Christopher and Kelly stood close together near the front of the group of limo drivers meeting arriving international passengers. Nikita would be looking for a placard with her name on it, but they had canceled her limo, and they didn't need a placard.
"Sweaty palms?" He squeezed her hand. "Sure you don't want me to do it?"
"You can't, hon. If you said it, it would be true, and that won't work." She shivered. Then she saw Nikita coming through the arrival gate, and breathed, "Oh, God," her trained eye telling her instantly that not much could be worse than this.
It was as though she were in a trance, or on some drug that made everything look and sound and feel one step away from reality. She knew the airport was crowded with pre-holiday travelers; she was even jostled accidentally in the jetway by a man eager to greet a woman and two little girls who waited just as eagerly beyond the security barrier. She watched them hug each other, feeling only despair, but that not deeply. There was no depth to her anymore.
"Chris?" Even her voice sounded strange, as though she were hearing it from the wrong end of a kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope's for seeing, not hearing. "Kelly? I ordered a limo." It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense any more.
"We canceled it," Chris told her quietly. And from Kelly: "We thought you might need a little company right now."
"Okay. I mean--thanks." She looked from one to the other as each took one of her carry-ons in one hand and one of her arms with the other. Her gaze paused on Kelly. "Are we talking?"
"You did what you had to do. It took guts, and it worked out. 'Nough said?"
"Yeah. Thanks." Was it the small end of a megaphone she'd been thinking of? Ear trumpet, maybe. Whatever. "Can we go straight to the apartment? I need to sleep." She'd done almost nothing but sleep and need to sleep for the past forty-eight hours. The only thing that had been worth looking forward to was evening, when she could go back to bed without any argument from Helen.
Why had they come for her in Kelly's car? she wondered as she dragged herself into the cramped rear seat. Chris' car was larger and more comfortable for three people, and he liked driving on the "wrong" side of the road while Kelly didn't. Something scratched at her mind. Something didn't make sense. But she was too sleepy to try to figure out what it was.
Before they'd cleared the airport, Kelly was asking, "How much are you sleeping these days?"
"I don't want to hear it, Kelly."
"Well, boss-lady, you're a captive audience and I'm not on duty. How much are you sleeping? Twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours?"
"Back off, will you?" A spark of pure rage shot through her and then was gone as quickly as it had come.
"Look, Nikita, snap out of it. You're just depressed. I know how you feel, but you're gonna have to pull yourself together before the Group sees you."
"Just depressed." The anger came seething back, and this time it did not recede but instead gathered force by the second. Turning her gaze from the window to the backs of their heads, she listened to her voice growing louder, sounding more and more like her voice. "You know how I feel? You know how I feel? God damn you! How can you possibly know how I feel?"
They drove on down the road, Chris and Kelly saying nothing while Nikita plumbed the depths of her rage, shouting words she had not used since she was homeless on the street. About what Kelly had said to her. About Kelly and Chris and their unbearable togetherness. About the Group, and about her father, and every stifling, smothering thing that held her captive. She was a volcano, with rivulets of lava coursing through every vein, burning away the blackness of the pit. She was incandescent, transcendent with fury, and feeling better than she had in days.
"Where the hell are you going?" She demanded abruptly, looking around and out the window for the first time since they hit the road. "This isn't the way to my apartment." Then realization dawned. "Why are we going to Center?"
"They want to see you first thing in the morning," Chris told her, and even in her rage, she realized that his voice was tight with tension. "They want you to spend the night there so they can meet with you first thing in the morning."
"Bullshit! What is going on?"
The car was now on the down ramp to the underground parking garage beneath the building where Center concealed itself in a hollow corporation on the twelfth floor. And suddenly everything became blindingly clear.
"...Before the Group sees you."
"That meeting isn't tomorrow." She spoke in her normal voice as the lava turned to white diamonds. "That meeting is now."
"You didn't hear that from me," Chris said thickly, "until you were inside the building. Have you got that? We were inside the building before you found out about the meeting. That was the deal I had to make. Otherwise Cornu would have met your flight."
Kelly brought the car to a flying stop that almost went through the parking stall.
Into the silence, Nikita said softly, "You did that to me on purpose."
