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Temporary Heroes

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The drive out to the Farm wasn't extremely long, only three or four hours. Nikita rode in the front of the van and stared absently out the window. Michael was driving and the recruits were secured in the back with several Level 2 operatives riding shotgun over them; the children - for so she thought of the five teenage trainees - were not to meet Michael or Nikita until 5am tomorrow.

The better to intimidate them, she thought, the bitterness a sharp tang in her mouth. Madeline would handle the introduction to Section; Walter would be brought in to tag the new operatives, to prevent escape.

She flinched reflexively and idly ran her fingers over her belly, remembering. It had been the first of many - too many - identification chips. It reminded her uncomfortably of the subcutaneous chips advertised for locating and identifying lost pets. Animals, that's all we are to them...

She glanced sidelong over at Michael. His face was set, eyes intent on the road, mind (she knew) meticulously calculating the various scenarios they would encounter in the next several weeks.

Does he remember? Perhaps, perhaps not. She had only been a raw recruit at the time, no one special. Much like the carload of teenagers sitting right now in the back of the van. He had - by his own estimation - trained hundreds of recruits.

But she remembered every minute of her stay at the Farm; the bone-crushing weariness, the psychological evaluations and the endless mind fucking that occurred in those weeks. And, worst of all, the torture and drug sessions, sadistically designed to build a recruit's physical and mental resistance. She wrenched her mind away from those horrific memories. The Farm was a large property; chances were slim that she would set foot in that particular facility this time.

There would be no time for such niceties in this training session: only the bare brutal basics.

"You will take the lead trainer role." Michael's soft voice disrupted her reverie.

"Me?" Caught by surprise, Nikita wished she could take back the word as soon as she said it. She paused for a second, collecting her thoughts before she continued. "Why?"

Michael's eyes flickered between her face and the road. "It will be good experience for you," he responded, negotiating the tight turn to the property entrance. "Also, there is one common quality among them: they all resent authority. We don't have time to break down that resistance."

"And they'll respond better to me?"

Michael's eyes were fixed on the dirt road ahead of them. "Perhaps."

Nikita reached into the stack of papers lying on the seat between them and picked up a file. Opening it, she stared into the face of one of the youngsters; Neil age 18 started the short biography under the photo. She ignored his last name; as of now, he had no name, no identity, he didn't exist. She thumbed through the stack of pictures: Trent, Claire, Jasmine, Patrick - the geek called Darwin.

She scanned the biographical data on each of them; she had studied the information so many times she could practically recite it by heart. Closing the file, she laid her hand on top of it to hold it secure in her lap as the truck bumped over the rutted unpaved road.

"Michael," she said quietly, "none of this makes any sense. These kids aren't good operative material - with the possible exception of Jasmine. Trent belongs working with Birkoff. Neil and Claire aren't good material, period. And Darwin..." she paused, considered how to phrase her instinctual reaction. "He's undisciplined. He'll fight us every step of the way."

She glanced over at Michael and caught the ghostly hint of a smile hovering on his lips. "What?"

He glanced at her briefly; the rough road demanded the immediate return of his attention. "Don't underestimate Darwin," he said casually.

Too casually, she thought, trying to decipher his subtle nuances.

Michael maneuvered the truck into the receiving dock of a one-story building and turned off the engine. "Michael..." Nikita said, layering a warning tone into her voice.

He scooped up the stack of remaining papers and exited the truck. Nikita climbed down quickly and caught up with him at the staircase that led into the building. He seemed to sense her determination and stopped once they were inside and hidden from the recruits as the youngsters disembarked. "Operations said the same thing once," he said softly, reaching out to catch a loose lock of hair and tuck it behind her ear.

She met his gray-green stare; his changeable eyes gave nothing away. "About me?"

"Don't underestimate Darwin, Nikita," he repeated. "Good operatives can develop from the most unlikely material."

Hands fisted on her hips, she watched him walk away,

************ (NC-17warning, yeah, I'm starting early!)

In the darkness of early morning, Nikita awoke to the touch of Michael's lips on her neck.

She shuddered sensuously and pressed back against his warmth. His arms were wrapped around her, one hand cupping her breast, the other splayed upon her stomach, his muscular body curved close behind her. He smelled of sleepy man and the distinct Michael-scent that made her insides quiver with lust.

"Nikita," he whispered, his accent more pronounced than usual, "it's 4:00. Time to get up."

She rolled in his hold, turning until her lips were only millimeters from his. "Are you sure you want to? I mean," she arched her back and pressed her body tight to his, "there's so much else we could be doing."

He lowered his head and kissed her, his lips claiming her soul, leaving her breathless. "Up."

She rolled out of the bed they shared, grumbling under her breath. "Cruel, heartless man." Stumbling into the bathroom, she started the shower, groaning in pleasure as the hot water struck her skin. She closed her eyes and stuck her head under the spray, feeling the last of her sleepiness drain away.

Michael's powerful hands began massaging her shoulders; she sighed at his touch and leaned back against his naked chest. She hadn't heard him enter the bathroom, but wasn't surprised at his presence either. They had talked long into the night, planning the course of instruction and testing for their adolescent material. Sometime after midnight Michael had stood up and extended his hand to her. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to walk to bed hand in hand, to fall asleep wrapped in his embrace.

This is Section; there is nothing natural about it. But she was resolved not to look too closely at the gift of time and privacy that was being handed to them.

Michael's hands dropped lower, kneading her lower back muscles, tenderly and insistently drawing her closer against him. He was fully erect and ready; she felt his rigid length nestled in the crevice of her derrière. His busy, talented hands slipped around her waist, one curving up to stroke her breast, the other sliding down. His fingertips skimmed the sensitive skin of her belly and slid deftly between her legs, one finger extended to gently stroke the delicate flesh of her clitoris.

Her breath caught at his tender touch. With an effort she turned in his arms.

"Michael -" He lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her deeply. Her hands rose to tangle in his unruly curls, pulling him still closer. She felt his erection brush her belly and she parted her legs, allowing him to slip between her thighs.

He turned sideways and lifted her slightly, pressing her back against the tiled wall. She shivered at the touch of the cold tile on her naked spine, and trembled harder as he slowly entered her. She wrapped her legs around his, drawing him further into her and sighed at the exquisite feeling of completeness that enveloped her. It was like this every time they made love, she thought as he began to slowly move within her; no matter how long they had been apart, she was only whole when he was with her.

He bent his head to trace a line down her chest with his tongue. Her arms tightened and her back arched as he drew her nipple into his mouth, teasing the raised peak with his lips and teeth. "Michael," she began again, stopping to moan with pleasure at the sensations he was generating within her. "Why are they allowing this?"

He raised his head and kissed her hungrily before he answered. His deliberate gentleness was quickly transforming to a demanding pulse: claiming her body, her heart and her soul as his own. There was more here than the simple animalistic intertwining of bodies, Nikita thought as she welcomed his passionate onslaught. She tightened her legs and pulled him closer to her; she was neither possessor nor possessed but both and neither simultaneously. Michael increased his rhythmic tempo and all coherent thoughts flew out of her head.

"I think -" he thrust into her and she gave a soft cry at the burst of pleasure he elicited - "that Operations and Madeline think they are -" another thrust and she raked his shoulders with her fingernails - "throwing us a bone by giving us time together."

He stopped talking and concentrated on the business at hand. Nikita felt her orgasm building within her and clung tightly to him.

"Michael." She murmured his name over and over. It had not been so long ago that she had wanted nothing to do with him; since she had recovered she could not get enough of him, ever. She felt his body tense with his impending climax and she cried out as her world crashed around her. He was only a moment following her; with a harsh moan he slammed into her and shuddered in his release. Nikita kissed his temples as he sagged against her, panting. Her heart pounded in her chest and she gulped great breaths of the humid air.

He withdrew slowly and carefully lowered her to her feet. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against him, unwilling to complete relinquish the intense unity they had just shared. He wrapped his powerful arms around her and held her close; she turned her head and pressed her face to his heaving chest. Beneath her cheek she could feel the heavy beating of his heart.

They stood, enwrapped in each other's arms under the pounding spray, for several long minutes before either of them stirred. In silence, Nikita reluctantly dropped her arms and turned away to begin washing. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on the ripples of sensation that were still ebbing away in the very cells of her body. His strong fingers combed through her hair and began to massage her scalp; she let her shoulders slump and her had loll back against him again as he gently washed her hair.

She took great joy in the little everyday intimacies between them. When he was done with her hair, she changed places and picked up the bar of soap, running it over his muscled back, silently counting the faint scars and blemishes that marred his fair skin.

No one outside can understand who we are, he had said once. The innate truth of that simple statement struck her anew. No one understood her as Michael did... and in the past year he had lowered his barriers only for her. They were entwined together; like plants, they shared a root system. Neither could or would survive without the other. She pressed a hand to his shoulder blade and he glanced over his shoulder at her.

She gave him a small smile and completed her ministrations. It was time to begin with the trainees.

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

Nikita opened the set of double locked doors that led to the recruits' quarters and flicked on the lights.

Down the row of cots, the teenagers stirred and moaned at the unwelcome brightness.

Nikita positioned herself authoritatively at the door, standing aggressively with her feet shoulder-width apart and her arms crossed on her chest. Michael stood silently behind her, his lean strength supporting her, following her lead.

"Yo, whatcha doin'?" It was Trent, a tall gangly young man with wild curly black hair sticking out every which-way. Don't let Trent's street-wise attitude fool you, Michael had said last night, he's brilliant. Graduated first in his class at an exclusive Atlanta prep school, accepted to an Ivy league college until his mysterious stroke of luck on the stock market and his untimely 'death', Trent's 'brother' act was simply a well-honed façade.

"It's time to get up. Training starts in 15 minutes." Nikita kept her voice cool and detached.

Further down the line of cots, Claire's face peered out of her blankets. With her thick blond hair framing her baby face, she looked substantially younger than her 19 years. She had been in long-term containment at Section, Nikita remembered, and had already adapted some Section mannerisms. She's quiet, Michael had commented, but extremely aware of everything in her surroundings. It will be easy to overlook her, which is exactly what she intends.

Claire had been unexpected collateral when Section had been brought in to take down a well-connected double agent within the Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S. Because of her father's job, Claire had spent many years abroad, being educated in the finest schools around the world. Her mother had died shortly before the mission to take her father, leaving Claire an orphan and an unwilling resident of Level Five. Until now.

The other female member of the team, Jasmine, was already out of bed and slipping on her clothing. She threw a disdainful look at the others as she passed them on her way to the door. Claire and Neil were moving slowly but drawing on their shirts, Claire modestly turning her back and crouching between the girls' cots for privacy.

Nikita turned an icy glare to Trent. The young black man swallowed whatever protest was on his lips and raised his hands. "I'm going, I'm going."

She stepped over to Darwin's cot. He had pulled the blankets over his head and was making psuedo-snoring noises. She bent down and pulled all the blankets to the foot of the bed in one quick jerk.

