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Day One

Nikita sat on the plane, indulging her senses in the rare luxury of a commercial first class seat. It had been a long flight, but at least the accommodations were generous. Most times she flew on Section airplanes, which, while adequate, were hardly extravagant. The comfortable leather seat and extensive legroom were an uncommon treat for her. She stretched her long legs, kicked off her high-heeled pumps and glanced over at Michael, sitting next to her. His head was tilted back and his eyes were closed, although she doubted he was sleeping. Dozing, perhaps, but always, always aware of his surroundings. She glanced out the window, at the patchwork of fields moving below them; the colors varying by crop and irrigation patterns, the occasional minuscule car or truck rolling below. She took another sip of the water sitting in front of her and recalled the conversation with Madeline... last night? this morning? Her body clock was confused by the multiple time zones changes she had passed through during this long, long day.

Michael's call had come in the middle of the night. She had stumbled through a quick shower and dressed hurriedly, not really paying much attention to her clothing. When she strode into Section, she had been surprised to see only the graveyard shift manning the communications center. Why a call in the night, if nothing critical was breaking? Michael must have seen her come in; he left his office to meet her at Comm.

"Michael." She had greeted him placidly. He looked as elegant and composed as ever. He made her feel bedraggled, with her wet hair hanging down her back and her feet bare in her sneakers.

"Good morning," he had greeted her back. His eyes took in her appearance from her head to her feet. "Sorry to pull you out of bed. We have a briefing with Madeline." They had turned as one to head for Madeline's office.

She gave him a sidelong glance. "Is it morning yet?"

His mouth had twitched, very slightly, in a smile. "It's 4AM. It's morning."

"Yeah, well, I'm not a morning person." His eyes had caressed her face, a small shine of amusement glinting in their peridot depths. She changed the subject. "So what's so important to call me in at 4AM?"

He shook his head slightly, tucking a cinnamon curl behind his ear. "We'll find out."

Madeline had been sitting at her desk, looking as cool and composed as ever. Does she ever sleep? Nikita had wondered irreverently. Perhaps she's a vampire and can stay up indefinitely in Section's underground. She pushed her thoughts aside to concentrate on Madeline's briefing. Never, never let your guard down around this woman, she reminded herself. Madeline was like a cobra; coiled, watching and waiting for an incautious lapse of concentration in order to strike.

"Good morning, Nikita. I'm sorry we had to wake you up this morning," Madeline had greeted her calmly. My God, I must look terrible. Everyone keeps apologizing to me. Nikita bit off the tart, sarcastic response that jumped to her mind. She had opted for silence, simply tilted her head in response to Madeline's greeting and slipped into one of the seats.

"I know you both just returned for the Bolivian mission, but something came up very unexpectedly and you are the only team available at the moment," Madeline had continued. Michael nodded as he seated himself next to Nikita. "We have had some intelligence sent to us from the Agency. It appears a bombing may be attempted in the United States." She slid two PDAs across the desk to them. "All the information has been downloaded for you. You will be leaving immediately to take a flight to Seattle, then a limousine has been arranged to take you to Olympia. I have instructed luggage to be packed for you, and," her cool gaze raked over both operatives, "you will need to change. Your cover is that Michael is a lobbyist visiting the capital and Nikita, you are his wife." Of course, thought Nikita ironically, can't pass up a chance to throw us at each other.

"Change?" Michael had echoed. Madeline suppressed a smile.

""It will become more clear to you when you read your mission profile. For now, suffice it to say that that area of the United States dresses very casually for almost every occasion and Olympia is a small town, Michael. Most of the residents have no idea who Gaultier is. Your suit would immediately mark you as an outsider."

Michael nodded. "Of course."

Now Nikita stretched again and glanced at her watch. 3PM, but what time zone was her watch set to? Useless, she thought, to worry about what time it is until we get to Seattle. She gave the area around her a quick glance. No one was paying any attention to her. She pulled her PDA out of her purse and began to review the information again. Their target was a small ultra-violent wing of Earth First!, an environmental activist group. Apparently the group planned to target a community celebration of Earth Day, exploding a bomb to protest the 'rape of the environment'. The target date was Saturday; today was, what, Wednesday? They would be meeting their contact at lunch tomorrow, while she and Michael played tourist.

She suppressed a sigh of frustration. Didn't Operations and Madeline ever tire of pushing Michael and her together as a 'couple'? She and Michael had struggled so long and so hard to come to some kind of personal relationship, strictly outside the bounds of Section, and then to have the lines blurred by these kind of missions... Intentionally done, she realized, they are pushing us together to keep us off-balance, to confuse and distract us. She felt a cold shiver run down her spine. How will we ever be able to manage this? When is it Michael-and-Nikita and when is it Michael-and-Nikita-on-a-mission? She hated how Section used and manipulated their feelings for each other. But she also knew it was much too late for either she or Michael to try to sever their relationship; their feelings for one another were too deep, too critically important to both of them.

Without conscious thought, her eyes were drawn to Michael. Dressed in a green turtleneck and khaki slacks, he looked the epitome of 'business casual'. His beautiful hands were clasped in his lap, over his folded jacket. With a slight shock of surprise, Nikita realized his gun was in his inside jacket pocket, not instantly available. When was the last time he had let his guard down so far? His eyes opened, as if he sensed her watching him.

"What?" He must have read something in her face. She gave him a small smile.

"Nothing. You just seemed so... relaxed. I was trying to remember the last time I saw you that way."

Michael picked up her hand and kissed her knuckles. "We need to go on vacation more." She felt the shock of recognition like a bucket of cold water in her face. Mission, this is a mission. He is playing his role and warning me to play mine. She carefully hid any disappointment from her face, and dropped into her role.

"Vacation, huh?" She gave him a teasing smile. "More like a working vacation, you mean. You are planning on some meetings, right?"

His eyes were warm, and she was unsure whether it was an act or signaling approval of her resumption of her part. "Only a few, only a few." He glanced at her PDA, lying in her lap. "You're on vacation, too," he continued, with blatant mock-seriousness. "You are not supposed to be doing work." He took the PDA, closed it down and returned it to her purse.

"Just checking my calendar," she protested smilingly. He kissed her knuckles again and sat back, still holding her hand. Uncertain whether this part of the act or not, Nikita moved to pull her hand back. His fingers tightened, refusing to release hers.

He glanced over at her. "This vacation is too short," he said. "Let's enjoy it as much as we possibly can." She gave him a glowing smile of happiness, one that curved her lips but did not reach her eyes. And what, exactly, did he mean by that? She realized she was already struggling to determine what was 'real' and what was 'mission'. She gave a small sigh and rested her head on his shoulder. This will be an interesting trip...

***

As the plane began to descend, Nikita sat up higher and glanced out the window. The view nearly took her breath away. The plane was literally flying over the shoulder of a mountain, so close she felt she could have touched the snowy glaciers if she were riding on the wing. Behind it rose several more peaks, all shimmering rosily in the late afternoon sun.

She nudged Michael. "Look, isn't it beautiful?" His eyes swept over her face, rather than the scenery outside the plane. "I wonder which are which?" She reached for the in-flight magazine.

The woman in the seat ahead of her turned around. "I can tell you, if you'd like." Her brown eyes were friendly and open. Nikita caught Michael's immediate tension and she squeezed his fingers lightly.

"I've never been to this part of the country. Is this Mt. Rainier?" Nikita gave her best bright vacuous smile.

"Yes. If you look to the right a little, you can see Mt. St. Helens," the woman gestured vaguely. Nikita peered in the direction of her hand. "On the left is Mt. Adams. Behind that is Mt. Hood, then Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and, along the horizon, the Three Sisters. They're in Central Oregon." Nikita gazed down the string of mountains, their craggy peaks glowing in the waning sunlight. It was a beautiful sight; she had never had the chance to see mountains like these before.

"You're going home?" she asked her helpful companion. This was where she really excelled over Michael, the art of small talk. He gave her a sharp glance, but remained silent.

"Oh, yes, I've been out east for the past month. It's good to come back. You're visiting?"

Nikita nodded. "We're going to Olympia."

The woman's face fell slightly. "Oh, Olympia." Then she brightened. "Well, you'll have to make sure to come up and see Seattle. There's not much to do in Olympia."

***

Michael eyed Nikita as she continued chatting artlessly with the woman. Have to give her credit, she is quite accomplished at the art of talking without saying anything, he thought approvingly. His own natural reserve made setting up a cover story more difficult; within minutes Nikita had effortlessly laid the groundwork for their entire mission. She had polished her acting abilities; her glowing exterior gave no indication of the darker thoughts that lurked within her mind. It still gave him a small shock to realize how adept she had become at hiding herself, how much she had become like him. She glanced out the window at the lofty mountain peaks below them and for a moment, just a moment, her mask dropped and he saw the innocent young woman he had once met, long ago. She looked over at him, her eyes glowing, and said something about looking out the window. He let her words flow past him and concentrated on her face, enjoying her enjoyment.

"Michael," she said again and he forced himself to focus on her words. "I said, aren't you enjoying the view?"

He gave her a small smile, a real smile, not a mission one. "I am." She blushed slightly as she caught his meaning and gave him a gentle smile back.

***

The trip to Olympia was uneventful. The limousine deposited them at the Bed-and-Breakfast that would be their 'base camp' for the mission. It was a beautiful Italianate Victorian painted various shades of blue and cream, overlooking a fingertip of the Puget Sound. Rather than trying to find a decent meal in a strange town, Michael gave the proprietor a generous tip and asked her to order dinner in for them. Nikita leaned against a doorframe, rubbing her temples and feeling her exhaustion pulling at her like a lead weight. She had napped briefly in the car; rather than refreshing her, the catnap had made her feel worse.

She glanced around at their surroundings while Michael talked to the innkeeper, noting the beautiful period furniture, the mahogany woodwork, and the various doors and windows that could be used for ingress and egress. His conversation over, Michael picked up their luggage and approached her, his eyes flickering over the rooms and hallway. He could probably better describe the furnishings after his split-second surveillance than she could after several minutes of observation, she thought sourly. Her fatigue was resulting in bad temper and an incipient headache.

"Darling?" Michael gestured to the stairs. She tossed the hanging bag on her shoulder and preceded him up the curving stairs. Their room was on the third floor. It was charming, furnished in chintz fabrics and white wicker and tucked under the gables of the roofline was... one queen sized bed. Nikita dumped her bag on the bed unceremoniously and turned to Michael with a suspicious glint in her eye. He put the luggage down with considerably more care, then raised his hands, palms out to her in supplication. "I didn't make the arrangements, you know that."

She whirled away from him in irritation. When are we Michael-and-Nikita and when are we Michael-and-Nikita-on-a-mission? she thought again. She stood at the window, arms crossed, and watched a sailboat slowly cruise by before she said, "I hate when they play games like this with us."

He moved to stand behind her, not touching her, but close enough for her to feel his body heat radiating off him. "The bombing is not a game." She glanced over her shoulder at him; he held her eyes for a moment, then shifted his gaze to the boat on the water.

"I know that. But you aren't going to tell me they couldn't have found another team, another scenario, for this mission." Her headache ratcheted up another notch. He put his hands in his pants pockets and walked away, moving smoothly across the room.

"No, I won't argue that. But this is the profile that was designed and it's our job to complete the mission."

"Including sleeping together?" Her voice was low, but laced with anger. She turned away from the window to glare at him. "Is having sex part of the mission profile too, Michael?"

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "We are supposed to be married, Nikita. It would be suspicious to ask for separate bedrooms." She turned away, feeling her face grow warm under his scrutiny. He lowered his voice to a soft whisper. "This is not the Armel mission. There is no surveillance. What we," he corrected himself, "what you, chose to do or not do in this room is none of Section's business." She turned to meet his cool, unblinking gaze. Several long seconds ticked by. Finally he broke their locked stares, glancing down at the luggage at his feet. "Shall we unpack?"

***

Sandra, the innkeeper, came up to tell them when their dinner arrived. She insisted they use the kitchen of the inn, rather than eating in their room. When they entered the kitchen, it was apparent that Sandra had been busy. The table was set, complete with flowers, the food was waiting for them, and a bottle of wine stood open and ready. Nikita felt her stomach contract at the smell of their food and wondered briefly when she had last eaten. Several so-called meals on the airplanes, she thought, no wonder my head hurts.

Michael moved to the table and poured them both a glass of wine as Nikita sat down. She was so hungry she didn't even ask what exactly had been ordered for them. She took a few quick bites of the various dishes, deciding which one she liked best. She sipped the wine he offered her and concentrated on moving her head as little as possible to help minimize the throbbing in her temples. The touch of his hand on hers made her start slightly. She raised her eyes to meet his intense green gaze.

"I asked if you wanted to walk around town tonight after dinner," he repeated. We need to do reconnaissance, she translated. She blinked, struggling to focus her thoughts. Her headache was impeding her thought processes.

"Oh, honey, that sounds like such fun," I know we need to do it, "but I have such a headache... can I take a raincheck?" Can it be done tomorrow? He gave her a deep, searching look. Whatever he saw in her face must have convinced him of her truthfulness for he nodded his agreement.

His hand slid across the table to take hers. "I'm sorry, darling, I didn't realize you were indisposed." She looked into his eyes, seeing the real concern in his peridot eyes.

She gave him a gentle smile, a real one. "Unless you can crawl inside my head, there's no reason for you to apologize. You didn't know." His fingers tightened on her hand.

"Let's finish eating and get you to bed. Perhaps I will take a short walk by myself, then."

She gave him a sharp glance. "Do you think you should? By yourself, at night in a strange town?"

He stroked her fingertips. "I'll be fine. We're only a couple of blocks from downtown." No more argument. It needs to be done.

She nodded, accepting his reasoning, and changed the subject. "This is wonderful. What did you order?"

He gave her a small smile, a real one that warmed his eyes. "I have no idea."

***

Michael walked along the streets, observing both the town and its nighttime denizens. He had changed into his customary black clothes: long coat, sweater and slacks, and knew he looked formidable and slightly threatening; even the panhandlers left him alone. His eyes swept from side to side: observing, noting, and calculating. Even as he processed all the information, another part of his mind returned to Nikita. How did I miss her headache? Her pallor, her short temper and her fatigue were all indications she was feeling unwell and he should have realized it. He had accompanied her back to their room, changed his clothes and had intended to make sure she went straight to bed, but she had told him, in no uncertain terms, to go and complete the initial surveillance.

"I can get undressed without your assistance, Michael," she had said sharply, giving him a firm push out the door. Stretching her arms across the doorway, she prevented him from reentering the room. She looked him up and down from under her lashes, a look he found particularly provocative, as she said, "The sooner you're done, the sooner you're back."

Michael crossed the street, heading south on the main street. The sky was draped in dark clouds that threatened rain; no moonlight slipped through the gray cloudbank. The old iron-façade buildings were dark and shadowy; the streetlights gave only enough light to partially cut the gloom of the night. Ahead, at the top of the hill, the Capitol dome glowed in the darkness, towering above the smaller buildings that surrounded it. Even as his eyes continued to scan his surroundings, his mind remained centered on Nikita. What, exactly, did she mean by that? One minute she was glowering at him because there was only one bed, the next minute she was inviting him to join her...Of course, he had been standing in the hall, with the door to their room open. Part of the mission, he thought, uncertain whether he was disappointed or not. A small park glimmered in the darkness on his left. His mind snapped back to the mission. There. According to their intelligence, that was where the bombing attempt would be made. His eyes scanned the park in the dim light. Too dark. We will need to come tomorrow and see it in the daylight in order to make appropriate plans, he decided. He glanced around, spotting a small coffee shop across the street. His plan set for tomorrow, he headed back to the B-and-B.

***

Despite his best efforts to be quiet, the door gave a muffled click as the lock turned. He pushed the door open and his eyes automatically moved to the bed to look for Nikita. The room was dark except for the light from the hallway spilling over his shoulder, making her golden hair appear silvery and glimmering on the pistol she held, two handed, pointed steadily and directly at his heart. The air between them crackled with tension. He stood perfectly still for several heartbeats, giving her time to recognize him, then closed the door with his booted heel. In the same instant, she aimed the gun at the ceiling and released the hammer. She let out a sigh, engaged the safety on the pistol, and slipped it back under her pillow. He moved silently into the room and took off his coat, hanging it in the closet. She turned on a bedside light and lay back on the bed; her movement drew his eyes to her again. She was dressed only in a T-shirt and panties, her eyes were heavy lidded and her hair was sleep-tousled; the overall impression was incredibly sexy, incredibly dangerous. He was half-tempted to turn right around and go back out into the night.

