Part 1

As usual, Operations began the briefing with few preliminaries. "We have been receiving a number of reports of increased activities of a group called MFH. We know very little about them, but so far, they have been involved in several violent confrontations between various terrorist factions. We are becoming concerned because they don't seem to care who gets caught in the cross-fire. Yesterday an entire office building of people was blown up."

Michael spoke up, "I was finally able to track down a source who had some information on this group. They have been around for less than a year, but they are beginning to make a name for themselves. MFH stands for Mercenaries For Hire -- apparently they have no political agenda, but are willing to sell their services to whomever will pay them. Their main 'customer base' has consisted of arms dealers, drug dealers, and smaller terrorist factions who need muscle, but don't have the contacts or resources to maintain a sophisticated security team."

Walter broke in, "You mean they're mercenary *sub-contractors*??"

"That's right. Unfortunately, they seem to be branching out to larger organizations. They are selling themselves as a ready-made army. My contact was finally able to pin down a location, because they are recruiting."

"Exactly." Operations resumed briefing. "Michael, you and Nikita will join this group and find out what is going on. We need to know who is behind this group and how to take them down."

Part 2

"Walter, were you ever able to do anything with those rings I gave you?" Michael asked as he and Nikita were looking through Walter's equipment list.

"Oh, yeah," Walter started digging through the clutter on his workbench. "Here they are." He held up two matching rings -- a man's and a woman's. "I wasn't able to fit a full-power transmitter in Nikita's ring, but as long as yours is activated, it will act as relay for hers."

"Here, Nikita," Michael handed her the ring.

"What is it?"

"We are almost certainly going to be searched for transmitters when we enter the mercenary camp. I asked Walter if he could conceal a transmitter in these rings, and give us a way to trigger them on and off." He looked at Walter, "How *do* we turn them on and off?"

Walter held up Michael's ring. It was a fairly heavy silver ring with an oval black stone mounted flush in the center. "This 'stone' is the transmitter. I have it mounted on a slight spring. Press it to turn it on or off. Nikita's works the same way."

Nikita examined her ring. "So my ring will only work if Michael's is activated?"

"Actually, sugar, it will still transmit to Michael if he is in range; you just can't make it all the way to HQ. You'll use standard hidden receivers. Since they're passive, no sensor is going to pick 'em up." Walter scanned down their equipment list. "Is there any other special equipment you need, Michael?"

"No, Walter, I think this will do it. We want to appear good, but not so cutting-edge we make them nervous."

"Okay. I'll get the rest of your equipment together and have it waiting at Departure."

"Thanks, Walter." Michael ushered Nikita out of Walter's lair, but he stopped her when they were in a deserted section of the hall.

"What is it, Michael? I thought Madeleine wanted to see us after we got through with Walter?"

"Nikita, don't mention these rings to Madeleine. She will just assume we are using standard transmitters, and I want to keep it that way."

Nikita started getting nervous. "Okay, Michael, what's going on?"

"I disagree with her mission profile for us. I'll let her know of the change once we are in the field, and it's too late to stop us. If she knew about these rings, she would be suspicious. For now, just go along with her profile. I'll tell you the new profile once we are en route."

Part 3

Madeleine's briefing passed without incident. Clothing was going to be simple on this mission -- regular Section-issued clothing ("missionwear") would fit the bill. When Nikita found out they were going to Australia, she made sure to ask for some summer-weight gear -- Michael might be capable of walking around in 90-100 degree weather in heavy, long-sleeved, black outfits, but she knew she would be more comfortable in looser, cotton clothing. She also persuaded Maddie to include some desert camoflage equipment for both of them. A couple of civilian-type outfits completed the packing. They were supposed to be a nomadic mercenary couple, so they had to carry quite a bit of equipment with them. Everything had to pack easily.

Finally, they were on the plane heading toward Australia. As soon as they were airborne, Michael pulled out his ring, and conducted a sound check. That accomplished, he turned the ring off and faced Nikita.

"My main changes to Madeleine's profile are that we are not just a couple, but we are married." Nikita stared at him in shock. "I think I'm more familiar with mercenary camps than Madeleine is, and her profile would leave you too vulnerable. There will be three types of men in this camp: one doesn't care for women at all -- no problem. The second type will view you as an object no matter what we do -- a problem, but between the two of us I think we can handle it. The third type, if we convince them you 'belong' to me, will leave you alone. The simplest way to do that is with a wedding ring."

"You mean they'll see the ring and leave me alone, just like that?"

"Almost. Obviously, we have to make it look real. I think we can avoid most problems by convincing everyone that attacking you is more trouble that you are worth, but it makes it easier if we eliminate as many threats as we can."

Part 4

"Make it look real, huh? How do you propose to do that?" To Nikita, this was beginning to sound more and more like the typical "manipulate Nikita" scenario, and she was really getting tired of it.

"Nikita --"

"Michael --" Mockingly.

After staring at Nikita in silence for a while, Michael took her left hand. Caressing it, he gently slid her ring on her finger. In a low voice, almost whispering, he looked down at her hand and said, " love, and to cherish; in sickness, and in health; for as long as we both shall live."

Nikita stared at Michael in shock. He held out his ring to her, his whole manner silently pleading with her. Hesitantly, she took it from him. She picked up his left hand, but before she took the final step, she had to know, "The boat, Michael, ..." her voice cracked, but she pressed ahead. "Please, I have to know, was that the man making love to me or the operative?"

Very quietly, "The man."

"Why couldn't you tell me?"

"I was afraid." Michael paused for a long count. "I had risked everything to give you your chance at freedom, but I selfishly jumped at the chance to bring you back in. Then not only did you give up your freedom for me, but I had to use you to bring down Jurgen. I was afraid if I let you get close to me, they would use me to hurt you all over again. I told myself it was better that you hated me, than were hurt by me again."

Nikita took a deep breath and slowly placed the ring on his finger. "To love and obey; in sickness and in health; for as long as we both shall live." Michael stared at her. "Michael, the only way you can hurt me is if you don't care for me. If I know where I stand with you, I can take whatever they dish out. I love you, Michael."

Michael cupped his hands around her face. "You are the heart within me; you are light when all around is darkness," he slowly lowered his mouth to hers. It was such a gentle kiss, Nikita thought her heart would burst. She began kissing him back, and the kiss grew more and more passionate. Finally, they broke apart, breathing heavily.

They were startled by the voice of the pilot over the intercom, "Michael? Just wanted to let you know we may be running into some turbulence. Y'all might want to strap in back there."

Michael pressed the intercom key, "Thanks." He looked at Nikita. "I need to finish briefing you. Can you handle that?"

She was disappointed not to continue their earlier conversation (or at least continue kissing!), but not surprised. She knew if their relationship was to have a chance at success, she would have to be able to shunt her emotions aside and concentrate on the job at hand. She knew she had behaved badly when Michael had told her to be patient. Nikita realized Michael was probably remembering this, and this was a form of a test of her maturity. She decided to prove to Michael that he could rely on her now.

"Okay, Michael. What next?"

Part 5

He rewarded her with a brief kiss. "My other problem with Madeleine's scenario is that it doesn't really provide a good reason for you to be a mercenary."

