Part III

         A happy, but confused Nikita walked into Section for the 8AM briefing.  She'd never been with anyone quite like Tip Wellesley.  They had talked into the early morning hours as they cuddled on the sofa and sipped the tea that Tip kept producing as if he were some type of demented waitress.  She had never felt so treasured or cosseted.  Yes, cosseted was the right word.

        Before he left her, he had told her about his recruitment into Section One.  He had been a DC (District Constable) in his small town in Northern England.  His much younger sister had made his life hell by turning to drugs and finally to prostitution.  A vengeful junky, she had embarrassed him on the force more than once, but he still loved her.  When her dealer and pimp decided she was more trouble than she was worth, he gave her a ‘hot shot,' and she had died.  Dottie had been Tip's only remaining family, and he had found the dealer and killed him, in front of a dozen irrefutable witnesses.

        Nikita had been afraid to tell him her own story, so had said nothing, but Tip had told her that he'd seen her file, and he already knew that she had been recruited as a ‘cop-killer;' but that he also knew that it had to have been a mistake.  He'd been around murderers all his adult life before and after Section One, and he'd never seen one like her.  Nikita had dissolved into tears and into Tip's arms.

        Kisses had come as tender reassurances, and hunger had come with them.  As their need for each other's comfort grew more fervent, Tip hesitated long enough to ask, "Are you sure?"  Nikita's response had been to nod and indicate what she wanted him to do next.

        "Good Morning."  Michael's soft voice said, as Nikita bumped into him.

        Nikita was startled out of her reverie.  "Uh, good morning."  She looked away from Michael and slumped into her chair at the briefing table.  Damn, she thought.  Was Michael going to be part of this mission?  Why today after all this time?  She didn't want to look at him, much less be on a mission with him, but she had to know if he'd been able to see his son yet.

        They remained alone for the moment, so she asked, "Is Sean all right?  Have you been able to see him?"

        Michael replied, "Yes."  He was not happy to see Nikita at the briefing, but knew it had to happen sooner or later.

        Nikita took Michael's taciturn response for granted.  "Good," she responded in the same terse manner.

        The other members of the team began to assemble, and Nikita and Michael were both spared the need to make polite conversation.  At the last minute, Tip rushed to take a place at the table, just before Operations and Madeline appeared.

        Operations wasted no time in starting the briefing.  He punched a button on the holograph remote, and the ascetic face of a man appeared.  "Ivan Rimski is Undersecretary of State for Poland.  He is in the possession of some indiscreet letters from a shall we say ‘friendly' government's head of state to the wife of another friendly government's head of state.  Their disclosure would more than likely bring down the already beleaguered leader.  It is to the advantage of the Agency to see that this does not happen, both for security, political and financial reasons.  These letters are held in Rimski's quarters in the Polish Embassy.  We will need to infiltrate and retrieve the letters."

        Michael looked at Tip and asked, "Is there some reason two Class Five operatives are needed on this type of covert mission?"

        Operations, who hated to be interrupted, replied, "Yes, and if you give me time, I will explain.  Rimski's wife Teodora is the link we need to access the letters.  We have intel that she is amenable to seduction, but is eclectic in her preferences.  Section One has decided to give her a ‘choice.'  Michael, you will be an attaché from the French Embassy.  Tip, you will act as his body guard.  Nikita, you will be Michael's wife. Teodora Rimsky may prefer ‘any' one of you."  Operations delivered this coup-de-grace with a ‘wolfish' smile.  "Any questions?  The remainder of the profile is downloaded in your PDA's.  There is a state dinner at the Polish Embassy tonight.  Have fun."

        Nikita barely held back a muttered expletive.

        Madeline, who now knew the ‘changes' had involved adding Michael to the mission, asked, "Problem, Nikita?"

        "No, not at all, but I would like to talk to you later, if there is time,"  Nikita replied.

        "Of course.  My office in thirty minutes."  Madeline rose and glanced at Michael, who attempted to maintain his blank stare with effort.  She could see the troubled expression in his gray-green eyes.

        Operations anxious to regain control of the briefing added tersely, "Mission leaves at 2000 hours.  That will be all."

        Michael rose and turned toward Nikita, to reassure her about the upcoming profile, but she was already standing at Tip's shoulder.

