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For all the folks on the nikitalist, past and present.

"Your passion for life is very strong, Nikita.
It enables you to accomplish things that no one else can.
It can also destroy you."

- Madeline, in "Off Profile"

I. Phoenix

Two weeks after her father's death, Nikita moved back to her apartment. The room in Section where she had lived for a month and loved for an afternoon now haunted and stifled her. Her apartment, at least, held neutral memories too, years of the familiar to balance the hazardous newness and devastating loneliness of the life she had allowed to be held hostage--payment in kind for the life of a little boy with bright, black-button eyes and a shy, tentative smile.

In her despairing moments, she wished she could hate Adam Samuelle. Her choice-that-was-no-choice had not been made for him. It had been made for Michael, whose love for her could not have survived had she sacrificed his son for her freedom. Michael would have tried. Preserving what they had together was worth any amount of effort, and they both knew it now. But he would have failed; Adam dead would have lain between them for the rest of their lives--not Michael's doing, but his undoing. She had perceived that instantly as her father spoke the words, "I can't go if you don't say yes." And she had given the only answer possible.

But hate Adam for that? "You're a sucker for little kids," she told herself. But it wasn't just that. Adam was part of Michael, and there was nothing of Michael that she could keep from loving.

And nothing of her in this cold, dreary room where she now did what passed for living.

So she packed the few personal possessions she had brought with her to Section while, during Paul Wolfe's final days, she'd only had time to fight the fires he refused to fight. She did not ask permission from the men her father had referred to as his colleagues--her immediate supervisors while Oversight remained in administrative chaos following George's demise. She simply moved out, realizing that if she began by asking permission for everything she did, she would establish a precedent as intolerable as it was untenable. Let them cancel her. It was probably going to happen anyway.

"Your predecessor found it more efficient to maintain residence in the Tower penthouse," the man she had privately nicknamed The Chair of Peter reminded her when she informed AlphaGroup of her move after the fact. She had little knowledge of the Pope of Rome and even less interest in him. But the idea of one individual issuing infallible decrees because of where he happened to be sitting when he issued them had always annoyed her, and the analogy was clear. This man had taken her father's place, elected by the Cardinals of Center from among their number for who knew what reason. Her father's "I'm not a king" came back to her now, and she thought, Neither are you, smartass. But moderation in all things might just be the key to keeping her alive.

"I'm not my predecessor," she said with a quiet smile, in a tone both firm and unchallenging. "If after a time you gentlemen feel it's imperative that I live on site, that option continues to exist." It occurred to her that she sounded a bit like her father, and she suppressed the grimace that thought brought with it. A man who had displayed almost no interpersonal skills in his interactions with her, he had nevertheless risen to the top of this Old Boy Network--against his will if his own words were to be believed. Given that, she could do worse than to selectively emulate some of his methods. Besides, That'd be like living on top of a snake pit did not seem to be a viable alternative response in the circumstances.

Chair made as though to answer her, but Paddy Perfect spoke before he could. His given name was indeed Patrick; white-haired, slim, and lethal, he was immaculately groomed and deceptively soft-spoken. Examining his manicured, faintly lustrous nails, he murmured, "An appearance of compliance is no substitute for the real thing, Nikita. If we give you some leeway here, are you prepared to accept the judgment of the Group should your lifestyle interfere with your function?"

"Yes," she answered without caring whether it was true or not. It occurred to her that now she sounded like Michael, and the impulse to grimace was replaced by an impulse to laugh. That, too, she suppressed.

"Excellent." It was the Hyena, who smiled constantly and had already tacitly given her notice that he had no confidence in her ability to make hard decisions regarding who would live and who would die in Section during her watch. "Shall we say a month's probation, followed by a review?

"Of course." Michael again. Where the hell am I in all this?

Chair frowned, eyebrows drawing together like black caterpillars converging. "Christopher, your thoughts?"

She turned her gaze to the most junior member of the panel, a cold op for fifteen years who had filled the vacancy left by her father's death. This man's name had been one of three gifts her father had given her over dinner in a very good Hungarian restaurant--the name, he had said, of the one man at Center she could trust. In his early fifties, sandy-haired and freckled, Christopher McKenzie looked earnest and ordinary and out of his element. He doesn't want his job either.

"I'm just the new kid on the block," he said with a wry smile that Nikita found herself returning. Chair snorted, Perfect frowned a bit while polishing his nails against his coat sleeve, and Hyena's grin became slightly feral. Be careful, Nikita thought. You were my father's protege. They're probably gunning for you, too. But she needn't have worried. His smile expanding, Christopher continued. "But I say give her some rope and see if she hangs herself." Broad, innocent grin, and yet she knew that what he was really verbalizing--to her--was almost exactly what she had thought to him only a few seconds before.

The fifth member of the Group said nothing, which was what he almost always said. Stare Bear was gray all over today--his vast, expensive suit and shirt, his tie, his hair and short beard, his eyes, even his skin--slack in places, bulging in others. She suspected that the man might not be in good health, but nothing in his manner suggested anything but the strength of steel. Experience had taught her well that a man who said little most of the time was to be reckoned with when he chose to say more. The Bear was as obese as Michael was trim, but there was nothing soft about him. Quite the contrary.