"Is that important?"

"Yes. Beautiful women do not generally turn up in mercenary camps. While it isn't especially unusual for young men to fantasize about becoming mercenaries, it is not generally a life that appeals to young women. If this were a political group, it might work; but this is a very *apolitical* organization. A man might consider doing this for money, but a woman with your looks would have simpler options."

"To quote an actor friend I used to have, 'So what's my motivation?'"

"That's another reason for the marriage cover. Here's my scenario. You used to work as a professional mistress -- you would get close to powerful businessmen, get their secrets, and sell them to business rivals. We met when I was working as a bodyguard for one of your marks. You asked me to train you in self-defense. We discovered you have an aptitude for combat. We fell in love, and you convinced me that you could work with me. We got married, and worked various jobs as a couple. We decided we needed a larger group of contacts, so when we found out about MFH, we decided to give them a try."

"How are you going to arrange the change in backgrounds. Won't Madeleine get suspicious?"

"When I made the sound check with Walter, that was my signal for Birkhoff to replace the original background information with our new one. It should already be in place by now. Madeleine shouldn't even be aware of the change. Here's your new background. Make sure you know it before we land." He handed her a new PDA. When she took hold of it he didn't immediately release it, but instead drew her hand up to his mouth and kissed it. "From here out, we assume our new roles, but I want you to know my response to you will not be an act. It is when we return to Section that the acting will begin again."

Part 6

Once they landed in Australia, Nikita knew they couldn't just march up to MFH's base camp and request an "audition." Using Michael's contacts, they gradually worked their way around to an introduction that would get them in the door. That done, Michael rented a Land Rover, and they made their way out into the rougher country. Upon reaching the compound, they presented their credentials to the guard at the entrance and were eventually let in.

Soon they found themselves standing before the commander of the camp. He was a spare, straight man with thinning gray hair and piercing green eyes, and was introduced to them as "the Colonel". He looked over their proferred introduction and resume and regarded them with a slightly jaundiced air. "The person who wrote this introduction seems to think I should be begging you to join up with me and should count myself grateful for your condescending to speak with me. Do you agree with that assessment, Michael?"

Nikita couldn't resist butting in, "I beg him to join with me quite frequently, but I can understand how you might find doing that a bit disconcerting."

"Hush, Nikita! Sir, if I agree with that assessment, I seem conceited; if I disagree, I seem disingenuous. I'd rather you judged us for yourself. That introduction was mainly to get us in to meet you."

"All right. Take these forms to Sergeant-Major Gillespie, and he will set up your try-out. If you pass those, we will meet again to discuss the terms of your employment."

Michael nodded his head to the Colonel on the way out, but his eyes twinkled as he saw Nikita give a little mock salute as she left. "Nikita, I think you should've taken that interview a little more seriously."

"I thought about it, Michael; but when we got in there, I just felt a lighter approach might work a little better. You're generally serious enough for any three people anyway," she giggled. "I don't know, but it just seemed to feel more believable that way."

"I guess we'll find out. That must be the Sergeant-Major." Michael and Nikita approached a ramrod-straight middle-aged man in spotless fatigues standing nearby. Michael handed him the papers the Colonel had given him. The Sergeant-Major glanced over the forms and Michael and Nikita, and with a concise, "Follow me," led them to a large pavillion-like structure that was open on the sides, but provided shelter from the sweltering sun. There were several groups of men working out already, but they stopped at the arrival of the Sergeant-Major.

Part 7

An hour or so later, the Colonel found the Sergeant-Major standing in the center of the camp, shaking his head. "What's up, Gillespie?"

"It's those two new ones, sir," Gillespie replied. "They have put on the best show I've seen in months."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I've thrown everything at them -- unarmed combat, armed combat, target shooting, obstacle courses. They do everything so easily, it's like I'm asking 'em to read 'See Spot run' and they're coming back with 'War and Peace.' It's the darnedest thing I've ever seen."

"Michael beat Franklin?"

"Michael didn't just beat Franklin, he annihilated him. Nikita did the same with Hargrove. I even had them spar three times to make sure it wasn't a fluke."

"What's going on now?"

"They're cleaning up a bit before I bring them on in to you."

"I'll be waiting in my office."

After informing them of his willingness to hire them, the Colonel leaned back in his chair and studied the couple in front of him. "I'll confess, Michael, Nikita, I am surprised to see people of your abilities here. I would have thought you might try for something with a little higher profile and higher salary."

"We had talked about that, " Nikita decided it was time she entered into the conversation. "There were a couple of groups that offered us a lot of money to join them, but they wanted me to do things that weren't exactly on our resume. Also, we wanted exposure to a wider range of clients, and what we've heard of your organization seemed to fit that need."

"You seem to be expanding into larger markets. Nikita and I figured we would work for you and cultivate contacts, and at some mutually agreed upon point, we would go back to working freelance. I think we can both benefit from this arrangement."

"All right. My aide, here, will show you to your quarters, and answer any questions you might have." He held out his hand to Michael, then to Nikita. "I hope this will be a profitable relationship for all of us."

Part 8

The aide, a young black man who told them his name was Tully, led them to one of a row of small, free-standing buildings near what were obviously bunkhouses.

"We don't have to sleep in the bunkhouse?" Michael was startled.

"Nah. The Colonel doesn't like putting women in the same quarters with a bunch of men, so the few times we've had women in camp, we put 'em up in the VIP quarters."

"Do the men resent it?" Nikita wanted to know.

"Well they did until I pointed out that your quarters have to stand inspection just like theirs do, and you only have two people to split the cleaning detail between, as opposed to twenty. That calmed things down a bit."

"When is inspection?"

"Every Sunday. Here're your copies of the camp schedule. Make sure you read that first. The Colonel's a real stickler for punctuality. He'll really tear strips off you if you're late for anything. Anyway, here we are!" Tully came to a stop beside the end building, pulled a key out of his pocket, and opened the door. "It's a little dusty inside -- we don't bother to really clean these unless we're expecting company. Gillespie may cut you some slack on your first Sunday because of that, but I wouldn't count on it if I were you."

"Where are supplies?" Michael looked around their new home. It consisted of a small living area with a well-worn leather couch, a table and some chairs. Looking further, he could see a small bathroom, and across from that was the bedroom. The furniture was plain, but sturdy, and had obviously seen some hard use. There was indeed a fine layer of dust over everything.

"Everything you need should be in the bathroom or the closet in the bedroom. If you need anything else, just give me a holler. I'm generally in the Colonel's office, but if not, someone will know where I am." Tully handed them their schedules and assorted paperwork, gave them a cheery wave, and jogged back across the compound to the main office.

"Well, Michael, this is certainly better than I was expecting! I was figuring I'd have to sleep in the bunkhouse with the men, and I was not looking forward to that."

"Yes, this is certainly different from a typical mercenary camp." Michael sat on the couch and thought to himself for a minute. "You know, Nikita, this whole setup feels weird."

"Weird how?"

"I'm not sure yet. Let's go over our schedules and get a feel for the place."

