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It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The thought kept repeating over and over in her mind as she leaned back against the metal walls of the functional airplane. How had it come to this?

No. She wouldn't think about it.

Nikita brushed an errant strand of blonde hair from her face and closed her eyes as she tried to lose herself in the noise of the plane. It was no use. Instead of soothing darkness, Michael's image filled her lids each time she closed her eyes.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

"Hey, Nikita. That was an impossible shot. Don't sweat it." The solid male voice caused her to open her eyes. She gritted her teeth. David was new. He didn't know better. At least, that's what she told herself. Unfortunately for David, she didn't believe it. And had no patience to deal with him.

"Shut up, David."

His look of surprise was quickly followed by one of confusion.

Despite herself, she softened. Who could blame him? After all, it wasn't every mission that she killed Michael.

She rubbed her sore eyes.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

~~~~~~~

Nikita remained silent as she passed through the cold walls that made up their world. She walked silently through winding corridors. She looked neither right nor left. No one spoke to her. Not even Walter offered his usual banter as she deposited her weapons.

Then he reached for her rifle. Nikita's eyes locked with the older man's as they both gripped the smooth weapon. For a moment, she wasn't sure she could let it go. Somehow, it was the last thing connecting her to her former lover. This scope held her last view of him, she thought. This trigger wept in her hand as it discharged the bullet into his body. But then something in Walter's eyes, some sort of understanding flashed, and she released the cold metal to his care.

Wordlessly, she moved on.

Nikita saw people she knew as they passed her. Davenport. Snow. Stillman. They didn't try to speak to her, and she didn't volunteer any words to them. In fact, if it hadn't been for Birkoff stepping in front of her she would have drifted out of Section One as silent as a ghost.

"Operations and Madeline are waiting for you to debrief." Short, sweet, to the point. The young man avoided eye contact with her but she didn't care.

Nikita nodded then silently changed direction.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

~~~~~~~

"When did you realize that Michael had become separated from the rest of the team?" Madeline's smooth voice repeated the question.

Nikita closed her eyes. Debriefing was a necessary part of the secret organization she worked for. She knew that. It was important. Debriefings kept things running smoothly within Section walls.

But she didn't have to like them. Especially when Madeline's cultured voice made her relive every moment of this most recent mission.

"I told you. I didn't know it until I was at the chopper. I climbed in and turned around and he wasn't there." So far, she had managed to keep her feelings out of it. Just recite the facts as they happened. Don't think about what the words mean.

And do not picture him as he fell to the ground, his black mission gear vivid against the green, the red splashes of his blood an odd complement to the leafy bed he crumpled against.

"At what point did you make the decision to cancel him?" Again, Madeline asked the question. So far, Operations had just leaned against the corner of the chocolate-haired maven's desk and watched as he listened to the recitation Nikita offered.

Nikita felt her heart skip. Then she looked into the sterile blue eyes of her leader. "You made it very clear that we weren't to leave anyone alive."

Was there a tightening of his firm mouth? He didn't blink as she stared at him. A slight movement by Madeline drew her attention away for a split second. That was all it took. The silver-haired man exchanged a brief look with Madeline then straightened.

"That'll be all, Nikita," he dismissed her.

Nikita blinked, then rose from the chair and made her way up the steps of the cold office. The door swished open for her and she left the two to their games.

She tried to listen to her boots squelch against the lighted floor. Instead, she heard the steady rhythm of running feet as they crashed through the jungle. Nikita stopped and leaned against the cold stone. The walls were closing in on her. She couldn't breathe.

Softly, softly, she chanted to herself as she fled from the miles of underground tunnels that made Section.

Why was it this way?

~~~~~~~~

Nikita found herself in the shower, her mission gear left in a heap on the floor. Tepid water poured from the shower, coating her as she sat in a huddle in the tub. From the heavy mist that hung in the air, the water must have been hot at one point.

She couldn't remember. She couldn't remember walking to her apartment. She couldn't remember undressing. What she wanted to forget haunted her, and what she wanted to remember eluded her.

With a trembling hand, she reached and turned the water off.

This was no good. She was still cold. Would she ever be warm again? Nikita pushed her dripping hair from her face and levered herself to her feet.

Don't think about the bath with him. Don't think about his gentle caress of her shoulders. Pretend it's not his scent on the towels.

She dropped the towel and stepped out of the tub. The mirror was foggy. She didn't bother to wipe if off.

Time passed. It must have, Nikita thought. She was somehow dressed in panties and a tank top sitting in her bed. The sheets were rumpled, but she didn't think she'd been asleep. Not in her bed.

Her bed.

He'd been in her bed. He'd slept, his strong arms wrapped tightly around her against the cooling sweat of their lovemaking. And she loved it.

And she killed him.

Nikita shivered violently, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. She closed her eyes and he was there.

Bright green swinging wildly as the chopper moved away. His face was cold, resigned. Through the canopy, she could see the figures gaining on him. They were too close and she was too far away. There was no hope.

Michael knew. Their eyes met, even as the chopper continued its ascent. His decision had been made. There was no going back. He wasn't returning fire. He must be out of bullets, she realized. He was depending on her.

She raised her rifle and took him in her scope. From the corner of her eye she could see them creep closer, like ants to a fallen piece of offal.

This couldn't be happening, she thought, not like this. Taking a breath, she focused him in her sights again. It was difficult with the chopper bouncing her.

Then the world seemed to stop. The chopper steadied and Michael turned, firmly in her sights. The time was now.

Gently, she squeezed the trigger.

A splash of red painted the leaves as he fell, bright against the green. Like Christmas.

It was over. The chopper spun crazily, then steadied again as they moved away.

Fingers rapped on wood, and the hollow sound echoed through her apartment. Nikita unfolded her body and rose from the bed. Calmly, she donned a robe, then made her way to the door.

Through the security camera she could see Walter. She unbolted the door, and the older man followed her inside silently. She led him the short distance to the living room. Nikita sat, waiting for Walter to speak.

"Listen, Sugar. You did what you had to do-"

"You don't understand, Walter."

Walter's lined face drooped and his shoulders slumped. "Yes, I do, Sugar. Better than you know." His gravel-filled voice was full of history and regret.

Nikita looked away.

"I've been in Section a long time, Sugar. Sometimes, you got no choice in what's best. But you've got to let it go, Nikita. You can't keep it inside like this. Michael's gone and you've got to-"

"You don't understand!" Nikita rose from her chair angrily. "Michael's dead, but I didn't kill him, Walter."

Walter looked at her uncertainly.

Nikita sank to the floor, deflated. Her back was against the wall next to the one window in her living room. She leaned her head against the blue wall, exhausted.

"Sugar-" Walter began again but she cut him off.

"He's not dead, Walter. I pulled the shot. Hit him in the shoulder, but not enough to kill him. I saw him moving as we pulled away." Nikita couldn't believe she was able to say this out loud. Somehow, it made her crime worse to actually speak it.

But it was no less than she deserved. Walter was silent, she noted. Too stunned to speak?

She turned her head and looked at his lined face.

"You didn't kill him?" She could hear the horror in his voice.

She shook her head as she closed her eyes, unable to bear his look any longer. Dimly, she noted warm salty tears creeping down her cheeks. Amazing. She hadn't cried until now.

It didn't change the facts.

"I more than killed him, Walter," she whispered into the room.

A beat passed. Then, two. Finally, Walter's quiet voice filled the room, "You left him alive for Ramirez to find."

Nikita nodded, tears still falling like gentle rain.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