"So sue me. Great natural stim, adrenaline. You got a hairbrush and some face paint in that case?" Realizing for the first time why they had placed her hand luggage in the back seat with her, Nikita nodded, mute. "Use it, baby. You look like hell, and show time's in less than ten minutes." To Chris: "How long did you say you'll be?"
"Not more than half an hour. They just want to see what kind of shape she's in."
"An hour, then. Have to have time for the cozy post-meeting coffee date, right?"
In the act of opening her cosmetic case, Nikita froze, her gaze meeting Chris's in the rear view mirror. That the two of them always had coffee together after Group meetings had never been kept secret from anyone, least of all from Kelly. And yet...the forced lightness in Kelly's tone suggested that there was a secret to be kept.
For a moment she thought Chris would pick up on it verbally, but then she realized that she should have trusted him to know better; they did not have time for this now. Kelly should have known that. She did know that. But she'd had to say what she'd said anyway.
This needed to be attended to as soon as possible after the meeting was over. Having thought that thought, Nikita put the matter out of her mind and concentrated on lipgloss and eyeliner.
"So you thought we might go rogue together." She sat there calmly facing them all, knowing that she looked well-groomed if rumpled. But rumpled was okay. After all, she hadn't expected to be sand-bagged on arrival. "May I ask why?"
"Your psych profile strongly suggested it," said The Chair a shade wistfully. "So, I might add, did Christopher's. Your loyalty is gratifying. My compliments to you both." He now sounded a little less grudging. "Nikita, the thinking here is that if you did return, your watch should continue in force only when you leave the country."
She nodded, smiling a little. Keep calm. Keep very, very calm.
"I appreciate the confidence you've shown in me." Not a shred of irony managed to slip past her. "I understand about being out of the country, but is there a time frame?"("...See if you could improvise.") "My aunt and I have been talking about getting a time-share in the Greek Islands. It would be nice to be able to go on holiday there knowing that I was trusted not to run away."
"Where in the Greek Islands?"
"Oh, we thought maybe...Rhodes."
"You appear to give quite a bit of thought to how you spend your down time."
"Mine and other people's. You've seen how it's paid off."
"Point taken." Chair's gaze went from Hyena to Perfect to Stare Bear, and stopped there. "Perhaps in the spring?"
In the spring, she thought. In the spring.
"Mr. Chairman," rumbled the Bear in a pleasant, vaguely respectful tone, "I move that Christopher become a voting member of the Group before this matter is addressed."
She could almost see Chair's Gotcha! "Well, Alex, I believe it would be more appropriate to discuss this without non-members present," he said, almost smirking. Poor fool. He didn't even know when he was being reeled back in.
"Of course," the Bear answered smoothly. "My apologies, Mr. Chairman. Motion withdrawn."
It was Sunday, and once the Group members were gone the building was empty except for a man mopping the floor in the lobby. Nikita and Chris waited for Kelly outside the revolving doors, each leaning against the arched entryway but on opposite sides of it, the winter wind whipping their coats around their knees. Briefly they both looked toward the coffee shop, which was in a hotel and therefore open for business on Sunday afternoon. But neither of them moved to cross the street.
"I'll miss us there," Nikita said softly.
He nodded. "Me too."
"I was thinking--I should have the two of you to dinner again soon. Like, this week."
"Are you up for it?"
"I am today. There're blacker ones coming, but I'm up for it today, and nothing ventured, nothing gained. Chris, thank you again and again and again. I don't think I can ever say it enough."
"You shot the Moon, Nikita. I just stood around watching your dust."
"No. It was the synergy. The two of you together."
She whispered, "I don't think I want to think about 'together' just now."
"Are they on Rhodes?"
"Can't you get to there somehow?"
"I can't go there, and Michael can't come here. Where we live, too many people know us. One wrong move and we'd be compromised."
"Couldn't Michael bring him back to London from time to time?"
"How'd you like to do overt access and egress with an infant who might start crying any minute? Helen had to--." She suppressed a shudder. "He was pretty sedated. It was the only way Michael could get him out, but we will never, ever do that to him again."
"Is he okay?"
"Michael says 'alert and beautiful.'" Her voice broke.
There was a silence, and then Chris said gently, "I hear the Islands are awesome in the spring." She nodded. "Think you and your aunt can get your act together by then?"