"I said, get up," she said, warning woven thickly into her voice.

Darwin grinned at her insolently. "It's too early. I'll join you at breakfast." He cradled his head in his hands and waited expectantly for her reaction.

She let him wait. A beat, two. Then kicked his cot over with a sharp blow from her steel-toes boot.

Whatever he'd been expecting, that wasn't it. He gaped at her from the floor. "Get dressed," she informed him brusquely, "unless you like running two miles in your pajamas. You now have ten minutes."

***

After the morning run, a shower and breakfast, Nikita led the recruits on a tour of the facility - such areas as they were allowed to view.

"This is your gym," Nikita swept her hand in a wide circle, indicating the several cages spread around the large warehouse-type room, surrounding a large mat set in the center.

"You're going to pen us up like animals?" Neil's voice was calm, but Nikita sensed his underlying tension in his body language. He flexed his hands into fists, released, then repetitively repeated the action.

Neil was the nephew of a German terrorist, Nikita recalled, unfortunately visiting at the time Section had taken his uncle down. He had reacted badly to the confined quarters of long-term containment and had inflicted such injuries on the operatives sent to control him that Madeline had considered him worth assigning to this mission. Nikita couldn't break her cold mien to comfort him; the others - Darwin especially - were watching her closely to observe any potential weaknesses. Instead she met his eyes directly and gave him the honest truth.

"The cages are for you to practice hand-to-hand fighting. It takes a different technique to fight when you can't run away from your opponent." His Adam's apple bobbed as he nodded his comprehension; Nikita made a mental note to herself not to start the sparring session with Neil. Although he would have to conquer his fear of enclosed places if he was to survive, it was pointless and useless to aggravate his phobia.

She turned to find Darwin uncomfortably close. "So, we're going to get hot and sweaty for your entertainment?"

Nikita resisted the urge to wipe the sneer off his cocky face. He's testing you, she reminded herself and allowed her face and eyes to go hard and unyielding. "You'll do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it," she reminded him coldly. "And if I get my jollies from it, that's none of your business."

She stepped past him, retaliating by deliberately invading his personal space. Her shoulder narrowing missed his chin. "Come."

Comm was next. Cramped and barely usable, it was set up in a rough circle, generally mimicking the layout of Section One.

"This is comm. It's similar to what we have in Section." Nikita stood in the center and touched a keyboard lightly. "We use this area for tactical command."

The recruits fanned out, inspecting the mechanical paraphernalia around them. As he had during the entire tour, Michael stayed back, letting Nikita direct the trainees.

Trent crouched down next to a processor unit, his hand hovering over it reverently. "Zothor mainframe. Man... I didn't know these things were in production."

Nikita let one corner of her mouth curve in a smile. "They're not."

Trent looked up at her, his dark eyes narrowing.

"What's the biggie?" Neil asked from across the way, bending down to look at the display on one of the monitors. "It's just a stupid computer."

Trent snorted derisively. "That shows what you know. It's the computer, numbnuts."

In his corner, Darwin stood with his arms crossed, eyeing Nikita superciliously. "Like we care about any of this."

Nikita turned slowly, looking him up and down. "I'm sorry, are you bored?" She leaned against a metal shelving unit, completely at ease.

"Yeah." Ignoring her, Darwin turned and walked over to Michael. "When do we get to kick some ass?"

Michael stood still, unblinkingly meeting the younger man's gaze. Around her, Nikita could hear the other teenagers stirring restlessly; she kept her eyes fixed on the confrontation in front of her.

Michael's hand moved blindingly fast, slashing Darwin across the larynx. Darwin dropped to his knees, hands clasped around his throat, wheezing.

"When Nikita says you're ready," Michael said laconically.

Nikita turned slowly, eyeing each of the recruits. Their eyes were glued on Darwin, who was now inhaling with less difficulty. "Any more questions?" She was answered with a resounding silence. "Good. Let's move on."

She stepped out of Comm and half-lifted, half-dragged Darwin along by one hand grasping his collar. Michael stepped back and each of the recruits carefully gave him a wide berth as they passed. ************

Lunch was a silent affair; the recruits huddled at one end of the table, Michael and Nikita at the other. The food was hot, at least, and plentiful. The teenagers ate hungrily, easily putting away twice the amount that either Michael or Nikita ate, even the girls.

After the meal Michael returned to Comm for a conference call with Operations and Nikita took the trainees to the gym for the first of their sparring lessons.

She paired them up on the mat in the center of the room: Neil and Trent, Jasmine and Claire. Darwin was directed to sit and watch; Nikita positioned herself behind him, fully cognizant that he would get into some kind of mischief otherwise.

"The objective here is not to beat the crap out of your opponent," she stated calmly. "This is an evaluation session only. You'll be taped and one of the sensei from Section will begin working with you tomorrow." She gestured to the girls. "Jasmine, Claire, you're up."

Nikita watched the sparring with a critical eye. Claire was strong, but unfocused and easily evaded. Jasmine... she had thought from the beginning that Jasmine showed the most potential to succeed as an operative and her fighting abilities only reinforced Nikita's original impression.

Jasmine fought with an admirable single-mindedness. That she was aware how much she over-matched Claire was obvious in the restraint of her attack; Jasmine hit hard enough to sting, but not enough to hurt.

It was a balancing act and one that most recruits didn't master for a year or more: the fine line between sparring and fighting with one's partner. Jasmine excelled in the martial arts, as she excelled in most everything she attempted, Nikita thought.

Jasmine had been raised in an orphanage in China, but was not an orphan. Like many Chinese families, her parents had been caught in the bureaucracy of the official government one-child-one-family policy. Since Jasmine was not the desired male child, she had been abandoned to enable her parents to conceive again without the paying the exorbitant fees levied on families that chose to raise more children.

Her early deprivation had left Jasmine with deep psychological scars; scars that made her the best bet for making the grade as a Section operative. She was driven, focused, ambitious and completely amoral. It was her willingness to do anything to punish the government that had forced her parents to abandon her that had caused her to fall into Section's clutches. She had been in the process of negotiating with several small terrorist groups in the Orient, with the eventual goal of combining their forces into an assault on the Chinese government when Section brought her in.

Whether Section approved of the current state of the Chinese regime was immaterial. The present premier was friendly to Section goals and cooperative with Oversight. Therefore, Jasmine's attempted coup was cut off at the knees and she was recruited.

Claire stumbled back, tripped and fell as her foot caught one of the mats. Jasmine was on top of her in an instant; her hand resting lightly at Claire's throat, her coal-black hair slipping out of its tight bun and tumbling over her face. Nikita called a halt.

The girls rose obediently. Claire shot a malicious glance at Jasmine as they returned to the edge of the circle; she deliberately stood on the other side of Darwin, avoiding the other girl.

Nikita caught the look. "You need to learn something immediately," she said as she stepped into the center of the mats. "There are only five of you. You will be sparring with each other on a daily basis. To take a loss in a match personally is counter-productive. Think about what happened, learn from it and be better prepared for that person the next time."

She was gratified to see a thoughtful look cross Claire's face and the hostility fade. "This was only a preliminary match," she continued, spontaneously grabbing the moment and Claire's apparent willingness to learn, "but let's evaluate what happened here."

"Claire got her ass kicked," remarked Darwin trenchantly.

Jasmine sneered at him. "That was real helpful."

"Any time babe, always willing to assist." Darwin grinned back at her.

Nikita stepped forward a pace and shot Darwin a quelling stare. "Anyone else have something useful to suggest?"

"Claire wasn't focused enough," suggested Neil.

"Claire?" Nikita turned courteously to the girl.

She stood, her hands clenched into fists, her mouth parted to retort. "This is supposed to be helpful, Claire, so you can improve," Nikita suggested calmly.

Claire glanced aside. "Yeah, I guess so," she admitted sullenly. "I kept thinking someone - one of the guys - would step in and help me out."

"In the outside world, maybe they would," Nikita nodded. "But in here, in Section, it's every man for himself. Even if you're a woman." Hands on her hips, she turned slowly, eyeing each recruit in turn. "Your team may or may not be able to back you up. Everyone is assigned a particular position in an operation and you'd better be able to protect yourself."

"And playing Kung Fu games is going to do that?" Darwin's arms were crossed on his chest, a supercilious grin on his face. "I'm just sure you take out all the bad guys by yourself, Blondie."

Nikita walked over to him, purposely crowding into his personal space and stared down into his mocking brown eyes. "You want to take me on and find out for yourself?"

"Nikita." Michael's soft voice cut through the rising tension. He had arrived unnoticed and was standing behind Trent. "Perhaps it would be beneficial to have a demonstration."

***

Michael and Nikita stalked around the circle, watching, evaluating, hands raised in neutral defensive positions. Nikita let her focus sharpen, disregarding everything around her but the sight of Michael. His face was blank, his pale eyes giving nothing away. He made no overt signal before he started his attack, yet she knew when he would move, and she responded instinctively. It was the unspoken connection between them, the bond that had been formed over so many missions protecting each other's back; of too many sparring session like this one, the synchronicity that had enabled them to return alive from missions when by all rights one or both of them should have perished.

She parried his slashing hands with her arms and dropped back one step, then another. Quickly spinning on her left leg, Nikita thrust out with her right, aiming directly at his solar plexus. Lithe as a cat, Michael sprang back a few millimeters and her foot only brushed his shirt. Undeterred, she shifted her weight, pivoted on her right leg and kicked backward, swinging her left foot at his head; he raised his hands and batted her foot aside.

As she recovered her balance, he gave a short kick aimed behind her knees; she dropped to the floor. Landing on all fours, she waited a moment, breathing deeply. She watched his feet from beneath her spill of hair, biding her time.

"Told you," crowed Darwin's voice from somewhere above and behind her.

Michael must have looked over at him; his feet stopped moving before he was completely clear of Nikita's reach; taking the opening, she rotated on her right arm and swung out both legs, neatly sweeping Michael's feet out from under him. He landed heavily and she was on top of him in a flash, pressing her body weight onto his biceps and pinning him flat.

He was motionless beneath her, silently conceding defeat. He was sweating lightly and his body heat permeated through her tight spandex pants. Straddling him, she could feel the easy rise and fall of his chest between her knees. For a long, breathless second they stared at each other; everything around them dissolving into a mist. As if on a cue, they both blinked and the moment passed. She rose and turned to the trainees. "Convinced?"

"He was holding back," Jasmine countered, her arms crossed defiantly over her chest. "Michael let you win."

Nikita brushed back a stray lock of hair, considering. "Once more, Michael?"

He took his position across the circle from her and bowed formally. She folded her hands and returned the salute; then they commenced to circle each other again. Michael took less time this round before lunging forward, using his long legs to force her back. She retreated two steps and then whirled, crossing quickly behind him. He spun to face her again and she connected with her left foot to his hip, knocking him backward.

