He had understood clearly from the beginning that the whole thing was going to hell--had known that his team's chances of making it back were slim, . . . but he just hadn't cared. He had existed for six months without her now--had been suffering every day from survivor's guilt--knowing he should have been the one to die. . . . It had simply been unfair that he hadn't.
Now, however, Michael had had a chance to correct that cosmic mistake --as much as it was possible for him to without bringing Simone back. When he had seen the gun fired, he hadn't tried to avoid it; in fact, he had pushed Milano out of the way to ensure that he was the one the bullet came for--that he was the one who would die.
His team did manage to win the firefight--over their fallen mission leader; Section had even achieved a little closure on the mission, and Michael's dying body had been brought back to Medical to be tended by the usual, uncaring hands. Unlike several similar situations before, though, he wasn't fighting for life. No. . . . Now he was fighting brutally for death.
He vaguely detected the rush of life around him--the angry commands of Operations to the doctors that he had to be saved. . . . He was a valuable commodity, after all. But Michael had no intention of being pulled back to the living.
He had understood that he was winning, as well, when he felt himself pull free of his body. He watched the people working to save him for a few seconds--stayed long enough to watch himself flat-line; it even brought a small smile to his ethereal face. . . . He was finally going to be free.
He turned away from the scene to move on to . . . wherever he was headed. He had no real preconceptions of what his journey might bring, but he *was* hoping for oblivion--for a dissolution of consciousness, a simple end to being. . . . He had no idea of what was really to follow.
He began to walk away, though--began moving in the direction he felt he should--to the way he was drawn. And he was struck by the fact that the reports of bright lights didn't seem to be true. In fact, he now found himself walking down a long, completely darkened corridor; he wasn't even sure how he knew where he was going.
Somehow, though, he seemed to. Although the tunnel was created in total darkness--the kind which only exists on earth at the bottom of the sea or deep within caves, his feet were moving confidently; they knew the way, even if he didn't.
He walked for what felt like hours--maybe even days, . . . but he no longer had a way to judge such things. Finally, however, he saw something at the tunnel's end--a . . . light--something reddish-orange and flickering.
He didn't know what to make of it. At first, it was simply a vague point in the distance. As he approached, however, the light grew larger--beginning to take up the entire horizon. In fact, it was almost an endless landscape of fiery color.
Although the scene he was approaching provided some relief from the darkness he was in, this light gave him no sense of comfort. Instead, he was suddenly struck with desperate, terrified apprehension; he wanted to run--to take off in the direction he had come from at top speed, to flee--praying that he could escape.
His feet, though, weren't listening to his instincts; they were drawn inexorably toward the growing ocean of frightening light. And, once he was there--once he had reached the sea of fire he had been moving toward, he wished to God that he were alive once more. . . . Even Section was preferable to this.
The scene in front of him was more terrifying than anything he could have imagined--even after all his painful, violent years in Section. The occupants of this horrible underworld were each walking through an ocean of fire--a fire which burned without killing, a fire which seemed to replay in each of their minds all of the atrocities they had committed in life . . . from their victims' viewpoints. Every pair of eyes was focused on some inward terror--on some horror they had caused years before.
There was one other aspect of the soul-chilling scene in front of him, however, which somehow made it even more frightening: the silence. No one spoke. No one screamed. No one touched. Every person was terribly, hopelessly *alone*--damned to wander forever through the flames of the pain they had wrought, denied even the curious comfort of the cries of other sufferers.
Michael stood at the exit of the tunnel of darkness for some time, simply watching in horror--in soul-wrenching terror. He wanted to scream, to pray, to beg for forgiveness--*anything* to give him one more chance at life--one more chance to correct the terrible wrongs which had led him here.
He knew, however, that there was no chance of that. He had watched his own body die on the gurney in Section; he had willingly given up his last chance at life.
He knew, too, that he belonged here; he knew he had absolutely no basis on which to found a claim of innocence or beg for rehabilitation. He had murdered and seduced, had manipulated and destroyed hundreds--maybe thousands--of people, many of them innocents. He had always been ready with a rationalization--had always tried to agree with Section's "logic," even when he didn't understand it. . . . He had created his own hell, had set himself up for it for years; he knew there was no way back now.
He understood that he needed to join the numberless swarm in front of him, knew that he was one of them. He only had one last thought, before he did: he wished to God that he had had someone in his life to show him the truth--someone who had helped him to take a better path.