"How was your walk?" she asked, her voice husky with sleep. He reacted as if her voice was a caress and felt a shiver run down his spine. He controlled his body with an effort.

"Fine. I'd like to take you by a little park I saw; it looked," he paused, searching for the right word, "interesting."

"Interesting, hmm?" Her voice and eyes transmitted her amusement at his choice of words. He turned his back and pulled off his black sweater, reaching in the dresser for a clean undershirt to wear.

He spoke without turning around. "How's your headache?" The sheets rustled as she adjusted her position in the bed. He turned around to see she had turned her back to him, facing the half-opened window and gazing out at the darkness outside. He was partially amused and partially relieved by her averted gaze. Modesty was not a common commodity in Section; between the lack of privacy in the ready rooms and the necessity of close quarters during long missions, most operatives quickly lost what little qualms they may have once had about exposing themselves. Certainly Michael had no inhibitions about revealing his body, except with this woman. This was a delicate, dangerous situation between them and he had already decided to proceed very cautiously. He slipped out of his pants and put on a pair of comfortable sweatpants.

In answer to his question, she waved a vague hand at the bedside table. "Industrial strength ibuprofen. Works wonders."

He approached the bed, wondering if he should ask for permission to join her. She must have sensed his nearness for she rolled on her back, her eyes flickering over his face. They stared silently at each other for a few moments. Oh, to hell with it, Michael thought and trusted his instincts. He put a knee on the bed and leaned over her. He gave her a quick, nearly chaste peck on the lips and murmured, "Move over." He could see the challenge rising in her eyes and quickly continued, "You're hogging the bed." Her incipient anger dissolved into amusement.

"Sorry," she replied, and began to slide over the bed, moving away from him. He slipped in next to her, reaching over her to turn out the light. He settled back on his side, his arms wrapping around her waist and pulling her back against his chest. His knees tucked behind hers, their bodies curved together. She sighed and adjusted her position slightly to get more comfortable, pressing her rear closer to his body. His arms tightened slightly and he willed himself not to respond.Not yet, not tonight... he chided himself mentally. He kissed her again, gently, on the cheek and felt her relax as she slid back into sleep. He lay there, enjoying the feel of her in his arms for a long, long time before sleep claimed him.

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

Day Two

The day was sunny and warm, a minor miracle considering it was early spring. They sat on a wooden bench outside the coffee shop, enjoying croissants and coffee and evaluating the park across the street. Nikita brushed the last few crumbs off her lap and finished the last of her vanilla latte. Her eyes scanned the park again and she couldn't resist a smile.

"What's so funny?" Michael looked over his cup of espresso at her.

She waved a hand in the direction of the park. "It's just so... normal. The ideal small town... the ideal village square... even down to the statue of Mr. Stuffed-Shirt overlooking the park. " In her mind she could hear Walter's wry response, Yeah, we all remember normal. Michael cocked an eyebrow at her, amusement glowing in the green depths of his eyes. He remembers too, she thought, curiously comforted by the idea that Michael would have pleasant memories of the Armel mission. He finished his coffee and rose to throw away their trash, then turned back and offered her his hand. Nikita felt a brief moment of confusion and frustration at the blurred line between reality and mission. Her brain raced to try to differentiate between them. Mission, she realized with a tiny twinge of pain, we never hold hands in Real Life. She put her hand in his and felt his rough calluses caress her palm as they crossed the street.

Hand in hand, looking to the world like lovers on a casual stroll, they wandered around the park, observing the layout and calculating the probable movements of their opponents. Huge ancient trees bordered the park, their gnarled trunks twisting low to the ground. Nikita stopped to watch several children scrambling up and down the tree limbs. If children could get up the trees, then so could the targets, she thought, and let her eyes drift upwards, evaluating and sifting through possibilities. Michael pulled her gently toward the gazebo located at one end of the park. They circled it like hawks, looking over every inch. A simple white wooden structure, it would be the centerpiece of the celebration on Saturday night. A stone tablet indicated it was registered as a National Historic Monument and still another plaque designated Olympia as the 'End of the Oregon Trial'. Every place west of the Rocky Mountains claims to be the end of the trail, Nikita thought with a brief flash of humor. Satisfied with their surveillance, Michael led her from the park and they headed north on the main street, walking toward the Sound. A boardwalk had been constructed running north and south along the waterfront, overlooking the marinas and various maritime businesses for a mile or two. They walked together, strides matching, moving further down the boardwalk until most of the other casual pedestrians were left behind. They chose a bench at random, each sitting with their bodies turned to slightly face the other, allowing them to observe any traffic approaching them from either direction. Nikita had prattled on innocently as they walked, with Michael simply interjecting a short answer or question. Now they sat silently, evaluating their location, determining whether it was safe to talk.

After a few moments, Michael broke the silence between them. "It will be the gazebo," he stated simply.

Nikita looked at him quizzically. "You're sure? There are other possible targets."

He met her gaze, his face and eyes composed and emotionless. "It will be the gazebo," he repeated. Nikita was suddenly, coldly, reminded that the man before her had once been a bomber, responsible for who-knows-how-many deaths. She swallowed the argument that had been on her lips, nodding her head in agreement instead.

"So what's our next step?" she asked.

Michael glanced at his watch. "We have two hours until we meet our contact at lunch. I need to..." he paused a moment, his eyes flickering behind her and back to her face, "to pay a few visits, since that's the point of this trip." His voice had changed subtly, he had dropped the serious tone and adopted a lighter one. "And you, my beautiful wife, need to go spend some money." He lifted one of her hands and kissed her knuckles gallantly. A couple of women passed by, glanced over the pair of them and continued on their way. Behind Michael, Nikita saw more people approaching and she let a bright smile cross her face in response to Michael's action.

"You are just trying to bribe me so I won't be angry that you are deserting me in a strange town," she said teasingly.

He gave her a full smile. Even though she knew it was a false one, that Michael was playing a role, her stomach did a quick flip at the sight. He smiled so rarely that she treasured every one. A pair of joggers passed on her right side. "Well, I have to do some work, if we're going to be able to write this off as a business trip," he reminded her. He helped her to her feet. "Do you need any money?"

She laughed. The entire situation was borderline ridiculous. Two cold, hardened assassins playing Joe and Suzy Homebodies. "No, no, darling, I have the credit card," she answered. He leaned over her and kissed her gently.

"Have fun," he murmured softly. His eyes flickered over her face and she leaned in to give him a kiss back. His lips softened and he kissed her with a little more intensity. She felt his body tense as he clamped down with his iron self control. He pulled back, only slightly, and whispered against her lips, "Be careful."

***

The profile called for Michael to go to the Capitol Building and pretend to meet with various state officials. Neither Michael nor Nikita thought that it was necessary to set up actual contacts; Michael's entering the State Buildings should be enough to convince any possible watcher of his cover story and the possibility of raising more questions with dummy meetings was too great. Operations had made arrangements with Oversight, which resulted in an empty office being left conveniently available for Michael to set up his computer and contact Section. He filed a quick report on their activities and expectations for the mission, then signed off and disappeared as silently as he had come.

He returned to the boardwalk on foot. Olympia was a small town and it was easier and less conspicuous to simply walk from destination to destination. He was dressed casually in a sweater and slacks and blended in easily with the state workers scurrying around him. He set his pace carefully, neither too fast nor too leisurely. His laptop was in its case, slung carelessly over one shoulder. His eyes, hidden by his customary sunglasses, habitually scanned from side to side as he walked. He approached the boardwalk from the south, pausing briefly by a fountain that spurted sporadically to the delight of the young children dashing in and out of the spray. He watched their innocent glee for several long seconds, swallowed the now-familiar ache in his throat, and walked on.

His eyes focused on Nikita before he was aware of looking for her. She was on the boardwalk, leaning back against the railing, with her arms crossed in front of her and her packages at her feet. His steps faltered for one second. She is so beautiful, he thought, amazed again at the very idea she could possibly care for him. Her long hair was piled on top of her head, but the breeze had teased several long strands out to blow around her face. She was dressed simply in a cobalt blue sweater and linen skirt that ended several inches above her knees, showing her long, elegant legs to their best advantage. She was even wearing what were, for her, sensible shoes, nearly flat, which gave him a height advantage. Behind her the Olympic Mountains shimmered in the sunlight, reflecting the sun's rays off their snow-capped peaks into a sky nearly as blue as Nikita's sweater. He crossed the street and approached her. She saw him coming and a smile crossed her face. He felt a slight twinge of pain at the sight. She used to look at me that way, he thought, his mind subconsciously creating a schism between himself and the role he was playing, a long, long time ago. Before..., his mind refused to catalogue his manipulations and betrayals, ...just before.

"Hello, darling," he greeted her, kissing her offered cheek. He glanced at the bags at her feet. "I see you've kept yourself busy."

She handed him one of the shopping bags and gave him a sidelong look. "What else am I supposed to do when you leave me for your boring meetings?" Her tone of voice was perfect; slightly aggravated but with an undercurrent of a long-standing jest between a happily married couple.

With his free hand, he caught the loose strands of hair and tucked them behind her ear, the gesture both affectionate and possessive. He looked deeply into her azure eyes for a long moment, drinking in her beauty, then put his hand at the small of her back and directed her down the boardwalk. "Come," he said, "we have a lunch reservation at the café."

***

The restaurant chosen was on the boardwalk, overlooking a marina and the Olympic Mountains. They found a reservation had been made in Michael's cover name; they proceeded outside to a table set out on the sunny deck, centered amid the many diners. Nikita gave Michael a quick sidelong glance, wondering at the security of a meet surrounded by so many people, but as they sat and ordered drinks, she realized the wisdom of the choice. A table on the outer rim could be overheard by a casual passerby or picked up by a hidden microphone worn or carried by any of the numerous people lounging on the boardwalk enjoying the weather; the buzz of conversation surrounding their more central table made their low-voiced discussion as secure as possible. Their waiter approached with their drinks and Nikita automatically scanned his appearance. Young and tall, his hair had dark roots and bleached orange-blond tips; his eyes were dark and punctuated by a gold ring in his eyebrow.

He placed their drinks down and handed menus to both of them. Michael glanced up and met his eyes. "What do you suggest to eat?" Nikita frowned slightly. That was out of character for Michael.

The waiter glanced at the menu in front of Michael. "Any of the specials listed on the inside are especially good. The salmon is fresh today, as are the oysters and butter clams."

Michael nodded courteously. "Thank you." Obviously dismissed, the waiter left. Nikita put her elbows on the table, took a sip of her iced tea and gave Michael a what-was-that-all-about stare.

Michael didn't meet her eyes, simply opened the menu and looked over the 'specials' sheet, which was a separate white typewritten sheet of paper clipped to the inside of the menu. Michael slid his left hand under the sheet, opened the clip with his right and pulled his left hand back out, reattaching the clip. His left hand disappeared under the table; in a second she felt his fingers nudge her right thigh. She let her right hand fall casually into her lap and felt Michael pass a small piece of paper to her. She opened the purse in her lap and withdrew her lipstick and mirror, slipping the paper into her purse at the same time.

She applied her lipstick, replacing it back in her purse and gave Michael a bright mission smile. "So, are we going to order?"

Michael gave her a long look. "Are you hungry?" he asked. His voice had an unexpected sensual overtone. She repressed a small shiver at his implication. She met his gaze and ran her eyes over his face.

"Starving." She saw the heat leap up in his eyes, quickly dampened down and hidden beneath his usual calm exterior. She deliberately ran her nails down his arm, feeling his muscles twitch beneath his sweater.

He caught her hand and brushed her fingertips with his lips. "Then let's order."

***

Michael sat on the bed in their room at the inn, his computer open on the small bedside table. He used his cellular phone to make a modem connection with Section and began typing, his fingers flying over the keyboard. Nikita stood next him, running her left hand through her now-loosened hair, examining the paper from their contact. It was a photograph of a dark-haired man in his mid-20s. Michael reached into his computer bag and withdrew a small scanner, which he swiftly attached to the laptop. Nikita handed the picture to him and he scanned it, then hit the 'enter' key with a small flourish, beginning the download to Section. He flipped the picture over and they read the few words written on the back.

PETER MASON. THEKLA. 10PM.

"Thekla? What's a Thekla?" murmured Nikita. Michael shrugged, leaning back on the bed. He gave a small grunt and sat up again, pulling his gun out from the small of his back. Placing it carefully next to the computer, Michael lay back down, reaching his arms back and over his head. He closed his eyes and arched his back slightly, stretching like a cat. Nikita watched him with amusement.

"Tired?" she asked, trying without success to smooth the smile hovering at the corners of her mouth.

Michael cracked open his eyes and propped himself up on his elbows. "Yes. I didn't sleep very well." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Too much distraction."

Nikita felt her cheeks grow warm. Damn the man, she thought with some irritation, he always manages to get to me. She covered her embarrassment with a saucy smile. "You could always sleep on the floor..." she suggested.

He gave her a flinty look. "I should report you for that kind of cruelty," he deadpanned. Nikita felt her heart beat a little faster at the levity in his eyes; Michael's sense of humor was a rare and treasured treat.

Her smile grew a little wider. "I know, I know," she answered, reciting her lines and enjoying their 'inside' joke. She was rewarded with a small smile from Michael before he lay back down, cradling his head on his hands.

Nikita stepped between Michael's knees to peer closer at the computer screen. "Now what?" she asked without turning around.

"Now we wait for Birkoff to run the picture through Section's database and see what information he can pull up," Michael responded.

"How long should that take?" Nikita glanced over her shoulder at him. He was still on his back, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

He shrugged. "Hard to say." He dropped his eyes to look at her, standing between his legs, and she watched his eyes grow warmer. "You have something in mind?" His tone of voice changed slightly, a sensual overlay changing the innocent sentence into something much deeper, more erotic. She was reminded again of their relative privacy from Section.

She slowly turned around to face him completely, leaning back with her arms braced on the table behind her. She let her voice drop a few pitches, becoming huskier. "Maybe. You?" He didn't respond, just caught and held her eyes with his.

She stood still for a long moment, considering. His words and his body position were as open an invitation as she was ever likely to receive from Michael. He left the decision completely up to her, neither encouraging nor rebuffing her. Slowly, go slowly, she reminded herself. Michael's apparent passivity could be deceiving. For one brief moment he reminded her of a wild animal, coiled to bolt and run at any sudden movement. She felt as if she were walking a tightrope. Turn away, and he may never open this door again. Move too fast, and he would read pity or desperation. His face and eyes were calm and controlled, too calm, too controlled. She had a sudden insight into his psyche. He's afraid. Afraid to be close, afraid to care, afraid of rejection. Keeping her eyes locked on his, she slowly knelt on the bed and began inching her way up his body, her knees straddling his body. She leaned over him, her hair falling in a curtain around their faces. Slowly she lowered her head and gently kissed him. For a long heartbeat, neither breathed nor moved; they both stayed perfectly still, only their lips lightly touching. Nikita let her breath out in a soft sigh as she broke the kiss, pulling back slightly. She felt his fingers thread through her hair; his other hand came up to rest on her shoulder, as soft as a butterfly. She opened her eyes to find his intent green gaze on her. He didn't move or speak, gave her no indication if he wanted her to pull away or kiss him again, except for his feather-light touch. She leaned in again, slowly, tentatively, giving him plenty of time to pull away or stop her. He did neither. Her lips touched his again, tenderly, and his fingers tightened infinitesimally on her shoulder.

The computer beeped. "Michael?" Birkoff's voice sounded loudly in the silence of the room.

Nikita jerked back from the kiss at the sound. His fingers closed tightly on her hair and shoulder, preventing her from pulling away from him. Their eyes locked together for a moment, and she could see barely-restrained passion and frustration shining in his gaze. He closed his eyes, stilled his face into its usual blank mask and released his hold on her. She rolled to the side, sitting with her head slightly lowered, hiding her face behind her spill of hair. He sat up and hit a key on the computer.

"Yes, Birkoff, I'm here."

