe place for me to go. I can take care of myself perfectly well in here, I simply want to know that I've got an escape hatch if things go bad." She paused and shrugged. "Of course, if you should need an additional computer specialist after that, my fees would be very reasonable."

"Sonya," Nikita said with a smile, "I think you're right. I think maybe you and I could be very helpful to each other."

**

The months that followed were busy. At the end of January, Kevin and Celia, who'd gotten bored of globetrotting, decided they wanted to be a bit more hands-on in the fight, so Owen and Nikita carefully went through the black box they were working on to find a handful of missions in which neither greed, a short attention span, nor complications with current Division operations were likely to prove obstacles. While they were in town, Celia had lunch with Nikita alone one day and told her about what she'd found in Russia.

"Zetrov's been pretty calm lately," she said, "but the word on the street is that they've recently acquired a lot of tech people from Gogol, and they're working on some new small-d-division to produce some cutting-edge technological shit. Missile guiding systems or something?" She shrugged. "My sources weren't super clear."

Nikita frowned. If it was true, if Zetrov was graduating from small-arms dealing to missiles, Alex was moving into dangerous territory.

"Oh, the other thing!" Celia said, taking another sip of her root beer. "I guess the new CEO's not into human trafficking, because Zetrov's been working with the Russian government and on its own to take out a lot of sex slavers operating out of Moscow. The dirty fucks. Go Zetrov, right?"

"Go Zetrov," murmured Nikita. Suddenly, Alex's tug on her heart and her head felt a bit less painful.

Most of February and March was spent running missions, either alone with Birkhoff and Owen or working with Kevin and Celia. The rest of the time was spent preparing stories to sell to Jill's paper or getting updates from Sonya about Division and Amanda. Amanda's current feuds with Percy and Oversight made her dangerous to her subordinates, but they also made her distracted, and Sonya agreed to work with Birkhoff to come up with a shell program they could use to get messages to Division recruits. Especially since Sonya was in charge of the recruits' computer training now, Nikita thought they had a pretty good shot at making it work.

It was during one of these conversations with Sonya that Nikita received another major, albeit pleasant, surprise. Apparently Percy, who'd been gradually re-accumulating privileges since his last attempt at coup-by-Guardian had failed, was once again caught plotting--this time, by manipulating recruits who were supposed to be practicing their interrogation tactics on him into sabotaging missions without even realizing it. Once again, Amanda took all of the things from his cell and moved him into some deeper, danker sub-level to boot--"Apparently, the proximity to Fletcher was giving them both bad ideas, according to Amanda."

"Wait, wait, rewind. Fletcher?"

Sonya nodded, looking baffled. "Ryan Fletcher, former CIA agent. I thought you'd worked with him?"

"I did. I don't anymore, because he's dead."

"I see," said Sonya, her mouth drawing together in a frown. "Give me just a moment...." She spent a moment looking something up on her computer while Nikita waited, her heart in her throat. Finally, Sonya emerged from her search and said, "Yes, it was the same sort of operation Division uses to process new recruits. Ryan Fletcher is officially dead, yes, but actually, he's in a Division cell at present. Amanda was hoping to use him against Oversight, but Fletcher's got rather a large grudge against her. Doesn't hold a candle to the grudge he's got against Percy, but then, I suppose that's to be expected. I think nowadays she mostly keeps him around to irritate Percy when she's in a bad mood."

"Get him out." Nikita was surprised at the harsh sound of her own voice, how raspy and raw it sounded. "I don't care what it takes, get him out." God, to think, she'd abandoned Ryan in a prison cell twice now--what a way for a former druggie-slash-sort of reformed assassin to repay a government agent who'd never done anything but try to serve his country.

Sonya froze, giving Nikita a curious look. "Even if it blows my cover?" she asked.

Her tone wasn't accusing, but Nikita swallowed her emotion and took a deep breath. Going off half-cocked like this was how she'd gotten Birkhoff tortured, and not paying attention to what her associates needed was how she'd alienated Alex. "No, of course not," she said to Sonya. "I'm sorry. I thought he was dead, and I just--" She shook her head. "Got emotional for a moment, there."

"Of course," said Sonya, actually looking somewhat sympathetic.

