Nikki and Adrian met up with the three members of the team who had spirited the two children from the landing platform to safety. The three men would be taking the boy to a safe house that Adrian had set up the previous day. He and Nikki would take the girl.
Adrian knelt down in front of the girl and took her hand in his. He smiled very softly at her and said, “Hello, Maria. My name is Adrian.”
Maria smiled nervously back at him, in awe of the man who had saved her.
“Maria, my friend and I are going to take you to a safe place where those men will never be able to get to you again. Is that alright?”
She glanced over her shoulder at the boy who was talking with the other team members. Adrian put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“Jacob will be alright too, I promise. Do you want to say goodbye?”
Maria nodded and stepped away from the two former Agents to wait patiently for Jacob to notice her. They talked in quiet murmurs with easy camaraderie, as though they had been friends for years rather than just a few hours. Nikki looked on wistfully.
“Do you think we could ever be friends like that?” she asked. More and more, she found her heart yearning for what had been taken away from her. She remembered several times from when she was an Agent that she had talked to someone in such a fashion only to leave without a second glance the moment her mission had ended. Could she have been friends with any of them? Had any of it been real?
She heard Adrian heave a long sigh next to her.
“I hope so, Nikki. I really do.”
Maria gave Jacob a long hug and backed away from him before turning to face them once more. She squared her shoulders and stood up tall with eyes full of determination and desperate bravery.
Adrian opened the passenger door for her and gestured for Nikki to take the wheel. He would try to rest in the back seat to let his shoulder heal. Nikki had taken care of his injury after their battle, but it would take a few weeks before it stopped hurting.
Once Nikki reached the expressway that would take them most of the way to their destination, she reached over and turned the radio on. She lowered the volume until its soft sounds filled the silent void in the car, but not so much that she wouldn’t be able to hear Maria if the girl needed her.
She glanced over at the young girl. Maria was barely twelve and was already so mature for her age. Adrian had said that she was living on the streets before she was kidnapped, so something must have happened to her parents. What had she gone through to have grown so much in so little time?
Nikki managed to hold her tongue for a few hours, but eventually her curiosity grew too great.
“Maria? What happened to your parents?”
Maria fingered the sleeve of her sweater, playing with the loose strands as she stared down at her lap.
“They’re dead,” she whispered. “I was little when it happened, so I don’t really remember them. My grandma raised me until a few months ago when she died too. I didn’t want to go with the government people so I ran away.”
Nikki was quiet for a long time. “What was your grandma like?”
Maria smiled, happy memories taking the place of the fear that she had been feeling. “She was really sweet. She always made me cookies and never yelled at me even when I probably deserved it. She would just look at me with sad eyes and shuffle away. It would make me feel so guilty afterwards that I would always come back and apologize for being so mean. I always found her waiting with open arms and another plate of cooks. I was never worried about. I never had to worry about if she loved or wanted me.”
Maria squeezed her fingers into the fabric of her sweater tightly, tears making their way down her cheek. Her eyes were distant as she remembered the wonderful woman who had raised her.
“I really miss her,” she stuttered. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and looked away from Nikki to hide her tears.
Acting on an instinct she hadn’t known she had, Nikki reached over to the young girl and placed her hand on Maria’s cheek with a gentle touch.
From the back seat, Adrian smiled.
Nikki waited in the car while Adrian brought Maria up the driveway to a modern-looking blue house in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. She saw the door open and watched as a young woman with a small child hiding behind her legs smiled widely at her guests. The woman immediately drew Maria into the house, chattering away about how happy she was to see Maria and if there was anything Maria needed then all she needed to do was ask. Nikki was amused at the bewilderment on Maria’s face, but she could see contentment there as well. Maria would be happy there.
Adrian made his way back down the porch steps and to the car. He got in and leaned his head against the headrest of the seat, a satisfied smile gracing his features. He turned his head to look at Nikki.
“This is always my favorite part. It reminds me that no matter how much evil I see all around, there are always good people lighting up their own little corner of the world.”
Nikki rubbed her thumb over the leather of the steering wheel feeling conflicted. She hadn’t wanted to get caught up in Detective M’s war against the Institution. She didn’t think she would be able to fight against the organization that she had been loyal to for so long. But every time she opened her mouth to tell that to Adrian, she saw Maria’s cheerful face as she talked about her grandmother.
Nikki could not bring herself to abandon all the other children she could save if she joined Adrian, all the children who had homes and happy memories that the Institution would take away from them. And besides, wasn’t that what she decided her mission was? To protect those who couldn’t fight for themselves?
She noticed Adrian watching her, not commenting one way or another on this decision that was hers and hers alone to make. He wouldn’t ask her again to join him in such a daunting task that would change the very foundation of who she was. But he didn’t need to. Despite her insistence to the contrary, Nikki had already made her choice from the moment she reached out to find him after the Institution’s betrayal.
Agent 24 closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She held it for a few seconds, finally at peace with her decision. She let out all her fears and doubts with the air that left her body. hen she opened her eyes again, it was Nikki who stared at Detective M.
“I will join you.”
Adrian nodded solemnly and reached out a hand. Nikki took it, cementing her place as his partner in the mission to bring the Institution down.
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