***

Nikita gave herself one final look in the mirror, adjusted her hair one last time, and left the bathroom. Michael was doing a final status check on the computer before they left. He was dressed in black, as usual, but not his 'Section suit'. As per Madeline's instructions, he was simply dressed in black cotton slacks and pullover sweater. His gun was tucked neatly into the back of his pants, and his jacket lay folded on the bed, waiting to be put on.

Michael turned his head and gave her reappearance a quick scan. His eyes were blank, unreadable, but he nodded his approval at her attire. She crossed the room to peer over his shoulder. No changes in the profile, she noted, and crossed back to the dresser to pick up the tracker she would be using tonight. She slid the tracker under her hair, attaching it behind her ear, where it would be inconspicuous until needed. She checked her gun and put it into her purse, slinging the bag back over her shoulder. Sitting down on the bed, she ran over the mission profile as she waited for Michael to finish his conversation with Birkoff.

Birkoff's database search had brought up some interesting intelligence on their target. Peter Mason was a 27-year-old professional student. He was presently enrolled at the local State College where apparently his sole purpose on the campus was to recruit new members for the Earth Brigade, a breakaway sect derived from Earth First! Mason had attended nearly 10 colleges and universities in the past eight years, first as a high-ranking member of Earth First!, now as a leader of the splinter group. So far the Earth Brigade had not done anything besides talk, which was why Section had been tapped for this mission rather than the local police department. According to their informant's report, there were plans under discussion to disrupt the Procession of the Species parade, an annual event celebrating Earth Day. It was not clear yet whether the disruption would include violence; although a bomb had been mentioned, the membership of the Earth Brigade was not unified in their support of such an action. There was a great deal of uncertainty and concern at the Agency and within Section about the Earth Brigade's motives and methods; they were a loose cannon. Michael had designed the mission profile to get Mason tagged with a combined audio link /locator, which would enable Birkoff to track his movements and assist Michael and Nikita in determining exactly what was planned for Saturday.

Thekla, they had learned, was an 'alternative' dance club in town. Mason and several members of his cell were going partying tonight; therefore, so would Michael and Nikita. Unconsciously she ran her hands down her black leather mini skirt, adjusted her nylons and let her high-heeled pumps drop off as she swung her feet in the air. The thump of the shoes caught Michael's attention briefly; his eyes caressed her quickly before he returned his focus to the computer. Nikita closed her eyes and ran the profile over and over in her head. One small part of her mind recognized when Michael signed off and closed down the computer, but the touch of his hands on her nearly bare shoulders still made her jump. Her eyes flew open and she turned her head to look at him. He had her coat over his jacket on his arm. She put her 'mission nerves' under tight control, slipped her feet back in her shoes and got to her feet. He draped the coat over her shoulders, his fingers lingering for a moment longer than necessary. She gave him a quick glance over her shoulder, trying yet again to determine what was real and what was mission. His face, as usual, was inscrutable, completely in mission mode.

He ran his fingers down her back and she repressed the shiver triggered by his motion. He let his hand rest on the swell of her hip as he directed her to the door. "Let's go," he murmured in her ear.

***

Thekla was dimly lit, smoke-filled and packed with gyrating bodies. Michael and Nikita stood on the upper balcony, overlooking the dance floor, seeking their target. The club's clientele was a mixed bunch, everyone from overly pierced and tattooed college students to middle class suburbanites out for a night on the town. The music was nondescript, loud and mostly atonal, and the pounding bass line resounded through Michael's body. Their search was somewhat hampered by the flickering lights that flashed over the dancers, the walls and the ceiling, distorting faces throughout the club. He scanned the crowd below him again, failed to locate Mason and glanced at his watch. 10:45 PM. Beside him, Nikita blew her breath out in a puff of frustration. He turned sideways to look at her, leaning his arm on the railing. She glanced over at him, shook her head slightly and returned her gaze to the whirling dance floor. He leaned forward, brushed his fingertips over her shoulder and felt the responding twitch of her muscles.

"Shall I get us something to drink?" Although he was using nearly his usual speaking voice, his words barely carried over the din issuing from the speakers.

She nodded in response, mouthing the word 'please'. He gestured to the floor below with a tip of his head and she nodded again, continuing her scrutiny of the dancers. Michael threaded his way through the crowds to the bar, retrieved two glasses of Perrier and began to return to their post. He realized there was trouble as soon as Nikita came into his sight. Her back was to the dance floor, her body posture tense, and as he warily approached he could see her hands were clenched into fists at her side. She shook her head and tried to inch away from the man in front of her, only to have another man move swiftly to her side and cut off her exit. Michael paused for a moment, locking his temper under tight control and letting fifteen years' of mission experience take over. No trouble, no notice, he thought, knowing the same thoughts had run through Nikita's mind. That was the only reason her would-be admirer was still standing.

He moved smoothly and swiftly into the center of the group, standing in front of Nikita with his back to her pursuer. "Darling? Here you are," he said as he handed her one of the glasses. His eyes locked with hers; he could read her emotions as she went from frustration to recognition and acceptance of his unspoken order to follow his lead. She took the proffered drink, her knuckles turning white as she clenched the glass hard. He spun around, backing up a step so he was directly in front of Nikita. He felt her hand on his back, slipping under his jacket and resting on his hidden pistol. Michael locked his eyes on his opponent. "Was there something you required?" Michael's voice was deceptively calm, his right hand holding his glass idly.

His antagonist eyed him angrily. "Get out of the way," he hissed, apparently mistaking Michael's actions as those of an altruistic on-looker.

Michael let his eyes and face harden further. "I'm afraid not," he replied quietly. "If you have business with my wife, you have business with me." He glanced over at the other man at his side, evaluating the other's intent and potential for violent action.

"Your wife?" His voice was incredulous. Whatever the troublemaker had expected, a declaration of marriage wasn't it. Michael raised his left hand in reply and Nikita put her left hand on his, leaving her right hand resting on the butt of the gun. Their matching gold bands twinkled in the flickering light. Michael narrowed his eyes at his opponent. The man took a half step back and his buddy- so Michael had pegged him- backed off as well. "You let your wife out in public dressed like that?" he sputtered.

Michael moved swiftly, stepping forward and grabbing his adversary's throat. "My wife will dress any way she pleases, and it's none of your damn business," he murmured in the man's ear. "Now you will walk away and take your business somewhere else." Michael let go of the man with a slight shove, gave the friend a get-out-or-else glare and jerked his head towards the door. "Go."

Michael waited and watched for several moments after they left before turning back to Nikita. She had stayed directly behind him, her hand still resting on his pistol, equally unsettled and cautious. When he was relatively certain the situation had been resolved, he turned to her and slid an arm around her waist, holding her close, apparently comforting her for the benefit of the curious onlookers. His mouth close to her ear, he whispered, "Exposure?" Over her shoulder, his eyes evaluated the crowd around them and he knew Nikita was doing the same.

Her voice was a soft murmur. "Nothing out of the ordinary." She released her breath in a hard sigh and he felt her tense muscles relax slightly. She shook her head and her hair brushed his jaw. "Man oh man, what I would have given to slap that creep upside the head..."

He let a small smile curve his lips. He would never have known what hit him. He knew from personal experience how fast and powerful Nikita could be. "We need to move in case they decide to return," he murmured. He felt her nod and cuddle closer to him, letting her hand slide from his gun to his waist. They drifted around the balcony to the other side of the room and positioned themselves again to search for their target.

Michael stepped a little closer to Nikita and ran his fingertips down her back, stroking the bare skin where her shimmering gold sweater dipped down nearly to her waist. "Well, what do you expect when you dress like that?" he said teasingly, picking up the thread of conversation.

She turned to him, her eyes glowing angrily until she realized he was needling her. The hard lines of her mouth relaxed into a humorous smile. She ran her hand seductively across her collarbone. "You said I needed to tag Mason without him getting a good look at me," she reminded him lightly. "A man will always forgo looking at a face when there's cleavage to be seen." His eyes dropped involuntarily, eyeing the expanse of skin exposed by the low cut sweater. She put a finger under his chin, raising his eyes to meet hers. "Right?" He shook his head and gave her a small smile in recognition of her insight. He let his gaze drift back to the dance floor and she turned her head to do the same. He felt her body stiffen slightly and followed her gaze. Peter Mason had arrived.

***

Michael's hand never left her back as they descended to the dance floor. His touch was comforting and Nikita realized how badly she had been shaken by her encounter with her unwanted admirer. Focus, she scolded herself. This part of the mission would take all her concentration. Michael swung her out on the dance floor, holding one hand and twirling her around to the music, then pulled her back against his hard body. Michael was an expert dancer and Nikita enjoyed the feel of his body next to hers. Slowly they worked their way around the dance floor, taking their time, maneuvering to their target. When they were in position, Michael pulled her tightly to him and they moved sensuously together. She kept her eyes focused on Michael's face, running her fingers over his stubbled jaw and broad shoulders. His green eyes held hers, his expression cool and distant, even as she felt him respond to her closeness. She was finding it easier and easier to separate her mind and her body during missions; while her body responded to his arousal, her mind was completely occupied with assessing their proximity to the target. Apparently warm from dancing, she lifted her hair off her neck, carefully removing the tracker from behind her ear with one finger. Michael took her other hand and spun her around; she fell off her high heels, twisting her ankle and grabbing onto the closest body for balance. Her hands encircled Peter Mason's neck and she deftly positioned the tracker at the base of his neck, under his hair.

"Whoops, sorry," she giggled, glancing up at his face. He was staring bemusedly at her cleavage, just as she had planned. She bent over to put her shoes back on, simultaneously giving him more of an eyeful. She spun back into Michael's arms, calling another "Sorry" over her shoulder as Michael whisked her away through the crowd. She melted into his arms, letting him lead her around the dance floor and away from Mason.

***

Michael held her close, feeling the tense muscles of her back and shoulders slowly relax after the apparently successful tag. They continue to dance, taking turns at inconspicuously watching their target. Michael spun them around and she turned her head to keep Mason in view, brushing Michael's jaw with her silky hair. He smelled the soft fragrance of her shampoo. He spun again and now he took over the surveillance, surreptitiously eyeing the dark man across the dance floor. Another turn and she pulled his head down to kiss his cheek, murmuring, "Mason's leaving the dance floor and going to the bar."

He turned his head to nuzzle at her ear. "Any indication he realizes he was tagged?" He felt rather than saw her shake her head negatively. He glanced at his watch. "It's been an hour. We can go." He let her go and twirled her around with one hand, finishing the move by pulling her to him, wrapping his arm around her slender waist. He kissed her forehead and spoke louder for the benefit of any onlookers, "Time to go home, darling."

When they reached the edge of the dance floor, Michael took her hand and led her out of the club, stopping at the cloakroom to get her coat. He draped it around her shoulders as they walked out into the night. Michael was very cautious and careful as they left the club. Part of the 'cachet' of Thekla was the fact that the only entrance was in an alleyway. Although this added to the experience for civilians, a dark narrow alley was a nightmare of nasty possibilities for a cold op. He glanced up and down the alley, up at the rooftops around them, the rusted fire escapes looming over their heads, and moved as quickly as possible into the relative openness of the street. His arm was still wrapped around Nikita, holding her close. Once clear of the alley and its potential dangers, he became aware that something was wrong with Nikita. Her shoulders were shaking spasmodically. He caught her hand, pulling her to a stop and turned her face towards his, wondering what was bothering her. The look on her face caught him completely by surprise. She was biting her lip, amusement radiating from her. She inhaled deeply, and began to giggle uncontrollably. Her laughter was infectious and Michael found himself smiling back at her even though he wasn't sure what the joke was. She took his arm and they continued to walk down the street, headed back for the inn.

"Did you see," Nikita paused to inhale again and visibly struggled to keep from whooping in mirth, "did you see his eyes? I thought they were going to fall out of his head!"

Michael could not restrain a chuckle. "They nearly did," he agreed. "You were right: he didn't look at your face once."

Nikita shook her head in glee, finally getting her laughter under control. "Are we receiving?" she asked, lowering her voice. Michael glanced around quickly, then withdrew a PDA from his coat pocket. A red light blinked steadily.

"He's transmitting fine," he responded. "Birkoff should be able to pick him up with GPS."

***

Michael was at the computer, updating Section on their progress. With his attention directed to the laptop, Nikita felt safe changing into her pajamas behind his back. She ducked into the small bathroom to brush her teeth and scrub off her makeup, then crawled across the bed and sat next to Michael. He adjusted the computer screen so she could read the latest information on the mission while he continued to talk to Operations. Thank God it's just an audio link, thought Nikita, smoothing her sleep shirt over her knees.

Michael reached up and tapped the computer screen, directing her attention to the change in their mission. Objective: Prevention of Bombing and Retrieval of Target the screen read. Retrieval? thought Nikita. They want us to bring this guy in? She moved back, away from Michael and leaned back against the headboard of the bed. She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on her crossed arms, thinking. With a part of her mind, she listened to Michael's conversation.

Operations was gone, Birkoff was on the audio link now. "We're going to sign off for tonight, Birkoff," Michael said. "Who will be monitoring Mason's conversation?"

She could hear Birkoff stifle a yawn over the link. Poor kid, it's nearly morning at Section, and he's been up all night monitoring us, she thought.

"Andrew will be on watch while I'm down," Birkoff responded. Michael raised his eyes and stared blankly out the window. Nikita frowned, trying to remember exactly which of Birkoff's technical team was Andrew. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't bring up a face. Except for Birkoff, the technicians that inhabited Comm were all a geeky blur.

Michael appeared to be having the same difficulty. He glanced over at her and she shrugged. "Make sure he knows to call me immediately on my cellular phone if anything seems suspicious," Michael instructed. She could picture Birkoff's face at such redundant directions; a deep sigh, the rolling eyes.

"Yeah, Michael," Birkoff replied, "are we done now?" Michael signed off, shut down the computer and turned to look at her. His face and eyes were carefully blank, hiding his thoughts completely.

"They want us to retrieve him?" There was an undercurrent of disbelief in her voice. He nodded. "In the middle of a parade and street party, downtown, with thousands of people around?" He nodded again. She tipped her head back against the headboard and sighed. "Well, I guess it's better than killing him within those parameters. Are they sending in a backup team?"

He mouth twisted in a grimace. "They're sending a van and a team to contain him. But we're still going to be the only ones 'out'." He reached behind his ear and removed his communication disk, laying it on the bedside table next to hers. Now they had complete privacy from Section.

She laughed shortly. "Yeah, I suppose a team in mission gear would stand out a little bit," she retorted sarcastically. She rubbed her forehead, thinking through the possibilities. "Does Birkoff have a lock on him with GPS?" Michael nodded. "If Mason decides to plant a bomb, when do you think it would be placed?"

Michael quirked an eyebrow at her. "Assuming he plants it and not someone else in the group?" She groaned; she hadn't considered that option. He continued, answering her question. "Tomorrow, possibly. More likely Saturday. He won't want to chance discovery." He got up and hung his jacket up in the closet. He pulled out a T-shirt and his sweatpants and tossed them on the bed. She closed her eyes to give him privacy. Watching him undress seemed... too intimate. Even during the Armel mission, they had changed clothes in the bathroom. It was unspoken between them, but it was one of the lines they tried to draw to distinguish between life and mission.

She heard the fabric of his clothing rustling, and kept her eyes closed. "So how are we going to monitor everyone?"

The mattress tilted as he sat down next to her. She opened her eyes. He was in his pajamas, the T-shirt tight over his muscular shoulders. His eyes caressed her face. "Birkoff will monitor the GPS and inform us if Mason goes anywhere than his university classes. He can route the audio here to us. We'll stay in and listen. I'll have to leave for a while tomorrow and 'meet with officials' to maintain our cover."

She shifted slightly, becoming uncomfortable under his intense scrutiny. "How will we coordinate?"

He answered her calmly, although his eyes were fixed on her lips. "I will have a comm-link to you, you will have the computer link to Birkoff. He will inform us if Mason appears to be on the move." His hand came up to stroke her face, tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. She flinched at his touch and he pulled away immediately.

"Michael," she began, reaching out for him, but he stood up and walked across the room to the window. She paused for a moment, uncertain how to continue. How do I explain... where do I start... She got out of bed and crossed to him. "Michael," she began hesitantly, "I'm sorry."

He turned to her, his face blank. "There's no reason to apologize, Nikita." His voice was cool.

