"Sugar? You got a minute?"
Nikita looked up from her computer to see Walter leaning around the doorjamb of the perch.
She smiled. "For you? Always."
To her surprise, Walter didn't step in. Instead, he said, "When you have some time, I have something in munitions to show you."
"No. Not at all."
"Okay." She flashed her old friend another quick smile, and returned to her work.
Two days later she strolled over to munitions. The gate was open so she walked in, calling Walter's name.
Walter ambled out from one of the further racks, a welcoming smile wreathing his face. "Hey you."
She grinned back. "Hey you."
"I was just thinking I needed some sunshine. You feel like a quick coffee up in the daylight?"
Nikita looked suspiciously at his seamed old face, wondering what he was up to this time. The weather in Paris in late November, as always, was gloomy, damp and chill. She answered slowly. "Okay. But coffee only. No shots this time."
Walter laughed. "No shots."
Once they had made their way to a favorite cafe and had piled up their winter coats on an empty chair, Walter spent a few minutes looking at her very carefully. Then he said, "I've decided I'd like to retire. Again. Permanently this time."
"Walter!" Nikita had been anticipating this for some time now, but it did not make it any easier to hear. "Are you sure?"
Walter shrugged eloquently. "I can't keep the young 'uns straight anymore kiddo. It's time to let someone else keep them safe."
Nikita knew he was right, knew it was the right choice for Walter and for the operatives, and for the Section, but it tore her heart all the same. He had been the only stable figure in all her years at the Section. From her first day until the day Michael left, Walter had been her teacher and sometime mentor, and in the eight years she had been in the perch, Walter had been her most trusted friend and cherished advisor. She protested for a bit, but it was pro-forma and they both knew it. At last she said, "Is this what you wanted to 'show' me?"
She squeezed his hand. "I love you."
He squeezed back, his grip still firm, his voice still graveled and strong. "I know you do. I love you too, sugar."
"When do you want to go?"
Nikita blinked in shock. "Just like that?"
"Toby and Phillipa are more than ready to step up to fill my shoes."
"Walter. No one can fill your shoes."
"Ha. Shoes are easy. What you're gonna miss is how I fill out my leather pants."
They walked back to the Section together, but Walter refused to let her escort him to level eight. "I'll go on my own steam, thanks. I know what waits for me. And you know too. And you know it isn't bad. And no one should see Operations crying."
"I'm not crying."
"Yes. You are. Go on to your quarters now and get your game face back on before you come out to face your troops."
She could only nod, and hug Walter long and hard, one last time.
More than a week after Walter's departure Nikita was again preparing to head out into the world above for a short meeting, when she discovered a small package in her shoulder bag. It was an envelope she knew had not been in her bag before their last coffee together, and she knew as well that no one else had had access to her personal things since.
She had no time to deal with whatever parting gift Walter had left for her, so she put it away in her personal safe. She promised herself she would come back to it when she was ready, emotionally, to see whatever it was. When the gaping Walter-shaped hole in her life stopped hurting, quite so much.
Two months later, on Walter's birthday, Nikita decided she was as prepared as she would ever be to discover what Walter had left for her. After a quiet dinner by herself in her quarters, she sat on the sofa in front of the gas fire, glass of wine on the table beside her and the envelope in her hands. After taking a deep breath, she carefully opened it and slid the contents out into her lap.
And knitted her brows in surprise. It was a slim paperback book; so old and tattered it had lost the covers and the title pages. She rapidly flipped through it, looking for letters or writing in the margins or something that might be a code…. But she finally decided that the book itself must be the message, and so she began to read.
Two hours later she sat back and closed the book. She knew now what Walter's last gift was, but she had no idea what to do with the information. Well, other than the obvious, of course. She placed the slim book and the envelope into the fireplace and sealed the glass doors. Then, with the handy remote, she selected the setting for incineration and watched the frayed remains of the novel she had just read burst into flames. In less than ten minutes, nothing at all was left of Walter's last gift. Except for the message that was even now searing its painful way into her heart.
"Hey dad, you trying to cool off the kitchen with the fridge?"
Michael started, and realized he was still standing in front the open refrigerator. He grabbed a beer and closed the door. "No."
"Well, Marie dumped you again two weeks ago."
Michael had run into Marie at a downtown café last autumn, a few months after she had ended their affair. Coffee had led to dinner, dinner had led to sex, and they had fallen back into a relationship that, if did not really satisfy either of them fully, had been comfortable and easy. He had continued to find the conversation as satisfying as the sex, and the sex had still been good. He was as sorry to see it end the second time as he had been the first, even though it had been just as inevitable.
"And you've been staring off into space at all hours of the day ever since." Adam clapped his hand on Michael's shoulder and shook him lightly. "Snap out of it, man!" he said, his voice cracking faintly on the 'man.'
