In Your Eyes
"All right, Michael -- what happened out there? Were we ambushed?" Operations called out to Michael amidst the chaos of a mission returning with wounded.
Michael turned to Operations, weariness actually visible on his face. He had escaped relatively unscathed from the melee, but someone else had not. "I don't think it was an ambush. Whoever gathered the initial intel missed a potential fallback position. We got hit as we were exiting."
"Did you take them out?"
"We got them all, but we took some pretty big hits." Michael paused as one of those "hits" tried to exit the van under her own power. He caught Nikita before she could fall down and commandeered a waiting stretcher to take her to MedLab.
"Nikita was shot?"
Michael nodded. "They were able to sneak up on us while I was downloading the information from their computers. Nikita managed to take three of them out, but one of them got her in the shoulder."
"All right. Report to Madeline for debrief; I'll finish up here for you."
Michael nodded and left. He finished debriefing with Madeline, and then was finally able to check Nikita's status in MedLab. He had been worried because she seemed in such pain from the bullet wound. He was not surprised to learn that her shoulder blade had been cracked by the force of the bullet. MedLab had decided it was best to keep her overnight, just in case, but they let him visit her. He knew she was a little spacey from the pain medication, but it still gave his spirits a lift when she smiled to see him.
"Hi, Michael! They've got me in their clutches again."
"You should have ducked." He began playing with the fingers of her good arm.
"Well, seeing as the shot would've then hit you in the head, I think I'll stay with what I've got." She squeezed his fingers in response. "I'll be fine, Michael. Really. Why don't you go home and get some sleep -- you look exhausted."
"All right. I'll see you tomorrow." Under the constant monitoring by Section, Michael knew he couldn't kiss her the way he wanted to, but from her expression, he knew his eyes had given away his desire, and she winked at him. He turned and left the room.
Later that night, after he had finally gotten to sleep, he was not amused to be awakened by his phone's ringing. "Yes?"
It was Operations. "Michael, I need you to come in immediately."
"I'll be right there." Sighing, Michael got out of bed, and took a shower, hoping the water would revive him a bit. Finally, he got out, got dressed, and went to Section. He was surprised to find Operations in his office.
"I thought it would be better to meet in here. Please shut the door, Michael. Also, assuming you have some sort of surveillance-jamming equipment, it might be a good idea to activate it."
Michael's apprehension was growing. He did as Operations requested, and sat at his desk facing the older man. "What did you need to talk to me about?"
"I'm afraid I have to send you and Nikita out on a mission in about two hours."
"Nikita's in MedLab with a serious gun-shot wound and a cracked shoulder blade."
"I know that, Michael! Actually, that's why I need her on this mission. I thought you'd like to go along as well."
Michael just stared at Operations in disbelief.
"We finally have a shot at taking out Freedom League's Mindanao base."
"What happened?" Michael knew that Freedom League's fortress-like base in the Philippines was one of their strongholds. Section One had become concerned that the base was being used to rebuild FL's forces. They had tried several times in the past to take it out, but the surrounding jungle had made it impossible.
"About three hours ago, we received word from one of our contacts in New Order. In some sort of retaliatory strike, they had gone after Freedom League. They didn't succeed, of course, but they did have one female agent seriously wounded in the fighting. They were eventually able to get her out, but more than likely, Freedom League doesn't know this. If Freedom League should come upon an injured woman in combat gear ..." Operations didn't need to finish the thought.
"So you decided to use Nikita."
"It was either use her, or line up one of our other female ops and shoot her," Operations said bluntly. "With Nikita, the time frame for the injury is more accurate, she is already over the worst of the shock, and she's probably the best operative for this assignment."
Michael, not being able to sit still any longer, got up to pace. In a small corner of his mind, he appreciated that Operations was telling him in private. He knew he didn't have to hide his feelings, although he did to some degree out of habit. The logical part of his mind agreed with everything Operations had said; they had to take out that base, and Nikita was their best shot at doing so. As Nikita's husband, however, he shrank from having to inflict that kind of pain upon her.
The past three months had been a period of adjustment for both of them, although Michael was rather surprised at how easy a transition it was. They still weren't quite living together yet; even though Operations had removed the surveillance on Nikita's apartment, someone would notice if she was never there. They were in a sort of domicilary limbo -- each had things scattered at both places, although they spent most of their time at Michael's house.
Having Nikita take a bullet meant for him had been painful. He had known she had been shot almost as soon as she did. When he tried to reproach her, she had responded as she had in MedLab -- better her shoulder than his head. Now he would have to take the woman he loved out of a safe MedLab and into a sweltering jungle specifically to be captured and tortured. He didn't bother to hide the pain he was feeling as he stared at Operations, "All right, we'll do it."
"Michael, I'm sorry, but you know this is our best chance." Operations walked over to Michael, and in a rare display of support, grasped Michael's shoulder. "Unfortunately, that also means I need you to go to Nikita and make sure her injury looks as if you'd dressed it in the field."
Michael stared at him in fresh horror. This meant he would have to remove her current dressing, take out the professional stitches the doctor had put in and restitch the wound. Slowly, he looked at Operations and nodded. Seeking some return to normalcy, he tried to focus his mind on the mission itself. Something occurred to him so he asked, "Do we have intel on what equipment the New Order was carrying and how they were dressed?"
"What do you mean?"
"If we're going to be impersonating New Order personnel, I would prefer that we be equipped the same. For instance, do we know whether they were wearing all black, jungle camoflage, or night camoflage?"
"I see what you mean. I'll get Birkoff to find out. In the meantime, I need Nikita ready for a briefing in ..." he looked at his watch, "... one hour. As soon as I have any intel, I'll call you in MedLab."
Once Michael reached MedLab, he asked the hovering orderly to leave the room. Nikita, who had been sleeping, woke at the sound of his voice.
"Michael! What are you doing here?"
Michael walked over to her and brushed his hand along her face. "Operations called me in. We have a chance to take down Freedom League's Mindanao base."
"And...?" Nikita knew from his expression that Michael wasn't happy about this mission.
"Operations is going to send you and me in to do it."
"Yes. New Order ran an assault against the Mindanao base and had a wounded agent almost left behind -- a female agent."
"So, I get to impersonate an injured New Order terrorist? Lovely." Now Michael's buried look of guilt made sense. He saw the logic of sending her in, but personally hated the idea. "Michael, it's okay." She saw the denial flash in his eyes. "No, truly. Operations' idea makes sense, and really, my shoulder isn't all that bad."
"I have to redo your stitches," Michael stated baldly.
"Oh, for the 'authentic' look, huh?"
Michael nodded. But before he could summon the orderly back for the necessary equipment, Nikita grabbed his arm. When he turned back to her, she motioned for him to bend closer. She then reached up and ran her fingers along his face.
"Michael, I know we have a job to do. As I told you before, this won't affect how I feel about you. We will get through this together."
Michael held her hand against his face, and turning his head, pressed a kiss into her palm. Then he straightened and went to fetch the orderly.
Figuring it would save time, Michael didn't tell the orderly what he was planning, but asked him to fetch Nikita's doctor. As they were waiting, Michael pulled out the standard first-aid kit he had brought with him and began readying his supplies.
When the doctor came in, she was horrified at what Michael planned to do to her patient. "You can't do that! This woman is injured -- she is certainly not up for a trip through a jungle!"
"Would you rather be treating an additional female gunshot patient -- because that's your only other option. Operations wants a female operative with a gunshot wound. It's Nikita or someone else."
"But why do you have to remove the stitches?" the doctor asked rather plaintively.
"Because anyone looking at those stitches would be able to tell they were not done by a field op with the supplies from a standard first-aid kit. It's got to look real, or you might as well just kill us both now."
"All right. What do you need me to do?"
"I'd like you to administer a local anesthetic. Just because it has to look real, doesn't mean it has to feel real." He pointed to Kevin the orderly, "While you're doing that, I'd like him to track down Nikita's gear from yesterday -- we're going to need it back."
The doctor agreed and carefully removed Nikita's current bandages. She then gave her a shot of anesthetic. The orderly, Kevin, came back shortly with a pile of Nikita's dirty clothing from the day before. While they were waiting for the anesthetic to take effect, Michael sorted through everything. He pulled out her black t-shirt and took it over to her.
"Before we get started, I want you to go ahead and put this on first. It'll be easier now than later."
"Michael, if we were going into a jungle, that's not the shirt I would wear." Nikita decided to contribute her two cents. "I'd probably wear a tank top, and it would work better over my wound."
"All right. I'll be right back."
When Michael came back, he had a generic black Section tank top in his hands. Taking some scissors, he cut away the left shoulder section. He then slid it over Nikita's legs and drew it up her body. He then held her up while the doctor slid the shirt over Nikita's hips and got her right arm through the armhole, all the while trying to ignore the fact that he was holding his half-naked wife in his arms. Nikita gave him a small grin as she caught a familiar look in his eyes.
Finally, the shirt was in place, and the doctor was able to take the old stitches out. Examining the wound, Michael felt a sick sensation in his stomach. "Doctor, I'm afraid you are much more proficient at removing bullets than I am." He turned to the first-aid kit for something he had hoped he wouldn't need.
"What does that mean?"
"There is no way I could have removed a bullet from her shoulder with that little damage. I'm going to have to do some cutting." He held out the standard-issue scalpel. "Could you sterilize this for me?"
"This is ridiculous! I'm supposed to be making patients better, not helping make them worse!" The doctor yelled, even as she was sterilizing Michael's scalpel. Recognizing that this was just the doctor's way of letting off steam, Michael ignored her and washed his hands with MedLab's anti-bacterial soap.
Taking the scalpel in his hand, he stared down at Nikita, gathering the strength for what needed to be done. She looked up at him, love and trust shining through her blue eyes.
"It's okay, Michael. Remember, with this anesthetic, I can't feel anything."
"At least I don't have to cut all the way down," he told Nikita and the doctor. "I think just enlarging the wound's opening should be sufficient." He did so, wincing as blood began spilling around the fresh cut. When the doctor would have immediately staunched the flow, he stopped her, "We need to let it bleed a little -- her shirt needs to show some blood stains." He then began to stitch the new wound closed. Finally, he rebandaged the wound, in the process binding her left arm close to her body to immobilize it. In every instance, he was careful only to use supplies from the first-aid kit.
"Now what?" Nikita asked as she sat on the bed in part of a black tank top and her underwear.
"Now I need to find out from Birkoff what the New Order terrorists were wearing." Michael walked over to the MedLab intercom. "Birkoff! Do you have anything for me?"