Part 9

As Nikita was unpacking some of their equipment into their new quarters, Michael checked the building for bugs. When they were finished, Michael motioned Nikita to follow him outside. Once outside, they started exploring the compound.

"I found some bugs in the living room and bedroom, and though they didn't appear to be activated, I didn't want to take any chances. The more I see of this place, the stranger it gets." Michael was beginning to get worried. "This does not fit the profile of a regular mercenary camp, let alone, one which has only been around for several months. That was a military schedule we just looked at. When was the last time you heard of mercenary commanders conducting inspection?"

"What else could it be, Michael?"

"I don't know. Let's take a walk around the camp. I'm going to start making my report to Operations." Since he knew it would look a little odd if people saw him talking into his ring, he put his arm around Nikita's shoulders knowing the ring would pick up his voice from there. Michael activated his ring, contacted Ops, and related his observations about the camp and its commander. After finishing his report, Michael continued, "Birkhoff, have you found out anything on who owns this property?"

"No, there seems to some confusion in the government files on that land. Somehow, someone has managed to erase that particular area from the property records. I'm doing searches in some more obscure records in hopes they overlooked something, but I'd say someone is trying to hide their tracks."

"Okay, keep trying. Are you ready for Nikita to transmit some pictures?"

"Yeah, go ahead."

At that, Nikita, who had put on a particularly snazzy pair of sunglasses when they started walking, made it a point to stare at selected buildings, equipment, and people. No one noticed that she periodically brushed her hand against the earpieces as she brushed her hair out of her eyes or rearranged her glasses. By the end of their little tour, she had been able to get pictures of virtually everything. As they were walking back to their quarters, she was even able to catch a quick glimpse of the Colonel and Sergeant-Major Gillespie. "Okay, Birkhoff, that's a wrap. See if you can do anything, especially with the last two."

"Okay, Nikita. I'll let you know what I find out." Nikita and Michael turned off their rings. They ate dinner in the mess building, but everyone still was inclined to be a little stand-offish with the "new guys."

Part 10

After dinner, Michael and Nikita walked back to their quarters. The exertions of the day were beginning to catch up with them, so while Nikita took a shower in the small bathroom, Michael made up the bed with the sheets he found in the closet. She was still washing when he finished, so he decided to "borrow" the shower in the quarters next door. He easily picked the lock on the door, and soon was enjoying feeling clean again. He was surprised to see Nikita was still in the bathroom when he got back, but the shower noises had stopped.

Soon, Nikita came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, and Michael found himself forgetting about how tired he was. She was trying to hold the towel up around her and dry her hair with a second towel at the same time and not having much luck with either. She also couldn't see where she was going and ran into Michael (not that he was trying especially hard to avoid her). He grabbed her before she could fall and then took over drying her hair. "Here, let me do that. Why don't you come sit on the bed."

Nikita looked up to see that Michael had somehow managed to get clean, and was also wearing only a towel. Blushing slightly, she walked over to the bed with him and sat down on the edge. Sitting beside her, Michael gently continued rubbing her hair dry. "Do you have your brush handy?" He asked in a slightly husky voice.

"Y-yes." Nikita cleared her throat, "It should be right behind you on the nightstand."

Michael took the brush, and gently began brushing her hair dry. He was so careful separating the tangles, Nikita couldn't even feel them. Soon, her hair was smooth and shining down her back. Even after it was dry, though, Michael kept running his hands over her hair. Gradually, though, he ventured away from her hair to her shoulders and then her back, sprinkling kisses on her neck as he went. As he ran his hands down her arms, she turned around to face him. Placing her arms around his neck, she leaned toward him to continue the kiss the pilot had interrupted on the plane. As he pressed her down onto the bed, Michael unwrapped the towel from around her and slowly trailed kisses down her body. Soon, though, kisses weren't enough for either of them, their caresses became more urgent, and finally they found the union they had been seeking.

Afterwards, as Michael held Nikita close to him, he tried to remember the last time he had felt such wholeness. Their time together on the boat had been overshadowed by his concern about her future. He still had some of those concerns, but somehow, they didn't seem to loom as large. She seemed to have reached some sort of compromise with herself and Section's requirements, so her imminent cancellation was not as likely. Nikita's explicit declaration of love, and her willingness to take on Section for him made him willing to try living again. He had buried so much of himself, had felt so dead inside, that he knew it wasn't going to be a quick or easy process. As he was drifting off to sleep, he thought *I'll definitely have to be careful around Madeleine!*

Part 11

Nikita woke up the next morning feeling disoriented. She had gotten used to waking up in strange places since working for Section, but what was that weight against her ... oh! She smiled as she remembered the previous night. Glancing over at the alarm clock, she saw they still had over an hour before they were supposed to be up, so she just decided to lie there and enjoy the warm weight of the man lying against her and his arm draped over her waist holding her close even in sleep. *I could really get used to this.* After awhile, though, she slowly started shifting her weight so that she could roll over.

Now facing Michael, she gave herself over to the pleasure of just watching him sleep. What immediately struck her was the peacefulness of his expression. It was different from his usual contained stillness -- there didn't seem to be any tension there at all. She found herself on the one hand wanting to wake him up to see if the peacefulness remained, and on the other wanting to make it last as long as she could. Finally, though, she saw his eyes open and look at her.

He also looked a little disoriented. Then his memory caught up with him, and a slight smile curved his mouth. "Good morning, Nikita."

"Good morning!" Nikita felt most of her initial worries melt away as he looked at with such warmth in his eyes. While not as relaxed awake as he had been asleep, his face was still more at peace that she could ever remember seeing. His arms tightened about her, and he drew her to him for a very thorough good-morning kiss. This led to more energetic endeavors until they finally had to scramble to get ready in time for their first meeting with Erikson, their section leader.

Their first morning in the camp consisted mainly of orientation meetings. After lunch, they were directed to join with the others in their section in a workout. After their performance the previous day, the others were a little reluctant to spar with either of them, so Michael and Nikita worked out together. They unconsciously slipped into their Section workout routine, and after warming up and doing some weight work, they began sparring with each other. They knew each other's moves so well that neither could find enough of an opening to completely stop the other. Soon, a small crowd had gathered around the newcomers. There was some betting going on, but most of the onlookers just watched in astonishment.

Sergeant-Major Gillespie was intrigued when he saw the crowd gathered around the exercise area. At first, he was afraid he was going to have to break up a brawl, but then he realized this didn't sound like a brawl. When he got over to the mock arena, he saw what was going on, and like the others decided to watch and enjoy the sight.

After a long period of stalemate, Michael got Nikita to bite on a feint to her left. Before she could recover, he swept her feet out from under her, and she was sufficiently off-balance that he was able to pin her down before she could recover. As they lay there catching their breath, they were surprised to hear the cheering around them. While they had been peripherally aware of the crowd surrounding them, they hadn't known they were that much of an entertainment. Gillespie pushed his way through the crowd and offered his hand to Michael to help pull him up. Michael then pulled Nikita to her feet.

"That was some of the best hand-to-hand I've seen in a long time! I have to tell you ma'am, I wasn't real keen on the Colonel's assigning you to a regular section, but after what I've seen, both of you can be on any team of mine if I have any say about it! Here," he handed them both bottles of water, "walk around and cool down before you stiffen up." He started walking with them. "Michael, I understand you were responsible for teaching Nikita to fight like that?"