"Very well," said Chair. "Consider that topic on hold. I believe we have one other administrative matter to discuss this afternoon. As head of Section One, you have the right to make a recommendation regarding the disposition of the two individuals we discussed at our last meeting. Are you prepared to make that recommendation at this time?"

"Yes." Horror at what she was about to do rose in her like bile. This was her first test. If she could have believed that fighting them on this was in anyone's best interests, she would have fought to her own death if necessary. But it was not. You do what you have to do. "I recommend cancellation for both."

She realized immediately that Hyena was disappointed; he had wanted to catch her on this one. Chair's eyebrows rose, and Perfect stopped rubbing his nails and looked directly at her for perhaps the first time in their association. Bear stared, but intently rather than blankly. Christopher lowered his gaze, and she tried not to guess what he was thinking. It didn't matter. The two under discussion were Karyn to the power of ten. This had to be done before Section could even begin to turn around and head in the right direction.

"You were ambivalent about this matter the last time we met."

"I've studied their psyche profiles, and observed them at their work. Torture is how they..." Get off. "They get pleasure from torturing other human beings, and they're both beyond cure. Containing them would serve no purpose, and releasing them outside would be unthinkable even if it were possible. They're both too sick."

"And maintaining the status quo?"

"The status quo is part of what brought Section to its present state."

"And what do you propose to substitute for the current methods of interrogation of reluctant hostiles?"

"Drugs. I've had the head of Medlab research it, and she and I have discussed her findings extensively. There are alternatives to torture that could get us the same intel."

"And previously these alternative procedures haven't been implemented because...?"

Because Madeline liked doing it her way. "Previously I wasn't in charge." Her tone was unaggressively confident, her gaze direct. "Now I am."

The week after her move was more hectic than usual. Developing new routines to compensate for the fact that she didn't live in Section any more consumed as much attention as she had to give. Then too, there was something else nagging at her that she could not identify, and she did not have time or energy to try. Some kind of threat or anxiety hung on the fringe of her consciousness, barely out of sight but palpably present. She had been back in her apartment for several days before she could identify it, and when she did, she stopped dead in the middle of the first half of a push-up, staring at the open patio doors where the first balmy spring breeze wafted the curtains into the darkening room. Frozen in place for almost ten seconds, she finally lowered herself slowly to prone position, hands flat between her belly and the floor.

She was four days late, and she was never late.

Her universe toppled, crumbled, and fell in on her--smothering her beneath debris that seemed to be all that was left of a dream she'd not dared to dream, but that seemed to have been hiding somewhere anyway. Rolling onto her side, she curled into fetal position, ironically the only way her mind, wailing in despair, could think to protect yet another part of Michael now fused with a part of herself. "Oh, God." She had not believed in God for years, and even now a very small, very clear part of her mind stood back and wondered whose voice she was hearing. "Oh, God. Oh, God." The voice kept whispering it over and over as she rocked back and forth, her bare shoulder scraping against the carpet.

Two alternatives: the impossible and the unthinkable.

How big? she wondered. Rosebud size? No, not even that.

"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God."

Bottoming out....

"Not gonna happen," Crazy Ellie, who was not as crazy as she thought she was, had said long ago. "Your mom's never gonna stop drinking 'til she bottoms out, and maybe not even then. Could end up just like me, kid. Face it."

"Bottoms out?" she had asked, terrified of the image the words brought to mind and yet unable to stifle the question.

"Like the bottom of a pit, kind of. Can't go no lower. Nothing can happen that's worse'n what's happening. Either you get up and claw your way out the top or you just lay there and go nuts like me."

Third alternative. Go nuts like Crazy Ellie the bag lady. Just think outside the box and who knows what else you might--

She stopped rocking and lay still, taken by yet another memory.

It had been early in her training, one of the few tests Michael had given her that did not involve a sim or the conquering of a physical obstacle. Dumb test, she'd thought, popping her gum as she contemplated the neat rectangle he'd drawn on the computer screen. Bor-ring. But even then she'd known she had to be wrong: Michael never gave dumb tests. So. Connect the four corners of the box in every possible way.

"Can I use the same line to connect more than two points?" she had asked.

"If you want to."

Pop. "Extra credit for creativity?"

Smiling ever so faintly: "Of course."

"Different colors?"

Shadow of a frown. "Just do it, Nikita."

She had soon created a snarl of straight and looping lines within the rectangle, in an array of primary and pastel colors. Michael simply watched. She knew he was waiting for something, but what the hell was there to wait for? The stylus moved faster and faster. Think I'm going to mess up, huh, Michael? First thing I learned in school was to always color inside the...