It was a short victory. He crossed the mat, his arms swinging precisely at her head in a series of short-arm chain hits. She parried each move, but was again pushed back several steps by his advance. Ducking under his next slash, she kicked out again, this time successfully catching him in the stomach with her flat foot. Michael's breath expelled in a loud "woof" but he quickly regained his balance and counter-attacked with a series of oblique kicks.

Nikita took a calculated risk. She allowed his foot to connect with her hipbone, using the force of his blow to rotate her body clockwise. As she spun, she lashed out with her left foot; she missed, but his defensive step back broke his rhythmic attack. Using her forward motion, she switched feet and brought her right foot up as she continued turning. Instead of a thrusting kick, she used the upward motion of her leg to lift her into a scissor kick aimed directly at Michael's head.

He dodged to the left and deflected her feet. Nikita had a moment's advantage and seized it. She landed lightly and advanced on him with a series of punches, aimed both high and low. Michael parried her movements easily, his eyes fixed on her face. Suddenly he stepped into her punch, taking a blow to his head as he moved close to her. Grabbing her under her arms, he flipped her over his hip in a quick graceful move.

She hit the floor flat on her back; attempting to break her fall as she had been trained, she let her body go limp and slapped the mat to lessen the impact as she landed. She rolled quickly and tried to get up onto her knees; he was on her in a flash, pinning her face-first to the floor.

Relaxing her muscles with a conscious effort, she waited to see if he would make a small mistake that would enable her to slip away. His weight pressed down on her from hip to shoulder. They were both panting heavily and his hot breath caressed her neck. Michael's grip was tight and unyielding; she knew there would be no escape from him this time.

His eyes were a dark stormy gray and only inches from hers as she turned her head to him. "Give," she whispered softly and (for her benefit only) his mouth twitched slightly in response.

He rose nimbly to his feet and extended a hand to help her up. Nikita readjusted her rumpled clothing and glanced at the recruits. That they were suitably impressed was obvious from their widened eyes.

"It's tougher being a woman, but you'd better be able and ready to take on the guys." Nikita took a long drink from her bottled water, capped it and tossed it casually to Michael. He wiped his forehead with the back of his arm and drank thirstily. "So, yeah, Michael beat me this time. I beat him the first time. Your hand to hand fighting skills may very well determine if you return from a mission alive."

She ran her eyes over the teenagers. Even Darwin - for once - was silent. "Trent, Neil, you're up."

************ Author's note: This chapter refers briefly to the horrible bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995. I am more than a little uncomfortable with using this tragedy in something as paltry as fanfiction. Please note that I have made every attempt to neither diminish the horror to those involved, or to glorify the actions that were nothing less than the mass murder of innocent people.

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

Nikita stood in the enclosed balcony, evaluating the weapons instruction proceeding below.

In the windowless steel-gray firing range below her, Walter was demonstrating the steps necessary to disassembling a semi-automatic rifle. She looked at her watch, timing him. Walter's nimble fingers broke the weapon into its component parts in just under five seconds. Even though she couldn't hear his words through the soundproof and bulletproof glass, Walter's next action made his expectations perfectly clear. He picked up five rifles, tossed one to each of the trainees and activated his stopwatch. Nikita glanced at her watch again.

3.5 seconds. Darwin began to dance around, his disassembled rifle in his hands. He had bested Walter's time by at least one second.

One second could make the difference between life and death in the field, Nikita acknowledged as she watched Darwin strut in triumph. Where did he learn to handle weapons like that?

At the first weapon orientation, Darwin had leapt at the opportunity to reestablish his superiority. Still smarting from Michael's crushing contempt in Comm earlier in the day, Darwin had been impatient to demonstrate his knowledge and ability with the Styr Aug, rattling off the various statistics of the rifle and easily hitting the target dead center.

When she had questioned his familiarity with the gun, Darwin had smirked and responded with a off-handed comment: Only in video games, Blondie. Nikita hadn't believed him then and she didn't believe him now.

Patrick Donoghue, aka Darwin, was a prime example of the quintessential American-born terrorist. Like Timothy McVeigh before him, Darwin had been born and raised in middle America; in Darwin's case, in Rochester, Minnesota. He grew up deer hunting and ice fishing, hiking and backpacking with his father, and never quite working to his potential in school. He seemed to be the type of kid that was more comfortable working with his hands rather than his brain, although all his early test scores indicated he was exceptionally bright. At eight, his father abruptly deserted the family and Darwin began to fail spectacularly. He quit school at twelve, preferring to roam the streets. His first arrest, for vandalism, came at the age of fourteen; although Nikita suspected he had simply been lucky to avoid the police before. At fifteen he was sent to a foster home. What had happened to him there, Nikita wasn't sure; either Darwin's records were well and truly sealed, even from Section, or Operations had not seen fit to pass on the information. At seventeen he was declared an emancipated minor and built his first bomb. Inspired - Darwin's classification, not Nikita's - by McVeigh's murderous fertilizer bomb and the horrific results in Oklahoma City, Darwin attempted to duplicate the results in Minneapolis. Fortunately, he had (as Nikita, Michael and anyone within earshot had already noted) the unfortunate tendency to talk before thinking and had boasted one too many times in an Internet chat room about his plans. Section One had been summoned and Darwin had been brought in before he could bring his plot to fruition.

They're just kids, she had protested to Operations when this mission had been detailed.

Operations had given her a cold stare, then ran his gaze over the other operatives assembled at the table. So were you when you came in here, he had countered. So were you all.

So where did this kid learn to use and maintain weapons? Not just guns, but heavy-duty, military-grade weaponry?

Nikita crossed her arms over her chest and leaned a shoulder against the wall behind her. Walter had spoken sharply to Darwin and the teen had subsided his victorious crowing, but Walter's mouth was still pinched tight and his eyes continued to snap back to Darwin even as Walter responded to a question from Trent.

Darwin had turned his back to Trent and was speaking to Neil; Nikita narrowed her eyes as a thought struck her. She reflected over Darwin's behavior over the past few weeks. Who had he spoken to? Who had he interacted with, and why, and how? The pieces fell into place.

She eyed the group one more time; Walter seemed to have them under control. They were lining up for target practice with Glock and Beretta pistols, Walter's handguns of choice for field operatives. At Walter's command the recruits began firing and Nikita could see the improvement from her mandated twice-daily weapons sessions. Although Darwin's aim had always been uncannily good, over the past two weeks the remainder of the team was rapidly catching up to him.

She moved down the hall, intent on locating Michael. She found him, as she had expected, at Comm, his handsome face intent in concentration as he typed on the laptop. She stepped up behind him and ran her hand through his thick hair as she passed. He tipped his head slightly in acknowledgement of her presence but didn't raise his eyes to hers until his work was complete.

Nikita pulled a chair over and sat across the desk. "Michael, about Darwin..."

His face was impassive as always, showing neither concern nor curiosity. "Yes?"

"What do you know of his background?" She hid a grimace. Not too many years ago, she would have approached Michael so differently. How the years had changed her; how different she was from the impulsive emotional girl she had been at the beginning. Angry and frustrated, her gut twisted with the sick knowledge of what she was doing to the recruits, the life they would lead. Still she hid her turmoil under her hard-won Section mask and spoke as calmly and evenly as he had always handled her earlier emotional outbursts.

Michael was puzzled by her question; he gave her a long evaluating stare before responding. "Nothing more than what was on the PDAs and what we were told at the briefing." She could hear his voice in her head, demanding the unasked question, why do you want to know?

"You noted the time he spent in foster care," she began obliquely. He gave a small nod and waited for her to continue. "I think I may have figured out what he was involved in at that time. White supremacists."

Michael's gaze drifted over her shoulder and he thoughtfully rubbed a finger against his bottom lip.

"It makes a twisted kind of sense," she continued. "Given the circumstances that brought him to Section. I've been watching his interaction with the other recruits. He talks to Neil. He talks at Jasmine - mostly making passes at her. He barely acknowledges Trent or Claire. Look how many times he's tried to circumvent my authority by going to you."

He brought his eyes back to her and nodded. "Yes. What do you propose?"

Nikita leaned back and propped her elbows on the chair arms, resting her chin on her hands. "They have to become a team. I think we should put Darwin in the weaker position; no matter what they're doing; make him the inadequate link in the chain. He may not like them, but he's got to learn to depend on his teammates. Pair him up with Jasmine in workouts; with Trent in simulations, with Claire in profiling."

"He is the best at the gun range," Michael reminded her.

She shrugged. "It's not a perfect plan. But if we tried to tell him to work with the others, he'll just ignore us." She gave Michael a rueful smile. "Darwin's not the kind to learn something unless it hits him upside the head, repeatedly."

He reached over the small table and lifted her hand, brushing her knuckles with his lips. "You've learned," he pointed out gently.

"Yeah, but not always the easiest way." Her fingers tightened momentarily on his before he released her. She glanced at her watch. "Time for me to take them to Master Jun for training. Are you going to observe?"

He logged off the computer and shut it down. "I think it would be a good idea for me to watch Darwin a little more closely."

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

In the stillness of the night she woke. The blood was thrumming in her veins, ricocheting through the capillaries of her fingertips, speeding its way back to her hammering heart. She lay perfectly still, struggling to control her breathing, trying to determine what it was that had awakened her with such pounding fear.

Michael's warmth was pressed to her back, his arms encircling her; holding her close, keeping her safe. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, trying to calm herself, to soothe the terror that sparked along her nervous system. Another breath, hold, exhale.

As if he sensed her disquiet, Michael's arms tightened around her. She heard the change in his breathing as he roused momentarily, then his muscles slackened as he sank back into sleep.

Lying quietly for several long minutes, she waited to be sure he was heavily asleep before slipping out of his arms. Despite her precautions, he stirred at her movement and his eyelids flickered.

"I'll be right back," she whispered, "just getting a glass of water." He blinked drowsily at her and rose up on one elbow, the blankets falling away from his chest. She pulled on a t-shirt and cotton shorts before she leaned over him, pressing lightly on his bare shoulder. "Lie back down. I'll be right back."

The metal floor was icy on her bare feet as she walked through the darkened rooms. Still uncertain what had awakened her, she stopped at Comm, checking for messages from Section and updating the files on Jasmine and Darwin.

She was only postponing the inevitable and soon found herself outside the recruits' dormitory. Through the glass doors, she could see the sleeping bodies of the teenagers: Trent, Neil and Darwin closest to her, Jasmine and Claire on the other side. They slept heavily; the sleep of the innocent, she thought. Cynicism reared its head: or the not-so-innocent.

She leaned forward until her forehead rested against the cold glass that separated her from the youngsters. What the hell am I doing? Her stomach roiled in disgust. What am I doing to them?

That was what had awakened her, she recalled. A nightmare, in which she watched each of the recruits, one by one, get cut down by gunfire. Suddenly restless, she wandered away from the chamber and paced aimlessly around the building. Her feet led her back to Comm; she sat down and curled her legs under her. She was cold, but the cold was as much from within her as without.

