As Michael left Operations' office he let the words run through his mind. "There are not many class five operatives, Michael. You're one of the front-runners to replace me when the time comes." Their encounter after the Belarus mission had been brittle, and Operations had berated him for not asking for assistance. "I have access to resources you don't have." Michael had maintained that he had not needed help, and Operations had chosen to see that as a mistake to be reported and placed in his ‘file.'
Michael had known he was taking a risk, when he brought up the fact that he would have to report that both Operations and Madeline were absent from Section at the same time and that there had been no ‘mission' requiring their absence. It had also been a risk threatening to use his own resources in order to amend the report. He had gambled and he had won. Operations had retreated. Given enough time, the right circumstances and a soupcon of good fortune, Michael intended to be the next Operations. The attempted coup by Egran Petrosian had shown him that he did not want to take orders from anyone, especially a certain beautiful blonde.
He was a man after all, he admitted to himself, and he knew he was guilty of chauvinistic tendencies. He had a powerful need to be in control of himself, of his life and ultimately of Section One. He also admitted only to himself that he loved the beautiful blonde. He had lied and killed to protect her from the Section, and he would do it again if necessary. It mattered not to him that he withheld his feelings from her 99 percent of the time. The two instances when he had made love to Nikita had been enlightening. He had ound that he was still human with a human's heart and emotions. His heart and mind had found a temporary healing in her touch, and in her love and in her vibrant passion.
Michael shook his head as he tried to erase the picture of her naked body beneath his. This is not the time to think about Nikita, he told himself. It never seemed to make a difference, what he ‘should' be thinking about, for his thoughts always returned to her. When he had left Operations, he had every intention of investigating his competition among the other class five operatives. In less that five minutes, he was mooning over Nikita as if he were a teenager with overactive hormones. Twice in four years he had felt human. Twice in four years he had not felt the shackles that had been placed on him fourteen years earlier. Stop it, he demanded of himself. Keep to the business at hand.
Michael entered his office and entered his class five code into his computer. He pulled a list of all class five operatives. There were four others in the local station and five others throughout the rest of Section One. As he started to access their files, a light tap sounded at his door, and Nikita entered. Merde, he thought. Why now? I am barely able to focus as it is. "Yes?" he said as he acknowledged her presence.
Nikita was dressed in a man's black suit, and her wheaten blonde hair flowed softly to her shoulders softening the masculine effect. "Are you busy?" She looked around and sighed, as she fiddled with the mini-blinds.
"Yes, I'm busy." Michael took the hint. She wanted to talk. Mon Dieu! I want to remove that suit and bury my face in her white skin and touch her silken hair. Michael knew if his thoughts continued in that vein, he would go insane. He reached to turn on his scrambling device, and he hoped that Nikita could not see that his hand trembled.
Nikita sat in her usual spot. "Tell me again, Michael. Why can't we be together? Everyone else in Section seems to be having relationships. Why can't we? I can only conclude," her voice caught, and she had to swallow before she could continue, "that it's you and not Section that's stopping us. Is that true, Michael?"
It was obvious to Michael that Nikita was tired of the feast or famine routine that he had perfected, and she wanted some answers. He knew how difficult it was for her to come to him like this. Unfortunately, he had no answers that would satisfy her.
She paged Operations and requested a priority meeting for early the next morning. She knew that Operations had left Michael totally in charge of Section One during their rendezvous at the Tower. The crisis in Belarus created by the now defunct and disassembled Brutus had been handled quite neatly by Michael's deft management. It was a little too close for comfort, but the outcome was what really mattered.
Outcomes were what really mattered. She repeated those words to herself. The hours she had spent with Paul at the Tower suite had left her conflicted and uneasy. It was so simple for him to issue an ultimatum, then disguise it as a "request," but she had gone anyway. Madeline sighed. She had been uncomfortable, and she had walked slowly into his presence. The sight of him with his back to her brought a flood of memories to her mind, and the soft torch song he had playing had done the rest. It was the same song that had played during their first mission as they had danced together at a fund-raiser sponsored by a weapons dealer. They had become lovers that night.
