Agents of the IMF

Agents of the IMF

by Sandra

Part 1

Operations looked up in annoyance as Birkoff buzzed for his attention. "What is it, Mr. Birkoff?" He was hip-deep in crises, and paperwork, and did not relish any more interruptions.

"I'm sorry, sir, but there's a strange call on one of our secured lines. A man who says his name is Jim Phelps is asking for you. There's no video."

Operations face immediately lost his scowl. "Jim Phelps? Put him through, Birkoff -- but don't trace it."

"No trace, sir?!" Birkoff was astonished. Section One *always* traced incoming calls.

"None, Mr. Birkoff." Operations waited. Finally, a red light began blinking on his console. He pressed it and smiled as he picked up the phone, "Jim? It's been a long time, amigo!"

"A long time indeed. How have you been?"

"Better than I have been for a while. You know how it is."

"Yeah. Look, would it be all right if I came to visit? I'm afraid I need to ask a favor."

"You are more than welcome to come by. You remember where the entrance is?"

"Sure thing. Will you call ahead and warn those trigger-happy young men of yours not to shoot an old man?"

"I'll tell them to page me when you get there. How far away are you?"

"It shouldn't be but about half an hour or so. I'm pretty close."

"You sure are. I'll see you soon, then."

"You bet. Bye."

"Good-bye." Operations put the phone down, and notified the entrance guards of his expected guest. That done, he sat back with a thoughtful look on his face. What could Jim possibly need from him?

Part 2

When Jim arrived, he obediently submitted to a retina-scan, knowing as well as Operations the ease with which identities and fingerprints could be faked. Finally, Section's computer agreed that Jim really was Jim, and let him through. One of the guards escorted him up to Operations' office. Operations saw him coming and walked up to him with a hearty handshake.

"Jim! It's good to see you!"

Jim followed him into his office. "It's great to see you too, Paul. I heard about that whole mess with Petrosian awhile back. I almost dealt myself in on that situation, but I was glad to see your own people got that straightened out."

"Yeah, that really was a mess."

"I also heard you were wounded pretty badly. Are you fully recovered yet?"

"I'm fine." Jim stared at him. "No, really! I was stuck in a wheelchair for a few weeks, but then they let me back on my feet. Everything's fine." He poured Jim some coffee, and offered him a seat. "Now, what can I do for you?"

"I need to borrow an agent."

"You need to ... what?!" Operations hadn't expected that. He was used to other agencies asking to borrow his agents, but he had never thought Jim might need any of his operatives.

"I have a critical mission to put in play in three days, and I have to have an agent who speaks Chinese, but is not Asian."

"Someone in addition to you."

"Yes. I have another role to play somewhere else, and I need someone in place who can eavesdrop without being suspected of eavesdropping. My usual agent just broke his leg skiing."

"Male or female? Cantonese, Mandarin, or both?"

"Male would be best -- the cover is an arms dealer, plus I need him to impersonate a Chinese official. I especially need Cantonese, but having both would be useful."

Operations came to a decision. "I'll let you have Michael."

"Are you sure? I know Michael is your best operative." Jim was grateful, but he didn't want to put too big of a strain on Section's resources.

"I'm sure. He's between missions right now, and anything I was lining up for him isn't at a critical stage yet. Besides, I owe you." He tried calling Michael's office, but did not get an answer. He then called down to Systems, "Birkoff, do you know where Michael is?"

"Umm... I think I heard him saying something about evaluating Nikita."

"Oh, that's right. She's due to come off inactive status. Thank you." He motioned for Jim to follow him. "Michael is evaluating the combat-readiness of one of our recently-injured operatives. We can catch him when he is done."

Part 3

They went down to the exercise area where Michael and Nikita were sparring. Nikita appeared to be back up to full speed. She and Michael were circling each other, looking for openings. Suddenly, Michael scissor-kicked her feet out from under her, dropping her to the mat. She rolled with the fall back up on to her feet, and was able to make a return move on Michael. They continued like this back and forth until finally, Michael got Nikita pinned underneath him, and she tapped out. He immediately rolled to his feet, and helped her up.

She looked over at him speculatively. He looked back at her and nodded. She nodded as well, and together, they walked to the room's exit. Both were rather startled to see Operations and a strange man waiting for them.

"So, Michael. Is Nikita back up to par?"

"She's still a little weak on her left side from the bullet wound, but overall, I'd say she's at 95%. I'm recommending that she be placed back on active status."

"Good. After you get cleaned up, I'd like you to come up to my office."

Jim pulled Operations aside. "I know it's greedy of me," he said in a low tone, "but could I borrow her as well?" He was always desparate to get female agents -- they were oftentimes the best choice for his type of work, but he had so few from which to choose. The thought of having *two* female agents to work with on a mission was a giddy one.

Operations gave him a rueful, but genuine smile. "Yes, you can borrow Nikita as well." He turned back to Michael. "All right, after *both* of you get cleaned up, I'd like *both* of you to come up to my office."

They nodded warily, and walked away. Operations and Jim went back up to his office.

"I know you're always short of female agents, but why Nikita? Just because she was the first female op you saw here?"

"I thought Michael said she was ready?"

"If he says she is, she is; but that doesn't answer my question."

"When I started thinking about including another female agent, I thought it would be best to borrow an agent Michael was familiar and comfortable with."

Operations was startled. "What makes you think Michael would be more comfortable with Nikita than another female operative?"

Jim looked at him chidingly, "Come on, Paul! It's my job to figure these things out. I'd say those two are *very* close." He paused as a thought struck him. "You *do* know they are intimate don't you? I'd hate to think I let their little secret out of the bag."

Part 4

"Yes, I know about them, but Madeline and I are the only ones who do."

"I'm relieved. I know your outfit's policy on relationships in the past has been a trifle ... harsh."

"Well, Michael and Nikita have always been exceptional."

"I'm sure they are. Look, Paul, I'm sorry. I don't mean to criticize. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to borrow one of your agents *is* the difference between our two organizations."

"I thought it was an awful lot of trouble to go to for a Chinese-speaking agent."

"Yes and no. I *could* have borrowed someone from the CIA or the NSA, but they've been trying to get their hooks into my group for some time now. Each keeps trying to persuade the Secretary to merge my organization into theirs -- more efficient, don't you know. The last thing I want to do is go to them with my hand out."

"How *have* you kept the IMF out of their clutches? Don't they threaten to cut you off?"

"My funding had always been a little problematical, especially after that Air Force toilet-seat affair. A few years ago, I saw the writing on the wall and decided to find an alternative funding source. So when the CIA presented me with their little ultimatum -- 'Join us or lose your funding', I simply told them I didn't need their money, and if they didn't get off my back, I would make sure *they* didn't get any more money either -- I have too many connections on the Hill for them to ignore that. So we have evolved a live and let live policy."

"What funding did you come up with? We get a lot through confiscated accounts, but not enough to cover our whole budget."

"We formed a corporation that handles commercial marketing of various off-shoots of our skills. Most of the intelligence community around the world has bought from us at one time or another -- even Section One. Obviously, we don't sell our cutting-edge equipment, but thanks to Barney, and now his son, Grant, we are far enough ahead of everyone else to sell our older-generation products at a profit. I've also written some texts (under a pseudonym) that are now in standard use at Langley and other places, and the profits for that belong to the company as well. We all try to make sure we stay independent of government funding."

"That's pretty incredible, Jim. It makes sense, though. Lord knows, government appropriations fights can turn *anyone's* hair white." They shared a laugh together. Operations continued. "You said you had other reasons, though. What were they?"

Jim was quiet for a moment, deciding how much to reveal. "You and I know just how tough of a job this is. How many times you can feel so ... dirty ... over the things that have to be done. You don't think there is enough water in the world to make you feel clean again."

Operations nodded. "But we still keep on doing it. Because we have to. Because the barbarians are at the gates, and we are the ones assigned to keep them out."

"Right. Your people are faced with this every day because of the types of missions you have to run. My people, on the other hand, ..." he paused, not wishing to seem too disloyal.

Operations understood. "Because of the types of missions you run, they forget the nature of the business we're in. They forget just how evil the world can be. They lose their edge."

"Not quite. I've come to realize, they never had an edge to begin with. And that's my fault. Only one of my current agents came to me with any real training in covert activities -- and that from the Secret Service -- mostly, they're just ordinary people with exceptional skills. They have never really been faced with the harsh realities your people face every day."

"What made you realize this?"

