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A Delicate Balance

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Chapter 1: Question

"Why do you stay with me Nikita?"

The words came out quietly, with no additional accent or inflection to indicate how important the answer was to the questioner. He watched her set her coffee cup down, carefully, and lower her eyes. His heart sank a little lower. She was hiding her first reaction from him, never a good sign.

Michael turned his head slightly and scanned the room again, both relieving Nikita of his fixed stare, and to assure himself (again) of their complete privacy. This was not their first coffee tete a tete; they had been meeting occasionally, once or twice a week for a few months now. They changed locations every few meetings, just to assure their privacy from Section. This coffeehouse was dim and not crowded; no one seemed to be paying any attention to the dark-clothed pair in the corner.

His quick look-over assuring him of their security, Michael turned his gaze back to his table partner. She brought her head up, meeting his look with a clear blue stare of her own. But she didn't answer him.

"Why do you do it, Nikita?" He felt an insatiable urge to understand her a little better. This was not the same woman he had trained for Section years ago. The past year and more had changed her, for the better as far as Section was concerned, but the changes had clouded his understanding of her. "I have given you reason after reason to turn your back on me. Why haven't you done the smart thing and walked away?"

"I-" She stopped and dropped her eyes again. He could see her mind searching for the right words to explain her reasons. He appreciated that effort, being a man of few words himself. She took a deep breath and tried again. "You - you are a good man, Michael, and deserve much better than you have received in your life." She lifted her eyes up to meet his gaze. He could feel his face and eyes go blank, the look she hated, and he shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts, as well as to let her know he wasn't going to close down again.

"You really believe that?" His voice was hoarse and breathy. He felt as if she had struck him in the solar plexus, knocking all the air out of him. A good man? Not a phrase he would ever use in describing himself.

She looked a little dumbfounded at his reaction. She reached across the table to take one of his hands. She must think I'm getting ready to walk away, he thought vaguely. She stroked the back of his hand softly.

"Michael... don't you see? Don't you understand that the idea that Section exists to protect the innocent and destroy the terrorists... how that ideal has permeated every thought you have during a mission? How hard you work to protect your team... and me... and your family... " She stopped, and looked cautiously at him. He turned his hand so he held the smaller one that had been comforting him.

"I-" He cleared his throat, trying to work some moisture back into his mouth. "I- I don't see that at all. I think I am a very bad man, as you have many reasons to know. And a very poor excuse for a father-" His voice broke, very slightly, and he paused to get himself under control.

"Michael." Nikita lifted their joined hands and gently kissed the back of his hand. "You are the best man I have ever known. What you have done, what you will do, is to protect me, not to hurt me. Not intentionally..." She gave him a rueful smile. "What I mean is, you have never hurt me for the joy of hurting someone. You have manipulated me for my own protection, or because of mission constraints. Not because you enjoyed it, or because you wanted to do it."

He closed his eyes. Her faith in him was something precious, something to be stored in his memory and brought out in his darkest hours. And, yet, perversely, he felt obligated to remind her, to convince her, that she was wrong. He opened his eyes and looked closely at her beautiful face, at the trust in her eyes.

"I am not a good man, Nikita. I am a violent man, a man who has killed without compassion, who has lied and betrayed and, god help me, will do so again. I told you once and I tell you now, you should walk, no, run, as fast as you can to get away from me. No good will come to you through me. Only hurt and pain and- and death." His hand clenched hard, crushing her hand within his fist. She didn't flinch, didn't pull away. Instead, she put her other hand on top of his and pulled herself half out of her chair. Her face was inches away from his, her breath sweet and warm on his face.

"Hell, no, Michael." She spoke very softly, for his ears only. "You trained me and you made me and you are stuck with me, come what may." She kissed him, softly, gently, then pulled her hand out from his grasp and walked out the door. Michael sat at the table in the dwindling twilight, rubbing a finger over his lips to recapture the taste of her kiss.

************

Chapter 2: Mission Disagreement

The mission had completely fallen apart. Michael wasn't sure if it was poor planning, bad intel or simple bad luck. They had had complete success until they tried to egress; then it had erupted in his face. He was crouched behind a wall, his three team members behind him. Bullets were flying past the corner, making a quick surveillance look impossible. He had no idea where his adversaries were stationed. There were simply too many bodies, Section and others, in the vicinity for Birkoff to ascertain enemy positions.

Nikita's voice came through his comm link. "Michael? Where are you?"

"Southeast corner. Behind the wall."

"Stay put, Michael. We'll come pull you out." She was gone before he could tell her to stop giving him orders.

"Birkoff?" he barked into the comm. "Call Nikita's team off. We'll get to the van without risking them."

Birkoff's voice was apologetic. "She's already out of here, Michael. You can get her on B channel. She switched so you couldn't tell her."

Michael grunted an expletive. He quickly changed his comm channel. "Nikita. Get your team out of here. There is too much crossfire. We'll get to the van on our own."

Instead of her voice, his answer came in the increased amount of bullets flying around them. Her team was approaching from the south, driving the enemy away from their egress path. Michael eyed his team; they were as aware as he was that their chance to get out was approaching. Gathering their weapons, they waited for their opening.

Tactically, Michael approved of every arrangement Nikita had made. Team Two, her team, was on the approach, firing at the enemy to give Michael and his team a chance to slip out. With a nod, his team began to fall back, Michael at the rear, firing back at their pursuers. Nikita and her team stepped up around him and they all proceeded back to the van. As they approached the van, Team Three gave them additional cover to reach safety. As Michael's team began to enter the van, he turned to instruct Team Two to do likewise. His eyes found Nikita just as the bullet hit her. She fell silently. For one everlasting heartbeat, Michael stood frozen. Then his brain clicked into gear. With a swift motion, he instructed the remaining team members to get into the van. He crouched down and ran as fast as he could to her motionless body. Birkoff's voice crackled in his ear.

"Michael, status? Do we stay or go?"

"Stay." His voice was harsh. He touched her face, so pale and still. Quickly he began to look for her injury. "Damn you, Nikita, don't you leave me. Stay with me..." She gave a small groan as his hands touched her back.

"Hit the vest..." she murmured. Her voice was small and reedy. She cracked her eyes open. He looked in her face to confirm what she said.

"You're sure?" he whispered. She nodded fractionally. "Hang on. I've got to get you back to the van." He picked her up in his arms, holding her close to his heart. She exhaled painfully; his left arm was wrapped around her back, right over the spot where she had been hit. "Hang on. Here we go." His voice changed, from tenderness to brisk business. "Birkoff, have Team Three cover for us. We're on our way back." Trying to cause her as little discomfort as possible, he got to his feet and began to run to the van.

************

Chapter 3: Resolution (MA-14, very suggestive)

Michael watched as his team exited the mission van as quickly and as quietly as possible. No one wanted to be near when the team leaders hashed out their problems. The tension in the van had been as thick as a winter fog. Nikita sat on the other side of the van, her shoulders rigid against the wall and her eyes boring into his. He got up to exit, but his innate courteousness made him stop and let her proceed him out of the van and into Section. Inside, Operations stood waiting, impatience written over his face.

"Well?" The Section leader snapped.

"Mission completed satisfactorily." Michael responded curtly. He had no intention of discussing the mission difficulties with Operations, not now.

"That's not my understanding." Operations shot back. "Both of you, debrief now."

"No." said Michael softly. Operations' face flushed with anger. "This needs to be worked out, now, between us. We will debrief as soon as our discussion is resolved." Without waiting for Operations to reply, Michael turned and headed for his office.

'Was that wise?" Nikita stepped next to him. Her voice was very low to prevent being overheard. Michael gave her his best "blank face" in response. His anger was on a very short leash, and he would not let her goad him into a public display.

"My office. Now."

Michael unlocked the door and politely let Nikita proceed him into his office. He locked the door behind him. She heard the lock turn and whirled around to look at him. She is uncomfortable being confined here with me, he thought, good. He noticed that, even though she was obviously furious, she had sufficient control to wait until he turned off the monitoring in his office. He stepped over to the desk to do just that, and found that Nikita had anticipated him by beginning to close the blinds.

Taking a deep breath, he turned to Nikita.

She anticipated him again. "You are such an arrogant son of a bitch, Michael. You really don't think anyone can do anything without your assistance? That you are the only one in Section that is the least bit capable?"

"That's not true."

"Not true? Then what the hell were you thinking?"

He felt a flash of anger run through him. "Don't question my decisions. I made the best one possible at that point in the mission."

She half-laughed, half-sneered at him. "The best decision for whom? The innocents? The team?" Her voice hardened. "Or yourself?" Her sarcasm ripped through what little control he had left. He felt the leash snap in his gut.

Michael grabbed her shoulders and pushed, no, slammed her against the wall. She grunted in pain as her sore back connected with the hard surface. His face was inches away from hers; his eyes fixed on hers in fury. She seemed to coil like a snake and shoved him right back. He lost his grip on her and stumbled back a few feet. Stupid, he thought, to underestimate her like that. He had forgotten that the past few times he had manhandled her, she had been under orders to allow it. She had not tried to fight back when he questioned her about Adrian; she had allowed him to push her around... but not this time. She was ready and able to defend herself against him. Her eyes glowed with the flames of her anger as she glared at him across the room. He sprang at her again, grabbed her upper arms and held her tightly against the wall with the benefit of his greater body strength. She struggled, hard, and he nearly lost his hold on her again.

"Let me go, Michael! You have no right..."

He leaned in towards her, his superior weight pressing her tighter against the wall. "I have every right," he said softly. "After what you did..."

She jerked in his grasp, got an arm free and slapped him, hard, across his face. "What I did was to save your sorry ass and assure the success of the mission, Michael. If you can't handle the fact that I am just a capable as you are of leading a team..." She took a deep breath, and lowered her voice. It was cold and hard. "Get over it, Michael. I am not your material anymore. You'd better learn to deal with me as a peer, not a peon."

"As a peer, then. You disobeyed a direct order. You endangered the whole team and the success of the mission." He caught her free hand in his hard grip and pulled it over her head. He leaned in close and whispered, "And I don't need you to save my sorry ass." He pulled her other hand up over her head. His body pressed against hers, and he could feel his physical reaction to their closeness. And she could too, he knew. Without conscious thought, his mouth swooped down and caught hers in a fierce kiss. There was no kindness, no tenderness in the kiss. His mouth was demanding; he felt her initial resistance, then her lips softened as her passion overrode her fury. He pressed his advantage and continued to kiss her deeply. His body, pumped with mission adrenaline and anger, directed all its energies to his sexual response. He released her mouth and moved down to the little bit of her neck that her mission gear left exposed. Her breath caught as he found the sensitive spot behind her ear. Her body arched against his, pressing her soft abdomen into his crotch. He responded by pressing her tighter between the wall and his body. His control was quickly slipping. He felt the madness that had taken him the night they had spent on the barge. No tenderness, no sweetness, only raw animal instinct and desire. She struggled a little, not really straining, to release her arms from over her head. He tightened his grip.

"God help me, I cannot be gentle, not now," he murmured against her throat. He closed his eyes for a moment, struggling to control his raging body. Her breath flew past his face and he realized she was as inflamed as he was. He opened his eyes and looked into her clear blue ones. He saw her desire, mixed with frustration. They both knew they could go no further, not here, not now. She pulled her head forward and kissed him, warm and hard and inviting. He lost himself in her mouth. It was an effort to stop kissing her. He let go of her hands and cupped his palms on either side of her face.

"You are not to disregard a direct order from me, when I am team leader." His voice was soft and breathless. She reached up and caressed the check she had slapped. It was tender and he knew he would probably have a bruise to remind him of her anger.

"Except to save your sorry ass," she agreed, with a smile to lighten up the words. Despite himself, he felt an answering smile cross his face.

"Agreed. Except to save my sorry ass."

************

Chapter 4: Consequences

Nikita walked into Walter's workstation, carrying both her and Michael's equipment. Walter looked up from his tinkering as her shadow crossed his vision.

"Hey, Sugar," he greeted her. "How'd it go?"

Nikita shrugged. "All right. Michael and I had a bit of a disagreement, but it's been settled. We have to go debrief with Madeline." She laid the guns and their comm equipment down for Walter to inventory.

The older operative looked at her knowingly. "Yeah, I heard there was a ... problem... between you two."

Nikita grimaced slightly. Was nothing private in Section? "It's under control, Walter. Leave it."

"Nikita." Michael's clear baritone came from the doorway. Both Walter and Nikita turned to look at him. He had changed from his mission gear to his usual black suit. Walter looked at Michael's face, at the bruise forming on his cheekbone, and looked at Nikita shrewdly.

"Yeah, Sugar, I see you've got it completely under control."

Nikita gave him a pointed stare. "Stuff it, Walter." She spun on her heel and followed Michael out.

Michael touched Nikita's arm just before they entered Madeline's office. He gave her a meaningful green look. She nodded. Michael would handle the debrief. The less Madeline knew the better for them.

Michael proceeded Nikita into Madeline's office. He courteously held her chair for her to sit. Nikita gave him a quick glance; it was unlike Michael to show any partiality for her within the walls of Section. Demonstrating his protection of her? He sat next to her, folded his beautiful hands in his lap and waited for Madeline to begin the conversation. Nikita always enjoyed observing Madeline and Michael spar. One determined to say nothing, the other equally determined to know anything and everything; a classic match of wits. Michael stated the facts of the mission in simple sentences. He would not give any more information than absolutely necessary. Eventually, inevitably, Madeline turned the conversation to the disagreement between Michael and Nikita.

"Why did you interfere?" Madeline directed the question to Nikita; there was no way she could avoid answering.

"I didn't feel I was interfering. I felt I made the proper decision to protect the lives of the team and to complete the mission with the least possible amount of collateral damage." God, she had gotten good at Section-speak. Madeline looked at her unblinkingly.

"Even though Michael specifically directed you not to do it?" Nikita sensed Michael's tension. She spoke quickly to prevent his interference.

"I felt I made the proper decision. Michael disagreed with me. We have discussed the matter and come to a resolution of the problem. It will not occur again."

Madeline nodded. "Very well. The mission was a success and if you have resolved your differences, so much the better." Dismissed, the two operatives walked out. Nikita blew her breath out. Thank God that was over. Michael glanced over at her and she saw his mouth twitch with a small secret smile in response.

"Michael, if you don't need me any more, I'm going to go take and shower and change." He nodded. Any outside observer would interpret his reaction as cold, but Nikita could see his eyes and knew he was anything but indifferent. "I'll stop by your office before I go home, OK?" He nodded again and walked off. She turned and walked away to find a shower and clean clothes.

>From the observation aerie, Operations watched Michael and Nikita separate. Madeline came up the stairs to join him.

"So?" Operations spoke to her without turning.

"As we thought. She broke the mission profile because she thought Michael was in danger."

He stood for a moment longer, watching. "Have they worked it out?"

"Oh, yes." She came up to stand next to him. "Michael will have a lovely bruise to show for it. She let him have it." Madeline smiled slightly, grudgingly giving Nikita her due. Not many operatives would have the guts to strike Michael. Even fewer would get away with doing it.

Operations nodded. "Send Nikita out on a few missions with other teams."

"Time for a punishment stage?" Madeline was faintly amused at the notion that Operations could control Michael and Nikita like a pair of hunting dogs.

"Enough for her to learn she needs to follow the profile if she wants to stay on his team."

"Is she in abeyance?"

He turned his glare towards where Nikita had disappeared. "Not yet."

As she had promised, Nikita stopped by Michael's office. She had a cold knot in her stomach. Michael was sitting at his desk, typing on his laptop. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, she thought ironically. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Michael looked up at her entrance, regarded her mission attire for a moment, then reached over to screen his office from surveillance.

"Going home?" He already knew the answer.

"No." He waited, head cocked and raising an eyebrow at her. "Going back out. With Nichols' team."

"You just came in."

"Special request from the powers that be." He dropped his eyes, thinking. They both understood the unstated purpose of her reassignment. "I'll see you when I come back in?"

He looked straight into her eyes. "Be careful." She gave him a half-smile and walked out to join her new assignment.

************

Chapter 5: Mission Aborted (This chapter is dedicated to Dr. Mel.)

The message board over the van egress was flashing. "Incoming wounded." The medical team scurried around, preparing for the injured. Michael stalked the hall outside the egress area. Walter and Birkoff hovered nearby, not speaking to him. They all knew this was Nikita's mission. The doors opened and the medical team went to work. Their voices floated out to those waiting in the hall.

"This one's gone. There's nothing we can do."

"Get an IV in this one right away. There's a lot of blood loss. He's going into shock."

"You sit down right here. We'll get to you as soon as possible."

Michael paced some more. He knew better than to interfere with the medical team. He looked up to see Operations and Madeline coming down the hall to inspect the damage. With an effort, he stood still and put on his best blank face.

"Status?" Operations barked at him.

"The medical team is working now. There are casualties, I don't know how many yet."

"Where's Dominguez?" Madeline interjected. She looked at Operations. "You should be talking to him. This was his mission, not Michael's."

The medical team began to move their patients. As per standard procedure, the most critically injured operatives were moved to Medical first. Dominguez was on the second stretcher. He had an oxygen mask on and IV in his arm. Operations snorted disgustedly.

"We're not going to get anything out of him for a few hours at least." He turned to the silent operative at his side. "Michael, find out what went wrong. And fix it." Operations strode off to his office, Madeline trailing behind.

Michael waited. More stretchers were moved out; none held Nikita. She not among the critically injured, then. That meant she was uninjured, or dead. He waited.

After what seemed to be hours, she came out of the egress. With Dominguez down, she had become de facto mission leader and she understood her responsibilities; she had stayed to be sure her team was taken care of before seeking medical attention for herself. Her face was white and strained. A med tech walked next to her, supporting her. The right pant leg had been sliced up above her knee and white gauze swathed her calf. Even as he looked her over, making sure she had no other injuries, he could see more blood staining her bandage. Without thinking, he stepped forward and took over for the technician, slipping his broad shoulder under her right arm. He put his left arm around her waist, supporting her weight. He looked down into her azure eyes, asking an unspoken question. Her silent answer was easy for him to read; she was in pain, but all right. She could walk to Medical. He supported her down the hall. As she passed Walter and Birkoff, she nodded to them. Walter nodded back; Birkoff touched her left arm briefly.

Michael sat with Nikita as her leg was treated. It was a fairly simple injury, a through-and-through bullet wound in her calf. The bullet had missed the bone and arteries, fortunately. She was in a fair amount of pain and with only a little convincing she allowed the technician to give her a pain medication, which enabled her to sleep. Michael sat with her a little longer, looking at her peaceful form. Even asleep, he could see the lines of stress carved in her face. It had been three weeks since their argument and she had been on four different missions, with four different teams in that time. He felt his fury stir. She could easily have been killed on any of those missions, because of exhaustion or insufficient briefing or unfamiliarity with the teams. He coldly pushed his fear and frustration to the side. He needed to find out what had gone wrong before he could make any accusations to Operations. Leaving instructions to call him if Nikita awakened, he went off to interview the other members of the shattered team.

When Nikita opened her eyes, she stared blankly at the ceiling for a few moments. She pieced together the bits of memory floating around her brain. Mission... abort... shots... the horrid ride back to Section... ah, Medical. That's where she was. More certain of her surroundings, she turned her head slightly. Michael was sitting next to her, his back against the wall and his eyes closed. She reached for him, but he was too far away. The slight noise of her movement was sufficient to wake him up. His green eyes flickered up and down her body, then fixed on her eyes. She gave him a tentative smile. He got to his feet and stood next to her.

"How are you?"