"The intel is just coming through now. What do you want first?"
"What were they wearing?"
"All right. When you have the equipment list, send it directly over to Walter. I'll check in with him later." He turned to Nikita. "I think we'll just use your gear from yesterday -- it's close enough to night camo gear, and it's better than trying to fake a bullet hole."
He and the doctor helped Nikita put the rest of her clothes on, and they made it to the briefing room with two minutes to spare.
Operations studied Nikita closely. She seemed in pretty good shape, although he could tell she was starting to feel some pain. "I'm sorry we have to send you out on this mission, Nikita, but I'm sure you understand why." She nodded.
"All right." Operations brought up a map of the island of Mindanao. "Freedom League's base is approximately here." He pointed to a spot in the interior jungle. "We have been trying to pinpoint its site for some time now; this is the closest we can come. You will be flown in to a point our contact gave us as near the site of the assault. From there, you will make your way around the assault site until Freedom League finds you and picks you up. After that, you have two primary objectives and two secondary objectives.
"Your first objective is to convince them you are members of New Order. They may not have known the identities of their attackers; we want to make sure they do. A war between Freedom League and New Order would be doing us some favors. Second, you will put this tracker in place and activate it." He handed a small device to Michael. It was small enough that he should be able to hide it easily. "It will broadcast one short pulse when it is activated, then it will wait for a signal from us before sending out a steady transmission. Your secondary objectives -- if you can accomplish these without risking your escape, fine -- are to tap into any information you can download from their computers and to destroy the base if you can. Once we have this signal from the tracker, you will have 24 hours to accomplish your secondary objectives and escape the base."
"What happens in 24 hours?"
"Michael, once we know the location of their base, if you can't destroy it, I am going to make arrangements with the Air Force to send in a B-1 bomber to take the base out."
"You're bringing in the U.S. Air Force?" Madeline, who had been quiet up to this point, was shocked. "Surely we don't want to bring outsiders into this problem."
"I'm tired of fooling around with Freedom League. I want them taken care of once and for all. I would rather we take the base out ourselves, but if we can't, we might as well use the B-1 for something useful. Any questions?"
"What's our travel schedule?"
"You'll leave here in an hour -- you'll take a supersonic transport to Guam. There you'll board a standard transport to a secure strip in Mindanao. Then it's a helicopter to the drop point. Once your mission is finished, call us from the drop point, and we will pick you up."
"All right." Michael and Nikita nodded their agreement.
"See Walter for your equipment. I want you both out the door in one hour."
After watching Michael help Nikita out of the room, Madeline turned to Operations, "You are asking a lot from both of them. Do you think they can pull this off?"
Operations sighed. "That base has got to be taken down, Madeline. They're our best chance to do that. We have no choice."
"You know what they're going to do to Nikita once they capture her."
"I know. And I'm sure Michael and Nikita know also."
An hour later, Michael and Nikita were aboard Section's supersonic transport. As fast as the plane was, it was still going to take them almost four hours to reach Guam, so once they were airborne, Michael persuaded Nikita to lie down on one of the built-in bunks.
"I've probably gotten more rest than you have in the last 24 hours, Michael. I want you to rest as well."
"I will. As soon as I finish scanning over the rest of the New Order intel Birkoff got for us."
"It would make more sense to do that on the transport from Guam, since that's going to be a short hop." Nikita motioned for him to sit beside her. "Why don't you lie down next to me? That way, we can both sleep."
Michael thought about what Nikita said -- as well as what she had not said. This mission was going to take everything both of them had and maybe more. Nikita wanted to feel him close beside her as long as she could. He acknowledged to himself that his reluctance stemmed mostly from habit: the only other people on the plane were the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit -- and the pilot, Dave, was another of Nikita's conquests who would rather cut off his arm than hurt the pretty blonde.
He motioned for Nikita to lie on her right side facing into the side of the plane. He lay down beside her. The bunk was narrow, but not too bad. He pulled her back against him, being careful of her left shoulder. "Is this all right?"
Nikita brought his hand from her waist up to her lips. Kissing his fingers one by one, she then replaced his hand just under her breasts. "This is just fine, love. Now relax and go to sleep." She snuggled her head slightly against his supporting arm, and suited words to action.
Michael lay beside her, his lips pressed against her bright hair, and once again reminded himself how lucky he was to have this woman's love. He just wished things could have been different... And he drifted off to sleep.
Dave had just gotten notification from Section that because of an equipment malfunction, Michael and Nikita's transport from Guam was going to be a commandeered Air Force cargo plane. He went back into the passenger section to inform Michael. Not seeing him in any of the usual passenger seats, he finally located the two curled up on the bunk. He smiled in amusement; he was Section's senior pilot, so he was often assigned to transport Michael's team. "Taking the temperature" between Michael and Nikita had been one of his more amusing ways of passing the time in flight.
Sometimes, he could almost feel the anger between them, either before or after a mission -- the heat was so strong, he almost worried for the upholstery. Occasionally, Nikita would respond to Michael's coldness with a coldness of her own. Always, though, there was the sexual heat between the two, varying in intensity, but ever present. He was glad to see them finally trying to work things out. He knew that the only reason Michael had probably allowed himself to relax with Nikita like this was because he trusted Dave. Feeling like an intruder, Dave went back to the cockpit.
"Boy, that Nikita has some bod, doesn't she?" Sam, a young pilot barely out of his twenties had been recruited into Section only a short time ago. He had only seen Nikita once before around Section; this was his first trip transporting her and Michael. "I wonder how she is in bed?"
Dave, jolted out of his contented reverie, stared at his young co-pilot. Not getting the message, Sam nattered on, getting cruder and cruder as he went. Finally, Sam happened to look up and see Dave's obvious disgust. "Hey, what's the problem? You must have known her a while -- doesn't she put out?"
"I am going to tell you this just once: a) she is a cold op, you are just a pilot; b) she is Michael's. If one of those doesn't scare you, the other should."
"What do you mean by that? I'm worth twenty of some street trash like that. I've got valuable skills."
"You are an idiot. I do not fly with idiots." Dave opened a channel with Section. "Madeline!"
"I would like to have Michael cancel Sam once we touch down in Guam."
"Why do you want to cancel Sam?"
"He is an idiot."
"Very well, then. You know the usual procedure." Madeline calmly signed off.
Sam stared at Dave in astonishment. "You...you aren't really going to have me cancelled? Just because of some remarks I made? This is a joke, right?"
Dave stared at him coldly. "Since you are demonstrably too stupid to find your butt with both hands, I certainly don't want you flying my planes. I would have Michael cancel you now, but it is a royal pain getting the blood stains out of the upholstery."
"Please, just tell me -- what did I say?" Sam was starting to get scared. This didn't feel like one of those "freak out the new kid" sort of things.
"You obviously have no concept of what we do here, or what a field operative does. If I really wanted to be sadistic, I would tell Nikita or Michael what you just said about her. Either of them is perfectly capable of breaking you in half with one arm tied behind their backs. That is one of their 'valuable skills'. Also, Michael is certainly a better pilot than you are -- he is just more valuable as a cold op. Get it out of your head that you occupy some sort of privileged position here because you are a pilot -- you are a donkey, nothing more. If you keep your donkey-face shut the rest of the flight, and think about what I've just said, I might consider letting you live to go back with me."
Sam shut up.
When Dave made the announcement over the intercom that they would be landing in twenty minutes, Michael awoke with a start. On one hand, he was surprised he had slept so long and so soundly; on the other, he had come to realize he always slept better with Nikita. As she stirred in his arms, he felt her wince when she instinctively tried to stretch the injured shoulder and arm. Feeling her forehead, he was relieved not to detect any fever.
He disentangled himself from her and went up to the cockpit to check with Dave. Dave told him about the transport change. "Dave, how far away is the new transport from our runway?"
"As I recall the layout, it's about a half-mile."
"Do you think you could arrange some transportation for us between the two planes -- I don't want Nikita to have to walk that far unless she has to."
"So she really is injured? I thought that was just part of a cover." Part of Dave was shocked that Section would send out an incapacitated operative; the other, more cynical side, knew better. He contacted ground control about sending a jeep around.
"Yeah. She took a bullet to the shoulder yesterday. Profile calls for her to be injured."
"Okay. Ground control will be meeting us with a jeep. That okay?"
"That'll be fine." Michael left the cockpit.
Once they had landed, Michael and Nikita said their good-byes to Dave and the curiously-silent Sam. Then, taking the jeep, but not the driver, they set off to catch the next leg of their journey. The flight from Guam to Mindanao was uneventful: Michael and Nikita both studied Birkoff's New Order and Freedom League intel and ate what they knew would be their last regular meal for awhile. Once in Mindanao, they gathered their equipment, and boarded the helicopter that would take them the last leg of the trip.
The helicopter dropped them off at a point whose only distinction was it was sufficiently clear for the copter to land. Now they were on their own.
Michael and Nikita had discussed various options for getting themselves captured. It was one thing for Operations to say blithely to "make their way around the assault site," another actually to do it while on foot in the middle of a jungle. They had decided the simplest method would be to start from the location of the attack and follow whatever tracks they could find -- presumably the Freedom League would be following New Order.
Their next problem, which they discussed as they trekked, was where to hide the tracker. They were sure to be searched, and while the tracker was small, it wasn't invisible. Finally, Nikita had an idea, "Could you hide it in my ponytail?"
Michael examined her hair. At her request, he had pulled her hair back in to a ponytail once they had started walking. "Where would I put it?"
Nikita pointed at the portion of her hair in front of the scrunchy. "If you insert it before the tie against my scalp, it should stay in place and not bulge too much, don't you think?"
Michael examined the tracker and then Nikita's ponytail again. Yes, it could work. The tracker had been wrapped to keep it from being inadvertantly activated; it should slip into her hair easily enough. He certainly wouldn't think of looking there. He loosened the tie slightly, slid the tracker in place, and then pushed the tie back. "Shake your head." Nikita did so, vigorously. Nothing flew out.
"That should work. I can just barely feel it against my head."
They walked on together, sometimes in silence, sometimes not. After an hour's time, they had made it to the New Order attack site. The New Order retreat line was pretty easy to make out, so they started off in that direction.
After some time, Michael noticed Nikita was starting to drag. He found a fallen tree trunk and convinced her to rest on it. She motioned for him to sit beside her. "Michael, we need to talk about what happens when we are captured." Nikita knew they couldn't put it off any longer.
"What's there to talk about." Michael did not want to discuss this subject.