~~~~~~~~~

Sounds came first. Then light. The pain had never left, so he couldn't really say it returned, but it escalated every time they moved him.

From far away, he heard himself protest their rough treatment of him, the small sound animal-like and guttural. He felt their hands leave him, and he slumped against the fragrant earth. There was no gunpowder stench, no burning cinders. Just the heavy smell of plants, both decaying and new.

He'd been moved, Michael dully noted. Not that it mattered. He was dead anyway. It was just a matter of time.

He hoped it was soon.

The pain eased and he became aware of leaden limbs again. Slowly, he tried to move. His ankles were bound, his hands likewise bound and secured behind his back. He could feel the sun on the exposed skin of his back and legs. They had wasted no time stripping him.

Smart move. This was the only way they could be sure they had removed all of his weapons. He applauded their tactics. He would use them himself if he were in their shoes.

He was face down on the ground, the sweet earth against his cheek. Michael tried to raise himself enough to look around at his surroundings. It was important to meet the enemy face to face.

His efforts were rewarded with a sharp kick to his right ribs. With a grunt, he fell to his left side as he gasped for breath. Black spots danced in front of his eyes as the pain in his shoulder protested this action. Michael could smell the blood from his shoulder, though he couldn't see the wound.

Nikita. The wound was from her.

Michael blinked against the sun as the blackness once again faded. He could see cleared earth, and a fence in the distance holding back the abundant foliage. Somewhere behind him there were voices. Almost, he could make out what they were saying, catching bits and pieces here and there. A different dialect than what he was used to, but not so different he couldn't understand, if he could hear them fully. Vietnamese, he thought, even though Ramirez was Colombian? Didn't matter, either way. The heat beat down on his bare shoulders, burning him.

God, he was thirsty. He licked dry lips, amused that he could be thirsty in a rainforest.

His thoughts were cut short as two men grabbed his upper arms and pulled him upright. Pain lanced through his body, radiating from what he was certain was a broken collarbone. The added pain of his battered ribs made breathing difficult.

They didn't try to make him walk. Instead, they dragged him, his feet leaving furrows in the earth. He couldn't have walked anyway, he thought. The world was spinning. Where they were taking him, he didn't know. He didn't want to know.

But he found out. All too soon.

They dropped him again in front of a black piece of grating imbedded in the ground. Michael stared at it with a sinking feeling as his two captors raised it on creaking hinges.

Oh. God.

They grabbed his arms again and, he struggled weakly against them.

No, no,nononono. The words repeated over and over in his head, threatening to break free from the prison that was his throat. They didn't escape. He was levered to the edge, then dropped into the narrow hole. The fall was short. Michael landed on his left side. The inch of water he splashed into did nothing to soften the blow. The abrupt landing jolted his shoulder and pushed the air from his lungs. Dimly, he heard the grate as they lowered it back over the hole.

Michael tried to move, but earthen walls on each side cut his movements short. He closed his eyes, his situation finally making itself clear in his mind. He was bound hand and foot, crouched on his side in an inch of filthy water. With an open wound. In a jungle.

Oh, God. This was really happening.