"I taught her the moves, yes. She has a natural talent and has worked hard to be as good as she is."

"Would you be willing to teach some of the others? You'd get extra pay for it."

"I might. If they are willing to learn. That's often the hardest part of teaching."

"I'll speak to the Colonel about it. Do you work out like that all the time?"

"Michael and I usually alternate this with running. A lot depends on where we are on a given day and what kind of equipment we have access to."

"Well, you're free for the rest of the day. I'll let you know if the Colonel wants you to teach." Gillespie trotted off to talk to the commander.

"Well, that was certainly an experience!" Nikita exclaimed as they continued their cooling-off walk around the camp and made their way back to their quarters. "Are you really going to teach these guys anything?"

"I would feel a little awkward, teaching someone to be better able to defeat me if we end up having to fight our way out of here. I don't know. Right now, though, I'm going to check in with Birkhoff." Michael put his arm around Nikita's shoulder again.

She winked at him, "Are you sure that's your only reason for doing this?"

"It's the only reason until we hit the showers. Birkhoff, do you read me?"

"I hear you, Michael. I've got some interesting information for you on some of those shots Nikita took."

"Go ahead."

"I kept coming up empty on matching your Colonel and Sergeant-Major until I started going through military files. Turns out your Colonel is Colonel Wayne Forrester of the Australian army. The interesting part is that he died two years ago."

Part 12

"I'm afraid the Colonel is very much alive. Is Gillespie one of the undead also?"

"Yep. His name really is Gillespie -- in fact, his record was the one that helped me find Forrester. They've served together for fifteen years. He died the same time Forrester did. I started running some of the other faces through the inactive files and came up with a few others, but the majority of the other personnel are either known petty mercenaries, or not in our system in any capacity. I'm still doing some checking on how Forrester supposedly died, but it's pretty slow going -- someone's done a pretty good job of covering their tracks."

After signing off with Birkhoff, Nikita and Michael walked over and sat down next to one of the few shade trees in the camp. "Michael, do you remember seeing any kind of computer hardware around here?"

"Just the notebooks on Tully's and the Colonel's desks. You're right, that's very odd." Michael saw where Nikita was headed. "I also don't see anything approaching the kind of air-conditioning equipment that would be necessary to support the type of computers we're used to seeing with an operation this size."

"Maybe they don't like computers?"

"Maybe, but which then one of them has the computer expertise to do the type of computer record tampering that Birkhoff is finding? I'm beginning to think we're looking at just the outer layer of something much more complex."

"What else is bugging you?"

"Look at the hardware we were working with in the armory this morning. For a moment, I thought we were back in Section. Most of that stuff is far more sophisticated than the average mercenary company needs or wants. When we were looking around the motor pool, again, it could have been a Section substation. This whole place is like that. On a superficial level, it looks like a basic, well-organized mercenary camp, but there's too much money here than could ever be covered by the jobs we've traced to them so far."

"What do you want to do?"

"I have a contact in Australian army intelligence. Keep an eye out for anyone coming." Michael pulled his cell phone out and began dialing. Nikita noted with interest as Michael deliberately let his English become more accented.

"Nicholas? Michel. I need you to do some research for me." He paused and listened for a moment. "I need anything you can find for me on a Colonel Wayne Forrester or involving this location," and he told him their current longitude and latitude. "All I know right now is that Forrester is listed in military records as dead even though he isn't. Call me when you've got anything." Pause. "Yes, that'll be fine." He hung up. "He said it might be a few hours. Let's go get cleaned up."

He stood up and held out his hand to pull her up. Once on their feet he held onto Nikita's hand and pulled her into him for a quick kiss. Hand-in-hand they made their way back to their quarters.

Part 13

Later that night, Michael and Nikita were just drifting off to sleep, when Michael heard his nearby cell phone vibrate. He quickly got up and answered it, "Just a minute." He swiftly pulled on some pants and walked out behind their quarters. "All right, go ahead." He turned as he heard a noise behind him, but immediately realized it was Nikita joining him.

"Was that all you could find out?" Pause, "Uh-huh, I understand. Yes, I would be willing to do that." Longer pause. "Oui, the money will be transferred as usual. Thank you."

"So, what did he find out?"

"Just a minute, Nikita." He turned his transmitter on, "Birkhoff, can you get Operations for me?" He looked at Nikita, "It will be easier to tell both of you at the same time."

"Michael, do you have any information for me?" Operations sounded impatient.

"There's something very strange going on here. I just received some information from a contact of mine in the Australian military. Apparently this Col. Forrester was working on some top-secret project when his status was suddenly changed to deceased. There is no record of his death as such, no incident report, nothing. His service record was excellent but not outstanding, and since he had no family to speak of, no one really paid much attention to his 'death.'"

Nikita suddenly had a thought. "Do you think the Australian government could be behind this?"

Operations snapped back, "Why would the Australian government be involved in setting up a mercenary organization that works for terrorists?"

"I mean, as a cover. After all," she added sarcastically, "some of the things *we* do only avoid being terrorist activities because we call ourselves anti-terrorists. Just ask any of the innocents who are classified 'acceptable collateral' -- whoops, sorry, you can't; they aren't talking to anyone!"

"Nikita," Michael broke in before she got herself in deep trouble, "do you really think Australia is setting up some kind of Section 1 organization?"

"I think it fits the situation as well as any other theory we've come up with." The more Nikita thought about her idea, the more she liked the possibilities. "Look, just suppose you wanted to set up a covert military anti-terrorist force. A merc camp is a great cover for that. You then can recruit new people, try them out on a few missions, and if they look good, let them in on the real purpose of the place. Birkhoff, could you check the *current* status of groups that have used MFH for jobs?"

"Sure, Nikita."

"If they are really an anti-terrorist organization, they would use their mercenary positions as intelligence-gathering missions and at some later point, so it wouldn't be connected with them, take them out."

"What about the increasing collateral damage we've been seeing?" Michael was curious how far she could carry this theory.

"I'm not saying everything's rosy with this picture. They may have some rogue elements either as part of the initial penetration team or within the 'secret society' itself. I just think we should consider the possiblity."

"Birkhoff, do you have any data for us yet?" Operations was not a patient man.

"Well, I haven't finished checking all of the known jobs MFH has done, but so far, it seems Nikita may be on the right track."

Operations was shocked. "What?!"

"Of the first five terrorist organizations I've checked, all five have mysteriously disappeared from the scene within the last five months. They had actually been on our list of 'things to do when we had time,' but they vanished before they ever made it far enough up the list. I'll keep checking the others, but so far, MFH is five-for-five."

"Sir, do you think you could get the Agency to do some checking?"

"Yes, Michael. I'll start some inquiries on my end. You two keep looking."

Birkhoff and Operations signed off, and Michael and Nikita stared at each other for a while.

"That was definitely an off-the-wall theory. When did you first think of it?"

"It started to occur to me when we found out Forrester was listed as being dead. I wondered if he had an equivalent of 'Row 8 plot 30', and then started matching that up with how familiar the armory setup was here. Then when your contact mentioned he had no family, that seemed to make everything click."