She raised her left hand and placed it on his arm. "Better then some. How is my team?" Michael's mouth twitched.

"It wasn't your team. 2 dead, 3 critical."

"You weren't in the field. It was my team. How's Dominguez?"

"He's one of the critical. I've spoken to everyone conscious. Can you tell me what went wrong?"

She gave a slight snort. "Other than being ill-prepared with an untrained leader? Michael, I like Dominguez, but he wasn't ready for this responsibility." She paused. " Am I in abeyance?"

Michael's face stayed still. "Not to my knowledge. And you're not doing Dominguez a disservice; everyone else on the team agrees with your assessment."

She sighed. "Make sure you note he has potential, Michael. Can I get out of here? I need a shower and about 48 hours of sleep."

Michael sat on Nikita's couch as she hobbled around the kitchen, making tea. He had offered to get it for her, but after two days in Medical, she was restless and needed to move around. She put the kettle on the heat and set out the cups, then looked over at Michael. He was watching her, barely blinking, his gaze intense. She adjusted her crutches and limped over to him. She stood over him and gave him back stare for stare. He broke the eye contact, looking down at his folded hands.

"I'm sorry, Nikita." Of all the things she thought he might say, this was not what she expected.

"Sorry?"

"I failed you. I haven't protected you." She hopped over to the couch and sat next to him.

"Michael, you're not my protector."

He took a deep breath. His gaze was still riveted on his hands. She tried to get him to look at her by putting her hand on top of his.

"It's my fault." His voice was very low. A million responses jumped into her mind. She said none of them. Instinctively she realized he had just expressed a very deep truth about himself. She tightened her grip on his hands.

"Michael, I told you. I make my own decisions." As hard as the words sounded, her voice was soft and gentle. For a second, he looked over at her and she saw all the pain he carried silently inside himself. Then he glanced down. When he finally looked up again, he had shut away every emotion. Pulling his hands from hers, he walked out of her apartment.

Nikita continued to sit on the couch, resting her hands on the warmth he had left behind. Damn the man, why wouldn't he talk to her? She could feel his distress, could see how close his emotions were to the surface. With a deep sigh, she pulled herself to her feet and went to make her tea. She was tired of this game, tired of chasing after him begging for his confidence.

"Fine," she said aloud to the empty apartment. "Take your time, Michael. I won't push any more." She knew how petulant she sounded, even as the words left her lips. She gave a snarl of frustration and threw her teacup across the room.

************

Chapter 6: Briefing

Another briefing. Michael shifted ever so slightly in his chair, still aching from his last mission. He had jarred his back making a two-story jump and it was uncomfortable for him to sit very long. The remainder of his team slowly filed into the briefing room and took their seats. The last one in was Nikita. She had just been released by Medical to return to operative status. She sat next to him, as usual, but refused to make eye contact with him. He frowned at the back of her head. This was not good. She had been supporting the team from Tactical during her medical leave, but they had not had any private conversations since he had walked out of her apartment, nearly six weeks ago. The unspoken tension between them needed to be resolved, now, before they went out on the mission. Before he could do anything, Operations walked in and began to give them the details on their new assignment. Obediently, Michael turned his attention to the holographic screen.

"This is Guisseppi Verdi. He is the leader of the People's Wrath, a small branch of the Red Brigade. They operate in small cells, no more than six members per cell. We believe Verdi and several of his key assistants are presently located here," the picture of Verdi dissolved into a map of Italy, "and will be in the same location for up to a week. Our job is to go in and destroy this cell of the People's Wrath and take out as many members as possible. It would be preferable if Verdi could be taken alive, but not imperative." Operations' sarcasm was palpable. "You leave in 2 hours. Michael will be receiving final tactical information from Birkoff immediately prior to your departure. Study your PDAs. This is a guerrilla group, people, so watch your back."

Operations left the briefing area and the team began to break up. Michael reached for Nikita's arm.

"I need to go over some details with you. Get your gear and meet me in my office." For a moment, he thought she was going to snatch her arm out of his grasp. She looked at his hand, then up into his eyes. It still shocked him that she could be completely unreadable to him. He had no idea whether the prospect of a talk pleased or angered her.

"Sure, Michael." Her lips curved as if she were going to smile; then she thought better of the idea and simply looked up at him. They stood still, staring into each other's eyes as the other operatives moved out around them. Finally she blinked and looked back down, where his hand still encircled her wrist. "Are you going to let me go, Michael?" He dropped her arm immediately. Now she did smile, a small secret smile, and left the briefing area. He continued to stand there for a moment, watching her back.

************

Chapter 7: Coming to Terms

Nikita stood outside Michael's office, gathering herself. She was not sure why she was so unsettled about this conversation. Inside the room, Michael sat at his desk, in full mission gear, working at his laptop. He saw her, she noted; he looked at her through the window, but resumed his work when she didn't immediately enter the office. She paused a moment more, then walked in and sat down. Michael finished entering his information, closed down his computer and sat back to look at her. She tipped her head slightly. He blinked, then reached over to screen his office. She waited. He asked for me to come, she thought, let him start the conversation. The silence stretched on. Finally Michael took a deep breath and started.

"How are you? Are you ready for the mission?"

"I'm fine, Michael. I could have come back on active status a week ago, but Medical wanted to be careful." More silence. Come on, Michael, she thought, spit it out.

"We need to be able to work together on this mission."

"Of course." Well, duh.

"You seem to be..." he paused, searching for the right word, "disengaged."

"What are you trying to say, Michael?" In some small corner of her mind, she was perversely enjoying herself, making him work at this conversation.

"Can you work on my team?" His eyes were blank, unreadable.

"Work on your team, or work with you, you mean?" She kept her voice cold. He looked at her for a moment. She kept her temper under tight control and waited for him.

"Can you?"

She gave him a cynical smile. "Why not?" He took another deep breath. I'm getting to him, she thought.

"You have avoided me since... since our talk a few weeks ago."

"Eureka! You noticed. I'm touched." She laced her words with sarcasm.

"Do you need to say something to me, Nikita?" He sat back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap. She, however, wasn't able to remain sitting. She rose and paced across the room. The words raced in her mind. Something to say? Where to start was more to the point.

"When you were at my apartment, you apologized to me. For my injury, on a mission you didn't plan, didn't run. Why?" He kept his blank face on and didn't answer. "You seem to have this need to be in control, Michael. Seems a little neurotic to me, but that's not the point."

His voice was cool. "What is the point?"

"What was an appropriate relationship between us when you were my trainer is not acceptable now. I'm not your equal, Michael, I know that, but I am also not your material anymore. You cannot continue taking all responsibility for my actions. Don't you see how unhealthy that is for both of us?" She paused. He still sat stonefaced. Was any of this getting through? "Don't underestimate me, Michael. You are not and can not be my protector." He blinked. She wasn't sure how to interpret that: hurt, shock, recognition? Whatever he felt, he pushed the emotion down. Even as she looked at him, she saw his emotionless mask harden further.

"What do you want me to be?"

"My friend, my lover, I don't know. But not my savior." He got up and walked away from her, hiding his reaction. Nikita swallowed her first impulse: to follow him, to touch him, to make him listen. She had pushed him too many times, too quickly, expected too much of him. After all his years in Section, his emotions were buried very deep, deeper than she had ever imagined. He needed to hear this, but he also needed time to process it. Don't push, she lectured herself, don't expect him to give more and say more than he is able.

"Michael?" Simon's voice came over the intercom. "The team is assembling at egress." That made Michael turn around.

"Thank you." Nikita heard the soft click as Simon turned off his comm unit. Michael raised his eyes to meet hers. "We need to go. Are we done here?"

Nikita stepped next to him, debating whether to touch him or not. Too much, too soon, she decided, and jammed her hands in her pockets.

"I can work with you, Michael. I just need to figure out how to live with you." He gave her the slightest of nods and courteously held open his office door for her. She changed the subject. "You're taking Simon? Why not Birkoff?"

"Birkoff is needed to work on the Venezuelan mission." She could tell by the tone of his voice that he was relieved at the topic change. "Simon will do fine." They walked silently through the halls of Section, headed for the van egress. Just before they turned the last corner, Michael stopped and touched Nikita's arm lightly. She turned to him inquisitively.

"I will try." His voice was very soft. He reached out to gently brush a strand of hair from her face. "It's just, " he stopped and took a deep breath. " I don't know what I would do without you." Her breath caught at those words. His hand was still on her face; he gently stroked his thumb on her eyebrow. She turned her face into his hand and put a delicate kiss in the palm of his callused hand. Section's cameras be damned, she thought.

"Just think about it, Michael." She slid her hand up and put it over his hand, which still rested against her cheek. They stood silently for just a moment, looking into each other's eyes. Finally Michael broke their tentative embrace. He lowered his hand and touched her back with his other hand, steering her around the corner.

"Let's go."

************

Chapter 8: Mandatory Refusal

Nikita crouched in the darkness. The moon had not risen yet and they were far enough out from the city that the glow from the street lamps was completely gone. The darkness was all enveloping, like a thick blanket around her. Her nightvision goggles were on her head, but as yet there was no reason to wear them. There was nothing to see. Birkoff's intel had indicated that Verdi was in the process of obtaining some Sarin nerve gas. Between monitoring movements, phone calls and backtracking the nearest available Sarin, Michael and Simon had determined that the meet would be happening here, tonight. But no one had been able to pinpoint the time of the meet. The lack of certain intell required Nikita and the rest of the team to creep to their locations by mid afternoon and wait. And wait. Nikita felt her muscles cramp and carefully stretched her legs. She would be worse than useless if she were twisted into a pretzel by the time the deal went down, she thought. As if reading her thoughts, Michael's soft voice came through her earpiece.

"Nikita, report."

She resisted the impulse to sigh. "Nothing, Michael. No sign of an activity."

She listened as he checked in with all the teams set around the perimeter. Finally Team Four reported a vehicle approaching. Nikita pulled her goggles over her eyes and looked towards their position. She could faintly see the approaching car headlights. Michael, back in the van with Simon, checked with his teams again looking for the other party to the deal. No other vehicles were coming. Nikita tried to ignore her growing suspicion that something was wrong with the mission. No luck. She couldn't disregard her intuition; it had saved her skin more than once. She gave a quick double pulse on her comm unit, her signal to Michael to switch to the private 'B' channel. In the second or two it took to change her communication channel, her unease grew exponentially. She was actually relieved to hear Michael's voice come over the comm.

"Yes."

"Michael, this is wrong."

"What." Not questioning her, but requiring information.

"Not sure. It feels bad. Where's the other party?" Michael was silent. Not ignoring her, she knew, but processing all the pertinent information, including her suspicions. She knew he trusted her completely regarding mission parameters. Finally he responded.

"Change back to 'A' channel." Nikita did as he directed. He continued, "All teams, pull back. This isn't going right, abort. Return to the van." Nikita glanced around at her team members, making sure they followed instructions. She needn't have worried; if there was one thing Section taught its operatives, it was to follow orders when pulling back. She let her team slip out first, then she began to creep back to the van. Without warning, a shadow detached itself from her surroundings. Before she could react, the world went black.

Simon was in the van, awaiting the retreating teams. He looked over at Michael, who sat quietly at the communications center. The operative was silent, and Simon made no attempt to start a conversation. He was completely in awe of Michael and still very uncomfortable around him, even though it had been a few years since Simon had inadvertently compromised a mission. Michael had never blamed Simon for botching the mission, but Simon felt his failure keenly. Michael's cold green eyes swept over Simon and observed the teams entering the van. Simon repressed his involuntary shudder. Rumor had it Michael had no emotions. He certainly looked the part. Michael's voice snapped Simon out of his reverie.

"Where's Nikita?" Her team looked blank.

"She was just here, behind us..." one of them stammered out. Michael moved quickly, standing by Simon's shoulder. Simon was already pulling up the data on her comm unit. His finger moved along a topographic display of the area.

"There." The red light was not moving, only blinking steadily. Michael stood perfectly still. Simon glanced up at him and immediately regretted it. Michael's face was white, his eyes wide and staring. Simon averted his gaze; Michael would not want his distress witnessed.

"Michael?" It was one of the operatives from Nikita's team. "What should we do? You want us to go back for her?" Michael turned slowly. He took his comm unit off and deliberately laid it on the desk by Simon's hand.

"No. Return to Section." He took his pistol out its holster and checked the clip. Reaching around the other operatives, he pulled another clip out of storage and slipped it into his pocket. He opened Birkoff's 'holdout storage' and took that pistol and clip too. Simon was totally bemused by Michael's actions, but the cold operatives seemed to know exactly what was going on. Jensen, one of Nikita's team, stepped forward and put a hand on Michael's arm.

"Michael, you want back up?" Michael looked down at the hand on his arm, then up at his questioner. To Simon's surprise, Michael seemed to be touched by the gesture.

"No. Return to Section." The operatives silently stepped back and let Michael step out of the van into the dark night.

Jensen pounded on the wall and called to the driver, "Go." The van rolled off. Simon was more confused than ever.

"But, what about Michael - Nikita..." Jensen looked down at Simon and shook her head slightly.

"Michael's on mandatory refusal, Simon. He'll contact us when he has Nikita and is ready for pick up." She turned to sit down with what remained of her team. The words echoed in Simon's mind: mandatory refusal.

************

Chapter 9: Capture (MA-14, violence)

Nikita woke slowly. Years of Section training had ingrained the habit of not moving as she regained consciousness. It was to the operative's advantage to assess his location before the enemy realized the operative was awake. Her head throbbed; OK, a blow to the head, she thought. She cracked her eyes open a little. Good, she could focus. That was a positive sign. As she tried to ascertain any other injuries, she realized she was bound. OK, not so good. She turned her head a little. Was anybody here with her? Her eyes quickly scanned the room. There was a man sitting in the corner, head slumped down on his chest. Asleep? She began to review her restraints. She was in what she personally referred to as the 'classic interrogation position', hands bound behind her, feet tied to the legs of the chairs. At least this one was smarter than Brevich a few months ago; her flap jacket and bulletproof vest had been removed and her feet were tied to the chair; no chance of kicking a gun out of her interrogator's hand this time. She glanced over at her attendant; he was still asleep. She gave a tentative pull on her bindings. They held firm, not really surprising her. As if he heard her thoughts, the door opened. Verdi walked in, accompanied by two thugs. She didn't pretend to be unconscious; she met his eyes, giving him what she hoped was her best stubborn look. He gave a slight grunt of amusement and walked over to where the sleeping man sat. His foot swung out and whipped the chair out from under the slumbering form. The attendant fell, hard, and smacked his head against the wall. He opened his eyes to look straight into the barrel of Verdi's pistol, inches from his nose.

"Another failure will be your last." Verdi held the gun for a second more, then returned it back to its holster. He gave the fallen man a vicious kick and turned his back. "Get him out of here," he ordered his thugs and returned his attention to Nikita. His henchmen did as they were ordered and left the room. Verdi approached Nikita, staring at her face. They were nearly nose-to-nose before he stopped. He reached out to touch her face and hair. Nikita twitched, involuntarily, then controlled herself.

"So beautiful..." murmured Verdi. "Who are you?" He looked directly into her eyes, expecting an answer. She gave him a broad, taunting smile in return. His brown eyes darkened and he grabbed a handful of her hair, jerking her head back. "I asked you a question, girl. Who do you work for?"

"You're hurting me." Nikita stared back into his eyes. How much did he know? He let go of her hair and took a half step back. She swallowed quickly, pushing aside the ache in her neck and missed his hand coming at her. The slap was hard, vicious, and caught her by surprise. She could taste the iron tang of blood in her mouth from where her teeth had ripped the inside of her cheek.

"You're all alone here, with me, you know. Your team has fled with its tail between its legs. No one will be coming for you. Tell me what I want to know." Nikita closed her eyes, feigning weakness. The van might have left, but Michael would have stayed. She needed to stay alive and alert until he could find her. So much for not needing his help, she thought ironically. Verdi's hand snaked around her head and grabbed her hair again. He used his other hand to slap her again, lighter this time, on both cheeks. Nikita opened her eyes and gave him her best Michael stare: blank face, blank eyes.

"Who are you, girl? Who do you work for?" He punctuated the questions with more slaps to her face. She only blinked, giving him no indication of fear or pain. He let go of her hair and walked to the door, calling for his cohorts. Nikita took the split-second break to take a deep breath and calm her nerves. Michael would need time to locate her. She had to give him that time.

Verdi approached her again and several men filled the room behind him. He stepped up close to her and reached out to her neck. Little early for strangulation, she thought with black humor. Instead he grabbed the neck of her T-shirt in both hands and ripped it from top to bottom, leaving her completely exposed. Verdi grabbed her breasts and gave them a brutal twist. Nikita could not stop a grunt of pain from slipping out. Verdi pressed his advantage and leaned in to her.

"Tell me what I want to know, girl." Nikita spit a mouthful of blood in his face.

"Go to hell."

Michael slipped out from under the sheltering trees, silently approaching the cabin. He was sweaty and trembling slightly with exertion. Tracking a vehicle in the dark of night was not an easy trick. He stopped for a moment, both to catch his breath and to do a quick surveillance of the area. This was definitely the location Birkoff had indicated back in Section. Michael had opted to attack the meet, hoping to catch both the People's Wrath cell and their nerve gas seller in one action. But Michael was nothing if not thorough. He had also researched the probable location for the cell, just in case. Just in case... now a reality.

He crouched for what seemed like hours but, according to his watch, was only ten minutes. He could not see any movement, guard or security. There had to be a guard on watch, somewhere. He must simply be on the wrong side of the building. He slipped up to the building, flattening himself against the coarse stucco. His left hand reached for his garrote and he strung it between his hands before proceeding around the house. The windows were all knocked out and boarded over, he noted, eliminating that possible means of ingress or egress. He edged up to the next corner and peered around cautiously. There. The guard was stationed in front of the door. He was mumbling softly to himself and rubbing his head painfully. Michael reached down and picked up a small pebble. He tossed it as hard as he could without exposing his location, and the pebble hit another rock as it landed. The tick of the colliding rocks echoed in the silence. As anticipated, the guard turned his head away from Michael to try to locate the origin of the noise. Michael crept up behind the guard and whipped the garrote around the guard's neck. It took only seconds for him to die. Michael put his back to the door and tipped his head against the rough wood. It was no use; the wood was too thick to hear anything clearly. Michael briefly wished he had communication with Section. How many rooms were there? He needed intell on the floorplan. Pulling both guns out, he leaned against the door, hoping against hope it would yield to pressure. The door was uncooperative, refusing to give way. Have to do this the hard way, he thought, and turned the doorknob, easing the door open and slipping inside. The interior was dark and the room empty. He quickly crept along the wall, headed for the hallway. There were two more rooms down the hall and one was lit. He wondered fleetingly about the enemy's overconfidence; Verdi was obviously certain no one would be pursuing him, to be so careless.

His mind raced, calculating the odds. Six man cells, intell indicated, and one man down. That left five adversaries to be removed while avoiding injury to himself and Nikita. His thoughts were interrupted by a loud cry.

"Bitch!" A man's voice. Then the sound of a fist striking flesh. A woman's grunt of pain; Nikita's voice. Michael moved forward, acting completely on instinct.

Nikita leaned forward in the chair, as far forward as her bound arms would allow. She inhaled painfully, forcing air into her lungs. She coughed and inhaled again, her wheezing breath sounding loud in her ears. A hand grabbed her hair and jerked her head back. With his left hand, Verdi forced her head back painfully, with his right hand he wiped her blood off his face. He brought his face down close to hers.

"I will give you to them," he indicated the knot of watching men, "and you will beg me for death before they are through with you. Have you ever experienced rape? Not once, but over and over?"