"Let's brainstorm," said Nikita. "If you had to get him out of Division in a very short time frame--say, 24 hours--how would you do it?'

Sonya looked a bit taken aback. From what Nikita understood from Birkhoff, the tech support weren't often consulted in the design of an operation at Division, though they of course had almost entirely free rein when it came to carrying out their part of it. Sonya, though, seemed like the kind of woman who had long awaited having her opinion asked on something like this, because she smiled and said, "Well. Actually, I have a couple of ideas about that."

**

In the end, Ryan got out of Division almost the same way he'd gotten in--by playing dead. Sonya arranged for him, rather than Percy, to be the guinea pig for recruits studying advanced interrogation techniques. A dose of blowfish toxin, administered only minutes before a fairly severe electrical shock (although, not as severe as it appeared to be, thanks to Sonya's tampering with the machine) was apparently enough to convince even Amanda that Ryan had been accidentally electrocuted in the course of the interrogation. Nikita had been afraid that she'd take out her temper on either Sonya or the recruits, who probably felt bad enough as it was, but Sonya assured her that everything was under control. Typically, people who died within Division's walls were promptly incinerated, but for interesting medical cases, Division's doctors had a sort of corpse exchange with the local medical examiner's office (the abuse of which was how Division had managed to convince the world that so many of their recruits were dead). A healthy bribe, from Birkhoff passed along to Nikita passed along to Sonya and finally given to one of the medical staff, had assured that Ryan had a place in the van ride to the nearest morgue.

Owen and Nikita intercepted the van on the way with the antidote.

Ryan woke, gasping for breath and flailing his limbs, an hour later, in a safe house that Birkhoff had improvised closer to Division HQ for Ryan's recovery.

"Hey, hey, Ryan, it's okay, it's okay," Nikita said, trying to sound as calming and soothing as she possibly could. They'd all agreed that Nikita should be the first person Ryan saw when he woke, since she was probably the person he trusted the most at this point. That trust felt like a burden to her, since she hadn't done much to deserve it other than fuck up his life again and again, but it was a burden she was willing to bear. She owed him that much.

"Nikita?" Ryan looked like he couldn't believe his eyes. Which, okay, was pretty fair.

"Hey," she said, trying to smile. "It's okay. You're safe."

"Where are we?" asked Ryan, looking around. He was still dressed in the white jumpsuit of a Division prisoner; they'd have to get him more clothes, now that he was cognizant enough to dress himself. "Division?"

She shook her head. "No. This is a safe house about an hour away from Division Headquarters. My associates and I worked out a plan to get you out."

He sat up and stared at her. "What. I. What--" He burst out into laughter.

Nikita was on the verge of calling Owen to see about getting Ryan some medical attention--she didn't think the toxin had been in his system long enough to cause any brain damage, but he'd been oxygen-deprived for a while, and oh, Jesus, she was fucking this all up again.

"Oh, my God," said Ryan. "I can't believe it. You--I--God, that's fantastic! I don't know why I ever doubt you. It's so stupid, you just prove me wrong every time."

Nikita was so relieved she felt sick, like her knees might give out at any minute. "You're okay?"

Ryan probed tentatively at his chest--under the jumpsuit, he still had some pretty nasty burns from when the recruits had shocked him. "My chest hurts," he said, in a considering tone rather than a complaining one. "My head hurts. And I think there's a pretty good chance I'm going to puke in your bathroom in the next minute or so. But all things considered...." He laughed again. "Yeah, I feel pretty okay."

"I'm so glad," she said, and she hugged him as tight as she could without hurting him. "God, Ryan, I'm so sorry I didn't get you out sooner. I thought you were dead."

"It's okay, it's fine. I'm out now," said Ryan to the back of her shoulder. "How'd you know I was alive? I didn't think you had any sources inside Division anymore."

"It's kind of a long story." Nikita pulled back and looked him over. He was thinner, paler--months in prison followed by months in a Division cell would probably take a lot out of anybody. There was something sharp and maybe a bit manic in his eyes that hadn't been there before. But he was alive, and he was whole, and unless he was a really good actor, he didn't hate her. This was a victory, plain and simple.