"I lost an agent about a year ago. She had been working recon for an upcoming mission and got caught. I found out about her death when the mission was already in play. It was a shock for all of us, but when I looked back on their reactions, I realized I had a problem. One of my team almost categorically refused to continue playing his role. I could understand his dilemma, because he was assigned to seduce the woman who was responsible for Casey's death, but he only agreed to continue after he was convinced that we would be able to gather the evidence to convict them for her murder.

"Then, on a later mission, I almost had to scrub a plan to extract a prominent Columbian drug lord when the agent I had place inside was injured. Again, my team's focus shifted to rescue, not carrying out the mission."

Operations responded, "And you want to borrow one of my operatives to shake them up."

"Yes. I think, especially from what I've seen from Michael and Nikita, they will work as a reminder of the seriousness of what we do. Anyway, it was a thought. I really do need a Chinese-speaking agent." He broke off as a knock sounded on the door. Michael and Nikita walked in, looking composed but slightly wary.

"You wanted to see us?"

Part 5

"Michael, Nikita, this is Jim Phelps. He leads a group even more covert than our own -- the IMF."

"IMF?" Michael was intrigued. He had heard the initials before, but had never been able to track down their meaning or the purpose of the organization.

Jim spoke up, "The Impossible Missions Force. Pretentious, I know. But I'm not the one who came up with the name."

"Well, that is what you do," Operations responded.

"Not all of the time."

"What *do* you do?" Nikita broke in.

"We fix other agencies' screw-ups; we take care of people other agencies can't get to; basically, whatever needs doing. Whereas Section One specializes in anti-terrorism, my group has gone up against anything and everything -- from horse races to nuclear annihilation."

"Michael, I'm loaning you and Nikita to Jim for his next mission." Operations turned to Jim, "Can you give us some kind of idea what the mission is about?"

"We're going up against a mainland Chinese official who, after Deng's death decided to leave the ratrace of Chinese politics. He also decided to take one of China's nuclear triggers as a golden parachute. China doesn't know the trigger is missing, and we can't tell them without compromising our sources. Our target has set up in Hong Kong to meet with potential buyers. Those are the bare bones of the setup. You'll get the rest at the briefing tomorrow. We leave for Hong Kong on Friday."

"When do *we* leave?"

"Well, Michael, it would probably be simplest if you came back to San Francisco with me. I'd like you and Nikita to meet the rest of my team. Can you be ready to leave in about two hours? I have a flight back then."

Michael and Nikita exchanged glances. Jim was amused and impressed by the nonverbal communication going on. They apparently reached a decision because Michael turned back to him and nodded.

"Good. Michael, what you're wearing right now is perfectly fine for your role's daily wear, although I'd also like you to bring some evening clothes. Nikita, the same."

"How formal do you want? Do you want classy or trashy?" Nikita wanted a few more guidelines.

"Mmm. Moderately formal -- I'm sure we'll be in a fancy restaurant or the equivalent. Classy and elegant would be best." He waited to see if they had any further questions. "All right. I'm sure P...Operations would like to go over some issues with you before you leave. Why don't you fetch me when you're done, and we can pick up your gear on the way to the airport?" Michael and Nikita nodded. He continued, "I'll be down with Walter, catching up on old times." He left the room.

Part 6

Operations saw the questions in their eyes. He couldn't blame them -- Section didn't generally go around loaning our their top operatives to anyone who walked through the doors.

"I know this is unusual. The main reason I'm loaning you to Jim is personal -- I owe him a tremendous amount. Michael, I think Nikita has told you I spent some time in a POW camp in VietNam?" Michael nodded. Nikita got a look of comprehension. "Yes, Nikita, Jim's group rescued me. They managed to get me out of North VietNam and back to the States. But that's not the only reason I'm letting you two go with him. I think both of you can learn a great deal from Jim Phelps. As good as Madeline is at 'psychological warfare', I believe Jim is better. Partly it's just experience -- he's been doing it for thirty years, after all."

"What does he do?" Nikita was curious.

"He is a master at predicting how people will react to a scenario. He manipulates his targets into following his script. He does this by playing on their fears, their lusts, their egos, whatever. In the typical Jim Phelps scenario, the target brings himself down; Jim just provides the necessary push or the props."

"Do you have any special instructions for us?"

"You mean, do I have a separate mission for you, Michael? No. You both belong to Jim for the duration. I expect both of you to behave as if this were a standard Section operation. I will expect a full debriefing afterwards, but if Jim indicates that there is anything he does not want Section to know, you are to respect his wishes."

Operations paced around the room for a minute, trying to think of the best way to explain the next item. Finally, an analogy came to mind. "Jim's method of operation, and the composition of his team are very different from what you are used to in Section. First off, all of his people are volunteers." He stopped to exchange a small smile with the other two.

"Secondly, they have a different mindset from us. I want you to think of Section as Marines in a war zone, and Jim's group as a big city police force. Keeps this analogy in mind when you meet and work with them. The Marines are fighting against one enemy, and they are fighting constantly. Casualties are expected on both sides, and they have to be on the alert at all times. The police force, on the other hand, fights many enemies, many different types of people. They are called upon to prevent trouble as much as stop it after it starts. Casualties still happen, but are a much rarer occurance. Once their shift is over, they go home."

Operations looked to see if they understood his point. Seeing that they did, he worked to reinforce it. "Both jobs are important, and both forces are needed. The marine shouldn't judge the cop by the marine's standards, just as the cop shouldn't judge the marine. Are we clear on this?" Again, both nodded. "All right. Dismissed."

The two walked out of the room, and Operations stared after them. It was hard to let them go into someone else's leadership. He trusted his old friend to take care of them, but he knew even Jim wasn't infallible.

Part 7

Nikita and Michael found Jim at Walter's station. The two men were laughing together over an old joke of Walter's. When he saw Nikita coming, Walter tried to put on his best leer, but it was slightly spoiled by the chuckles he was trying to suppress.

"Hey, sugar! Jim tells me you're leaving me for another man. Say it's not so!"

"It's not so, Walter! How could any man, however handsome, however brave, however wise and noble, ..." she paused as both Walter and Jim started laughing again. "I'm sorry, where was I? Oh yes, no one could possibly take your place in my heart ... or any other part of my body." She winked at him as they left. Even Michael was unable to suppress a small smile at the exchange.

They stopped by Michael's office to pick up a few things, and then rode with Jim out of Section in his rental car.

"Jim, since my packing will probably take longer than Michael's, why don't you drop me off at my apartment, take Michael to his and pack, and then pick me up again?"

"That seems the most efficient way to work things." He followed Nikita's directions until he came to her apartment building. "Be sure to throw in some casual clothes as well. We've got a couple of days to kill before we leave for Hong Kong, and we're not too formal at my place."

As they drove away, Michael couldn't resist asking, "Why are we starting out for San Francisco so early, then?"

"I had allowed the extra leeway in my schedule in case your Operations needed the time to bring someone in. I'm taking you with me because if I've got you, he won't be tempted to try to swipe you back for some important mission that desperately requires that you be a part of it."

Michael smiled again as he nodded understanding.

"I also wanted you two out early so you could get to know my other team members. I know there's going to be some difficult adjustments to make, and I wanted to give everyone involved as much time as possible before the mission starts."

Jim pulled up in front of Michael's house, went in with him, and waited as Michael quickly put together what he would need for the next new days. At Jim's reminder, he also threw in some shorts and t-shirts Nikita had insisted on buying him. They went back to Nikita's apartment to find she just finishing her own packing. They made it to the airport with half an hour to spare.

Part 8

The flight to San Francisco was only about half-filled. The seating arrangement in first class meant that any conversation Jim attempted with Michael and Nikita had to be carried out across the aisle, so he kept his remarks to a minimum. At one point however, Jim saw Nikita tell Michael something; he nodded. She then reclined her seat and went to sleep. Jim then motioned Michael to sit in the empty seat next to him.

"Is Nikita all right?"

"Yes. She's just a little tired from our workout earlier. This was her first full day back on active status."

"What kind of injury did she have?" He saw Michael stiffen. "Michael, I need to know what kind of shape she's in. What was it?"

"Her main injury was some broken ribs." There. Maybe that would shut him up.

Jim decided to approach the situation obliquely. "I understand that you and Nikita are ... close."

Michael raised an eyebrow in response, but said nothing.

"I deduced that you were intimate with each other after watching your workout, and Operations confirmed it to me. If your relationship can survive in Section One, I certainly don't have a problem with it." The eyebrow went down. "Now, is there some reason you can't tell me what kind of injuries she was recovering from?"

Michael studied the man next to him. The hazel-green eyes seemed honest, but Michael was too experienced to base his trust on them. More tellingly, Operations had seemed to trust this man. "All right. On our last mission together, Nikita was sent out with a gunshot wound to the shoulder and a cracked shoulder blade. During that mission she was brutally tortured and raped. Her ribs were the last to heal."

