Rating: T - some swearing and violence

Disclaimer: La Femme Nikita and all related characters/places do not belong to me.

A/N: This is set in the middle of season four, just following Nikita's release from the Gelman Process. It stems from the short exchange Madeline and Operations have in the opening of "Man in the Middle," but forgoes the Helmut Volker plot for one that (I think — and hopefully you'll agree) is a lot more interesting.

The Heart of Everything

Chapter 1: Scylla

Constanta, Romania

Nikita stopped in front of the Mamaia Casino's impressive outdoor fountains, bent over to adjust one of the straps on her too-high black heels, and took stock of her surroundings. The wire frame schematics of the resort she'd seen before leaving Section were still vivid in her mind. Now her practiced eyes added flesh to the skeleton and took note of the men standing near the entrance, all of whom were wearing the self-assured, hand-at-the-ready stance of a person carrying a concealed weapon.

"Hostiles," she whispered. "Six in sight."

"Intel confirms more inside," Birkoff replied in her ear. "Proceed to contact point alpha."

Nikita straightened and looped her arm through her companion's. "Shall we?"

Mick Schtoppel pulled his arm free of hers and slipped it around her waist instead, hugging her close. "Oh, definitely. Have I told you, by the way, that you look a-maze-ing? Because you do, you know. Black suits you."

He had — twice.

"Let's go."

The casino wasn't the fanciest place Nikita had been to since entering Section, but it was a lot classier than the dark nightclubs and tacky parties that Mick usually frequented. A live band was playing, the singer a small woman with huge, black curls and a low, sultry voice. The velvet dress she wore hugged her every curve, and she moved with serpentine grace under the canopy of lantern lights strung across the ceiling.

"Our intel suggests that Janco will be in a back room, probably guarded," Birkoff said. "You'll have to work your way to him."

Nikita glanced at Mick, who was trading in a wad of cash for an impressive stack of chips.

"Are you any good at this?" she asked him.

"Sweetheart! Gambling is one of my specialties."

Another voice broke in over Nikita's com. "The blackjack dealer is one of ours. He'll throw the hands in your favor."

Nikita frowned, not because Section had bought some of the casino staff, but because the man on the other end of her com wasn't who she'd been expecting.

"Where's Michael?"

"Operations has him out on a cold mission," Birkoff replied. "Fredricks is running tactical on this one."

A cold mission. Michael was off somewhere gathering intel. It wasn't something that usually required the attention a level five operative, especially one already in the middle of a mission. A shiver of concern raced up Nikita's spine.

"Come on, love." Mick took her hand. "I need you over here. You're my luck."

She followed him to the blackjack table where he gambled towering stacks of chips on every hand. After several rounds, all of which Mick won with noisy aplomb, they'd begun to attract attention.

"We've been spotted," she said quietly.

Moments later, two large men flanked them. One of them pressed a gun into the small of Mick's back.

"Come with us."

Nikita was grabbed, too, and they were escorted through the casino at a brisk walk to a door at the back of the building. Surveillance cameras were set up on either side, one monitoring the casino floor and another the hallway beyond. They were taken down a flight of stairs and shoved into a smoke filled room where a man was sitting behind a desk, talking on a cell phone. Gabriel Janco. Every underhanded thing that passed through the busy Constanta port on the Black Sea went through him.

Janco snapped his cell phone shut. "You were cheating," he said around the cigar between his teeth.

"Well, o' course I was cheating."

"You were told never to show your face around here again, Mick. Remember?"

"Yeah! Yeah! I know. But I've got a shipment coming through, and I just thought—"

Janco interrupted him. "I'm busy. Just tell me why I shouldn't have you shot."

"Well, you see, my cargo…it's really sort of a…" Mick feigned hesitancy. "It's a person."

"A person? Who?"

"Alfred Masek."

Janco shook his head and took his cigar out of his mouth. "That's impossible. He is in prison."

"Was in prison," Mick corrected. "Not anymore."

The sharp interest in Janco's expression betrayed his thoughts. Masek had personal ties to Janco; he'd had a child with Janco's sister, Eva. But he'd been captured and imprisoned by Interpol two years ago after a failed embassy bombing in north Africa. All of the sims Birkoff had run showed a strong likelihood that, no matter his other suspicions regarding Mick, Janco would take the bait for Masek. Still, he remained reserved and puffed again on his cigar.

"I'm going to need your payment up front."

"S'okay. I've got it covered." Mick pulled some of the chips out of his blazer pockets. "I'll go cash it in, yeah? All of it. It's yours."

Janco didn't seem impressed. "How about the woman?" he asked after a moment. "Does she mean anything to you?"

"The bird?" He laughed and slapped Nikita's bottom. "Sure. But, I mean, if you want her…"

Janco smiled. "Consider it a security deposit. I'll keep her here. And if I find out that you're fucking with me, I'll sell her." Mick nodded and Janco gestured to his men. "Go with him and get the money. Then take down the details of his shipment. You know how this works, Mick. And by the way..."

Mick paused on his way out the door.

"Your little friend, the blackjack dealer? He'll be shot and dumped at sea after his shift is over tonight. Don't you dare fuck with my staff again. Understood?"