Her voice came out in a sibilant whisper. "Go to hell."

Infuriated, Verdi pulled a switchblade from his pocket. Flipping it open, he laid the point on her sternal notch, where her collarbones joined at the base of her neck. She stared brazenly into his eyes, showing no fear. Michael, I need to you to show up about now, Nikita thought. Verdi looked into her face, and pressed on the knife. The point of the knife sliced into her skin. Nikita's body gave an uncontrollable shudder. Slowly Verdi began to slide the knife down her chest, a thin trail of blood following the blade down her body. Nikita closed her eyes. The blade was cold; the cut burned like fire. He stopped the knife at the base of her ribcage, the blade angled slightly up toward her diaphragm.

"I could kill you now," he said conversationally. "A simple blow upwards..." He demonstrated by leaning slightly into the knife, increasing the pressure on her skin, but not enough to pierce her. "Tell me what I want to know." Nikita lifted her chin a notch and opened her eyes, prepared to be defiant again, when the room burst into bullets. Without thinking, she flung herself to her left, crashing to the floor. Her shoulder exploded in pain. She lay, unmoving, eyes closed, waiting for the gunfire to end. Either Michael would be successful and extract her, or they would both be dead in a minute.

************

Chapter 10 Rescue

The gunfire ended as abruptly as it started. Nikita continued to lie on the floor, not moving, with her eyes closed. The pain in her shoulder was excruciating. She felt a cool hand on her neck.

"Michael?" She didn't try to move her head to see him. Everything hurt too much.

"Give me a second to get you untied." His soft accented voice allowed her to start breathing again. The pain from her shoulder increased and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. She cracked her eyes open and watched him move over to Verdi, taking the knife that a minute ago had threatened her life. He cut the ropes that bound her arms and feet and extended a hand to help her up. She took his hand, gripped it hard, but did not move. He crouched down next to her.

"What's wrong?" She met his glance, blinking back tears of pain.

"I think I dislocated my shoulder when I fell." She managed to say the words while gritting her teeth over a scream of pain. The flaming agony that had been her shoulder moved up the pain register from excruciating to agonizing. He moved over to her left side.

"Let me see." He gently rolled her on her back, pushed aside the remains of her shirt, and delicately touched her swollen joint. "I'll need to put it back in for you." He stood up and put his left foot in her armpit. He reached down and picked up her left arm, holding her hand tightly in his hard grip and slid his right hand under her elbow. Nikita could not hold back a cry of pain. His pale eyes swept over her face. "Are you ready?" She looked up into his face, the tears she could not hold back making shiny tracks on her cheeks. His face was composed, almost cold. He moved suddenly, giving her no chance to prepare. He snapped her arm up toward her head. Her agonized scream left her throat raw, her back arched off the floor and her body twisted in a spontaneous convulsion. As soon as he felt the shoulder slip back into the joint, he let her go and dropped to his knees. He pulled her into his lap and wrapped his arms around her, letting her collapse and shake in reaction to his rough ministrations.

How long she sat enfolded in his embrace, she was never able to determine. The pain in her shoulder had eased as soon as the joint was reset, but she had an uncontrollable reaction to the stress of the past few hours and needed the comfort of his presence. After the shaking stopped, she lifted her head from his shoulder and wiped away her tears surreptitiously. He turned his cool, intent gaze on her.

"We need to get out of here. The deal was obviously a ruse and he may be expecting reinforcements." Nikita was reminded again of Michael's ability to deal with crisis and still think out all the possible ramifications. Of course, they had been set up. Someone knew they were there and Michael was absolutely right, they needed to get out of the house. Michael got up and began to rummage through Verdi's pockets. He glanced over at Nikita, who was struggling to sit up, still favoring her left arm. He stopped his search and took off his leather jacket and Kevlar vest.

"Take your shirt off." He stripped off his own T-shirt. She stared at him in disbelief. His mouth twitched slightly in amusement. "Nikita," he said her name in his most sensual voice, "now is not the time. Give me your shirt. You will need a sling for that shoulder. You can wear my shirt out of here. Do you know where your vest and jacket are?" He tossed his shirt in her lap and slipped on his vest again, fastening it over his muscular chest.

"No. I was unconscious when they brought me in. I know they must have had some kind of transportation, too, but I don't know where that is either." She obediently took off her T-shirt, easing it around her left shoulder, and handed it to him, absently covering herself with her good arm. He ripped the shirt into three strips, tied two of them together and tossed her the remaining piece.

"Use this for your cut." She dutifully rolled it up and pressed it on the burning gash on her chest. He picked up the thread of their conversation. "We don't have time to search for your clothes. If I can find the car keys, we can look for the vehicle on our way out of here." His search of Verdi proving unsuccessful, he moved to search through another corpse's pockets. Nikita gave herself one second to indulge her eyes, watching his graceful movements and the amount of skin exposed by the vest. Then she determinedly took her eyes off him and began to dress in his shirt. It was still warm with his body heat and she quietly inhaled his scent. Michael glanced over at her, and she quickly wiped her face clear of emotion.

They drove through the oppressively dark Italian night. Nikita sat in the corner, wrapped in Michael's jacket. The temperature had dropped since she was taken and there would be frost in the fields come morning. She glanced over at Michael, dressed only in his vest; he didn't seem to feel the cold. His face was grim in concentration. He had located the car keys in the pocket of one of the corpses and the vehicle itself had not been difficult to locate, simply hidden under some tree branches to protect it from overhead surveillance. The silence between them stretched on and on; finally Nikita broke it.

"Where are we going, Michael?" He gave her a quick preoccupied glance.

"A safe house."

"Section?"

"No." She thought that over.

"How long?"

He gave her another inscrutable glance. "To the safe house? An hour or so."

She shook her head slightly. "No, until we contact Section."

"I don't know." Nikita thought she could probably count the number of times he had ever admitted being unsure what to do. He stayed silent for several long minutes, then continued his thought. "There must be a mole in Section. Too many missions have been aborted or compromised. Especially your missions." He glanced over at her again, his face still expressionless. She thought that over for a moment, then caught his meaning.

"How could you think..." She twisted in the car seat, reaching for him with her right hand; the jacket slid off her body and fell to the floor. Before she could reach him, he thwarted her move by grasping her wrist with his right hand while he drove with his left. He gave her another green glance, but this time he let a little of his concern show through.

"That's not what I meant. You may be the target." He turned his hand so he was holding her hand rather than her wrist. "I", he glanced over at her again, "we need to think and plan. You may be safer out of Section than in." She looked at his profile as he drove on in the darkness. Then she released his hand, picked up his coat and covered herself again. She turned her eyes out the dark windshield and thought. Many missions did not run smoothly or as planned, but Michael had a point: too many of her recent missions had had unforeseen complications.

The town was small and anonymous. Nikita didn't ask the town's name; it was safer for her not to know. She could honestly answer she didn't know where she had been. They left the car in a nameless lot and walked the last kilometer or two to the safe house. The house was small and nondescript, on a winding, dingy street in the seedier side of town. Michael left her sitting on the doorstep while he walked down the street to retrieve the key from its hidden location. The interior of the house was as bleak as the exterior. It was cold, the heat had been turned off, and meagerly furnished. Michael knew his way around without light; after first checking out the premises as was his habit, he walked into the kitchen and produced several fat, inexpensive candles and matches, as well as a roll of Italian lira. He returned to the foyer where Nikita waited for him. He handed the candles to her and motioned for his coat. She slipped it off her shoulders and readjusted her sling.

"Go in and get as comfortable as you can. I will go out and get some supplies for us." He shrugged into his coat and turned to leave. Nikita put her hand on his arm.

"Michael? Whose house is this?" He gave her an impenetrable green stare.

"It's mine." The door closed behind him and she automatically locked the door. Then she turned and stood, half leaning with her back against the door.

"Yours?" Her quiet whisper seemed to echo in the empty home.

Michael walked down the dark streets, mechanically observing his surroundings. Locating one of his underworld sources had not been difficult, but time consuming. However, it had been ultimately successful and he had a bag full of various supplies in his left hand. He approached the house, checked up and down the street and opened the door. The hallway was still dark, as was the kitchen beyond. Michael frowned slightly. He had left Nikita with the candles and matches. He took two steps into the house when he felt the cold barrel of a gun on his neck. He stopped immediately.

"Nikita," he murmured softly, "it's me." He felt the gun pull back and heard the distinct click of the hammer being released. She moved invisibly past him and awkwardly lit the candles in the kitchen. She turned towards him, her eyes burning.

"Where the hell have you been?" His mouth twitched. She sounded like a jealous wife. Then he looked closer at her face. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. The bruises from Verdi's beating were beginning to show on her pale skin and she looked ready to drop. He put the bag on the counter. It made a satisfying thump as it hit the surface. As he intended, she turned her fiery gaze onto the sack.

"Food." He nodded at the parcel. "And blankets, bandages for you. Enough to last a couple of days." She wavered slightly on her feet. He moved swiftly to her side and pulled a chair behind her. "Sit down." He pressed gently on her shoulders and she collapsed gratefully on the seat. "You need to eat."

A tired grin crept on her face. "You sound like a Jewish mother." He glanced up at her and gave her one of his rare smiles. He rummaged in the bag and came up with a bottle of wine and some plastic cups.

"It's not French, but Italian is nearly as good." She choked on a giggle.

"A joke? Michael, you made a joke!" He poured them both a full glass of ruby liquid. He pressed one into her right hand.

"Drink. I can't get any painkillers for you until tomorrow. This will take the edge off your discomfort." Her brilliant blue eyes glowed at him over the rim of her glasses. She took a deep drink.

"Michael, I think you are trying to get me drunk so you can take advantage of the situation." He turned away from her without responding and pulled a loaf of bread and some fruit out of the bag. He tore the bread into chunks and popped a piece into his mouth as he brought the remainder over to the table. The rich yeasty flavor filled his senses. How many hours had it been since he had eaten, he wondered, but let the thought drift away.

(MA-14, suggestive)

They had finished the entire loaf of bread, most of the fruit and the better part of the wine before they were sated. Michael had made sure Nikita had several glasses of wine. Although she wouldn't complain, he knew her shoulder and cut must ache. He pushed up from the table and dug into the bag again, coming up with a box of bandages and a bottle of antiseptic. She turned her head to watch him, her eyes dull with exhaustion.

"You need to get that cut treated." He approached her. She sat up a little higher in the chair and extended her right hand for the bandages. He stopped before her, but didn't give her the dressings. She raised her eyes and he could clearly see the lines of exhaustion etched in her face. "Let me," he said. "You can't do it right with only one hand."

She gave him a small smile. "Still trying to take advantage, Michael?" He gave her a little half-smile in answer. She slid down on the seat until she was half lying in the chair. He knelt down between her legs and carefully, with only a slight hesitation, lifted up her T-shirt. He gently dabbed the crusty furrow with antiseptic, causing her to grunt in discomfort. He then carefully applied the butterfly bandages all the way down her chest, pulling the edges of skin together. He looked up into her face.

"It's not deep. There shouldn't be any scarring." She nodded sleepily, so tired she seemed to forget her partial nudity. Moved by an impulse he couldn't define, he leaned forward and softly placed kisses down the bandaged gash. She gave a sigh and her fingers slid into his hair, holding him close. He laid a delicate kiss on each soft breast, then pulled down her shirt. She roused herself enough to open her eyes and gave him a dreamy smile. He rose and picked up the blankets he had brought, folding them into a pad on the floor. He took her hand and led her to the makeshift bed on the floor, picking up his gun from the table as they passed. He sat down with his back against the wall, and tugged on her hand to pull her down. She sat, uncertainty written across her features, and forced her eyes to focus on his. He ran his thumb over her eyebrow and laid an arm around her waist, encouraging her to lie down.

"I'll take the first watch," he said softly. "You need to sleep." She didn't give him any argument, simply lay down next to him and pillowed her head on his muscular thigh. He pulled another blanket over her shoulders. In moments, she was sound asleep. Once Michael was sure she was sleeping, he allowed himself the luxury of stroking her ashen hair where it spread over his legs. He laid his right hand in his lap, the muzzle of the gun pointing towards the door. He tipped his head back against the wall and prepared himself for a long night.

************

Chapter 11: Nightmares

Nights were always bad for Michael. For as long as he could remember, he had been haunted by nightmares. Being recruited into Section had only intensified his dreams. At night he felt surrounded by those he had killed, especially the innocents, and by those he had betrayed, especially his son. Perhaps he should never sleep, he thought wearily, then the ghosts could not come. His body craved sleep, but one of them needed to stand watch and he was definitely in better shape than Nikita. Soon, he promised his aching muscles, soon he could rest. But not now. He looked down at Nikita. Her breath was slow and even; no phantoms stalked her dreams tonight. She was sleeping on her right side, her uninjured side, and he could not see her face from this position. He didn't need to. His mind brought out all the different facets of Nikita: her joy, her passion, her pain. Oh, yes, her pain. He could remember every time he had hurt her, every time he had manipulated and used her for his own or Section's purpose. Her voice echoed in his memory: "I understand this is something you've been ordered to do, Michael. But I don't know how you live with yourself." How did he live with himself? It was getting harder to do. He had always been successful at compartmentalizing his life; not letting his emotions interfere with his work. Even before coming to Section, he had learned to shut off his feelings. The loss of his son had shattered that particular skill and Michael was aware the walls he had constructed to maintain his balance were slowly crumbling. Sometimes the knowledge of whom and what he had become was more than he could bear. How did Nikita survive? As much as it frightened him, he was becoming more like her, even as she was becoming more like him. The emotions that threatened to overwhelm him were unmanageable, things he was incapable of controlling. He had to walk a fine line, keep a delicate balance between the cold demands of his job and his burgeoning emotional needs. He slowly lifted his left hand and tentatively laid it on the swirl of blond hair on his leg. He slowly, tenderly, stroked her hair, then caressed her cheek. Her faith and trust in him and her love for him constantly amazed him. He had certainly never done anything to deserve this gift in his life. His fingers burned where they brushed her smooth skin. He felt his soul divide into two: the half that brought death and destruction to all he touched and the half that ached with love and need for her.

The night dragged on. Michael dropped into a series of short, light naps; some part of his mind remained aware of his surroundings. Something outside made a noise and he started awake, the gun already raised and aimed at the door. He glanced around the room and then at his watch. Just before dawn. He heard the noise again but this time was alert enough to identify it: an animal in a garbage can outside. He let his gun hand drop into his lap again. His head tipped back and rested against the wall and he closed his tired eyes.

He saw his little boy come down the stairs, crying. One part of his mind knew he was dreaming, the other part didn't care. He missed his son terribly, more than he had ever anticipated. He felt Adam's weight and warmth climb into his lap, snuggle against his chest. He could smell the sweet, unidentifiable scent of his child. He wanted to wrap his arms around his baby and hold him close, forever.

"Hush, mon petit, what is the matter? Did you have a dream?" His own voice echoed in his head.

"Daddy, I dreamed you were gone." His son's body shook with sobs.

"Shh, sweet, Daddy's here. Daddy will always be here." He stroked the dark hair tucked under his chin and felt his own tears run down his cheeks. He opened his eyes to the dark house. He was alone, but for the woman sleeping in his lap. No child in his arms, no childish hugs or kisses for him, never again. The emptiness in his heart threatened to engulf him. The weight of Nikita's head on his leg ceased being a comfort. He needed to be alone, needed to get his emotions under control. He carefully eased out from under Nikita, pillowing her head on a lump of blanket, and went to the kitchen window. He stared out the window until the dawn broke.

As she had when recovering consciousness the previous day, Nikita woke up and stayed perfectly still as she regained her bearings. Her first thoughts were concerned with her various aches and pains, as her senses became fully alert. Her head hurt with a slight hangover, her left shoulder throbbed dully and the cut on her chest was stiff and sore. Not too bad, considering, she thought. Her memory finally kicked in and she recalled falling asleep on Michael's lap. Now she felt the scratchy wool of the blanket beneath her cheek. She stopped herself from leaping to her feet by sheer force of will. Cracking her eyes open a little, she searched her limited field of vision. As she swept her eyes around the room, she saw Michael standing by the window, looking out. Something about his posture indicated a profound sadness. She sat up slowly, working out all the kinks in her back. Michael saw her movement out of his peripheral vision and turned to look at her.

"Good morning." The first words he had ever spoken to her. She looked him over. How he had changed since that first meeting! Then he had been well groomed, icily cold and completely in control. The man before her was rumpled, exhausted and, she sensed, emotionally devastated. She stifled a groan as she struggled to her feet and walked over to him. She reached up and smoothed back his hair, which was tumbling around his face in unruly curls. His eyes were red-rimmed and deep lines of grief and exhaustion were carved in his face.

"Good morning yourself. Michael, you look like hell."

He shrugged self-consciously, averting his eyes. "It was a long night."

"You should have woken me up." She put her hand under his chin and forced him to meet her gaze. "Everything all right?"

His eyes were like peridots, a clear pale green, revealing nothing, as if to deny the signs of anguish written on his face. "Fine."

She reached down and took the gun out of his hand. "Go to bed, Michael. My turn to stand watch." He nodded. He slipped out of his coat and vest, tossing them on a chair as he walked by the table. Just as he reached the jumbled bedding she asked, "Michael, aren't there any real beds in this house?"

He kept his back to her. "There are. But we're safer out here, if someone tries to get in." He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Better egress." She nodded. He let out a sigh as he stretched out on the blankets. Within minutes he was asleep. Nikita crossed to the table and began to peel an orange for breakfast.

Chapter 12: Shifting Parameters (NC-17)

Hours passed. The sun shifted from the east to high overhead, and began its slow decline. Michael was stirring restlessly in his sleep. Nikita looked over at him worriedly, trying to decide if it was better to wake him up or let him fight his dream demons. He flipped onto his back and threw off the covering blanket, then settled down with a huge sigh and dropped into a deeper sleep. Nikita indulged herself and let her eyes roam over his body. His long hair was tousled and spread across the folded blanket he was using as a pillow. In sleep, his features had relaxed and the familiar lines of stress and glacial control were gone. He looked impossibly young, incredibly vulnerable. His broad muscular chest glistened slightly with sweat; Nikita's fingers itched to touch him. His strong arms were askew over his head, and she remembered the comfort of being held by him. He was so pale; she wondered idly if it was from exhaustion or simply that he never went out in the sun for fun, only work.

With an effort she tore her eyes off his slumbering form and looked out the window. A mole, she thought, remembering Michael's comment from the night before, a mole in Section. She considered the possibility that her enemy was Operations again; certainly he had no love for her. But somehow that didn't feel right, not this time. She was well aware of the times Operations had tried to have her cancelled, and she was equally aware that he would probably try again. But, if not Operations, then who? She replayed the affected missions in her head. With a start, she realized all the problems arose from faulty intelligence. OK, she thought, this is not operative error. Who would have access to intell? She immediately dismissed the possibility of Birkoff being the culprit. Not only was Section the only adult life he had ever known, but his affection for her was one of the few truths in her life. Operations' hatred, Birkoff and Walter's affection... and Michael's love were the few guarantees she had in her life.

Despite herself, her eyes drifted back to Michael. As if he could sense her attention, he slowly awoke and focused on her, his eyes unfathomable and unblinking. So often she had interpreted that look as indifference. Her eyes fixed on his. As she watched, his eyes darkened with emotion. For once he allowed her to see, really see, his feelings: he was scrambling to maintain his slipping control. His nightmare had shaken him, disturbed his usual composure. The subconscious turmoil she could sense more than see called her to him like a siren song. Without volition, she rose and went to sit next to him, her hand drawn to rest on his chest as if by an unseen magnet. He was warm. He always slept warm, she recalled, recalling previous missions where they pretended to be married. Sleeping with Michael was like sleeping with an electric blanket. Her memory flashed on more ... intimate ... memories and she felt a blush creep up her cheeks. Why did simply touching him bring up such thoughts? She moved her hand up from his chest to a safer position and brushed his hair gently. His brilliant green eyes regarded her intensely.