"Well, it makes more sense than anything I've been able to come up with. Let's go back to bed and sleep on it." They quietly snuck back in their quarters, undressed again, and got back into bed. Michael pulled Nikita's back against him, and spoon-fashion, they drifted off to sleep.

Part 14

The next morning, they had just finished getting dressed when they were startled by a sharp rap on their door. "Come in!" Michael called out, and in walked Tully. "Good morning, Tully. What can we do for you?"

"Oh, good! You're just about ready."

"Yes," Nikita replied, "we were going over to mess for breakfast. Is there a problem?"

"No, I need you to come with me for a meeting with the Colonel."

Once in the Colonel's office, Michael and Nikita were directed to sit at a long table along with Gillespie, their section leader Erikson, and two other men they recalled seeing about the compound.

"We have been hired to retrieve our client's son, who has been kidnapped by business rivals. Michael, Nikita, you will be on this mission on a provisional basis; we will be evaluating your performance in the field. This will be a simple infiltration and retrieval operation. Study the mission profile and be ready to head out in two hours." Everyone filed out of the room.

The mission went off like clockwork -- rather to the surprise of the participants -- and Gillespie and Michael and Nikita formed some interesting opinions about the other after their night's work was done.

"Colonel, that was one of the smoothest try-out missions I've ever run. Michael and Nikita fit in as if they had been working with us for months. At one point I noticed they actually had to hold up a bit and work around Erikson who had gotten slightly out of position. They noticed the break, compensated for it, and went on without the slightest hesitation, all without a word to each other or to me. Those two are actually beginning to worry me. They're too good to be in a camp like this."

"What do you want to do?"

"I don't know. We've already done as thorough a background check as we can. Is there anyone else you can contact that might know anything about them?"

"I'll think about it. For now, why don't we see what happens if we let them go on liberty."

"You mean let them leave camp?!"

"Yes. It might be interesting to see what they do if they don't think we're watching them."

"You think they might be in contact with someone?"

"It's a possibility. Also, I like to know what my people do to amuse themselves -- it gives me some clues about their character. Go ahead and set it up."


Outside their quarters, Michael and Nikita were doing their own debriefing after the mission.

"That was spooky, Michael. I felt like I was on a regular mission -- although we usually run point -- but still, ..."

"I know. I am more and more inclined to go with your theory about the setup here; everything felt so familiar, from the briefing to the mission itself. The question is, where do we go from here?"

"Look, our original mission was just to gather intel. We've gathered intel. Let's just go!"

"No, we've gathered a theory. We need something more to go on. We also don't know whether the increasing collateral on their last missions is an accident or a trend. If it's a trend, we have to stop it, Australian government or not."

"Well, my brain is going numb; I think I'm going on to bed." She paused and glanced over at Michael and saw the corner of his mouth quirk up. "Join me?"

Part 15

The next afternoon, Michael and Nikita were startled when Gillespie informed them they had just been given 72 hours leave from camp. Not wanting to raise suspicions any more than they already had, the two managed to avoid protesting more than the expected, "But we just got here!"

While Michael drove the jeep along the dusty road to the small town that, among other things, serviced the social needs of the mercenary camp, Nikita kept a perfunctory lookout for followers. "They probably won't bother following us too closely; this is the only place we could be going, and they can follow our dust trail for miles."

Michael agreed. "More than likely they already have surveillance set up in town."

"If I spot the tail first, you have to wear colored shirts for a week!"

"And if I am first?"

"What did you have in mind?"

Michael then told Nikita in great detail exactly what he had in mind for her. Blushing, she finally interrupted him, "Oh, you just want to make me throw the bet!"

"Actually, my heart, I think we would both win."

When they reached the town, they immediately checked into the only hotel that didn't charge by the hour. Michael scanned their room for bugs (the electronic kind), but didn't find any. Deciding it was best not to put it off any longer, he contacted Section and told Birkhoff he needed to speak with Operations. "Have you had any luck with inquiries to the Agency, sir?"

"I'm waiting to hear back from George, who is waiting to hear back from someone else. I should know something in the next few hours. Are you having any success there?"

Michael explained how they had been sent out of camp.

"Do you think they suspect you?"

"I think they're suspicious of *something* about us. We may have performed a little too well on our mission. I assume we will be under some form of surveillance while we are in town, although we haven't spotted anyone yet." Michael glared at Nikita as she began to giggle thinking about their bet. She covered her mouth, and tried to regain her composure.

"All right. For the time being, just maintain your cover. I'll contact you as soon as I hear anything from George." Operations signed off.

Michael and Nikita stared at each other for a minute. "So, Nikita, do you have anything packed that is suitable for a night on the town?"

Part 16

While Michael and Nikita were enjoying a surprisingly well-prepared meal in the hotel's dining room, each was keeping an eye out for observers. As they were entering a nearby nightclub for some dancing, both spotted the rather nondescript man who had hurriedly finished his dinner and was now trailing some distance behind them. As Nikita turned to Michael in triumph, she was chagrined (but not surprised), to see him turn to her at the same time.

"It's the man with the brown hair and mustache ..." Nikita started.

"... with the blue windbreaker." Michael finished.

The music started. A slow dance.

"So do we both win the bet," Nikita whispered as she snuggled up against him, "or do we lose?"

Michael, rather huskily, replied, "What would you prefer?"

"I've been doing some thinking," Nikita began running her hand over his chest, "I like the idea of you with *no* shirt. After that, I think I could be persuaded to forfeit on the rest of the bet."

Michael pretended to consider this as he guided her around the dance floor. "I suppose that would be an acceptable compromise." He brought her hand up to his mouth and kissed it. His mouth quirked, "In fact, I think it is imperative that we resolve this matter as soon as possible. Why don't we go back to our room."

Nikita agreed rather breathlessly, and as soon as the dance was finished, they walked back to the hotel, not caring whether the brown-haired man followed them or not. Once back in their room, they immediately became locked in a passionate embrace, breaking away only long enough to remove their clothing. Deciding the bed was too far away to assuage their need, Michael lifted Nikita in his arms and *slowly* let her slide down as she wrapped her legs around his waist. They were inches away from completion when Michael and Nikita heard the romantic sounds of Birkhoff's voice in their ears, "Michael, Nikita: Operations wants to speak to you!"

Part 17 (Meanwhile back at the ranch -- I apologize in advance for the puns.)

Operations had been going through a frustrating day. While he had become convinced that Nikita's theory was correct, trying to prove the existence of a top-secret organization was problematical at best, as he well knew. He had finally gotten through to the ubiquitous George, who had been singularly unhelpful. He then started placing calls to some of the other government agency heads that he knew. The head of Britain's MI6 was insistent that Australia would never dream of starting their own covert team -- after all, that was what MI6 was for, and an Australian product was bound to be inferior! His Japanese contact had been a little more helpful by admitting to the same theory Nikita had come up with, but was able to provide little hard evidence.

Birkhoff had an idea that he might have better luck tracing the changes, now that he knew the Australian government might be the one covering the computer tracks. At this point, Operations would take any information he could get. He glanced at his watch and saw that it had been several hours since he had last spoken with Michael. Perhaps something had come up.