"My God." Jim paused for a moment. "I'm appalled, of course, but unfortunately not really surprised. Section has always carried one of the toughest loads in this business. So, were you the one who found her?"

"Worse. I was forced to watch."

Jim digested this in silence. Then he said, "I'm not so sure it wouldn't have been just as bad to have to imagine the things that were done to her. Either way, I just hope you got what you were after."

"Oh, we did."

"How long have you two known each other?"

"Ever since Nikita was recruited into Section -- almost four years ago. I was her trainer."

"From what I know of Section, it's certainly not an ideal place to conduct a love affair, even a clandestine one." Jim saw Michael give him a slight smile of agreement. Michael was so controlled, it was very difficult to read him, but Jim thought he was starting to get the hang of it. "So, how long have you been married?"

Michael was unable to control the slight start Jim's question caused, even though he was pretty sure Jim was looking for just such a reaction. He finally asked, "What makes you think we're married?"

Jim recognized the question for what it was -- not a denial, so much as a request for what had given them away. "Some of it's just intuition -- a gut feeling. The main reason is your rings, though. They just seemed a little too similar to be coincidence."

Michael stared down at his own ring. "No one else in Section has noticed them. We've been married for about six months."

"Has it been worth it?"

Michael looked over at the sleeping Nikita. She stirred, as if feeling his gaze and opened her eyes and looked at him. He turned back to Jim. "Yes."

Part 9

Nikita went back to sleep, and Jim and Michael resumed their talk. Michael decided to ask some questions of his own.

"How big of an organization do you have, Jim?"

"It's very small -- I have a total of about forty agents, but only five to ten of them are active at any one time. I've always felt the best way to keep my group's existence a secret was to keep it as small as possible. It's one reason I recruit generalists instead of specialists, although I do have a couple of those." He saw the question Michael was about to ask, and held up his hand. "I'd rather wait to talk about my current team until Nikita is awake as well."

"From what you said at headquarters, you seem to work on a wide variety of missions. Why does your group get pulled in to these things?" Michael was still trying to figure Jim out. Maybe, if he got him talking about his work ...

"We get called in for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it involves a long-standing problem that no one else has been able to solve. Sometimes it's a rush job that they think no one else *can* solve."

"Do you have any favorite missions -- missions that you are proud of?"

"There are a few. One of the most challenging was having to convince a brilliant enemy intelligence office that false information we had leaked through one of their double agents was in fact the real stuff. The best way for us to do that was to try to convince him that it was false, but let him catch us at it. That was a tricky one." Jim went on to explain exactly how he had tricked Stefan Miklos.1

"Any others?" Michael was becoming fascinated at the way this man's mind worked. Operations was right -- Jim was incredible at manipulating people. Even now, Michael suspected Jim was telling him these stories because Jim knew Michael was trying to get a handle on him.

"One of the most complicated ones we had to pull off was convincing a Defense Department advisor turned enemy agent that the Soviets had, in fact, pulled off a successful invasion of the United States."

"Why did you do that?!"

Jim told him how Whitmore Channing had stolen plans for the U.S.'s Distant Early Warning System and had left them at a drop point to be picked up by another agent. "All we knew was the time of the agent's arrival."

"So you had to knock Channing out, then wake him up and make him believe the invasion had taken place?"

"That's right. He wanted to take credit for the success of the invasion, so we asked for proof. He told us only that he had left information at a designated drop point. We let him see that we were pleased to learn this. When we put him back in his cell, we started letting him suspect it wasn't really a cell at all. He then took the opportunity to call the airline in question and page a specific passenger on a specific flight. That gave us the information to tail that passenger until he led us to the drop point."2

Jim's stories were interrupted by the announcement that they were descending into San Francisco. Nikita awoke at the announcement, and smiled over at the two men. Michael left his seat and went back to join Nikita for the landing.

Part 10

Once at the airport, Jim smiled as a young black man came to greet them. "Grant! Thanks for coming to fetch us!" He turned to Michael and Nikita, "I'd like you to meet Grant Collier. Grant, these are the two agents I'm borrowing for the Hong Kong mission -- Nikita and Michael."

They retrieved their luggage, and walked out to Grant's car. Jim was amused to see both Michael and Nikita immediately unpack their guns from inside their suitcases. He was even more amused to see the shocked look on Grant's face as they did so.

Soon, they were leaving San Francisco proper, and heading out to Jim's house outside of town. Jim figured it was time to give Michael and Nikita a short briefing on the other members of his team.

"Grant handles the technical end of our missions -- if it involves computers or explosives, Grant's in charge of it. He also blows a mean trumpet." Grant looked over at him in amusement, and then lifted his head to smile at the two through the rear-view mirror.

"You'll meet the others this evening: Nicholas, who handles our disguise work; and Max and Shannon. This current team has been together for about a year, so we work together pretty well."

Grant pulled into a private drive leading up to a very large, luxurious-looking house set in the middle of a manicured lawn. Nikita's eyes got big as she took in the nature of the estate.

"Nice place!"

"Thanks. We managed to get the building of this completed just before our federal funding was cut off." He paused as Grant started snickering. Ignoring him, Jim continued. "I had personally purchased the land a number of years ago, not really knowing what to do with it. When we decided to make the IMF independent of government funding, we knew we needed a better headquarters than my apartment in San Francisco could provide. So we had this thing built. It's more than just a pretty facade -- we've probably got as much, if not more, technical equipment than you have at Section. Grant has a computer lab, a chemical lab, and a complete machine shop."

They walked through the front doors and into the house itself. The front living room was comfortable, if a little stark. Everything was in gray. An especially suspicious person would notice there were no personal mementos anywhere -- nothing that would give a clue about the identity of the owner. Telling Grant he would see him in a few minutes, Jim led Michael and Nikita through the living room and up the stairs to the next floor.

"I also had several guest suites built when the house was. That way, any of the team can stay over if they need to, and I have a place to put guest members." He led them into a spacious, but comfortable set of rooms: a small sitting room that led into a large bedroom with a balcony. "Go ahead and get your things settled, and then meet me back down in the living room, and I'll give you the grand tour."

After he left, Michael and Nikita just stood for a minute, examining their surroundings. Then, Nikita walked over to Michael and put her arms around his waist. His arms automatically went around hers, and they just stood holding each other. Finally, he drew back and looked into her eyes. "Are you all right, my heart?"

"I'm fine, Michael." She sighed, "But I think this is going to be a strange mission. Jim and Grant seem so *nice*, that I have trouble picturing them as operatives. I mean, did you see Grant's face when we pulled out our guns?" They exchanged smiles.

Michael kissed her forehead, then her mouth. Then her mouth opened beneath his, and he found himself deepening the kiss. All too soon, they both remembered that Jim was waiting for them, and Michael pulled back. Giving her another kiss on the forehead, he released her. They unpacked what they would need over the next two days, and then went down to meet Jim.

Part 11

Jim knew Grant was dying of curiosity, so he didn't bother unpacking his own suitcase, but went back downstairs. Sure enough, Grant was pacing around the room looking up the stairs every few moments. As soon as he saw Jim, he walked over and met him at the bottom of the stairs.

"Who *are* those people, Jim?"

"I told you, they're a couple of agents I am borrowing," Jim replied with amusement.

"I'm serious! What was the deal with those guns? Were they expecting to be ambushed out here?"

"Calm down, Grant. No, they weren't expecting to be ambushed, they just believe in being prepared. In their world, walking around without a gun is about the same as walking around naked."

"Their world? Where are they from?"

"You'll get the full introductions along with everyone else this evening. Suffice it to say Michael and Nikita work in a much darker and grimmer environment than we do." He broke off as he heard them coming down the stairs. Watching them, he was once again struck with the connectedness he saw between them. Looking at Grant, he could see that Grant was picking up on some of it as well.

"I know Jim said you had your workshop here, Grant, but do you live here also?" Nikita asked with a smile as they began their "tour".

"No. I have an apartment nearby, but I spend so much time over here, I might as well live here." Grant tried to resist Nikita's charm, but soon gave up the attempt. In spite the gun he presumed she was still carrying, she seemed so ... sparkling. The quiet man beside her faded into the background for him as he focused on the bright woman walking next to him.

Michael sighed as he saw Nikita make another conquest. He would have been more annoyed if she had done it intentionally, but he knew she really couldn't help it. She was relaxed and happy, and that just spilled over into all of her actions. He knew there was nothing sexual in her capturing of Grant's attention, he just hoped Grant knew that.