He suddenly pulled away. "Oh, boy. Bathroom?"

She pointed. "Down the hall."

While Ryan threw up, Nikita went to the safe house's little kitchen for a glass of water and a wet cloth for him. Owen and Birkhoff, who'd been hiding out in the garage, crept in. "All quiet on the western front?" asked Birkhoff.

"He felt a little sick, but other than that, he seems to be okay," she said.

Owen smiled, but the jut of his eyebrows told Nikita he was still worried. "He's gonna need a lot of fluids," he said. "Also, we gotta do something about those burns. Those things get infected real easy. Is the doctor who worked on Birkhoff's hand nearby? She did a pretty good job."

"Uh, if by 'nearby' you mean 'a six-hour drive from here'," said Birkhoff. "I'm pretty sure there are doctors a little closer who can prevent a freaking infection."

"Am I interrupting something?"

Nikita's head jerked around involuntarily to look at Ryan, and she could see Birkhoff's and Owen's doing the same out of the corner of her eye. He looked a little better than he had, but he still had to be exhausted. She could recognize the signs, even if he was putting on a good front. "Here," she said, handing him the water.

He nodded. "Thanks." He took a sip and gave Birkhoff a curious look. "Hey. I know you! If it isn't Shadow Walker!"

"If it isn't the CIA dweeb with outdated information from the nineties," Birkhoff shot back, and Owen elbowed him in the side.

"I'm pretty sure you don't get to call anybody else a dweeb, four-eyes," he said. "Fletcher. Good to see you up and at 'em."

"Good to see you, too, Elliot," said Ryan. "Um. Am I missing something? Since when do the three of you work together?"

Birkhoff slapped his forehead and shook his head, and Owen laughed. Nikita put a hand carefully on Ryan's shoulder and said, "We have a lot to explain to you."

**

If Nikita's life with Owen and Birkhoff had been a bit like a very strange, action-packed sitcom, things got even weirder when you added Ryan to the mix. Four's Company? Nikita's Angels? If they were a sitcom family, Nikita realized with some amusement, Owen was probably the mom (he cooked, he did more than his fair share of the housekeeping, and somehow he'd gotten really good at giving pep talks), Birkhoff was probably the dad (after all, he was the family's breadwinner, much to Ryan's disapproval, emotions made him uncomfortable, and he could be every bit as immature as the man-child husbands on TV), Ryan was the goody-two-shoes son, and Nikita was...what was Nikita? Owen still called her "Boss," Birkhoff still called her "Nikki," and Ryan still called her "Bob" from time to time, and all of them were still more or less content to take her lead when it came to orchestrating their plans. The analogy sort of fell apart.

In the end, she thought, it was more like having three brothers. She'd never really had someone she would've called a brother before; Caroline and Gary had had plenty of other foster kids, a lot of them boys, but either they didn't stay long or they kept to themselves or they were as bad as Gary, shoving her aside with a curse when they didn't want her around and trying to stick their hands down her pants when they did. She wouldn't have trusted any of them as far as she could throw them. Every day, though, she put her life in Owen, Ryan, and Birkhoff's hands, and they did the same for her. It felt...good. Comfortable. Kevin and Celia came and went, and they talked to Sonya once a week or so, but Owen, Ryan, and Birkhoff were more or less constants, whether they and Nikita were in the same place or not.

Nikita wondered if this was what it felt like to have an actual family.

At the end of May, Alex sent them another package. It was a modified smart phone, simpler and faster than most of the models Nikita had used, that was easily synced with multiple computers or tablets. The enclosed note said, "Look out for Zetrov in Wired next year. Tell Birkhoff that if he steals my tech I'm going to kill him with a pine cone." The first P.S. said "Tell Ryan welcome back from me." The second one said, "Happy birthday, Nikita."

She could have wondered how the hell Alex knew they'd rescued Ryan, since they were doing their level best to keep Division or the government from finding out for as long as they could, and Nikita was as of yet unaware of any Zetrov spies in the US. She could have pondered for a while on the direction Alex was taking her father's company, wondered whether the smart phone was a distraction meant to keep both Nikita and Division's eyes off the below-board business Zetrov had been running for the better part of a decade and probably hadn't stopped now. She could have checked the smart phone for bugs. She could have done a lot of things. Instead, she read the note again, smoothing out all the folds and creases, and smiled.