Five young barely trained recruits to man Section Eight. As quiet as that particular section of the globe was at present, the plan didn't make sense. It had been heavily implied, although never stated, that she and Michael would be sent to head Section Eight when the trainees were ready. That didn't seem right either; certainly Operations and Madeline had made no secret of their disapproval of Michael and Nikita's relationship. The idea that Operations would suddenly condone sending them halfway around the world, together, free from the surveillance and control of One was preposterous.

So we're not headed for Section Eight, she thought. What is the end game here?

Life in Section was like a chess game; it was a hard-learned lesson that had been drummed repeatedly into Nikita's head. To stay alive, it was necessary to think several steps ahead of the present situation. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her calves. Various scenarios ran through her head, all of them equally viable. Although she didn't have enough information to determine what the exact strategy was, one thought was quickly distilled from the options she considered: the recruits were being groomed for a particular profile. A mission that was quickly approaching, considering what Michael had told her of his daily conversations with Operations, and the urgency implied in the accelerated training protocol.

The goal was to make the recruits as functional as possible; but apparently they were expendable, or Operations would have assigned full-fledged operatives to the mission.

She closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the back of the chair. There was no way, at present, to determine the best course of action; there was simply not enough information available to know how best to protect the trainees.

"Nikita."

Michael's voice was soft, but in the stillness of night it carried a long distance. Her eyes snapped open in surprise and quickly located him. He stood several feet away, leaning against one of the metal shelving units, his arms crossed over his bare chest. He had pulled on a pair of loose pajama pants; the white fabric seemed to glow in the dim half-light that surrounded him.

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "That was a long glass of water."

She glanced aside, embarrassed to be caught in a lie. "I needed to think."

He crossed the space between them and crouched down next to her chair. "Did you come to any conclusions?"

He didn't inquire what she was pondering, Nikita noted. It was as if he could read her thoughts by looking in her face. She turned her face to meet his lucid gaze. No one in the world could read her like Michael and the strength of their bond warmed her, pushed aside the darkness of her earlier thoughts.

"No," she confessed softly, "no conclusions. I'm sure the objective here isn't to staff Eight, but beyond that, I don't know what's going on."

Michael blinked, acknowledging the truth of her statement. Not surprising, she thought, since he's always several steps ahead of me.

He rose to his feet and took her cold hand in his warm one. "Right now, all we can do is continue training the recruits as ordered." He gently pulled her to her feet. "Come back to bed."

Letting him direct her, she glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the recruits' quarters as they passed by. Just do the job, Nikita, she told herself. Just do the job.

********** (rated R, suggestive)

Nikita was lying down, eyes closed, nearly dozing, when she heard Michael's soft footstep as he entered. She listened to him cross the room and then the bed sagged slightly as he sat by her feet.

"Hard session?" Warm and firm, his hand stroked her leg from thigh to ankle.

She forced her eyes open. "Yeah." His hand returned to her thigh, this time gently kneading the taut muscles as he slowly drew his hand down her leg again.

Michael adjusted his position, drawing Nikita's bare feet into his lap. He began to massage the soles of her feet, pressing his thumb along the arch. Nikita groaned softly in pleasure. "Tell me."

"I just may kill this Darwin before he ever gets a crack at a mission," she began. Michael's callused palm pressed against the ball of her foot and her breath caught momentarily.

"And?" he prompted softly.

"While you were working at ordnance with Trent and Neil, I had the others at Comm, teaching them about reading computer scopes and what to look for when sifting raw data." Michael nodded and switched feet; Nikita let her eyelids droop, the better to concentrate on the exquisite sensations he was so expertly producing. "I think I had to pull Darwin's attention back to me every 30 seconds or so. If he wasn't hitting on the girls, or me, he was trying to play with the communications equipment or bitching about how boring training is..." She let her voice dwindle off and fairly purred with pleasure as Michael's clever fingers found their target.

He curled his hand into a loose fist and pressed against the curve of her arch. Nikita sighed and shifted slightly on the bed. She drew her mind back to the seriousness of their situation with an effort.

"Michael, what's happening here?" She opened her eyes with an effort and scanned his face, looking for a sign, any indication that he knew something she didn't.

Michael's eyes were soft and heavy-lidded. He fairly exuded raw male sensuality and she felt a responding ache burn in her belly and run lower.

"What do you mean?" He pressed gently on her toes and she arched her back in pleasure.

"Why the time pressure to make these kids operatives?" She had to force her mind to stay on topic; Michael's talented fingers were sending waves of desire and longing rippling through her body. "Operations planning something?"

Michael slid his hands up her legs and began to massage her taut calf muscles. "I don't know."

She dragged her eyes over to the monitor, watching the recruits bicker and fuss with the few toys - books and CD players - that she had deigned to allow. "If this is for real, we're going to be here forever."

He changed legs, beginning to work on her left calf. "Is this so bad?"

Nikita sat up smoothly, leaning forward until her lips were only inches from his mouth. "No."

Michael's clear eyes held hers. Carefully she reached out and slipped a hand behind his neck, drawing him slowly to her. His lips were soft and warm and a streak of lust ran through her, centering in her belly and radiating outward. She tightened her fingers on his thick curls and slowly lay back, drawing him down on top of her.

He rested his weight on his elbows, threading his fingers through her hair and proceeding to kiss her thoroughly. His tongue swept over her lips, requesting admittance and she opened her mouth to him, running her hands down his muscular back to slip her hands under his shirt.

Murmuring something unintelligible he shifted his position slightly. She felt the hard pressure of his erection against her through both their layers of clothing. He turned his head and began to kiss her neck, his stubble scraping her skin erotically. She curled her legs around his thighs and raised her hips tightly to him.

"Bite me!" Jasmine's voice rang from the monitor. Michael was on his feet even as Nikita was wrenching her mind from a haze of desire. She was off the bed an instant later and out the door after him.

***

Even in the rush to the recruits' quarters, Michael didn't forget that Nikita was the lead trainer. He reached the door first and unlocked it, then stepped back and allowed her to enter first and take control.

Nikita burst through the doorway and caught Darwin by his collar, dragging him back from Jasmine. He babbled some half-assed excuse about Jasmine going off on him and Nikita glanced over at the tall girl.

"He plays that hillbilly headbanger music 24/7," she spat. "All I did was ask him to turn it down."

Asked him, right, Nikita thought sardonically.

Darwin reacted with an ethnic slur. "Who're you calling an inbreeder, eggroll?"

Tired of dealing with his racist, chauvinistic attitude and smoldering with a hefty dose of sexual frustration, Nikita's temper snapped. She slammed Darwin against the wall and pinned him there firmly with her forearm pressed under his chin.

She turned back to ask Jasmine a question and her eyes flickered over the other recruits, standing around in a loose circle, observing. Without consciously thinking, she counted: Trent, Neil, Darwin under her arm, Jasmine... Claire.

Even as the thought processed, Michael was asking for Claire. There was an uncomfortable pause as the trainees weighed their possible responses. Michael didn't wait for them to decide; he stepped uncomfortably close to Neil and repeated his request. He emanated lethality and everyone took a step back from him; Nikita had to consciously refrain from doing the same. When Michael slipped into operative mode, no one with a lick of sense stood within an arm's reach.

Nikita didn't wait for the recruits to explain; it was obvious that Claire was trying to escape. She hurried out into the hall, where a computer terminal stood ready. Behind her she heard Michael pressing for the information, his voice low and deadly.

"Where is she?"

"Look, man, just calm down..." That was Trent, the computer whiz. Nikita's fingers dashed over the keyboard, bringing up the thermo scan of the building.

"Where is she?" She could hear the carefully tempered rage underlying Michael's tone. He was going to lash out if the recruits didn't stop beating around the bush. There! The building diagram came up on the computer screen. Six temperatures registered in the recruits' quarters, various dots surrounding the building indicated the outer ring of guards. There was no unidentified heat source to be found.

"... headed for the south portal." Nikita returned her attention to Trent's babbling.

"She's not registering on the thermo," she informed Michael.

"She found a way to beat it," Trent supplied helpfully.

Not for long, Nikita thought grimly.

She met Michael at the access. "Take the interior," he said brusquely as he reached around to lock the recruits' door behind them. "I'll take the outer layer."

She nodded and ran off, her bare feet slapping the floor lightly. She had the advantage over Claire; the trainee had only seen portions of the building, whereas Nikita knew every inch of it. She cut through a service hallway, saving several minutes of precious time and dashed through the temporary comm station.

Something caught her attention: a footstep? a flicker of movement? She had her quarry and Nikita sped up.

"Claire!" she called, catching a glimpse of blond hair. Automatically, Nikita's hand reached for her pistol; perhaps a shot in the air would frighten the child sufficiently to make her stop. The gun wasn't in her holster; she and Michael had decided the recruits were too undependable for either Michael or Nikita to wear their weapons regularly; besides, carefully concealed from the trainees, there were guards surrounding the entire building. Still, it would be preferable to capture their escapee before her attempt to flee became known to Operations.

Claire was at another of the locked doorways; she punched the keypad desperately and the glass door slid open, closing again just before Nikita reached it. The girl rushed to the south portal, entering the code. Nikita stood calmly and casually punched in the code to open her door.

The exterior door slid open and Claire was face to face with Michael, the wavering overhead light highlighting the chill in his pale gray eyes and the latent danger of his powerful body. She backed away, a look of terror on her face. Nikita's doorway opened and Claire was neatly trapped between them. Nikita caught a glimpse of a tear as it trickled down Claire's cheek.

"I want to go home," the girl whispered, her shoulders slumping.

Nikita swallowed past the lump that suddenly appeared in her throat. "It's impossible. You know that."

Claire turned her face to the wall despairingly. "I'm scared."

Nikita glanced at Michael and saw the harsh lines of his face ease slightly. She touched Claire's shoulder. "Go back to your quarters."

"Wait," Michael commanded. Claire stiffened; it was the first time she had heard Michael use that authoritative tone of voice. "What did you use to defeat the thermo scan?"

Claire dropped her backpack and shrugged out of her jacket. Beneath it was a dull silver vest.

"Titanium." Nikita glanced at Michael, then drew it off Claire with one finger. "Where did you get this?"

"From ordnance," Claire whispered, her voice threaded with misery and hopelessness. "I took it when the relic wasn't looking."

Nikita put a hand on her shoulder and pressed her none-too-gently against the wall. "That relic has saved my life more than a few times and will probably save your ass too. Show a little respect." She dropped her hand and jerked her head toward the glass door behind her. Claire took the silent dismissal and left hurriedly.

The titanium vest dangling from her fingertips, Nikita turned to Michael. "So, are you going to talk to the relic, or am I?"