"Michael, you know they're going to 'interrogate' us. First, how do we make sure they know New Order was behind the attack? Obviously, we can't just go around with 'property of New Order' written on our underwear."
Michael calmed a little bit. This really did need to be discussed. "My plan was for us to maintain silence. They will probably throw the name New Order out as a matter of course. We should allow ourselves to react to that just slightly. I think that would be best."
"I agree about the silence part. Do you want to extend that to the torture sessions?" Nikita saw Michael wince, and knew he didn't want to discuss this with her, and she knew why. She also knew, however, that they needed to talk about this before it happened. "Michael, we need to be clear with each other on this! You know they will try to use one against the other, just like Red Cell did. We have to figure out a way to get around that."
Michael knew he couldn't avoid the issue any further. "I know. I'm just ... I just don't know if I can take watching them hurt you."
"I feel the same way. Remember, I was the one who broke and told Red Cell. This time, though, I think it will be different." She paused and gathered her thoughts. "This time, no matter what they do to me, I want you to focus on my love for you -- knowing that no matter what they do, I will love you."
Michael thought he saw what she was driving at. "We both know better than to believe anything they say about being lenient if we cooperate. All right, I want you to do the same for me -- no matter what they do, remember that I love you. We will draw strength from each other to get through this. Once we are captured, I want us to maintain strict silence." He brought her hand up to his lips. Then, rising to his feet, he drew her up as well and into his arms. Knowing this could be the last time, he kissed her until their surroundings faded away. Finally breaking away, he traced a finger around her slightly-bruised mouth and whispered huskily, "There will be no one in our universe but us -- they can do nothing to us because they do not exist." He dropped his hand and backed away. "Let's go."
They had only walked about twenty minutes, when they heard some rustling ahead. Hiding themselves in the brush, they saw a group of men heading toward them. Seeing that one of them had a thermal scanner, Michael knew they would easily be found. He motioned to Nikita, and they took off at a jog back along the trail they had come. The search party immediately locked on to their position, and soon Michael and Nikita had been captured.
Michael and Nikita were herded back along the trail they had followed previously. Soon they were brought before Kennedy, the base leader, a hard-looking man with a cruel twist to his lips.
"I don't suppose you'd care to tell me what you were doing out there?" Twin blank stares answered him. "Very well. Take the girl to a holding cell and the man to the interrogation room," he motioned to the guards.
When Nikita was dumped into the small cell, she remained motionless until the waiting guard became bored, and wandered back to his post. She then removed the scrunchy from her hair, managing to remove the tracker as well. Keeping her hand hidden from the occasional glances of the guard, as well as any video surveillance, she managed to activate the tracker and hide it a corner of the cell. After some additional time spent trying not to think what might be happening to Michael, she saw him walking/being dragged between two guards. His nose was bloody, and one of his eyes was swelling. It was eerily reminiscent of their capture by Red Cell.
They opened her cell door, and thrust Michael through. They then grabbed Nikita and dragged her out of the cell. There was only time for a quick exchange of glances with Michael, but Nikita saw that he was far from finished -- perhaps he was even faking some of his weakness. Comforted, she let herself be led away.
Michael noticed that Nikita's hair was down, so he assumed she had been able to plant the tracker. He had succeeded fairly well at convincing them he and Nikita were New Order agents. He had kept his reactions subtle, but he thought they had picked up on it. Their major objectives were complete. He paced around the cell a bit, studying it for any weaknesses. Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a harsh scream. It was Nikita.
When Nikita was taken into the interrogation room, she wasn't surprised to find herself being stripped and led to a large examining table. They next removed her bandages and examined her shoulder wound. They took great pleasure in probing the incision and testing her cracked shoulder blade. Soon she was tied down by her arms on the table.
Kennedy once again came over to her. "You know, it might make your ordeal here a little easier if you gave us some information -- perhaps your name, your organization, their location. If you don't, I'm afraid you may find your stay with us to be a trifle ... unpleasant." Nikita gave him her best Michael stare. From Birkoff's intel and from her earlier short stay, she knew female captives were considered "fair game" -- whether she talked or not.
The leader shrugged his shoulders, and motioned for five large "interrogators" to take over. They roughly pulled her legs apart and tied her feet to either side of the table. Then, one by one, they raped her. She endured in silence until the last one. He was slightly more "creative" than his companions -- as he forced himself on her, he jammed his thumb into the bullet wound, tearing the stitches out with the force of his grip. The pain finally tore a scream from her throat before mercifully sending her into unconsciousness.
Once they realized she had lost consciousness, one of the interrogators untied her and threw her over his shoulder. As Kennedy walked beside him, he took Nikita back to the cell.
When Michael saw Nikita being carried back to him, it took all of his self-control not to cry out in rage. While one of the guards held a gun on him, the other unlocked the cell, and Nikita was tossed inside like some broken doll. Michael wasn't able to keep from immediately going over to her, and Kennedy was intrigued to see the glimpses of some strong emotion being brutally suppressed. He decided to leave them alone for a bit and see what happened.
Michael carried Nikita over to the bunk and attempted to examine her. First, he had to wipe away the blood to judge the extent of her injuries. Pulling his t-shirt off, he poured water over it from the bucket of water that had been left for them. Washing her shoulder, he winced in sympathy as he saw the torn stitches. Then came the hard part. Being as careful as possible, he gently washed the blood from her legs and between her legs. As soon as the cloth began touching that area, Nikita began to stir. Fearing he was causing her even more pain, Michael paused.
Suddenly, Nikita's eyes opened. She looked wildly around until she saw Michael, whereupon she relaxed slightly. Michael looked at her, hoping she would see all the love he felt, as well as the regret and the anger. He thought she did, because she managed to raise her good arm and stroke his face. While those watching would not have seen an actual smile, Michael knew she was smiling at him, saying she would be all right.
He showed her the t-shirt and motioned to her legs. She nodded and lay back again. Keeping his strokes firm enough not to tickle, but still gentle, he washed away the blood between her legs. Since the guards had not taken away his first-aid kit, he was able to rebandage her shoulder to try to stop the bleeding. He then covered her with both their jackets and sat beside her, stroking her face and hair. She turned her head into his caress and kissed his palm.
Kennedy decided he'd seen enough. Taking two thugs with him, he strode up to the cell. He was annoyed to see that both operatives were ignoring him. They were completely wrapped up in each other. Well, he would change that! "Since you two seemed to miss each other so much, I think we'll let you stay together this time." He then had both of them taken to the interrogation room.
This time, Nikita and Michael were strapped into facing chairs. Figuring Nikita would break first, Kennedy started in on Michael again. No matter what he did however, neither operative made a sound. They just stared at each other. It was really getting on his nerves. Finally, he decided Nikita just wasn't going to give in.
"All right. If that's the way you want to play, now it's your turn," and he roughly unstrapped Nikita from her chair. This time, he tied her to a table that had been tilted up against the wall. Michael's chair was then positioned across from her. One man after another came through to rape Nikita; neither she nor Michael kept track. Their focus had narrowed to the other's face -- that was all that existed for Nikita; that was all Michael allowed himself to think about.
Eventually however, Nikita's strength gave out, and she became unconscious again. At that point, her tormentors ceased their efforts, and Michael and Nikita were taken back to their cells once more. As he again washed the blood from her body, Michael let that small part of his mind that wasn't focused on the mission or Nikita plot many ... interesting .. things to do to Kennedy and his followers.
Kennedy was frustrated. He was positive these two were from New Order; he had communicated as such to his superiors. They wanted more information, and so far he had nothing. "Murphy! When is Simmons due back from Hong Kong?"
"Tomorrow, boss. He's due in at around 1100."
Once Simmons, his chemical interrogation specialist, got back, maybe they could make some progress. It was getting late, so he might as well just wait until morning for any further tries.
Michael saw the guard being changed, and guessed the base was bedding down for the night. He would give them a couple of hours to get settled, then he would make his move.
For an operative of Michael's abilities, it was almost ridiculously easy to escape his cell. Leaving Nikita curled up on the bunk, he stealthily explored the various corridors until he found his first objective: the surveillance room. The operator was dozing, and was easily dispatched by Michael. Best of all, the operator had been armed, so now Michael had a weapon. Studying the monitors, Michael discovered the location of both the data/communications center and the armory.
He managed to make it to the data center relatively undetected -- those he encounterd had been quietly eliminated. After studying their computer equipment for a minute, he was able to work his way into their system and download the information Birkoff was looking for. He also located the security codes that would allow him to open the front gates of the base. Sensing that his time was starting to run out, he decided it would be better to get Nikita on his way to the armory, so he stopped back by their cell. His heart crept up to his throat when he realized she wasn't alone -- Kennedy was with her.
As he got closer, he began to relax as he realized Kennedy was also unconscious, gagged, and tied to their bunk. He lifted his eyebrows in question.
Breaking their silence, Nikita answered, "He had decided to come by and have some fun of his own. When he got in the cell, he realized you weren't here, but I got him before he could raise an alarm."
"What do you want to do with him?" Michael figured he'd give her the choice.
"How much time do we have?"
"I was going to set the charges to go off in ten minutes. I could delay that slightly if you want."
"Do you have a knife?"
"Yeah, I picked one up earlier." Michael handed her the Bowie knife he had "acquired" -- its owner having no further use for it.
"Okay. Come back by here after you set the charges, and I should be done," Nikita said in a hard tone.
Michael nodded, and left. While he would have liked to take his own revenge against Kennedy, he figured Nikita had the prior claim. Judging by the look on her face, she would not be showing any mercy this time.
After Michael left, Nikita undressed Kennedy and then prodded his face with the knife until he slowly opened his eyes. He saw the knife in her hands and blanched. Nikita had thought about all the things she wanted to say to this scum, but remembering how annoyed he had been by her silence, decided that her silence would be more unnerving to him.
Slowly, she ran the knife down his front leaving a thin trail of blood. When she reached his crotch area, she could see his whole body tense up. When she drew the knife back up his body, he relaxed slightly. Suddenly, she whipped the knife down and castrated him. As his body tried to jackknife in pain, she slid the knife across his jugular, killing him. She then turned to the corner and threw up.
When Michael returned from the armory, he saw the bloody remains of Kennedy, and the slightly haunted look in Nikita's eyes. He gathered her in his arms for a brief but comforting hug. Then he handed her some of the booty he had gathered along the way. He had managed to track down some clothing for her -- no underwear, obviously, but at least she wouldn't be facing the jungle naked. While she dressed, he combined everything together into one knapsack. Then they left.