Why hadn't Nikita killed him?

~~~~~~~

"Birkoff."

The young man who ran Section One's computer systems paused in his work to answer Madeline's summons.

"Yes?"

"I don't have the Ramirez files. When did you send them?"

Tapping quickly on his ergonomic keyboard, Birkoff pulled up the history of the requested file. "It should be there. I sent it an hour ago."

At Madeline's impatient silence, Birkoff delved deeper into the file history. He felt his mouth drop slightly as a new beacon flashed on-screen. Where did that come from, he wondered to himself. As the beacon disappeared, the young man quickly keyed a new sequence in, which deftly opened a new screen.

"Birkoff." Madeline's voice broke into his thoughts.

"I'm running a check for you now." Birkoff's fingers flew over the keyboard recalling the desired information. "Got it. There's a net across the gate on this file," he said, almost to himself. Raising his voice slightly, he continued, "It's designed to capture and reroute anything flagged with this signature."

"Who implemented the net?"

Birkoff stopped fidgeting at this, not sure how to answer. As the uneasy silence grew, he finally just blurted the answer out. "You did."

There was an uncomfortable pause before Madeline answered. "Where are the files being rerouted?"

Birkoff's fingers flurried once more over the keyboard until he found himself staring at the answer.

"Birkoff?"

He blinked, then tugged briefly at his short hair before glancing at the glass-enclosed loft above him.

"Operations. The file has been rerouted to Operations and closed to all outside sources."

"I see." Madeline didn't say anything else. Birkoff only knew she had disconnected by the empty silence that filled his ear.

What the hell was going on? Birkoff wondered. Whatever it was, he didn't want to be caught up in the middle of it. He turned quickly back and began to clear the screen, then paused, thinking.

Shaking his head slightly, the young man inserted a disk and copied all that he had just pulled. Only then did he clear every trace of what Madeline had requested.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

In the darkness of night, the first patter of raindrops fell. Slowly at first, numbers growing rapidly as the sky refused to hold them in its embrace any longer. They landed on thick leaves and danced merrily down green stalks until they sank gratefully into the dark earth.

Michael felt the first tiny water beads as they dripped from the grate above onto his shivering form. The steamy heat of the day had cooled rapidly after the sun went down, leaving him wet and cold. Now, the gentle prodding of rain roused him from his uneasy state. Clouded and weary, he failed to recognize what it was that beat gently down on him. Once alarm gave way to recognition, Michael relaxed. As the drops came more frequently, though, he began to grow uneasy again. The downpour continued, falling harder and faster. Michael strained to change positions, to raise his head higher, to no avail.

"I won't let you drown," a voice so quiet he almost didn't hear it above the rain. Michael craned his head looking for the source. There was no one on the other side of the grate.

He struggled a few minutes more, twisting and turning in the slippery mud. What was the use? Finally, he gave in to the tiny hole that held him, hoping the water would fill it enough so that he could drown himself. Michael almost laughed. He was sure this wasn't what his captors had in mind for him, but who was he to turn down opportunity?

As the rain continued, Michael let himself be lulled by the soothing patter of the water. Drowning would be easier if he were unaware of it.

His eyes were heavy, and he'd almost forgotten the screaming pain of his body when the grate above him was moved. Then hands pulled him free of the pit until he lay in the mud beside it. He heard the heavy grate being replaced, then winced as hands grabbed his arms and moved him. Agony returned to his limbs, Michael let the rain slide over his face and cover his tears.

~~~~~~~~

Rain. Nikita watched the rain as it raced down the windows of her apartment. Each drop cut its own path. One thirsty drop absorbing another and another as it sought to advance.

*Just like Section* Nikita thought. "They are so involved with their quest, they cannibalize those that get in their way, even those they seek to protect." Her voice echoed in the silence of her room. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the cool glass. She couldn't help herself. She found the rain pure, somehow. More pure than Section One, anyway. Drawing a comparison between rain and Section was unfair to the rain.

Rain. Gentle. Cleansing. She wondered if it were raining where Michael was and if he could see it. Would he find it as comforting as she?

Nikita opened her eyes at the shrill ring of the phone. She stood at the window and continued to stare out into the wet darkness. Once. Twice. Three times.

She moved, then, to pick up the small cell phone on the windowsill.

"Hello." Not a question. She knew exactly who it was.

"Josephine." A soft, feminine voice and the accent was wrong.

Nikita waited, tilting her head back and pushing away from the window. Finally, she spoke into the silence.

"Yes."

"Come in." The call ended with a tiny click.

Slowly, Nikita folded the phone closed, then raised one hand to the window.

With any luck, she could become part of the rain tonight.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the dark of night turned to the gray of dawn, the patter of rain had ceased. Michael had watched from the new confines of the bamboo hut as the oppressive sun rose and called the fallen drops of water home. In their haste to rejoin the sky, the tiny drops crowded the air with swampy heat so thick he could hardly breathe.

The sun continued its journey, sticking hot fingers through the bamboo to caress his naked form as it passed. Bound as he was, Michael couldn't move. Instead, he lay in the filth he'd been thrown in, listening to the flies as they swarmed near his shoulder.

He could feel their tiny feet skip across bloody skin to the open wound on his collarbone. The actual receiving of the wound was hazy, but Michael figured he'd been hit directly on the collarbone, breaking the bone in the process. He had no idea what other damage the bullet had caused, but the wound was close enough to his neck that he couldn't bend his head to inspect the damage. Unfortunately, the wound itself wouldn't kill him. The slow, painful process of infection would take him instead.

"They will keep you alive." That quiet voice again. Michael opened his eyes. He could see no one.

"I will not let you die like this."

A man's voice, from behind him somewhere. Michael squeezed his eyes closed searching his dry throat for words. "Why not?" he finally managed between cracked lips.

"I must go." A scrabbling sound, then, "Hold on." Michael knew he, whoever he was, had gone.

The buzzing of the flies increased, and he closed his eyes, grateful he couldn't see the wound. He shuddered as they settled on his flesh again. And he wished the wound had been placed more carefully.

If he were dead, he wouldn't be able to feel the flies feasting on him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Hello, Nikita."

Nikita stopped abruptly at the low sound of her name. She tucked her hands in the pockets of her long black coat as she turned to the hidden shadow waiting for her.

"Madeline."

The other woman stepped carefully into the light. The brown, fur-collared coat she wore accentuated the dark chocolate color of her almond eyes as she blinked slowly at Nikita. A moment of silence passed between the two. Madeline broke the tension by a slight quirking of her carefully painted lips and tilted her head.

"Walk with me, Nikita."

"It's raining, Madeline. And I was just called in."

"Rain can be rather cleansing. And I called you in." Madeline didn't wait for a response, turning instead and starting a slow pace down the wet sidewalk, comfortable in the misty drizzle. After a moment, Nikita followed, easily catching up to the older woman. For a moment, only the tapping of booted heels on slick concrete marked their passage.

Despite the strong desire to know why Madeline had intersected her path to Section One, Nikita forced herself to wait. Instead, she raised her face to the light rain and let it soak into her skin as they walked.

The two women reached the end of the block and Madeline turned down a side street. Nikita knew where they were going, then. The tiny park at the end of this street was one of her favorites, though she hadn't walked there in some time. She liked the little fountain that splashed merrily as the centerpiece. The quaint park, for some strange reason, made her think of Michael.

"I know you didn't kill Michael, Nikita."

