Acid Test Author's Note: This story takes place between "Spec Ops" and "Third Person."


Acid Test
by Tara O'Shea

Madeline smiled as her monitor beeped and switched over to the camera mounted above her door. Nikita, her black and white image slightly distorted by the wide angle lens, stood there, chewing on a wisp of fair hair, her fingers hovering above the keypad. Section One's second in command toyed with the idea of waiting to see if Nikita would actually try to pick the electronic lock, knock, or make faces at the camera. However, as time was of the essence, she palmed the door control instead.. The metal doors slid open and Nikita sauntered in.

"I was wondering when you'd come to see me." Madeline smiled, rising from her desk as the girl wandered the perimeter of the office, running her hand along the shelves and reaching out to touch the delicate leaves of one of the bonsai.

"I kind of liked the dungeon," Nikita smiled wistfully as she took in the grey walls and "It just doesn't have the same feel."

Madeline smiled. "No, it doesn't. Amande and Chantal have taken over my duties of wardrobe mistress; it was only fair they keep the staging area. Besides, I thought it was time I came out of the dark into the light."

Nikita digested that with a smile. She leaned against the wall, arms crossed, deceptively casual. "So, what now?"

"Is that why you're here? You have questions about your future?"

"Not my future--exactly," Nikita hedged.

Madeline had been expecting this; since she and Operations had informed her of her change in status and reassigning her to Jurgen, she imagined Nikita had any unanswered questions that could not be voiced to Operations or Michael. Once, she would not have had to wait quite so long for the inevitable visit. But everything was uncertain since her return to Section. The fact that she had come this soon was already an encouraging sign.

"We're actually very happy to have you back."

"Are you?" she said quickly, her tone slightly accusatory. "Funny, I heard the other five operatives were caught in the explosion and died." Nikita said with wide-eyed innocence. "I was almost lucky, one might say."

"One might." Madeline remained steady, and she could see immediately that Nikita regretted slipping--she would never master the art of self-control with the success that Michael had. That is not necessarily a bad thing... she thought idly while she waited to see how the situation would play out. But Nikita only dropped into one of the chairs in front of her desk, admirably mirroring Madeline's own calm and composure--if not her posture. As if reading her mind, she slouched a little lower, resting her chin in her hand.

"What changed your mind?" she asked candidly, and Madeline suppressed a smile of triumph. Her dark eyes lit from within slightly as she leaned forward.

"The Section admires cleverness in its operatives. And managing to stay alive for six months of captivity proved you were clever enough a merit a second chance."

"And here I thought all Section admired was ruthlessness," Nikita said bluntly, a mouth twisted into a wry smile.

"Sometimes, even we must yield to a trace of humanity, Nikita." Madeline's eyes danced with amusement which quickly faded with her next words. "Were you raped?"

Nikita blinked at the abrupt change of subject, a flush rising up her neck. "You read my report."

"Yes. I've read your report, Michael's report, Jurgen's report. Now I'm asking you."

Nikita's blue eyes burned fiercely in her suddenly pale face. Her gaze slid away, fastening on the reflections in the surface of Madeline's desk. "No."

"How did you avoid it?" Madeline's voice held a note of genuine curiosity, not all of it feigned.

"One fellow tried. I cut his throat." Nikita met her eyes defiantly.

Madeline accepted this with a curt nod, and from the look of puzzlement that flashed across Nikita's face before being replaced by stone cold calm once again, she knew that the younger woman was having difficulty reading her expressions.

"Is this a formal interrogation?" Nikita asked carefully.

"It's hardly an interrogation. It's standard procedure to conduct a psychological evaluation if an operative has been held for over thirty days."

"But I've already been evaluated by Jurgen." Nikita's brows drew together in a slight frown.

"Mr. Jurgen's skills are considerable. However, I had to know for myself--see with my own eyes." Madeline leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers. "I noticed that since your return, you and Michael had hardly spoken," Madeline began, and Nikita kept her eyes fastened on her shoes. "The past few months have been very hard for him."

"Have they?"

"Nikita, if you blame him for sending you on a suicide mission--don't. Michael was following orders."

Nikita's head snapped up and she looked Madeline straight in the eye. "Of course. Michael always follows orders."

"Not always," Madeline murmured with a smile, and then tapped a few keys on her computer, deliberately pulling her eyes away from the young operative and fastening them on the screen. She could feel Nikita's confusion, however, sense it in the way her muscles were coiled to spring at the slightest hint of danger like a startled animal. "I'm sorry--I wish I had more time to discuss it, but there is a matter that requires my attention."

"I'm sorry I disturbed you," Nikita rose from the chair smoothly, shaking her hair out of her eyes.

"Not at all. Perhaps we can continue this at a later date?" Madeline suggested, the comforting walls of pretense snapping up, the brief moment of tension forgotten.

"Of course," Nikita smiled brightly, but then paused as the door slid open, turning back with a curious look on her face. "Madeline--They had Simone for two years. Would she had gone through this, if she'd come back?"

"But Simone didn't come back," Madeline countered with another warm smile, and then Nikita stepped through the door, which slid shut behind her.


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