        "It'll be all right, Nik," Tip said in an attempt to placate her.

        Nikita gave a hesitant smile and glanced toward Michael, "Sure.  We'll be one big happy family.  Michael, are we on standby till 8PM tonight?"

        "No, just make sure you're back by 1800, but this profile doesn't allow any margin for errors, so take time to study it."  Michael hated the peevish and dictatorial tone that crept into his voice.  He wasn't blind, and he could see that there was ‘something' between Nikita and Tip Wellesley.  He was jealous and would have to regain his control over his emotions.  How he would manage to do that on a mission with Nikita posing as his wife and Tip at their side, he didn't know.  He wanted Nikita to be happy and find someone else, but having them thrown in his face on a mission would require that he dig deep into his emotional reserves.

        "Of course, Michael.  This isn't my first mission," Nikita replied with a little heat.

        A far away look crossed Michael's face with fleeting swiftness.   "I know."  Michael turned and left the two at the desk.  The wounds were still too fresh, and he still desired Nikita as strongly as he ever had.

        Michael not only still desired Nikita as much as ever; he still loved her.  Having her in his arms, pretending to be her attentive husband was going to be hell.  What kind of game was Madeline and Operations playing with him.  He decided to see Madeline immediately and voice his reservations about the mission scenario.  He reversed the direction of his purposeful stride and went to Madeline's office.

        He entered his access code on the keypad at Madeline's door, but it did not open at once.  When it did, Operations was leaving.  His face was flushed and he was breathing with some difficulty.  He stared at Michael, but did not speak.

        Michael walked down the steps, with movements that were fluid as always.  "Bad time?" he asked.

        Madeline was trimming one of her numerous bonsai.  Her face was flushed, as well, but she managed a smile.  "No, not at all, unless you're here to complain about the mission profile."

        "I'm not here to ‘complain,' but I do have some serious reservations about the timing and the ‘mix' of the team members.  I do wonder why you would put the three of us together, when it is obvious that Nikita and Tip are developing a relationship.  The two of them could carry this off without any effect on the end game.  I'm not needed."

        Only Madeline and Operations knew that Michael's assessment had been the original scenario.  Madeline had planned it herself and Operations had accepted it without qualm, until he had met Michael coming from her apartment early that morning.  Madeline had been furious, but had chosen not to allow Operations to know exactly how furious she had been.  They had just been a mild debate over the scenario before Michael had entered.  Madeline had continued to trim the bonsai, which had infuriated Operations, who recognized it as her way of ignoring him.

        "The profile stands as entered, Michael.  There will be no deviations.  This will be an opportunity for you to evaluate Wellesley's performance in the field, and Nikita's as well.  I ‘know' it will be difficult for you.  I ‘know' that you're not over Nikita.  But as we've said many times before, the end game is what's important.  Pushing our personal feelings aside is part of what we do here, as uncomfortable as it may be at times."  During her speech, Madeline had turned from the bonsai and walked toward Michael.  She looked into his eyes and smiled.

        Nikita stood at the door and began to enter her code, when Madeline opened the door for Michael to leave.  Nikita saw them as they stood close together, Madeline smiling into Michael's eyes.  She could see Michael had allowed Madeline to stand in his personal space, and Nikita could almost sense the sexual electricity arc between the two.  When Michael turned to leave, Nikita watched in amazement as Madeline patted Michael's shoulder.
         I'm sure things will go fine, and I look forward to the debrief.  It should be ‘very' interesting. See you when you return,"  Madeline said with a seductive smile and laugh.

        Nikita gulped.  Michael walked past her as if she weren't there.

        Madeline asked, "Now, Nikita, what is it that you wanted to see me about?"

        Nikita closed her mouth, then swallowed.  What ‘had' she meant to talk to Madeline about?  She had never seen Michael and Madeline so relaxed or comfortable in each other's presence.  What the hell was going on between them, she wondered.

        "Nikita?" Madeline asked, "You wanted to talk to me.  This is your chance."

        "Uh-- never mind.  It wasn't important, whatever it was."  Nikita kept shaking her head as she turned and fled Madeline's office.