She reached out to touch his arm. He was as still as a statue, and as responsive. "Michael... I don't know what is mission and what is real. You touch me, you say things to me, and I don't know if you're talking to me or performing the mission profile. I can't keep them separate." She glanced up at his face. Seeing his eyes thaw a little, she took a chance and leaned into his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist. His arms rose to slide around her back and she let her breath out in a shuddering sigh. She had reached him; he wouldn't withdraw from her... this time. Progress, of a sort...

"I understand." His voice was low. His arms tightened around her and he kissed the top of her head. "You're right to be careful. I would do anything, say anything to keep you safe."

She placed a finger on his lips. "I need your honesty, Michael," she said softly. "I'm trying, I'm really trying to trust you when you can't tell me everything. To depend on you to do what is best for you, me, the mission... us. But when you tell me something, I need it to be the truth." His hand stroked her hair and ran down her back soothingly.

They stood together in silence for several minutes. "Why did you kiss me today?" he asked, his voice rough, almost harsh.

She didn't respond immediately, sorting through her emotions to express herself correctly. "Because," she began slowly, "because, for a moment there, we were us, not the mission. Because I miss that connection with you, I miss being with you, I miss touching you..." She took a deep breath. "I know how careful we have to be. I know how dangerous our relationship, any relationship is within Section." She tipped her head up to look into his face. His eyes were soft and unguarded. She felt the tingle of tears in her eyes and forced them back. Tears were a luxury she could not afford. "I miss you. I miss your kiss," she reached up and kissed him gently. "I miss you in bed with me. But I don't know who's here. The real Michael, or the mission Michael?"

His eyes closed for a moment, leaving the question hanging between them. Then he opened them again, his thumbs stroking her cheekbones and his fingers gently entwining in her hair. "The Armel mission." She nodded, wondering what his point was. "We had entire conversations on two levels, one within the mission and one between us. This is the same. When I tell you are beautiful, you are..." he kissed her lightly, "beautiful." He kissed her again, a little deeper. "When I say we should enjoy our time together," he bent down for another kiss; his arms sliding down her body, pulling her closer to him, "we should."

She relaxed into his embrace, her curves melting into his. His lips moved past her jaw and caressed her neck. The stubble of his beard scratched her slightly and she shivered at the sensation.

Time stopped. She stood enfolded in his embrace, letting the feel of him, the smell of him overwhelm her senses. His kisses became urgent, more demanding. She put her hands on his face and brought his mouth back to hers. His hands slipped under her shirt, stroking her bare back and pulling her hips closer to his. She felt his arousal pressing against her abdomen and her body responded, desire flooding her mind. Her hands slid down his arms, seeking and catching his hands. She broke their kiss and took a half step back. His eyes flickered over her face, and she caught the brief flash of pain that passed over his features. She gave him a small, seductive smile and took another step back, pulling him with her. She held their joined hands between their bodies and he visibly relaxed, letting her direct his movements. Two more steps and the bed was at the back of her knees. She gave a small pull on his hands, and he moved closer to her. Bending her arms behind her, she placed his hands on the small of her back and pressed her mouth and body to his. She released his hands and he clasped her tightly to him, his mouth possessing hers. He slowly bent her backwards until the bed was beneath her shoulders. He leaned over her, his hair tumbling around his face in disorganized curls. She reached up and stroked his high cheekbones, encouraging him to come down to her. Her eyes were locked on his, seeing his desire burning in the peridot depths. Slowly he lowered himself and she rejoiced in the warmth and feel of his muscular body on hers.

His mouth moved to cover hers and she stopped him. "I missed you, Michael," she murmured softly. He didn't respond, only shifted his weight to one arm so he could stroke her face with his roughened fingertips. His eyes were a lucid, luminous green, exposing his emotions more than his words ever could. She gazed at him, committing his expression to her memory, knowing in the blackest part of her mind that this connection was too tender, too all-consuming for Section to allow it to exist for long. She closed her eyes before he could read the pain the thought of losing him caused her. Seize the day, seize the moment, she reminded herself silently.

"Nikita?" His voice was just a whisper, but his concern was easy to hear. She opened her eyes to see him gazing worriedly down at her.

She gave him a tremulous smile. "Love me, Michael. Just love me." He held her eyes for a moment more and she feared he would push for more answers from her, answers she did not want to discuss, not here, not now. Instead, he lowered his head and kissed her with all the passion and power that she desired from him. She closed her eyes and let the sensations sweep over her, wiping out coherent thought.

*** (NC-17, as requested! You've been warned....)

It had been several months since Nikita had felt Michael's hands on her; endless weeks of near-daily interaction with him: missions and the resultant close quarters; briefings sitting next to him, sometimes so close she could feel his body heat. For her sanity (and his) she had made every attempt to refrain from touching him, only to discover that instead of easing the ache she felt, the enforced distance had made her crave his touch more.

Frantic for the feel of him now, her hands pulled his T-shirt off impatiently, her nails scratching his back lightly in her haste. The caress of his mouth, the warmth of his body pressing on her, and especially the knowledge that they were together in complete privacy from Section, that this was Michael-and-Nikita not Michael-and-Nikita-on-a-mission, all combined to drive her desire to a fever pitch. Once free of his shirt, Michael's arms wrapped around her tightly, pulling her close. His kisses were deep and demanding and she sensed how desperately close he was to losing his vaunted control. He sat back suddenly, and pulled her up to sit facing him. His hair was a glorious tangle around his face, his eyes dark and intense, his breathing harsh and ragged. He pulled her shirt off roughly and she shivered, both at the implied violence of his action and at the surge of lust that ran through her belly. His eyes met hers and she thought she almost saw fear in the green depths.

His voice was low and husky. "I want you too much," he said. He swallowed hard and her stomach clenched with the rush of longing his voice triggered. "I don't know if I can- if I can be gentle."

She reached over and pushed his hair back, letting the thick strands slip through her fingers. "I don't want you to be gentle. I've missed you Michael, and I want to make up for the time gone by."

"I don't want to hurt you." His voice was raw, the pain easily heard.

"You won't hurt me." How many times had they had this conversation? "I trust you, Michael." Instead of easing, his pain seemed to increase. There was a brief flash of agony in his eyes before he closed them. "Michael," she moved forward, nearly into his lap, "please, let's not think about Section. Not now. Just concentrate on right now. Please." His eyes opened slowly and met her gaze. She placed her hand on his cheek and leaned closer to him. "I want you to be mine. Make me yours. Make me forget there is anything else besides us, right here, right now. Please, Michael." Keeping her eyes locked on his, she slowly kissed him. The kiss was soft and tentative. His lips softened under hers and he held her close when she began to withdraw. His lips traveled to her cheeks, to her eyes and forehead before returning to her mouth.

His kisses became deeper, more demanding and she responded by molding her body to his, clinging tightly to his shoulders. He pressed her back to the bed, leaning over her. He lowered his mouth to kiss her neck, moving slowly and seductively to her breasts. He found and caught a nipple in his mouth, biting it gently and her back arched upwards in response. Her hands crept up and her fingers threaded through his hair, encouraging him to continue. He moved to her other breast, teasing and tormenting her nipple as his hands sensuously slid down her rib cage, over her stomach and began to slide her panties off. Her breath came unevenly as her body reacted to his handling. His hands felt hot, as if he would burn her when he touched her skin.

He broke off their contact suddenly, pulling back and getting to his feet. She uttered a low cry, her body turning instinctively to follow his. His eyes were fixed on hers and any fear or pain he might have felt earlier was completely superseded by the fire of desire she saw in his eyes now. She lay still and watched him finish undressing. Completely naked now, he stood for a moment, letting her admire him and running his eyes appreciatively over her body.

It was hard to breathe; Nikita felt as if she were teetering on a precipice. Her desire was a thick lump in her throat. She reached one hand out to him, begging him wordlessly to come back to her. He took her hand and captured her other hand, stretching them up over her head as he lay down on her, the warmth of his body scalding hers. He rested his weight on his elbows to avoid crushing her, but the press of his body and his grip on her hands effectively pinned her.

He lowered his head, his mouth a fraction of an inch above hers. "What do you want?" he murmured, his voice low and hoarse.

She strained upwards slightly, pressing her body closer to his. "You. Just you," she replied.

He slipped his knees between her legs, pressed his hips lower against her. She felt his hard arousal teasing her, taunting her with its nearness and she tried to twist, to position herself against him. His hands tightened on hers, preventing her movement and she gave a low cry of frustration. His eyes flickered over her face, seeking and finding assurance that he was neither hurting nor frightening her. She lifted her head and captured his mouth; she opened her lips to him, encouraging him to continue his torment. He adjusted his position slightly; his erection slipped between her legs and they both sighed quietly at the resultant sensations.

"Michael..." she whispered, her voice pleading.

"Tell me," he demanded. His eyes were unguarded, begging for her love and acceptance.

"Yours, Michael. I am only yours." She prayed her eyes were conveying the depth of her love to him. He lowered his lips the final millimeters and kissed her deeply, simultaneously adjusting his position and thrusting inside her. The dual assault overwhelmed her senses and she cried out, the sound muffled against his lips. He pulled back immediately, his eyes scanning her face.

"Did I hurt you?"

She glared at him. "I will hurt you if you stop now, Michael." He smiled and her heart stopped for a second. He brought his head down and kissed her slowly, teasingly. She pulled her mouth away from his, turning her head away slightly. "Michael..." she said mock-threateningly, arching her back to press her body tightly to his. He let go of her hands to thread his fingers through her hair. He kissed her, his mouth demanding a response from hers, and slowly began to enter her again. She wrapped her legs around his buttocks, encouraging and inviting him to continue.

He slid inside her, filling her completely and she sighed at the sensation. Her hands ran down his face as if memorizing his features, coming to rest on his powerful shoulders. She caressed his sweat-slicked skin, pulling him infinitesimally closer to her. He began the ancient rhythm of lovemaking and she rocked with him, begging him wordlessly to stroke faster and harder. She cried out softly as he hit a particularly sensitive spot and her body began to convulse with her climax. Her mind splintered into shards of pure feelings, pure emotion. He followed her seconds later, gasping her name almost painfully in his release.

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

Day Three

The cell phone rang, the shrill noise piercing Michael's sleep. He awoke abruptly; his mind snapping to full awareness as his right hand reached automatically for the phone. He grabbed the phone, flipped it open and brought it to his ear with one smooth movement before the second ring.

"Yes," he said, as his mind processed the fact that he was lying on his back in bed, his left arm around Nikita's shoulders, holding her close. She had awakened at the sound of the phone too, raising her head from his chest, where she had pillowed it in their joint slumber. She was on her side, her slender body pressed to him, her left leg thrown over and nestled intimately between his.

"Jacques," said an unfamiliar voice. He could see Nikita's face in the faint light from the window, her eyes open and wide, a familiar grim look around her mouth. Every muscle in her body was tight with tension.

"Get to your computer. Downloading the text of a conversation now." Michael closed the phone without replying.

Nikita pulled away from him as he replaced the phone on the table. He sat up and reached for his discarded sweatpants, not speaking. Wearing clothes helped him settle back into his Section persona and he turned to the computer, opening it and starting it up. He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it off his face and began logging on to Section. He felt Nikita's warmth press on his back, and her hand on his shoulder. He glanced over at her.

"What time is it?" She met his glance straight on, her own 'Section face' dropping into place For one brief moment he was tempted to kiss away the Section operative and find the woman underneath; instead he pushed the impulse aside and began uploading the information from... what was his name? ... Andrew...

"Early," he responded. His voice was rough with sleep and he mentally cursed himself for the curt answer as she withdrew her hand from his shoulder. To his relief, she didn't retreat from him, simply pulled her sleep shirt on over her head and slipped next to him, her sleep-warm thigh pressing on his. Her warm blue eyes caressed his face briefly, then she focused her attention on the information coming up on the computer screen.

***

Using the excuse of another migraine, Michael returned from the kitchen with a tray full of food for Nikita. She continued re-reading the transcript of Mason's late night conversations. At the sound of the opening door, she whirled on the bed, her hand reaching and finding her gun instinctively. Michael didn't pause, simply entered the room quickly and shut the door behind him. She closed her eyes and exhaled heavily, forcing her tense muscles to relax.

"Sandra sends her regrets," Michael said, balancing the tray of food on the bed cautiously. Nikita opened her eyes quickly and scanned the loaded tray. She selected an apricot-filled croissant and bit into it hungrily. "Your headache the other night was fortuitously timed. Another one today made perfect sense to her." He poured her a glass of orange juice and skirted the bed to hand it to her.

"Michael," she mumbled through the food in her mouth, swallowing hard to clear her throat, "take another look at this conversation."

Halfway through pouring himself some juice, he glanced up at her. "What?"

"This doesn't feel right. There's something we're missing here. This conversation sounds like the bomb threat is going to be a phantom bomb. Look, here they're discussing whether to use pig's blood or red paint."

He crossed the room, standing behind her to reread the section she indicated. "We've been over this several times, Nikita. What's bothering you?"

"So why was Section called in? This appears to be a conversation the group has had several times, yet our informant was certain there was something real, something deadly was being planned. If the agenda of the Earth Brigade is simply to disrupt the parade with a flashy publicity stunt, why are we here?"

Michael raked her face with his gaze. "What's your point, Nikita?"

"Simply that there's more intell on this somewhere and we haven't been given all the information we need. I think there may be something more going on here."

"Operations has ordered us to abort and return to Section," Michael responded.

"I know, I know..." she paused, thinking hard. "Do you think he would give us six more hours?"

Michael sat next to her on the bed, his eyes fixed on hers. "What would that accomplish?"

Nikita dropped her gaze to look at her hands. "It would give us time to listen to Mason a little more. Make sure we have enough information to make an informed decision about whether this mission should be aborted."

"A hunch?" Michael's voice held a note of dry humor. She raised her eyes to his in challenge.

"Gut instinct." His eyes held hers. She waited patiently, respecting both Michael's formidable intellect and his own well-honed instincts.

"Let me have the computer," he said as he nudged her gently. "I'll request six more hours before withdrawal." ***

It was raining. Nikita sat in their room at the inn, staring out the window at the gray sky and the equally dark bay outside. The rain had started sometime in the night and continued, without let up, all day, sometimes harder, sometimes more of drizzle, but unending. By now, mid-afternoon, there were puddles visible in the road.No wonder they drink so much coffee, she thought ironically, if the weather is like this all winter. She sat up a little higher as Mason began to speak, hitting a key on the laptop to record the conversation. After a few moments, she shook her head in disgust and stopped the transcription. Another pointless, idle conversation. She thought for a moment; could Mason have realized he was tagged and be taking extra precautions? Possible, but not provable in the few hours Operations had grudgingly allowed them.

She got up to pace around the room restlessly. Michael had gone to survey the park one last time. If he didn't see anything suspicious, and if Mason's conversations continued to be as innocuous as they had been, they would have to abort the mission and return to Section. She ran her hands through her hair in frustration. Every instinct was screaming that there was more going on than what appeared. But she had no facts, nothing solid to indicate a specific threat to convince Operations they needed to remain in Olympia. Even Michael seemed to be indulging her intuition.

As if her thoughts had conjured him up, Michael entered the room, shaking himself off slightly as he removed his wet overcoat. Nikita went into the bathroom and grabbed one of the towels, tossing it to him as she emerged. "Here. You look like a drowned rat," she teased. He toweled off his head and finger-combed his long locks off his face, giving her a cool look in return.

"What's our status?" Michael was in machine mode, all business. Nikita swallowed a small pang at his brusqueness and pushed her emotions down deep within her. He's shifting back to our Section relationship, she told herself firmly, and he's right. She forced herself to respond with equal detachment.

"Nothing. All his conversations have been completely innocent and he hasn't discussed the Earth Brigade or the Procession of the Species at all."

Michael's eyes flickered over her face. "We'll have to go. Are you packed?"

She suppressed a sigh. "Yes, I'm ready." He nodded and turned away to finish his packing, crouching over the suitcase lying open on the floor. "Michael," her voice softened, and she winced internally as she heard the small note of pleading in her tone, "do you sense the same thing? That there is more going on here than we are able to pinpoint?" Having just reconnected with him in such blazing intimacy, it was difficult to let him slip away from her. She curled her hands into fists, fighting the urge to touch him.