After ten more minutes of watching Grant fall under Nikita's spell, Michael decided to bring him back to earth a little. Stepping closer to Nikita, he brushed his hand against her back as they walked. He looked at her as she leaned her body into his arm, mutely asking that he continue the caresses. He smiled at her, knowing that Grant would see both the smile and the way Nikita smiled back at him. When Nikita looked away to talk to Jim, Michael glanced over at Grant.

Grant saw Michael's look and knew that he had just been given a warning. Michael wasn't threatening him, but wanted to make sure Grant didn't get any ideas about Nikita. Grant got the message. Just watching the difference in Nikita after Michael had touched her was message enough.

Part 12

Michael couldn't help being impressed with Jim's headquarters. Some of the equipment he saw was so cutting-edge, he just barely recognized it. There were pieces there he knew either Walter or Birkoff would've given their eyeteeth to obtain. The only area that seemed substandard to him was their armory. He could tell Nikita was surprised as well. They had the usual assortment of handguns and a few automatic rifles, but nothing approaching the level of technology that Section had.

"Does our armory surprise you, Michael?" Jim asked.

"You know it does."

Grant looked at Michael with some surprise of his own. "What's wrong with it?"

"Michael and Nikita are used to a little more ... sophisticated weaponry than we use, Grant. Isn't that right, Nikita?"

"Well, to be honest, I saw more sophisticated weaponry when I used to live on the streets."

"Actually, we used to maintain a more extensive armory, but we used them so rarely, I stopped updating it. Now, if our profile calls for us to have more advanced hardware, I usually borrow it from someplace like Section, and give it back when we're done."

Michael was quietly astonished. "So this is all the hardware you need?"

"Yep. Our missions very rarely require anything more exotic. In fact, most of our missions don't really require handguns at all."

On that note, Jim led them out of the house and onto the grounds. Out behind the house was another structure that turned out to be a stable. Entering the building, Jim was greeted with nickers of welcome from the two horses inside.

"Now, I don't think you can convince me these are part of your equipment." Nikita said playfully. Michael left her to get a closer look at the horses.

"No, these are mine. I got them several years ago, so after the house was finished, I had this stable built with my own money; I couldn't see using taxpayer money for this." He was slightly surprised to see the ease with which Michael handled himself around the horses. He had made the acquaintance of the first one and was now looking over the second. "This is Dancer, and that fellow over there is Smokey. Do you like to ride, Michael?"

"Yes, although I haven't in a long time."

"Would you like to go for one now? They really need some exercise."

"That would be good."

"Nikita, do you ride?"

She looked on wistfully. "No, I never have. Maybe someday."

"I'd offer to let Michael teach you, but these two are a little ... rambunctious for a beginner. You don't need to get those ribs hurt again."

"Oh, I understand. I meant someday after we get back."

They went back inside the house so Michael could put on some better shoes for riding. Michael and Jim then enjoyed a brisk ride together, while Grant showed Nikita some of the surveillance equipment he was working on.

When Jim and Michael got back, Jim told them the rest of the team would be there in about an hour, so they might want to get cleaned up now, because they would be going out for dinner this evening. Michael and Nikita went upstairs.

Part 13

After an entertaining shower together, Nikita and Michael got dressed. Not knowing exactly how casual or formal Jim intended their dinner, she put on a simple green sheath dress that would fit in most settings. With some persuading from Nikita, Michael wore "the" blue t-shirt along with his usual black pants and jacket. They walked back downstairs just as Jim was opening the door to the first of his team to arrive.

When Jim had asked them to come over that evening to meet two agents he was borrowing for their next mission, Nicholas had not quite expected the sight that awaited him as he walked in the door. They were a pair of opposites: the man, darkly handsome, was a study in quiet strength; while the beautiful blonde woman next to him fairly glowed. He was interrupted in his study of them, as Max and Shannon walked in the door. Both of them stared a bit in astonishment as well under cover of making their greetings to Jim and Grant.

Jim let them stew a little bit as Michael and Nikita walked toward them, and then made the introductions. "Michael, Nikita -- this is the rest of my team: Nicholas, Max, and Shannon."

Michael and Nikita greeted the new arrivals as Jim ushered them into the living room. Nicholas was a handsome man of average height and build, with dark hair and eyes. There was about him a combination of elegance and a slight touch of cynicism. Max, on the other hand, was big and open. A blonde giant of a man, he exuded a rugged strength. Shannon, while not having Nikita's spectacular looks, was beautiful in a very fresh sort of way. Her reddish-brown hair was almost a match of Michael's, and she had an engaging presence. Watching them together with Grant and Jim, Michael realized they were obviously a team.

When they were all seated in Jim's big living room, Jim finished the introductions. "I've told Nikita and Michael a little bit about each of you; now I'll return the favor. I've borrowed them from an old friend of mine who runs a covert anti-terrorist group called Section One. Michael and Nikita are two of his top agents. Both are competent in everything from running assault missions to working undercover gathering intel. Michael is here because I desperately needed another Chinese-speaking agent. Nikita is here because she is Michael's partner, and I jumped at the chance to include another woman in this scenario. I'm not planning on going into the full briefing until tomorrow, so I thought tonight would be a good opportunity for us to get to know each other."

Part 14

After a quiet dinner together, Shannon and Grant suggested that they go dancing. As Jim sat back and watched, Nikita charmed the other two men just as easily as she had Grant earlier. She danced one dance with each of the other men, and now was back in Michael's arms. The impressive thing to Jim was that she had done all of that without once getting Shannon's back up out of jealousy. Jim knew Shannon wasn't romantically involved, but he also knew it had been a risk bringing another woman into the mix. Nikita had handled everything perfectly.

"Those two sure do look good together," Nicholas commented. The band was currently playing a slow dance, and Michael had taken advantage of it to pull Nikita closely up against him. They moved perfectly together, and Michael would occasionally brush his lips against Nikita's cheek.

"They do, indeed. It almost worries me, that anyone seeing them would know they're together." Jim was concerned. His plan would work best if Nikita were paired up with Max, but the whole thing would be blown if anyone suspected that there was any connection between Michael and Nikita once the mission was underway. "Max, would you go cut in on them, and ask Michael to come back to the table, please?"

Jim saw Max approach the two. Nikita smiled at Max, but Jim could tell she didn't really want to let go of Michael. As Michael walked back to the table, his expression was perfectly controlled, but Jim could sense he was slightly annoyed.

"You wanted to see me?"

"Yes, Michael. I'm a little worried that you and Nikita are so used to working with each other..."

"...That we won't be believable working apart?"


"We are professionals, Jim." Michael saw the doubt that Jim still felt. "All right. Watch."

Michael walked back toward Nikita until he got close enough for him to catch her eye. Jim saw ... something ... pass between them, and then Nikita nodded. Michael cut in on Grant who had been dancing with Shannon. Then it happened.

As if a switch had been thrown, Jim watched as Nikita and Michael focused their attention on their respective partners. As hard as he looked, he could no longer perceive the connection he had seen all evening between the two Section operatives. He could also see from the start both Max and Shannon made, that it was even more dramatic close up. Section had trained these two to use their sexuality as a weapon, and it was being used now -- for demonstration purposes only.

Grant sat with Jim for a minute, trying to figure out what was going on. He was beginning to get upset as he watched Shannon fall under Michael's spell when Jim motioned for his attention.

"Grant, go rescue Shannon before she melts into the floor. Tell Michael he's made his point."

Grant cut back in on Michael, who turned back to Jim and gave him a small nod. He then looked over at Nikita and nodded. She nodded back and continued dancing with Max, her attentions friendly again instead of sexual. Michael sat down next to Jim, a small smile of satisfaction on his face.

Part 15

Jim congratulated Michael, "Well, that was certainly impressive. I was particularly amused by your 'conversation' with Nikita. Do you do that a lot?"

"Sometimes. I've always been pretty good at reading Nikita, and she's gotten better at reading me. I'm not quite sure *how* we do it, but it is useful -- especially in our situation."

The band went on break, so the dancers came back to the table. Michael stood as the ladies came back, and he held out his hand to his wife. She responded by running her hand along his cheek. Her left hand.

Max blurted out in shock, "You two are *married*?!" He knew Jim wouldn't allow agents to marry each other, and had assumed that most other agencies were the same.

Nikita gave him a rather sad smile as they sat down. "As befits two covert ops, we are covertly married."

Michael raised his eyebrow at her and amplified her statement. "The only person in our organization who knows we are married is our boss. His conditions for allowing the relationship were that we keep it a secret, and that it not affect our work. It was a major concession, because you're right, field ops are not supposed to get involved with each other -- especially partners."