He was about to take his chosen place among these masses, when a . . . light--a tall column of light--appeared near his arm. He turned his head to look at it in surprise, knowing that this creature was not of this place--was not one of the many who lived among the fire.
The creature had no identifiable human features; it was simply a swirling mass of light--of purity. It radiated warmth and love. Many of the miserable beings in the flames looked at it hopefully--desperately wanting it to have come for them, to finally allow them some salvation.
He knew he was looking at an angel, although this creature looked nothing like any representation he had ever seen on earth. "What do you want?" the being asked.
Michael looked where he knew its eyes were watching him and told him the truth of his heart. "A second chance."
"Do you deserve it?" it asked.
As much as he would have liked to, he was incapable of lying, or even dissembling, here. "No."
"Then why do you ask?"
He tried to answer. "Because I want to deserve it."
"If I sent you back, would you change?"
"No," he answered honestly. He knew he would simply continue to do Section's bidding, would rationalize and forget the truth he had learned here . . . would simply create more misery.
"Then what do you want?"
Michael knew he was being judged--that whatever words he said would determine his fate. He was unsure, however, of what his words would be; he had lied for so long that he was unused to speaking plainly--had never before been *compelled* to speak truthfully. "I want help," he answered finally.
The light seemed to smile. "You request an angel?"
"I don't know. I just . . ." He paused. "I just want to be able to change."
The angel nodded, assessing his request. "There are many sorts of angels and many sorts of miracles. Some come to you only for a minute . . . or a day; they provide you with help when there is none--or alert the already-incarnate good to your situation. Do you think you could be aided by them?"
Michael shook his head, knowing that a simple brush with true goodness couldn't be enough--not in the life he had built.
"Do you request a guardian angel, then--one who will whisper the correct path to take, when you are in doubt?"
Again, he shook his head. He already had a conscience, and he had ignored it for years.
"So you request a lifetime angel--one who will be born with the destiny of finding and guiding you?"
He looked at the angel in something like awe. "Do they exist?"
The angel smiled again. "They do."
He wanted to say "yes"--wanted to scream it, but he was well aware that he didn't deserve this sort of help.
The angel nodded, knowing his thoughts. "You have done little to have earned this privilege," he agreed, "so it is not my decision to make. It has to be the choice of those who might aid you." And, so saying, the light seemed to point behind him.
Michael followed his direction to see a sky full of lights--of angels; it was a picture of more overpowering joy than he had ever imagined could exist before. The lights' colors varied somewhat--some were gold, some white, some purple--but the warmth of beauty which flowed forth from them was almost unbearable. The other residents of Hell turned away--unable to look at them.
Michael, however, was transfixed. All he could do was stare at these intense, soul-catching lights. He still wasn't sure, though, how they played a part in deciding his fate.
The angel beside him smiled once more. "We are not a military operation, Michael. We have no orders and missions. One of us can only take on the sort of life I have described, if we feel it is our place --if we feel drawn to the soul we will help. Otherwise, we must wait until we find the soul which needs us most."
Michael was overwhelmed by the sight before him--by all of the beauty and joy he was seeing. There was nothing on earth which came close to it.
He noticed, too, that some of the angels seemed almost intertwined with each other. Unlike the painful solitude of the fire he was in, it seemed--in Heaven--that spiritual communion was the accepted state of being.
"Will anyone speak for this man?" the angel asked the assembled lights. "Will any of you live a life of pain to help him find his salvation?"
Michael had been watching the rows of lights, waiting for a savior.
His eyes, however, had been almost immediately drawn to one light in particular--one which seemed to speak to his soul. He felt choked and overwhelmed with emotion. He prayed not just that one of these angels would speak for him, but that it would be this one; he suddenly knew, without doubt or question, that he could never be whole again without this one, beautiful soul.
To his amazement, as well, the light he was focused on so intently spoke, as it moved toward his angelic companion. "I will."
The older light--somehow he knew this to be true--looked down.
"Little one, you were not supposed to meet him for several lifetimes yet. He is not ready for you."
The light which had Michael's heart seemed to look at him. "I know. But he needs me now."
The older angel got the other's attention. "He could destroy you. You could end up with several extra lifetimes to work off the sin and pain he will put you through. . . . And, in the end, he could deny you and find his way here again, your good intentions useless."