Michael smiled at him, as amazed as always these last few years at how quickly Adam was growing, sometimes, it seemed, almost literally before his very eyes. He had finished eighth grade in the spring, and at fourteen and a half, Adam was now taller than his mother had been. His arms and shoulders had filled out along lines that were much bulkier than Michael had ever anticipated. Adam also needed to shave on a semi-regular basis to control the dark beard that was creeping in along his jaw and down his neck. Much as it pained him to admit it, Michael could see echoes of Sala Vacheck's solid build and heavy beard in his grandson.
Michael said, "Easy for you to say, as you have a girlfriend now."
Adam flushed even as he grinned. "C'mon dad. It hasn't been that long."
"What is it … two months now?"
"Dad!" Adam laughed again. "Almost three! And you know it!"
They walked out onto the deck where their evening burgers were grilling, Michael opening his beer and Adam retrieving his drink from the railing where he had left it.
"So." Adam cleared his throat, "Why did Marie dump you, exactly? You never said."
"She has a semester leave beginning this fall, and she's going to Aix en Provence."
"Yeah. I knew that. So?"
"She wanted me to come."
"The whole semester?" Adam's eyes opened wide in surprise.
"Yes." Michael turned his attention to the grill, flipping the burgers to cook the other side.
Adam crossed the deck to stand where he could see Michael's face. His voice cracked again when he asked, "What about me?"
"She wanted you to come too, to go to school there."
Adam sank down into one of the deck chairs. "Oh." He shook his head. "Wow."
"I said no."
Michael caught his eyes, and made his voice was low and meaningful. "You know why."
Adam glanced around reflexively, and lowered his own voice. "Because I was kidnapped in France."
"Did you tell all that to Marie?"
Michael shook his head. "No."
"Oh man." Adam looked up at Michael, his expression serious. "I'm sorry, dad."
Michael sat down in the chair across from Adam and looked at him curiously. "Why?"
Adam shifted uncomfortably. "Well. If it weren't for me and what happened back then, you could have gone with her."
"You weren't the target then, and you wouldn't be now. It's me who can't go back to France. Not you."
Michael chuckled at the obvious relief on Adam's face. "Really."
"Still. Why didn't you tell her the truth? Marie would've understood."
Michael sighed and sipped his beer. "It wasn't the only reason, not really."
Adam looked his inquiry.
Michael sighed again, and stood up to get their burgers off the grill. Once they had served their plates and were sitting at the table, Michael said, "Marie wanted to get married. And have a baby."
"Oh." Adam ate in silence for a while as he processed the information. At last he asked, "Would that have been so bad?"
Michael looked up, surprised by the apparent sincerity of Adam's question. Adam had moderated his hostility to Marie over time, but it had never appeared to Michael that he actually liked her very much. Michael would have said that the most optimistic description of Adam's feelings for Marie, and Michael's relationship with her, was brutal indifference. "Well, she did not necessarily want to marry me, so much as she wants to marry someone who wants the same things she does."
"No way! She was really into you. I thought?"
"Yes. But, Marie knew I was more ambivalent than she was. I can't marry a woman who doesn't really know who I am. And I certainly can't father a child under those circumstances."
"Why couldn't you just tell her, explain the whole deal?"
"Because." Michael paused to finish his beer. "Because it became clear to me that Marie could not keep secrets. Not secrets like ours. Or," he paused to smile ruefully at Adam, "any secrets, really, as you well know."
"So, you let her dump you. Again. For being a selfish ass who wouldn't change his life for her."
Michael stood to clear the table, laughing to hide the way Adam's comment, a deliberate if sympathetic echo of Marie's parting shot stung. "Yes. Well. That does seem to sum it up."
The summer faded into fall. Adam started high school, made the 'B' soccer team, and just after his fifteenth birthday shot his first deer. Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Tasha had continued to flourish and so, remembering Adam's question while camping a few years earlier, Michael bought a box of condoms and left them on his son's desk that same weekend. Adam's outraged cry of "DAD!" when he found them Sunday evening was a soothing balm to parental concern, but Michael knew that it was only a matter of time at this point before curiosity turned to experimentation. Almost two years earlier, when Adam's intolerable friend Jake had been a regular visitor, he had discovered that he needed to lock down all the home computers to keep porn, and the accompanying spy ware and other assorted garbage off them.
Michael tried to appear sympathetic to the boys' disappointment when Jake's family decided to send him to one of the many 'exclusive' private academies rather than the local public high school, but he was privately thrilled and did all he could to encourage the death of that friendship.
Michael's business continued more or less as before, a little less new construction, a little more painting over what was not being replaced or well repaired during the harder economic times, but the hours were about the same. He went on a few dates, willing to let friends set him up, but he was not looking for a new girlfriend. Instead he sought only to keep from becoming aggressively single again. That some of the women he met were also seeking only occasional companionship proved a pleasant discovery, and he stopped dreading another period of extended and unwelcome celibacy.