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

It had been a week since Claire's abortive attempt to flee. The trainees had been kept to a strict schedule: long fourteen-hour days that incorporated fitness work, martial arts exercises, computer skills and weapons training. Although Nikita was able to request extra instructors - Master Jun to handle the martial arts training and Walter to supervise the weapon instruction - she supervised the physical regime each morning and assisted Michael with the computer instruction every afternoon. In between sessions she observed the trainees as they worked with their instructors and met with Michael to evaluate the increasing performance ratings.

This day she took a calculated risk. She had avoided using confined fighting techniques to give Claire time to cool down from the failure of her scheme. But the hand-to-hand fighting techniques they had been working on in the center area needed to be refined in the cages.

In deference to Neil's claustrophobia, she left him on the outside. As she had discussed with Michael, she paired Darwin with the more powerful Jasmine, leaving Trent to be partnered with Claire.

"Jasmine, offense. Darwin, defense. Remember to use everything around you."

The assigned pair entered the cage and began to stalk around each other. For a brief moment, Nikita was eerily reminded of her earlier sparring session with Michael. The similarity didn't last long; it only took a minute for Darwin to open his mouth to bait his partner.

"I'll take it easy, Jas-baby, you being a chick and all."

Jasmine responded with a frigid smile. "That's not necessary. I'll kick your butt whether you let me or not."

She flew at him with a series of short-arm chain hits, each precisely aimed at his head. Darwin backed down until his back crashed into the metal framework of the cage.

"Hey, hey!" he protested. "You slitty-eyes may be born doin' this stuff, but I wasn't..." He ducked under her flying hands and retreated to the opposite corner.

"I would suggest, Darwin," remarked Nikita dryly, crossing her arms over her chest, "that insulting Jasmine's heritage is not the best strategy. Try doing something physical."

In a far corner, too far away for her to hear clearly, Claire and Trent appeared to be bickering. Keeping her eyes focused on the fight before her, Nikita let her focus drift from her eyes to her ears. This wasn't the first time the two of them had exchanged words, but Claire had been careful never to confront Trent openly, where Nikita or Michael could overhear.

"... no choice..." hissed Trent.

Claire's voice dripped with contempt. "I would have..." The remainder of the sentence was drowned out by Darwin's rebel yell. Nikita's attention snapped back to the encounter before her.

Darwin was driving Jasmine back with a series of oblique kicks. No, Nikita corrected herself, she's allowing herself to be pushed back.

Jasmine caught Darwin's foot in a two handed grip and twisted. He yelped and fell face-first to the mat. In a flash, Jasmine was on him, holding one of Darwin's wrists behind his back.

Even in defeat, Darwin couldn't - or wouldn't - shut up. "On top," he jeered, "just where I want you."

Jasmine adjusted her leg and jammed her knee into his kidneys. A satisfied grin crossed her face at his responding groan.

"OK, Jasmine, let him up." Nikita glanced over at Trent and Claire again, wishing she could have overheard more of their argument. "Trent, Claire, you're up."

The combatants left the cage, Darwin following Jasmine. "Come on, you want me, I know you do."

"Not a chance in hell," Jasmine snapped back.

Undeterred, Darwin crowed with laughter. "Methinks the lady protests too much," he said to Neil as he passed Claire and Trent on their way into the cage.

"Methinks the man is a complete asshole," Jasmine jibbed.

Nikita let a small smile curve her lips. Oh, I like this girl, she thought and quickly pushed the smile aide. "Trent, offense. Claire, defense."

Behind her, Nikita heard Darwin's sibilant whisper. "Watch this, she's gonna go postal on him."

*** In the beginning, the first thing Nikita had noted about Claire was her strength. Six weeks spent in intensive physical training had honed and hardened her latent talent into an intimidating threat. Exercise and conditioning had been less successful with Trent; like Birkoff, his strongest asset lay in his reasoning abilities, not his physical ones.

Between them, I've got the perfect operative, Nikita thought. Trent's logic and Claire's fearlessness and power.

Claire gave Trent little opportunity to prepare. She launched herself at him, arms and legs flying. Trent backpedaled rapidly.

"Trent, engage!" Nikita barked. "Hostile opponents aren't going to give you a second chances."

Trent continued to retreat from Claire's assault. She approached him with a series of short punches, all aimed at his head. Trent ducked, bobbed and weaved.

"Trent, advance! Look for her blind spots!" Nikita shook her head. He will never make it out in the field if he can't defend himself.

Claire aimed a kick at his head and Trent struck her behind the knees, sending her crashing to the floor. Rather than continue with his advantage, however, he backed away toward the metal fencing and Claire scrambled quickly to her feet.

She attacked again with a series of kicks. Trent dodged under her legs and crossed behind her to the other side of the cage; grabbing a hanging rope, Claire launched herself off the walls and hit him with the force of her flying body weight.

Continuing to press her advantage, she advanced on him with another series of moves. In desperation he finally began to scale the cage walls. "OK, enough! We're on the same team, woman!"

Nikita interrupted. "Stop. Match over. Claire, you won, but come out here. I want to show you something."

The young blonde whirled out of the cage, not looking back at her terrified opponent as he cautiously descended from the chain link.

"Damn," Trent said quietly to Neil as he descended, "will you tell the chick that I'm not the enemy?"

Neil gave him a solemn glance. "She thinks you are. And nothing I say will change her mind."

Nikita stood by, watching the entire exchange. "I want you all to watch this." She crossed to the center mat and motioned the recruits into a rough semi-circle with a vague movement of her hands. "Claire, come center. Do those last few moves on me, here."

Claire frowned at her. "I don't remember what I did."

"Then that's your first error," Nikita said severely. "You must always concentrate and keep your attention focused on your match. Martial arts is about thinking and reacting, not just reacting."

Claire nodded absently. This wasn't the first time that Nikita had emphasized that lesson; with a sense of déjà vu, Nikita remembered from her own first year of training how often the sensei had chided her for impulsiveness.

"Trent was retreating," Nikita reminded her, as she retraced his movements, "and you advanced with..."

Tentatively, Claire began to move. "I did a series of cross-arm feints, and then a cartwheel to intimidate him..." she slowly repeated the maneuvers.

"Right," Nikita said approvingly. "Now repeat it with me. Full speed."

Claire gave her a perplexed look, but obeyed. Claire's chain-hits were impressive, Nikita thought as she dodged back, mimicking Trent's withdrawal. Claire whipped her body into a cartwheel and Nikita kicked out, catching the girl square in the stomach. The younger woman hit the mat with a loud thud and gaped like a landed fish, struggling to get air back into her lungs.

"You stopped thinking and reacted impulsively," Nikita stated firmly. "You were angry and wanted to scare the hell out of him. If Trent had been a stronger opponent, he would have sent you flying, like I just did." She glanced at the circle of trainees. They were learning one lesson quickly; each of them had disguised their reactions under a blank façade. "You can't rely just on your instincts. Hand to hand fighting is as much a mental struggle as a physical one. That particular technique is ineffective against all but the weakest and most intimidated opponents. Don't use it again."

She crouched down next to Claire and lowered her voice, speaking for the girl's ears alone. "I didn't want to demonstrate that in the cage; you would have been injured. If you try it out on a mission, you'll be dead." Rising, Nikita extended her hand to Claire and pulled the younger woman to her feet. "Go take your showers everyone, then it's time for lunch."

All five faces brightened perceptively. At least they're still kids in some ways, she thought wistfully, and went off in search of her own shower.

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

Nikita accompanied the recruits to their martial arts training and observed them for the first half hour. Their skills had continued to improve and she was pleased with their progress. In the past week she had noticed Michael's subtle pressure on the trainees, challenging them with more difficult procedures and 'raising the bar' on what was deemed an acceptable performance rating.

Following that train of thought, she left the gym and crossed the empty metal halls to Comm. The trainees would be occupied with Master Jun for two hours, which would give her plenty of time to worm the information out of Michael.

The target of her thoughts was sitting at the computer terminal in Comm, his broad back to her as she approached. Walking as silently as possible, she stepped up behind him, trying discreetly to overhear his conversation with Operations.

She was unsuccessful. The computer screen was dark; Michael was staring at a blank screen, his fingers teepeed under his chin.

He glanced over his shoulder at her as she neared. "Yes?"

"Your conversation with Operations went well?"

He turned his luminous gaze back to the vacant monitor in front of him. "Not really."

That sounded ominous. She reached over and snagged a nearby chair, spinning it as she pulled so she sat backward, resting her arms on the chair back.

"So..." she said invitingly. She propped her chin on her crossed forearms.

He gave her one of his infuriatingly blank looks. "We need to push them harder. Operations wants the training schedule adjusted and advanced again."

"Why?" She couldn't control the challenge in her voice.

His eyes were flinty gray. "Because those are our orders, Nikita."

A thousand various responses rose to her lips and she bit back every one of them. They had been down this road too many times: she hotly demanding answers and he icily refusing.

With a sudden burst of insight, she realized how much matching wits with Michael was like sparring with him in the gym. Move, block. Punch, parry. She sat silently, her eyes boring into his, quickly trying to decide what the best next move would be.

He blinked and abruptly let down his defenses; instead of the cold haughty mask he so often projected, she saw his frustration and exhaustion.

Moved by a sudden surge of tenderness, she got to her feet and stepped close to him. She brushed back the thick curls from his high forehead and stroked his cheekbones with her fingertips. "Haven't you been sleeping?"

He had tipped his head back to watch her and for the barest second she saw the conflict between his need for control and his desire to be open with her. He nearly pulled away from her caress; his chin rose up and back, then he exhaled slowly and stopped the movement, compelling himself to accept her touch.

"No, not well." Admitting that was almost as hard for him as allowing her physical contact, she knew; the words came slowly, as if he had to drag them out by sheer willpower.

She took a short step closer; close enough that his warm breath permeated her top and brushed the upper swell of her breasts. Her skin rippled into goosebumps in response; although her body felt too warm, not too cold.

She slipped her hand down under his chin. "They're going to be with Master Jun for a while," she invited gently, "come to bed?"

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

When she was annoyed with Michael - or when she had hated him, all those years ago - she would silently list to herself all the ways he aggravated her. At the top of the list, time and time again, was Michael's need - or, rather, his obsession - for control. Even now, after all her years in Section, with her increased understanding of Michael's past and the various - and legitimate - reasons for it, even as she acknowledged it had saved her life on more than one occasion, his compulsion for control simply drove her crazy.

Control freak, she had called him - more than once - behind his back and to his face. He would always respond the same way: a blank look and a completely unemotional demeanor. She meant to insult him and the epithet would slither past him like water off a duck's back.

This, however, was not one of those times, she thought as Michael rolled over on top of her. She understood his need for dominance, to assert control over a situation that was rapidly slipping out of his direction. Work-roughened fingertips slid down the sensitive skin of her inner arms until he caught her hands with his and held them tightly, controlling the speed and intensity of the rhythm of their intertwined bodies. His lovemaking had an edge of urgency, a sense of desperation to it. An intensity that caught her spirit and pulled her into a half-lit world where only they existed.