"Feel better?" She stroked his hair again, almost against her will. His hair was his crowning glory, thick and soft. Disheveled from sleep, it framed his face in all its coppery beauty. Something flickered deep in his eyes, and he reached up for her hand. He placed a soft kiss in her palm and she felt a warm glow spread through her body. Their eyes met, held. He rolled up onto his elbow and slipped his hand behind her neck, pulling her down for a deep, soft, passionate kiss. She leaned into his embrace, letting a small sigh slip out. He rolled on his back, taking her with him. Her hands were on either side of his face, cradling his scratchy two-day growth of beard. His hands went around her back, holding her close, one hand sliding into her hair. He kissed her tenderly, then with increasing desire. She felt an answering surge of passion run through her body and settle in her groin. Her fingers slipped into his hair, entwining in the thick curls. His tongue slipped into her mouth, caressing her. His hands began to slide down her back, pulling her close. His left hand crept under her shirt and stroked her flesh; her skin rippled into goosebumps at his touch. Her breath caught then went out in another sigh. She felt a tremor run through Michael's body. He rolled up again, and carefully lay her down on her back. He leaned over her, his eyes flickering over her face. She reached up to him and brushed his jaw and his cheek with her fingertips. He closed his eyes briefly and an undefinable emotion ran across his features.

He opened his eyes and stared down at her. "I don't want to hurt you." She continued to stroke his stubbled jaw. She knew he wasn't discussing a physical injury.

"You won't hurt me, Michael." His eyes seemed to get diamond-hard.

"I can and I - " She pressed on his face with her hands.

"Michael, shut up kiss me." He looked taken aback for a heartbeat, then did as he was ordered.

When he was done kissing her, she was out of breath. He pulled back a little and gave her a half smile.

"Enough?"

"For now." She gave him a brilliant smile of her own.

His hands crept down her torso and slipped under the bottom of the T-shirt. He glanced at her, seeming to ask for her approval; she gave him another smile and stroked the top of his head. He slowly lifted the T-shirt up and helped her take it off. Not wanting to break their tentative connection, she carefully hid all signs of the discomfort her shoulder was giving her. She lay back down on the blankets, displaying her body for his perusal. He bent down and licked her stomach, from the waistband of her pants to just below the wound on her chest. Her back arched off the ground, following the warmth of his tongue. He kissed her again, intensively, then gave his attention to her breasts. He licked and sucked and kissed them. Her sighs changed to small moans of pleasure. He took a small nub in his mouth and bit it gently. Her breath caught and her body buckled in response. He leaned over and repeated his maneuver on her other breast. She gave a small cry, half in pain and half in pleasure.

"Michael - " she gasped. He raised his head to look at her. "Michael, please..."

"Please what?" He seemed to be taking perverse pleasure in her agony.

"Please love me." Her body bent toward him in invitation. He lifted himself so he was face to face with her.

"I do love you." His voice husky with passion, his accent more pronounced. "God help you, I do love you." She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him down to her, reaching up to capture his mouth with hers.

When she allowed him to come up for air, he quickly stripped both of them of their remaining clothes. He lay on her, his body warm and hard against hers. He positioned himself carefully to prevent aggravating her injuries, resting most of his weight on his arms and legs. She took a few minutes to touch him, to fondle him and admire his powerful physique. Her fingers trailed down his broad chest, slipped lower and wrapped around his erection. He groaned deep in his throat. She watched his jaw set as he clenched his teeth, struggling for control. Not letting go of him, she draped her left arm around his shoulders and pulled him down for a kiss. She ignored the twinge of pain the movement triggered in her shoulder. Her mouth opened, invitingly, and her tongue touched his. He stiffened for a moment, then plunged his tongue into her mouth. She relaxed into his ardent hold. He pulled his head back slightly and looked into her face, his eyes glazed in desire.

"Nikita, I can't... can't wait..." He shifted his body slightly and entered her. His heat seemed to radiate within her; his hardness stretched and filled her. She gave a deep sigh of satisfaction at the sensation. His eyes darted over her face. "All right?" His voice was soft and solicitous; she reached up and laid a hand on his stubbled cheek.

"Michael, just love me." His head lowered to capture her mouth as his body began a rhythmic pulse. His hands slid down her arms, capturing and holding her hands, pulling them out away from her body. The position felt incredibly vulnerable and incredibly safe at the same time. She felt every inch of him, filling her completely. His hold on her hands prevented her from pulling him closer, so she wrapped her legs around him, encouraging him to thrust harder and deeper. Ever the consummate lover, he understood her unspoken desire and responded with a minute adjustment in their position that made her gasp. He picked up the pace of his lovemaking and she felt the tension building within her. At her peak, she gave a cry, arching her body toward his as if she would take more of him within her. He released her hands and gathered her hair in his fists as he spilled himself in her.

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Chapter 13: New Paradigms (MA-14, language and some implied violence)

They lay together in the afterglow of their passion, he on his back, she on her side, one leg nestled intimately between his. His arm was wrapped around her shoulders, stroking her face and neck gently. She lay with her head in the crook of his shoulder, eyes closed, inhaling his masculine scent and enjoying the simple pleasure of lying with him.

"What do you dream about, Michael?" He turned to look down at her. She felt his body tense slightly. She reached out and stroked his chest, attempting to hold onto their emotional synergy. She tipped her head up and back to see his eyes. "You were having a nightmare. What was it about?" He took a long look at her face. His eyes gradually drifted away and he gazed over her shoulder at the wall.

"Nothing. It's fine."

"Michael!" She sat up, pulling a blanket up to cover her body. She watched him focus back on her, his eyes and face carefully blank. He was gone, disconnected from her again. She felt hurt, then intensely angry at his emotional withdrawal and lashed back at him bitterly. "I'm not your whore, Michael. You can't make love to me and then act as if I'm an inconvenience to you." She spat the words at him. He reacted violently, grabbing her wrists and throwing her down on her back. She gave a small whimper of pain as her shoulder connected with the hard floor. He leaned over her, his ice cold eyes inches away from hers.

"Don't say that again. Ever." His voice was soft and hoarse with repressed rage. She tried to twist away from him and he tightened his hold on her hands.

"Michael, let me go!" There was anger, pain and fear in her voice. He sat up suddenly, abruptly letting go of her arms and turned away from her. She sat up also and inched back from him, rubbing her wrists, which showed the imprints of his fingers. He slowly raised his eyes to stare opaquely across the room. She watched him cautiously, observing his struggle for control. She could feel his anger radiating off him. He swiftly rose to his feet and stalked around the room, his movements as fluid and dangerous as a panther's. Without warning, he suddenly whirled and slammed his fists into the wall, over and over. He turned, put his back against the wall and crossed his arms across his chest, breathing heavily. He stubbornly refused to look at her, keeping his eyes locked on the floor. She sat hesitantly, completely shocked at his fury and uncertain how best to respond to him. His eruption of sudden seething rage frightened her and she had never been frightened of Michael. In all their years working together, his anger had always been under firm control. She had seen glimpses of it, but had never seen him in such a state of disintegration. Some part of his emotional control had snapped and she realized they were both moving into uncharted waters.

Minutes ticked by and the room was completely silent. Michael stood, unmoving, his eyes fixed on the floor and his mind apparently miles away. Nikita watched him, considering what she should do next. Her emotional instinct was to comfort him; but her intellect, sharpened by her experiences in Section, realized that whatever had triggered Michael's rage was not something easily soothed away. She was aware of the enormous chasm that loomed before her: if she responded properly, Michael would, perhaps, open up a little bit of his heart and mind. If she handled this wrong, he would shut down from her and very possibly never let her near his emotions again. She slowly rose to her feet. After all these years of asking him for trust and confidence, she thought, I damn well better be ready to hear what he has to say.

She went to touch his shoulder, murmuring his name softly. He started, jerked back from whatever dark corner of his mind he had retreated. She pulled one of his hands out from his tight self-embrace and stroked the bruised and bloody knuckles, then pressed her lips to the raw skin. He slowly raised his eyes to meet hers. She met his gaze calmly, trying to wordlessly convey her concern to him.

He lifted her hands, bringing them up to his mouth and giving each a soft kiss, then stroked her cheek and eyebrow gently. She suddenly realized she had been holding her breath, and she let it out in a long sigh. She stepped up next to him, wrapping an arm around his back and pressed herself to him. His arms slipped around her, holding her close. He rested his cheek on her head.

"Will you tell me what that was about, Michael?" She felt him tense again. She stepped in front of him, fixing her gaze on his face. "Please, Michael, I need to know..."

He met her gaze. His changeable eyes were a very pale green; she watched the internal struggle reflected in his eyes. He let his gaze slide off her, focusing instead on the wall opposite them.

"Have you ever wondered why you are a cold operative, not a valentine op?" She regarded him steadily.

"Madeline, I suppose..."

"... would have you in as many beds as she could possibly arrange." His voice was cold and hard, even as his arms held her gently. She absorbed both the information and his apparent bitterness silently.

After a pause, she asked the obvious question. "Then why?"

He glanced down at her, held her eyes with his. "Me. I wouldn't let them." The ensuing silence dragged on for several long minutes. She hid her distress as best she could. What was the price of that bargain? she thought. She felt a pain run through her, imagining what that agreement with Operations and Madeline had cost him.

She finally broke the strained stillness. "Why?" He broke their embrace and began to walk slowly around the room.

"Do you know how many valentine missions I have been on?" He glanced over at her. She leaned her shoulder against the wall and watched him carefully. "I don't." He stopped and looked her straight in her face. "Whores lose count." She reeled slightly, feeling as if she had been punched in the stomach. She forced herself to maintain her eye contact with him. His face was cold, expressionless. She steeled herself to maintain a calm and composed exterior. He was being deliberately cruel, testing her to see if she would retreat from his brutal honesty. I'm not your whore, Michael... Oh, God, what did I do... She blinked back the tears that regret and shock brought to her eyes.

She reached for him. "Michael -" He stepped back, away from her hand and started his pacing again.

He spoke didactically, as if he were teaching a lesson. "It takes a certain detachment to complete properly. To perform and not feel anything, especially not affection or even concern for the target." He fell silent for a moment, continuing his pacing. She waited. Finally he continued, his voice softening and becoming more personal. "I didn't- I don't- think you could do it."

She waited. When he didn't continue, she asked softly, "How do you do it?"

He stopped again, meeting her stare with hard one of his own. "I don't feel. Anything. Ever." She walked over to him, reached up to stroke his jaw.

"That's not true, Michael," she whispered. Their glances met, held. "I know you have feelings. I've been there with you, with your son..." He glanced away and she gave herself a mental kick for bringing up another painful subject. Don't retreat, Michael, stay with me. She laid her hand on his cheek, gently bringing his gaze back to hers. She spoke in a stronger voice, as if to convince him, "You just proved to both of us a few minutes ago how powerful your feelings are." She brought one of his hands to her lips and kissed the raw knuckles again. He watched her steadily, his emotions hidden behind his usual mask.

"Think carefully, Nikita. Think whether you want to be close to me, now that you know who and what I am."

"I know what they have done to you." Her voice was defiant. "I'm not afraid of you, Michael."

"You should be." His voice was cold, unemotional, factual. "You have no idea what I was like before I came into Section." He caught her hands and gave her another hard stare. "Don't convince yourself there's a kind and gentle man under all this Section material. There is no such man." His hands tightened on her. She could sense the latent violence and rage within him; this time, however, he had his emotions under his usual rigid control. He let go of her and walked away. She waited for him to work out his thoughts. He inhaled and expelled a deep breath and leaned his back against the wall, giving her a sidelong glance. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have gotten angry with you."

She moved quickly to his side. "You're sorry? You're sorry? Michael, of anyone in this world, you have the right to be angry... do you do anything in this world without feeling guilty?" He gave her a blank look, but deep in his eyes, she could see his shock at her statement. She let her voice soften to a whisper and repeated herself. "Do you do anything without feeling guilty? Do you do anything just to feel good? For yourself?" He turned his head away. She took his chin firmly in her hand and turned his face back to look at her. "Michael, you are a human being, not a machine. You are entitled to a little guilt-free pleasure now and then. Just for yourself. Not because of a mission, only because you deserve it." He didn't respond, only looked unblinkingly into her eyes. She raised up on her toes and gave him a quick, soft kiss. "Think about it, Michael."

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Chapter 14: Necessary Secrets (MA-14, suggestive)

The house darkened slowly with the gathering twilight. They had decided to not use the electric lights, to keep the house looking unoccupied from the outside. Michael had scrambled some eggs and pulled more fruit and another loaf of bread from his bag. They ate by the light of a candle. The atmosphere crackled with the unresolved tension between them.

"How many of these hiding places do you have, Michael?" Nikita sat at the table, picking apart a pomegranate. She popped a few seeds in her mouth, watching the man sitting across from her. He gave her an inscrutable glance, then returned his eyes to the gun he was carefully cleaning. She held her gaze on him for a few more seconds, then sighed internally. After the emotions of the afternoon, he had pulled back again. That was to be expected; a typical Michael reaction. She pushed down her rising irritation at his aloofness. Had he retreated so far from her that they couldn't even have a conversation? She dropped her eyes and selected a few more seeds from the fruit.

"A few." He didn't raise his head; his attention was completely focused on the weapon in his lap. She nodded, hiding her pleasure at his honest, if only partial, response, then considered whether to continue this line of questioning. She opted for a comment rather than a question.

"Comes in handy." He gave her another glance. He finished with the pistol, checked and inserted the clip, and slid it across the table to her. She picked it up and put it into the waistband of her pants, draping her T-shirt over the heavy butt. Michael picked up the second gun and began to disassemble it.

"We'll move out tomorrow night." She raised her eyes to him. When he didn't continue, she decided to push for more information.

"Going where?"

"Section substation a few kilometers north of here."

"We're going to contact Section?"

Now he finally lifted his head to meet her gaze. "No, just Birkoff."

She was puzzled. "Birkoff?"

"I have a back door. When you and Birkoff set up the deep channel to get Chris Ferrera, we decided to keep it open."

She absorbed the information with a blink. "Why?"

His face was still emotionless. "We weren't convinced Operations was done trying to cancel you."

Her lips parted in a silent "Oh." A heavy silence fell between them. He returned to working on the gun. Several minutes later she broke the stillness, changing the subject. "You know our mole has access to mission intelligence."

He nodded. "I want Birkoff to rake the system. Make sure Operations and Madeline aren't involved. See if he can pick up any traces of the mole."

"I don't think Operations is involved this time." She kept her voice calm and composed, trying to ease the strain between them. He looked back up at her, the gun in his hands giving a sharp click as he slid the clip into the pistol.

"Why?"

She lifted her right shoulder in a shrug. "I don't know. It doesn't feel like his style."

He nodded. "I agree. Then who?"

She picked up some more pomegranate seeds, rolling them between her fingers as she thought. The fleshy kernels broke and the syrupy juice oozed down her hand. She sucked her thumb absently, her mind still working out the possible scenarios. She suddenly focused on Michael, realizing he was staring intently at her face. Her breath caught in her throat at the look in his eyes. His changeable irises had darkened to a deep emerald green. The tension between them seemed to fill the room; she could feel the electricity sparking between them. Michael took the gun out of his lap and laid it on the table. He rose and crossed around the table to her, his eyes never leaving her face. Her breathing came fast and shallow. He crouched down before her, took her sticky hand in his and very, very slowly brought it to his mouth. The warmth of his mouth engulfed her thumb. He sucked it slowly, gently, running his tongue around it with exquisite precision. She closed her eyes, reveling in the sensations. His tongue moved over to the palm of her hand, licking her hand with long, sensuous strokes. She kept her eyes closed, sitting passively, giving him total control of the situation. His mouth moved on to her wrist, still tracing the lines of pomegranate juice. He began to kiss up her arm. He gradually reached her elbow and pressed a deep kiss on the joint. He paused and she opened her eyes. His brilliant eyes swept over her face, and she knew he could read the desire written there. Keeping his eyes fixed on hers, he reached for her other hand and brought it to his mouth. She watched him caress her hand. She felt as if she could reach a climax simply from his attentions to her fingers. Her nerves were on fire; she closed her eyes to better concentrate of the feelings he was provoking.

He stopped kissing the palm of her hand. "Nikita, look at me," he ordered. She languidly opened her eyes. His pupils seemed enormous, dilated in the candlelight. His voice was husky; he spoke barely above a whisper. "Watch me. Watch me make love to you." A shiver of desire ran through her and Nikita needed to remind herself to breathe. She obediently kept her eyes on his as he brought her hand up to his mouth again. His eyes never left hers as he teased the palm of her hand with his tongue. Her perception narrowed to a pinpoint focus: his beautiful face, his limpid green eyes and the response his skilled tongue was eliciting. When his mouth had worked its way up to her elbow, he leaned into her, his face inches from hers.

"Nikita," her name sounded like a sigh, "will you come to bed with me?" She looked deeply into his eyes, seeing his barely controlled passion.

She brought her moist hands up and cupped each side of his face. "No regrets," she whispered. He leaned forward and gave her a deep kiss.

"No regrets." He extended his hand to her and she took it.

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Chapter 15: Lost (NC-17)

Michael held her warm sticky hand in his as they walked across the room. When he reached the jumbled bedding, he turned. Later, in retrospect, he thought he had intended to offer her the chance to walk away. But in reality, he looked into her blue eyes, huge and dark with her desire, and was lost. He slipped his hands into her hair, feeling the silken strands slip through his fingers. His body ached with need and desire for her. He took a deep breath, regaining his control. He simply held her close to him, her head tucked under his chin and his arms wrapped around her soft body. A fragment of a conversation they had once had floated into his brain. He replayed the words he had said, this time to himself. "We fight each day to stay alive... let's not fight what's between us..." He tightened his grip on her and kissed the top of her head. Her hands moved up his chest, unfastening the vest. He dropped his arms down to his sides, allowing her to remove it. His hands ran up the outside of her thighs and he felt her body shiver in response. His hands raised her shirt and pulled the gun out of her pants waistband. He turned and lay the pistol next to their makeshift pillow. He turned back to see her watching his actions quizzically.

*************

He tipped his head slightly and raised one eyebrow. "Never make love to an armed woman." She gave a short burst of laughter.

"Lesson number one in Valentine ops?"

He let a small smile curve his mouth. "Lesson number one in loving you." He walked back over to her, reaching out to stroke her face, becoming serious again. "You are dangerous. What I feel for you is dangerous. We don't need to add a gun to the combination." Her eyes closed and she tilted her head into his hand. He lowered his head and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, on her eyes. The desire for her was inflaming his mind and body. He struggled to restrain his passion, to express only tenderness now. It was the only way he knew to apologize to her for his earlier behavior, for frightening her with his rage. She gave a small sigh and wrapped an arm around his neck, pressing herself to him. He let a small groan slip out. Remorse or not, his control was rapidly slipping. She pulled her head back and opened her eyes. She had a small teasing smile on her face and she rubbed herself against his swelling erection, her eyes scanning his face to see his reaction. It was his turn to close his eyes, to try and grasp what little remained of his composure.