That winter Adam joined his high school ski and snowboard team. The season passed in a blur of weekend tournaments and what, to Michael anyway, felt like hundreds of hours of driving in mild to terrible weather balanced by a lot of hours sitting around waiting in damp ski lodges. The upside to the long hours in the car meant a lot of time to talk with Adam. Michael cherished those conversations, learning more each time about the young adult his son was slowly becoming, even as Adam was discovering himself in his own reaction to the news, to school, to books he was reading and subjects he was taking, and to events in competition and in his social circle.
An unexpectedly warm and rainy March brought the ski season to an abrupt end, and Michael and Adam turned their attention to spring hunting. While making plans for turkey season, Adam surprised Michael by expressing a desire to return to martial arts. Not aikido this time, but rather tae kwon do. When Michael asked why, he discovered that Adam had been slowly thinking over their conversation last summer, about Michael's breakup with Marie, and what Adam needed to be able to do to fend for himself in the world. With that opening, Michael suggested instead that he teach Adam the techniques he had learned 'while on the run with Nikita.' At first Adam had been skeptical, but when the magic phrase 'street fighting' slipped into the discussion, he was sold. With sensei's permission they returned to the dojo in the empty late night hours, Michael and Adam both learning what Adam could do with his rapidly maturing frame. Which included occasionally landing blows that really hurt, much to Michael's freshly bruised satisfaction.
Adam finished ninth grade on a high note, earning 'As' in all of his classes and going to the formal spring dance for the ninth and tenth graders with his girlfriend Tasha. For the third summer in a row Adam was working for Michael, now as a crew chief for exterior paint jobs, his real experience and authority buttressed by his glowing physical confidence and general joy at being young, strong and healthy.
Nikita parked the rental car on the opposite side of the street and about half way up the block from Michael and Adam's house. She sat and watched the area, hunting for any last warning that she was about to make a terrible mistake. It was a pleasant street, large old shade trees spreading over the neat green lawns and trimmed hedges, broken up by the occasional flaring color of a late summer flower garden. The houses were all from the early twentieth century, on the small side with only two and three bedrooms, though a few were clearly much larger, all set back from old and pitted grey cement sidewalks and with side driveways leading to detached garages set behind the houses. A few bikes and scattered skateboards and other toys indicated that plenty of children lived in the houses, and that summer was in full swing.
A lawn mower started up near by, and she heard music drifting out from open windows. It was just after five o'clock in the afternoon the first Friday of August, and she knew Michael was home because she had spotted his old SUV in the driveway. It had taken her many months to find him, and she had not begun looking until six months after she fled the Section the previous September, as sure as she could be that she was not being tracked. She was still confident that she had walked away unseen and un-followed, but then she knew as well or better than anyone that lulling a target into complaisance was a high success strategy, if you had the time for it.
Several times she had nearly convinced herself to drop the search, to let Michael go, knowing it was the only true guarantee she could offer that she would not lead enemies to his doorstep. Each time she pressed on, reminding herself that he had asked her to find him. That he wanted her to find him. That, even knowing the risks, he wanted her to slip away from the Section and start a new life with him. For that was Walter's last gift: a message from Michael. A message that told her that he was not coming back, that he was happy outside, and that he wanted her to come to him.
Or, at least, she had been certain that this was the message. Now, on the cusp of discovery she was wondering if she was insane to have read so much into a tattered old science fiction novella, where the young protagonists escaped a suffocating life underground to begin a new one in the restored world above.
Which was all a bit late. If she had actually led anyone to his doorstep, driving away now would not make any difference. So, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and got out of the car.
When she walked up the front path she saw the main door was open to allow the afternoon air to circulate through the full-length screen. A sudden, and unwelcome, memory of walking up the path to the house Michael had shared with Elena snuck up to mock her. She reminded herself that everything was different now, beginning with an open door instead of a closed one, and shoved the memory firmly away.
As she drew nearer she could see a dark, wood paneled foyer with a stair headed up to a half way landing before it turned in an L-shape and vanished into the floor above. At the sound of the doorbell two mid-sized black labs rushed out barking from the rear of the house. She heard Michael's voice, ordering the dogs back, before she saw him. When he did appear it was at first only as an achingly familiar outline, a dark shape against the sun streaming in the windows behind him. And then he was there, in front of her, the only thing between them the screen door.
"Hi," She said. "I got your message."
Now that he was standing in daylight, she could see he had a closely trimmed full beard, and his hair was shorter. There was more grey in that hair, and there were more laugh lines around his eyes. His eyes themselves, though, were exactly the same, deep and green, and full of information that he would never share any other way. As he opened the door and drew her inside his home, she saw his shock turn to surprise, then to profound relief, then joy and surging desire, and just before he folded her into his arms, she knew she caught a bright flare of smug satisfaction.