By staying along the edges of the walls, they were able to get to the gate undetected. According to Michael's watch, they had about thirty more seconds before the charges he had set in the armory exploded. Sneaking up to the front gate, he took out the guards there and punched in the security code. The night lookout noticed the activity, and started ringing the klaxon. Before anything happened, though, a massive explosion rocked the compound. Michael and Nikita got away in the confusion.
One of the items Michael had raided was a GPS indicator. Although he wasn't thrilled with the idea of trying to navigate through the jungle at night, he was too worried about the natural and unnatural dangers of being too close to the compound. It was a good bet not everyone died in that explosion, and the survivors would be out for blood.
As they made their way through the dense foliage, Michael became more and more worried about Nikita. While she was trying hard to maintain a steady pace, he could tell she was in pain. He stopped to let her rest whenever they reached a clearing, but she was obviously losing strength. Suddenly, she doubled over in pain, clutching her abdomen.
"What is it?!"
"I ... don't know. Feels like a knife in my gut."
Now Michael was getting frantic. He had to get Nikita to some medical attention, but how? "Nikita, we've got about another hour's walk before we reach our rendezvous point." Kneeling beside her, he confessed, "I don't know what else to do. Can you make it?"
"Whatever it takes, Michael." She flashed him a small grin.
Filled with love and admiration for her bravery, he kissed her forehead. Then, helping her up, he put his arm under her good shoulder, and helped her along.
When they reached the rendezvous point, Michael was gratified to see the helicopter already in place. He had hoped Section might have detected the blast and sent the helicopter in early. Getting Nikita aboard, and then climbing in himself, he asked the pilot to get them back to their base as quickly as possible. Once there, the physician's aide (all that the base boasted in medical care) patched Nikita up as well as he could, but recommended that she get some real care soon -- he was afraid there might be some internal damage.
Michael was torn. The closest secure medical facilities were on Guam, but that would involve explanations he had been trained to avoid having to make. When he saw that Dave had managed to wangle permission to pick them up in the supersonic transport and would be there in thirty minutes, he made his decision: he would take Nikita back to Section.
Michael had informed Operations that MedLab would need to meet their transport. He tried to keep them focused on Nikita, but they would insist on examining him as well. He already knew about the cracked ribs and slight concussion -- he didn't need them telling him that. He finally made his escape, and sought out Nikita. Kevin, the orderly, told him she was in surgery, but that was all he knew. Michael managed to track down one of the doctors who had examined Nikita and got an explanation.
"She was in pretty bad shape -- not life-threatening, at least not yet -- but still badly hurt. Essentially, she's got a couple of broken ribs, some internal injuries, and a lot of internal tearing from her ... experiences. In addition, her initial bullet wound got infected, so we're having to deal with that as well."
"But she will be all right? Why is she in surgery?"
"The surgery is mainly to repair the tearing. She'll be fine."
Michael thanked the doctor, and sought his office. He tried to concentrate on the debriefing paperwork Madeline had asked for, but it was impossible. Now that most of his concern about Nikita had been relieved, the rage he felt was burning him alive. With a muttered curse, he gave up, and went to one of the more private exercise rooms. He made it even more private with one of his scramblers. He changed into a tank top and some shorts and began pummeling the weight bag.
Operations found him there after an extensive search. Michael's face was dripping with sweat, and his knuckles were bruised and bloodied. Operations could tell from the slight hitch to Michael's movements that his ribs were paining him. When Ops entered the room, Michael immediately turned in a defensive stance. Recognizing his visitor, he drew himself up in a form of his usual quiet stance. Operations could almost see the effort Michael was making to appear normal, but his eyes were still dark with rage.
"I'm sure you know you're not supposed to be doing that sort of thing with cracked ribs; why don't you tell me what's wrong?"
Michael turned back to the bag and began throwing punches again. "Nothing's wrong. I just got back from a mission where my injured partner was brutally raped and tortured, and I did nothing to help her. No problem."
"Michael, I know this was difficult for you, but I'm sure you understand it was vital we ..."
"Stop that @%#*#& crap! I'm not in the mood for it. You can't tell me anything I haven't already told myself. None of that changes the facts." Michael had given up on trying to keep his emotions out of his voice.
"Michael, I know it was hard. We've all had to stand by ..."
"Oh, really. Do you know what it's like to listen to your wife being raped and then try to wash the blood off of her? Do you know what it's like to sit and watch as she is raped over and over again?" Michael's punches were growing in ferocity, until he finally lashed out with his leg and kicked the bag so hard it broke. The resulting pain in his ribs almost caused him to collapse.
"Your wife?! You and Nikita are married?" Operations asked as he helped Michael up.
"Stephen Winter over at the CIA."
"Oh. My." Operations could tell Michael was beginning to get himself under control. Michael would still carry his guilt around with him, but Nikita was the one to address that, not someone who felt almost as guilty. "Listen, the reason I tracked you down is that since I knew this mission would be so rough on both of you, I wanted to give you something of a reward when you got back. Think of it as a belated wedding present."
"What is it?" Michael's anger was being taken over by curiousity. Operations didn't seem that upset at learning he and Nikita were married; maybe there was hope.
"I decided to give you both some time off together."
"Together? When, and how long?"
"As soon as Nikita is released from MedLab, and four to six weeks."
"Is it four or six?"
"At least four, after that you're 'on call' for another two."
"How are you going to explain this to Madeline?"
"It may surprise many people around here, but I actually am in charge of Section, not Madeline."
Michael raised an eyebrow at him, but not saying anything.
"Really. I know Madeline pretty well after all these years. I'll handle her."
Michael decided to let it go. An idea had occurred to him. "I'm assuming when you say I would be on call after the fourth week, that I don't have to be on site, just available?"
"I'm also assuming that any decision to recall me would factor in how long it would take me to get to Section from wherever I am?"
Operations could see where this was headed. "That's right. Just how far away were you planning on going?"
"Oh, that's right, you own some property up there."
"I thought I'd show it to Nikita."
"I'm sure that's isolated enough to deflect all but the most important missions. You do have comm equipment there?"
"Well, let me know as soon as you are ready. I don't plan to mention anything to Madeline until you are actually gone."
After some serious thinking, Operations decided he would deal with Madeline in a sideways fashion. He went to visit Nikita in MedLab. He had been to see her immediately after her surgery, but she had still been under anesthesia.
"For what it's worth, I am sorry you were put through all of this."
"What -- the surgery?" Nikita purposefully misunderstood him. When he glared at her, she continued, "Oh, that. Actually, the Red Cell torture was worse."
Operations drew closer to her bed. In deference to her recent experiences, he had remained just inside the door, in case his presence made her uncomfortable. Although he watched her intently, he couldn't detect any discomfort as he came closer to her. Maybe she wasn't just putting up a front.
"I would've thought being raped would be worse."
"There are a few reasons it isn't for me: this isn't the first time I've ever been raped; I've also managed to classify it as just another sort of physical attack; finally, Michael was there with me. I know it was hard on him, maybe even harder than it was for me, emotionally anyway."
"You are certainly taking this more calmly than he is."
"You've spoken to him? Is he all right?"
"Well, when we spoke, he was in the process of punching the living daylights out of a weight bag, which isn't generally the ideal exercise for cracked ribs, but I think he'll be all right now. I actually came to tell you what I just told him -- as soon as you are released from MedLab, I giving you both at least four weeks off."
"Both? As in together?" Nikita was astonished. And suspicious.
"Together. I figure you both deserve it -- you are going to be almost that long healing, and I think Michael would like to take care of you."
"Wow! That's great!" She was excited -- four whole weeks with Michael and no Section!
"I'll let you get some rest. Good-bye, Nikita."
When Operations reached his office again, he made a little mental bet with himself. Within ten minutes of his visit to MedLab, Madeline walked, or rather stalked, into his office. Suppressing a smile at having won his bet, he turned to her. "Yes, Madeline? Is there something you want?"
"You are actually going to let Nikita and Michael spend four weeks together?! I thought personnel matters were my concern!" Madeline was ticked. She had many plans for Michael and Nikita, but they depended on keeping the two separate.
"I wasn't aware I had to ask your permission." Operations lost all desire to smile. He had made some decisions about his life in the last few weeks; this was one of the hardest.
Madeline took a deep breath. This wasn't going as she had planned. "I thought you would have consulted me." He wasn't reacting as he usually did, and she was having a hard time reading him. Hmmm.
"I didn't see the need. Nikita was going to be on inactive status anyway, and I felt it was important for Michael to be able to do something for her."
"But Section policy ..."
"I wrote Section policy," he said flatly. "Look, Madeline, the decision stands. It is not your job to keep arguing with me about it. Your job is to deal with it."
Madeline was taken aback. "What do you mean it's my job to deal with it?"
"I mean, I'm tired of having you act as if you were the one in charge of Section, and I was just your little figurehead. That is going to stop now. You are my executive officer; you report to me. If you can't accept that, perhaps I should find someone who can."
Now Madeline was getting angry. "I thought we had arrived at a good working relationship ... a partnership. You make it sound like I should be saluting you or something. Why the sudden change?"
"You're partly right. You thought we had a working relationship; I allowed our past ... emotional ... relationship to affect my working relationship with you. That is going to change. You've asked me to restrict myself to a professional relationship with you, and that's what I'm doing. I value your talents, and I respect your insights and advice, but yours is not the final say."
"I still don't see any necessity for change. You are in charge of Section; I've never questioned that. I don't understand why you feel this desire to cut me out of the decision loop."
"I'm not necessarily cutting you out of the loop; I'm simply redefining its terms. You will be included in decision-making at my discretion. You are never again to come bursting into my office giving me orders. If I don't consult you on some issue, it means I have a damn good reason not to."
He paused, trying to figure out a way to get through to her. "You basically want it both ways, Madeline: you want me to treat you as I did when I considered you my partner (in bed and out), but you also want to hold me at arms' length emotionally. I can't do that anymore. As you rightly pointed out, I nearly killed Michael because I allowed my feelings for you to interfere with my job. Likewise, then, I shouldn't allow any feelings I have to affect the way Section should be run. That's the reason for the change."
They stood, staring at each other for a long moment. Finally Operations broke the silence. "That will be all, Madeline." Once she had left, he bowed his head onto his hands. Then, giving himself a shake, he went back to his reports.