It had been so long since she had thought of him as Paul. It had been a long time since their time together, and so many distractions had pulled them further apart emotionally, but circumstances at Section One contrived to deepen their professional relationship. Michael's training had been the decisive factor in their personal estrangement. She knew, too, that Paul had regretted the hasty words that had driven her away, for he had tried to make amends more than once.
Paul loved her, and in her way she returned his love, but never in the way he desired most. Madeline knew that she was Paul's weakness, therefore Operations' weakness as well. She did not want the responsibility of being the weak link in Section One's chain of deception.
Madeline saw a parallel in her relationship with Operations and in the one between Michael and Nikita. Nikita was more like Operations with her passion and impulsive nature, while Michael was more like herself with his stoic and deeply tormented soul. She knew Michael suffered because she did, and she understood how he had separated his life into compartments because that was what she had done in order to survive in Section.
She feared for Nikita, because Nikita lacked the military background that Operations possessed. Life in Section One would always be difficult for Nikita because of that lack. Even Operations had lost all sense of judgment and discipline when she had been kidnapped by Enquist. He had lost perspective and sent half of Section One to stop Michael from completing his mission, which could have resulted in her death. Madeline thought, amazingly, Nikita had saved the day--with her passion for Michael and her sense of fair play, she saved Michael and me.
Madeline sighed again. Too many memories and too much time to think about them. She decided she would simply go home.
Michael beseeched the powers that be for someone to interrupt them by knocking on his door, but it seemed in vain, since neither Birkoff nor Walter happened to oblige. He took a deep breath as he said, "Nikita, we have had this discussion before. I don't ave anything new to add." He waited for the flames to erupt from Nikita's eyes, and he wasn't disappointed.
Nikita's eyes did blaze, but her tone was exceptionally mild as she spoke. "You know, Michael, there seems to be a gigantic double standard here in Section." She paused and waited for a response, and was rewarded with a look of curiosity in Michael's eyes.
"A double standard? What do you mean?" Michael knew he was inviting trouble by encouraging Nikita to continue, but he could not resist the gauntlet she had thrown.
"Take Andrea Karsov, for example," said Nikita as she leaned
"Andrea? Why discuss Andrea, she's--."
"My point exactly," Nikita interrupted. "Did Section One ever consider that she might have been just fine, if they hadn't had you seduce her. I assume it was Operations' or Madeline's idea and not yours. I mean it was obvious she wasn't interested in seeing you or anyone else, until you brought out special brand of charm and seduction."
Michael made no reply except for blinking his eyes rapidly for a moment.
Nikita took his silence as a cue to continue her cross- examination. "It seems to me that while I was ‘gone' for those six months after the Freedom League explosion, that you were mentally unstable, but no one canceled you. I mean you nearly got your whole team killed in Liberia. How bad do you have to screw up, Michael, before Operations would consider canceling you?"
"Discussing this will make no difference in an outcome that has already been decided. No, it was not my idea to seduce Andrea."
"Andrea only made one mistake, and she's canceled."
"I've already said this discussion is a waste of time. You should be more concerned about your own mistakes."
"My mistakes!" Nikita laughed harshly. "One, coming back to Section and thinking you and I could have some kind of life together. That may have been the biggest. I don't have to have you to have a life, Michael. My other mistake was to believe that if I were ‘patient' you would open up and share whatever it is that you've kept hidden. The only time you've shared anything with me, you had amnesia. You know what your other self said to me, Michael. He said to me that you must be a real jerk, and he was right." Nikita could stand Michael's level green gaze no longer. She rose quickly from her chair needing to escape his suffocating presence.
Michael stopped her at the door. Again curiosity drove his response. "What else did I say?" He'd had troubling dreams ever since the incident, and he wanted to know more.