Still holding her tightly, he whispered, "I missed you."
She leaned back in his arms so she could read his face. "But you've been expecting me."
He smiled slowly, brushing his thumbs across her cheeks, sending a cascade of small fireworks skittering across her nerves and making her breathing hitch. He dropped his hands to her shoulders, stroking and touching as though he could not quite believe his eyes and needed the confirmation of his other senses, and his voice was husky and low when he answered, "I've been hoping, not expecting."
"Well." She smiled back. "Here I am."
Michael's expression grew more serious as he asked, "For how long?"
She saw uncertainty warring with hope in his eyes. She put all the force of her conviction into her voice when she said, "For as long as you'll have me."
After a searing beat, his eyes dropped to her lips and he slipped his hand around the back of her neck. Then he bent his head to kiss her, murmuring, "That could be a long time."
Kissing him was everything she had missed, everything she had imagined, everything she had wanted for so many years. He was here, she was here, and they were together. Under her searching hands, his body was as strong and solid as ever. Against her mouth, her cheeks, her neck, his lips were as soft and as demanding. As his hands roamed her back, pulling her close, electricity surged through barely remembered nerves and synapses, and her body felt like it was lighting up like a Christmas tree.
One kind of tension fled even as another, far more exciting and welcome fission of lust boiled up out of her groin and came out as a raw moan from the back of her throat.
Michael drew back to rest his forehead against hers, his heart hammering furiously under her hands. "I go by Mike, here."
"Nicole. Nicole Rennen."
Michael raised his head to give her a quizzical look.
She shrugged. "Lots of blond Norwegians in Minnesota."
Michael was just tilting his head to kiss her again, when they were interrupted by a young man's voice, breaking across the word, "Dad?"
Nikita stepped back and turned to see Adam, for it could only be him, standing in the middle of the living room, slack jawed with surprise. His hair was dark and shiny like his mother's, and he also had her dark eyes and smooth, brown skin, deeply tanned now at the end of the summer. The shape of her cheek and jaw were preserved and made new in her son, though the faintest shadow of a downy dark beard along his chin and over his upper-lip was marginally disconcerting. He was almost as tall as Nikita, and he had his father's broad shoulders and the same well defined muscles in his forearms and his calves.
"Wow." She shook her head in amazement. "I knew how much you would have grown, but seeing you is…. Wow."
Adam blinked and closed his mouth.
Nikita smiled encouragingly. "Adam. It's me, Nikita. Do you remember me at all?" She glanced at Michael, and was a little unnerved to see him in still, observational mode.
"Yeah. A little." Adam thrust his hands in his pockets, shooting a quick, hooded and slightly accusing glance his father's way. "I didn't know you were coming to visit us."
She opened her hands wide and shrugged, saying with a light laugh, "I didn't know either, until the opportunity was here."
Adam looked back at her. "Isn't it kind of dangerous, you bopping into our lives, then out again?"
Nikita glanced at Michael, then back at Adam. "Your dad and I had the same training. I would do nothing to put you in danger now."
"Are you as good as him?" Adam's stare was challenging, but she could see even through his pockets that his fists were tightly clenched, which told her a great deal about the tender places that remained in Adam's psyche.
Michael broke in, to her relief. He stepped up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder, the weight of his palm and strength of his fingers as always both soothing and erotic for Nikita. His voice was calm and sure. "Yes. She is, Adam."
Adam said nothing. So Nikita said, "it is really good to see you. You look – great." She glanced back at Michael again, but his profile offered no clues. "You and your dad, both."
Adam said nothing, so she plunged on. "And I love your trousers."
She did, too. Adam was wearing a pair of plaid, skater-style trousers, green and black stripes on a white background, long and skinny and snug without being too tight, and a black tee shirt with what seemed to be some sort of space ship themed design.
Adam flushed a little and said, "uh. Thanks."
Then Nikita was out of ideas. Fortunately, Michael broke the awkward silence that settled in after that. "We have a lot to catch up on, but tonight we're off to a friend's house for supper, and we're already going to be late. Friday afternoon traffic in the summer is always bad."
Nikita caught Michael's arm as she looked inquiringly at him. "I can stay here and we can talk later."
Michael was already turning for the front door, which he closed and locked. "No."
He put his hand on the small of her back and steered her through the living room to the dining room to the kitchen, gesturing for Adam to precede them. "It's a big group tonight. One more will be no problem."
Adam and Nikita both started to protest, but Michael overrode them, herded them into the SUV, and had them headed for the party before either of them managed to do more than stammer, interrupt one another, apologize, and stammer again.