Madeline wandered in a bit of a daze until she found herself in front of the doors into MedLab. She told herself she was just there to get an initial debrief, but she knew it was a lie. In all of Section, Nikita had been the only one besides Operations to consider Madeline the person. Also, with all the time Nikita had been spending with Operations, maybe she could explain what he had meant back there. Madeline entered MedLab.
Nikita looked up at her entrance, smiling slightly -- partly in greeting, partly in amusement at the drama being played out in front of her. "Hi, Madeline."
"Hello, Nikita. How are you feeling?"
"Full of painkillers at the moment. But the docs say I should be able to go home in a few days."
"Are you going to have any problems dealing with the multiple rapes?"
"I don't think so. I haven't experienced any discomfort around any of the men I've seen so far. Are you going to have any problems with the four-week leave Operations just gave Michael and me?" Nikita decided to sneak that in, just to see what kind of reaction it would provoke.
Madeline's emotions were unsettled enough that she actually let Nikita see her surprise that Nikita would ask, and her discomfort with the whole situation. "How...how did you know I knew about your vacation?"
"It was pretty obvious to me that Ops was setting you up, so when you show up outside my door, with a bit of a lost expression on your face, I figured that's what this must be about. You want to talk about it?"
"Actually, I would, if you don't mind. I have no idea what is going through his head right now, and I don't understand what he is doing. Maybe you can help me."
"I'm certainly not going anywhere. What did he say?"
"I had gone in to protest yours and Michael's vacations. It wasn't like him to make such a unilateral decision. He made some remark about not needing to ask my permission, then when I pointed out it was against Section policy, he said that he wrote Section policy, and it wasn't my concern. My job, he said, was to deal with it." She stopped, still trying to figure out what had been going on up there.
"And then ...?"
"He said he was tired of my acting as if I ran Section instead of him; he said I was just his executive officer; he even threatened to find someone else if I couldn't accept all of that!" She was becoming indignant again, just thinking about it. "I tried to explain that I thought we had worked out a good working partnership, but he just wouldn't accept that."
"You used to have more than a professional relationship with him, didn't you?"
"Well, yes, in the past. Recently, he had been trying to start all that up again, and I wasn't really sure I wanted to be a part of that. I suppose this could be some kind of revenge for that ... rejection."
"I'm not sure. Did you tell him something like you wanted to keep your interactions restricted to Section?"
"I had told him I thought we should have a professional relationship instead of a personal one."
"I guess that's what he's doing then: giving you what you asked for."
"Having a professional relationship doesn't mean he should treat me this way!" Madeline felt like beating her head against the wall. Why couldn't Nikita understand?
"Okay, Madeline, let's look at this. You view your position here as roughly on a par with Operations -- his partner, if you will. Is that right?"
"I think that's a fair description, yes."
"Unfortunately, I don't think Operations views your position that way. Just as importantly, neither does the Agency."
"What makes you say that?"
"Let's look at just the facts of the situation. First, when Operations went down, and Petrosian took over, he replaced you."
"Well, yes, but Egran was ..."
"It doesn't matter! The Agency let him replace you. Next, now that Petrosian is gone (I hope he's gone, anyway), I'm assuming that your name is not on the list were Operations to go down again. Is that correct?"
Madeline was beginning to see Nikita's point. Funny, she had never thought about her situation from this perspective before. "Yes, that's correct."
"Now for my final argument: does Operations have the authority to cancel you without having to get permission from anyone else?"
"Yes, he does."
"If that doesn't tell you something, I don't know what would. You're not in the chain of command, and he can cancel you on a whim. You should probably be glad he considers you his exec, even if you aren't technically." Nikita paused as she saw Madeline trying to come to grips with this new interpretation. "After your...personal... relationship with Operations ended, I think he was just in the habit of treating you as a partner. That continued until you forced him to reevaluate matters after your abduction. I'm guessing he finally decided to stop hoping for any other kind of relationship with you, and so he figured it was time to put your professional relationship on a more normal footing -- as he saw it, anyway."
"I guess that makes sense. If I now know what my position is not, I only wish I knew more what my position is. What he expects from me."
"I may have something that could help you. How much do you know about Operations' military service?"
"I...assumed...he had served in the military, but I don't really know many details. He never talked about it to me."
"Suffice it to say, I know a little more than that. One significant aspect of that was he was in a Vietnamese POW camp for some time." Nikita paused to think of the best way to explain her possession of this information. "Because of a mission Operations gave me, I found out some things about his background. After that, I got curious, and did a little research on my own. I did some interviews of some of the men who were imprisoned with Operations. I'd like you to read one of the transcripts."
"Does Operations know about your research?"
"Yes, I told him. The transcript I want you to read has been edited. It's an interview I conducted with the man who was Operations' executive office in the POW camp. I think you'll find it interesting."
Nikita stopped as one of the orderlies came through to check on her. Once he was gone, she continued, "To paraphrase something you once told me: Somehow I don't think it's the change in status you're having a problem with."
Madeline gave a Nikita a slight smile in remembrance. "I already know about Operations' life, such as it is, outside of Section. His heart ... I already thought I knew."
"I think you're going to have to make a decision, Madeline. One Operations thinks you've already made, but I have my doubts. Is a professional relationship all you want from Marcus?"
Madeline started at Nikita's use of Operations' name. She opened her mouth to give an automatic answer, but then closed it as the meaning of Nikita's question impacted her.
"You don't have to give me answer, Madeline. In fact, I'd rather you didn't just yet. Before you make that decision, you'd better realize something: no matter what you decide, Operations probably won't change his mind on your status in Section. Don't think you can manipulate him into doing otherwise, he's going to be on his guard."
"Why don't you agree with Operations that I have already made this 'decision'?"
"You forget, I saw you fighting for his life when Petrosian had him shot. Those didn't seem to be the actions of someone who was just being a good little subordinate -- you cared." She paused. "Whether you care enough, I can't really say." She paused again. "Look, I'm starting to wear down here. Why don't you read that transcript I mentioned, and think about what I've said?"
"How do I get that transcript?"
"Ask Michael to show you a file called OPSEXEC. It's on his terminal."
"Michael knows about your research?"
"I just showed him some of the edited versions." Nikita was finding it harder and harder to stay awake.
Madeline saw Nikita's exhaustion and gave in. "All right. Rest now. I'm sure I'll talk to you later." She turned and walked toward the door. Before she left, she called back over her shoulder, "And Nikita ... thank you."
As the doors closed behind her, Nikita answered, "You're welcome, Madeline."
Michael sat behind his desk, once again trying to concentrate on finishing his debriefing report for Madeline. He had already been interrupted by Madeline herself with her strange request to see one of Nikita's transcripts. Questioning Madeline was generally never a wise policy, so he had simply copied the file to her terminal. Finally, he stood up -- he wasn't going to get anything done until he had seen Nikita.
He stood outside the doors to MedLab looking in at the peacefully sleeping figure of his wife. As if his thoughts had summoned her, she stirred and looked out at him. He entered the room and stood by her bed. He lightly ran his hand along the side of her face, relieved that she showed no signs of flinching or uneasiness at his presence.
"How are you feeling?" he asked in a husky voice.
"Kinda wiped out, at the moment. How are you? Operations said you were rather...upset."
Michael almost responded with a "I'm fine" out of habit, but decided to be honest for once. "I'm still angry. Angry at Section for putting you in that position, angry at Freedom League for what they did to you, and angry at myself that I could do so little to protect you."
"Oh, Michael, I wouldn't have made through all of that if it weren't for you." She tried to convey with her eyes all the things she couldn't say under surveillance. She saw from his expression that he understood.
"I'd better let you go back to sleep. I'll check in on you later." Then, despite the watching cameras, he bent down and lightly kissed her forehead.
Nikita followed Michael out of the airport terminal feeling much like a kid skipping school. It just seemed so weird to be here, in Missoula, Montana, with Michael, not on a mission, and no Section eavesdroppers. She had only found out their destination yesterday when they had released her from MedLab.
Michael had taken her home and instructed her to think about (not actually pack because he wanted her to rest) what she would need for a month in the mountains. "We're going to the mountains?"
"If that's okay. I have a house in Montana where I thought we could stay."
And here they were. Michael had rescued their luggage from the clutches of the airline, and was standing in front of a rental car counter. She still felt a little guilty that most of the luggage was hers, but Michael had said that he didn't need to bring any clothes because he always kept some at the house. She was rather surprised to hear Michael request a jeep as a rental car, but that sounded like fun, too. Finally, all of the necessary paperwork had been signed, and they were on their way.
As they started up I-90, Nikita exclaimed over and over about the beauty of the mountains and the surrounding forests. Finally, she asked one of the questions she had been wondering ever since yesterday, "Michael, why didn't we leave yesterday after I was released from MedLab?"
"I wanted to build a bit of a cover for us. Even though Operations gave us this time together, I didn't think he wanted us to advertise the fact. He and I came up with a fake recon mission that he assigned to me this morning. This way, we're not seen as leaving Section together."
"Oh. I had wondered how Operations was going to pull that off. Cool." Now she could ask the other question. "How did you end up buying a house out here in Montana?"
"It's rather a long story..."
"I'm not going anywhere -- at least not without you."
"About four years ago, we rescued a scientist who had been captured and tortured by ... I think it was Rising Sun. Anyway, he wanted to relocate and build a new identity for himself. Section was willing to underwrite the costs, but he didn't want to accept 'charity' as he put it. Finally, he agreed to sell me this property in exchange for my work putting together his new identity. At first, I had planned to dispose of it the first chance I had -- what did I need a house in Montana for? -- but when he took me out here to show it to me, I fell in love with the place. I haven't come out here as often as I'd like, but I come when I can. It's very...peaceful...here."
"And Section hasn't given you any grief over it?"
"Oh, they tried. Finally, I challenged Birkoff to pinpoint my house's location. He knows where the property lines are, but this place is remote enough that I don't have an address, as such. He tried for a week, off and on, one time while I was up here, and he never located it. He still hasn't. That reassured Operations and Madeline enough that they let it go."
"He couldn't detect it even using infrared?" Nikita was astonished. Usually Birkoff could spy out any location he desired using the various military satellites.
"You'll see, once we get to the house. Jim, the man I 'bought' it from, wanted a design that would be energy-efficient and would't suffer too much from exposure to the elements. So he built his house into the mountain. Now it so happens, that the features that make it energy-efficient, also make it very hard to detect, even using infrared."
"Wow." Nikita fell silent, drinking the gorgeous scenery around her (in and out of the car).
After another hour's drive, Michael exited the highway and drove down the main street of a very small town. Pulling into a small grocery store, he turned off the engine, and got out of the jeep. Going around to Nikita's side, he opened her door and helped her down so she wouldn't jar her ribs.