"The only 'act' happened in the meeting. I don't even know if they have time-shares on Rhodes. But I'll think of something."
"You mean you improvised that?" She nodded again, and he went on soberly: "Do you have any idea how much better you look now than you did when you dragged yourself off that plane?"
"This can't last."
"Of course not. But it can come back."
"With a little help from my friends?" she asked wryly. "Whoever thought up that one might have saved my life."
"Kelly's the resident shrink, but we brainstormed the mission profile together."
As though on cue, Kelly's little car turned the corner and began to cruise along the opposite curb, its driver scanning the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. Not seeing anyone she knew, Kelly parked in an empty spot and got out of the car just as Nikita and Chris left the shelter of the archway entrance. Catching sight of them, she folded her arms against the wind and watched them cross the street toward her. Her gaze went from Chris to Nikita and then back to Chris, and when they were close enough she said, "I am so sorry. I swear to God I didn't know that was there."
"Shut up and drive, sweetheart." Chris kissed her cheek, whacked her lightly on the behind, opened both driver's side doors, and then went around to the sidewalk.
As he climbed into the car, Nikita leaned forward in her seat, made a fist, bounced it lightly on Kelly's shoulder and then let it rest there. Without turning, Kelly bounced her fist off Nikita's. Then, as Nikita settled back into her seat, Kelly started the car.
The adrenaline high wore off as she had known it would, and by nine o'clock that night she couldn't make up her mind whether she wanted to cry forever or sleep forever. There was unpacked luggage in the bedroom, unopened mail all over the kitchen counter, a peculiar smell in the refrigerator, and no food to speak of in house. But that was fine, since she wasn't hungry. Everything was gray except the ache in her soul, which was as red as an open sore. At least gray was better than the black hole, she told herself. If she could somehow manage to banish the blackness, then she just might--
Standing at the sink, in the act of making herself a cup of instant coffee, she froze, staring unseeing at the bottom of the cupboard door directly in front of her.
"If you're reading this, I am dead or banished."
Her hand let go of the coffee mug, which dropped into the sink and shattered into half a dozen pieces.
She got out alive.
Adrian got out alive.
"IDIOT!" She raised both fists and slammed them against the cupboard door so hard that they throbbed. Lowering them, she found that she was shaking.
It was right in front of me all this time. It's been right in front of all of us all this time.
Adrian got out alive.
Banished for doing what?
"George lectured me on how important it is for AlphaGroup to believe that I think like a man."
"You've chosen your battles perfectly so far...."
Paul wanted in, and Adrian had lost that battle.
But how? Why?
She had no answers. All she knew was that she was going to find them. It wouldn't happen tomorrow, next week, next month, not even next year. And as long as Section was not what it could be, she still had a promise keep. But Adrian had gotten out alive, and she was going to find out how.
Still shaking a little, she went into the living room, turned off all the lights, and retrieved her PDA from her travel tote. Michael had sent on arrival: "All safe. A's brother alert and beautiful." Barely able to keep her eyes open, she had sent "Thank you" and nothing more, knowing that she should have roused herself to say more but unable to do it. Now she sat on the couch in the dark and told herself that she must not--must not--type "I've found a way." and hit Send. She had found nothing but what had been hiding in plain sight for years, even from him, and there could be a dozen reasons why that discovery would ultimately lead right back to nothing.
Letting her head fall back against the cushion, she closed her eyes and for the first time allowed herself to remember her last sight of Michael. Shortly after dawn on a chill winter morning. Matted grass in a country field, hard with frost. Chopper squatting, its blades slapping the frigid air. Michael looking back at her, Luc in one arm and the other around Adam, the bitter, chopper-generated wind tugging at his hair and the new sun reflecting in his eyes. ("I face the sunrise/And do the things my fathers learned to do.") Lips moving. Three words, no sound.
Hugging herself with empty arms, she had answered him. Three words, no sound....
She opened her eyes, brushed away her tears, and typed words that appeared on the faintly illuminated screen.
Four words this time: "I love you both."
Then came another memory: a little boy with dark, dancing eyes. "Daddy and me can keep him? Cool!"
She backspaced across the last word written, typed "all" instead, hit Send, and went off to write a grocery list. She didn't need to wait for an answer, for she knew what it would be.
"If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
- Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"