Michael didn't stop working, never raised his eyes from his suitcase. "It doesn't matter what you or I suspect, Nikita. We have no proof, and we're needed back at Section." His voice was cold, unemotional, and she wanted to curl up into a ball, hearing his flat enunciation.

"So, what was last night, Michael?" Her voice was bitter, her emotions flaring resentfully. "Was it just sex? Because I'm tired of one-night stands with you. Turn me on, turn me off. I can't-" her voice broke slightly and she fought for control, "I can't keep doing that. It's too hard."

He sat back on his heels, regarding her solemnly. His equanimity irritated the hell out of her and she turned her back to him, struggling to quell the roiling feelings within her.

"Have you called for a limousine?" She got her voice under control with an effort; it was nearly as dispassionate as his.

His suitcase closed with a sharp click. "It will be here momentarily."

***

Nikita sat in the busy airport concourse waiting for Michael, who had gone to buy coffee for them. Their connecting flight would be departing soon and it would be a long overnight haul back to Section. They were flying a commercial airliner again, for the sake of convenience as well as their cover (it was wasteful for Section to provide a plane for only two operatives). As she saw Michael returning, she began to search in her purse for the documentation Section provided to enable them to carry their weapons onboard the plane. Finding the proper paperwork, she rose to her feet and approached Michael, carefully avoiding his fingers as she took her latte from his hand.

Michael's eyes shifted, swept over her face, briefly meeting her eyes. She was startled to see the flash of pain in his green gaze. She focused on him, not speaking, her eyes locked on his. She watched his familiar blank mask drop over his face and his gaze drift over her shoulder. Oh, good, Michael, retreat, pull back, she thought with exasperation. A flash of anger ran through her, but she pushed the emotion aside. This is neither the time nor the place for a confrontation, she reminded herself. Chicago's airport was the busiest in the world, crowded with people night and day, and there was no place for any privacy. This conversation will simply have to wait.

He turned to walk toward the security gates, gesturing courteously for her to precede him. She stepped ahead of him, drinking her coffee and praying for the caffeine to hit her system; they had been awake and working this mission since the call early this morning. 18 hours, and counting, she thought wearily. There were only a few people in line in front of Nikita when she heard the familiar chime of a cell phone. Her hand went automatically for her purse before her mind processed that it was Michael's phone that was pealing.

Michael stepped out of line, pulling out his phone as he moved to an uncrowded corner. Nikita followed him, moving between Michael and the passengers milling around the security gates.

"Yes," she heard Michael's low voice. There was a moment of silence as Michael listened to the contact on the phone; then Michael responded, "Now?" with such a strange mixture of cold anger and incredulity that Nikita turned to look at him. She was surprised to see a flash of rage pass over Michael's face and the uncharacteristic obscenity that slipped from his lips. "We're in the middle of the concourse at O'Hare Airport, what do you-", Michael paused and visibly got his anger under his usual stolid control. "Fine," he said, his voice icy. Michael snapped the phone shut and replaced it in his pocket, stepping forward to take Nikita's arm. His grip was warm and very firm. She could sense his anger rippling under his superficial calm and refrained from questioning him. "Come," he said, his flinty eyes meeting hers, "we need to talk."

***

The Chicago airport reminded Michael of Section; all cold tile floors and blank walls, although the airport's walls were white, not Section gray. Frigid and comfortless, it was constructed as though the humans it served were an afterthought, not the primary consideration. Michael and Nikita moved swiftly down the hallways until they located the private 'frequent flyer's club' of one of the major airlines. Michael pulled the appropriate identification out of his wallet and they were allowed entrance. This room, at least, was built for comfort and privacy. Large windows overlooked the runways, enabling the viewer to observe the lights of the multitude of planes arriving and departing. Comfortable overstuffed chairs were artfully arranged in small intimate groupings, extending a welcoming cocoon of leisure and ease to weary passengers.

Michael led them to a secluded set of couches set off and back on one side. Not too far back, he calculated, as to raise suspicion among the other travelers in the room, but far enough away to assure them of privacy. Michael sat facing the room, both to assure their security and to prevent any accidental (or not accidental) reading of the computer screen. After waving away the solicitous waiter, he quickly logged on to Section.

His first concern was to inform Section of his insecure location and to warn Birkoff not to use an audio link. His eyes flickered over to Nikita. She sat across from him, her blue eyes cool and aloof as she scanned the area around them. She had not questioned him yet about the phone call or his uncharacteristic response. Michael ran a hand over his eyes, then rubbed his chin absently. He wasn't sure, himself, why he had reacted so angrily to Birkoff's order to obtain secure location immediately. Part of it was his exhaustion, he thought, but certainly he had run missions before on limited sleep. He shifted in his seat. Most of his response had to do with his tangled emotions over Nikita, he realized uncomfortably.

Michael was neither blind nor stupid. He was fully aware of Nikita's simmering anger toward him and that his behavior in Olympia had triggered her fury. One part of his mind realized he had been cold, even cruel to her, that he had shifted too fast from her lover back to her mentor/mission leader. But he was also confused. Didn't she understand yet the danger they were in? The quicksand they were standing on?

It was easier to deal with the mission than with Nikita's emotions. He turned his attention to the computer, typing rapidly.

::Birkoff. Connected, but not secure. No audio.::

::We have updated intell on the Earth Brigade.:: Birkoff responded. ::Downloading parts of the conversation now.::

"Nikita," Michael raised his head and spoke softly. "Come here. You'll want to see this." She rose and crossed behind him, still careful not to get too close or touch him. He took the opportunity to lean back, tipping his head back and meeting her eyes. "You were right, after all. Updated intell coming in." The top of his head brushed her stomach with his movement. Her eyes sharpened at his movement and she gave him a piercing glance. He kept his face under control, silently gazing back at her, hoping she would understand his mute apology. She narrowed her eyes at him. Oh, yes, she understood what he was trying to do. But she wasn't buying it.

He sat up straight as the promised information began to appear on his computer screen. Michael pressed his hands together, resting his elbows on the armrest of the chair and supporting his chin on his fingertips. He felt Nikita move closer to his back, still not touching him, but closer. Well, that's an improvement, Michael thought. At least she's thawing a little bit. The remainder of this conversation will have to wait until we have absolute privacy.

One sentence immediately drew his attention He heard Nikita's breath catch as she read it. Did you get the night vision scope? Mason had made one small slip, just one, but it was enough. Now they knew what they were up against.

He heard Nikita exhale in a soft sigh. "They're going to have a sniper there," she murmured in his ear. Her breath was warm on his neck. He nodded and began to type again.

::Now what? Profile.::

Birkoff was expecting that question; his response was nearly instantaneous.

::Private plane, return to Olympia immediately. Go to Terminal D, Executive Air Service.::

::Possible complications using private aircraft?:: Michael let a small frown crease his forehead and closed his eyes briefly. He didn't like the idea of using an unfamiliar non-Section pilot; that would necessitate one of them staying awake and alert and they were both running on depleted reserves of energy. More likely, they would each take a short nap, alternating with each other. Not enough sleep to refresh, but hopefully enough to dull their exhaustion.

He heard Nikita snort softly at Birkoff's response and focused his tired eyes on the computer.

::Don't ask, don't tell,:: Birkoff had answered.

Crap, Michael thought, we're dealing with gray matter. Gray matter were non-Section material that were known for supplying a needed service or product with few questions... for the proper price. Michael distrusted working with gray matter, as necessary as they were; he preferred to deal with people with known qualities, their strengths and weaknesses carefully analyzed and their actions anticipated. Gray matter were unknown variables, loose cannons. There were many, many reasons Michael had survived in Section for nearly fifteen years; on the top of that list would be his compulsive analysis and planning of his missions. Michael distrusted anyone and anything he could not completely scrutinize.

He knew better than complain. Birkoff would have done the best he could, given the circumstances.

::Financial arrangements?::

::Settled. Bon voyage, M. and Mme. Bonniere.::

Michael closed down the computer. He glanced over at Nikita, who was wandering idly back to her seat across from him.

"We should be going," he said softly, noticing for the first time the blue smudges under her eyes, the lines of stress in her face. "Do you want anything to eat or drink before we leave?"

Her eyes met his, wary and guarded. "I'm fine," she said, her voice cool. He sat for an instant longer, watching her prowl restlessly around the couches. He was seized by impulse to grab her arms and let her spew her built-up frustrations at him. She might even hit him, which would certain make her feel better and clear the air between them. He rose smoothly to his feet, knowing not even a ripple of his thoughts had crossed his face. There would be a thousand different ways to resolve this if we were ordinary people, with normal lives, he thought with a trace of bitterness. He courteously gestured for her to precede him from the lounge. She'd say her piece, expel her bile, and we'd end up in bed, like any other couple. There was a sour taste in his mouth. Most of the time he managed to disregard the emotionally stunted life he led; but the few times when the realization forced its way through his denial, the truth was galling.

***

Locating Executive Air Service was simple; they were immediately and courteously escorted to the small Lear jet waiting on the tarmac. Nikita preceded Michael up the short staircase, ducking her head as she entered the low-ceiling plane. There were four comfortable leather seats, set singly by the windows with the aisle between them. At the back of the cabin were two seats placed together. As small as the cabin was, the cockpit was even smaller and more cramped, with barely enough space for the two pilots. The co-pilot turned to greet her.

"Welcome aboard Mr. and Mrs. Bonniere," he said, his flat Midwestern accent strangling the pronunciation. "If you'll put your luggage in the area behind the galley and take your seats, we'll be on our way momentarily. I understand you are in a hurry to get to your destination." The statement was not a question. His face was pleasant, if one didn't look to closely at his eyes, which were cold and hard.

This is really a don't-ask-don't-tell operation, thought Nikita as she obediently placed her carry on bag in the compartment indicated, Michael following behind her. She took one of the seats on the right side, pointedly ignoring the joined seats in the back. Although some of her emotional ache had subsided after Michael's behavior in the airport, she was still irritated enough to decline spending another flight close to him. Michael flicked his eyes over her, reading her body position, and she crossed her legs and faced the window, turning her back to him. She heard the leather creak softly as he sat down across the aisle from her. Within seconds, the plane began to back away from the terminal and taxied out to the runway.

Quickly airborne, the co-pilot stepped back into the cabin and gave them abbreviated safety instructions. "Please help yourself to any refreshments you desire," he finished. "The galley is stocked with various alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, and various snack foods. Our cruising speed is 440 knots and we anticipate arriving at the airport in Olympia in approximately four hours. If you require anything further, please don't hesitate to knock on the cockpit door and ask." With a brief nod in their direction, he retreated to the front of the plane and closed the door discreetly behind him.

For several minutes, there was complete silence in the plane. Finally Nikita broke the stillness, glancing over her shoulder at Michael. "Will we be stopping to refuel? He didn't mention that."

"No," Michael responded, turning slightly to meet her gaze. His eyes caressed her face. "This jet can fly about 1800 nautical miles before refueling. It's not that far to Olympia." Silence fell between them again, but their eyes remained locked. Michael looked away first, glancing out the window at the dark sky. "Why don't you stretch out on the seats in back and take a nap," he suggested.

"What about you?" Nikita responded, trying but not succeeding in keeping the challenge from her voice.

His eyes returned to hers and she caught the slight movement of his fingers, quickly stilled. "I'll stay awake," he replied flatly.

Her eyes flickered to the closed cockpit door. "Don't trust our transportation?"

His eyes followed hers briefly, then returned to her face. "Go lie down," he repeated.

She noticed he didn't answer her question. She rose to her feet, remembering to keep her head lowered and dropped her lips near his ear as she passed. "Intuition?" she said half-teasing, half-mocking. How many times had he disregarded her intuition? And she had been right this time.

His head tipped back fractionally so he could meet her eyes. "Just being careful," he murmured back.

She stepped back to the back seats and flipped up the armrest so she could recline across both seats. Careful, she thought with frustration and scorn, Michael's whole life revolves around careful... She squirmed, trying to get comfortable, and mentally scolded herself for being unfair to him. There was a reason Michael has survived all these years in Section, she reminded herself, and it wasn't because he was reckless.

She sighed in frustration at the turbulence of her emotions. I understand why he was so withdrawn, I know that we have to be meticulous about hiding this from Section, she thought drowsily, if only he weren't such a cold bastard about it. Fatigue was overwhelming her. Does it hurt him too, to pull away? was her last thought before sleep claimed her.

***

They took a cab to a small motel down the street from the park. There was no question of going back to the Bed and Breakfast; that part of their cover had been ditched when Michael had claimed a 'family emergency' as their excuse for leaving early. She watched Michael quickly switch his driver's license to change his identity before he walked into the motel office to get a room. Being so close to the Capitol Building, the motel staff was accustomed to various government officials and lobbyists arriving at all hours of the day and night; their early morning arrival raised no questions. Their room was plain and simple, but clean. Nikita craved a shower and a nap, in that order, but first they needed to contact Section. Michael set up the computer with his usual efficiency and Nikita stood behind him, hands linked behind her, to read the screen over his shoulder.

Michael affixed the comm-link behind his ear. "Birkoff."

Birkoff's response was instantaneous. He had obviously been waiting for them to check in. "I'm here, Michael. What's your situation?"

"We're located in a small hotel a few blocks from the park. We'll conduct another visual surveilliance in the morning. What's the status on our back up?"

"They will be arriving in the afternoon, driving from the Western North American Substation. Once you have secured Mason and his sniper, you'll join up with the backup team and return to the substation. Then proceed back to Section."

Michael paused a moment and Nikita indicated their luggage. "We'll need to meet up with the backup team prior to going live," Michael said. "We'll sanitize our location and leave our belongings with the van. Let me know when and where they are upon arrival."

"Gotcha," Birkoff responded.

"Anything further from Mason?" Michael asked.

"Nothing. He's still got the tracker on him, he's just being very careful."

"Or not many people know about his shooter," observed Nikita caustically. Michael gave her a sharp glance and nodded imperceptibly.

There was no further information forthcoming from Birkoff. Michael set up a download of all of Mason's conversations in order to review them personally, then sat back and rubbed a hand tiredly over his eyes. He had let his usual stoic mask slip, exposing his weariness. Nikita stepped forward, turning so she was half-sitting on the table next to the computer. She reached out and raised his chin, sweeping her eyes over his tired visage.

"You should have traded places with me on the plane," she repeated gently. This was a conversation they had had several times since she woke up as the jet descended into Olympia.

He pulled himself together with a visible effort; his eyes were dull and slightly bloodshot. "Let it be, Nikita. There'll be time to rest before we need to go out for surveillance." Stung, she dropped her hand and walked away from him, blinking back the tears that came too easily to her eyes. She heard him lever himself out of the chair, walk into the tiny bathroom and turn on the water. She took the respite to put herself together, rubbing her hands over her eyes to hide any evidence of her tears, pushing her seething emotions down and locking them away. I'm exhausted and over-reacting,she told herself firmly. I'll just take my shower and get a few hours' sleep. To hell with him.

She heard his quiet footstep as he returned to the room. She spoke without turning around. "Go to bed, Michael. I'm going to take a shower first."

The bedsprings creaked protestingly as he sat down heavily. "It wasn't just sex," he stated bluntly.

She turned around carefully and deliberately, not believing her ears. "What?"

He didn't move. He was sitting with his back to her, his shoulders slightly slumped, his head hanging down. His hair was wet; she realized he had soaked his whole head, not just his face. He was obviously exhausted, every inch of his body seemed to droop wearily, but he continued the conversation. "It wasn't just sex," he repeated stubbornly.

She stalked across the room to stand in front of him, her body rigid with disbelief and her long-repressed fury. "You want to go into this now?"

He raised his head; the movement seemed almost painful for him. "I want to get this settled between us."

She reached over and grabbed the chair from in front of the computer, spinning it to settle with its back facing Michael. She sat on the seat, straddling the back and resting her chin on her crossed arms on the back of the chair. "OK, Michael, it wasn't just sex. So what was it?" Her voice was challenging, unforgiving.

*** (Language warning)

Michael exhaled slowly, feeling every muscle in his body scream for sleep as he sat on the bed. His eyes were dry and scratchy and his eyelids felt like sandpaper; he pushed the minor irritations aside and refocused his gaze and mind on Nikita. Her azure eyes were boring into his. He inhaled deeply, deliberately, and tried to verbalize the thoughts that had been running through his mind the entire flight back from Chicago.