The younger light nodded and then looked back to Michael. "I know. But I must try."
"No one will force you," her elder pointed out.
"I realize that." The smaller angel looked back at her guide.
"I have to go to him, though. I can't stay here, when he needs guidance so desperately."
"You will know pain there."
"I understand. This is my choice," she asserted.
The older angel relented. "Very well. Is there anything your journey will require--anything you will want?"
"Only one thing. If I am successful--if he does succeed in keeping himself from returning here, then I ask that the lifetimes we will both need to work off our violence in this one be spent together."
"Very well." The older angel touched her, a touch which seemed to convey great love. "We will miss you, until you can return to us."
She nodded. "I will come back."
"I know," he agreed. Then, the older angel and all of his companions were gone, leaving Michael's savior to be alone with him on the fringes of Hell.
"Why?" Michael asked her, completely unsure why any creature so genuinely good could have any desire to befriend him.
"Because we're meant to be together, but you need help, before that will be possible."
"I don't deserve you," he argued, not wanting to lose this chance--knowing he couldn't go on without her--but needing her to understand that he could promise her nothing.
She smiled. "You will--eventually."
He looked around at the sea of fire. "What happens if, despite everything, I return here?"
"You'd still have a chance to live again to make up for it. But it would take much longer."
"Then why don't they get to leave here?" he wondered.
"Because they have yet to know true remorse," she pointed out.
"They have to, before atonement can begin."
He refocused on the beautiful light. "So I'll return to the life I just came from?"
"Yes. You're not really dead yet." He looked at her uncertainly.
"Time works much differently than people think."
He seemed a bit frightened suddenly. "How will I know you? How will I meet you?"
She smiled again. "You'll know me from the instant we meet. . . . And we *will* meet."
"Is there anything I need to do?"
"Yes," she nodded. "Stay alive. If you allow yourself to die before I come, I can't help you, and my lifetime of pain will have been for nothing."
His eyes were filled with wonder. "How can I thank you?"
A beautiful laugh burbled from her--a laugh he felt warming his soul. "There will be lifetimes to come to worry about that." She looked suddenly, however, at the tunnel of darkness. "You must go now. Your time is running short; you can't die yet."
He wanted to touch her--to try to convey some of the desperate gratitude his soul was experiencing. He wanted to try to explain to her how he had only just realized that he had been waiting lifetimes to find her--how not being with her again in this one had driven him to the depths of despair--had made him angry and violent early on to try to make up for it. . . . But she already knew.
Part of her light reached out to him, stroking his face. "I will be there. . . . We will be together," she assured him.
Her touch conveyed more intense love than he had ever experienced--than he had ever dreamed; it seemed to flow through him. He closed his eyes, taking it in. He had loved Simone desperately, but he had never known anything close to this before; there was an intimacy between himself and the angel which he understood had been created before time. . . . He wished to God he had found it--her sooner.
"Go now," she told him. "I will come, when you need me."
He took one last look at the ocean of fire and then turned to drink her in for one final second before beginning to run back down the darkened corridor which would return him to his body. He had to get back; he couldn't miss this chance to finally be with her.
"Soon, Michael," he heard behind him. "Soon."
Michael didn't consciously remember what had happened when he died. Section had simply put him through a bit of subtle psych. rehab. before pronouncing him fit once more for active duty, and his life-- what there was of it--had gone on.
Six months passed, during which the vague, subconscious feeling that his life could get better played at the corners of his mind--where he kept half-sensing that there was something he was hanging on for. . . .
But nothing ever seemed to come of it.
He was just becoming suicidal again, in fact, when Madeline told him that he was being given a new assignment--that he had been chosen to train a new recruit. . . . No choices. No arguments.
He had agreed, of course--outwardly, but--in his mind--he was once again planning ways to die. . . . Section could train their own damn recruit without his help.
That, however, was before he saw her. Even when he was looking at her file, something had felt . . . different about her, and he had spent far more time staring at her photo than could ever be strictly necessary.
It was walking into the white room she was waiting for him in, though, which had really made him pause. Although--for years to come--he would try to come up with "logical" explanations for his reaction to her, it was his soul which made the most sense: from the moment it saw her, it cried, "At last! . . . Dear God, Nikita. Why did it take you so many lifetimes to find me?" And it told him that--if he did the things he needed to, if he allowed himself to return to life and become human once more--he would never have to walk alone again.