A little pale, Mick nodded and they left, leaving Nikita standing alone with Janco in his office. He circled around to the other side of his desk and looked her up and down.

"Do you have a name?"

"Nikita."

"Ah. Russian?"

She nodded, and he said in Russian, "You are awfully pretty to be spending time with Schtoppel. Perhaps I can convince you to stay here with me?"

"Perhaps."

Pleased, he met her eyes. One of his hands roamed across her hip, then traveled up to the zipper at the back of her dress and began to pull it down. For a moment, Nikita let him, never taking her eyes off him. When he had her zipper down all the way to the small of her back, he paused, closed his eyes, and brushed his fingers along the ridges of her spine.

It was uncomfortably gentle. And it made Nikita think of Michael.

She stepped a little closer to him and reached up to let her hair down so that it fell loose down her back. Janco noticed and fisted his hand in it. With the other, he took the still smoldering cigar from his mouth and let the smoke from his mouth drift across her skin.

It was all she could take. Nikita gripped tight the large pin that had been holding up her hair and plunged it into Janco's chest. The drug coating the pin hit his bloodstream quickly and he only had a brief moment to stagger away from her before he slumped to the floor, completely unconscious.

"I have Janco," she announced.

"Proceed to your egress point," Birkoff instructed. "Mick is still with the guards upstairs. You shouldn't have any trouble."

Nikita zipped her dress back up, twisted her hair around her fingers, and secured it once again. Then she looped one of Janco's limp arms around her neck, heaved him up off the floor, and walked out the door.

0 0 0

Section One

Before Nikita even had the chance to file her report, Madeline had broken Gabriel Janco. Section now owned him, and through him the Constanta port — a hot spot, Operations had said in the briefing, of Red Cell activity. Nikita hadn't changed yet when she walked up to Walter's work station. He looked up from what he was doing and whistled.

"Wow, sugar. You look gorgeous."

"Thanks, Walter." She smiled and handed him her equipment. "Any idea what sort of mission Operations sent Michael on? He was supposed to be on mine."

"No idea," Walter replied. "And it's better if you don't go around asking."

"Why's that?"

"It was short notice. And that's never good," Walter replied under his breath.

Nikita pursed her lips and nodded. "Should I be worried?"

"Michael knows how to take care of himself."

That much was clear. She was more concerned that the mission might be a signal of coming retribution from either Operations or Madeline. Since Michael had released her from the Gelman Process, and broken every rule in Section to do so, she'd been waiting for one of them to try something. They were too afraid to come right out and issue cancellation orders — afraid because they knew Michael had Adrian. But Nikita was sure that Operations and Madeline were already planning, in some roundabout way, to get rid of them without raising eyebrows at Oversight.

"You on down time?" Walter asked.

"Yeah. But I was thinking maybe I would—"

"Don't. Just go home."

Walter was right. There wasn't any point in waiting for Michael to return. Besides, she reeked of cigar smoke from Janco's foggy office. Before leaving for the night, she traded in her black cocktail dress for the jeans and sweater that she'd worn on her way in. And back at her apartment, she took a long, hot shower before climbing into bed. She fell asleep clutching the gun under her pillow, trying not to imagine what Michael might be doing.

0 0 0

Alsace-Lorraine

Michael was due to check in with Section in ten minutes but hadn't decided yet what exactly he was going to say. The only thing he was certain of at the moment was what he couldn't tell Birkoff—the truth.

Operations had somehow gotten word that Center had sent several teams from Section Four to Alsace-Lorraine, an area that wasn't currently the locus of any known terrorist activity. Thirsty to know what was happening above him, and angry that he hadn't been informed, Operations had charged Michael with finding out what they were looking for. He'd already had an idea before he left. Now, he was sure. And dark anxiety had settled in the pit of his stomach.

Suddenly, Birkoff came on over his com.

"Hold on. Operations is here," he said.

"Michael." Operations sounded choked with seriousness. "What have you found?"

A deep breath, then Michael replied, "Nothing."

"Nothing?"

He didn't reply.

"That's not possible. There has been extensive activity in this area."

"I was unable to ascertain an objective."

Operations grunted. "You'll debrief me in full when you get back. Return to Section."

Michael throttled down, made a u-turn, and started for home. The connection was cut, leaving him free to formulate a plan. It would take some careful plotting. Luckily, he had a long drive in which to think things over.

0 0 0

Section One

The lights in Section were still dimmed when Nikita got there in the morning. Birkoff was already at his workstation, holding a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and hitting buttons on his keyboard with the other. Nikita wondered whether he'd slept at all the night before as she walked through com on her way to Madeline's office for an early meeting.

"Good morning." Madeline didn't look away from her computer screen when Nikita walked in. "Please, sit down."

She did.

"We've made good progress with Mr. Janco," Madeline began, finally turning to meet Nikita's eyes. "In a few days, we are going to put him back in play. I'd like you to oversee the move and arrange surveillance to make sure he's playing by the rules we agreed to."

"What rules are those?" Nikita asked.

"That he does what we ask at all times with no hesitation."

Nikita leaned back in her chair. "And what's his motivation to do that?"