"We need to pick up some supplies. Do you want to come inside with me, or do you want to wander around a bit?"
"I'll come with you."
Nikita enjoyed grocery-shopping with Michael. He obviously knew exactly what he wanted, but he included her in on the decision-making process on a number of items -- what type of cookies she wanted, did she think that was a good cut of meat, etc. Soon, they had their selections paid for, and with a friendly wave from the nice check-out lady, they were off again.
Michael drove the jeep out of the town onto an even smaller road. After another few minutes, he turned off the road onto what might charitably be called a trail. After instructing her to hang on, he took the jeep seemingly straight up the mountain.
Nikita was greatly relieved when the path started to level out a bit. Finally, they reached a sort of plateau where Michael stopped the jeep and set the brake, but kept the engine running.
"I'll be right back," he called as he got out.
Nikita saw him walk over to a metal post that was slightly hidden from the road -- she wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't been walking toward it. Michael lifted a cover plate on the pole and pressed his thumb against the pad there. Closing the cover plate again, he returned to the jeep.
"You've installed some security devices, at least."
"A few. That one doesn't do anything drastic; if a vehicle passes by without a proper ID, it simply notifies the house of the upcoming visitor. Just in case it's merely a friendly neighbor. I'll 'introduce' you to the security system once we get to the house."
Nikita wanted to ask additional questions about his security system and his house, but Michael had already started the jeep back up, and the path was no longer level. She decided she really didn't want to take a chance on distracting Michael. Finally, the trail leveled off again. After a few more twists and turns, Michael pulled the jeep to a stop at the base of a mountain. Pointing his finger up the mountain, he directed Nikita's eye to a structure that had been built into the rock face.
"Oh, Michael! It's beautiful!" Whoever Jim had been, he had certainly been a gifted designer. In addition to a comfortably-sized, shaded front porch, the house's main features were its windows. Almost the entire front of the house was covered in them, including a bank of windows rising above the porch acting as skylights.
"Jim wanted to insure that even though the house extended back into the mountain, there was plenty of natural light. The windows are double-paned, so there is very little energy loss, even in winter. He had the house built so high up because he was worried about snow drifts in winter. I like it because it makes it that much easier to defend. He also built it high because of the view," and turning Nikita around, he showed her what the house overlooked.
"Your very own lake?!" A pristine-looking, sparkling blue lake stretched out before her. Surrounded on all sides by the trees and the mountains, it was small, but perfect.
"It's too small to appear on most maps, but it's fed by an underground river that also provides us with our drinking water. C'mon, I'll take you up to the house."
He led her over to some steps that had been cut into the rock. At the base of the hand rail, Michael lifted another cover plate. Pressing his thumb against the contact pad, he waited until the indicator light turned green. "That's my first check-in point. If anyone has tried breaking in the house, it would flash red." He motioned her to precede him up the stairs. "They're a little steep, so I'd rather be behind you, just in case."
Nikita was enchanted with the porch. The rock base had been covered with boards to make an even floor. She could just picture sitting out here with Michael watching the sun go down over the mountains. The inside of the house was just as cozy. The front room had been constructed to take full advantage of the light and the view. A fireplace had been built along one wall of the room, the kitchen was off to the other. Along the back of the room, the rock had been kept in its natural state. It was definitely a masculine room, with dark fabrics and fairly heavy furniture, but the room felt comfortable to her.
While Michael brought up their baggage and packages (all he had let her carry was her purse), Nikita explored the rest of the unusual structure. The bedrooms (there were two) were smallish, but decent-sized. The biggest surprise was the two-person jacuzzi tub in the bathroom. There was another room at the very back whose door was closed, but before Nikita could investigate, Michael had brought up the first load of groceries, so she busied herself putting things away in the compact kitchen.
Michael awoke as he felt Nikita stir beside him. As she had for the last three nights, she started to thrash about, moaning in some sort of distress. Quietly, trying not to disturb her, Michael gathered against his chest. It seemed to reassure her because her struggles stopped, and she almost clutched at him trying to pull herself closer.
The first two nights she had done this, he had woken her up, but she didn't remember what the nightmare was about. Last night, he had tried not to wake her, but her obvious pain had been too much. Tonight, he had decided to try to alleviate the pain without waking her. So far, so good.
Suddenly, Nikita bolted upright, screaming, "No!! Don't take him away!" She stopped, panting.
Michael sat up beside her, studying her face in the dim light from the bathroom's nightlight. She seemed to be awake, but tears were streaming down her face, and she seemed to be staring off into the distance.
"Nikita?" he whispered.
"Michael?" She turned and stared at him. "Oh, Michael! I thought you were gone!" She essentially fell on him, trying to get as close as she could.
His arms automatically closed around her, trying to shift her to a more comfortable position for her ribs. Finally, he had her positioned in his lap as he rested his back against the pillows. Slowly, he stroked her hair, trying to calm her down. He could feel the racing of her heart against his chest, and it worried him.
"Do you remember the nightmare, love? What scares you so?"
She sat in silence for several moments. "I remember it. It starts out as a replay of the rapes in Mindanao. Then Madeline walks in. She unties you from your chair, and when you try to come to me, she pulls you out of the room. Then I'm left with them, and they go on and on and ..." she broke off.
Michael held her in silence, trying to find the right words. "Why do you think I went with Madeline?"
A thoughtful look came over her face. "Hmmm, I hadn't thought of that angle. I would guess she threatened my cancellation -- which is pretty dumb while I'm in the middle of being raped, but still... I think you wanted to come to me, but Maddie had some kind of hold over you." She tilted her head up to look him in the eyes. "Does she have some kind of hold over you?"
"Based on your current rapport with Operations, I doubt Madeline would try anything so overt to separate us, but your life is only bargaining chip I know Madeline possesses." He paused and drew a deep breath. "I don't think it's really Madeline you're worried about. You're scared about us...our relationship."
Nikita drew in upon herself. Michael's words had touched something deep inside her. Yes, she was afraid. She had never been happier in her life than she was with him right now, and she was terrified that something would happen.
Michael saw the fear in her eyes and knew he had struck home. "What are you afraid of, my heart?"
"I think ..." Nikita paused to collect her thoughts. "I trust you, Michael. I know that, crazy though it sounds, you'll always come for me. You won't abandon me. I tell myself that your actions certainly prove you would choose me over Section. But in my heart, I'm afraid that if it came down to it, you would make some excuse to yourself and that would be that." Her voice broke. "I'm sorry, Michael." She knew what she said had to hurt him.
He tightened his arms around her. "I can't blame you for those fears, my love," he whispered huskily. "I have them myself. The promise I made not to lie to you anymore was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it may have been the best thing. It forced me to stop rationalizing things. Reasons that sounded perfectly fine in my head sounded differently when I knew I would have to tell them to you. My promise to you made me realize how much Section had invaded my thinking. I'm afraid it would be so easy to slip back into that mode. One little lie, for perfectly good reasons of course; then another, then another." He pulled away from her enough to look into her face in the dim light. "You brought me back to life, Nikita, and I am terrified of dying again." He buried his face against her neck.
After a few moments, he lifted his head again. Drawing a deep breath, he said, "You hold my heart. You also hold my loyalty. I will not allow Section to tear us apart!" he continued fiercely. "I know it may be hard for you to accept after our last mission, but I will protect you all I ..." He stopped as Nikita put her fingers over his mouth.
"I know that mission wasn't your preference, love. I don't blame you -- I don't even blame Section -- for what Freedom League did to me. I was their best shot, and they took it. I also don't ask you to abandon your duty for me. You wouldn't be the man I loved if you could stand by and watch innocents die that you could have saved. There's an old quote I found the other day, 'I would have loved you less had I loved not honor more.' I thought of you when I read that."
She reached up and held his face between her hands. "I will trust in your honor, love. That your fear of losing yourself in Section again will outweigh any temptation to avoid telling me hard truths. My only remaining fear would be that Section would split us up."
"I will not let them take you from me!"
"Michael. How would you stop them? You couldn't stop them before." Nikita hated to bring up Simone, but she knew it was something they had to face.
"I'm not the same man I was then." Michael was still quietly fierce. "I know what they're capable of now, and I have resources I didn't have before." He took a deep breath, and calmed down slightly. "Also, ours is a completely different situation from mine and Simone's."
"You and I are a better team than Simone and I were. She was a good operative, certainly, but we didn't mesh that well in the field. I think my plan to establish our worth to Section has worked very well. Just as important, if not more so, your plan (whatever it was) to reach Operations has certainly been successful."
"You think so?"
"I am positive. He deeply regretted sending you to Mindanao. Granted, he still did it, but a lot of the coldness seems to be gone. There have probably been more rescue missions in the last three months than in the last three years! That sort of thing affects the whole atmosphere in Section. Your plan could have some far-reaching positive consequences. Operations is another one who, I would guess, doesn't want to go back to the old life either."
He gave her a long, deep kiss. When he drew back, he looked in her eyes again. "I don't know how you did it, but the man who came to me when I was enraged over what you had been put through, that man was not the Operations I had known since I joined Section. He felt almost as much guilt as I did; he knew the pain I was feeling. That man would not harm us."
Nikita opened her mouth to speak, thought for a second, and then went on, "I was going to ask, 'What about Madeline?' but I think I already know the answer."
"She certainly seemed unusually subdued before we left."
"Remember when I said I would work on Operations first, and then sic him on Madeline?"
"I think Operations may have jumped ahead of me. From a conversation Madeline and I had, Operations gave her a pretty severe dressing-down for objecting to our vacation." She told him about her little "counseling session" with Madeline. "I guess we'll have to see how it falls out." She yawned. "I can't say I'm never going to have that nightmare again, but I think you've cured the major symptoms. Let's go back to sleep."
Michael gently removed Nikita from his lap and lay down again. Being especially careful of her ribs, he pulled her close against him as he lay on his back. She snuggled up against him and rested her head on his shoulder. He kissed first her forehead, then her lips. "Good night, love."
"G'night, Michael. I love you."
"I love you, too."
And they slept.
Michael awoke the next morning to feel Nikita's fingers slowly tracing designs on his chest. He picked up her hand and brought it to his lips, tenderly kissing each finger. He then took her face between his hands and kissed her long and deeply. Nikita shifted her body to lie more on top of him. He looked at her questioningly. "Are you sure, love? Your ribs..."