"Michael," her voice was soft in his ears, ringing in his mind, "open your eyes." He focused his eyes on her azure ones. "Look at me. Don't shut yourself away from me." She took two steps back from him toward the blankets and he followed her, still maintaining their fixed stare. Without conscious thought, he reached out and removed her shirt, slowly, savoring her beauty. She stood proudly, not trying to hide herself, keeping her eyes locked on his. His mouth was drawn to her breasts, as if by a magnet. His kisses were light, gentle, savoring her soft skin. Her arms wrapped around his head, holding him close. His mouth found and sucked a nipple. He felt her whole body respond to his actions: her back arched and her arms tightened as if to pull him still closer.

His hands slid down her sides and began to tug on her pants, his lips never leaving her breasts. When the pants finally yielded and slipped down, his hands moved around her back, caressing and stroking her buttocks. Her breath was coming in short gasps and she pressed herself tightly to his body. He lifted his head and kissed her, hard and deep. Her breath was sweet and tasted of pomegranate. His tongue touched her lips, softly, gently, and she parted her lips to give him access to her mouth. Her hands ran down the length of his chest and fastened on his pants. She jerked hard, trying to unfasten his pants, and he lost his balance, tipping against her. She tumbled to the blankets. He could not keep his eyes off her. She rolled back up onto her knees and completed her task of loosening his clothing. He felt the cold air surround him, then warmth as she took him into her mouth. His hands clenched in her hair, fighting for control. The sensation was too close to the one he really desired.

He pulled away and she looked up at him, questioningly. "Lie down." His voice was thick with desire. He lowered himself next to her, lying on his left side so he could caress her with one hand. Her pale skin seemed to glow in the candlelight as he stroked her. His fingers followed the curves of her body, over shoulder and breast and the swell of her hip, sliding down to the warmth between her legs. She was hot and wet and at that moment he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anyone in his whole life. He teased her a moment more; her head was tilted back against the pillow as she murmured soft cries in response to his touch. Unable to wait any longer, he rolled up and over her, their bodies touching every inch from shoulders to feet. He lifted his arms so they lay on either side of her head, his fingers threading in her hair. He lowered his mouth and kissed her with all the desire that was raging in his body. Her arms wrapped around him, pulling him still closer to her. He lifted his head to look at her. Another memory sparked in his mind, and he repeated the words he had said to her long ago.

"Get ready." In her eyes, he could see a smile of recognition. He placed his knees between hers, gently nudged her legs apart, and thrust himself into her. Her eyes closed and her back arched, accepting him and inviting him to repeat the action. He drew back. She opened her eyes and he fixed his gaze on her. "Watch me love you." Her body shivered in response, but she kept her eyes on him as he thrust himself in her again. He felt he was losing his sense of self. Her huge blue eyes were absorbing his soul, even as her body absorbed his lovemaking. She began to spasm in her climax, driving him to his. He reared up on his arms and gave a final thrust, emptying himself, losing himself.

Afterwards, she lay on her side, her back and legs pressed to him, drifting off to sleep. He sat with his back against the wall, the blankets pulled up around his waist, not feeling the cold air surrounding him. The gun was in his hand again, resting in his lap, ready if necessary. His eyes traced the curve of her back and hips under the blanket. With a tenderness that surprised him, he pulled the blanket up over her bare shoulder. She gave a deep sleepy sigh.

"Sleep now," he whispered, "I'll stand guard." I'll watch over you until the day I die. Her voice was so soft; he nearly missed hearing her drowsy response.

"Michael, I love you." He made no answer and within a minute her breathing told him she was fast asleep.

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Chapter 16: Dark Reflection

A second night inched by. Michael eventually got up and got dressed; it was simply getting too cold to continue sitting naked and if he wrapped himself in the blankets he would probably drop off to sleep. He walked around the little house for a while, stretching his muscles and clearing his head. He would prefer to shut out the events of the evening, to forget all about them; but in his new-found honesty, he found he needed to think through what had transpired. He was aware of how much he exasperated Nikita. Being open and honest was relatively simple for her; for him each new feeling was a struggle, each intimate conversation overwhelming. He crouched down next to her slumbering form, his eyes sweeping over the curves of her body. Making love to her... had been the most instinctual act he had allowed into his controlled and emotionless life. He reached out to touch her, felt the silken strands of her hair slip through his fingers. When he had awakened earlier, he had been so shaken by his nightmare that turning to her for comfort had seemed the most natural thing in the world to do. She had asked about his dream. How could he tell her about the nightmares he had, the phantoms he fought, the grief and guilt that seeped past his conscious control and roamed free in his dreams? Years ago he had made the decision not to dwell on his subconscious terrors and he could not simply open that Pandora's Box, not even for Nikita.

"Do you do anything in your life without feeling guilty, Michael?", her voice taunted him. His mind flinched away from the question. Like a penitent putting on a hair shirt, he forced himself to deal with the question. No, he thought, no, guilt was a constant companion. Deep, abiding guilt. Guilt for the death of his parents, for leaving his sister so young and alone, for the death of Rene, who had been his friend and his sister's protector, for the countless others he had used and manipulated; guilt over Nikita, Elena, Adam. He gave himself a mental shake; no self-pity allowed. Guilt was a burden he was accustomed to carrying, one he deserved to bear. He rose and crossed the room several times, his bare feet moving silently.

He put his back against the wall and stood, arms crossed, regarding her. The first time they had made love, on the boat in Lyons, he had been so relieved and overwhelmed by her sudden reappearance that he had reacted without thinking, without a plan. He had simply needed to touch her, to hold her, to know she was real and alive and back in his life. The guilt he carried from that lovemaking was tied directly to her inexperience within Section. Once they had made love, she expected more; she expected to see him 'outside', to continue a relationship. He blamed himself for using her naivete. Hurt by his refusal to take any steps toward a more permanent relationship, she had been ridiculously easy to manipulate to entrap Jurgen. His exploitation of her ignorance had scarred her deeply and she had retreated from him. That had been for the best, he knew, even as the continual loss of her innocence hurt both of them. She had been too trusting, too open. The Section would have eaten her alive. As it was, it had been a near thing. He had long since lost count of the times he had protected her, covered for her, lied for her. The need to have her in his life was as much a part of his existence as breathing.

Tonight he could honestly say he had surrendered to his desire for her without any taint of guilt or remorse. She was stronger, more experienced and a great deal subtler now. What would happen between them once they returned to Section had not been discussed. But he was certain of her awareness of the inherent dangers of continuing an overt relationship within Section. A small frown crossed his face. He could live without a physical relationship with her. Just seeing her, talking to her, being with her was sufficient for him. But would it be enough for her? And did she, would she, see the dangerous path they needed to walk?

He moved to sit down at the table, positioning his body so he could continue to look at her. Just seeing her, talking to her was sufficient... How true was that? As she had become more aware of the dangers, and stronger in the face of Section's manipulations, he had become weaker. His legendary control had cracked. Somehow he needed to manage his emotions better. His hunger for her was overriding his self-discipline. He had not intended to make love to her tonight; he had acted on impulse, something that rarely occurred in his well-ordered life, and the situation had slipped out of his control. His need and his desire for her had simply pushed all other considerations aside. This - they - were the only thing that mattered at that moment. He needed, craved, depended on, that connection with her. He considered that thought. His connection to her had somehow grown to be an intregal part of his life. Giving up the link between them, however tenuous, was not an option.

He rose to pace, cat-like, around the room again. What was it about the middle of the night that made these thoughts come to the surface of his mind? During the day, such thoughts would have been ruthlessly pushed aside, not considered. In the night, they took on lives of their own and led him into areas of his life that he would rather not deal with.

Her love and trust in him, "You won't hurt me, Michael", scalded him anew. He had hurt her, had frightened her with his rage. Truthfully, he had startled himself with his anger. He had thought such fury long behind him. He glanced over to her with an apology in his eyes. He had never seen her flinch in fear of him. Despite her fear, she had stayed with him and listened to the ugly truths he had flung at her. How could anyone care for him, knowing what a monster he was? The pain, the betrayals, the deaths he was responsible for? Yet she did. At the cost of another part of her soul, of her innocence, she cared for him. Another load of guilt to be added to the pile. He felt a flash of anger, this time directly completely at himself. He swallowed the feeling, as he had done so many times before. Show no emotion. The response was ingrained in him; no anger, no frustration, no pleasure.

He glanced out the window, watching the sunrise brighten in the sky. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass and stared at his own features. He gazed at the cold green eyes, the stern and unyielding face of the image. What does she see in such a man? His introspection was making him uncomfortable; he looked at his watch just as he heard her stir behind him. It was time for him to sleep. Everything would simply have to wait. He would have better control after he slept.

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Chapter 17: Night Visitors

Antonio Luchetti sat at the communications desk. He had received a mysterious phone call earlier that night, instructing him to be at his post at the unearthly hour of 2am. He did not know whom he would be meeting, only that the disembodied voice on the phone knew all the proper security clearance codes. There was always a skeleton staff at the substation, but he had dismissed the regular communications staff brusquely. They would go fix themselves a couple cups of coffee, then come back in one hour. He trusted his unknown caller had estimated his time frame properly. Luchetti did not want to get in the middle of awkward explanations, God knew this would be hard enough to justify to his superiors.

He heard the soft footsteps and turned to face his cryptic contact. There were two of them, a man and a woman. The man was well built, with long auburn hair and piercing eyes, dressed in only a Kevlar vest and pants. . The woman... Luchetti had to suppress his inclination to do a double take. Tall, with long ash blond hair and eyes the color of the sky, she moved with a grace that implied she was an exceptionally dangerous operative.

"Are we ready?" The man's voice was low and musical. He had a faint French accent. Luchetti nodded and pointed out the communications console he had prepared for them. The man sat down and began typing rapidly. The woman moved to his shoulder. Luchetti watched them with interest; she first went to rest her hand on the man, hesitated inches from his bare shoulder, then changed her mind and linked her hands behind her back instead. The high pitch squeal of a modem connection whistled around them. The male operative picked up a comm earpiece.

"Birkoff?"

"Yeah, I'm here," a young American voice answered.

"I am sending you some mission information. I need you to review it and then rake the system to find any common indicators."

"The whole system?" There was an underlying question there, but Luchetti had no idea what it was and it wasn't his job to know.

"Yes." Whatever the problem was, the man wanted this done.

"Will do. When will you contact me next?" The man glanced over his shoulder at the woman who stood stiffly next to him.

"Tomorrow, same time."

"Michael, do you have Nikita?" There was urgency in the voice now. The woman leaned forward so her mouth was inches from Michael's mouth, and spoke into the comm link he wore.

"Yeah, Birkoff, I'm here." Her husky voice had a strong accent, Luchetti thought, Australian?

"Welcome back to the living. Signing off."

The operative called Michael removed the earpiece and turned to face Luchetti. Luchetti schooled his face into complete impassivity.

"You don't know us, we were never here." The accented voice was menacing. "When your superiors inquire about these proceedings, you will tell them it is a gray matter and refer to code 87745. We will be back at this time tomorrow; you will take the same precautions you took tonight." He looked directly into Luchetti's eyes. His eyes were a pale green, very threatening. Luchetti was grateful to be working with this man, not against him. "You did not hear our names." Luchetti nodded. "Code 87745." Luchetti nodded again. Michael got to his feet and walked out; the woman Nikita gave Luchetti a brief nod of thanks and left him in the quiet substation.

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Chapter 18: All Clear

Birkoff sat at his terminal, running his hands through his short-cropped hair. He glanced at his watch again, the dial glowing in the low light surrounding his computer station. 2am, god, would Michael never call? As if responding to his unspoken question, his monitor emitted a quiet beep . Birkoff gave the area a quick glance; no one was nearby. He had sent his communications staff on some minor errands, which would give him enough time to communicate with Michael undisturbed.

"Birkoff," Michael's soft voice came over the comm link.

"Yeah, I'm here." He began to pull up the information he had processed for Michael.

"What do you have?"

"Nothing. I ran the parameters you gave me, there aren't any common factors. I tried targets, profilers, team members, everything. The only commonality was Nikita, and we knew that all ready." Michael was silent for a moment. Birkoff gave another look around to be certain he was not overheard.

He could hear Michael take a deep breath. "And the system check?" Michael was being more obscure than usual, Birkoff thought. Of course, someone from the substation is standing nearby. Can't let anyone know how much of Section's systems we can access.

"Nothing. I checked as many of the closed files," he hoped Michael would understand his euphemism for private personnel files, "as I could, given the time frame and the difficulty." Yeah, like the fact that Communications has staff wandering from terminal to terminal both day and night. "No indication that Nikita is presently a target."

"We suspected as much. We'll be in touch through official channels shortly." Birkoff could hear a muffled noise, then Nikita's voice came over the comm.

"Hey, Birkoff, thanks. We owe you one."

"I'll be sure to remind you often." She gave a short laugh and disconnected the transmission. Birkoff sat back in his chair, a small smile on his face.

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Chapter 19: Tears and Fears (one bad word)

Nikita sat, as she had the previous days, at the table, watching Michael sleep. Tonight they would return to Section. It was time; Birkoff had not found any traces of Operations' or Madeline's scheming in the files and the longer she and Michael stayed out, the more questions would be asked. Funny, she thought humorlessly, we have never discussed whether or not to return to Section. It was understood and unspoken by both of them that they must go back. Nikita knew from her time outside Section that she could no longer expect to have a 'normal' life. The only life she could have, however pathetic, was within the Section.

Nikita sighed quietly and rose to silently pace around the kitchen. As if sensing her distress, Michael stirred in his sleep. She stood still until he settled back into a deeper sleep. She leaned her right shoulder against the window jamb and looked out into the yard, thinking over the past few days. After their emotional confrontation and lovemaking, Michael had completely withdrawn from her again. Part of her was extremely hurt and responded by being equally removed; she avoided touching him, did not start conversations. After their explosive discussion, she had a better understanding of him, of his fears and self-disgust. She had a deeper respect for his emotional control, and, as much as it infuriated her, she even understood a little bit of his need to retreat from her. It was such a delicate balance to manage: she needed his confidence, his explanations and his affection; he was accustomed to sharing none of these things. When they made a small connection (and she acknowledged he had made huge breakthroughs in the past few days), he needed to retreat and collect himself. She understood all this on an intellectual level. But to her emotional self, which, if she were very honest, was extremely insecure and needy, every one of Michael's retreats felt like a rejection. I'm just as sick a puppy as he is, she thought with bitter humor. She was fighting a constant battle with herself, to encourage him to open himself up with her, and yet not to demand, to need more than he was able to give. Sometimes it felt like a losing fight, to put aside her needs and desires and concentrate on his.

As she reflected over their tumultuous relationship over the past several years, her own behavior made her wince. She had behaved like a petulant, immature child, always crying after Michael to solve her problems and fill her emotional holes. After the forced maturation process that was Section, she was able to face the cause of her neediness: a neglectful, drunken mother and a series of "uncles" who moved in and out of her life. At least the early ones had only been oblivious of her. She wasn't sure which of the later "uncles" to hate more: the one or two that had actually shown some affection for her, only to walk away and never look back; or the ones that had beaten her. Or the one that had caused her mother to throw her out of her home. It wasn't that "Uncle" Charles didn't like her, as she had told Michael oh-so-many years ago, but that he had liked her too much. Although, she thought now, the experience with Charles had had one possible benefit: after enduring his mauling, she had determined that no one - no one- would ever touch her again without her permission. Perhaps that resolve had enabled her to survive those first hellish years in Section. That would be truly ironic: that the man who had been attracted to her childish innocence would be the one that enabled her to transform into a cold killer.

She wasn't sure if she was thinking of "Uncle" Charles or of Michael.

So you've been dealt a crummy hand,, she thought impatiently, so deal with it. But wasn't it enough for the Fates to give her a lousy mother and a nightmare childhood? She had to love a man who, by his own admission, didn't know what love was? Didn't know how to love her? A man who was so emotionally crippled that simply expressing his feelings was painful? If there was ever a definition of star-crossed lovers, we're it. Her thoughts were bitter. A man who cannot love and a needy insecure woman who needs constant affection. She would laugh if it weren't so goddamn painful.

Now she made herself think, coldly and unemotionally, like Michael would want her to. She was older and wiser in the ways of Section now; she knew not to expect or even hope that she and Michael could maintain any kind of emotional relationship 'inside'. A sexual or emotional connection between operatives was an impossibility; Operations and Madeline would either prevent it, or use it for their own purposes. Neither she nor Michael had any intention of being pawns for their superiors. Their lives were already not their own.

"I had a dream",she remembered telling Michael once, "you expressed certain feelings..." "Sometimes all we have are our dreams" his voice resounded back. She blinked hard, forcing back the prickle of tears that threatened her eyes. She took a deep breath and straightened her back. It was pointless, fruitless and painful to entertain notions of 'what if' and 'if only'. This will have to be enough, she thought, and turned to look at the sleeping man behind her. This memory will have to be enough.

The words felt cold and remote. This would never be enough, not for her, but it would be all she could have. The conflict between what she wanted/needed and what was possible was ripping her apart. After all these years, you would think I would be able to accept it and move on, she thought bitterly. But his voice echoed in her mind "I do love you. God help you, I do love you." He had never said those words before to her, except under mission constraints. Perhaps some progress had been made these past days, after all. "But not enough, not enough," she whispered softly to herself, and closed her eyes in pain.

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Chapter 20: Truth

Michael awoke to find Nikita's eyes on him. Her face was composed, her eyes cool and aloof, yet his instinct told him she was troubled. He didn't question his intuitive reading of her; perhaps it was something in her body position, perhaps that her eyes seemed too shiny. But he knew she was upset and his protectiveness rose inside of him. He rolled smoothly to his feet and approached her. It hurt him slightly to see her draw back from him. He reached out a hand to prevent her from passing him.

"Nikita?" His voice was low and a little hoarse from sleep. Her eyes flickered up to meet his briefly, then she shifted her gaze away.

"Did you sleep well?" Her voice was rough and she cleared her throat as she tried to continue moving past him. He caught her left hand, repeated her name. She pulled her hand away from him as if he burned her. "Please don't, Michael. We need to get ready to go back to Section..." He caught her hand again and gently turned her face to his with his free hand.

"Nikita?" He kept his voice low and gentle. Her eyes flashed from side to side, as if she were a trapped animal. He tightened his grip on her hand, preventing her from pulling away from him again, and stroked her cheek with his fingertips. She closed her eyes, and stilled her face into a mask, preventing him from reading her expression.

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes again. Now he could clearly see her distress, even as she attempted to push the emotion aside. "We need to go," she repeated woodenly. "We have to go back..."

He nodded even as he continued to stroke her cheek. "If we don't return, they will hunt us down like animals," he said gently. She nodded.

"I know." Her voice was nearly a whisper. He ran a callused thumb over her eyebrow.

"Then what is wrong?" She flinched, turning her head away from his caress. He moved closer, so he was standing directly in front of her, preventing her from walking away. "Nikita?"

"Michael, please let me go..." her voice cracked and she caught her lower lip between her teeth. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. He watched the struggle evident on her face. He let go of her hand and brought both of his hands up to stroke her cheekbones. She closed her eyes and one tear trickled out. He caught it on his thumb, smoothed away the shiny trail it left behind and leaned in to give her a gentle kiss. Her breath caught and he felt her whole body tense with her effort to control herself. One of her hands slid delicately around his neck, pulling him closer to her. He stroked her face and her hair as he continued to kiss her softly. She moved infinitesimally closer to him and laid her cheek against his. He held her tenderly and gave her time to master her emotions. She took a deep breath and patted his shoulder, signaling him she was ready to break their embrace. He released her unwillingly, and his gaze flickered over her face. He could not read anything in her expression; she had herself under tight control. Part of him was very proud of her ability to control and hide her emotions, even as his hands tingled with the need to touch her.