Nikita halted and turned to stare at Madeline. For a moment she was almost certain the older woman had read her mind. Madeline's cool face gave nothing away, and Nikita pushed thoughts of psychic powers aside. After all, figuring that out was not exactly rocket science. Nikita turned and continued walking at the same leisurely pace as before.

"I also know that Ramirez hasn't killed him, either."

"In what way does that make a difference, Madeline?" Nikita could hear the anger in her own voice, a sharp contrast to Madeline's even tones. The thought didn't help any, and Nikita increased her pace. "So what if he has one day or twenty? Michael's dead either way. His body just doesn't know it yet."

Madeline was keeping up with her easily, and it irritated Nikita. "That's not necessarily true, Nikita."

Nikita stopped completely and turned furiously to face the other woman. "How can that not be true, Madeline?" she bit out. She gestured wildly with her arms as she spoke, as if trying to dissipate the rage inside her. "Operations won't send a team in to rescue him. He's made that crystal clear, hasn't he?"

Everything about Madeline was still. Even her breath refused to mist in the cold darkness. Nikita stared at her for a moment, then turned and started to walk away from this complete waste of time.

"Operations won't send you back for Michael, Nikita. You're right about that." Something in Madeline's voice caused Nikita to stop and turn to face her again. After a moment, Nikita approached the other woman, pausing only when the distance had disappeared between them. Madeline calmly met her glare.

"Operations won't send you back, Nikita." Madeline's words were as soft as steel. "But I will." With that quiet pronouncement, she turned and continued her leisurely pace toward the park.

After a stunned moment, Nikita followed.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Twist, stretch; twist, stretch.

Michael had lost track of how long he had been captive. Was this the first day or the third? He couldn't remember. He was feeling stronger now, more clear-headed. Slowly, he'd begun to move, to keep the flies away. Michael wasn't certain why, but he couldn't give in to death just yet. Hold on that voice had said. Maybe he would.

Twist, stretch; twist, stretch.

Michael pulled against the ropes binding him. A slight give and he felt the rope stretch again. Twist, stretch; twist, stretch. It was an odd rhythm, but the blood from his raw wrists was soaking into the ropes and making them pliable. Made his hands slick, too.

Or maybe he'd just find death on his own terms rather than theirs.

Twist, stretch; twist, stretch.

The flies didn't seem to like the heat of the day, for which Michael was grateful. He refused to think about any damage they may have done. Or what they most likely left behind.

Twist, stretch....pull. Michael closed his eyes. Pull, twist and with a final tug, his left hand came free. For a moment, he lay still, absorbing the fact that his hands were truly free. Then he moved, carefully rolling over to his back and pulling his hands to lay on either side before cautiously sitting up to wait. He drew his knees up, clenching his teeth against the dull ache in the limbs. Absently, he inspected his injuries. His left hand was bloody and the skin on his wrist was torn but it was still functional. Or would be once the feeling came back into his fingers. His right hand was the same, with the exception of use. Michael didn't think he'd be able to use his fingers much, not with his shoulder in the shape it was in.

He ignored the other bruises on his naked body as well as the wound in his shoulder. If he thought about that...he shuddered slightly. No, he would deal with that later.

Needles came next, gleefully dancing down his arms to congregate in his fingers. Michael laid his head on raised knees and endured patiently until the needles faded. Fumbling slightly with one good hand and one injured, Michael untied his feet.

He knew, exhausted though he was, he could not afford to linger. Michael stood, battling the unsteadiness and rolling blackness that threatened to overtake him. It was now or never. As of yet, they hadn't questioned him, and Michael knew once that started there would be no easy way out.

Before he had a chance to formulate an exit strategy, the door of the hut rattled. Michael watched as the door was flung aside and several men with rifles crowded forward. The first he managed to take down with a sharp kick. The second he attacked with his good hand. The third guard took advantage of his wide-open stance and put the butt of the rifle in his kidneys.

Michael crumpled painfully to his knees, desperately trying to catch his breath. There was chattering now; men calling to men as they struggled to subdue him. A sharp blow to his face and Michael felt himself half-spun around, landing on his side. Still, he tried to rise.

The guards were determined to keep him down, and a booted foot connected to his already bruised kidney. Michael grunted as another kick landed painfully on his sore ribs. He rolled, trying to escape the blows. The metallic tang of blood filled his mouth and nose as a fist split his lip then smashed into his nose. Another blow to his eye, and his world sparked into a haze of pain. They were concentrating their blows to his torso and legs now. He curled into a ball, trying not to cry out as the attack continued.

Then a boot contacted with his injured shoulder, and Michael cried out hoarsely. Death was death was death, he told himself fuzzily as darkness closed in again. He prayed for it.

~~~~~~~~~~~

"He's strong."

"Hmmm. Yes, he is."

"This will not be so easy as you first thought."

Silence.

"You want me to continue as planned? He's in bad shape. We didn't expect him to be wounded."

"Just make sure he doesn't die. Otherwise, he's yours. Just as we planned."

A beat passed.

"I didn't ask you why you want this."

Cigar smoke curled lazily. "No. You didn't"

"And?"

A face hardened. "All you need to know, you know."

A slight quirk to the lips. "Fine. I'll keep you informed"

"Do that."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Warm, velvet darkness caressed his battered eyes when he managed to open them. His aching body shivered, and Michael groaned into the night. His body was too stiff to move, leaving him with no relief for the cramping deep within his gut. He shivered again, then carefully turned his head in an attempt to survey his surroundings. Nausea roiled across him as a foul stench assaulted his nose. He gagged, then went still, trying to hold it all in, to hold himself in place. The odor from his injured shoulder was relentless and he heaved, expelling any water he had managed to consume.

It was an open invitation, one quickly taken up by a familiar partner. Agony twirled over him merrily as he swirled into a nightmare of muscle spasms and sickness. The pain toyed with him for hours, happy to have a playmate who fought so valiantly to remain silent. Cheerfully, the agony stripped away all dignity, leaving only when he was too weak to move himself from the filthy aftermath of its plunder.

Later, when the rain came, Michael welcomed its cool touch on his fevered body. Painfully, he rolled to his back, ignoring the muddy filth that coated him. From the darkness above, the gentle rain came. He opened his mouth to catch it, to wash away the foul taste of vomit and to dampen the stench of his infected shoulder.