"My ribs are just fine, love." She moved her hips over his, and smiled as he groaned. "I want to feel you inside me," she whispered huskily. "I've missed you."
He pulled her nightshirt over her head. Still being careful of the bandages around her ribs, he drew her up his body until he could kiss her breasts. He then gently rolled her over until she was lying on her back. He stripped off her underwear, but stopped her when she reached for his pajama bottoms. "No, love. Not yet. Let me ... relax ... you first." This would be their first time to make love after the rapes, and he wanted to be sure she was truly comfortable with him.
Slowly, he caressed her; everywhere he remembered one of them touching her, he kissed. The sight of her still-healing shoulder brought tears to his eyes as he kissed around the bandage. Then, using his fingers as well as his mouth, he approached the place where she had been hurt most. When she stiffened, he stopped, afraid of hurting her. Her hands in his hair soon encouraged him to proceed, as he realized she had stiffened from want, not fear. Soon, he could hear her breaths coming more rapidly, until finally she screamed out his name. Slowly, still so slowly, he kissed his way back up her body.
Nikita pushed him over onto his back. She got those pesky pajama bottoms off of him, and stared at him like a kid in a candy store. As he had done for her, she kissed and caressed his body. He was definitely not lying passively through this, and soon both of them were breathing heavily. Finally, they could wait no longer, and holding her by her hips, Michael brought her down on top of him. Their bodies moved in perfect time, until nothing existed in their universe but the other. They were one.
Although Michael enjoyed cooking, Nikita felt awkward having him do all the work while she sat idly by; so she handled making their breakfast. This morning, both were hungrier than usual, so she went all out: pancakes, bacon, eggs, and biscuits. While it wasn't a culinary masterpiece, she knew this was a meal she did well -- while working as a waitress during her "hiatus", the cook had needed her help during the breakfast rush, and she had learned quite a bit from him.
"So, is there anything you'd like to do today?" Michael asked as they ate. The table was set up on the porch, so they could look out over the lake and the trees. The first couple of days they had been here, Nikita had still been too weak to get about much. Yesterday, Michael had given her a tour of the house, including the locked room. It contained his more valuable items -- his woodworking tools, the laptop he kept here -- as well as several shelves of books. It also contained the concealed entrance to the small room that housed his security system and communication setup. Michael had "introduced" Nikita to the system, and showed her where everything was.
"Is there a way to walk around that lake?"
"Yes, there is a trail that goes around it. Are you sure you feel up to it?"
"I think so, as long as we take it slow."
"All right." Michael began clearing the table. "Why don't you pack us a lunch so we can stop somewhere and have a picnic?"
"That would be great."
Michael washed the dishes while Nikita dried them. Without really doing much talking about it, they had easily fallen into a comfortable routine -- whoever cooked, the other washed. Sometimes, Michael or Nikita would just stop in wonder at their situation. This wasn't "playing house" as they had done for the Armel mission; they were actually on a vacation together as husband and wife with no Section surveillance in sight. They could say whatever they wanted, do whatever they wanted.
As Nikita put away the last of the dishes, Michael came up behind her and wrapped his arms gently around her waist, kissing the side of her neck. She pressed herself back against him, and was rewarded by hearing his breath catch. His hands drifted up from her waist to her breasts in retaliation; unconsciously, she began to move her body against his.
"If we keep this up, we'll never make it out of the house today," he whispered into her ear, enjoying her slight shivers as he spoke.
Nikita turned in his arms to face him. "There's always tomorrow, love. The lake will still be there." She was surprised to feel him stiffen, and see a slightly shocked look come over his face. "What is it, Michael?"
"It's just so odd -- we have to live so much in the present, you and I. I've never allowed myself to think about our future, just today." His eyes glistened with unshed tears. "I feel like I'm living one of my dreams -- holding you in my arms, waking beside you each morning -- that I keep expecting to wake up. The thought that this once, I can plan for tomorrow with you, and even the tomorrow after that, is at once both overwhelming and terrifying to me."
"I can understand the overwhelming part -- I feel that, too -- but terrifying?"
"I'm afraid it could be habit-forming, and that could be fatal. I know that after this time is over, we have to go back to Section and fit back into our roles there. How will I be able to go back behind my walls, look at you only as another operative, send you out into life-threatening situations?"
"Michael, from the gossip I've overheard, you've never looked at me as only another operative, and whenever you've sent me into life-threatening situations, you've always brought me home. I trust you, Michael. You're too good at your job to fail at this."
He rested his forehead against hers. "You have more faith in me than I do."
"I think I always have." She gave him a hard, quick hug. "Now, do you want to shower while I pack the lunch?"
He gave her a gentle hug in return, always careful of her healing ribs. "No, actually, I need to cut some more firewood, or we won't be able to have a fire in the fireplace tonight."
Nikita enjoyed watching Michael cut the firewood. He had put on an old pair of jeans (until this trip, she hadn't even known he owned an old pair of jeans), but he didn't bother with a shirt, since it was getting fairly warm outside. Watching the play of muscles on his arms and back as he handled the heavy axe, Nikita kept forgetting she was supposed to be packing a lunch. She came to her senses as walked back toward the house, carrying the wood. She quickly finished packing, and then poured a glass of lemonade for Michael as he walked in.
Eventually they both got cleaned up and dressed for their hike. When Nikita was packing (or rather when Michael was packing for Nikita), he insisted she bring her good, Section-issued, hiking boots, and she was glad she had. She also wore an old pair of jeans and a tank top, although she carried a long-sleeved shirt in case they had to go through some brush.
Michael's clothes were the biggest surprise. Nikita had been amazed to see not one scrap of black in his closet. Since they had been there, he had worn jeans or shorts and t-shirts. Right now, he was wearing a long-sleeved chambray shirt and jeans. Nikita was really glad the other women in Section couldn't see them right now, or she would've been lynched on the spot!
The scenery was as beautiful as she had expected. The trail wasn't always directly alongside the lake, so sometimes they were walking through a thicket of tall trees. She could hear birds overhead, and various rustlings of animals around her.
"Oh, Michael, this is so beautiful! Thank you for bringing me here."
He looked over at her and smiled. He had thought he would never smile again after Simone, but it was easy to smile at Nikita, with her love shining in her face and her obvious happiness. The smile vanished at her small wince as some movement she made jarred her sore ribs. Again, the rage filled him at what Freedom League -- and Section -- had done to her.
Nikita saw his expression change, and guessed at the cause. "Love, I know you're upset that I was hurt, but honestly, I'm getting better."
"You are my wife. I should have been able to protect you better."
Nikita held his face between her hands and forced him to look at her. She saw the mixture of rage, pain, and shame in his eyes. "You are my husband. I should have been able to protect you better." He started and tried to pull away. "No, hold still. Don't you think I was angry at them for what they did to you? Remember, I had to watch while they beat you up, too. I could have stopped them, but I didn't."
"You couldn't have ..."
"Yes I could! If I had 'cracked', they would've believed it -- I'm just a 'weak' woman. I could've fed them all sorts of data on New Order, and they would have stopped beating you. Yes, they would still have raped me and probably killed me, but I could have saved you. You think that doesn't eat away at me?"
"Why didn't you?" Michael had been so caught up in his own pain, he hadn't really considered the matter from Nikita's point of view.
"Because I knew our original plan was still our best shot at getting everything and getting free. If I had 'cracked' it's possible they might have killed us then instead of waiting for their interrogation expert to return. I had to keep reminding myself of that while they beat you and punched you, and ..." her voice broke. Michael put his arms around her and held her close. She took a deep breath and continued. "I'll make you a deal, Michael: you stop beating yourself up over what happened to me, and I'll stop beating myself up over what happened to you. Deal?" She looked up into his eyes, letting him see the shame that she still felt.
Michael finally realized that by hanging on to what had been done to her, he was constantly reminding her of what had been done to him. "Deal," he told her huskily. "I'm sorry for not letting it go sooner, my heart. I was only looking at it from my perspective. I hadn't realized how much you were hurting." He looked up and saw that they had stopped in a small clearing next to the lake. "Does this look like a good place to stop?"
"Yes. I'm hungry!" Nikita smiled up at him.
When they got back to the house after their walk, Michael insisted Nikita lie down to rest. She was tired enough that she agreed with only a token protest. While she was resting, Michael checked his link to Section. Before he had left, he had arranged for Birkoff to set up mission summaries that he could access. This wasn't unusual for him on a long recon mission -- it generally gave him something to do while waiting (which was how most recon missions were spent), and it meant he had less catching up to do when he got back.
As was usual for these things, nothing much needed his input, but he liked to keep current on active missions. One summary that did surprise him was a plan to take down a medium-sized gunrunning operation in Europe. Calling up the mission profile, he discovered they were about to sell a major shipment to a fringe IRA group that was trying to sabotage the new peace accords. One team had been sent out to gather intel on the gunrunners' base, but contact had been lost, and they were presumed captured.
Thinking a minute, he remembered a contact of his that had dealt with this group before. Contacting the man on his cell phone, he arranged for him to upload plans of the base to Section's secure FTP site. He then e-mailed Birkoff that the plans were en route.
Scrolling through the rest of the summaries, he saw one that Birkoff had highlighted. Curious, he read further. A satisfied smile appeared on his face as he read that Birkoff had been able to use some of the Freedom League data Michael had obtained to wipe out their bank accounts. Most of the money had been transferred into Section's coffers -- covert operations had to be financed too, and this was less of a burden on the taxpayers -- but Michael was amused to see that Operations had authorized an anonymous donation of five hundred thousand dollars to the Salvation Army and the same amount to the American Red Cross. "More of Nikita's doing," Michael thought to himself. As if the thought had conjured her, he heard her come in the room.
"What 'cha up to, Michael?"
"Just checking on things at Section." He smiled at her look of confusion. He told her of his arrangement with Birkoff. He then told her about Birkoff's raid on the Freedom League finances. She gave him a matching evil grin. "That bank raid might actually do them more harm than a physical one."
"You think so, Michael?"
"It could. Since Freedom League has been a global operation, they decided to centralize their finances. The intel we got out of Mindanao contained all of the keys Birkoff needed to wipe out their main account. They can't pay their people, and more importantly, they can't pay their suppliers."
"And those types of bill collectors take care of the problem permanently, right?"
"Exactly. Some of them may settle for confiscating equipment, but I'm sure quite a few of them may retaliate with more ... prejudice. It should be interesting to see the fallout."
"Cool. Anything else interesting?"
"Not really." Michael got up to start working on supper.