Maybe she didn't know what having an actual family felt like, but fuck it, she felt pretty good.

**

Their opportunity came in October. After almost a year of work, Amanda, whose relationship with Oversight was shakier than ever, actually got Madeline Pierce thrown out of the Senate, which meant the rest of Oversight and, perhaps more importantly, Sean Pierce and his Special Forces buddies were all gunning for Amanda. As far as Sonya could tell, it was all political in-fighting all the time around Division HQ. "If you're looking for an opportunity to make a move," she concluded, "you're probably not going to find a better one than this."

"I say a physical assault's our best shot," said Owen. "All of us except maybe Fletch here know a dozen ways in and out of HQ. We cut the power lines, take Amanda in her office, we've got access to Percy, the files, and an army of new recruits."

"That is the stupidest fucking plan I've ever heard," said Birkhoff, squinting at Owen like he couldn't believe what he was seeing or hearing. "God, all this time working with the Master of Disaster over here"--he gestured at Nikita--"and yours truly, and you've still never heard of a little thing called 'subtlety'? Division's got people all over the planet, what the hell do you think you're gonna accomplish by taking out one base? Oh, and just in case you forgot, there are four, count 'em, four of us."

"Seven, if you count Sonya, Celia, and Kevin," Owen replied, taking Birkhoff's insults with equanimity.

Birkhoff rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah, seven of us. Amanda better watch her back."

A squabble between Birkhoff and Owen was pretty much de rigueur before any firm plan was developed, so Nikita ignored them and turned to Ryan, who was sitting thoughtfully and looking over the notes he'd taken during Sonya's report. "What do you think?" she asked.

Ryan frowned. "I think Sonya's right. It's a good time. But, much as it pains me to say it, I think Birkhoff's right, too. We don't have the manpower for either a frontal assault or a divided attack on Division forces globally. Ideally, we could let Amanda and Oversight take each other out, but practically, I think that's gonna have a lot of undesirable fallout." He tapped his teeth with a pencil. "I think whatever approach we come up with, we're going to need some help."

Nikita ran through a quick mental list of their allies. Anything Jill could do, she was already doing, and she'd done more than enough to help weaken both Amanda and Oversight's positions. There was Michael, but--no. That wasn't happening. Prince Erik and Princess Leila would probably be willing to help, and they had a whole army behind them, but they were legitimately good, honest national leaders, and the last thing Nikita wanted was to tarnish them with Division's stink if this attempt went bad. For enough money, they could probably get Miller to help out, but the idea didn't appeal very much.

Of course, there was another person they could ask.

"Let's get a plan together," said Nikita, "and I'll take it to Zetrov."

Ryan raised his eyebrows at that, and Birkhoff said, "You sure that's a good idea?"

Nikita shrugged. "No. But I'm not hearing any better ones."

Two days later, Nikita was flying to Russia.

The Three Musketeers (or the Three Stooges, depending on your perspective) had advised against her going alone. Honestly, it wasn't the brightest move she'd ever made. If Michael had still been dating her, he probably would have broken up with her over this. Owen or Ryan or both of them would have gone with her in a heartbeat, and either one of them would have been a big help if negotiations with Alex went sour. But if Nikita went down--she didn't think she would, given the recent friendly communications from Alex, but it was always a possibility--she knew that her boys could still come up with a plan and carry it out if they worked together. One or two of them on their own, on the other hand, might have a harder time of it. Each one of them had connections and skills that would be vital if they had to put together a strategy without her.

So. She sat by herself in a window seat, and watched the ocean fly by through the occasional break in the clouds.

The Udinov mansion wasn't hard to find, and she made no effort to hide her approach, taking a taxi right to the front door. Two giant men answered when she rang the bell. The one on the left looked her up and down before saying, "Nikita. How can we help you?"

Nikita was silently impressed that Alex had, for some reason, gotten her bodyguards to memorize Nikita's face. She didn't comment on it, though. What she said was, "I'd like speak to Alexandra Udinov."