Her stylus hovered for a moment. Then, switching to a stroke that was actually an explosion of neon-like shades and tints, she swept it outside the box at one of the corner points, made a huge, exultant, fan-like image that began at the upper right corner of the box and ended at the lower right--a cross between a lumpy butterfly wing and a rainbow of tornadoes. She went on, enjoying herself immensely, until the screen was covered, each line or arc beginning at one corner of the box and ending at another. Then, smirking, she challenged, "That's it, right? Gotta go outside the box to pass the test?"

Michael didn't answer, but she would always remember that day as the first time he'd looked at her with pride.

"Save the file," was all he said.

Pop. "What'll I call it?"

"Thinking Outside the Box."

"Pretty long name for a stupid little--"

"Just do it."

Thinking outside the box.

She had no idea what those words might mean under these circumstances, and suddenly she was exhausted beyond caring. Weeks of sleep deprivation and unremitting stress augmented the after-effects of her plunge into despair. But the image of those exultant neon swirls flooding the screen glowed behind her eyelids as soon as they fluttered closed.

It was a light, restless sleep, but still she dreamed--of a swirl of colors unbound, and a memory of Michael's hand on hers as he loved her with his voice. "We could even have children of our own.... It's no dream. We'll make it work."

It was dark when she woke, and she was shivering with cold. The balmy mid-March evening had become a chilly early-spring night while she slept, and the patio doors were still open, the curtains now billowing into the room like sails above a wind-driven sea. Rising, she drew on a heavy sweater over her workout clothes, realized that her abruptly churning stomach didn't know she'd had nothing to eat since noon, and bolted for the bathroom to offer gut-wrenching proof. Her stomach was unexpectedly difficult to convince, but once she accomplished that feat, the nausea passed with reassuring speed.

Turning on a single lamp, she moved toward the kitchen. Crackers? Toast, maybe. But she paused before the still-open patio doors and then moved through them, crossed to the railing and leaned on it, hands flat, her hair falling forward as she bowed her head. Then she lifted her face and spoke softly into the wind.

"Make it work."

Make it happen.

The surge of adrenaline dismayed her; profound mood swings would not help her survive this. But at the moment, it didn't matter. Hugging herself against the chill, she threw back her head and sighed.

I can do this.

The words had no objective meaning, and yet somehow they were the deepest truth she had ever known.

I can do this.

She did not sleep again that night.

The second half of her piece of toast went over the railing for the birds, and the cup of coffee she brewed with anticipation was dumped in the sink when she remembered that she was no longer alone in her body. Tea, then. No caffeine, though. Chamomile? Yeah. Something to bring her back down so she could get some sleep. But she did not want to sleep.

At first she paced--not urgently but slowly, arms folded across her chest, head bent and forehead furrowed. Think it through. Just think it all through, and don't worry about staying in the lines. Take nothing for granted. Assume no boundaries. Think outside the box. And it occurred to her that it was incomparably valuable to her that she had worn three hats in Section: skilled operative, undercover agent for Center, and now--for the past three weeks--Operations, spending virtually every waking moment learning her new job.

I can do this.

And yet another memory. Until now, she had not thought of Jurgen in months, but for a moment he was with her once more.

"They told me I'd died. I don't remember any tunnels or white light, but I was different."

She hadn't died. She'd bottomed out, like Crazy Ellie said. But the result was the same.

"Everything was clear. I realized it didn't matter where I was. It was a state of mind."

Jurgen had lost his state of mind when its props were removed. But unlike him, she had no props to lose.

By morning, she was thinking almost completely outside the box.

At dawn, she sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed, holding in her hands a PDA with but one highly-encrypted i/o channel. She knew that any message she sent would not end up on the laptop in Michael's office; he would have deleted all reference to it there before he left on what he thought at the time was a suicide mission to which she had assigned him--to save his life and to set him free. Now her message would go elsewhere. She thought she knew where, but just now where didn't matter. All that mattered was that she knew that Michael would have arranged to be the only one to receive it.

And yet....

She envisioned her signal speeding on its way, and then being intercepted by accident. Encrypted? Fine. But she was not about to take any chances.

She typed slowly, "After November, SV's grandson won't go solo any more."

Could he possibly misunderstand?

She sat staring at the words for a few moments, and then looked up into the dawn creeping in at the windows.

Sunrise. Good omen. Had to be.

Her finger hovered over Send, but instead she pressed Enter twice and sighed. In memory, lies swarmed like flies. Michael's lies, manipulations, rejections. Time and time and time again. Well, I've lied to him, too. Did she believe everything was different between them now? Could she trust him to be there for her? Yes. The shadow of a doubt hung over that answer like thin smoke. But it would clear with time, and the keeper of her heart and soul deserved more than a lie of omission.

"I'll need you sometimes. Don't know when or where yet."

I'll need you. Scariest thing she had ever said to him. And then she remembered that it was Michael, not she, who had first used that word between them.

She hit Send and felt her heart skip with apprehension. Can't take it back. It was done.

Her hand shook a little as she returned the PDA to her bureau drawer. Part of her wanted to keep it with her all day, to know his answer as soon as he sent it. But that way lay disaster. The success of this most important mission ever depended on her ability to focus on what she was doing every moment she was in Section. The PDA would have to remain at home today and every day.