Nikita moved over to the table and sat down, her legs spread and her hands dangling between her knees. She let her head drop forward tiredly. Not very lady-like, Madeline, she thought with quiet irony. She took a deep breath and began speaking, leaving her head down so she couldn't see his reaction.

"I need honesty from you, Michael." She changed her mind, deciding she needed to see his face and eyes, and raised her head to meet his gaze. His face was composed and solemn. "No mission, no Section, just you and me. Truth." Truth, Michael, knowing how difficult being open was for this complicated, enigmatic man. He moved over to crouch between her legs, balancing with his hands on her knees. His eyes were clear and unshuttered.

'I have given you only honesty since you found out about my family," he stated calmly. "I may not have been be able to tell you everything, but what I have told you has always been true." He tipped his head fractionally. "You are strong enough for honesty now." That surprised her. Strong enough? She pushed that thought aside for further reflection later. She needed to say this, before she lost both her nerve and her opportunity.

"You said certain things a few days ago," she started. She felt him tense and slid her hands over his, where they rested on her knees. She squeezed his hands slightly, forcing him to focus on her. "I need to know, Michael, whether those were just words spoken in passion, in the heat of the moment," she felt her color rise slightly, "or if you meant them." She looked him straight in the eye. "Do you love me Michael?"

His face was identical to the time he told her Adam was his son: open, honest and completely tormented. He gave her the same simple answer.

"Yes."

His face was full of misgivings after his 'confession'. Was he going to tell her again that he didn't really know what love was, or remind her again that there was no future for them in Section? She didn't give him a chance to speak, placing a finger on his lips.

"Ssshhh. You don't need to say it. Any relationship is impossible. We'll either be used by Section or cancelled." She took a deep shaky breath, making a sudden, impulsive decision. "Michael, you have given me a- a gift I will always treasure. What will happen tomorrow..." she paused, met his eyes and shrugged. "We'll go back to Section and our lives will continue as they have. But now..." she paused again, uncertain how to continue. His hands slid out from under hers and stroked her hair and cheeks.

He finished her thought for her. "Now is not about Section, it is about us." He leaned forward and kissed her softly. Her hands slid up his arms to his shoulders, pulling him closer. His tongue touched her lips, probing gently and she opened her mouth to him. He rose easily, still kissing her as he drew her to her feet and pulled her close to him. She felt his restrained power, so strong yet so gentle, as he continued to kiss her softly. His hands ran down her back and cupped her buttocks. Suddenly he lifted her up, his hands beneath her rear as she wrapped her legs around his waist. He balanced her as if she weighed nothing and began walking. She closed her eyes and let him take her where he wanted, only to be surprised by the feel of a mattress beneath her when he laid her down. She opened her eyes to see they were in one of the little bedrooms of the house and Michael on all fours above her.

"A bed, Michael?" There was a trace of amusement in her voice. "Do you know this will be only the second time we have made love in a real bed?"

"In my bed, in my house," he murmured back. There was no amusement in his voice; he was intensely serious. "You are mine. There is nothing else beside us, right here, right now."

She put her hands on either side of his face and gave him back an equally intense look. "And you are mine. Nothing will ever change that."

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Chapter 21: Promises in the Dark (NC-17, pretty explicit, for me... *blush* )

As passionate and near-frantic as their previous lovemaking had been, this time they proceeded very slowly; savoring and memorizing each taste, each touch, each sensation. She kept her eyes open, committing every inch of his body to her memory. -The feel of his beard against her skin, no longer scratchy, grown long enough to be soft; a gentle caress as stimulating to her as the touch of his fingers on her body.- His head was bent as his mouth worshipped first one breast, then the other. Her fingers ran through his thick hair, holding him close. He raised his head to meet her gaze and she stroked his whiskers.

"I wish you would grow a beard," she murmured. He was surprised into giving her a true smile, one that extended past his mouth up to his eyes. He playfully rubbed his stubbled cheek on her sensitized nipple and she twitched in response. He repeated his action on her other breast, then resumed his gentle suckling. -The touch of his tongue on her skin, warm and soothing.- She ran her fingers across his heavily muscled shoulders, then lightly scratched his back with her nails. She felt his skin ripple in response to her touch. He lifted his head and recaptured her mouth. She let her eyes close and her body melt into his, her curves fitting to his.

She pulled her mouth away from his and slid her lips down his neck, pressing them on his carotid artery. She felt his strong pulse beating beneath her mouth. He arched his head back, exposing his neck for her exploration. -The taste of his skin. The scent of his desire filling her senses.- She licked him from his collarbone to under his jaw and his body quivered in response. She glanced up into his face, seeing the desire flashing in his eyes. His eyelids were heavy, his lips slightly swollen, increasing the ever-present sensuality in his face. Lust writhed in her belly. She felt the urge to bite his shoulder, but confined herself to kissing it instead. They would probably undergo full physical evaluations when they returned; better to leave no marks.

He lowered his head and kissed her again, harder, demandingly, leaving her breathless. When he kissed her like that, she felt he possessed her, body and soul. She felt his arousal pressing along her thigh, and felt her own aching need for him grow within her. One by one his hands slid down her arms and he entwined his fingers with hers, pulling their joined hands up towards her shoulders. She tipped her head back, feeling his mouth on her throat. -The touch of his lips on her neck, the warmth of his breath, the restrained strength and power of his body. - He placed a gentle kiss at the base of her throat, millimeters above her healing cut, then adjusted his body position so his lips could proceed much, much lower. His hands slid down her body, but her fingers clung to his; she didn't want to break contact with him.

He placed several soft kisses on her inner thighs. Her breath caught at his caress and her back arched, urging him wordlessly to continue moving higher. When his mouth touched its desired target, Nikita felt if she would break into a million pieces. -His mouth was hot and wet and experienced. Bringing her closer and closer to the brink, but never over.- He used his tongue, stroking her where she most needed it, and she gave an involuntary cry.

"Michael, oh god, Michael..."

He continued pleasuring her, the sensations he elicited wiping her mind clear of any coherent thought processes. Hours? minutes? days? later he crept back up her body to kiss her deeply. She could taste herself on his lips. With an effort, she rolled over onto him, straddling him; he did not protest, but lay under her submissively. She began to run her tongue and hands down his chest, moving lower and lower on his body. His breathing became ragged, his hands slipped into her hair and his fingers clenched as he struggled for control. She put her lips on his erection and he groaned aloud. -The musky smell of his sex. The smooth, hard texture in her mouth.- She licked him slowly, from the base to the tip, and reveled in his reaction. It gave her an incredible sense of power over him: cold, aloof Michael moaning and quivering under her hand. She nipped him softly and it pushed him over the edge. Effortlessly, he lifted her up to bring her face to his, then flipped her over and reclaimed his position on top. His fingers threaded into her hair and held her head still. His mouth descended on hers and he kissed her, hard, passionately and demanding. She returned his kiss with equal urgency, lightly scoring his back with her nails.

His knees slipped between hers, pushing her legs apart. The compelling urgency to take and be taken suddenly left her and she was filled with a sense of desperation, a need to prolong this moment, to make their intimacy last as long as possible. He seemed to feel the same; his motions slowed and his breathing became more regular. He entered her slowly, carefully, gently. -The feel of him filling her, stretching her, completing her.- His gaze held hers, unblinkingly.

"Mine," he whispered thickly. "You are mine."

She had to swallow, forcing saliva down her dry throat in order to answer him. "Always."

He withdrew and she gave a slight whimper; then he reentered her, harder. She gasped. He did it again, still harder. The sensation was part painful, part pleasurable. And she wanted it again and again. He stopped, looking at her quizzically; she frowned back at him.

"You said something..." he murmured. She flushed, it wasn't supposed to be said aloud. He continued regarding her until she finally repeated herself.

"I said 'again'. Do it again." He lowered his head and kissed her deeply, then obeyed her. The force of his entry triggered her body to bend to his instinctively. "Again." Her voice was low and husky, her breathing erratic. His hands found hers, and their fingers interlaced, clinging to each other through the storm of their passion. He sped up his rhythm and she could no longer sense where she ended and he began. They were, for this moment, truly one. She wrapped her legs around him, pulling him still closer to her.

"Mine." She uttered it softly. Her breathing was ragged and she could only grab enough air for the one word. He kissed her neck, directly below her ear, then whispered his reply.

"Toujours."

As impossible as it seemed to her, he increased both his speed and his forcefulness. She felt her internal organs reverberate with the power of his strokes. Her climax was rising within her. Her back arched toward him, her legs tightened as her entire body strained to take more of him in her. Her senses exploded around her and she shuddered spasmodically in her orgasm, vaguely aware of him climaxing only seconds after her, his grip on her fingers painfully tight and his breath hot on her neck as he groaned softly in his release.

After several long minutes Michael raised his head from her shoulder. She opened her cerulean eyes languidly to meet his gaze. He slowly withdrew from her warmth, and she gave a low moan at his exit.

He placed a hand on one of her shoulders and pushed lightly. "Roll over," he ordered. She blinked and looked confused. He stroked one soft cheek. "We have an hour or two before nightfall," he explained. "You could use a short nap, and I..."he stopped. She raised an eyebrow at him and waited for him to continue. He let his gaze slip to the side, unaccountably embarrassed. "I want to have you in my arms." He gave her a sidelong glance. She gave him a tremulous smile, fighting back tears, and rolled to her side, not answering him. He curved himself behind her back, spoon fashion, and wrapped his arms around her, each hand cupping a soft, warm breast. He kissed the nape of her neck softly. "Go to sleep. I'll wake you in a couple of hours." He felt her release a long, shuddering breath and relax in his arms. Unspoken between them was the certitude that these would be their last intimate moments for a long, long time.

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Chapter 21: Back in the Fold

Walter sat at his worktable, concentrating on the minute electronic components spread out before him. He adjusted the self-lit magnifying glass that he wore, tipping it to precisely the right angle to enlarge the two tiny pieces he was soldering together. A shadow fell across the table and he reacted angrily, without looking up.

"Hey! I'm working here. You mind?"

"Oh, sorry, Walter. You want me to come back later?" At the sound of her voice, he looked up, his spirits rising rapidly.

"Hey, sugar! When did you get back?" The blond gave him a heart-stopping smile.

"Just now. I had to come see you first, right?" Walter gave her a matching grin.

"It's good to see you, sugar. I missed you." He paused and gave her a quick once-over. There were a few fading bruises on her cheeks, but she seemed all right. Something was different, though, he thought, trying to put his finger on the change. He tried the direct approach. "Everything ok?" His instincts were right; she gave him a quick glance, her smile fading.

"Fine, why?"

He backtracked. "Nothing, no reason. Just wanted to be sure you got through the mission all right."

"Nikita." Michael's voice came from the doorway. Walter glanced over at him; Michael was still dressed in his mission clothes: vest, pants and jacket. Walter looked over at Nikita, noticing for the first time how the shirt hung on her. Changed clothes, did we? He watched Nikita's face as she turned to Michael and caught the very slight alteration in her face and voice.

"Michael?" Her words implied nothing, had he not been paying close attention, he never would have noticed any difference between them. Walter felt a pleasure he had not felt in a very long time. Good for them. He'd better try to deserve her.

"Have you been down to Medical yet?" There was a very slight difference in Michael, too, Walter realized. Michael's guardian-angel mode had increased a notch. Walter wondered briefly if Nikita completely understood what all being loved by Michael entailed.. Sometimes, just sometimes, you get what you wish for, he thought with a bittersweet pang.

"You said you were all right, sugar. Why do you need to go to Medical?" Walter reached over the table to grab Nikita's arm as she turned to leave.

She gave him a sweet smile. "Nothing major, Walter. Just some minor injuries that need to be checked over."

Walter gave her a shrewd look. "Uh-huh. If you say so, sugar. Come back and see me before you go home, huh?"

Michael put his hand in the small of Nikita's back, courteously escorting her out of Munitions. "We have a debrief with Madeline after you've been checked by Medical." Nikita gave him a small nod. Michael let his hand drop as they left Walter's sector. The older operative watched them walk away. To all outward appearances, everything was as it had been for months. A good working pair, friendly but not emotionally involved. He hoped they could continue that fa�ade for the spying eyes all around them. He shook his head gently, feeling both happy and sad for them. If he was able to sense the change between them, certainly the sharks that inhabited Section would do the same.

Operations stood in his aerie, watching Michael and Nikita crossing the main hall of Section. He heard Madeline's footsteps coming up the stairs behind him. He turned slightly, keeping the newly returned pair in his sight as he spoke to his second-in-command.

"So?"

"They're back." Madeline stated unnecessarily. "Nikita has a few minor injuries, she's already been down to Medical and they've cleared her to go home and recuperate."

"Injuries?" Operations' voice was cold; he didn't really care about Nikita's injuries, but prodding Madeline to continue.

"A few bruises. A knife cut, healing nicely. A dislocated shoulder. Apparently Michael reset it for her in the field." Operations nodded absently, watching Michael and Nikita turn the corner and disappear from his sight. A moment passed in silence, then he turned to give Madeline his complete attention.

"And?" he prompted. She stood silent a minute more, obviously gathering her thoughts.

"Michael indicated he suspects someone has been tapping into our communications or computer systems. Our invisible enemy knew exactly where they would be in Italy. He and Nikita hid in a secret location to be sure they weren't compromised, then came back in."

Operations frowned. "Secret location?"

"Michael wouldn't be more specific and Nikita says she doesn't know where they were. I think she's telling the truth." She looked at Operations, sensing his disquiet about the lack of specific information. "Michael is Level Five, he is allowed to have his own system of outside sources," she reminded him.

"I know, I know..." Operations was still unhappy, but he waved the problem away. "So what do you think?"

"I think they're telling the truth, but not all of it." He gave her a sharp glance. He had great respect for her intuition. "I think they have been intimate."

He nodded. "Will this be a problem?"

"I don't know yet. It depends on what happens now."

"Very well. Do we need to start surveillance?"

She shook her head. "I don't think that's necessary yet. Keep a watch on them during their next few missions. Let's wait and see their next move."

************

Chapter 22: Communications Failure

Nikita was pacing around the communications center. She was on tactical, Michael was out with the team. She didn't like being left behind, but that was the way the profile had been designed and Michael had chosen not to alter it. She paced behind Birkoff, her boot heels clicking with her strides. Birkoff gave her a sidelong glance over his glasses; she understood his unspoken warning and forced herself to sit down next to the resident genius, resisting the urge to tap her toes, bite her nails, anything that might give her nervousness away.

"Birkoff, we're in position." Michael's soft voice came over her earpiece.

Birkoff began typing. "OK, Michael, you're clear. Start sequencing." She heard Michael order the teams to move out. She kept her eyes fastened on the computer display in front of her. Get in, download the information and destroy the computer, and get out. It was a cut-and-dry mission, she thought, she should have been on the first team.

The past three weeks had been the longest in her life. The first week she had been allowed to rest at home, 'recovering'. She had been called in for a few missions in the following weeks, but only on tactical support. Although she understood Michael's concern for her safety, they had still not been able to find any concrete indication that the recent complications had been anything more than a run of bad luck. She made a mental note to discuss Michael's tendency for over-protectiveness with him again when he returned. She fidgeted in her seat, caught herself doing it, and forced herself to sit still. For some reason, she had a very bad feeling about this mission and wished for the umpteenth time that she were in the field with the team and Michael. As if I could protect him better than he can protect himself , she thought ironically, and brought her full attention to the display again. There was a loud burst of gunfire, startling her.

"Michael, what was that?" Birkoff's voice was urgent.

"They were waiting for us. All teams -" Michael's voice cut out in a burst of static. Nikita waited for Birkoff to clear the channel.

"Michael? Michael!" Only static answered him.

"Birkoff, get communications with the team." Nikita ordered. She got to her feet and crossed to stand behind him.

He whirled in his chair. "You don't get it, Nikita. I can't get them back. Communications are down."

"Down? What do you mean?"

Operations' voice came through the speaker. "Birkoff, status." Birkoff swallowed hard and glanced at Nikita.

"We've lost communication with the team, sir." He glanced up at Operations' station, high above them.

"Get it back, NOW."

"Yes, sir." The computers around them blinked, went down and then came back up. Nikita spun around, looking over the various monitors and keyboards.

"Don't touch anything." Birkoff ordered. He pushed his chair across the floor, rolling from computer to computer, checking over all the indicators. Satisfied with what he found, he tapped a few keys.

"Birkoff?" Nikita's voice with tight with tension. He shook his head at her.

"Communications are up. The team is gone." They stared at each other.

Chapter 23: The Prisoner (MA-14, violence)

Michael was being pulled along, his arms bound behind him, a hand on each elbow dragging him when he stumbled. The hood over his head prevented any view of where he was or where he was going. He had struggled when they first brought him out of the vehicle, but the crack of a pistol against the side of his head had convinced him that fighting was not his best option right now. His captors stopped moving and he heard a door being opened. He was roughly thrown into the room and crashed against the opposite wall. He spread his feet, struggling to keep his balance with his eyes blinded. He turned so the wall was at his back, offering him both a sense of orientation and support. The heavy hood was making it hard to breathe; he kept inhaling his own carbon dioxide. His senses were getting fuzzy and his reflexes slow. Rough hands grabbed hold of him and slammed him into something hard in the center of the room. His hands were untied, then retied behind him, securing him to the object. Finally, the hood was pulled off his head. He took a deep breath of cool fresh air, letting his head drop down and his hair fall in front of his eyes. Another deep breath, breathe, Michael, breathe, and he felt the haziness clearing from his mind. He continued to hang his head, appearing weak and completely cowed, while he gathered his physical and mental strength for whatever was going to happen. He peered out from beneath his tangled hair and surveyed his surroundings. He was tied to a large metal pole in the center of a small dark cell. Below ground, he noted; the room practically reeked of mildew and somewhere outside there was water dripping. The lighting was poor and the room was bare. Two burly guards stood at the only door. They looked Central or Eastern European; his mind flickered over their possible affiliation. There had been no indication of the identity of their captors during the mission; his communications with Birkoff had suddenly cut out and he had found himself surrounded by six big men toting bigger guns. A quick glance over his team had found them all in similar circumstances. There had been no talking between their captors on the trip - here - wherever 'here' was. He had no idea who he was dealing with, and no way to contact Section as his communications equipment had been removed before he was loaded into their vehicle. The door to his cell suddenly opened with a loud clang. Michael had complete control of his reaction and did not move. A tall dark-haired, dark skinned woman entered and approached him.

"Michael," she pronounced his name slowly, drawing out the vowel sounds. Michael hid his response beneath his blank face. Fine. They know my name. Michael focused his gaze on the woman's face, maintaining his cold, expressionless demeanor. She patted Michael's cheek, almost affectionately, then stepped back and nodded to one of the observing guards. The heavy-set man approached Michael, shifting his rifle from his shoulder to his hands. In that brief instant, Michael knew he was going to die. He concentrated on his son's face, wanting the vision of his boy to be the last image in his mind. Instead the guard flipped the rifle so the barrel end was in his left hand and swung the butt end of the rifle at Michael's ribs. Michael's body lurched to the right and he felt his ribs crack from the blow. At the apex of the swing, his tormentor reversed direction and brought the rifle around in a backhanded stroke at Michael's head. He reeled from the blow, his feet slipping. He sagged back against the pole, using its stability to maintain his balance, breathing heavily and struggling to clear his vision. Blood ran into his right eye and dripped from his hair onto his black turtleneck. He shook his head a little, ignoring the resultant pain and focused his eyes on his tormentor.