Nikita tossed her hair and said, "You don't really want to know, Michael. You couldn't handle it." Nikita freed the door from Michael's grasp and fled down the hall.
Michael sat down weakly as he tried to remember. He feared the worst, and the ‘worst' was that in his emotionally fragile state, he had told her he loved her. That's what his dreams seemed to indicate night after tortured night. The words ‘Have I ever told you I love you? I do,' echoed through his mind. If he could only regain the part of his being that had for one brief moment been able to express what he truly felt for Nikita. For once he would have liked to see love in Nikita's eyes instead of disgust or simply desire. Whoever said it was wise beyond belief-- the two saddest words in the English language were ‘if only.'
Nikita strode down the hall bumping into Walter in the process. "Whoa, Sugar! What's the rush?" he asked. "What are you so pissed off about?" He knew when his Sugar was in one of her moods and what usually caused them.
Nikita stopped to take a deep breath. "Nothing, nothing at all, Walter."
"Ah, a fight with Michael. I see. Now what you need to try next time, Sugar, is an older man, who knows how to treat a hot babe like you."
Nikita snickered, "Yeah, that's just what I need to do, Walter. Let's start right away." Nikita hugged the older operative and kissed him on the cheek. He was gratified that he could still bring a smile to her face and a joke to her lips.
"Nikita, that's all you ever do--talk." Walter shook his head at the only ray of light ever to penetrate the dark underground of Section One.
"Someday, Walter. I won't be kidding," she said as she winked one of her luminous blue eyes.
"Yeah, right, now get outta here."
Nikita continued down the hall and sought the sanctuary of her standby quarters. She was too close to tears to be around anyone else. Walter with his healing personality often brought her closer to her real feelings than anyone she knew. She hadn't believed half of what she'd said to Michael. Andrea had tried to kill him--some mistake. Not that she hadn't felt like it herself a few times, she thought as she threw herself on the bed.
And then there were the other times that she remembered pouring her heart into her diary:
Tonight I spend another lonely night, wondering if Michael
ever thinks of me, if I am not there for him to see.
Today I caught him watching me. I recognized the longing
in his eyes, but the moment he saw and knew I had seen it, he
shuttered those lustrous green eyes with the blank stare, the one
that hides less than he dreams.
My heart speaks to his, and his heart hears it, but tries to
ignore its own response. The blood rushes to my face, and the
heat is there for him and anyone else to see.
My skin cries for his touch again. Cameras or no, we shared
a moment of time and space, of ecstasy and communion, and
one that I crave again and again.
My mind seeks to know his, a more difficult task than ever I
imagined. Whether my light will illuminate his inner
darkness, or whether his darkness will extinguish my light, I no
longer know or care, for I must persist in my odyssey to know
Doux reves, Michel.
She remembered their dance in her apartment, and how he had lain his head on her shoulder for that brief second before his cell phone rang. She was so close to losing control with him there in her arms, that she had sprinted for the phone the second it chimed.
She remembered pausing before she injected the limbic enhancer into his IV bag. She could have loved that Michael, too, but she doubted her ability to keep him alive much longer. His words as she injected the medication haunted her night and day. Who really said those words of love--Michael or Michael? She had to put that scene behind her. She had tenderly kissed his hand, something she would never have allowed herself to do with the current and real Michael. Who could say which was the real Michael?
Maybe at one time, he had been tender and loving, but all she knew was a man who was a master at seduction. She knew the man who had worshipped her body as if it were a pagan temple, and he a accolyte who knew every hymn and every rite. How could she trust such a man? More to the point, how could she love such a man? Even worse, how could she not?
After Nikita's hasty departure, Michael spent the next few minutes staring at the wall opposite his desk. The words she had thrown in his face made him realize more than ever that he did love her, and no, he couldn't handle it--not as long as they existed in Section One. Nikita would always be a pawn in the hands of masters like Operations and Madeline. A pawn used to manipulate or punish the knight.