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum led her to a large, sunny office with dark wooden furniture and forest green upholstery. It was the perfect color scheme for a room in a house surrounded by woods that were as thick and as dark as they'd been a hundred years ago. Behind an impossibly neat and clean desk--Nikita thought with despair about the desk in the Bat Cave, which was covered with an impressive amount of technological junk, magazines, and Starbucks cups--sat Alex, dressed in a smart suit with her hair pulled back. Sitting in an armchair to her right was another young woman with curly hair, a bored expression, and an iPad on which she was taking notes.

Alex stood when Nikita came in. "Nikita," she said, and Nikita felt...Jesus, what was she feeling? It was kind of like a warm dizziness, but emotional, rather than physical. Alex just looked politely friendly. She gestured to the girl in the armchair and said, "My assistant, Oksana."

"Nice to meet you," said Nikita.

Oksana raised her eyebrows and gave Nikita an unimpressed look. "Likewise," she said, and it was hard to tell whether she was being sarcastic or whether she just always sounded like that.

Alex gave Oksana some swift instructions in Russian--Nikita got that she was taking a meeting for Alex with some investors or something, but Alex was speaking too quietly and too quickly for Nikita to make out every word.

When Oksana left, it was as if the room had let out a breath along with the woman. Alex smiled again, and it was a real one this time, with more warmth and fewer teeth. "So. What did you come all the way out here for that you couldn't say on the phone?"

"You say that like the phone number you gave me still works," said Nikita wryly, and Alex's smile turned impish.

"Disposable cell phones," she said. "First trick you ever taught me."

Nikita let out a huff of laughter, and Alex echoed it. She looked older, Nikita thought. Not in a bad way, though, in a steadier way--like she was more in control of herself and the world around her. Then again, being the CEO of an enormous, multibillion-dollar semi-criminal corporation would probably make anyone grow up in a hurry.

"Division's in a bad spot," said Nikita.

Alex sobered. "Yeah, that's what they tell me. Say hi to your friend Celia the next time you see her, by the way. She had a lot of news the last time we talked."

Well, that explained a lot. "I'll pass it along," Nikita said. "I've been meaning to get in touch with her, anyway. Sonya thinks that if we want to make a move, it's a good time for it."

"What kind of move?" asked Alex, managing to sound interested and dubious at the same time.

"A big one." She moved closer, to trail a finger along the smooth, polished surface of Alex's desk. "Can I sit?"

"Be my guest," said Alex, taking back her own chair. Nikita had the strangest feeling, like she was back in elementary school again, explaining herself to the principal.

"Here's what we decided," she said. "Division's terrible. Nobody can argue that. I'm sure as hell not going to argue it, seeing as how they ruin my life every chance they get. But Owen pointed something out to me a while ago, and I thought there was a lot of truth to it--Division gave me a purpose. They took a ketamine-addicted runaway and gave her a new lease on life, if you'll excuse the cliché."

Alex frowned incredulously "What are you saying? After all this, you want to go back to Division?"

"I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is that right now, there are hundreds of recruits and agents working under Division. Some of them are really bad people who probably deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison, and some of them are just scared kids who need something to do with their lives. We tear Division open like a scab, all of those agents and recruits either get taken into custody or vanish into the woodwork. It's not just bad for them, it's frightening for the public at large. So here's what we do. We take out Amanda. We take out Oversight--carefully, so as not to rock the boat too much. And then we take down Division from the inside out. We change it from what it is into what it could be--a place for lost kids to find a second chance."

"You don't just want to go back to Division, then," said Alex with a skeptical smile. "You want to take it over."

"Celia told me what you're doing with sex traffickers here," said Nikita. "Taking them out. Legally or illegally, you're using the resources of Zetrov to get rid of them." She looked at Alex to see if she wanted to respond to this, but she was biting her lip and staring at her desk, so Nikita continued. "You've moved into a system that was designed to shut you out and keep you down, and you're using it to strike at the people who use it to hurt the innocent. You knew a lot of recruits at Division--is there any reason that they couldn't use the system they're in the same way?"

"No," said Alex quietly. "There isn't."