~~~~~~~~~~

Silent through the darkness she moves; long hair twisted up and hidden beneath dark cap, shrouding the moon-glow shine from thirsty eyes. The heavy scent of wet leaves envelopes her, drowning her in its flavor as she glides. Silent, silent she goes, toward the target, toward the ember, toward the man she loves. Into the darkness, into the jungle, racing the light that damns; she moves.

And the earth trembles before her.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Sunlight filtered through the thick air, crushing those beneath it. Relentless, it poured over Michael's limp form as he lay still beneath the onslaught of its daily wrath. Fever-weighted limbs twitched restlessly, seeking elusive comfort in the muck and filth of last night's illness.

A dull creaking as the bamboo door opened, then closed. A muffled sound as something settled on the ground close to him. Michael tried to open his eyes but the effort was too great. He began to drift.

Splashing, tinkling noise brought him back and he licked dry lips against the sour flavor a night of retching had left behind. Rough cloth against his lips, promising moisture. Only a moment passed before he latched onto the cloth and began to suck the sweet water from the fibers. All too soon the cloth was removed and Michael felt its loss sharply before he heard the tinkling and splashing again. Bliss as the cloth once more pressed to his mouth.

The fact that he was suckling like a babe or at the complete mercy of the one behind the cloth didn't concern him. He accepted the gift without thought or question as the process repeated a third time, concentrating instead on soothing his sore throat. Soon, he knew, there would be a price to pay. Soon wasn't now. Michael sucked until the cloth was pulled away once more.

"Later."

It was a familiar voice and Michael struggled to place why he knew it. His thoughts were like molasses, sluggish and meandering as he searched to identify the voice. The night in the hole; "I won't let you die like this"

He flinched as the wet cloth touched his face, moving carefully around his swollen eye. Cleaning the blood from his face, Michael realized. Splashing again, then the cloth was cleaning his split lip and bruised chin.

The rough cloth moved down his neck to his shoulders, washing away the grime, first from his uninjured shoulder, then down that arm. Slight stinging as the cloth reached the raw skin of his wrist but it was only minor pain. Again, the sound of water that meant the cloth was being squeezed of excess fluid.

Michael tried to catch the hand as he felt it move toward his injured shoulder. With his eyes closed, he was uncertain and clumsy; the man easily avoided his effort and continued toward the injury.

"Be still."

The cloth gently probed the wound, wiping away crusted blood and fluid. Even so, fine webs of pain radiated from the injury and caused Michael to flinch. He tried to move away from the hands on his shoulder.

"Be still." The voice was filled with authority and Michael obeyed out of habit rather than subservience. He opened his good eye; the image was blurry at first, then slowly came into focus. Above him, a wiry figure loomed. Slanted, black eyes perched above sharp cheekbones. Unlined skin belayed the age of the man but from the silver dotting the blue-black buzz cut, Michael estimated him to be anywhere in his late forties to mid fifties. As if sensing his perusal, those black eyes locked into his and Michael could see the hard intelligence there.

Whoever this was, he'd done this many times before.

A sharp pinch and the hut filled with the foul stench of pus and decay. Michael tried to move away from the hands prodding at the wound, forcing the infection from him, but he was too weak with pain.

It took forever; it was over in minutes. Michael felt the cool cloth once more on his skin and raised a hand toward his aching shoulder, knowing what was still living there. A lean, strong hand stopped him.

"The insects keep the infection down."

Michael shuddered. "They're eating me alive."

"You'd be dead now without them. They stay." No argument, Michael realized, would change the other's mind.

Down his other arm, the wrist, the palm, then down his stomach, the cloth continued to work. The rhythm interrupted by the occasional sound of the cloth dipping into the bucket. No scrubbing as it passed over lean hips and down his legs to his feet.

A soft splash, then movement.

"Up," he said and Michael felt his good arm raised. "Up," the man said again, and Michael tried to help.

With a deft pull, Michael moved to a sitting position. Another pull and Michael was standing, though most of his weight was on the smaller man. Michael didn't care if he stood or fell, just so long as his body stopped screaming in protest at being moved. A few stumbling steps and his knees gave out completely. The smaller man stopped the fall, waited a moment, then managed to get another few steps out of him. Michael felt himself lowered to the ground and positioned on his side.

Tinkling and splashing sounds filled the hut and then the cloth was running down his back, wiping away the grime he'd been lying in. Over the shoulder blades it moved, surely and with ease, Michael noted. The cloth dipped again into wetness, then traced down his spine. He inhaled sharply at the first pressure over his kidneys. Movement paused.

"Pissing blood?" the man asked. Michael didn't answer. After a moment the cloth continued to the other side.

"Bruised kidney, then." The voice was matter of fact. Michael remained silent as the man continued to clean down his body. First one let was cleaned, then the other, then between his legs. There would be no physical escape, of that he was certain. He couldn't even stand up on his own.

A hard nudge against his back and Michael rolled over, gently, to lie on his back. Underneath, there was some sort of woven pallet, rough against his skin. White cloth caught his eye as it was unfolded. The wiry man knelt at Michael's feet and, carefully lifting one leg, then the other, drew the cloth up to Michael's ankles. "My name is Nguyen Huu Trai." The cotton moved over Michael's calves. "I want you to remember my name, Michael."

The use of his name startled him. Michael watched Nguyen carefully, the sharp features sliding in and out of focus.

"There are those who would have you die here. Those who think Section One would be better off without you." Nguyen paused, moving the trousers past Michael's knees and over his thighs. "I am not one of those."

Michael waited for Nguyen to continue. "Up," Nguyen said. With great effort, Michael lifted his hips a little to allow the loose trousers to slide to his waist. Nguyen moved away and Michael watched the sure and confident motions, unhurried and elegant even in this tiny prison. A moment and Nguyen was unfolding a shirt.