In the grand scheme of Section One, Operations was the King, and Madeline was the valuable queen. Michael saw himself as the knight. Walter, perhaps, was the bishop, and Birkoff the rook. Each of them had limitations placed on their moves, as each of them in life had limitations or ‘weaknesses.' Nikita was his weakness. At least that's how she was perceived by Operations. Madeline seemed to have had a slightly different attitude at times about Nikita, but Michael knew it was useless to attempt to devine Madeline's rationale for anything she thought or did.
Michael closed his eyes and took three cleansing breaths. As he exhaled
he felt his heart rate slow. As he exhaled again, the prickling sensation
that affected him, when Nikita was near, ceased. After the third
exhalation, Michael opened his eyes and returned to his previous task.
He typed in his class five security clearance again and surveyed the results
of his previous search. He decided to concentrate on the class five
operatives that he knew here in Section One headquarters. He didn't
discount the others scattered around the world. They would have to
be of high caliber in order to function as autonomously as they did.
Still, being under the nose of Operations and the Agency, had to count
Michael was not ambitious for ambition's sake. True, he could easily be classified as a workaholic, and he was truly dedicated to his ‘job,' but Michael also believed the only way he and Nikita could have any kind of life was for him to be in control of Section One. Operations and Madeline had managed it for a time before their relationship soured. Michael was also aware that his special training sessions with Madeline were the reason that Operations and Madeline had quarreled. Section One had been very tense for several months, but eventually the two had finally developed a working truce.
Since that time Operations had kept him under a watchful eye. Michael knew that Operations resented him, as much as he respected and needed his abilities. Michael also knew that Operations' remark, ‘you are one of the front-runners....' could simply have been an attempt to manipulate him into conforming to his wishes. Michael didn't take his future position for granted. That was why he was accessing the class five operative files. Intel is power. That had been Madeline's modus operandi for years, and it was his as well.
He knew his security access would not allow him to delve as deeply as he desired without leaving traces. He was sure Madeline or Operations already knew of his interest. There was no harm in that, but he would have to figure a way to hack in to psych-ops files that Madeline guarded so carefully.
The list scrolled: Marcus Redmond, Terrence Carey, Leo Ellis, Judith LaFontaine, Desmond Black were the local class five operatives. Michael decided to investigate the international ones after all. Italy-Silvia Damico, England-Jonathan Dwyer, France-Pierre LeBlanc, Africa-Isaac Agbenohevi, and Balkans--Korda Coriascue--NOTE: Intel just received that Coriascue was lost in a mission that same day.
Michael was not heartless. He wasn't relieved that there was one less C5 operative. He had met Coriascue and knew him to be a valuable asset. Section One would have to replace him quickly. Michael began highlighting and downloading all available intel about each C5 op. to a zip disc. He planned to take the intel to his quarters and study it through the night.
As he turned to leave, he saw Nikita standing silently in the doorway. His breath caught in his throat. She was a vision of peppermint candy in a simple pair of red slacks topped by a loose fitting red and white striped sweater. Her blonde hair fell softly to her shoulders. Mon Dieu, he thought. She doesn't play fair.
Nikita gave a shy, uncertain smile as she asked, "Want some coffee?" She knew she was crazy, obsessed even, but she had to be near him, even if only for coffee.
It was as close to a peace offering as he would ever receive from her, and he considered the damage that would be created by the rebuff that was on his lips. Another, ‘I'm busy," would sink any remnants of their relationship like the Titanic. He considered maybe that would be the best thing for both of them. He looked into her face and saw the lower lip that barely managed to keep from trembling and said, "Sure."
Nikita restrained the double-take she felt. She had watched his face
as he had considered his options,
and if she had gambled on his response, she would have lost. Instead
she smiled the age old smile of all women who succeeded in spite of their
self-doubts. It may have been a small victory, but Nikita counted
it all the same.
Contine to Part II