"So." Nikita leaned back in her chair. "If you're worried that I'd simply replace Amanda and Percy's interests with my own, you should know that I'm not moving in alone. I'm taking Ryan and Birkhoff and Owen with me, and Kevin and Celia and Sonya. I'm pretty sure they'll be able to keep me in line. They've been doing a pretty good job so far. And maybe we shut Division down completely and maybe we don't, and maybe we work as a legitimate government agency and maybe we don't, but the nation-building and the killings for profit will stop. I intend to make sure of that."

"Okay," said Alex. "So what are you coming to me for?"

"You know the answer to that question," Nikita said. "I need your help--your manpower, your technology, your advice. I could tell you that we have the money, we could pay you, but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't seal the deal for you."

Alex shrugged. "No, but it would help." Her solemn expression broke for a minute in a laugh before it softened again into something a little more vulnerable. "My advice. You want my advice?"

"I do." Nikita let herself smile, and she met Alex's eyes squarely. "You're the only person I know who's done what I need to do--you've taken what was essentially a criminal enterprise and gone mostly legit."

"As far as you know," Alex said tartly.

Nikita acknowledged it with a nod. "As far as I know." She looked around. "You seem to be doing well. Your mother?"

Alex's mouth curled unhappily. "We smile and make nice at public events. She's not really a prisoner, but she's not not one, either, if you know what I mean. She's already tried to turn a couple of my guards--not to kill me or anything, just to steal some money for her and give her a ride to the airport--but so far I've been able to make them happy enough to keep them loyal. I don't know. Maybe if she left she'd just, I don't know, retire quietly, but I don't want to take the chance that she's going to hook up with what's left of Gogol. They're pretty pissed at me for taking out Ari and stealing all their brains." A lock of hair had come loose from her ponytail, and she chewed on it absently. It had been a long time since Nikita had seen that particular nervous habit.

She reached over to grab Alex's hand. "Hey," she said. "You're doing great. If you need help, you only have to ask."

"I don't," said Alex, but she didn't move her hand. "But thanks."

"Are you happy?" Nikita asked.

"I've been worse." Her hand was warm and dry in Nikita's. Soft, but the calluses from holding a gun were still there. "It's good to see you," she said.

"Likewise," said Nikita, and she meant it. Even if Alex sent her away empty-handed, it looked like she'd let her go unharmed, and it was good to see that she was thriving--that she was making allies, holding her own, taking back what so many people, including Nikita, had taken from her over the years.

"I heard about you and Michael," said Alex. "And his son and all that. I'm sorry."

Nikita shrugged with a casualness she didn't feel. They were coming up on a year since Michael had left for good, and she planned to spend the day getting hammered on Birkhoff's margaritas and watching stupid TV with Ryan and Owen. "What we had was good, but...Max needed him more than I did. I couldn't begrudge either of them that."

"Yeah," Alex said, nodding. "Kids need their parents." She snorted, suddenly wry, and added, "Except when the parents are selfish, lying traitors. Then they're just a pain in the ass."

"True," said Nikita, thinking of Richard for the first time in months. Sometimes, she thought, it was better to just let sleeping dogs lie.

They sat in comfortable silence for a long moment. Finally, Alex said, "If I do this with you--if I help you with Division, I mean--I'm a full partner. You don't keep me in the dark, you don't stick me on the sidelines, you don't treat me like a kid, or I'm gone and I take all things Zetrov with me."

"Understood," said Nikita. "You more or less done with the revenge thing at this point?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah. You?"

She hadn't thought about it in a long time, which in and of itself would have been enough to determine the answer. "I think so." The anger that had kept her going for all the years since Daniel's death seemed somehow to have burnt itself out bit by bit. Nowadays, she had a family and friends and a cause to give her a reason to wake up every morning. And she'd done something right with Alex--she wasn't arrogant enough to give herself all or even most of the credit for how Alex had turned out, but it made her feel good to think she'd at least helped find this smart, confident woman in the desperate kid Alex had been. "I think I'm good with the past. I'm pretty much thinking about the future these days."

"All right then," said Alex. She shifted the position of her hand so that all of a sudden they were shaking hands, not holding hands. "Let's do it."

Nikita smiled. This was gonna be good.