Michael's injured arm passed through one long sleeve of the shirt before Nguyen pulled him to a sitting position again. A few quick movements almost before Michael realized what was happening, and he was supine again, the white shirt settled around his chest but left unfastened. Nguyen waited a moment before continuing, kneeling at Michael's head and lifting his shoulders slightly.

"I want you to remember, Michael," Nguyen held a small bowl and Michael opened his lips to let the broth and rice slide down his throat as it was given in tiny amounts.

"Remember that I cleaned you when you were filthy." Nguyen tilted the bowl, and Michael took another sip. "I gave you drink when you were thirsty." Another sip of the rice and broth mixture. "I fed you when you were hungry." The bowl was removed and Michael lay back down, exhausted but curious.

Nguyen leaned in close, whispering in Michael's ear, "You owe me, Michael of Section One. When the time comes for you to seek revenge on those who put you here, remember that. You owe me." Nguyen stood abruptly, and Michael watched him carefully as he gathered a few things into a pail, then dumped the remaining water over the wet filth where Michael had been ill the previous night.

Nguyen moved to the door, his khaki uniform spotless despite the heat and his recent activity. He glanced over his shoulder, then moved out the door.

Michael continued to watch the door for a moment after it closed, pondering all that had been said and done. His limbs felt heavy and clean, a slow sleepy feeling growing warmly within him as the pain in his body faded to a dull ache. He'd been drugged, probably the broth, but it didn't matter. For the first time since he had fallen, Michael realized he wasn't going to die here. Nguyen had done more than feed and clothe him, Michael thought drowsily; he had given him hope.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nikita crouched and silently cursed the full moon that trekked through the darkness, casting silvery shadows as it passed. She was enveloped in the leafy arms of a towering plant, hidden from the illuminating glow of moonlight as she waited for a guard to pass in front of her. He never blinked as he moved past, continuing purposely on his way. She moved as soon as he vanished behind the shed in the far corner, wire cutters already out and ready. One second, three, five seconds; then she was under the fence and inside the compound.

She encountered no one as she crossed the compound, sticking to the fence and its leafy background to hide her passage. Better for them that she didn't; they wouldn't have survived a meeting with her tonight. Mentally, she congratulated the designer of the compound on its wide, open spaces between sparse buildings. Clever, because the way the hut was positioned, she couldn't just enter the fence directly behind it; the fence in that spot was wired to an alarm system and she didn't have the tools to diffuse it. It made it difficult for her to get to the hut where Michael was being held. Difficult...but not impossible. Nikita smiled dryly as she reached her goal.

Cautiously, she eased around the hut, wrinkling her nose at the smell from within. A wave of guilt washed over her with the foul odor, almost paralyzing her with its intensity Michael, I'm here, she thought, and laid a hand on the smooth bamboo as she peered between the bars. She could barely make out a dull white glow within. Another wave of guilt welled over her, and she pushed it aside, choosing to concentrate on the task at hand instead. Guilt could be dealt with later.

Slowly, Nikita moved to the front of the tiny prison, listening through the chirping sound of night for the restless shifting that would indicate a guard. There was none, and, careful of a trap, Nikita moved forward. She was met with empty space, though she knew at least one guard had stood next to the door all day, changing shifts four times during the intense heat of daytime. Nikita became aware of the stillness of the compound, checking her watch to see how much time remained until the guard was due back this way. Not much longer.

Running her hands around the edges of the door, Nikita checked for wires that would indicate a booby trap. Nothing. Not even a lock. She blinked, licked her lips. A gentle pull on the bamboo door and it creaked open. For a moment, Nikita stood still, simply looking at the door, her mind racing. Then time slipped back into her thinking, and she quickly slipped inside and closed the door just before the patrolling guard was due back.

On her belly to allow her black garments to blend with the ground, Nikita watched the dull glow of khaki as the guard passed. She counted to ten after his footsteps had faded away before she crept toward the soft white shimmer in front of her. Her heart suddenly in her throat, Nikita reached out and gently tugged at a bare foot. A soft moan and her stomach clenched as she recognized it for Michael's voice. Alive! In a moment, she was cradling his head in her lap, running her fingers over his swollen features. Obviously, he'd been beaten. Would he be able to walk out of here? Nikita wasn't certain but she was determined she wouldn't leave him behind, no matter what.

"Michael?" she whispered, her voice soft in the darkness. "Michael, wake up."

Michael moaned and moved his head a little, strips of moonlight dancing across his ravaged features. From the tension in his body, Nikita could tell he was awake. "Mmm. Nikita?"

Nikita smiled, tears in her eyes from the pain evident in his voice. "It's me," she whispered, stroking his hair from his face. "I'm here for you." She swallowed hard through her tight throat.

Michael stirred, a soft hiss of pain escaping as he shifted in her lap. Then his hand was on her face, stroking gently against her cheek. "Should have killed me."

"I-" How to explain?

"Next time, don't miss," Michael's hand found hers and squeezed. "Promise."

Nikita blinked back tears, her hand tightening on his as guilt clenched through her. "Michael, I....can't. I-"

"Promise, Nikita, " Michael cut her off, his voice hardening somewhat, though still raspy and soft. "Please...." She felt him tense against her.

God! Slowly, Nikita nodded, giving in to what he what he wanted, knowing she might have to live up to that promise all too soon. If he couldn't walk out of here....No, she refused to think it. "I promise, Michael," she said quietly and felt him shudder against her.

"Get them out," his voice was rough and he shuddered again.

Confused, Nikita frowned. "What?"

Michael shuddered again, then moved his shoulder awkwardly. "Shoulder....they're eating..." She could clearly hear the revulsion as his voice trailed off and he shuddered again.

Nikita pulled her eyes from his ragged face and focused on the shoulder he had indicated. Slowly, she folded one side of the white shirt back, laying open the wound she had inflicted days ago. Bile rose in her throat as tiny white larvae writhed in the moonlight and she fought down a shudder of her own.

"Get them out Nikita," Michael's almost desperate whisper reached her, "Please..."