The woman gave a low laugh and approached Michael again, patting the guard on the shoulder in thanks as he stepped back to the door. She nodded to the jailers. They opened the door to his cell and Michael's team was herded into the room. They were all bound and extremely well guarded. His team was lined up in front of him against the slimy wall.

His tormentor motioned to the guard that had beaten him. "Hold him." The man crossed behind Michael and grabbed his hair, forcing Michael to look straight ahead. They began to shoot his team in front of him. Michael held his face and eyes cold and detached as long as he could, then he closed his eyes. Someone pistol-whipped his face and he forced his eyes open. The woman was in his face again.

"Watch, Michael." The cries of the dying filled his ears, the sight and smell of the killing overwhelming his senses. He swallowed hard. He would not add to her pleasure by showing any pain or weakness. His back was rigid against the pole and he stared ahead unblinkingly. He owed his team that much, to watch and not break.

When it was done, the guard behind him released his hair and Michael let his head drop forward. He shut his eyes, waiting for a blow that never came. Instead, he felt the woman's hand on the back of his neck.

"Goodbye, Michael." He kept his eyes closed, refusing to acknowledge her. He heard footsteps retreat, then the heavy slam of his cell door. He opened his eyes, briefly scanning the small room. He was alone, except for the bodies. He rotated on the pole so he was facing the back wall, rather than the carnage in the chamber. Slowly he lowered himself until he was sitting on his heels. He leaned forward as far as he could, lowered his head between his knees and was quietly sick.

************

Chapter 24: Looking for Michael

As Operations descended from his aerie, Nikita moved into action.

"Birkoff, do we have any sleeper teams in that area?" Birkoff typed rapidly.

"Yeah, that's Anatoli's sector."

"Link me up." She picked up an earpiece. Birkoff made the computer connection.

"Yeah?" A deep male voice came over the line.

"Anatoli, this is Nikita at Section. I need to you to check out a locale for me." She nodded at Birkoff, who punched a key on his computer terminal. "Birkoff is sending you the location now."

"What am I looking for?"

"Anything." She glanced over at Operations, who was just entering the Communications area. "We have an unexplained anomaly. We need any information you can send: casualties, indications of who was involved or where they might have gone."

"Got it. ETA in... 2 hours."

"OK, Anatoli. Time is of the essence. The sooner we hear from you, the better." She signed off and turned to Operations, who was looking over Birkoff's shoulder. Operations turned his pale blue stare on her.

"What happened?"

She put her hands behind her to conceal the fact that they were shaking. "We don't know yet. There was unexpected gunfire, Michael indicated 'they' were waiting for his team, then all communications were lost. We just dispatched Anatoli to survey the locale."

Operations spun on his heel and stalked over to Birkoff's station. "How did this happen?"

Birkoff tilted his head up at his boss. "I don't know yet. I'll know by the time Anatoli reports in."

"Do it." Operations headed out.

"Birkoff," Nikita laid her hand on his shoulder. "I need to analyze the mission profiles again. Where can I work that will not interfere with you?" Birkoff ran his fingers through his short hair.

"There." He nodded at a terminal off to one side. "You can access all the intell you need and still be here when Anatoli checks in." She patted his shoulder fondly.

"Thanks, Birkoff." She walked over to the terminal and sat, collecting herself. Her breath was coming short and fast, as if she had been struck in the stomach. For a brief moment, there in Comm, she had thought she would be sick. This is no time to fall apart, she scolded herself, Michael needs you. He told you how strong you are. Show him. She took a deep breath and began to sort through data.

Two hours passed in a blink of an eye. Birkoff rolled from terminal to terminal, muttering to himself. Nikita sat quietly, scrolling down the computer screen, making notes. A loud beep startled both of them. Nikita quickly crossed over to Birkoff, who handed her a comm link.

"Anatoli, checking in early," Birkoff muttered quietly.

"OK, Anatoli, what have you got?" She touched Birkoff's shoulder and indicated Operations' office with a toss of her head. He rolled over to the intercom.

"Sir? Anatoli's checking in now." He rolled back to Nikita in time to catch Anatoli's final comments.

"... from a heavy vehicle, probably several. The tracks lead to a fairly well traveled road, there's no way to determine their heading from there."

"But no bodies anywhere?" Nikita was insistent.

"Like I told you, we looked in a two square kilometer area. You want us to search wider?" Nikita glanced up at Operations, who had joined them. He shook his head.

"No, thanks Anatoli. If the team were cancelled, they wouldn't have bothered to hide the bodies further away. Thanks for pushing to get this done so fast."

"Keep me posted. Signing off." With a click the connection was severed.

"Status?" Operations barked. Birkoff glanced around.

"Sir, we need to discuss this in your office." Operations gave both his operatives a shrewd look.

"Now." They obeyed.

Up in the aerie, Operations leaned back against the glass wall and gave his subordinates a baleful stare.

"What do we know?"

Nikita answered first. "When Michael first suspected a mole in Section, he evaluated all the missions that had misfired, looking for a common denominator. There wasn't one. Today's mission was based on that evaluation."

Operations gave her a sharp look. "And?"

"I did the same search, but changed the parameters. Michael had the wrong target in mind during his search. He was the target." Operations gave her a withering look. He was no fool; he realized Michael had been concerned about her safety, not his own.

"All right. So Michael was the target and they have acquired him. How do we find him, and who is our mole?"

This was Birkoff's topic. "Using Nikita's parameters, we did find a commonality in the missions. Johansen, the profiler."

Operations swore and strode around the room. "How did they get to him?"

Birkoff shrugged. "I'm not sure. Madeline can probably get that out of him. Johansen's been one of our best profilers for the past three years. It's just the last few missions that went wrong, so he couldn't have been turned for very long."

Operations stopped and looked at Birkoff, then Nikita. "We know how they got Michael. How do we get him back?"

Birkoff shrugged again. "Until we have more intell, we can't run a sim or plan a retrieval. Does Michael have a clock frequency?"

Nikita turned her head, giving Birkoff a piercing stare. "Clock frequency?"

Operations waved her question aside. " Michael doesn't have a clock frequency. But Cummings does." Nikita turned and looked at Operations, then back at Birkoff.

Birkoff typed frantically at his terminal, trying without success to ignore the tall blonde who towered over him. The computer began to run the program, and Birkoff felt his chair spin until Nikita's blue eyes were inches from his brown ones. She leaned over him, putting her hands on the arms of his chair.

"What is a clock frequency?" She enunciated the words precisely. "No, let me tell you. It's a small electronic device about," she measured an inch between her fingers, "this big."

Birkoff stared at her in disbelief. "How did you..." She pushed off his chair and straightened up.

"Never mind. But don't bother trying to locate me with mine. Why does Cummings have one?"

Birkoff pulled up Cummings' file on the terminal. "He was in abeyance last year, but the mission didn't go as planned and he returned. His performance numbers went up so he was returned to operative status, but Operations," he glanced up at Nikita again, "has reservations about his ability to remain within Section."

Nikita glanced over the file. Cummings was one of Michael's sharp shooters, on the team to provide perimeter security. "Escape?"

Birkoff nodded. "He's made references to wanting to get out several times, to people he shouldn't have said it to. So they tagged him with a clock."

The computer brought up a map, indicating Cummings' location with a pulsing red dot. Birkoff punched the intercom button. "Sir? We've got a location."

************

Chapter 25: Profile

Nikita entered Walter's work area. Walter looked up from his latest project and gave her a through once-over.

"OK, sugar, what's up? I heard about Michael..." She met his glance unsmilingly and gave the area a quick scan. Walter was partially surprised and partially amused by how Michael-like her surveillance was.

"I need some advice, Walter...," she began to move deeper into the Munitions area. Walter followed her, touched by her uncertainty and her trust in his judgement.

He led her to the back of a shelving unit, bristling with weapons of different sizes and equal deadliness. "OK, sugar, talk to me." She gave the area another quick glance, the same eerie Michael-like mannerism.

"We have a location and I have drawn up a profile. It's just - I'm not sure -,"she stopped, struggling for words.

"You want someone to give it a review?" She met his eyes.

"Someone who can be relied on for secrecy," she stated baldly. "This is Michael we're extracting, there is no room for error. I need someone to check over my plan and ascertain I've haven't missed anything. But they can't be running back to Operations telling tales..."

Walter nodded. Of all the operatives in Section, he understood more than anyone what she was going through. He thought over the dilemma for several minutes. Nikita stood silently, waiting for him. A woman who appreciates when a man needs silence, he thought approvingly, man, if I were a few years younger... He brought his mind back to the question before him. "Liu," he said firmly.

"Liu?" Nikita echoed hesitantly.

Walter met her gaze. "Liu. Tell her I sent you. She's the one you need."

Nikita hesitated outside a closed office. She raised a hand to knock, paused, then took a deep breath and finished the motion. A soft female voice answered her knock and Nikita opened the door.

"Liu? I'm sorry to bother you, but I wanted to ask your opinion." Liu looked up, gazed at Nikita for a long moment then nodded her head. Liu was a petite Asian woman, with straight black hair cut bluntly at her chin line. Nikita had seen her often at various briefings, but had never spoken to her. Liu was a Level Five like Michael and lowly Level Two operatives did not simply approach a higher level operative without a very good reason. Liu gestured gracefully to the chair opposite her desk. Nikita sat down, wondering how to ask the older operative if she had a screening system like Michael's. They sat for a moment in total silence, then Liu slid open a drawer and entered a series of numbers. The security system gave a small beep and Nikita took a deep breath.

"I need to ask a favor." Liu gave no reaction except for the slightest of nods.

"This has to do with Michael?" Nikita gave an equally small nod back.

"I have drawn up a profile and mission plan. I would like to have someone with more experience look it over."

A small frown creased Liu's face. "You have been a mission leader before. Why do you need someone holding your hand now?"

Nikita bit back a sharp retort. She hesitated, realizing she what she was about to expose could ultimately come back to bite her. She took another deep breath. In for a penny, in for a pound. I've already exposed myself by telling her this much .

"My - objectivity - isn't what it should be, for this particular mission." Liu looked unconvinced. "Walter suggested you would be the best operative to review my profile." At the mention of Walter's name, Liu visibly relaxed.

"The safest operative, you mean." She gave Nikita a smile, one that lit up her whole face. Nikita felt herself relax as well. Trust Walter, he always knows the good ones. "Michael is one hell of an operative, and a friend, as much as anyone is a friend here. I'll look it over for you right away, Nikita. When are you going out?"

Nikita got up to leave. "A couple of hours." She resisted the urge to fidget, god knows what could happen to Michael in two hours, and continued her sentence. "Madeline wants to finish with Johansen before we go out." Liu simply nodded. She reached over and deactivated her screening system as Nikita walked out.

************

Chapter 26: Retribution (MA-14, Violence)

Michael was sitting on the floor, his head turned away from the bodies of him team, his legs drawn up and away from his own vomit. He tipped his head back on the pole and attempted to rest. His shoulders ached from the constant pulling of his bonds and it hurt for him to breathe deeply. Cracked ribs, he thought, and adjusted his breathing to minimize the discomfort. So far his vision was all right, except for a nasty headache. The blood had dried, leaving strands of auburn hair hanging stiffly in his eyes. He let his mind wander, trying to connect the few clues he had regarding his captors. Someone with access to Section records, he reflected, and a score to settle with me personally. That had to be the reason he was alive and the rest of his team had been slaughtered. No questions: retribution. The purpose here is torture, not to obtain information. He almost felt relieved. At least he would not have to worry about being given some obscure drug and disclosing intell. They had no interest in accessing his information, they just wanted to beat the hell out of him. Michael had no illusions about his ability to withstand torture and beatings. He knew exactly how much he was able to tolerate; he had approached his limits only a few times in all his years in Section.

The door opened. He lifted his eyes to see the woman enter again, followed by two thugs. Her eyes flickered over him, evaluating his body language, his apparent strength. He kept his face impassive.

"Well, Michael," her voice caressed his name, "how are you feeling?" Michael continued his stoic gaze, not bothering to answer. She reached down and grabbed his hair, jerking his head up, craning his neck at an uncomfortable angle. Her eyes caressed his face. "Would you like some water?" He clenched his teeth over his screaming thirst. She eyed him for a moment longer; he knew he was in complete control of his eyes and face. She glanced over her shoulder and one of the burly men brought over a bottle of water. Releasing his hair, she wrenched the lid off and offered him the open bottle. He let his lips part slightly and she poured the water on his face. Most of the water ran off him, but he was able to get a couple of gulps, feeling the liquid sooth his raw throat. She watched him with what he thought was amusement. She tipped her head to her accomplices. "Take him."

They dragged Michael outside. It was pouring rain and the sky was dark with overhanging clouds. He had not attempted to fight his captors; they simply retied his hands and pulled him up the stairs, flinging him to the ground. He landed heavily on his right shoulder and a bolt of pain shot through him. He lay still for a moment, gathering his breath and his strength, then he rolled to his knees and struggled to his feet. The woman stood in the doorway, watching him.

"Any guesses as to our identity, Michael?" her voice taunted. One of the men struck Michael on his left side, where he had been hit with the rifle. His legs crumpled under him and he fell again, feeling the rocks scrape his face. His inhaled breath was shallow and painful. "C'mon Michael, " she continued, "you're the best of the best. Show me how good you are."

He forced himself up on his knees. The rain was running down his face and he had to blink to clear his vision. He focused on the woman and staggered to his feet. The other man struck him across the face and Michael reeled. Somehow he managed to keep his balance. The first thug kicked at the back of Michael's knees, sending him sprawling. Michael felt an intense burst of pain from his bruised and cracked ribs as he landed. He closed his eyes, concentrated on remaining conscious. The woman crouched down close to him.

"Who am I, Michael?" she whispered.

He pulled himself up to a sitting position. His lips were cracked and bleeding, his throat parched and sore. He wondered if he would be able to talk at all. "I've never met you," he managed to say, "but you must have met me to go to this length for revenge."

Her eyes lit up. "Oh, you are good. This has been several years in the making. Ever since Jovan Milovich."

Michael forced his brain process the information. Milovich... that had been four, five years ago? He and Nikita had foiled an assassination... who had been the group involved? Finally the pieces fell into place. "The Legion," he whispered.

"Ah, Michael, I am impressed. After all these years... We have been studying you ever since that attempt failed. We decided your Nikita was nothing more than a puppet for your directions, but she is your weakness. You became so focused on her possible danger that you missed your own. This way, I damage Section by your loss and revenge the death of my compatriots on your sorry carcass." She looked away and Michael let his eyes close for a moment. He didn't see the blow coming, only a blinding pain when it connected with the right side of his head, then blessed blackness.

************

Chapter 27: The White Room

Nikita walked down the empty hall toward the White Room. Madeline had specifically requested her presence during Johansen's interrogation. She paused for a moment outside the closed door and gathered her thoughts and emotions, putting them under firm control. She hated interrogations, as necessary as they were, and Johansen was a nice guy, someone with whom she had chatted casually several times. She centered her energies on her concern for Michael. Focus on Michael, and nothing else. She pushed open the door and walked in.

Madeline was stalking around the room. She was dressed impeccably, if severely, as was her habit, and her high heels made a loud click as she paced the room. Johansen was a large, teddy-bearish type of man, his long brown hair and beard making him look more like a peaceful aging hippie than a mission profiler for the most covert anti-terrorism unit on the earth. He was strapped to a chair; Nikita refused to think about how he was confined or whether he was in any pain.

"Nikita," Madeline greeted her, "we're just starting to look for the information that would be most helpful for you." She turned her cold brown eyes on the imprisoned man. ""How did they find you?"

"I don't know," Johansen responded. Nikita tried to evaluate his vocal clues. Truth so far, she thought. "They only said that Section One isn't as hidden as well as we like to think." Nikita frowned. That sounded familiar. Who had said that?

"And they told you they wanted what?" Madeline's cold voice echoed slightly in the room. Nikita brought her attention back to the scene in front of her.

"To let them know about certain low-level missions. Nothing too big or too important."

"How did you get the information to them?" Nikita let her concentration wander. The actual process of transferring the information was not her concern. She worked through her memory, trying to identify the sentence that had sparked recognition.

"Was anyone in particular their target?" Madeline's voice broke through Nikita's preoccupation.

"Not at first. Eventually they began to ask for more mission information on Nikita and Michael." Johansen's eyes flickered briefly over to Nikita. She kept her face and eyes impassive and did not respond to his unspoken apology.

"Did they say why?"

"No. I didn't ask." Suddenly her memory clicked on past events and Nikita felt a slow burn of rage start in her stomach.

"How long?" Nikita's voice echoed icily, making both Madeline and Johansen turn toward her. Johansen looked at her blankly. She strode over to the imprisoned man and leaned over him, her hands resting on his confined arms and her face inches from his. "How long have you been telling The Legion where they could get their hands on me or Michael?" She saw Johansen's fear in the minute tightening around his eyes.

"I- only a few months. Nikita - I ..." Nikita spun on her heel and stormed out the door. Madeline followed behind her.

"How do you know?" Madeline's voice was cool and calm as always.

"They said the same thing to me, years ago. That Section wasn't as invisible as we believe. But why now? And why go after Michael?"

Madeline looked her over. "We may never know that. You need to finish updating your mission profile, you're going on line in an hour. I'll finish here." Nikita gave her a brief nod and walked away.

Liu found her at the computer station a few minutes later. Nikita was accessing the mission profile when Liu's slim hand touched her shoulder.

"Updating the mission?" Nikita gave Liu a brief glance over her shoulder.

"Yeah, we just found out a little more about our adversary." Liu leaned in over Nikita and read the computer screen.

"The Legion? They haven't been very active in the past few years."

"Trust me, it's them. I don't know how or why, but they managed to get to Johansen and have been aware of several missions in the past few months. I also don't know why they're going after Michael." Liu reached down and tapped a couple of keys.

"I made a few minor adjustments to your profile. Did you get a chance to look them over?"

"Madeline called me to the White Room to observe Johansen's interrogation, so no, I haven't..." Nikita's voice drifted off as she read the screen. She spun in her chair and gave Liu a frosty stare. "You made yourself mission leader?"

Liu raised a hand deprecatingly. "Not that you are incapable. Hardly that, I reviewed several of your earlier missions. I thought that since you have a ...", she gave Nikita a meaningful look, "...vested interest in this particular mission that we should use it to the team's advantage." She turned Nikita's chair back to the computer. "I thought you would rather be posted here," Liu indicated a position on the topographic map, "rather than stuck in the van, coordinating the attack." Nikita turned and looked Liu straight in the eye.

"Yeah, that might be a better use of my abilities," she responded, a small smile pulling at her mouth. Liu nodded, her eyes sparkling in suppressed humor.

"I thought you might agree."

"What did you think of the team I selected?" Liu reached around her and scrolled down the computer display.

"Tyler, Stillman, Chavez. You've picked some of the best operatives available. It's a good team and has the best probability of success."

Nikita nodded. "So when do we brief?"

Liu stepped back. "Right now. We go live in an hour."

************

Chapter 28: Assault (MA-14, some violence)

Nikita sat in the cold dark field, her back against a tree, looking up at the stars. The Northern Hemisphere constellations were so different from the ones she had seen growing up. She recalled sitting on various missions with Michael, listening to him tell her the names of the different star patterns. Her stomach twisted into a tighter knot. What will I do if..., she refused to let herself complete the thought. Instead she concentrated on Orion, rising higher and higher in the sky. The Milky Way was a faint rainbow of stars shimmering in the cloudless night sky. No moon. That was good, it meant the darkness was more complete and the incoming team would be harder to spot.