Usually he was overly controlled, painstakingly extending his pleasure and hers to the furthest degree. She could only recall a few times, most notably when they reconnected after her brief experience 'out', when his passion overrode his restraint. Today, aggravated by the unexplained prodding and lack of information from Section, Michael released his prodigious energies into his sexual performance

He pulled back momentarily, releasing her mouth from his bruising lips. Her eyes swept his face, seeing not only the desire that softened the harsh planes of his face, but the unspoken frustration shimmering in his pale eyes, tightening the skin around his mouth.

For so many years she had longed for words: words of love, words of compassion, words of desire. Over the past few years that need had subsided. Not only because Michael was not a verbal man - how long had it taken her to learn to watch his behavioral clues? - but also due to her eventual realization that words - any words - were dangerous in Section.

His mouth claimed hers again and she melded to him. No longer two but one: ying and yang, dark and light, positive and negative. One no longer existing without the other.

His lips trailed down her neck, his teeth tenderly scraping and nipping her sensitive shoulders. Shifting position slightly, he dropped his mouth still lower, running the tip of his tongue over the full swell of her breast. Her breath caught in her throat and she arched her back, silently inviting and pleading for him to continue his caresses.

Expertly, he drew her nipple into his mouth and suckled gently. Slowly he increased the pressure until she gasped at the burst of pain/pleasure he elicited. He increased the rhythm of his movement and she dissolved into a formless shapeless mass of nerve endings. She peaked and peaked again, shuddering in his arms as the waves of sensation crashed over her.

His climax took only a moment longer; he arched his back and hissed softly between his clenched teeth as the release took him. Slipping her hands up his arms, she pressed on his shoulders and he slowly lowered himself to cushion his cheek on the swell of her breasts. The heavy thudding of his heartbeat reverberated against her rib bones. His breathing was slowing to normal and she threaded her fingers through his thick hair, holding him close, treasuring the momentary peace and post-coital tenderness that enveloped them.

After too-few moments of sated silence, he roused and began to rise. She tightened her arms around him, holding him still. "The recruits will be in training for a while yet," she reminded him softly. "Section doesn't need you for an hour or two. Sleep."

Weary lines creased his skin. He closed his eyes for a moment and she felt his body sag slightly with his slow exhalation. Then his eyes opened again, meeting her gaze directly. His irises were the color of Chinese jade, she thought, but translucent; not hard and shuttered. "Will you stay?"

The tone of voice was level, not indicating any particular response. But in his lucid eyes she saw his unspoken need to maintain their intimate connection, if only for a few minutes more.

A soft smile curved her lips. "Of course."

Michael shifted his body off hers and encircled her, wrapping his strong arms around her and holding her close. His warm breath stirred the tendrils of hair on the back of her neck and she snuggled closer to him, pressing her rear into the curve of his lap. His arms tightened comfortingly around her. In another moment his breathing slowed and deepened and she knew he was asleep.

***

Nikita's eyes snapped open and she glanced at her watch. I must have dozed off...for more than a few minutes, she thought ruefully; it was nearly time for Master Jun's training to be ended for the day.

She stirred, preparing to rise and Michael's arms tightened around her. She looked at her watch again, evaluating: after finishing with Master Jun, the trainees would head off to the showers. There were a few more minutes for Michael to get his much-needed rest.

She reached over carefully, trying not to disturb the sleeping man behind her, and swiveled the security monitor to face her, touching the keypad to bring up the proper camera angle. As if on cue, the recruits sauntered down the hall, towels slung over their necks as they headed off for the locker rooms.

Darwin was sporting a new bruise over his right eye Nikita noted, underestimating his opponent again, most likely. Neil followed behind him, then Jasmine, lifting her heavy hair off her neck. As Claire entered the range of the camera, Nikita could hear her bitter voice.

"...this is such a waste of time," she was saying softly to Trent. Unfortunately for Claire, she was standing directly under the hidden camera and Nikita had no difficulty understanding every word. "All this is doing is prolonging the inevitable."

"What are you talking about?" Trent had lowered his voice as well to avoid being overheard by the other trainees.

Claire snorted derisively. "A day, a week... it doesn't matter. None of us are getting out of here alive."

"How do you know that?" Nikita was pleased to hear a note of challenge in Trent's voice. Finally he's beginning to question, to push back, she thought.

They were moving beyond the range of the microphone as they neared the locker rooms. "Don't be such an idiot," Claire began, her voice dwindling away to an unintelligible murmur.

Long fingers reached over her shoulder and flicked off the sound. Nikita was startled, but controlled her instinctive twitch of surprise. Michael's ability to awaken without any movement, to seamlessly transition from heavy sleep to full awareness never ceased to amaze her. There had been no change in his breathing, no tiny tremor to warn her that he was rousing.

"Did you sleep?" His voice was husky and laden with sleepiness.

She turned in his arms and kissed him softly. "A little. You?"

"Enough."

His lips softened as he kissed her thoroughly; his hands brushed up her spine and she arched toward him, feeling the first stirrings of renewed desire ripple through her and echo back from him.

With a slow exhalation, he broke their embrace and pulled back slightly from her.

The urge to touch him was so strong; she reached out to stroke his jaw, the coarse bristle of his beard stubble pricking her fingertips. She bit back the impulse to sigh: duty calls.

She sat up and his arms fell away. Her voice was muffled as she bent down to gather her clothing. "I'd better hurry if I want to meet them after their showers." She took a few steps toward the bathroom, planning on taking a quick rinse herself. At the doorway, she turned back to look at Michael.

He had already shifted back to operative mode. Rolled onto his side, the sheet twisted around his hips and legs, he was staring intently at the monitor, reviewing all the accumulated information from the past hour.

***

She was showered, dressed and waiting before the recruits were done. They fell into place behind her and she led them to the Comm for computer instruction. Two hours later, they were in the gym again, exercising.

Nikita spotted Michael's lithe form as he came around the corner. She glanced at her watch, thinking perhaps she had fallen off schedule. No, there was still another hour before dinner.

Michael moved soundlessly, but every one of the recruits was aware of his presence. One by one they stopped their work, turning to look at the silent man outside the fencing.

"We have a mission. There's a briefing in one hour." Michael's voice was flat.

Is this it? She gave him a hard stare; his face was blank, his eyes closed and shuttered against her, revealing nothing.

The recruits had burst out in an explosion of voices. Nikita silenced them with a gesture. "One hour. Get your shower and meet at Comm. Don't be late."

She turned back to Michael, preparing to demand some answers. He was gone.

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

The team surrounded Michael and the holo-screen. Michael pressed the button and a man's face appeared. "Crystal Sky is a small organization, with only one identified cell. This man is Doc Lesham, known to be one of the leaders."

Lesham was a rather small man, with unruly brown hair and striking deep green eyes. Although not an old man, he appeared prematurely aged, with deep lines cut on either side of his mouth and around his eyes.

Next to Lesham's face was a rolling scroll of information. From her seat on Michael's right Nikita stared at it, absorbing the pertinent data about their opponent. Late 30's, unmarried, known for his radical theories and cold-blooded willingness to achieve his goals. A partial listing of his targets followed, prominently headed by the destruction of Section 8.

"Preliminary intel indicates Crystal Sky's base of operations to be within this perimeter," Michael continued. The holo-screen changed to an overview of the site, remote wooded acreage . "The area is approximately ten square kilometers: off road, natural cover. Our objective is field recon, lair identification, and intelligence gathering only."

Was this the expected mission, or just a wet run? Nikita suppressed a shudder. This mission seemed simple and straightforward... yet her instincts were screaming that there was more here than Michael had been told. She ran her eyes over the group, reading the confident body language of the teens.

To her right, Nikita heard Neil's whisper. "Easy."

Darwin snorted softly in response. "It's a Catholic schoolgirl on a Saturday night."

"Everything will be sent to Section One for analysis and procedure." Michael pointedly ignored their comments.

Mimicking the schoolboy he never was, Darwin raised his hand and asked his question in a spuriously high voice. "Oh, sir? Are we gonna get to kill some people?"

Nikita saw Michael's fingers twitch in annoyance and rose to her feet. Whether this was the final goal for which the team had been groomed or not, there was no way to avoid going out on this mission. "Okay, Trent will be handling field comm. Jasmine, you're recon leader. Darwin..." she gave him a severe stare, "you'll be our weapons and ordnance specialist. Further details are on your panels. Go get your gear and get ready."

"Be at egress in forty-five minutes," Michael added. "That's all."

Together, they watched the recruits walk away down the hall, their steps jaunty, their young voices raised in excitement.

Nikita suddenly felt very old and very tired. "Do you think they'll make it?"

Michael turned to her and stroked her cheek gently with the backs of his fingers. "No."

It hurt. As much as she knew he was right, and as hard as she had tried to prevent herself from becoming attached to the material, the knowledge that they were too new, too green, too untried for this mission stabbed her like a knife. She closed her eyes, unwilling to let Michael see her weakness.

She felt his lips brush her temple gently. "We've done everything possible to make them ready," he reminded her. "Get your gear."

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

Nikita stepped into the temporary armory, where the recruits were putting on their gear and loading their weapons. Their initial excitement had faded and the room was silent as they buckled on the bulletproof vests and holsters.

Darwin tossed a pistol to each of the trainees, "Glocks, what we've been working with in the firing range." He glanced over at Nikita. "You want Glocks too?"

"Berettas." Michael appeared behind her.

"What ever the man wants, the man gets." Darwin rummaged in a drawer and laid two guns on the counter, sliding accompanying clips across to them.

Picking up the pistol, Nikita slid it into the holster on her thigh. She turned and eyed the recruits again, her face solemn. "No matter how simple the mission seems, things can always go wrong," she pointed out quietly. "Be prepared for anything." Five pairs of eyes, blue and brown, dropped beneath her cold glance.

Michael turned back to Darwin. "Everyone needs an automatic rifle."

***

It was very quiet in the van for most of the trip. Michael was downloading updated intell from Section on the van's laptop computer; Nikita sat across from him, studying the recruits.

Trent was fiddling idly with his rifle. Claire sat silently, biting her nails while Jasmine stared sightlessly at the gray wall over Michael's head. Neil was looking determinedly at the floor. And Darwin...

"Five minutes out. Get ready." Michael's voice was toneless. Nikita knew it was his 'mission voice': calm, passionless and completely controlled; but she wondered briefly how the recruits reacted to his icy demeanor.

Darwin let out a rebel yell, startling everyone. "It's game day. Check it out boys and girls!" He lowered the mirror he had been holding and showed off the streaks of camouflage makeup smeared on his forehead and under his eyes. "I am ferocious and ready to kick some ass!"

"I'd go easy on the Cover Girl if I were you." Jasmine's voice was dry.

Giving her a leer from under a raised eyebrow, Darwin leaned over. "Don't get too close to my fire," he warned. "You might get burned." The remainder of his team snickered nervously, releasing some of the building tension.

Michael ignored their humor. "Birkoff, give me a perimeter sweep."