"You're angry with me," he began. She snorted. OK, that was a little obvious, he thought. He raised his hand to forestall her retort. "Let me say this." She paused, considered, and nodded silently.

He took another conscious breath, gathered his thoughts, and continued. "It wasn't just sex," he repeated again carefully. "But no matter how we feel about each other, in the end Section owns us." He met her unflinching stare. "What we have... we have to take whatever we can, whenever we can and then return to Section. To who and what we are." He paused for several long seconds. "I've told you several times that I live my life in two. It wasn't just Elena and Adam... every moment of my life is divided. What I feel for you, how I feel when I'm with you... that part of my life has no place in my existence in Section. It can't. I couldn't survive it." His eyes dropped to his hands, his voice becoming a harsh whisper. "My need for you makes me weak. It endangers your life. And I don't know how to stop needing you."

She got to her feet and circled the chair to approach him. "You," she said slowly and clearly, "are a cold-hearted manipulative bastard. And there are times I really hate you." She exhaled, hard, and stroked one hand down his cheek. She cupped her hand under his chin and raised his head. "And then there are times when you are the kindest man I have ever known. And I don't know how to balance one with the other."

He met her gaze and scrutinized her silently. Stop forgiving me, he thought bitterly. Stop making excuses for me. He was relieved when she continued, her voice hardening again. Her hand dropped from his face.

"You may be able to command your feelings on and off, Michael, but I can't. I don't come with a little on/off switch in my back." Her sarcasm was sharp. "One of those things they missed during training, implanting an emotional thermostat." She paused momentarily, and he watched her emotions flow across her face as she reined in her temper. She moved away from him, shoving her fists into her pockets, and took a few steps before turning back. Her voice was soft but vehement. "I need to know when you are switching back to your Section personality. One minute you were my lover and the next you became Michael-on-a-mission. And that hurt like a son of a bitch."

Her clear blue eyes met his and he could see the depth of her pain. I'm always hurting her, he thought. All he could think of to say was the same hackneyed phrase he had said over and over, every time he injured her. "I'm sorry." He spread his hands helplessly, at a loss how to assuage either her anger or her pain. He was acutely aware the little he could do was insufficient for her.

She gave a bitter laugh. "Yeah, I know," she responded sadly. "Both of us, we're always sorry." Her mouth curved in a small forlorn smile. "Go to sleep, Michael. I'm going to take a shower." She stepped into the small bathroom and shut the door; within moments he heard the water start. He pulled off his shoes, folded his jacket and shirt neatly and lay down on the sole bed in the room. Perhaps I should leave the bed for her and sleep on the floor, he thought as he drifted off. But even a cheap hotel bed was more comfortable that the floor and he was asleep before he could decide whether to move or not.

***

Nikita stepped out of the bathroom, barefoot but dressed again in her sweater and slacks, a towel wrapped around her wet hair. The sight of Michael, asleep on the bed clad in his undershirt and pants, greeted her. Even in sleep, he's courteous, she thought, noting how he had carefully positioned himself on one side of the bed, leaving plenty of room for her to stretch out. She shook out her hair and combed through it, regarding him thoughtfully.

He had apologized.

More than just the trite words 'I'm sorry', she had sensed his real regret for having hurt her. The words came so easily for him, but the remorse that should accompany them was a rarity. She remembered the brief moment of pain that he had shown when she purposely avoided touching him. So it hurts him, too, to have her pull back from him. She sighed to herself and put her comb down. This wasn't resolved, not by a long shot, but at least her anger and hurt were eased. She stepped over to the bed, arms akimbo, considering. Do I join him? Behind her, the computer gave a muted beep as it completed its assigned download task. That made her decision. Mission tomorrow. I need the best sleep possible. Stripping off her sweater, she lay down on the open half of the bed. She moved as little as possible to avoid disturbing Michael, but within moments he had rolled on his side and wrapped an arm over her, pulling her close to his warm body.

"Nikita, I'm sorry," he murmured sleepily.

She patted the arm that draped over her stomach. "Go back to sleep, Michael."

His arm tightened fractionally. "Yours," he whispered. "I am only yours."

She felt a sting of tears and swallowed hard. "I know," she whispered back. He was already asleep again.

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

Day Four

Nikita awoke to find herself still wrapped in Michael's arms, his breath caressing her back as he slept. She didn't move, enjoying the sensation of his muscular body pressed to hers and impulsively decided not to wake him. Sometime during their early morning sleep he had pulled still closer to her; his hand had crept under her T-shirt and was pressed against her stomach, his rough, stubbled cheek tickled the back of her neck. He had also thrown a light blanket over them, but she had no recollection of his doing so. She felt his grip tighten as he awoke. He has the reflexes of a cat, she thought; even asleep he must have sensed the change in her breathing pattern.

She rolled onto her back so she could see his face. It pleased her to see how rested he looked. Amazing how a few hours' nap could refresh a person who was running on minimal sleep. His long hair was tousled around his face, making him appear much younger and more vulnerable than usual. Or perhaps it was the expression in his eyes; his luminous gaze was open and unguarded. How did I ever doubt his feelings? And why do I let his mask fool me time and time again?

"Good morning," she greeted him with a warm smile. He let go of her to check his watch. She followed his glance. "What time is it?"

"10am," he answered. His voice was lower than usual, as deep and sensuous as only a sleepy man can be. She felt a small shiver creep down her back and a flush of desire run through her body.

Business, Nikita, back to business. "Do we need to be going?" Her voice was matter-of-fact, but she couldn't resist giving him her best come-hither look.

"We should..." he responded slowly. He propped himself up on his right elbow, returning his left hand under her shirt. His fingers caressed her navel. "We should..." he repeated and deliberately raised his eyes to meet hers.

A multitude of thoughts ran through Nikita's head, churned in her stomach and pounded through her veins. The knowledge they were a few hours away from a mission, where a simple miscalculation could result in the deaths of one or both of them. The specter hanging over their heads: when they returned to the crypt that was Section, there was no way to know how long they would have to wait to be together again. The loss of this intimacy between them, so hard-won and so difficult to create. And her simple, constant, all-consuming desire for him.

For all these reasons, and for a thousand more, flowing unformed and unintelligible through her mind, she wanted him. Now. And she knew he was thinking along the same lines; as he pressed closer and gently continued stroking her abdomen, she felt his rising arousal press on her leg through his clothing and hers. She reminded herself to proceed carefully; the peace between them was so fragile, so delicate, it would be all-too-easy to say the wrong word and lose this precious connection.

Humor was always a good tactic. Not many people tried humor with Michael; using it kept him a little off-balance. "Should is never an effective word for me," she murmured invitingly.

The flame of desire flickered brighter in his luminous eyes. "Oh, no?"

She reached over and stroked the riotous curls off his face. "No, it tends to make me want to do the opposite," she whispered. Her hand slipped around the back of his head, pulling him to her. Her lips parted and she kissed him tenderly. She felt him respond, his lips softening as he kissed her back, then his muscles tensed slightly; he pulled back and regarded her seriously.

"Last night you wanted nothing to do with me," he began. She reached up and laid a finger on his lips. So much for being careful, she thought. But this issue needed to be settled between them and now was as good a time as any.

"I meant everything I said last night," she replied honestly. "Sometimes you drive me crazy and I hate you. But I also know the kindness you are capable of showing. What a good man you can be." She locked her eyes on his, willing him to believe her next statement. "I know I can't live this life without you." She heaved a small sigh and ran her fingers through his hair again. "It's not much of a life, but it's the only one I've got now. And if all I can get are stolen moments with you, I guess I'll have to accept that." Her fingers tightened on his hair and her gaze became fierce. "But this must be more than simply sex... it has to be, or I'm nothing more than a convenience for you. You told me last night what we have is more than that. Is it the truth?" She gave him a hard, knowing look. "Truth, Michael."

His eyes closed briefly. Would he tell her the truth? Her mind ran over the memories, too many memories, of Michael's lies, deceptions and manipulations. Michael, the consummate actor, who could portray any emotion the mission profile required. Her mind shifted direction, recalling his despair over his son. Michael, who watched her back as protectively as she watched his. Michael, who no longer lied to her, (except by omission of facts, jeered one part of her consciousness, such was life in Section... the other part retorted), who was now as honest as he could be within the confines of Section's procedures.

He took a deep breath and she returned her focus to his face. "I don't know what love is," he said, his voice raw with painful self-awareness. "Love is a commodity that Section uses and abuses for its own purposes." His gaze drifted off her face to focus on the wall behind her. "All I know is I need you as much as I need air to breathe." The silence stretched on for several seconds, finally, hesitantly, he returned his eyes back to hers.

She had heard what she needed; she was very well aware of his inability to articulate his emotions and knew he had given her all he could. She closed her eyes with relief. They had negotiated that particular quagmire successfully.

She sensed his hesitation in his body language; the way he held himself so still, the intense look he gave her. She felt a brief moment of uncertainty. Now what? How do I prevent him from pulling away again? Her mind flickered back to her thoughts a few minutes ago. Humor. She relaxed into his embrace and gave him a teasing smile. "But the sex is usually good, too," she said playfully.

He feigned injury. "Usually?"

Her smile grew broader. My God, how I love his sense of humor. She stretched, twisting to entwine her body with his. "Maybe you'll need to convince me to change my opinion," she prodded.

He leaned over her, rolling her to her back and pressing her tightly to the mattress. "Is that a challenge?" His voice dropped to a sibilant whisper. "Do you know how I react to challenges?" His lips were inches away, his body a crushing comfort on hers. She shook her head, never taking her eyes off his face, watching the amusement dancing in his limpid eyes. "Badly. I have a competitive streak in me. A need to prove I'm always right." His mouth descended and captured hers. His kiss was penetrating, demanding and commanding. It left her gasping and desiring another.

"I'll have to remember that," she murmured, encircling her arms around his neck and pulling him down for more.

***

They lay together in the aftermath of their passion, limbs entwined, chests heaving, pulses pounding. Michael's one-day beard stubble scratched her neck pleasantly as he turned his head to place a soft kiss in the crook of her shoulder. Her fingertips stroked his back, delighting in the feel of his powerful muscles. With a low groan, he raised himself up on his elbows and looked at his watch.

"Now we must be going," he murmured, leaning down to place a kiss on her lips. He adjusted his position and slowly withdrew from her, rolling onto his side. She moaned softly at the loss of his warmth and rolled over to cuddle closer to him. His arms surrounded her and pulled her close. She lifted her head to place a kiss at the base of his neck, feeling the strong beat of his pulse beneath her lips. A deep aching sorrow swept over her, and she felt the tingle of tears threaten her eyes. She blinked desperately, trying to forestall the tears and only succeeded in pushing the offending moisture down her cheeks. She slipped an arm out from under his and surreptitiously tried to wipe her face.

He realized her distress immediately. She wasn't sure if he felt her sobbing intake of breath, her tears on his chest, or if it was simply his incredible awareness of her. But he knew, and before she had a chance to disguise her feelings he lifted her chin to look into her face.

"Nikita?" Her name rolled off his tongue. No one said her name the way he did, the syllables slightly spaced as if he were learning to say her name phonetically. His voice stabbed at her, making the tears flow harder. His callused fingertips stroked her face, wiped her eyes gently. "Nikita? Talk to me."

That nearly made her laugh. Michael, asking her to talk to him? Talk about role reversal... But that thought led her back to her original discomfiture. She swallowed hard, forcing back the sobs that rose in her throat and tried to put her thoughts into words.

"I just realized I'm going to lose you today," she managed, repressed tears making her voice hoarse. "No matter what happens with this mission, you'll be gone from me. God forbid something should happen tonight, but even if we're successful, we're headed back to Section. And all of this," her arm swung in a vague circle, encompassing them, the bed and the room, "will be like a dream. A wonderful dream, but only a dream." Her voice caught. She stopped for a moment and wiped her eyes. His eyes were dark, almost black, reflecting her pain. She tried to continue and her voice was a thready whisper. "I miss you already, Michael. I don't know how I can go back there, back to who you... we... are there."

He gazed unblinkingly at her. There was nothing he could do, nothing he could say to ease her pain. She didn't expect him to answer, so she was startled when he took a deep breath and began to speak.

"I won't tell you to wait for someday," he said, his voice low. "You asked me for honesty and I won't lie to you now. Someday does not exist, it will never happen." He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close to him. He dropped his voice more, down to a harsh whisper. "You must remember... I love you and I need you. Hold on to that thought, Nikita, hold on to it tight."

She wrapped her arms around his broad back, memorizing the feel of his body next to hers, the unique smell of sated man, the warmth of his embrace, his powerful yet tender strength. They lay together for several minutes, holding each other, committing every sensation to memory. Then he kissed her forehead, her eyes and her lips and pulled away. He walked into the bathroom to start a shower, closed the door behind him and never looked back.

*** (language warning)

Nikita sat in front of the computer and logged on to communicate with Birkoff. Behind her, the water continued to run as Michael took his shower. She picked up the communications unit and affixed it behind her ear.

"Hey, Birkoff," she said, trying to sound casual and confident.

"Nikita! Where have you guys been? Operations-"

The next voice she heard was Operations himself. "And where the hell have you been?" he demanded.

Nikita bit the inside of her cheek to control her temper. God, how I hate that man. "We were down, we went to sleep for a few hours. Birkoff told us there wasn't anything new on the Earth Brigade. Michael's downloaded transcripts of Mason's conversations for his review this morning." She hoped her voice wasn't as defiant as she felt.

"You should have maintained open communication at all times," Operations snapped back.

"Sir, the parade will not be starting for six more hours. We have no target, no suspect besides Mason- who is tagged and accounted for- and no indication of where the shooter will be placed. Michael had been up for 24 hours and I had had 3 hours of sleep in the same time. We felt it would be prudent to get some rest in order to perform at our optimum capabilities. Were we wrong?" The line was silent for a moment and Nikita felt the warm glow of satisfaction. Take that, Operations, you son of a bitch...

"Nikita." Michael's clear baritone sounded behind her. She started, only now realizing the water had stopped. He had shaved and was dressed in a midnight blue turtleneck and black slacks, his wet hair slicked off his face. As he approached her he motioned for the comm unit; she was surprised to read his approval of her retort to Operations in his peridot eyes. She handed the unit over to him and rose from the chair. He seated himself and began talking to Operations. She stood silently for a moment listening to his cool, accented voice calmly deflecting Operations' irate questions, then ran her fingers softly over his head before walking away to take her shower.

***

She ran a hot shower, the temperature just below lobster boil. Steam rose in clouds around her. She was sitting, her head hanging forward, arms wrapped around her legs, hugging them close to her chest, letting the heated water flow over her, the spray pounding her shoulders. She sat for what seemed to be hours and tried to reconstruct her emotional walls. She had done it before, she could do it again. What was harder, she mused, trying to rebuild the intimacy with Michael on the rare occasions they had the privacy to be human, be honest and make love to one another, or the necessary severing of that same intimacy when it was time to return to Section? She squeezed her eyes in pain, and concentrated on the sensation of the water running down her face. Michael, oh, god, Michael... Perhaps Michael's way was better, to be closed down, shut off from emotional contact. But even as she considered the thought, she knew that method was impossible for her. And, if she were honest, Michael's method didn't even work for Michael. Although he was more adept than she at hiding his emotions, at protecting himself, the cold withdrawn man she had once known existed no more. The loss of his son had rocked Michael like an earthquake and his emotional barriers were now cracked and crumbling.

So now what do I do? she thought, letting her contemplation of Michael slip to the back of her mind. She thought again of his final words, to cling to the knowledge of his need for her. Hold tight, hold tight... She turned off the water, pushed her hair back off her face and straightened her spine. She climbed out of the tub and walked over to the mirror, wiping the condensed moisture off the glass to look closely at her face. She stared into the reflection of her eyes and willed her emotions to retreat. She watched her face harden and the glow disappear from her eyes; she saw her mask come over her features and her Section persona emerge again. She slipped on some non descript dark clothing and ran a comb through her hair before taking a final glance in the mirror. Her cold façade felt uncertain and weak; one word or touch from Michael would cause it to collapse like a house of cards. She took a deep breath and repeated her new mantra, hold tight, hold tight before stepping out of the bathroom to rejoin Michael.