"What normally happens to agents who 'get involved'?" Shannon was curious.

"If they're both valuable operatives, one may be transferred to a substation. Usual policy, however, concludes that they knowingly broke the rules, and so one or both is cancelled," Michael explained calmly.

"Cancelled?" Shannon asked.

"Killed," Nikita chimed in rather bitterly. "We belong to Section, and thus have no rights of our own." She looked over at Michael, and continued, a little more cheerfully, "We are generally regarded as 'animals with guns', so if the 'material' disobeys, you just throw it away."

"Although that attitude is slowly changing," Michael comforted her.

"You know how impatient I am."

"Wait a minute!" Grant broke in. "You mean you guys aren't volunteers for this? What happens if you want to leave?"

Michael, Nikita, and Jim shared a look. Michael took on the task of answering Grant's question. "We are volunteers in the sense that we elected to work for Section instead of dying. Those were the only two choices we were given. We cannot leave Section -- any attempt to do so is considered grounds for cancellation." He and Nikita shared a secret look. "We are in Section, because someone thought we would be more useful there than where we were."

"Where were you?"

"Prison. Section faked our deaths, and put us to work. Thus, if we refuse to cooperate, it's a fairly simple affair to make the death a real one."

Grant thought about asking what they were in prison for, but after looking at Michael, decided he really didn't want to know.

Part 16

Shannon ventured into the silence, "I know Jim said you worked for an anti-terrorist group. What exactly does that *mean*? What do you do?"

Nikita figured it was her turn to answer. "The short answer would be: whatever it takes." She smiled at Michael in remembrance of the engraving on his ring. "The longer answer would be: we take down terrorists wherever we find them, whether singly or in groups. Michael and I have rather a double function. Some missions we work undercover, gathering intel; sometimes we are on straight assault missions. Whatever it takes to get the job done."

Jim broke in, "Shannon, one reason we've rarely gone up against whole terrorist organizations is because it generally takes a lot of manpower to do it right. Our niche is mainly taking out the one-man or small organization; Section One often goes up against small armies." He knew Shannon, and he knew where she was headed with her questions. He just hoped he could head her off.

"How do you keep your organization's existence a secret if you're constantly bringing in all of these terrorists?" Shannon asked in all innocence.

Jim, Michael, and Nikita shared a look of mingled disbelief and amusement. Michael took on the task of answering her. "Our organization's existence isn't likely to be threatened by dead terrorists," he told her bluntly. "If we don't eliminate them in the initial assault, they are disposed of after interrogation."

"You ... kill them? All of them?"

"Generally, yes." He remembered Operations' analogy. "They are the enemy, and we are at war."

Shannon was becoming upset, "So you just act as judge, jury, and executioner?! Who gave you the right to do that? You're no different than they are!"

"We don't go around blowing up children, Shannon." Nikita responded in a quiet, deadly voice. "We don't shoot people just because they have a different color of skin. We don't sell children to be used as slaves. I would be real careful about making accusations like that."

Jim spoke up after Nikita stopped, "Shannon, you will apologize right now!" He was angrier than Shannon could ever remember seeing him. "You have no business making that judgment. I'm disappointed in you; I would've thought you would see the fallacy of making an accusation like that in light of what we do, and what you know the world's like."

She stared over at him a bit mulishly. He continued, "Two things I want you to think about, all of you." He included Grant, Nicholas, and Max in his lecture because he knew that even if they didn't say anything, they had to be thinking about what Shannon had said. "Number one, our hands are not exactly lily-white -- there have been any number of people we have put in a position to be killed; not to mention that chemical weapons plant we blew up last year -- I'm sure there were a number of casualties among the mercenaries working there." He saw them start to nod as they remembered the situations he mentioned. "Number two, in some ways we are even worse than Section. They at least act as judge and jury, we are only executioners."

Max spoke up in astonishment, "What do you mean by that, Jim?" All of them, even Michael and Nikita, looked shocked at Jim's pronouncement.

"Section essentially handles their own intelligence gathering. They investigate; they check things out. While I'm sure even they are misled from time to time, generally, they have the facts in hand before deciding to take someone out. We, on the other hand," he paused to run his hands through his hair, "are predominately dependent on other people for our information. One of my private nightmares is that one day, someone would use us against an innocent, that someone could pull a double-cross on *us*. I check each mission out as thoroughly as I can, but I'm only one man."

Grant and the others stared at each other in silence. They had never even considered the possibility of being sent on a false mission. Given the business they were in, it probably should have, but they had such faith in Jim it had never occurred to them to think otherwise.

"Nikita, Michael, I'm sorry." Shannon was sincere in her apology. As Jim had talked, she remembered missions she'd been on that had been designed to set up their targets to be done in by their own people. She'd remembered watching that white slaver being eaten by the crocodiles he'd kept as pets and not feeling much remorse over his death. Jim was right, it was just a matter of degree.

Part 17

Later, when Nikita left to find the restroom, Shannon joined her. "I just wanted to apologize again, Nikita."

"It's all right, Shannon. I've probably called Michael worse things myself."

"It was just such a shock. Do you really go on military-scale assaults along with the guys?"

"Yeah. Not all of the female cold ops do it, but there are a number of us who do. Why?"

"I guess ... I just can't picture someone who looks like you ..."

"Taking down your basic big muscular guy? Yeah, I know. I can hold my own against most guys though as long as I don't let them get too close."

"Really? I mean, I went through a basic hand-to-hand combat course when I was with the Secret Service, but I still don't feel I could take on a guy and win."

Nikita and Shannon made their way back to their table. "Would you like me to work with you a bit? I know we can't do a whole lot in the time we have, but if you've had hand-to-hand, maybe we can work with what you already know."

"That would be great! Maybe tomorrow?"

"Let's check." Nikita turned to Jim as they sat back down. "Jim, do you have anything scheduled for us tomorrow?"

"Not until afternoon." He was happy to see Nikita and Shannon getting along so well after the earlier incident.

"Great! I told Shannon I'd help her work on her hand-to-hand combat skills."

Startled, Jim replied, "Sure. That'd be fine."

Nikita caught the look Michael gave her. "Don't fuss, Michael. You said I was ready to go back on active status."

"Active status, yes. Active *combat* status is a different thing."

"You can come along and kibitz then."

Concerned, Shannon asked, "Were you injured?"

"I just got off Section's equivalent of the 'disabled list'. I had some broken ribs -- no biggie." She gave Michael a small glare as he rolled his eyes a bit at her evaluation of her injuries. "You hush!"

Part 18

Once back at Jim's house, he, Michael, and Nikita bid the others goodnight and went inside.

"You don't mind if I work with Shannon some, do you Jim?"

"No. I think it's great that you're willing to help. I think her main problem is *believing* she can fight against a man and win." He began heading upstairs. "Well, I don't know about you two, but it's been a long day for me. I'll see you in the morning. Goodnight."

Michael and Nikita followed him up the stairs. "Goodnight, Jim," they called in return as they walked into their room. Once inside, Michael stood behind her and drew her up close against him. Running his palms slowly down her arms, he bent his head to press kisses along her neck. He smiled to himself as he felt her body shiver in response to him. Pushing her away slightly, he slowly unzipped the long zipper of her dress, kissing the revealed skin of her back as he did so. He then slid the dress off her shoulders to pool at her feet.

She turned in his arms to stand before him clad only in her stockings and underwear. She removed his jacket, and pulled his shirt loose from his pants. She continued kissing and undressing him until he stood naked in front of her. He gently pushed her down to sit on the bed, and knelt in front of her. He then removed her stockings, pressing kisses against the inside of her thighs as he did so. Her underwear soon went the way of her stockings, and soon she was lying beneath him on the big bed.

As many times as they had made love, neither of them had lost the sense of wonder each felt toward the other. Tears would sometimes come to Nikita's eyes when their bodies would join, and she could see the love shining out of Michael's eyes. Sometimes, there was a slight hesitancy about their lovemaking, as if each didn't quite believe the other was really there. Other times, their lovemaking took on an almost desperate urgency in the fear that even now, someone would come and tear them apart. Tonight's was by turns lazy and sensuous, and fierce and demanding, until they finally fell asleep still entwined together.

The sunlight coming through the french doors leading to the balcony awoke Nikita. She opened her eyes to see Michael looking at her. He gave her one of his rare smiles as she stretched and began running her hands along his body.

"You know, my heart, as much as I love going to sleep with you in my arms, I think waking up with you in my arms is even better," he told her as they began picking up where they had left off the night before.

"Why's that?"

"I think ... it implies so many things." Michael tried to gather his thoughts. "A ... permanence. A sense that in this one area we are experiencing a normal life. A sense of trust."