Nikita picked up her comm unit and affixed behind her right ear. Picking up the container, she passed it to the recruits, supervising to determine that each unit was placed properly.

"I have you entering the target zone," Birkoff's calm voice came over the earpiece. "Perimeter is clean."

Michael rose to his feet and ran his eyes over the recruits. Darwin gave him a cheeky grin. "Moving to first mark," Michael responded.

"Good luck." His voice was so soft, Nikita wasn't positive she even heard Birkoff correctly. She glanced at Michael; his eyes were focused on the wall over Neil's head, but Nikita caught the slight tension in his jaw. The uncomfortable sensation of danger trickled down her spine.

Turning her attention to the recruits, Nikita maintained her cold mien. "Stay on 'B' channel; weapons on safety only. If you see anything you think is hot, tell myself or Michael." Her eyes rested briefly on Darwin; he puckered his lips and blew her a kiss. She had to restrain herself from slamming his head against the wall of the van: Didn't he get it? This wasn't a sim.

Michael stood at the door, his hand resting on the handle. His pale green eyes met Nikita's over the heads of the rising recruits. "Birkoff. Final scan of the area."

He knew. This entire mission didn't smell right and he knew it. Nikita swallowed the surge of fury that rose within her and felt the flow of adrenaline begin to burn in her veins.

"You're good to go." Birkoff's voice had returned to its usual cool competency.

Michael opened the door and a blast of frigid winter air surged into the van. A few snowflakes whirled in with the wind and settled in his dark hair. With a small pang, Nikita noticed again the faint pale gray strands mixed amid the auburn ones. Some day his luck - our luck - will run out.

Something must have shown on her face; his eyes roved over her face and she felt his concern brush her like a caress. Focus, Nikita, or your luck will run out, she thought and nodded slightly to him, her movement barely perceptible.

"Let's go," Michael said. ************

The air reverberated with the sound of a passing train, whistling as it crossed the bridge overhead. Nikita stayed close to Michael's right side, covering his flank. She shifted her eyes around their surroundings, looking for ... she didn't know what. Something, anything. The earlier sense of disquiet had not dissipated; if anything, it had increased. The fine hairs on the back of her neck were rising; she lifted her rifle into firing position.

Obviously Michael sensed it too. His voice, as soft as always, seemed unnaturally loud in the sudden stillness after the train rumbled away. "Birkoff, what does the sat-thermo say?"

There was a long - an excruciatingly long - pause. Nikita glanced at Michael.

Finally Birkoff responded. "Thermo is cold. Perimeter remains clean, Michael."

Michael stopped moving forward. His back straightened infinitesimally and she felt her muscles tighten in response to the slight movement. "He's lying. They're here. We're bait to draw them out." He glanced quickly at her. "Move them back."

Nikita raised her hand and waved her fingers at the recruits trailing behind them. Before she could speak, the area erupted in gunfire. She whirled and began to fire, the automatic rifle shuddering in her hands. Beside her she could hear the sputtering of Michael's weapon.

Figures appeared at the top of the rise and bullets flew everywhere.

She ran, ducking below a concrete embankment for protection. Peering around the block, she fired again at the approaching hostiles. Adrenaline sang through her veins as she dodged back, crossing to the other side to shoot again.

The recruits dashed by, moving swiftly behind the protective wall of fire being laid down by her and Michael. Their faces were white and taut with fear; she shoved the concern for them aside to concentrate on saving her own life. Off to her right she could see Michael dart around a concrete bridge footing.

They were outnumbered and substantially out-gunned. Nikita shut her mind to any thoughts of the probable outcome and concentrated on laying down a stream of gunfire, sweeping over the area before her to hit the largest possible number of adversaries. Bodies began to fall. She dropped down behind her shelter, her shoulders striking the concrete painfully. Ejecting the empty cartridge, she withdrew a fresh one from her pants pocket, slamming the clip home.

Rising again over the edge of the wall, she pulled the trigger and fired at anything that moved ahead of her, then dropped to the ground. She could hear shouts and cries from the recruits and consciously blocked them out; there was nothing she could do to help them. They would survive or they wouldn't.

Up, fire and drop. She repeated the action several times, then took her chance and ran for another bridge footing, further back and away from the incoming enemies. A bullet skipped off the concrete only inches from her head as she slammed up to the footing. She ducked to the ground and turned to face the oncoming gunfire. From behind her came random shots; at least the trainees weren't too frightened to fire their rifles. Just don't shoot at Michael and me...

As if conjured by her thought, Michael rose from his position at the footing in front of her. Suddenly he reeled and tumbled to the ground.

"Michael!" Heedless of the danger, Nikita ran the few feet to his side, every step seeming to take an eternity. All sound had ceased, except for the pounding of blood in her ears and the fear screaming in her mind. "Michael, can you hear me?" He had fallen face first into the snow and she reached for him with her left hand, struggling to turn his limp body over even as she clung to her gun.

He was pale, so pale. Oh my god, oh my god... A streak of blood trickled from his temple and stained the snow beneath his head. Panic and adrenaline were roaring in her veins; shivering with dread and fright she shook him and he groaned. Relief poured over her like a dousing of ice water; she reached behind and under him to help raise him to his feet. Too late. She could hear the thudding of booted feet only meters away from them. Unthinking, she threw herself over him protectively.

A gloved hand grabbed her arm and she was flung to her back, her weapon snatched simultaneously from her right hand. One of the men grabbed her by her shoulders and lifted her bodily to her feet. She struggled momentarily and a pistol was pointed threateningly to her head. She froze. Her wrists were quickly bound with plastic ties and strong hands held her upper arms firmly as Michael was dragged to his feet. His eyes were slightly glazed and he wobbled briefly before regaining his balance; the bullet graze had dazed him somewhat but apparently he had not sustained any serious injury.

On then did she become aware that the gunfire had not stopped. They were caught and the recruits had fled; but the echo of shots still rang out nearby. Obviously Michael was correct; another Section team was on the perimeter. She was hustled roughly to a van and her head covered with a hood. It was pointless to resist and she obediently climbed into the van and sat. Within seconds someone sat heavily next to her, thigh pressed to thigh.

It was Michael; even blinded by the hood she could sense him. The van lurched as it began to drive away and she clung to the meager comfort of Michael's presence. At least we'll die together...

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

By using all the memory tricks Section had taught her, Nikita knew they hadn't traveled far. She counted the seconds from when the truck began to move, analyzed the sound of the engine to determine their rate of speed. That they were continuing on unpaved road was obvious; she was joggled unmercifully and several times struck Michael with her shoulder as the truck hit a pothole or deep rut.

Thirty seconds to the first turn, right turn, she thought, and began counting again. And straight on until morning, jeered a small voice in her head. You're going to die, what's the point of keeping the directions to your grave? Even if she was willing to completely give up - which she wasn't - Section training was too ingrained to ignore. She continued to count grimly, focusing her mind on memorizing the direction, distracting herself from pointless, futile, useless considerations of what would happen to them when they arrived.

Ten minutes to the next turn, left turn, to a paved surface. Or at least something firmer than a farmer's field. It was only another five minutes until the truck stopped moving and the engine turned off. A secondary location, obviously. With Section operatives overrunning their original location, only fools would return to their headquarters with captives. And whatever else they were, Crystal Sky wasn't composed of idiots. Does Section know of this location? If so, why weren't we told? If not, why not? And will they come for us?

The back door opened with a screech of ungreased hinges and first Michael, then Nikita were unloaded. Still blinded by the hoods over their heads, they were led into a building. Nikita stumbled on the threshold of the doorway; strong male hands tightened painfully on her arms and kept her from falling.

She was thrust unceremoniously into a chair and her hands freed from the plastic restraints. Her ankles and wrists were handcuffed securely to her seat before the hood was pulled from her head. Gratefully, she took a deep breath of cool fresh air and quickly looked around, evaluating her surroundings. The room was bare except for the chairs; Michael was similarly confined next to her. Their captors left, closing the door behind them, and they were alone.

The silence stretched around them; Michael glanced around the room, mimicking Nikita's evaluation and she watched him carefully. Except for the graze wound on his temple and the thin trail of drying blood down his cheek, he seemed to be completely recovered.

Finally Michael's met hers; she glanced at the small glass pane in the door but no one seemed to be observing them.

"What happens now?"

"We wait." His eyes followed hers, flickering over to the door before returning to meet her gaze.

She shifted slightly, trying to relieve the tension in her shoulders. "Why haven't they killed us yet?"

"They're going to trade us for Lesham."

"You're sure Section's got him?"

"They must; otherwise we'd be dead by now. We're the only leverage they've got."

"How long?" She wanted to ask whether Michael thought Operations would agree to a swap, but was too afraid of the answer.

He lifted his shoulders slightly. "I don't know."

Keeping her eyes fixed on his face, she nodded. "How are you feeling?"

His eyes were met hers unblinkingly. "I'm fine," he said, his voice a little hoarse.

She knew he was lying. A wound like that, even a small graze wound, would have given him a terrific headache at the very least. But knowing every moment was precious, she let his lie go unchallenged. It was a matter of pride to him, she knew, that he never show pain or discomfort. And with their lives in the balance - she strongly suspected that Operations wouldn't deal for their lives - it was more important that she spend every last moment silently expressing her love for him.

***

She had given up keeping track of the time - what did it matter, anyway? It was an hour, maybe two, before there was any activity outside their cell.

The sudden increase in movement past the glass window caught Nikita's eyes. Michael had closed his eyes and dropped into a light doze, but he snapped awake at the first rattle at the door.

For one brief, incorrigibly hopeful second, Nikita thought Operations had agreed to an exchange and that their captors were coming to fetch them. But the door didn't open, although the scraping and rattling noises continued.

In the silence, the sudden hissing sound was amplified as loud as thunder.

Michael glanced over to her. "Operations passed on the deal."

She closed her eyes. No! You can't know that... you must be wrong... The cynicism imbued in her spirit over the past several years in Section reared up and caught in her throat. Of course he passed on the deal. Whatever the cost to Section morale and POS, it was worth getting rid of us.

Something rough and warm brushed the very tips of her fingers. She opened her eyes to see Michael's eyes, open, loving and compassionate, on her face; his hand was straining in its cuff toward hers, his fingers outstretched.

She reached for him, grasped his fingers desperately. His hand tightened on hers; she could feel his pulse under her fingertips, the strong beat precisely matching the pounding in her own veins. She kept her eyes fixed on his as the faint sickly-sweet odor began to fill the room.

***

Gunshots.

For a moment, Nikita thought she had gone mad. Or perhaps the gas was causing hallucinations. But the sound repeated: it was gunshots.

Michael's body became rigid, every muscle poised for action. His hand tightened painfully on hers. The hiss of the gas suddenly ceased and the door swung open.

Whatever Nikita was expecting, the rumpled face of Darwin appearing in the doorway wasn't it.