"A selfish desire to live," Madeline replied impassively.

"So you want me to stay with him and cancel him if he gets out of line?"

"No. I want you to delegate the task and remain in Section."

Puzzled, Nikita nodded. She was level three, which didn't usually include being responsible for others. But she had led teams before, and she didn't think it would be difficult to find someone to babysit Janco. But the fact that Madeline seemed concerned with keeping her close raised a few alarms. Ignoring them for the moment, she remained passive and emotionless until Madeline dismissed her.

Then she spent an hour combing through personnel files, putting together a small team to continue the Janco mission, before getting a cup of tea and going to visit Walter.

As she walked under the perch, she looked up, expecting to see Operations in his usual position as Section overlord. He was, but Michael was with him too. Neither were looking down and didn't notice her go by. Over her shoulder, she saw Operations yell while waving a panel, and Michael solemnly replied.

"Hey, sugar," Walter said when she turned to look at him. He was working on a jammed assault rifle. "You have a nice night?"

"Yeah. It was okay. When did Michael get back?"

He shrugged. "Oh. I don't know. Half an hour ago maybe?"

"Has he been in with Operations long?"

Walter grunted as he pulled the magazine out of the gun. "Don't worry about it," he said and began racking the slide, trying to clear a double feed. "I'm pretty sure that this time, whatever is going on, it's not about you and Michael."

"So what is going on?" Nikita asked, relieved.

"Alsace-Lorraine. Birkoff told me that's where Michael was all night. And Operations has had everyone in DRV going over the area. We're not even monitoring hot zones right now."

"Why?"

Walter shrugged and, satisfied that he'd cleared the jam in the gun, put it away. "Your guess is as good as mine, sugar. Better, probably."

Curious, Nikita decided to wait in Michael's office. Her tea was cold by the time he finished debriefing with Operations and walked in. He was still dressed in his mission gear: boots, tight pants, and a belted black jacket. Without saying anything, he circled around to the other side of his desk, pulled out a panel, and typed in a sequence to secure the room.

"What's going on?" Nikita asked as soon as he'd sat down.

He unzipped his jacket. "George has Section Four canvassing in Alsace-Lorraine. Operations wants to know why."

It wasn't unheard of for Oversight, and George in particular, to bypass Section One for pet projects. Though in this instance, Operations clearly wasn't in the loop. And fighting between the two heavyweights could only be bad news.

"What's he looking for?" Nikita asked. It had to be something important or George wouldn't have risked getting Operations' attention by using Section people.

Michael looked away briefly, his green eyes stealing a glance at the door and his office window before settling back on her. He knew something, she realized. Something dangerous. His voice was hushed when he replied.

"They're looking for Adrian."

Nikita's mouth went dry.

"Adrian?"

"Yes."

"Has he found her?"

"Not yet."

"And Operations…?"

"Doesn't know."

A breath of relief escaped her. Michael didn't need to explain the situation for her to realize the tight spot they were in. Adrian was their one point of influence over Operations and Madeline. Without her, they were vulnerable to the retribution all their recent insubordination had earned them. Without Adrian, they would both be canceled. But at the same time, if George were to find her and discover what Operations and Madeline had done to her, he would probably have all of Section One rolled up and disposed of. Or worse, Operations could neatly place any blame for Adrian's condition on Michael — the trail would lead back to him eventually, anyway.

"What do we do?" she asked quietly.

"We move her."

Easier said than done in a province crawling with Section Four operatives and under careful scrutiny by their colleagues in DRV. Some of her concern must have shown on her face, because Michael swung his chair around and stood up.

"We can't talk about this here."

"I've got down time," Nikita offered. "Madeline has pulled me off the Janco mission. Said she wanted me to stay around Section."

Michael nodded. "Good."

"I'm still in secondary quarters," she continued. "Until they finish scrubbing the remnants of the Gelman Process from my apartment, anyway." It was a hint. And she wasn't sure if he would take it. Michael was alarmingly intuitive, but he was also fickle and paranoid, always working to keep her on the safe side of a line that, to her, was still fuzzy.

"I'll come get you," he replied.

"When?"

"Tonight."

He didn't seem outwardly concerned, though something in the way he looked at her made Nikita think that he was afraid.

"Do you have a plan?"

He looked away again, collecting himself, shuttering behind his control what he didn't want her to see.

"I will," he finally replied.

The perch was dark when Nikita walked out of Michael's office. If Operations was there, he didn't want everyone below to know what he was doing. Was he worried, Nikita wondered? Was he afraid for his position, or even for his life? She hoped so. It heartened her a little to think that there was a force in the world even Operations had to answer to — even if she was in danger from it, too.

Shaking off the lingering resentment that was darkening her thoughts, Nikita walked to her work station, aware that she would have to spend the rest of her day acting as if nothing was wrong. It was exhausting to pretend like she had no emotions when she'd only just begun to feel again.

The Janco mission. She'd focus on that for now.

Shut down. Close off. Just do the job.

The mantra more difficult to accept now than ever. And, not for the first time, she wondered if she'd made the wrong decision years ago when she'd picked Operations over Adrian.