Nikita grew still in his arms. "Do you think we'll ever be able to live together, love? I get so tired of being apart from you."

Part 19

"I did think of something the other day, but then I got pulled off on a mission and didn't get a chance to talk to you about it." Michael began stroking her hair as he talked. "There's no reason, since you're off probation, that you can't move out of your apartment. As a full agent, you don't have to live in a Section-owned building. What you could do is to rent an apartment on the street behind my house." He put his finger to her lips when she would have spoken. "No, hear me out. You won't live there; it simply gives Section's computers an address for you and stops them from being your landlord. We would then have your phone installed as a second line in my house. You'd still have to stop by the apartment occasionally to check your mail, but essentially you'd be living with me."

"That would be so cool! Can we really do it?"

"Since Operations and Madeline know about us, yes. All we're doing is making sure it doesn't look suspicious to anyone else." He enfolded her in a huge hug. "Now, I think it's probably about time we were getting up." He got out of bed and went into the bathroom. When he came out, Nikita took her turn. He had put on some shorts when he heard a knock at the door to the outer room. He opened the door to see Jim standing there, wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt.

Jim smiled at Michael. "Good morning! I hoped you'd be up. I just wanted to let you know that breakfast will be ready in about an hour." He stopped as Nikita walked up dressed in a white terrycloth robe. "Good morning, Nikita. Shannon called a few minutes ago, and asked if she could come by around 10:30. I said I'd let you know, and you would call her if that wasn't convenient."

"That would be fine. Did I hear you say something about breakfast?"

"Yes, breakfast will be ready about 9:00, so if you two want to go jogging or whatever, you've got plenty of time."

"Okay. Thanks, Jim." Nikita walked back toward the bedroom.

"You're welcome. I'll see you later," Jim said as he walked back down the hall.

Michael closed the door, and walked back toward Nikita. The timing of Jim's arrival was bothering him a bit. "How do you think he knew we were up? Do you think he has the bedroom bugged?" He had thought Jim was different from Section.

Nikita thought for a minute. "I would bet he has the bathroom plumbing bugged. That would be the simplest place to put one, without violating his guest's privacy. You notice, he only showed up *after* you used the bathroom, not before."

"Yeah, that makes sense. If the plumbing is loud enough, he might not even need to bug it, he might've heard it from below."

They finished dressing and went downstairs. They walked out the back of the house and were warming up when they saw Jim walking out of the stables. He saw them and walked over to meet them.

"Of course, you're welcome to run anywhere you like, but there's a particularly nice jogging path through those woods up there," he pointed to some woods that surrounded the fenced pasture for the horses. "It winds around a bit, and then comes out on the other side of the pasture. I've measured it at about three miles."

"Thanks, Jim. Do you want any help with the horses?" Michael asked as he saw that Jim had been mucking out the stalls when they had shown up.

"No, that's okay. I'm just about done. You two go on, and I'll see y'all at breakfast." He went back to the stables, and Michael and Nikita started jogging down the path he had indicated.

Part 20

When they came back downstairs after changing from their jog, they followed their noses to the back of the house where Jim and a tiny little elderly Hispanic woman were laughing together in a cheerful, open kitchen. Jim saw them hovering outside the doorway and gestured for them to come in.

"Hi, come on in! Michael, Nikita, I'd like you to meet Senora Maria Suarez my housekeeper. Maria, these are the two young people I was telling you about."

"Buenos dias, Senor Michael, Senora Nikita. I hope you bring some good appetites to my table." She motioned for them to take seats at a big table in front of a window looking out over the horse pasture. There were already several plates on the table filled with biscuits, bacon, and sausage, as well as coffee and juice. As they sat down, Maria brought a platter over to the table filled with huevos rancheros. She sat down with them next to Jim, and after a brief grace, they dug in.

"I admit, Jim, I had wondered how you kept up a house like this in such a spotless fashion. I'm glad you also picked someone who was such a good cook." Nikita complimented Maria.

"Yes, Maria has been trying to keep me out of trouble for years. When I gave up my apartment and moved into this house, I knew I needed more than the dial-a-maid service I had been using. I originally called her up to see if there was anyone she could recommend since I thought she was retired."

"I told him I could not think of anyone whom I disliked so much, so I would have to take on the job myself," Maria broke in with a naughty smile. "I have known Senor Jim since he was a young boy -- he can't put anything over on *me*." She continued in a more serious vein, "Also, my children had grown up; and while it is great fun to be Grandmama who spoils the little ones, I was not yet ready to sit in my rocking chair doing nothing. One of the granddaughters comes over once a week to help with the heavy cleaning, and I do the rest."

Michael watched Nikita laugh as Maria and Jim continued to tease each other. He couldn't help contrasting the cheerful scene with the times he had witnessed Operations and Madeline taking breakfast together. He remembered the formal service, the slight air of unreality that came with eating in such an enclosed, artificial environment. Operations and Madeline were cordial to each other, but there was certainly no laughter, as there was in this sunny place. More and more, he dreaded the day they would have to return to the bowels of Section.

Part 21

After breakfast, Michael and Nikita joined Jim on the back porch to wait for Shannon. None of them felt any pressure to fill the silence, so they just enjoyed the quiet. After a while, they heard a car door slam, and Jim remarked, "That must be Shannon."

After Nikita had worked with Shannon for a few minutes, she formed two opinions about Shannon's abilities: whoever had taught her had never taught a woman before, and Shannon had no real faith in her ability to defend herself.

"Okay, look. I'm not going to try to teach you everything I know, but I think I can improve the odds of your surviving an attack. I want you to remember three things: take all the leverage you can get; stay out of the other guy's grasp as much as possible; and if you are overpowered, lie doggo until he gives you an opening."

"Lie doggo?"

"If you can, seem to be more helpless than you are -- lull him into relaxing his grip or his losing his focus. Then strike with everything you've got."

"What about leverage?"

"What your instructor should have done was work with you on maximizing your leverage. As a woman, your center of gravity is almost always going to be lower to the ground than any guy you go up against. Use it! Here are some things you can do to take advantage of it," and Nikita began demonstrating what she meant, using Michael at times as her assistant. She then had Shannon practice these moves against Michael. It took several repetitions, but then something "clicked" with Shannon, and her actions became smoother and less tentative.

"Now I'm going to show you a couple of other moves that I think you can easily master, but the only way all of this is going to do you any good is for you to practice it regularly. Get one of the other guys to work with you on this as part of your workout. The movements need to be instinctive -- you won't have time to think about what to do. Okay?"


Nikita and Shannon worked together for almost an hour. Nikita broke down the moves she wanted Shannon to learn into their individual motions. Step by step, she made sure the other woman saw how one motion flowed into the next. Then she had Shannon put the individual pieces together, still in slow motion. Then at full speed. Over and over, she had Shannon work on the sequences until she was sure Shannon was clear on everything.

"I think that's about enough for today. If we have time tomorrow, why don't we do a review to make sure you've retained everything?"

"That'll be fine -- if I can still walk tomorrow!" Shannon laughed. "Could I watch the two of you spar also? Jim said it would be an eye-opener for me, and I believe him now!"

Nikita and Michael exchanged amused glances. "Sure," Nikita replied for them both.

They looked over as Jim came walking in the exercise room. He saw they appeared to be finished. "How'd it go, Shannon, Nikita?"

Shannon spoke up first, "I definitely am finding out how much I don't know, Jim. Nikita and Michael have both been really patient with me though."

"She's coming along fine, I think; although, I would really like to have a discussion with her Secret Service instructor."

"There really weren't that many of us women there. I'm sure he did the best he could -- he was really good about treating us exactly the same as the men."

Nikita got a bit of a funny look on her face. "Y'know, as many faults as Section has, there's one characteristic that has always amazed me -- for the most part, men and women are treated equally. Equally ruthlessly, from time to time, but still ... once you've met the physical requirements for being a field op, gender is only a factor on cold ops that may require a man or a woman specifically. Women are trained differently from men, but we have to meet the same standards." She shook herself. "Anyway, I've shown Shannon a few basic moves. If we have time tomorrow, I'd like to work with her again to review them."

"I'm pretty sure we'll have time," Jim replied. "I just came by to let you know the others will be here shortly, if you need to get cleaned up again."

Shannon looked over at Nikita and Michael. "I doubt you two need to change. I feel kinda sticky, so I'll go on upstairs."

"Is it time for the mission briefing?" Michael asked.

Jim smiled at him, knowing how ridiculous Michael and Nikita were going to find his next statement. "No, actually, it's time for a pre-mission cookout and volleyball game."