Liu's soft voice came over the comm unit. "Start sequencing."

Nikita rose silently and followed the shadows she knew were Tyler and Stillman ahead of her. Chavez was to be a few seconds behind her. They crossed the field swiftly. Their target was a bunker set into the base of a low-rising hill, about a half-kilometer away. They moved swiftly and soundlessly across the ground, staying in the shadows as much as possible, crouching low to the ground when there was no cover. She crept up next to Stillman and Chavez joined them a few seconds later. Tyler had gone on ahead to clear out any exterior guards. Nikita felt her adrenaline course through her body and her nervousness heightened her senses. The area around them was clear, perhaps there were guards at the entrance, but she had complete confidence in Tyler's abilities. Her earlier worry for Michael had transformed into the fatalistic certainty that carried her through most of her missions. If I live, I live. If I die, I die. Just do the job. The possibility of Michael's death was shoved ruthlessly aside, not to be dealt with now.

She ran her mind over the details of the bunker, the few details that they had had for their briefing. Several small rooms, two entrance points.

She spoke quietly into her comm unit. "Birkoff. Number of adversaries." She could hear the faint tapping of the computer keys in the van.

"Hard to tell," Birkoff's voice came back quietly. "Being below ground screws with some of the surveillance equipment. Best guess is six to ten enemies stationed around and within the bunker."

"Less two," interjected Tyler's voice. "We have access."

Liu joined the conversation. "All teams to second mark." Chavez moved off silently to join Tyler at the secondary entrance. Nikita and Stillman moved forward soundlessly. Stillman stepped over the body at the doorway and entered the bunker, Nikita close behind him, giving him cover. In her comm unit, Nikita heard a burst of gunfire. That's it, they know we're here, she thought, and began to move quicker, with less caution. She moved from room to room, searching. Stillman was clearing the hall of any hostiles; she heard his gun fire several times as she checked the next room down the hall. Still empty. She moved down the hall toward the next door.

Michael awoke slowly. His head throbbed and he had a hard time getting to complete consciousness. When he opened his eyes, the room swayed around him. He closed his eyes again and concentrated on the cold floor beneath his cheek. The room is not moving, he told himself firmly. He opened his eyes again and struggled to get into a sitting position. They had not bothered to confine him to the pole again; they had simply dumped him on the floor after he lost consciousness. He attempted to focus his eyes on the doorway, but the door tipped from side to side, like a boat on the sea. He felt a wave of nausea pass over him and gritted his teeth to keep control of his stomach. Concussion, he told himself firmly, keep control. The door crashed open, the sound making a deafening echo in his aching head. The woman entered the room, accompanied by the sound of shooting. Gunfire? he thought hazily. The woman ran behind him, wrapped an arm around his neck, and forced his head back. He felt the cold blade of a knife against his throat. She was waiting for someone, who?

For a few endless moments, Michael held perfectly still, waiting. Then Nikita appeared in the doorway, her gun at the ready and aimed over his shoulder at his captor.

"No further," the woman hissed. Nikita made a short abortive move to the left and the woman pressed a little harder on the knife. He felt the cold blade slip into his skin and a warm trickle of blood run down his exposed throat. Nikita hesitated.

"Do it, Nikita." Michael's voice was hoarse. She fixed her gaze on him. He stared at her meaningfully. He didn't mean to drop her weapon and he knew she was fully aware of that. "Do it."

"You know I will slit his throat before the bullet hits me," the woman responded. "Put your weapon down." Nikita glanced back between the woman and Michael, indecision written plainly on her face. "Do it!" the woman cried.

"Nikita, don't..." Michael grated out. The knife was pressed harder against his throat and more blood burned down his neck. Nikita crouched down and put her gun on the ground.

"Push it over here," the woman instructed. Nikita stayed crouched and pushed the gun towards them, then suddenly rolled in a somersault over to the side. There was a quick burst of gunfire from the doorway and Michael flinched. The woman behind him was hit in the face and he felt her blood and bone strike his back as he fell.

Michael lay where he had fallen. He had landed on his left side, on his injured ribs, although thankfully he had not fallen very fast or far and therefore had not put one of the ribs through his lung. But the pain was sufficiently acute to prevent him from trying to rise.

"Michael!" He heard Nikita cry his name as she scrambled to her feet. Ken Stillman was at his side before her, gently helping Michael back to a sitting position. She moved behind him, and began to cut his bindings as Ken rose and holstered his gun.

"Good shooting, Ken." She spoke over his head, to Stillman.

"Luckily Michael had the sense to get out of the way," Stillman replied with dry humor. The last of the ropes gave way and Michael could not suppress a grunt as his arms and shoulders adjusted to the sudden freedom. He put his hands on the ground and got part way to his feet, but his numbed arms gave way. The room gave a sudden lurch and he reeled, falling back to his knees.

"Michael?" Nikita's face entered his narrowing field of vision.

"Concussion," Michael managed to get out. He felt her strong arms on his, helping to support him. Stillman's voice was in the background, calling for backup. Within seconds, he heard footsteps, and then strong arms helped get him on his feet. With Stillman on one side of Michael and Tyler on the other, the team moved out.

"Liu, we need a closer van pick up," Nikita called on her comm unit. Michael found it disconcerting and more than a little annoying that he could not be part of the conversation. "Michael is injured and cannot be transported back to your location." That was annoying, too. He was not a child to be discussed as if he were not present. Apparently receiving new instructions, the team began to move. Nikita and Chavez went out first, protecting the others as Michael was assisted out of the bunker.

Michael lowered his arms from the supporting shoulders. "I can walk. Give me a gun," he ordered. The three men glanced at him sideways, then all their eyes turned to Nikita, looking for approval. She looked him over, assessing his status. Michael bit back a sharp comment; I am not a new recruit that needs her approval, for God's sake! Even as the thought crossed his mind, the ground shifted beneath his feet and he wavered. Stillman moved quickly and put his shoulder under Michael's again, stabilizing him. Michael opened his mouth to order him away, only to be cut off by Nikita.

"Michael, shut up and let us get you back to the van." Michael felt his whole body tense with his fury.

Stillman felt it too, and interjected softly, "Michael, please, let us help you to the van. You're in no condition to fight now." Michael met Stillman's eyes and read the concern written there. He nodded and let the other operative help him move as quickly and quietly as possible to the van.

Nikita entered the van, gave her team a quick once-over and nodded to Liu. Liu knocked on the van partition, instructing the driver to go. Michael was sitting, slumped, in one corner. The pose was so different from his usual erect posture that Nikita felt her minor irritation at him slip away. Idiot man, even when he's injured he can't stand to take orders from anyone, she thought with amused affection. She reached behind Chavez to pull out the van's first aid kit, then sat down next to Michael.

She touched his hand gently when he did not respond to her movement. "Michael?" He slowly raised his head and turned his eyes to meet her gaze. Nikita took her first good look at him. He looked terrible. His face was bruised and scratched, there was a huge swelling over his right eye and his hair was sticky with dried blood. Thin trails of blood ran down his neck; fresh blood from the shallow cuts just inflicted, dried streaks from his ears from earlier beatings. She raised a hand and gently brushed his filthy hair off his face. "Are you all right?" She touched the kit in her lap. "Anything in here you need?"

He shook his head, wincing at the motion. "Nothing in there. I need..." his voice drifted off and his eyes drooped. He seemed to gather his thoughts together with difficulty. "How long to Section?"

She put the first aid box on the seat next to her. "A couple of hours to the airport, another two hours in the air." She gave the van a quick scan; the men were either sleeping, or pretending to, and Liu and Birkoff had their complete attention on the computer, writing the mission report. "Why don't you sleep, Michael?"

He tipped his head back against the wall of the van. He let a long sigh slip out, then wrapped his arms around his midsection protectively. She caught his movement and gave him a shrewd glance. "Michael? What else hurts?"

He opened his bleary eyes. His pupils were huge and dark; he appeared to be struggling to focus his vision on her. "Ribs," he responded hoarsely. "I think they're just cracked." Birkoff appeared in front of them, a bottle of water held out to Michael. Michael raised his eyes to the younger man and nodded thanks as he took the offered liquid. Birkoff moved as if to touch him, stopped and reconsidered, then simply nodded back and returned to Liu and the computer. Michael opened the bottle and drank thirstily.

Nikita put a hand on his thigh. He winced involuntarily at her light touch. She gave him a rueful smile. "Does anything not hurt?" He glanced over at her and his mouth twitched in a small smile full of black humor.

"No. They were very thorough."

Nikita pushed the first aid kit aside and slid over on the seat, away from Michael. She patted her lap invitingly. "Lie down," she murmured. He gave her a glance, the blank look on his face conveying his response. She leaned over to speak softly into his ear. "Michael, look around you. Everyone on this van came on this mission because they like and respect you. Do you think any of them will go running to Operations or Madeline?" His eyes flickered around the van, assessing his companions. His eyes met hers and she watched his blank mask drop. The fatigue and pain he had been trying to suppress came out from behind his stoic facade. She took one of his hands and pulled him gently towards her. He lowered himself to the seat slowly, letting his breath out in a soft grunt as he stretched out, his head in her lap. She ran her fingers lightly over his temple, brushing his tangled hair off his face. "Go to sleep, Michael. I'll wake you when we reached the airplane."

Nikita pushed her hair back off her face, fighting her overwhelming weariness. Michael was stretched out on the seats next to her, his head pillowed on her thigh. She had awakened him when they transferred from the van to the plane: he had been groggy and unfocused, but able to answer basic questions, which was a good sign. She had realized how exhausted he was by the fact she had not had to convince him to lie down for the plane flight. She heard soft footsteps behind her; Liu walked up the aisle and bent to speak softly in her ear.

"We'll be landing in a few minutes. You should wake him up," she nodded at the sleeping man.

Nikita tipped her head up to met Liu's eyes. "Have you notified Medical? I don't know whether he'll be able to walk down there by himself."

Liu nodded. "They're on alert and will come on board to take him off."

Nikita nodded her thanks and returned her attention to Michael, stroking his hair gently. She had complete confidence that the team would protect her and Michael; neither Operations nor Madeline would hear of any 'inappropriate' behavior between them. But he needed to be awake and responsive before the Medical team arrived.

Michael stirred in response to her touch. She leaned down to whisper to him. "Michael? Michael, you need to get up now. We're almost at Section." His eyes opened slowly, his fingers flexing on her leg as he regained consciousness. She helped him up to a sitting position. His hands went to his head, rubbing his temples absently. She let some of her concern seep into her voice. "How are you feeling?"

He glanced at her, barely turning his head. "Fine." She turned away. Her face must have shown the hurt she felt at his standard answer, because he reached out and turned her face back to his. His voice was pitched low and soft; it would not carry back to the rest of the team. He amended his statement. "I will be fine." He paused, his look intense. "Thank you for coming after me." She slid her hand up to the one of his that rested on her cheek, turned her head and laid her lips on the hard callused palm of his hand.

She lifted her eyes to meet his. They sat, unmoving, their gazes locked on each other until the plane landed with a slight bump and she let his hand drop.

Nikita waited and watched Michael disembark the plane. She bit back some acid words for him as he refused to leave the plane except on his feet. Offers of a wheelchair or a stretcher were sharply denied. He finally consented to hold onto one of the technicians after she caustically remarked on the possibility of his falling on his face in front of Operations. Damn the man, his pride would kill him yet, she thought with exasperation. She pushed herself up to her feet, feeling her own exhaustion pulling at her, and left the plane with the rest of her team. As she expected, Operations and Madeline were waiting for them. They were speaking with Michael as she entered Section and she felt a flash of anger. Whatever it was, it could wait until the man got down to Medical. Even as the thought crossed her mind, Michael turned and walked away, obediently accompanying the technicians. She followed him with her eyes, watching him move stiffly down the hall.

"Nikita." Operations' voice brought her attention back to the pair in front of her. His eyes turned to watch Michael's painful progress, then the cold gaze returned to her. "It seems your mission was successful."

She kept her voice cool and unemotional. "Yes, it was."

"Debrief with Madeline now." He turned and walked away, Madeline following behind him. Nikita paused for one brief second, tempted to tell him to go to Hell. She wanted to go down to Medical immediately and check on Michael's condition. What would Michael do? She felt she should have the initials WWMD tattooed on her wrist; it certainly had become her credo in the past year. What would Michael do? - Michael would debrief. Dutifully, she turned her back on Michael and followed her superiors.

************

Chapter 29: Picking Up the Pieces

Nikita hated Medical. She hated its sterility, its pristine whiteness, and especially the scent of antiseptic and blood that no cleaning could every completely eradicate. She sat next to Michael's bed, watching him and waiting for him to wake up. After her debrief, which she suspected Madeline had extended as long as possible just to annoy Nikita (and, of course, note and evaluate any possible reactions she might have shown due to her annoyance), she had showered, changed into street clothes, written her report and checked her PDA for upcoming assignments. Only when she was sure she had spent sufficient time 'taking care of business' did she find her way to Medical and Michael. Michael would be proud, she thought, putting him at the bottom of the 'to do' list. She hated it. She wanted the right to show her concern, the prerogative to put his well being above anything else in her life. In her present mood, she almost hated him, knowing he would approve of her actions. He would be annoyed to find her by his bed, feeling her mere presence would reveal too much to Section.

Her eyes slid over him. He lay on his back, his breathing shallow but regular. He was dressed in 'Medical whites', loose fitting drawstring pants and a sleeveless T-shirt. She could see the bandages wrapping his ribs under the shirt. Someone on the Medical staff had given him a bath; his hair was clean and spread across the pillow as he slept and the deep bruising was more evident on his pale skin. He had not been joking about The Legion's thoroughness; nearly every visible part of his body showed deep purple and black marks. Nikita moved silently across the floor and picked up his file from the end of the bed. His injuries were pretty much what she had expected; a concussion (recommendation: bed rest for 48 hours), cracked ribs (recommendation: bandages and no active duty for at least two months, Michael will argue with the doctor about that,), general bruising, contusions and lacerations. There was a note from one of the nurses indicating that Michael had refused any pain medication and that this was a 'standard response' from this particular patient. She shook her head slightly. If there were a more stubborn man than Michael, she'd be damned if she knew of any. She put the file back down and glanced up to see Michael's eyes on her.

"Hi." His voice was hoarse and he glanced over to the water pitcher next to the bed. He reached over to get it, and grunted as the movement pulled at his ribs. He looked at his hand, where the IV was attached, and let his head drop back, both pain and frustration evident in the motion. She walked around the bed and poured him a glass, putting a straw in the cup and slipping a hand behind his shoulders to help him drink. He stiffened slightly at her touch, but apparently his thirst overrode his concern about their contact as he relaxed against her arm and drank. Her arm absorbed his body heat; just touching him was like a drug. She released him unwillingly when he finished, and stepped away, turning her back to the ever-present camera to hide her reaction. When she had her face under complete control, she looked at him. He was calmly waiting, his hands folded over his abdomen.

"Hi yourself. How are you feeling?" Her fingers itched to stroke his jaw. It was a mistake to come, she thought. He wouldn't have been hurt if I wasn't here and I don't have sufficient control. His pale green gaze seemed to read everything in her face.

"I'm fine." His voice was cool. His control helped her regain hers. "You looked at the chart. What is this," he indicated the IV, "for?"

"Antibiotics. You were pretty filthy when they brought you in." He nodded. "The file says you're going to be here a couple of days."

He blinked, hiding any reaction. "If they say so." She gave him a hard look. If he thought he would disregard medical advise, he'd have another thing coming.

"Why won't you take some pain medication? Your ribs must be sore and it may help you to sleep."

"No." No emotion, just a simple statement. His face was blank, his eyes shuttered. She felt the hurt and frustration rising within her again and fought to push the emotions aside. Welcome back, Michael... she thought, knowing even as it crossed her mind that she was being unfair. "You look tired," he continued, his voice still calm and unemotional. His glance flickered over her face, and she could suddenly read both caution and concern in his gaze.

"I am," she answered honestly. She stepped up to him and brought the water glass to his lips again. Her hand slid behind his head for support and she let her fingers slip into his hair, gently stoking his scalp while the camera view was obscured. He tipped his head up to her as she released her hold on him and returned the glass to the bedside table. She did not step back this time, choosing to stay close to him. She ran a finger down his bare arm, feeling his muscles twitch slightly in response to her caress. "I'm done for today," she said, finally breaking the companionable silence. "I'm going to go home and catch up on a day's worth of sleep. I'll stop in and check on you tomorrow, all right?" She kept her voice friendly but impersonal; her eyes were fixed on his.

He held her gaze with his own clear stare. "I'd..." he paused briefly, "I'd like that." She let a smile curve her lips, very slightly. For Michael, that was one hell of a breakthrough. Almost ranks up there with kissing me in Section. She stroked his arm with her index finger again.

"See you tomorrow," she murmured. She left his room, then turned and looked at him once more through the closing glass doors. His eyes locked on hers. They stared at each other, unblinkingly, for several long seconds. Finally Michael blinked, and she saw his pain and exhaustion cross his face. He gave her a tiny jerk of his head, go on home she interpreted, and she gave him a slight nod in response.

************

Chapter 30: Epilogue

Michael sat at his desk, reviewing a profile for an upcoming mission. Another mission he would run from Comm, not in the field. He shifted slightly in his seat; the bandages around his chest were not painful, but definitely annoying. His fingers flew over the keyboard, inputting his instructions even as his mind calculated exactly how many hours remained until Medical would release him back to active status. His peripheral vision caught her movement as she passed the open window of his office. He finished entering the necessary information, hearing the click of the door as he typed, then sat back and looked up at her.

Nikita stood in his office doorway, shoulder pressed against the jamb. Her hair was freshly washed and still damp as it hung down her back. For a brief moment he recalled her scent and the feel of her in his arms. He quickly pushed the memory aside.

"Finished your debrief?"

"Yes." She stepped further into the office, and leaned a hand on the chair. "I'll be glad when you're back in the field with us, Michael. They're your missions and it's good to have you on tactical, but I -" she caught and corrected herself, "-we - like having you in the field with us." He nodded, his eyes caressing her face.

"Going home?"

"I'm done for today." She paused. "Want to get a coffee?" Her eyes caught and held his.

He tipped his head slightly to the side, considering. "Why not?" he said. He caught the quick flash of pleasure on her face, quickly hidden. He shut down the computer and rose to his feet with barely a twinge of pain. His hand touched the small of her back as he courteously held the door open for her, then he pulled back. His fingers tingled from the electricity that arced between them. He found it somewhat amazing that sparks didn't physically fly when he touched her. Habitually he scanned the corridor for any observers; the hallway was deserted. They walked side by side out past Comm, their strides matching.

"Night, Birkoff," Nikita called, her voice casual, as if she and Michael always left Section together. Birkoff gave them a shrewd look, but made no comment, simply waving his hand at them as he rolled off to another console. Michael gave Operations' aerie a quick reflexive glance; he saw the older man turning to watch them leave. He felt the skin between his shoulder blades twitch, as if expecting a knife. Perhaps this wasn't the wisest move, to be seen leaving Section together, but maybe he was absorbing some of Nikita's recklessness. What was best for Section was not always best for Michael. Not a particularly radical thought, perhaps, but one he had not entertained in a long, long time.

At the coffee shop, they sat in a corner booth towards the back. He allowed several minutes to pass, carefully observing the clientele, before he laid his hand on the table, palm up. She stared at his hand for a moment, as if she had never seen it before, then raised puzzled eyes to his. Slowly, tentatively, she put her hand in his. He stroked her fingertips gently with his thumb. They sat together, in comfortable silence.