After eating, they spent the evening in the living room. Michael had encouraged Nikita to bring anything she had wanted to read or work on to occupy their time. At first, she had been a little shocked, but then she had realized, that for once, they didn't have to steal time to be with each other. She was going to spend four weeks with Michael in an isolated house, with only themselves for amusement -- and she had broken ribs. Of course, they were going to need something to occupy themselves with from time to time!
Nikita had considered bringing her wire scuplture materials, but while the raw materials were easy to pack, the finished (or unfinished) products were not. So she brought her other project. She had been wandering around a craft store, just killing time, when she was captivated by a particular quilt that was on display. The design consisted on interlocking rings and lines in what she was beginning to recognize as a Celtic design. She soon learned this was called "Celtic applique", and she managed to find a book on how to do it.
She had made one small piece to see if she could and if she liked doing it. When the answer was "Yes" to both questions, she began working on larger pieces. Her current project was going to be a mat for a picture she had bought. It was very portable, and all she required was some good lighting.
Michael did woodworking. Sometimes he whittled, sometimes he carved wood. He had the equipment to do large pieces -- in fact, he had made the frames of some of furniture in the room. Right now, he was working on a frame for Nikita's picture. He had seen what she was working on, and he was also fascinated by the interlocking designs. When she told him it was for a picture she was going to hang, he had asked if she already had a frame in mind. When she said no, he decided to make her one. She gave him the measurements, and he got to work.
His worktable was set up in a corner of the living room, near Nikita. Both of them liked to concentrate on their work, but didn't mind the occasional break for conversation. They also liked to listen to music while they worked, and some good-natured teasing went on as they argued over what to play next -- from Nikita's Sarah MacLachlan to Michael's Genesis or Police albums.
At first, both of them had felt awkward, "wasting" time like this. Gradually, they realized this was almost as special as if they had spent the time making love -- these activities allowed them to pretend that they had a normal life together.
Michael looked up at the calendar on the wall and was rather shocked to realized he and Nikita had been in the mountains for two full weeks. It hadn't seemed nearly that long. Yes, they'd had to go back into town to buy food and do laundry, but had it really been two weeks since they had left Section?
Their days had settled into a quiet routine -- after breakfast, they would hike together through the surrounding woods, with Michael increasing the distance each day to allow Nikita to build up her strength. They would spend the afternoon either doing the few chores the house required or just sitting on the porch, talking or remaining quiet as the mood struck. The evenings were devoted to working or reading, their nights to making love, although they were still restricted by Nikita's healing ribs.
At first, Michael had been worried that they would grow bored spending so much time together -- what if their relationship was merely based on physical attraction and the lure of the forbidden? As the days passed, when he stopped to think about it, he realized he needn't have worried. It was enough that they were together.
"Michael, could we have a fire outside tonight?" Nikita broke in on his musings.
"If you like. Any particular reason?"
"I want to roast those marshmellows we picked up the other day! Also, I think it would be fun just to sit out under the stars with you." Nikita had an additional plan in mind, but decided not to mention it yet.
"All right. I'll get the wood together. Why don't you get the tarp and some pillows?"
Soon, Michael had a good-sized fire going on the small strip of grass between the house and the lake. He came back inside where Nikita had gathered the tarp, the marshmellows, and was pouring some tea into a thermos. He went into the back room and came out carrying a thick book. He took the supplies from her and gave her the book to carry. Together, they made their way back down to the lake.
He spread out the tarp, positioned the pillows, and set out the other supplies. Michael had found some wire to use for the marshmellows, and soon they were enjoying the special sweet taste of roasted marshmellows, and laughing at the ones that burnt or fell into the flames. When they had eaten their fill, Nikita poured them each a cup of tea, and she leaned back against him as they relaxed.
Michael picked up the book and positioned himself so that he had enough light from the fire to read, without disturbing Nikita's position.
"Why did you want to bring the book?" Nikita looked and saw it was a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems.
"I thought it would be nice to read aloud out here. I've always liked Poe, and he seemed appropriate for a campfire story. Do you have a favorite Poe story, love?"
Nikita thought for a minute. She didn't remember much of Poe from school, but what she did seemed creepy enough for a good campfire ghost story. "Wasn't there some story about one guy walling up another in his basement or something?"
"Oh. I think you're describing 'The Cask of Amontillado'. Does that sound familiar?"
"Yeah. That sounds like the name. Is that okay?"
"That's one of my favorite stories." He found the story and settled down to read. "All right. 'The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne ...."
Nikita moved her head down to Michael's lap. The language was a little archaic, but Michael read well, and she could see the story unfolding in her mind's eye.
"... For the half of a century, no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!" Michael finished.
Nikita gave a little shiver. "Ooh, that was a good story." She sat up, and gave Michael a kiss. "Do you have a story you'd like me to read? Fair's fair."
He smiled, handed her the book, and rested his head on her lap. "How about 'The Tell-Tale Heart'? That's a good one."
Nikita found it in the table of contents, and turned to the story. "I'm not sure I can read it as well as you did, but here goes: 'True! -- nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been ...." she read on, getting caught up in the story as she went.
Michael listened with half an ear. He knew the story almost by heart, and while it was refreshing to hear it in a new context, the most fascinating thing was watching Nikita read the story for the first time. He enjoyed watching the play of emotions across her expressive face. The story was a creepy one, especially when the narrator described his efforts to hide his murder.
"... First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs."
Michael was amused at the look of fascinated horror that crossed Nikita's face as she read this. Finally, the story came to its conclusion.
"'... it is the beating of his hideous heart!'" Nikita finished. "Whew! I wonder if Madeline studied Poe?"
"I'm sure she did." Michael sat up again and gave her a more thorough kiss. "Have you ever read any of his poetry?"
Nikita struggled to think after his kiss. "Uh...no, I don't think so. I mean, I've heard of 'The Raven' -- you know, 'Nevermore', and stuff, but I don't think I've ever read any."
"I have a couple of favorites I'd like to read you. All right?"
He started out with "The Raven", since it was one of Poe's most famous poems. Then he moved on to one of his favorites, "Annabel Lee", and finally, ended up with one he especially associated with Nikita, "Eulalie":
I dwelt alone
In a world of moan,
And my soul was a stagnant tide,
Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride --
Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.
Ah, less -- less bright
The stars of night
Than the eyes of the radiant girl!
And never a flake
That the vapor can make
With the moon-tints of purple and pearl,
Can vie with the modest Eulalie's most unregarded curl --
Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie's most humble and careless curl.
Now Doubt -- now Pain
Come never again,
For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,
And all day long
Shines, bright and strong,
Astarte within the sky,
While ever to her dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye --
While ever to her young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.
Nikita let out a big sigh when Michael finished reading "Eulalie". He put the book aside, and taking her face in his hands began kissing her long and tenderly. Their lips clung together as if neither wanted to be separate from the other. Lying down beside her, he rolled onto his back and pulled her on top of him. She was wearing a loose dress, and that was easily disposed of. When he was occupied with removing her clothes, Nikita decided to put her other plan into place.
As her dress came off, she jumped up and walked toward the edge of the lake. As Michael watched in some astonishment, she took off her underwear, and calmly walked into the water. When she was about waist-deep, she turned around and faced him. His breath caught as he saw his wife standing nude before him, the firelight causing her reflection to ripple in the water surrounding her.
He hurriedly stripped off his clothes, and walked out to join her. He lifted her up out of the water solely for the pleasure of letting her slide down his body. He carried her farther out into the lake until the water was level with their shoulders. Then, he lifted her up, and as her legs wrapped around his back, he lowered down upon himself. The buoyancy of the water gave their lovemaking an almost other-worldly quality, and the slight chill of the water contrasted with the heated flush of their skin.
Finally, they were exhausted. Gently carrying her in his arms, Michael walked back out of the water, kissing her as they went. He laid her down upon the tarp, and added more fuel to the fire. He lay down beside Nikita and covered them both with the blanket he had also brought down. Holding her in his arms, they slept.
Over the next two weeks, the pattern continued. They didn't have a campfire every night, but they had enjoyed the reading aloud so much, that it became a regular activity. Nikita had brought "The Princess Bride", and that was her choice for their next "story time". They read several chapters each night, alternating back and forth.
On the last night of their four weeks, they walked down to the lake shore without speaking. As Michael built the fire, Nikita spread out the tarp, the pillows, and the blanket. They fed each other roasted marshmellows as usual, but much more slowly as if trying to slow down time itself. Eventually, they could eat no more, so Nikita settled back against Michael, curious to see what his reading choice was for this night. She was rather startled to see that he had brought a Bible down with him.
"A Bible, Michael?"
"There's a section I wanted to read to you." Michael had bookmarked his place earlier, and now he turned to it. "It's from the Song of Solomon. I'm not going to the read the whole thing, but there are some passages I wanted to share with you." He began reading. "You are altogether beautiful, my darling, and there is no blemish in you.... You have made my heart beat faster, my bride; you have made my heart beat faster with a single glance of your eyes, with a single strand of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than all kinds of spices!"
Michael continued reading from Song of Solomon. He had chosen passages that spoke of Solomon's love for his bride. "... Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I said, 'I will climb the palm tree, I will take hold of its fruit stalks.' Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and your mouth like the best wine!" He paused as he turned the page and found the final passage he had marked. "Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it." He closed the book and set it aside.
"Many waters cannot quench love. I like that, Michael."
He stroked her hair as she lay with her head in his lap. "I know that things will not be easy for us when we return, but I just wanted you to know that I am determined to keep them from separating us. We will find a way, my heart."
She reached up and pulled his head down to hers. After giving him a long and passionate kiss, she said, "Michael, I hate that we are going to have to leave this place and go back into Section, but I feel we have grown so close over these last weeks that I have every faith that we can take whatever they dish out."
"As long as I have you, I can make it?" he asked, teasingly.
She giggled. "You better believe it, buster!" Then, more seriously, "What kept me going, through everything those Freedom League animals did to me, was the love I saw in your eyes. By focusing on you, I could tune out everything else. You saved me, love. I wouldn't have made it otherwise."
He leant down and tenderly kissed her. As he did, he began unbuttoning her shirt. Soon, both of them were undressed, and Michael lay beside her, tracing the firelight shadows over her skin. They made love slowly at first, then more frantically, as if they could already feel the chains of Section reaching out to them once more. Over and over again, they came together, the intensity building until finally their bodies could take no more, and they fell into an exhausted slumber.
They were eating a somewhat late breakfast the next morning when a shrill sound startled both of them. It was Michael's cell phone. Vacation was over.