Part 22

Michael and Nikita just stared at Jim. Neither of them could believe he had said what they thought he just said. Cookouts ... okay, they had to eat at some point. But volleyball?!

Jim laughed at their dumbfounded expressions. "Yes, I said volleyball. I know it sounds silly -- it sounds silly every time I say it. Nonetheless, Grant and Casey started our 'tradition' of having a cookout and volleyball game before each briefing if we had the time." He walked with them out to the back porch where Michael and Nikita saw that a grill had been set up.

"Please don't judge this group too harshly, Michael," Jim continued as he saw Michael's total lack of expression.

"It's not that," Michael replied. "It's just ... this is just such a *surreal* situation." He looked over at Nikita to see if she understood what he meant. She nodded.

"So far nothing on this 'mission' has been what we are used to, Jim," Nikita joined in. "I think we're both a little off-balance, and then you come along and tell us we're going to play volleyball!" She started giggling. "I'm just trying to picture explaining this to Operations."

Michael and Jim smiled as well. Nicholas and Grant walked out just as Nikita finished. Soon Shannon and Max were there as well. Jim went over to the grill and began setting up. Grant and Max began setting up the volleyball net.

Shannon turned to Michael and Nikita and saw the slightly lost expressions on their faces. "You two *do* know how to play volleyball, don't you?"

Nikita and Michael exchanged looks. Michael spoke first, "I haven't played since I was a young boy, but I think I remember the rules..."

"I've never played," Nikita confessed.

"Oh. Well, we generally play two-on-two games. If you want, you can watch us play the first match, and then decide if you want to play."

Michael and Nikita watched as Grant and Nicholas teamed up against Max and Shannon. The two sides were evenly matched, and the score stayed close. Jim walked over at one point and asked how they wanted their hamburgers cooked. They still felt as if they had dropped down the rabbit hole, but Michael and Nikita had finally decided just to accept everything as calmly as they could. Operations had been right: they really were two different types of organizations. Maybe this was what it was like to have something of a normal life.

Part 23

Jim watched Michael and Nikita watch the volleyball game. Nikita was sitting on the stone fence at the edge of the patio. Michael stood behind her with his arms around her and rested his chin on top of her head. The two of them looked so *right* together, that Jim could understand his old friend's changing the rules to allow them to be together. His thoughts were interrupted when he heard someone coming around to the back of the house. He smiled as he recognized who it was.

"Barney! I should have known you'd show up just as we were fixin' to eat. What's your excuse today?"

Jim's unexpected visitor waved and walked toward him. Michael and Nikita had turned around at his announcement, and saw a black man with graying hair smiling at Jim. Jim saw their attention, and motioned for them to come over and greet the newcomer.

"Barney, I'd like you to meet Michael and Nikita, two agents I'm borrowing for the Hong Kong mission." He turned to Michael and Nikita, "This is Barney Collier. Among other things he's my best friend, Grant's father, and the man in charge of deciding what technology we make available to other agencies."

Barney shook hands with the two Section operatives and then turned to Jim. "I wanted to let you know we finally got a purchase order from Langley for those new surveillance units Grant adapted. I'm going to start the guys working on the first batch tomorrow."

"Great! I'm sure the only reason you came by to tell me this personally is that you just happened to be in the neighborhood, right?" The two men laughed together as Jim put another hamburger patty on the grill.

"Of course, Jim. I'm completely surprised to find you out here cooking hamburgers. And of course, I would never dream of imposing on your hospitality, so I wouldn't think of staying and inviting myself to lunch."

Nikita started giggling as the two men continued teasing one another with the ease that only long-time friends have. Jim stopped to do a quick count of the patties he had already cooked and decided he had enough for an initial serving.

He waited until the current point was finished and then called out, "All right, everyone! Come and get it!"

The volleyball players quickly abandoned their sport to go wash up. Nikita and Barney followed Jim's directions for setting out the rest of the food, while Michael and Jim moved the two big picnic tables together to form one long table. The others quickly joined them, and soon all of them were seated around the tables eating Jim's excellent hamburgers. At the beginning, there wasn't much conversation as they were more interested in using their mouths for eating than talking. Once the initial hunger was fed, though, a friendly argument soon broke out between the volleyball players over a disputed call.

Barney took advantage of the hubbub to ask Nikita, who was sitting on his right, "Would I be correct in assuming you and Michael are with Section One?"

Startled, Nikita exchanged looks with Michael, who was sitting on her right. "Yes," she replied hesitantly. "Sheesh," she thought, "does *everyone* know about Section One?"

"I thought so. How's Paul?"

"You know Operations, too?" Nikita had only recently accepted the idea that Operations even *had* a first name. Then it struck her. "You were on that rescue mission, too, weren't you?"

"You got it. That was one of the toughest rescues I can ever remember working on." He continued as Nikita made encouraging noises. "As many years as I'd been in this business, and I *still* had trouble believing Jim was serious when he told us we were going deep into North Vietnam and rescue a POW who was still being held there."

"How did you do it?" Now Michael had been drawn into the story.

Part 24

"Well, first off, we were handicapped in that Jim was the only one of us who spoke Vietnamese fluently, so we borrowed a Vietnamese agent from the CIA. Disguised as the base commander's superior, he went into the base where Paul was being held. He told the base CO about this incredible Soviet interrogator who was visiting him, and who would try one last time on the American prisoner. If the Soviet couldn't break him, perhaps it was time to admit defeat and kill him."

By this time, all of the other conversation at the table had stopped. It wasn't often the younger team members could get Jim or Barney to tell them old "war" stories.

Barney continued, "Here's where it starts to get complicated. Three of us went in the next day: Jim, Paris (our disguise expert), and me. Jim was the Soviet interrogator; I was the driver, but I was diguised to look like Paris. As Jim's assistant, Paris was disguised to look like Doug -- a team member who was back in the States, but made a handy model. Got that?" He looked around in amusement.

"When we drove up to the hut where Paul was being held, Jim and Paris went in immediately. I, as the lowly driver, got to unload the equipment from the trunk -- two suitcases which *appeared* to contain the latest interrogation technology. They were really just shells to hold Paris's equipment, but of course, Jim," he stopped to level a mock glare at the IMF leader, "insisted on adding weights to make them *feel* like interrogation equipment. I then went back out to the car to wait. Jim, why don't you tell the rest of it, since you were actually in there?"

"All right, Barney. As I expected, the base CO had left a guard on duty, so we took him out with some knockout gas. Then Paris went to work, while I explained things to Paul and kept a lookout. Now remember, Paris was disguised as Doug, so first, he removed his own mask to look like himself again. Then he took out a mask of Paul that he had made from service photos, and adjusted it to look like the present, less-than-mint-condition Paul. He put that mask on the unconscious guard, and dressed him in Paul's clothes. Next, he got out the duplicate mask of Doug and put that on Paul and had Paul dress in a duplicate suit that he had brought. So now we have Barney out in the car looking like Paris, Paris in the hut looking like himself again, the guard looking like Paul, and Paul looking like Paris looked when he first arrived. Got *that*?" The table erupted in general laughter trying to keep track of everyone.

"This whole procedure had taken about two hours. I then went outside, and motioned for Barney to come in. He took out the first of the equipment cases and loaded them in the trunk. Making sure no one was looking, he then got in the trunk himself, and hid in a concealed panel behind a fake trunk wall. Paris then walked out carrying the second equipment case and loaded it in the trunk. We set up the guard in Paul's chair, and Paul and I walked out of the hut. Our activity had attracted the notice of the base CO, and he came over to ask how we were doing. I expressed my regret that I had been unable to break the American, and in my opinion, they might as well kill him now and get it over with. We calmly drove out of the base. We were carrying Canadian passports, so we simply flew out of the country."

"Whew! That was some shell game you ran, Jim!" Grant called out over the general applause that had ensued.

"I'm curious, Jim, what kind of shape was ... Paul ... in when you rescued him?" Nikita asked.

"Pretty bad. In fact, my original orders had been to take him straight back to Washington, but since I had a hunch what they had in store for him, I ... stalled them as long as I could to give him some time to heal up." He looked sad for a moment, remembering. "I couldn't hide him as long as I really wanted, because they figured out what I was doing. But it gave him about three weeks before they got him in their clutches -- by that time, most of the external wounds had healed in any event."

Part 25

After lunch, the volleyball players went back to the game, having failed to convince either Nikita or Michael to join them. After watching for awhile, Michael walked over to Jim.

"Do you mind if I contact Section?"

"Anything wrong?"

"No. I just want to check on things."