"Birkhoff, get me Michael and Nikita!"

"Sure thing." Birkhoff switched his comm unit to Michael's frequency. "Michael, Nikita: Operations wants to speak to you." Usually, Michael responded almost immediately, so Birkhoff was surprised when first one minute, then two passed without hearing from Michael.

"Birkhoff! Where's Michael?"

"I don't know. He must not be in a position to activate his transmitter."

Then Michael's voice came over the loudspeaker. "Sorry for the delay, Birkhoff -- is Operations still there?" To Birkhoff's surprise, Michael sounded almost ... out of breath.

"Yes, Michael." Operations decided to tell his bad news first. "I'm sorry, but I don't have any new information for you. Have there been any changes in your situation?"

"We've spotted our tail. Otherwise, everything's the same."

"Have you heard from your earlier contact?"

"No. I can ask him, though."

"Please do. Until we have more information, keep your covers intact."

"What about our tail?"

"Leave him in place for the moment. Just don't let him see anything he shouldn't."

"Of course. I'll contact you if I find out anything."

After Michael signed off, Operations went back to his least-favorite activity: waiting.

Making sure he had deactivated his transmitter, Michael turned to Nikita and sighed, "Well, that was certainly a climactic experience."

Part 18

Nikita, who by this time, *had* made it over to the bed, stared at Michael as if she couldn't believe what he had just said. She started to giggle. Then laugh. Then she was whooping so hard, she almost fell off the bed. Michael managed to catch her, and Nikita looked up to see, wonder of wonders, Michael was actually *smiling*! Shocked, she stopped laughing, and reaching up, ran her fingers along his smiling mouth. He stopped smiling long enough to kiss her fingers, and soon they were picking up where they had left off.

Before going to sleep, Michael made a call to his contact Nicholas, asking for any information about MFH or anti-terrorist activities. That done, he lay back down, and drew Nikita close to him. She sleepily curled up along his side and rested her head on his shoulder. Experiencing an unaccustomed sense of contentment, Michael drifted off to sleep, realizing he hadn't had a single nightmare since starting on this mission.

The next day, Michael and Nikita played tourist, exploring everything the small town had to offer. They stopped for lunch at a small outdoor cafe, and discussed their plans for the rest of the day and evening. They finally ended up at a the town park which boasted a small stream, some trees, and benches. Michael had purchased a blanket and spread it out on the grass underneath the trees. Nikita sat up against the tree, and to her delight, Michael lay down with his head on her lap. Nikita was wondering if she could somehow get Michael to share some of his thoughts about their relationship, when he beat her to it.

"You amaze me, Nikita. After everything's that gone on between us, you are still open with me, and trust me. I wish I could feel I deserve that kind of faith."

"To be honest, Michael, it amazes me sometimes, too. I tell myself not to let you manipulate me again, but my heart never listens. But Michael, you *do* deserve that kind of faith. I'm still ashamed I rejected you for Jurgen."

"Nikita, I pushed you toward that ..."

"Not at the beginning!" Nikita was determined to put Jurgen behind them, but first she had to bring him out into the open. "Yes, Jurgen manipulated me, and then you manipulated me, but I was still the one who let herself be manipulated! I'm not proud of my behavior: first, I used him to get back at you; then, I betrayed you by choosing him; then, I betrayed him. If anyone around here doesn't deserve 'that kind of faith', it's me!"

"Nikita, I forgive you. Even if I hadn't already, I would have done so after you put this ring on my finger. Do you forgive me for my part in this whole mess?"

"Michael, I forgive you. Is there any way, though, we can try something different in our relationship?"

Michael gave her one of his small half-smiles, "You mean you can think of something we *didn't* do last night?"

Nikita giggled and swatted him on the chest. "No, I mean with this whole circle of lying and manipulation and hurt and forgiveness." She grew serious. "What would it take for you to tell me the truth, no matter what Section ordered?"

Part 19

"Nikita, why must you always ask for what you can't have?" Michael figured their peaceful interlude together was at an end. "I do what Section requires me to do. You have to accept that." He began to sit up and was startled to have Nikita gently press him back down.

"No, Michael. I've done some thinking, and I've tried to analyze the different times Section or you have lied to me or manipulated me. I think it's possible we could come to some arrangement that would benefit us, and still get the job done for Section."

Michael was surprised. Normally at this point, Nikita would have been yelling at him, or looking hurt, or .... The last thing he had expected was an analysis of his and Section's behavior as she played with his hair. Where was she going with this? "How on earth do you think we can do that?"

"I've separated Section's manipulation of me into two basic categories: they want a 'convincing performance' from me or they want me to do something they think I wouldn't do otherwise."

Michael just stared at her, still not quite sure he was believing what he was hearing.

"Now I've been in Section long enough, and I think I'm now good enough, that these lies shouldn't be needed anymore. For example, I think that whole scam with Chandler would not be necessary now. I also think I would have acted exactly the same when we were being held by Red Cell even if I knew the location were bogus."

"What about *my* lies?"

"Michael, I finally realized the main reason you've lied to me was to protect me. But instead of trying to save me from myself, why don't you just try *talking* to me about whatever it is. I'm a big girl, Michael. I want to try taking care of myself."

"What about getting you to do things you don't want to do?"

"That's a little trickier. I really am trying to see the bigger picture. When we take down someone like Kessler or Red Cell or the people behind that assassination machine, I know we are accomplishing what Section says is its primary mission. It's when we go up against someone like Bauer or Chandler, when Operations starts mentioning 'acceptable collateral', that I have trouble seeing the big picture. If I knew some of the background information ahead of time, I think I could do this."

"Nikita, Section doesn't operate that way! Sometimes even *I* don't know all of the reasons behind a particular mission's profile, but that doesn't keep me from doing my job."

"Michael, I'm not asking for every possible piece of intel relating to a mission," Nikita pleaded. "All I want is to be able to go on a mission, and to know exactly what you expect from me. If it means having to watch Bauer kill a building full of people because otherwise he might kill thousands, I want to know beforehand." She stopped and gave Michael a wry grin, "You've got to admit -- it hasn't always been easy having to put up with my reactions to finding out these things in the middle of a mission."

"I guess, when you put it that way, it's not much of a risk." Michael gave her an amused glance as he recalled some memorable exchanges. "All right, we will try your experiment. Remember though, Section won't know about our arrangement and will still try to manipulate you apart from me."

"I know, but I've never trusted them. It was your lies that hurt me." As she was stroking his hair, she felt him wince. "Hey! Remember, I just forgave you. I don't hold that against you anymore, and I trust you. I want you to be able to trust me. Let's just see if we can make this work."

Part 20

Michael's cell phone rang -- it was Nicholas. "Were you able to find out anything?" Long pause. "Yes. Do you any other information for me?" Pause. "Yes, I will definitely include a bonus for this. Merci." Michael hung up and turned to Nikita. "I'm going to contact Operations. Keep an eye out for our shadow." He turned on his transmitter and asked Birkoff to call Operations. "I think I have a possible contact for you. My source suggested you try a Walter Abernathy at Australia's State Department. I'm not sure if he's in charge or not, but he is involved in this operation in a big way."