Quickly, Nikita pulled a small canteen from her belt and flushed the wriggling white creatures out of the wound. Michael tensed against her as the water splashed into the open flesh but he didn't make a sound. Carefully she probed, as certain as she could be with only moonlight to guide her that the wound was clean and parasite free. She felt Michael relax as she folded the cloth over his chest once more.

"Thank you."

Tears escaped and traced erratic patterns down her cheeks as she wrestled for the self-control his weary words almost shattered. She held him in her arms, her forehead on his, grieving at what she'd put him through, what she'd done to him when she pulled the shot. And uncertain she could ever live up to the promise she had made to him moments before.

"Shhh..." Michael whispered, and Nikita raised her head. "No tears, Nikita. Focus."

For a moment, Nikita was stunned. How could he say something like that to her? Then she understood what he meant and smiled tremulously. Focus. On getting them both out of here. Nikita pushed all other thoughts aside and concentrated on that.

"Can you stand?" She was all business now.

"Help me up." Nikita could hear weary determination in his voice.

"On three," Nikita counted and then helped Michael to sit up. Another count and they were standing, Nikita supporting Michael as he struggled to find his legs. A brief pause while he gathered his strength, then Nikita moved forward, a stumbling Michael leaning heavily on her. "We don't have to go far. We should be able to get out undetected." They were through the door now. "Just to the fence," Nikita prompted as Michael fell against her. A precious moment lost as Nikita steadied him. "It's not far, I promise."

"Move, don't stop," Michael's pain-filled voice hissed in her ear.

They had made two more stumbling steps when the world flooded with bright white light. The sound of a chopper filled the air, banishing hope of a quiet escape. Michael fell to his knees under the sudden onslaught of wind, groaning, as Nikita squinted bleakly against the spotlight.

How could it end so soon, she thought grimly as Michael clutched at her leg.

"Don't miss," he mouthed and pointed to the gun she held.

Nikita gripped the gun tightly for a moment, staring at him. Not like this, Nikita thought, It can't end like this! Yet how could it end otherwise?

She nodded, "I won't."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Everything went as planned."

Smoke curled toward the ceiling. "Did it?"

Silence for a moment. "As much as it could have. The seed has been planted. It will bear fruit when the time comes."

"You didn't have him as long as...." Voice trailed away. Then, "Are you certain?"

"Not as long, but as intense. Perhaps more so because he was alone." A pause, then, "I'm as certain as I was with you."

A gentle curve to the lips, fingers stroked over a piece of worn crystal. "Really." Not a question.

"Really." Not an answer.

A moment. "You've done well."

"I don't need you to tell me that." Mildly prickled response.

A quirky smile. "No, you don't, but I needed to say it."

"I know." Arrogance.

Stiffening then, "I'll let you know when it's time."

Silence for a moment. "I know you will." Superiority.

Flash of anger, then control, then a switch flipped to the 'off' position. Smoke curled lazily toward the ceiling.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In a heartbeat, Nikita turned and fired, the light mounted on the helicopter shattering as the bullet impacted. Bits of glass rained down, and Nikita pulled Michael to his feet, pushing him toward the cut in the fence she had wriggled through earlier. The wind from the chopper increased and, from the whine of the engine, Nikita could tell it was landing. She turned and fired over her shoulder, expecting return gunfire at any moment. Acutely aware that Michael's white clothing would be a beacon in the fast fading moonlight, Nikita tried to place herself in the path of bullets as much as possible in order to protect him.

A short distance in front of her, Michael stumbled and fell heavily to the ground. Wildly, Nikita reached for him and tried to pull him to his feet. He was limp, dead weight. Her heart fell as she realized he was unconscious. Behind her, she could hear men scrambling from the chopper. But no gunfire. What the hell? Narrowing her eyes, Nikita turned back toward the chopper. She wedged the gun under Michael's chin and waited.

A shadow movement beside her, and Nikita half-turned, gun half raised when the form slammed into her. She lost her grip on the gun as she fell, her breath forced out in a long rush as she impacted with the ground. All of the hand-to-hand combat training Section One had forced upon her snapped into place and Nikita twisted violently, managing to partially dislodge the larger man holding her. But his grip was strong, and as he rolled to the side, she was carried with him. Unable to stop the momentum, Nikita found herself flat on her back, heavily outweighed and pinioned to the earth by strong hands.

"Damn it, Nikita! Stop!" a low voice growled.

Stunned, Nikita lay still, looking intently into the face of Davenport. She narrowed her eyes sharply. "What is this?" Nikita bit out as Davenport released her.

Davenport shook his head slightly before answering, "I've got orders to bring you and Michael in." He paused, an odd dawning creeping down his face, "You didn't know?"

Nikita glanced at him, then turned to Michael, watching for a moment as black-clad operatives poured from the belly of the chopper. Two forms paused and knelt next to Michael's still form. The headlamps the medics wore strapped across their foreheads illuminated the various injuries on Michael's face far more harshly than the moonlight. Nikita pressed her lips tightly together at the damage and was thankful those lights hadn't been available to her when she had been cleaning out the more serious shoulder wound. "No," she said finally, "I wasn't informed." She turned away as Michael was lifted to a stretcher, choosing instead to thoughtfully study Davenport. "Did Madeline send you?"

A flash of confusion swept across Davenport's face, his dark eyebrows rising toward the black knit cap that covered his shaved head. "No," he said cautiously. Nikita could tell that, although he was curious as to what was going on, he wasn't going to question further. In Section, sometimes the less you knew, the longer you stayed alive. It was an attitude adopted by many operatives and one that Nikita despised. Davenport seemed to live by that motto. And he rarely acted without orders.

"Operations?" Nikita asked shrewdly.

A hesitation, then Davenport answered. "Yes."

Nikita nodded, watching as Michael was loaded into the chopper, the pale line of an IV glistening in the dim light.

"Come on. We've got to go," Davenport brushed past her, striding toward the waiting chopper.