        Madeline's expression as Nikita departed was one of pleased resignation.  In spite of Operations' trying to foul the nest, she thought, he may in actuality have accelerated her plans.  "We'll see who wins this game," she said aloud to the twisted cedar bonsai.  Her tiny pruning shears went snip, snip as she shaped the small tree into a more pleasing, but unnatural design.

        Once the door had closed behind her, Nikita stopped to lean against the wall to catch her breath.  Images of Michael and Madeline flooded her mind.  She had heard the rumors about Madeline ‘training' Michael, but given his usual level of discomfiture when around Madeline, Nikita had always assumed the rumors were the usual gossip mill material, or that it was such ancient history that there was no point in being concerned about it.

        Nikita took another deep breath.  Of course, there was no reason for her to be concerned about it.  Michael and she were history.  He'd made it very clear several months ago that he wanted nothing more to do with her.  She had tried to move on.  It had been difficult, and now there was this new involvement with Tip.  Only the night before, they had taken their relationship to another level.  So, why did she still feel as if the breath had been knocked from her?  Why did she feel as if an enormous black hole had opened in the midst of her stomach?  Why did she want to scratch Madeline's brown eyes from their sockets?

        Logically, Nikita knew Michael had a right to any happiness he could find, but  Nikita couldn't bear the thought that this happiness should be with anyone but her.  Never had she felt so torn--certainly not with Jurgen.  She had used him, albeit subconsciously, to make Michael jealous.  Tip was an entirely different man.  He was kind, gentle, and open.  He was everything Michael wasn't.  He was everything she wanted Michael to be, but he wasn't Michael.

        Now, the three of them were going on a mission with Michael portraying her husband.  She would have to talk to Michael.  They would have to set some ground rules. Nikita nodded her head.  Yes, there would be some ground rules.  Her mind thus made, Nikita decided that now was the time and headed directly for his office.


        A soft tap at his door caused Michael to raise his head from his work.  He was more than surprised to see that it was Nikita, and he could tell from her tense body language that it was not going to be an ‘easy' encounter.  "Come in," he said in his soft accented voice, as he reached to de-activate the surveillance on the room.

        As was her habit, Nikita was forthright about coming to the point.  "We need some ground rules for this mission, Michael," she blurted without preamble.

        Michael hid his initial impulse to smile.  "Ground rules?" he asked, as he gave her his best blank stare.

        "Who profiled this mission, Michael?"  Nikita demanded as she stood with hands on hips.

        "Operations had the final say on the profile."

        "Did you choose me for this mission, or did he?"

        "I had no input on the profile, Ni-ki-ta."  His voice could not help the caress it always gave her name. "I think I was a last minute addition to the profile.  You and Wellesley were set for the mission originally."

        "Oh."  Nikita was not sure if Michael's answer pleased her or not.

        "You came to talk to me about ‘ground rules,' Nikita?  What did you have in mind?"

         "Well, for one thing, no ‘relaxation' techniques."  Nikita's face flushed as she remembered the last time they had relaxed on  the Armel mission.

        "Nikita, if you had gone over the profile in your PDA, you would have known that we will not be under surveillance in our hotel rooms.  There will be two rooms--adjoining.  You and I don't even have to share a room.  I can bunk with Wellesley, or--you can be together, if that's what you would prefer," he said softly.

        Nikita's face flushed again.  "That's exactly what I'd prefer."  She turned to leave.

        "Nikita," Michael said, stopping her retreat.  "When we are under observation at the embassy, you will be my tender, devoted wife.  Do you understand?"

        "Of course, Michael, I understand you loud and clear."

        "Then spend some of your time going over the mission parameters.  There is no room for error on this mission."
         "Of course, Michael," Nikita said with a sarcastic simper.  She turned again to leave, but stopped and asked, "Why were you in Madeline's office just now?"

        "That's on a need to know basis, Nikita."

         "And I don't need to know, right?"

         "Fine.  Keep you little manipulations to yourself," Nikita said as she made a hasty exit.

        Michael could not keep the half smile from his face.  Nikita was jealous, and he was glad.  He knew it was vain and foolish of him to feel that way.  The emotional connection between them was still alive, but it would complicate the upcoming mission--of that he had no doubt.

Part IV