He gave them both a jaunty smile. "Hey, don't look so surprised - I'll be insulted!" He bounded in the room, a pair of bolt cutters in one hand. "Guess you guys want to get outta here, huh?"

It was simpler to cut the chains that connected the handcuffs together than to cut through the cuffs themselves. Both Michael and Nikita jangled softly as they moved. As they exited the room, Michael slipped out the spare gun Darwin carried on his thigh; Claire handed Nikita her pistol.

Jasmine stood several feet away facing the entrance, her rifle cocked and ready to fire. She glanced over her shoulder and a brief grin crossed her tired face. "This way."

She led the way out of the building; Michael one step behind her with his gun cocked and carried high, pointed at the ceiling, Nikita with her pistol carried hip-level to his immediate right. The other trainees had fanned out around them protectively.

Jasmine paused at a doorway, turning back to look over the group. "This is the last room. On the other side is the egress to the field. I don't know what to do once we're there."

Michael nodded. "Just get us out of here. We'll contact Section once we're clear."

With a nod, the girl slipped through the door. Halfway across the room, she slowed, then stopped. Five Section operatives blocked their way, Davenport on point. His weapon was held low across his hips, pointed directly at Michael.

"I have my orders, Michael." Davenport's mouth was twisted with distate.

Michael stepped to the front of his team, his gun hand lowered and aimed back at Davenport. Nikita stepped to his right, covering his flank and the young recruits followed Michael's lead, directing their rifles at the opposing team.

"Not any more," Michael said coolly. "Your orders were given on the assumption I was dead, that the farm team was exposed and had to be eliminated." Trent's gun jerked slightly and Nikita glanced at him; his look of shock was quickly replaced by one of composure and resolve.

Davenport was silent and unmoving as he considered. The seconds ticked by. Finally his weapon dropped, pointed to the floor. "Operations will have my ass for this."

Michael holstered his pistol and the sound of released triggers echoed around them. He met Davenport's eyes. "I know."

Davenport turned and began to lead the group out of the building. "The van is this way."

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

It wasn't until they were in the van and on their way back to Section that Nikita realized Neil was missing.

She looked over the bent head of a member of Davenport's team, who was busily trying to pick the lock to her handcuffs, and met Michael's solemn gaze. He knew already, she thought, irrationally aggravated by the knowledge. He knew and he didn't tell me. Then the logical part of her mind kicked in and she understood he hadn't wanted to distract her from the escape.

"Claire?" She looked at the blond girl, huddled next to Trent. Claire's blue eyes slowly raised to meet hers and Nikita bit her lip at the depth of loss she read there.

"Debrief," Michael said softly. His voice was soft and Nikita understood he was being as understanding as he possibly could be for the young team. Better they purge their guilt here, in safety, than before Madeline or Operations.

Jasmine began to detail the mission, her voice flat and her eyes focused on the wall over Michael's head. "When they started firing... I - I ran. I found some cover and tried to fire back."

"We know," Nikita interjected gently.

"We saw Michael fall..." Unwillingly, Claire's head swiveled to look at Michael's face. He had cleaned the streak of blood from his cheek, but the gash still glistened wetly in the uncertain light. He acknowledged her scrutiny with a brief nod and she took a breath to continue. "We backed off. They were obviously after you two; they didn't shoot at us or try to capture us at all."

"We heard more gunshots," Jasmine added, "and didn't know whether it was reinforcements coming to Crystal Sky."

"That was my team going in," Davenport conceded.

"You have Lesham?" Nikita couldn't resist asking. Davenport simply nodded.

"Then?" Michael brought the conversation back to the debrief.

"Someone came up behind him and held a knife to his throat." Darwin's voice was hoarse and all humor had left his face, leaving him looking empty and defeated. Everyone in the van knew who 'he' was. "I froze up, didn't shoot in time."

There were several minutes of silence; the only sound was the roar of the engine and Michael's fingers on the laptop computer, entering the information.

Nikita watched Michael's face. If anyone was going to say anything, offer any comfort, it would have to be her. Michael understood, better than anyone in the truck, what the recruits were feeling. But he would be unable to express it; that part of his personality had been killed in his years in Section.

She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry to lose Neil. You're going to hate me for saying this, but it happens. It happens every day in Section and I don't have an answer for your next question, which is how do I deal with that?" She shrugged, and ran her eyes over the remaining four members of the team. "You pick yourself up and you go on."

Four pairs of empty shell-shocked eyes looked back at her; then one by one they shifted. Darwin stared at the ceiling. Jasmine closed her eyes. A single tear ran down Claire's cheek and Trent reached over to take her hand in comfort. She stifled a sob and clung tightly to him. Nikita turned away and met Michael's somber gaze. There was nothing more to say.

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

The van arrived at Section and the farm team were the first operatives unloaded. Davenport stood next to the doorway and gestured for his team to disembark as Michael and Nikita gathered the computer and their gear.

When the van was empty, Davenport spoke softly. "I'm sorry."

Nikita glanced over at the burly man. "Davenport, you had your orders. We understand."

"I just -" Davenport stopped and stepped closer. "I don't know why Operations has it out for you two. Whatever his reason, it's not good enough. You two are the best we have. If there's any way I can help you out, let me know."

A long silence descended. Davenport had just declared his loyalty in the event of a coup, and the alliance wasn't to Operations. In other hands, that information could mean his immediate cancellation.

Nikita glanced at Michael. Michael was the touchstone; the vendetta was a personal one waged against him alone, and the loyalty of Section operatives was similarly given to him. His pale gray-green eyes were cold and evaluating.

He nodded his head slightly. "Thank you."

Davenport nodded back. Something very critical had just happened here, the foundations of an alliance were laid. She gave Davenport a very small smile of gratitude. He could have put a bullet in each of them and become Operations' new fair-haired boy; instead he had chosen to ally with Michael. And to risk Operations' wrath and the consequences.

***

The entire team walked through the halls of Section; Michael in the lead, Nikita to his left, the recruits behind them in formation. They were headed for Madeline's office to debrief and entered the main hall of Section. Birkoff glanced up from Comm and gave Nikita a nod; she gave him a wink and a quick smile in return. Michael's step slowed and finally stopped; he turned to look up at Operations' aerie. Nikita did the same, staring impassively at the gray-haired man glowering above them. You want us, bastard? Keep trying. The recruits positioned themselves around them and gazed up as well. The body language was eloquent; their loyalty was to Michael and Nikita, not to Section or the man glaring down at them.

Nikita waited. This was Michael's moment; she would follow his lead. After a long minute, Michael spun gracefully on his heel and exited. Matching her strides with his, Nikita followed. She didn't look back; the message had been sent and received and there was nothing more to say.

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

Nikita stood in Operations' aerie, avoiding her superior's eyes by watching the recruits below her. Trent, as she had expected, had latched onto Birkoff immediately and the two young men had their heads together, deep in conversation. Jasmine stood off to one side, watching the flow of activity around her. Claire stood next to her, her blue eyes fixed up on the office where Nikita now stood. And Darwin... true to form, Darwin was wandering around, touching things that shouldn't be touched and generally making a nuisance of himself.

Debrief with Madeline had been short and to the point. The failure to ransom Michael and Nikita was not mentioned by either side, nor Neil's death.

Operations stepped next to her and looked down on Comm. "George wanted to smoke out Doc Lesham. It was necessary to give Crystal Sky a false sense of victory to draw him out."

"Section Eight?" The words were bitter in Nikita's mouth.

Operations shrugged. "Oversight was planning to shut it down anyway. I simply used it to our advantage."

"Why didn't you use abeyance operatives instead of recruits for bait?" Michael's voice was cool and unemotional.

"Even abeyance operatives were too valuable for this type of mission. No one gives a damn about these kids, not even God."

Nikita swallowed the swell of revulsion that heaved in her stomach. "What will happen to them now?"

Operations turned to her. "They show potential." There was an undercurrent of surprised pleasure in his voice. "I'm sending them to Section Six. They'll train as recruits, in the usual fashion, and execute no-contest missions." He turned back to the glass, looking over the four young people below. Darwin seemed to sense the scrutiny; he looked back up at the aerie and a cocky grin creased his face.

"One day, if they survive, they'll join Section as operatives." The tone of voice indicated that Operations thought this was only a remote possibility.

Nikita clenched her jaw over words she could not say and left. She descended the stairs and stopped at the bottom, breathing heavily. Michael was only a second behind her. His eyes flickered over her face and she turned away, not wanting him to read her barely-controlled emotions.

She began to walk down the hallway to van egress, knowing the recruits would be on their way to Section Six. Michael strode silently beside her.

"What's a no-contest mission?" she grated out.

Michael looked down the hallway, avoiding her gaze. "Any operation with a less than five percent POS."

She stopped and he turned to face her. "Suicide missions." With an effort she kept her voice flat and expressionless. He looked at her, his face gone hard and cold, disguising any emotion he might have felt. She dropped her eyes and began walking again, compelling one foot in front of the other. It was only a few steps to van egress; the door was open and the interior section occupied. Four young faces looked back at her, full of hope and determination. She let her eyes touch each of them, silently memorizing their features.

"Good luck." The words were empty and her voice hoarse with unshed tears. But the recruits seemed to take them at face value; their faces brightened and they all grinned brilliantly back at her. Beside her, Michael stood silent. The heavy metal door slammed shut with a thudding finality.

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

Nikita stood at the window of her apartment, her right hand pressed to the cold glass, as if she could reach through to touch the pouring rain that splattered on the patio outside.

Behind her, Michael approached quietly, a glass of wine in his hand. He offered her a sip and she shook her head negatively.

His callused thumb stroked her cheek, wiping away the lone tear that had trickled down. "Are you crying for them, or for you?"

Letting her breath out in a deep sigh, Nikita rested her head against the frigid window. "Both. Neither. I don't know."

He took her hand and led her back to the couch. Settling himself in the corner, he pulled her down next to him, his arm around her shoulder, holding her head to his broad chest.

"It's not right, Michael," she whispered brokenly. "They deserve better than a 5% chance at survival."

His hand slid up her arm to caress her face in tacit agreement. "Yes."

Silence settled between them; not comfortable one, but an understanding one. His fingers slid under her chin, lifting her face to his. She looked into his gray-green eyes; saw the painful honesty and determination in their peridot depths. "Someday," he said softly, "someday they will have better than that. I swear to you."

Someday. The thought of Michael in Operations' role wasn't a pleasant one to her; they had been down that road before and neither of them had come away unscarred by the experience. But she knew, intrinsically, that eventually Michael would have that job. She could either fight that reality and destroy what little peace they could find with each other, or she could support him. And perhaps, just perhaps, the two of them together could restore Section to Adrian's ideals. And if - a huge IF - the recruits could live long enough, they might someday see the benefits of that change.

It was a goal that would give her life some meaning.

She leaned into him, her lips parted to meet his. Just live, she thought, uncertain whether the thought was for the recruits or for herself and Michael, just stay alive a little while longer.