For a moment, Nikita stood watching. The sounds of the jungle were drowned out by the beat of the chopper's blades, and the gray of dawn was quickly lighting the sky, turning everything into ghostly soup. Nikita's gaze swept over the compound. Empty. No one to fight back; the guards she had watched the previous day completely vanished. Slowly, the actions of the last few days coalesced, forming a twisted and gnarled tangle that led to more questions. The only thing Nikita was certain of was that the answers lay in Section One. Turning her back on the empty compound, she jogged to the chopper and climbed in. She didn't look back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Hey Birkoff, how's it hanging?" Walter issued the greeting with good cheer, disappointed a little when the young man didn't respond as he had expected. Instead, the young man moved past him to the wall where Walter's computer terminal was housed. Lifting an eyebrow at this behavior, Walter put down the gun he had been cleaning and casually moved to stand next to Birkoff. He watched as the young man's fingers flew over the keyboard, pulling up some bland screen on the monitor. "What's up?"

Birkoff never looked away from the screen, "Michael and Nikita are on their way back in right now."

Walter propped one hip against the counter that ran the length of the wall and crossed his arms. "So I heard."

"You don't seem surprised. Michael was supposed to be dead." Still, the young man didn't look away from the computer screen. Walter watched him for a moment, ignoring the list of inventory that seemed to hold the young man's attention.

"You don't seem surprised, either." Walter watched in satisfaction as Birkoff swallowed hard before he turned his head slightly, brown eyes wide behind the round wire-rimmed glasses he wore, sculpted lips slightly open. Such a strange mix of youth and maturity, Walter thought, a pang of guilt slicing through him at what Section had done to his young friend. Birkoff blinked, then his face steeled into determination. Walter straightened and moved slightly closer, lowering his voice, "What do you have?"

Birkoff took a deep breath, then turned his attention back to the monitor and punched a key. Walter looked to the monitor as a new screen came up. His stomach clenched as he scanned the intel. "Turn it off," he growled quietly, glancing around to make sure no one had seen anything as the young man complied. When the monitor was off, Walter moved slowly back to his workbench and picked up the gun he had been working on earlier. Birkoff followed him.

"What should I do?" the young man's voice was quiet and a little desperate. Walter didn't need to look at him to know what he was thinking.

"If you think I'm willing to try for another blackmail attempt, forget about it," Walter bit out. "We were lucky to walk away the last time."

Birkoff made a strangled sound. "That was your idea, not mine." The vehemence in his voice was sharp. "I don't know why I'm even asking you about this." He shoved his hands into the pockets of his khaki cargo pants, the gesture making him look much younger than he was.

Walter sighed and laid the gun down again. "What did you have in mind, then?"

Birkoff stared back at him, not answering.

"You thinking you should tell Nikita or Michael?"

Birkoff remained silent.

Walter watched the young man thoughtfully for a few minutes, the information he had just seen bouncing in his head like a rubber ball thrown across the room. Walter knew there was really only one thing to do. Birkoff knew it, too; he just didn't want to admit it. Instead, he wanted Walter to tell him what to do so it would alleviate any guilt that might be cast later.

"You don't need me to tell you what to do, Birkoff," Walter finally said.

"Destroy it." Birkoff's voice was flat, resigned.

Walter nodded once. "You've got to quit doing stuff like this, Birkoff. It's going to get you killed."

The young man nodded and scuffed his feet. "I know," he mumbled. "It's just..." his voice trailed off.

"Nikita. I know." Walter nodded again,

"No!" Birkoff looked startled that he had spoken so forcefully. He ducked his head and moved closer to Walter before continuing. "I mean, yeah, Nikita...but it's more Michael."

Walter wasn't sure what to say, where this was going. "Michael, huh?" he finally managed, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible. He must not have succeeded very well because Birkoff looked up from the workbench sharply.

"Jesus, Walter! Not like....Jesus!"

"Then what?"

"I've done the sims, I've run the numbers, for them and for me." Birkoff lowered his voice, "Do you know what would happen if Michael were really killed?"

Walter felt his stomach sink at the thought.

"He's our best chance of survival. I just hate how....they keep trying to get him killed. It's like they are trying to kill us, too. I just hate that."

Silence fell between them heavily, weighing them down. Walter tried to find something to say, something to offer comfort, but he kept coming up woefully short. He could try 'Don't worry, Section will survive'. Yeah, it would, but chances are they probably wouldn't be around to see it. The truth was, they were pretty much damned no matter what happened.

"I've got to get back. Thanks for listening, Walter." Birkoff turned to go.

"Hey, kid." Walter called softly and Birkoff turned. For a moment, Walter just looked at him, at his young face, at the short brown hair, at the knowledge that shone through the brown eyes. Then he smiled, "You do what you got to do. I'm with you."

Birkoff's face softened, as if some weight had just been lifted from him. Then he made his back to his station.

Walter watched him go, then picked up the gun and went back to work.

~~~~~~~~~~~

"You should have told me."

"Really. Why?"

"It was a dangerous risk."

"I didn't get here by playing it safe."

"It wasn't necessary."

"On the contrary, it was vital."

"Why?"

"Because it's a warning and an introduction to the next level all at once."

"I see."

"Do you?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nikita sat bathed in candlelight, her hands clasped over her knees, the music swelling around her. She closed her eyes. If she could remain still, maybe she could just fade away. Blend with the world. Turn to dust. Forget what she'd done to Michael. Or what she'd not done to Michael. He was safe in Section's Med Lab, being treated for who-knows-how-many injuries, all ultimately caused by her. And her lack of fortitude.

She had thought she had gotten the hang of this business. She had thought that she could do the job, that she was prepared for any situation that would come her way. She had thought that her humanity would be the salvation of them all. She had thought that her love for Michael was untouchable, that they would survive anything. She had been wrong.

On all counts.

Section would steam-roll its way through her life, clawing at her until she made promises she could never keep, deals she could never close. What they left behind would be their version of perfection. What she left behind would be herself. And in the end, what was left behind would be the most important thing in the world.

Whatever that might be.

Nikita sat, her hands clasped over her knees, the music swelling around her. She closed her eyes, squeezing them tight against the candlelight.

But no tears would come.