At Section headquarters, Operations was glad *someone* was having some success. "Thank you, Michael. I'll have Birkoff locate him immediately." Operations signed off and turned to Birkoff who nodded absently.

Half an hour later, Birkoff called out from his lair, "Sir, I've got a phone number for Abnernathy. Do you want to talk to him now, or wait until we get more information?"

"Does your intel match up with what Michael told us?"

"Yes. Reading between the lines, I can tell this guy's involved in something major, and his appointment just happens to coincide with Colonel Forrester's 'death'. I don't think that's a coincidence."

"All right. Set up the call."

Birkoff manuevered his way through various secretaries and flunkies until he was able to get Abernathy on a video phone for Operations. Operations decided to be blunt.

"You may not know who we are, but we are aware of your connection to Colonel Forrester and his operation. Let's talk."

Abernathy was visibly startled and tried to bluff his way out of acknowledging the existence of Forrester, but Operations just stared at him. Finally, he asked, "Okay. What do you want?"

"My organization is in a similar business, and we have become concerned about the increasing level of collateral damage your organization is incurring. Now you are obviously not the man in charge. I would like to speak with your superior."

Abernathy, who was gradually recovering his equilibrium, smirked, "Oh, I thought you knew everything! If you don't know who my boss is, I'm certainly not going to tell you!"

"Well, you've already revealed everything else -- why stop now?"

"Uh ... still, I can't give that to you. Can I have my boss call you?"

Operations was becoming exasperated. "Look, I'm going to give you a phone number and a password. I want your superior to call that number. The man on the other end should be able to provide whatever bona fides your boss wants about me. I'm going to call back in thirty minutes, and if I'm not immediately connected through to him, I will throw such a wrench into your works you will never get them going again! Now, memorize the following," and Ops gave him the information and hung up. "Now, Birkoff, contact the Agency and let them know someone from Australia will be calling soon, and to let us know whenever they do." Operations stalked off.

Twenty minutes later, Birkoff again called out to Operations, "Sir, I just heard from the Agency. Australia did call, and everything seems to be okay."

"Thank you, Mr. Birkoff. Let's try Abernathy one more time."

Birkoff made the connection, and soon, Operations was once again talking to Abernathy. "So, Mr. Abernathy, to repeat my earlier question: I would like to speak with your superior."

"Uh, okay, let me connect you through."

The nervous Abernathy disappeared to be replaced by the picture of an attractive older woman who gave a small smile. "Hello, I understand you are very curious about my organization. I'm still not sure why."

Part 21

Operations managed (just barely) to keep from showing surprise that a woman would be in charge of Australia's covert anti-terrorist activities. "Ma'am, your organization came to our attention because we thought we were tracking down a terrorist outfit. Were your people involved in the bombing of an office building in Ethiopia two weeks ago?"

"Yes, I believe they were there as part of their cover."

"We started investigating your MFH because we had noticed an increasing number of innocents were being killed in actions your organization was a part of. We had no idea the Australian government was involved until one of our team members brought it up as a theory. Had you detected this pattern?"

"Yes. Colonel Forrester brought it to my attention last week. I can assure you it has been taken care of, and will not happen again."

"So you have determined who was behind the additional killings?"

"Forrester was able to narrow it down to a team sub-lieutenant who was modifying orders on site, and killing the members who actually carried out the bogus orders." Her tone became grim, "He has been dealt with."

"I'm glad to hear that. Rogue agents are something we all have to deal with from time to time." Operations paused a moment. "Communication between agencies is always a tricky thing -- how much to reveal, how much to keep secret. The person at the phone number I gave you earlier is a good resource. You might keep that in mind."

"I will. May I assume you will be pulling your agent or agents out of my operation now?"

"Yes. Thank you for your help."

"I'm sorry you had to find out about us this way. Good bye." The screen went black.

Operations drew a deep breath. "All right, Mr. Birkoff. Tell Michael and Nikita their mission is accomplished, and they are to head back here as soon as possible." Smiling, he walked back to his office.

Part 22

When Birkoff told Michael and Nikita the good news, they had been just gotten back to the hotel. They went up to their room and started checking out travel arrangements.

"You know, Michael, it may take us longer to get back from the mission than the mission took in the first place!" They had reached the "mercenary camp" by such an indirect route, that Nikita had forgotten just how isolated the camp and town were. "Look at this -- we're going to have to drive 1300 miles just to get to a small airport with a plane that can fly us to Sydney!"

"I think we can simplify things a bit. Let me try something." Michael pulled out his cell phone and called the "small airport" in question. "Yes, do you run charter flights?" And shortly, Michael was able to arrange for a plane to come pick them up -- tomorrow afternoon.

"Yes, Birkoff, we won't be leaving here until tomorrow afternoon."

"Why can't you start out earlier?"

"Because the plane was unavailable until then. It would take us at least until tomorrow afternoon to reach that airport if we drove, anyway."

"Isn't there a Section plane you can use?"

"No, the Sydney plane is out on a mission in the Philippines. Just tell Operations we will be there as soon as we can. Once we get to Sydney, I'll let you know our final travel plans." Michael signed off, a bit exasperated.

"Birkoff doesn't mean to be a pain."

"I know, Nikita, but nonetheless, he was being difficult."

"Anyway, this gives us another evening together." She smiled up at him. "What would you like to do?"

Their afternoon wandering had turned out to be useful after all. They decided to have dinner at a place near their lunch spot. It was a more casual restaurant than the hotel, and featured a dance floor. Their lunch waiter had said that it attracted a quieter crowd than the bars farther down the street. The food certainly didn't compare to the elegant dinner they had enjoyed the previous night, but it was still good. Unfortunately, the dance music was of the loud and raucous type while Michael and Nikita were more in the mood for quiet and subdued.

They returned to the nightclub they had been to the previous night. Again, it just didn't seem to fit. Finally, Michael and Nikita realized they were the ones out of place -- they were no longer on a mission, and they had never really had the experience of dancing together without the knowledge of a mission hanging over them. Especially after their conversation that afternoon, it seemed too private, too intimate to be shared with the people around them. Arm-in-arm, they walked back to the hotel.

Part 23

Once back in their room, Nikita remembered her portable CD player. "Michael, why don't we try this: I'll wear one earplug and you wear the other."

"What CD do you have in there?"

"Oh, how weird -- it's that Rhea's Obsession one."

"The one we danced to in your apartment?"

"The same. Is that okay?"

"Yes." Michael was rather glad it was that one. Maybe now, he could make up for his earlier manipulation of her.

The music began, slow and dreamy. Almost unconsciously, they began the same dance they had done before -- slowly turning in a circle, exploring each other as they turned. As before, the dance turned into an embrace as their lips touched and clung. Nikita drew back enough to say, "If your phone rings now, I will personally take it and this CD out and shoot them both."

"I'll help you." Fortunately for its survival, Michael's phone was quiet.