***

Michael was reviewing the transcripts of Mason's conversations when Nikita stepped back into the room. He gave her a quick glance over his shoulder, noting immediately that despite her difficulty earlier, she had completed her transition back to Section operative. Like him, she was dressed in dark clothes; a charcoal gray sweater and black leggings. Not speaking, she stepped behind him and read the computer screen over his shoulder as she braided her flaxen hair. He continued regarding her as she finished both activities. She shifted her eyes to meet his gaze, her face controlled and remote. Their eyes held and locked, green and blue bound together. Although neither of them showed any overt emotion, Michael felt the synergetic pull between them. He shut the computer down without looking, keeping his vision fixed on her, and rose from the chair.

"You OK?" he asked softly, trying to ease the building strain between them.

"Fine," she replied shortly, shifting her eyes away briefly, then returning them to his face as if drawn by a magnet.

"Hungry?" His hands itched to stroke her face; he pushed down the impulse. She has herself under control, let her be, he chastised himself.

She gave him a smile, a small one, but it was a smile nonetheless. "Starving."

He finally broke their locked stares to glance around the room. "We need to pack everything up. There's a small bakery down the street, we can get something to eat there. Then we should move down to the park and conduct reconnaissance."

It took only a few minutes to gather their belongings and stash them in the luggage. Michael picked up his shoulder holster and buckled it on, checked and secured his pistol. He covered his weapon by putting on a light jacket, adjusting the folds of fabric to disguise the telltale bulge. He turned to watch Nikita finishing her check of her small caliber gun; she wore a holster designed to fit around her waist and slipped her gun into the small of her back, the protuberance easily disguised by her hip length sweater. He eyed the room cautiously to be sure they were not leaving any evidence of their occupancy. Their luggage, two suitcases and a shoulder bag, were carefully placed by the front door. He decided to leave the computer on the desk for now; they would need to check in with Section after checking over the park. His eyes met Nikita's and he courteously opened the door for her, his hand lightly touching her back as she passed him. He felt her immediate tension; her back straightened slightly and she quickly stepped away from him to break their physical contact. He let his hand drop, his fingertips burning where they had brushed her.

***

The afternoon passed uneventfully. They had grabbed a snack and a coffee at the bakery, then walked the few short blocks to survey the site. Small Italian lights had been strung on the gazebo and around the trees; the park would be a beautiful backdrop for the festivities tonight. They had both spent time scrutinizing the gazebo, trying to locate the bogus device that the Earth Brigade would detonate tonight. Unsuccessful in locating the bomb, they had also spent some time evaluating the surroundings of the park. There were three potential sites for the sniper: a three-story apartment building situated over commercial businesses, an old hotel converted to senior housing and the former county courthouse, an imposing turreted gray limestone building towering over the east end of the park.

They had opted to stay close to the park and chose a small restaurant across the street to eat. The weather was nice enough, sunny and slightly cool, that the restaurant had 'al fresco' dining; tables set outside on the sidewalk. Michael sat with his back to the building, Nikita to his left, both of them positioned in order to have clear views of the park and especially the gazebo. Mason's transcripts, which Michael summarized for Nikita over their meal, had indicated the remainder of the group was unaware of Mason's true agenda. The sniper was to be Mason's private arrangement. The remainder of the group appeared to be young and idealistic; Michael shrugged his shoulders eloquently as he described his opinion of the Earth Brigade's objective in detonating the dummy bomb.

"They believe the parade tonight is hypocritical. That a community celebration of the environment is a sanctimonious feel-good ploy when society is destroying the environment with logging, development, nuclear power... pick a cause." He shrugged again, the Gallic mannerism conveying his cynicism.

Nikita glanced up at him when he paused in his recitation. His eyes were hooded, half hidden behind his lids, a sure sign that he was hiding his emotions, perhaps even from himself.

She stirred her tea thoughtfully. "So do you think the majority of this group just needs a good scare to prevent them from escalating their violence? To teach them not to play games like setting off mock bombs?"

He gave her a sharp piercing glance. "What are you suggesting, Nikita?"

She paused to collect her thoughts. The idea had been a spontaneous one, but it just might work. "Only that if the Earth Brigade is given a short lesson in what a dangerous game they are playing, they may decide not to continue. Say when we recover Mason, we make a point to warn his compatriots that what they are doing is extremely dangerous."

Michael was silent for a moment, running the idea through his head. She waited and watched him sift through possibilities, scenarios, and potential repercussions. She took a bite of her sandwich and scanned the park again.

"It might work," his voice brought her attention back to him. "But we need to be sure we avoid any entanglements with the local police. Retrieving Mason and preventing the shooting are the priorities, not warning off the remainder of the Earth Brigade." She nodded, understanding and appreciating once again everything Michael did for her. Her compassion for innocents (and she considered the bulk of the Earth Brigade to be innocents unaware of the possible consequences of their well-intentioned action) was a vital part of her emotional makeup. For Michael to consider, accept and design a mission that enabled her to act on her impulses was a gift she was only now becoming aware he gave to her.

She slid a hand across the table, and touched his hand where it lay next to his plate. "Thank you, Michael," she said softly, meaning every word. He looked down at their clasped hands, then raised his eyes to meet hers. He let his blank, controlled mask slip for a second and she gave her Michael a small smile. He let his gaze drift back across the street as she continued regarding him silently. Does he realize he is doing this for himself? That, had someone given him the same warning all those years ago, he might not have gotten involved with Rene Dian and L'Heure Sanguine? His fingers tightened imperceptibly, pressing gently on her fingertips, then he slipped his hand out from hers to raise his glass to his lips, his eyes continuing to scan the park across from them. Or that I do this for him, her thoughts continued, that I want to warn these kids for Michael's sake? For the sake of an angry young man who made one fatal error and destroyed his own life?

"We should return to the room," Michael's low voice broke her reverie. "Our back up should be arriving soon and we need to tighten up the profile before presenting it to Operations."

***

It was time to move out. The sun was beginning to slide down the sky, leaving orange and crimson streaks in its wake. Nikita moved carefully through the van, slipping through the crowd of five large male bodies, maneuvering to reach her bag and pull out another sweater. It was warm in the mission van, but it would be substantially cooler outside. Her chosen item was a heavy hand knitted wool sweater, thick and bulky and dark enough to be unobtrusive. Michael glanced over at her, then reached into one of the van's many compartments.

"Wait on the sweater," he said, and tossed a lightweight Kevlar vest over the heads of the surrounding operatives, "put this on under it."

Nikita caught the vest easily, internally smiling at Michael's over protectiveness. "Only if you do," she challenged. He glanced over at her, his face and eyes already in the stern lines of his 'mission face'. "Come on, Michael," she continued when he didn't respond, "you're the one going after the sniper. If anyone needs to be wearing a vest, it's you."

The profile had been set and approved by Operations. Michael would be handling the sniper; Nikita would be extracting Mason. Neither target was expendable; there was no housekeeping team with them. Somehow both targets would need to be located, detained and delivered to the backup team waiting in the van. In the privacy of their hotel room, Michael and Nikita had discussed the additional off-profile mission of confronting the Earth Brigade in hopes of preventing any further violent action by them, but that particular piece of intelligence was not shared with Operations. Need to know basis, thought Nikita with sardonic humor, and Operations does not need to know about that plan.

Once the backup team arrived, Michael and Nikita had sanitized their hotel room and joined the newcomers in the van. The backup team consisted of four members, all from the substation and unknown to Nikita. They were all typical Section operatives, burly, muscular and taciturn. Nikita missed working with familiar faces and the comfort of dealing with known quality in her backup. She shrugged mentally and pulled her mind back to the present. It doesn't matter how I feel about these guys. We shouldn't be needing them for assistance to get this job done.

Michael's eyes were fixed on her face, evaluating her comment to him. She kept her eyes fixed on his, willing him to accede to her demand for his safety. He shrugged his shoulders slightly and reached back for a second vest. Nikita was peripherally aware of the scrutiny of the remainder of their team; they had been flicking their eyes between her and Michael, silently observing. Like watching a tennis match,she thought sourly. Apparently the infamous Michael-and-Nikita reputation had preceded them. What exactly their reputation was, she didn't know and wasn't sure she want to know. Sometimes it was better to pretend to be ignorant.

Michael had finished putting on the required vest and was in the process of reaffixing his holster. He gave her a pointed stare, focus, stop daydreaming; she understood him as clearly as if he had spoken the words aloud and she hurriedly began to slip on her own protective gear. Michael pulled another sweater out of his suitcase and pulled it on over his vest and gun. He had chosen a loose fitting fisherman's sweater; a subdued black, it was cut large enough and loose enough to disguise both his vest and his gun from outside observers.

As he finished dressing, Michael stepped over to the computer set up in the command and communication section of the van. He pulled up the mission profile and also spread out a paper map of downtown Olympia next to him for the team's reference. Nikita stepped up next him, behind his left shoulder, and the remainder of the team circled around the two of them.

"The parade route is here," Michael began, indicating the red lines on the map. "The parade will begin and end here, at Sylvester Park. The gazebo is located here," he pointed to the west end of the park, "where the target group plans to detonate its false bomb, and where we expect to find Mason. The sniper could be located here-" he pointed, "here- or here." He punched a key on the computer and brought up a picture of Peter Mason. "This is our target. Nikita will be handling his capture and extraction to the van. We don't know who has been contracted for the sniper hit, or who the planned target is. It is possible there is no specific target in mind." The team nodded in understanding. "I will be locating and neutralizing the sniper. Communications will be handled here in the van; this will enable Nikita and me to be in contact with each other as well as with you at all times. You are not to egress the van unless specifically requested. This is a low profile mission; we must avoid contact with the local authorities at all costs. Questions?" His pale green eyes swept over the assembled group; there were no hesitations in the nods that responded to his query.

***

Nikita and Michael moved through the parade participants as they circled the perimeter of the park. Nikita glanced around as they maneuvered silently through the crowds. The parade would be huge, she thought, there were easily a couple thousand people milling around the area. Stilt-walkers dressed as storks and herons. Young children carrying cardboard cutouts of salmon and bumblebees. A huge paper mache gray whale. A lion with a large head and extended body, designed similar to a Chinese dragon, with several pairs of legs underneath the body, dancing down the street. And music, music everywhere. Dancers dressed in leopard-print leotards dancing to a samba band. A drum band stepping in rhythm together. They passed a group of musicians shaking hollow pipes; the song emerged as they moved through the group, first the treble notes, then the middle tones and finally low bass notes rattling from huge pipes.

There was some kind of organization to the mayhem; there were signs indicating sections of the parade: air, water, earth and fire. She swept her eyes around the bedlam, searching for Mason, any indication of trouble. Instead, her attention was caught by a group of children, a school group? a scout troop?, dressed as a pack of wolves and practicing their howling. A smile she couldn't resist crossed her face and she glanced up at Michael. He had a faint smile hovering around the edges of his mouth, lightening the dark intensity of his eyes.

They moved through the streets surrounding the park and entered the park itself. There was still more chaos here. A band was setting up within the gazebo itself. Parade spectators wandered through the park on their way to locating a spot to watch the show. It was an eclectic mix of people, everyone from young families with babies in strollers and carriers to college age students with wanna-be Rastafarian dreadlocks to well-dressed older couples. Nikita felt the contagious happiness of the crowd and had a brief moment of envy for their uncomplicated lives.

"Johnson," Michael spoke quietly to the operative handling communications in the van. "Where does Birkoff say GPS puts Mason?" Nikita heard the faint taping of the keys in her own earpiece.

"Two blocks north, one block east," Johnson replied. Michael glanced over at Nikita and tipped his head fractionally to the right. They began to walk down the street, scanning the crowded sidewalk as they passed. Turning at the appropriate corner, they continued down the street. People were standing three and four deep on the sidewalk, blocking the way and making the street the best way to maneuver around. Nikita scanned the sidewalk to their left, Michael to the right. Nikita looked over the heads of the younger children sitting on the curb and concentrated on the crowd of adults behind them on the sidewalk. Michael suddenly took her hand and she immediately turned to look at him. He pulled her into an embrace, turning his shoulders so her head was directed to one section of the horde waiting for the parade.

"Straight ahead, wearing a black baseball cap," Michael whispered in her ear. Her eyes flickered over the mass of people in front of her, searching. There.

She ran a hand into his hair, pulling his ear closer to her mouth. "Got him," she responded.

"Target acquired," Michael murmured into his comm device. He released his hold on her and took her hand again, leading her across the street from their target and courteously maneuvering into the mass of watchers on the sidewalk.

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

The Procession

Nikita found she enjoyed the Procession more than she had anticipated. Although she had to continually skip her eyes to the crowd across the street to keep their target in sight, there was plenty of time to enjoy the spectacle unfolding in front of her.

The parade began with two costumed participants walking the route with long arching vine-covered sticks. Between them was a sign, the only written words in the entire parade, describing the burning of the vines as a symbolic cleansing. The pungent smell of the burning vines wafted over the crowd and she exchanged amused glances with Michael. Although she was certain they were burning hemp and not its illegal cousin, the smell was similar and the idea of parading through the streets with an oversized doobie was unusual.

A huge paper-mache sun kicked off the first segment of the parade, Fire. At least 500 people marched by dressed as endangered species; tigers, salmon, whales and bald eagles among them. The climax was a samba band, some 50 or more members strong, beating drums of all shapes and sizes, shaking cows bells and xylophones and accompanied by a large group of dancers, both male and female, gyrating down the street.

Water came next, marked by a huge windsock tie-dyed in blues and greens. A group of parents and children were dressed as jellyfish, their oversized headdresses bobbing precariously as they walked; the younger children tripping on the dangling crepe paper tendrils. There was also an octopus, easily 10 feet in diameter, its legs coiling in papier-mâché splendor. Another band completed the segment, the members drumming on various items, from paint cans to large garbage cans.

Forests of trees indicated the start of the Earth section. Nikita caught a brief glimpse of the pack of wolves she had seen earlier. The dancing lion was in this segment too; followed by a group of kindergartners dressed as bumblebees and carrying cardboard flowers. A billy goat with beautiful golden horns held the hand of a tiny pink-eared mouse. Still another band finished this portion; a jazz band with trumpets, trombones and (of course) more drums.

Finally Air. Another windsock heralded the start of the final section, the blue and green fabric whipping in the rising wind. The outstanding participant was a huge heron, standing about 10 feet high, rising from the back of a participant, two partners manipulating the wings up and down and a third raising and lowering the neck and opening the mouth. The group cawed in rough unison and encouraged the watchers to answer back.

A final band and it was all over. Michael took Nikita's arm to prevent them from being separated, and they both moved as quickly as possible across the street to keep up with Peter Mason. Mason was headed south, toward the park, his black baseball cap bobbing in the milling crowd.

It was difficult to track Mason through the surge of people all headed toward the park. Eventually they lost sight of him but continued walking, letting the flow of the crowd move them along. At the corner of the park, Michael took Nikita's arm and drew her aside under the overhanging awning of a storefront. Unspeaking, they both conducted individual surveillance scans of the park and the surrounding buildings, searching for any clue to the whereabouts of the gunman.

"Nothing," Nikita murmured. She slapped her hand against the cold red brick of the building. "Damn it, there's no indication of the sniper at all."

Michael's face was completely controlled as he turned his eyes to hers. "We need to locate Mason again and get the location from him," he said quietly. He indicated directions with a tilt of his head. "You go to the west, then circle south, I'll take the east side and meet you at the southwest corner of the park. Keep in contact." She touched the small comm unit behind her ear reflexively, then nodded in agreement and moved off in the instructed direction.

She threaded her way through the mass of people, her eyes constantly scanning the crowd around her. The percussion band in the gazebo had begun playing and the deep bass notes of the drums resounded in her abdomen as she approached the park. She paused for a moment, looking up at the three buildings Michael had indicated were the primary concern for the sniper location. Nothing. Not a window open, a curtain moving, a hesitating shadow. She felt her adrenaline course through her veins. Damn it, where is he? She directed her attention back to the milling crowd in the park. Find Mason, she told herself coolly, the only chance of stopping this is to get to Mason.

"Nikita," Michael's voice echoed in her head, "any success?"