Soon, they were lost in each other and the music. The caresses became more impassioned as the memories of the previous dance were exorcised. Michael carried her over to the bed, and soon their clothes were nothing more than a pile on the floor. Michael lightly ran his right palm over her body -- from her shoulder, lingering slightly over her breast, and down her stomach, smiling slightly at Nikita's quickened breathing.

"Do you know how beautiful you are to me?"

"How?" Nikita decided to get some revenge by lightly drawing her nails along his leg and up to his chest.

"It isn't just your physical beauty that attracts me," Michael's voice had grown husky in reaction to Nikita's caresses. He continued to retaliate by touching her only lightly. "I think it is your spirit that draws me in, like a moth to a particularly bright flame. The moth knows the danger, but can't help flying closer and closer, seeking the light."

As the meaning of Michael's words penetrated the sensual haze his caresses had generated, Nikita grew still. She held his face between her hands, "Michael, I don't want to be a danger to you." Tears gathered in her eyes. "I want to be a flame that warms you, not destroys you; I want to light your darkness, not blind you. If you're telling me that being with me will harm you, please go now -- I couldn't bear knowing I'd caused you more pain."

Michael kissed the tears from her eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded." He stroked her hair back from her face. "Unfortunately, I'm sure that there will be times to come when we will both hurt each other -- that's a part of the business we're in. But I want you to remember something, and this is what I was going to say earlier -- even if at some later point, your being with me causes me pain, with you I feel alive, more than I have in years."

"Really?" Nikita began to relax under his touch.

"Really. After Simone was captured, and until you came along, I was merely existing. You brought me back."

Michael's hands could no longer keep their caresses teasing. With growing urgency, their hands and mouths moved over each other, seeking more and more of each other. Finally, they found themselves joined together in a seamless bond -- for a brief time, they were one.

Part 24

As morning was approaching, Nikita lay in Michael's arms. They were unwilling to let each other go, in spite of exhaustion or sleep. As the sun shone in Michael's eyes, he stirred and slowly awoke. As he looked at the woman resting in his arms, he felt an overwhelming urge to protect her and shield her from all that was ugly and cruel. She looked so fragile in his arms, it was easy to forget how fierce she could be in defense of what she thought was right. He knew it was going to be a difficult road ahead of them. ~This time, though,~ Michael vowed to himself, ~Section will not tear us apart. I won't let them.~

Nikita felt Michael's arms tighten about her as she woke up. "Good morning, love."

"Good morning..." Michael felt *that* word stick in his mouth. Even after last night, he still couldn't say it to her. He hoped she would see his feelings in his eyes.

Nikita saw his struggle, and smiled a little wryly to herself. ~I guess I should count it as progress that he lets me *see* the problem he's having. Oh, well.~ She stretched and almost purred as she felt Michael's hands running down her sides and back. "Oh, that feels good. What were you looking so fierce about?"

"I was thinking about Section."

"I can see how that would bring a frown to anybody's face. Anything in particular?"

"How to continue our relationship once we get back to Section. And, as a related question, what do we tell Operations and Madeline about our activities here?"

"You mean they probably won't believe we stayed in our room and played poker?"

Michael smiled at her, "No, probably not. They will be well aware of how little there actually is to do in a place like this, and especially since we have this down time before the plane arrives, they will be suspicious."

Nikita had a thoughtful look on her face. "Why don't we tell them part of the truth?"

Michael eyed her suspiciously, "What part?"

"Okay, this is just a wild idea, but what if we tell them we made love as practice for all of those 'loving couple' missions they keep sending us on."


"Yeah!" Nikita stared up at the ceiling, deep in thought. "Here's the reasoning: On those missions we'd been on as a couple, one thing that would nearly get us in trouble was my uneasiness around you. On this mission, you finally decided to do something about it, and used this down time to make me more comfortable portraying your lover. You explained it all to me up front what you were doing, and while I was a little ticked off at your cold-blooded proposition, I soon got into the spirit of the thing." She looked back over at Michael to see him staring at her in fascinated horror. "What, you don't think it's a good idea?"

"I am not sure which disturbs me more: telling Section we *practiced* making love, or how believable my asking you to do that sounds. I think it actually might work, though. Let me think about it for a while."

"Do you have any ideas about solving the first problem?" How to continue having a relationship with Michael once they got back to Section was a hurdle Nikita didn't even know *how* to approach.

"I think I've come up with a plan. Knowing Section, and especially if we go with your explanation of our activities, we will probably be under close surveillance when we get back. Now I know some ways to evade that, but it would make them suspicious. I think for the first week after we get back, we should act as casually toward each other as possible. After that first week though, surveillance should at least be lifted off me, and your surveillance would probably be limited to the bugs in your apartment. Once that happens, we should be able to meet, and I have some ideas as to where and how." Michael gave her a brief but very thorough kiss. "This time, I'm not letting Section take you away from me."

Part 25

Michael and Nikita strode through Section, looking at little odd with their tans among the winter-pale Sectionites. Operations and Madeline ushered them into the (de)briefing room with amused glances of antipation. Once the routine aspects of the mission had been dealt with, Madeline made her attack.

"Do you have anything else to add to this? What did you do while you were waiting for the plane to arrive?"

Michael and Nikita had debated who should spring their little surprise -- Michael with a deadpan delivery, or Nikita with a matter-of-fact chirpiness. They finally decided to flip a coin, and Michael had won.

"Well, Madeline, Nikita and I practiced making love a good deal of the time." It was a perfect deadpan delivery. He was able to keep even a hint of amusement out of his tone and face. He didn't dare look at Nikita though, or he would break. Once Madeline and Operations grasped what he had said, he had an even harder time because of the expressions on their faces. Nikita had given up trying and was giggling uproariously.

"You were practicing."

"Yes." Deep breath. "Nikita has never been comfortable playing a role as my lover or wife. Since we had all of that down time together, it seemed a good opportunity to work that out."

"And did this *practicing* work?" Madeline was suspicious.

Nikita finally got her giggles under control. "Yes, it did, Madeline." She said, mostly seriously, "You know I've never been comfortable with any sexual aspect of a mission, but especially with him. Michael presented everything in a straightforward cold-blooded manner and made me at ease with him in that sort of role."

"I'm not sure I'm happy with operatives taking that sort of initiative. You know the rules, Michael."

"Yes, I know them, but I also know her discomfort almost endangered several missions, and there never seemed to be enough time, or the right opportunity to address the problem here. There was so little to do over there, it seemed like the perfect chance." Michael was almost believing himself. "If we had practiced fighting or shooting you would not have complained; this was just another skill that needed sharpening."

Taking the stunned silence for permission to leave, Michael and Nikita walked out of the room.


The next morning, Nikita awoke in something of a blue funk. After the last several days, it was depressing to go to bed after a mere glance from Michael (a very intense glance, but still just a glance). It was incredibly difficult going to sleep, and it was even worse waking up without him. ~How am I going to get through six more days of this?! I'll go crazy!~ It was eerily similar to her feelings after coming back into Section. ~Okay, don't screw up this time. Just be patient! At least he gave you a definite time frame.~

Nikita wandered around her apartment for a while until finally deciding to go into Section to do some weight work. She was locking up her door as she left when she saw something lying on the carpet next to her doorway. She leaned down to pick it up -- it was a white rose.