She blew her breath out in a quick expression of frustration. "Not yet, Michael, I'm just entering the park from the northwest corner. I'm headed toward the gazebo area. Seems to me that would be the logical place to find the Earth Brigade." She halted as another band entered the park, having just completed the parade route. The band in the gazebo picked up the rhythm of the new arrivals and the air around Nikita seemed to shimmer with the pounding drumbeats.

She moved silently to the north side of the gazebo, always observing, always scanning the faces around her. She crossed in front of the structure, weaving through the throng of people. Small groups had broken out into spontaneous dancing; parents and children, couples, even one man dancing with his rather large dog in his arms. She sidestepped to avoid a young man with long cornrow braids flying as he spun one way and another. The dim Italian lights and streetlights surrounding the park played havoc with her vision; the shadows seemed deeper and faces around her changed their appearance as they turned and the light played across their features. Her eye was caught by a group of people hovering on the edge of the grove of trees. What caught her suspicion, she wondered, clothing? Attitude? Or just the well honed sixth sense that had kept her alive all these years on Section missions? Nikita eyed the group carefully; had anyone noticed her interest? No, their attention was completely contained within their own group, they paid no attention to anyone else around them.

She took a few cautious steps closer. There. In the middle of the group she spotted the black baseball cap, now turned backwards in a jaunty 'gangsta' look. "Michael," she called quietly into her comm unit, "I've got him."

***

Nikita moved through the crowd, never letting Mason leave her sight. She wasn't sure where Michael was exactly, and couldn't afford to take her gaze off Mason long enough to look around for Michael. She moved closer, observing the group of people that eddied around Mason, watching him dance with several sycophantic girls in his group. Mason's eyes kept returning to one girl in particular, a striking black-haired beauty that watched him back coolly. A weakness, Nikita noted, filing that information away for further use.

"Nikita." Michael's voice echoed in her head. He drew out the pronunciation, his voice conveying both his concern for her safety and their time constraints.

"He's here, Michael. I have him in sight."

"Where are you?"

"Still close to the gazebo. South side, under the large oak tree. What's the status on our shooter?"

Instead of answering, Michael deferred to the team in the van. "Johnson?"

Johnson's voice came back, his deep baritone overriding the faint clacking of the computer keys. "Nothing. No demands, no calls to the local media. No prior indication of their action to anyone in a position of power. The local police have no idea what is going to go down."

Nikita interjected. "Where are you, Michael?"

"Still east of your location. Hold on. I'll be there to help you disarm him and evacuate him to the van."

"Michael, stay back, stay dormant. If he gives the location of the sniper easily, you'll need to be able to move out quickly. If he's more difficult, you can be my surprise tactic."

***

Nikita stayed in the shadows, observing her target. Mason was moving from girl to girl in his group, dancing wildly, becoming more and more frantic in his movements.

"Michael, it's getting close. He's getting really wired on adrenaline."

"Nikita, move!" Michael's voice was urgent.

She stepped silently out from the tree's enveloping darkness and moved directly into Mason's path. "Stay put, Michael," she urged quietly. To Mason she put on her brightest smile as she greeted him. "Peter!" He looked at her without recognition. "We danced the other night at Thekla." She had guessed correctly; Mason had had too much to drink that night and was scrambling to remember her. "Isn't the music great?" she continued, "Won't you dance with me?" Without waiting for his response, she took both his hands and placed them on her hips, swaying to the beat of the drums.

Mason tried to pull away and she tightened her grip, refusing to let him go. "Look, honey, I'm sorry, I was drunk, I don't remember..." She moved closer to him, her breasts lightly pressing against his chest. Momentarily distracted, Mason let his grip tighten on her body. Confident he would stay in that position for a moment, Nikita released his hands and quickly reached behind her back to snatch her gun from its hiding place. She cocked the gun and pressed the muzzle against Mason's belly in one smooth move.

"Stand still please," Nikita ordered politely, her voice as cold as steel. Her eyes swept the small group surrounding them as she turned Mason so the remainder of his cohorts could see her weapon. "Anyone makes a sound, or attracts the attention of the local police and he's dead." She kept her face hard and her voice cold. They were being very cautious, oh, yes, they took every word very seriously.

"Now, Mr. Mason, there is the small problem of the sniper you've arranged for tonight," she continued, glancing at him sideways.

She heard the collective gasp from the students in front of her. "Sniper, there's no sniper, only a ..." one student, a tall thin blond man blurted out before a small movement from Nikita's gun silenced him.

"Quietly, quietly," she reminded him. "I know there's a phony bomb here too, we'll deal with that in a moment, but first we need to disable Mr. Mason's extra little surprise. Where is the gunman, Mr. Mason?" Madeline would be proud of her cold, controlled voice, thought Nikita.

Mason hesitated. Nikita glanced around quickly. Under the shadows of the trees, they went unnoticed by the dancers and partygoers in the park. She moved the gun swiftly and pointed it under Mason's jaw. "Where - is - he?" She spoke slowly and harshly. Nikita sensed the black haired girl's movement rather than seeing it. She stepped behind Mason, grabbing one of his arms and wrenching it behind his back, positioning Mason's body between hers and the oncoming student.

The girl hesitated, and a dark shadow moved up behind her. Michael's arm snaked around her midriff, his gun pressing against her side. His cold green eyes met Nikita's equally cold blue ones for a moment, then he shifted his attention to the man Nikita held prisoner.

"Mr. Mason, I believe my colleague has asked you a question. If you value this girl's life, I suggest you answer her immediately."

If it were possible, Mason's face became even whiter at Michael's intrusion. "The county courthouse..." he whispered.

"Go," Nikita said to Michael. "Get started, I'll get the details to you." Michael thrust the girl in his arms toward the remainder of the Earth Brigade. Her knees folded and she collapsed on the ground in a heap. Michael was gone in an instant, navigating the crowds and headed east to the courthouse. Nikita watched several of the Earth Brigade help the young woman to her feet; their faces were pale and drawn.

One of the members caught her eye. "Who are you?" he managed to stammer out.

Nikita gave him her best don't-mess-with-me look. "Not the police," she replied shortly. She returned her attention to Mason. "Where will my friend find your shooter?" she demanded.

Mason seemed to have collapsed like a balloon. He gave her complete instructions on where to locate the sniper, which she quickly relayed on to Michael. "Johnson," she called to the van, "send someone to assist me with extracting Mason. No gear, he's got to blend in."

"Peters is on his way, Nikita," Johnson responded.

Nikita turned her glare on the remaining members of the Brigade. "Where is the mock explosive? How is it set to detonate?" They appeared to be in shock at the revelation of the actual killing planned for the night.

A tall blond woman swallowed hard and answered her. "It's in the rafters of the gazebo." Her eyes drifted to Mason and a look of hatred crept over her face. "It's set off with a radio signal. It wasn't supposed to hurt anyone, just make our point."

Nikita let a look of exasperated malice cross her face. "Yeah, your point. Apparently your friend here didn't feel your point was strong enough without killing a bunch of folks out for a good time." Peters stepped up silently from the shadows. Dressed all in black, but minus his body armor, Nikita supposed he could pass for an innocent parade watcher. It was more important that she turn Mason over to him and try to find and help Michael. She thrust Mason at Peters, knowing the operative would be more than able to handle the prisoner and wanting to leave an indelible impression on the rest of the organization. "Say goodbye to your friend here, everyone. You won't be seeing him again." She caught the look on Peters' face and gave him a brief nod. Peters wrapped an arm around Mason's shoulders, and walked off with him. Anyone observing them would think they were simply two friends, perhaps slightly over-served, walking away. Nikita had seen the flash of a knife blade in Peters' free hand and knew Mason would agree to accompany Peters to the van without difficulty.

She turned back to the remainder of the group. "Where's the trigger for the phony bomb?" she demanded, slipping her weapon back behind her back. This group wasn't going to give her any difficulty either. The black-haired girl held it out to her, fingers trembling. Nikita gave it a quick glance. An uncomplicated device, she simply opened up the faceplate and ripped out the wires, then let the mechanism drop from her fingers. It hit the ground with a thudding finality.

One last message. She stepped forward, swiftly and grabbed the black haired girl by her hair, whipping out her gun again and pointing it under the girl's jaw. The girl took a deep breath, preparing to scream, and Nikita quickly slapped her hand over the girl's open mouth. Nikita took a long look at each of the students before her, moving her eyes slowly from one to another. "Don't ever try anything this stupid again," she warned them. "Next time you will die." Their pale faces told her the message was received, loud and clear.

***

Michael moved through the crowd with little difficulty. His movements were swift without seeming hasty, smooth and controlled, not jerky and frantic, belying the rising adrenaline and tension within him. Although not an overly large man, his muscular body conveyed enough determination and latent danger that the drifting crowds parted willingly; people stepped aside to give him room to pass without consciously realizing his intimidating approach.

Moving against the flowing tide of pedestrians, Michael walked quickly to the looming courthouse building. As he approached the structure, he heard Nikita's interrogation of Mason and Mason's subsequent divulgence of the required intelligence. Third floor, one of the turret rooms... entrance from the south entrance... one gunman equipped with a sniper rifle... Michael processed the information and plotted out a course of action even as he crossed the street and moved east to search for the indicated entrance.

The interior was cool and dark; the reflection of the red 'exit' signs on the polished marble floors only slightly cutting the gloom. Michael entered the building, pausing momentarily to use his highly refined senses to try to discern his opponent's location. The silence was all encompassing, surrounding him like a thick blanket. He glanced in both directions, both to determine his safety and to get his bearings. No elevator, he thought instinctively, I might as well send up flares and announce my presence. Although he had not seen a schematic of the courthouse, a certain logic to building standards could be relied upon. The main staircase would be on the east side of the building, since that was the main entrance to the structure. He turned left and moved down the hallway.

He was correct in his assumption. The main staircase swept up on both sides of the entry hall. He paused momentarily to glance out the glass front doors; the party continued unabated in the park. There were no indications of a police presence; although he was certain the cops were monitoring the festivities, no official notice had been taken of their mission against the Earth Brigade. He heard Nikita call for backup to extricate Mason, then shut his mind to the occasional communication in his ear and concentrated on nullifying his opponent.

He climbed the stairs two at a time, effortlessly and soundlessly. Two flights up, he reached an expansive hallway that extended both north and south. Ducking into a shadowy corner, Michael put his back to the wall, closed his eyes and recalled the outward appearance of the building. There were two turrets, he remembered, one on each side of what should be the staircase. How to approach and search each turret room without disclosing his presence to his unseen enemy? Try as he might, he could not remember any tactical advantage to one turret over the other. If Nikita were here, he thought, we could split up and search each simultaneously. That train of thought brought an unwelcome idea to his mind. Where is Nikita? He hadn't heard anything from her in the last several minutes. Two options came immediately to him. She was either escorting Mason back to the van and would wait for him there, as the profile decreed, or she was on here way to provide back up for him. Definitely, she was on her way to the courthouse. There was no anger to the thought, only an almost-humorous resignation. Her predilection for breaking mission profile to assist those she felt needed or deserved her assistance was a prognostication he assumed in designing all his missions. Not that he would ever tell her she was predictable.

To wait for Nikita, or proceed with the mission? His decision was made for him as the loud click of a rifle being assembled echoed hollowly the hall. Unfortunately, the echo reverberated in the emptiness, giving no indication of its origin. Michael turned to the north and moved silently down the corridor. Without consciously processing the information, his instincts had determined the northern window would have the best view of the park, and thereby the best access to the potential target or targets. Pulling his gun from its holster, he raised the weapon to point to the ceiling, the muzzle nearly touching his right ear. The first door on the left was closed and he carefully turned the handle, and pushed ever-so-gently on the door. It gave way, opening only a millimeter or so.

Michael took a deep breath, focused his eyes where he expected his target to be located, and swung the door wide. His gun was down and aimed at his focal point in an instant. The sniper had equally quick reflexes and was in the identical position, his gun trained on Michael. The two men stood completely still, totally silent for several long seconds, weapons pointed unwaveringly at each other's hearts.

(***)

Michael concentrated on his mark, his breathing controlled, his body frozen in position. In retrospect, he wasn't sure what clued him to Nikita's presence; a slight cool breeze at his back, a ghostly echo of a footfall, or simply the emotional synergy they shared. But he knew she was there, hidden behind his back, and he moved instantaneously to use her secret presence to his advantage. He threw himself into a flying roll to his left, drawing the gunman's attention and fire away from Nikita. He felt one bullet strike his vest in the center of his back and another graze his upper right arm. He rose from his roll in a crouch, his weapon up and aimed again at his adversary, even as he struggled to breathe. Nikita's reflexes were as sharp as always. When he moved, she had stepped into the room and coolly shot the sniper. The rifle fell with a clatter as Michael rolled into his crouching position. The gunman dropped to his knees, bleeding profusely from both forearms. Nikita stepped closer, kicking the rifle away into a far corner before she turned to Michael.

He dropped to his butt, struggling to force air into his aching chest, breathe, Michael, breathe, and looked up to meet her cerulean eyes. She stepped over to him and put a strong arm under his, helping him to stand.

"You OK?" she asked, her normally husky voice deep with concern. She touched the bloody crease in his bicep.

H simply nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on the prone gunman at their feet. He inhaled a little deeper, feeling the sharp stab of pain crossing his back and chest. "Breaking mission protocol again?" His voice was breathy and she gave him a sharp look but declined to respond, simply walking away to retrieve the fallen rifle. Michael searched his pockets for the cloths he had packed in this contingency; finding them, he approached the wounded man and wound the fabric around his arms, staunching the flow of blood.

He glanced over at her. "Nikita?" She turned at the sound of his rough whispered voice. "We need to sanitize this room. Find the washrooms and bring some kind of toweling back so we can clean up this mess." She nodded, unspeaking, and did as he directed. Relying on the strength of his left arm, Michael heaved the wounded sniper into a chair, positioning him carefully so no bloodstains would mar the furniture, and leaned back against the wall, breathing lightly to avoid aggravating his aching back, keeping his eyes and gun trained on his adversary. He was shaking from his surging adrenaline and the pain of his injuries. It was an effort to control his twitching muscles.

Nikita reentered with her hands full of paper towels and efficiently erased all evidence of their encounter. Thank goodness for tile floors, Michael thought irreverently. She glanced around the room, confirming all indications of their presence were gone. "Michael?" she asked.

Michael turned his gaze to her. "Yes?" His voice was returning as the pain in his back and chest subsided to a sharp ache.

"Am I missing anything? I don't see any bullet holes."

He glanced around the room. "The bullets are lodged in his arms. I felt them when I bandaged him."

"Oh." She gathered up the bloody towels, carefully wrapping them in clean ones to disguise their gory contents. Michael watched her graceful movements, feeling his adrenaline-pumped body respond to her beauty and her nearness. He clamped down with his iron self-control, forcing his longing and his lust back to the far corner of his mind.

***

Half supporting, half dragging their prisoner between them, Michael and Nikita worked their way back to the same south entrance they had used for ingress. Michael secured their prisoner while Nikita stepped out, surveying the exterior and assuring herself of their continued security She returned to the interior and positioned herself again on the prisoner's left side, slipping a hand around his waist to promote the impression of three friends leaving the post-parade festivities. As they exited the building, Michael called for the van to meet them a few blocks away. They moved east, away from the courthouse and the park, disappearing silently into the darkness of the night.

As they approached the van, the side door slid open and Peters' hands reached out and grabbed their anonymous adversary roughly, pulling him inside and quickly confining the sniper's hands in restraints. Michael stepped into the van next, and then half turned and extended his left hand to Nikita. She paused for a moment, considering. This was intentional symbolism, she realized; normally he would have let her enter first, and then done final area surveillance before entering the van himself. This time he was in the van, inviting her to join him, wordlessly reminding her that even though they were returning to Section, they were still together the only way they could be. Hesitantly she put her right hand in his outstretched one. His expressive peridot eyes were unguarded; she read his desire and his need for her clearly. She raised her eyes to meet his, letting her countenance soften from her mission face to a private, more intimate one. His fingers tightened on hers and he ran his thumb delicately across her fingertips. Then he blinked and his face dissolved into his usual blank mask. She nodded back to him, resuming her Section persona. As the last operative to enter the vehicle, Nikita turned around briefly, doing a final check of their surroundings to be sure they were not being observed, that none of Mason's would-be accomplices were following them. Then she turned back to Michael, tightened her grip on his hand and let him assist her in to the van.