"Go ahead." Jim watched Michael walk into the house. After a few minutes, he motioned for Nikita to come over.

"Michael just asked if he could contact Section. Why would he be doing that?"

"Oh, that's standard procedure for Michael. Operations essentially expects him to be on top of every mission -- both ongoing and upcoming -- and checking like this keeps him from getting too far behind while we're away."

Soon, Michael came back out, and Nikita could tell from his expression (such as it was), that everything was fine back at Section. He joined her again watching the others, and she just enjoyed the relaxing experience of having Michael hold her while they watched other people have fun.

When the game was over, Jim called out to the players, "Okay, gang -- get cleaned up! Briefing's in thirty minutes."

Grant, Shannon, Max, and Nicholas laughed and went in the house. Michael and Nikita, still feeling a little sticky from their workout with Shannon earlier, as well as the heat of the afternoon, decided to get cleaned up as well.

When they all came back down, they said goodbye to Barney, and assembled in Jim's living room. The center support column in Jim's living room split open to reveal a display screen. His coffee table unfolded itself to reveal a computer keyboard. Jim took up a remote, pressed a key, and the face of a Chinese man appeared on the screen.

Nikita and Michael exchanged expectant looks -- *finally* they were getting down to business!

Part 26

Jim began the briefing. "This is Chen Yi. Until recently, he was a high-level military advisor to Deng Xiao-ping. After Deng's death, he did some transition work with the new government and then dropped out of sight. We have since learned that he has appropriated one of China's nuclear triggers and has plans to sell it to the highest bidder." Jim split the display in half and put a picture of a dark, fierce-looking man besides Chen. "He will be in Hong Kong the day after tomorrow to meet with this man, Harland Secord. Secord is a representative for a terrorist group known as Sons of the Red Dawn." He paused as Michael and Nikita started and exchanged looks. Neither of them said anything, so he continued.

"We will intercept Secord's flight in Manila. Chen and Secord have never met, so Nicholas will take his place and Michael and Grant will be along as your bodyguards."


"Yes, Michael?"

"Do you have any plans for Secord after you take him out of play?"

"I *was* planning on turning him over to Interpol in Manila. Do you have another idea?"

"Can Section have him? We've been trying to get intel on Red Dawn for several months now, since they were responsible for bombing a passenger ferry in Europe."

"If you can have someone ready to pick him up in Manila tomorrow, you can have him with my compliments."

"Thank you. I apologize for the interruption."

"No problem. Once we take Secord out, Nicholas, Michael, and Grant will take the meet with Chen. It will take place at a reception being given for a local arts group. Max, you and Nikita will also be at that reception. Once Nicholas has made his bid, I want you to engage Chen and offer a counter-bid. Nikita, your job is to distract Chen. If necessary, encourage him to think you may be part of the payment for the trigger."

"Jim ..." Nikita stole a mischievous glance at Max from under her eyelashes, "what would you think of my presenting the offer, and Max being there as my boy-toy? I would think that would be even more distracting."

Part 27

"Hmmm..." Jim considered Nikita's idea even as Shannon and Grant started giggling. As he ran the scenario through his head, he thought the idea had a lot of merit. "You know, that might not be such a bad idea. Chen's not so traditional that a female in authority would offend him, but traditional enough that he might just find you ... challenging. Max, would you have a problem with that?"

Max, whose expression resembled someone who had been hit over the head with a baseball bat, managed to clear his throat. "Uhh... I don't think I would, Jim."

"Okay. Let's go with that then. Nikita, you will offer a counter-bid, but the catch is you need it by 4 pm the next day. In the morning, Michael you will be disguised as General Ling-Cheong Li. Chen knows what the general looks like, although they have never spoken. You will meet with Chen and explain that you will agree not to turn him in to the authorities in exchange for a percentage of his payment."

Jim turned to Grant, "Grant, have you gotten that chair spring figured out, yet?"

"Yeah, Jim. I decided against mounting it in the seat of the chair, so I'll be setting it into the back. Once he leans back, that's it."

"All right. Grant will administer a drug that will convince Chen that he is having a heart-attack and then knock him out. We will then transfer him to the hospital that Shannon and I will be staffing. When he awakens, he will only have an hour before the meet with Nikita and Max. Michael, you will need to convince him to let you retrieve the trigger for him. Once he tells you where it is, Grant will go get it. We will then let him leave the hospital. When he reaches the rendezvous point and finds it deserted, he will go back to Ling-Cheong's office where he will find the real General Ling-Cheong and the nuclear trigger."

Part 28

While Jim started going over the mission in more detail, Grant took Michael and Nikita to his lab to familiarize them with their equipment. The first thing he handed them was a small gun-like object. Michael, who had thought he was familiar with just about every form of gun made was baffled.

"This is our 'knock-out' gun. It shoots darts which are a crystallized knock-out gas. Unconsciousness is pretty much instantaneous." Grant folded the handle into the barrel of the gun. "It folds up when not in use, and since it's mostly plastic, it will go through a metal detector."

"Cool!" Nikita responded. "This is certainly a lot less clumsy than our tranq guns. Any special instructions?"

"One drawback is that you *have* to make skin contact -- the dart won't penetrate to the skin through clothing." Grant led them to a small shooting range. "Here, why don't you two take a few practice shots, so you can get the feel of the gun."

Somehow, Grant wasn't surprised when both Nikita and Michael immediately adjusted to the different weight and response of the small gun. "That should do it. Our communicators work the same way Section's do, so you should be all set." They went back out to the living room to join Jim and the others.

Once the plans had been finalized over some of Maria's excellent fajitas, Jim sent everyone home -- they had an early flight the next morning, and he wanted everyone rested. He and Michael and Nikita chatted for a little while longer, and then they went upstairs to bed. Once in their room, Michael contacted Section and asked to speak with Operations.

"What is it, Michael?" Operations asked. "Everything all right?"

"Everything's fine, sir. Jim has a gift for us. One of the players is a representative for Sons of the Red Dawn. Once we take him down, Jim said Section can have him."

"That's great! How do you want to work it?"

"Can you have someone meet us in Manila tomorrow?"

Operations thought for a minute. "Yes ... I can send Ken with a team. What is the location?"

Michael gave them the location Jim had arranged to act as their base for the short time they would be in Manila. "I'll call you to give them the go-ahead when we're in place."

"They'll be there. Are you having any trouble fitting in with Jim's team?"

"It's ... different." Michael wasn't sure how (or even if) he wanted to describe the experiences of the past two days. "I don't think we'll have any problems."

Nikita had wandered over while Michael was speaking. Now she joined in, "Barney says 'Hi' by the way, sir." Her eyes sparkled a bit in mischief as she dropped that particular bombshell.

"You met Barney?! Is he on the team also?"

Nikita continued, "Yeah, we met him today. He's not on the team; he just dropped by to talk to Jim and cadge lunch. We got to talk to him a little, and he guessed we were with Section."

"I suppose he also told you how they got me out?"

"Yes. That was some rescue," Michael replied.

"Like I said, I owe Jim a great deal. Not only for the rescue, but for helping once he got me out. I'm glad to have the opportunity to repay him, as well as expose you two to a different environment." He looked aside for a minute. "Birkoff is signaling me for something, so I need to go. I'll have the team ready for you tomorrow, just signal us when you're ready," and he signed off.

Michael and Nikita went to bed, although they didn't go to sleep quite as quickly as perhaps Jim would have wanted.

Part 29

Once they reached Manila, the team began putting the first of Jim's plans into place -- grabbing Secord. Secord would be changing planes in Manila, and that's where the team would intercept him. There were five other people on Secord's flight also going to Hong Kong. Two of them had purchased tickets at the same time Secord had, so Jim instructed them to work under the assumption that they were Secord's bodyguards. The other two had bought their tickets months ago, and were presumed to be innocents.

Grant had located an unused gate in the opposite direction of Secord's real gate. Disguised as a maintenance worker, he placed little devices on each monitor between Secord's destination gate and the IMF gate. These would allow him to change the airport's display without affecting the monitors in the rest of the airport. Nicholas, Michael, and Nikita would be following Secord activating the monitor changes as needed. Shannon, posing as an air traffic controller, informed the incoming flight that the gate for the connecting flight to Hong Kong had been changed, and could they please inform their passengers.

When Secord's flight arrived, Michael, Nikita, and Nicholas spotted their prey as he walked into the terminal. As they had expected, two heavy-set men followed him as he walked over to the monitor to double-check the gate information. As the three men walked to their new gate assignment, the three IMF members shadowed them. When they reached the gate's waiting area, Jim, Max, and Shannon were already there; Jim and Max posing as fellow passengers and Shannon disguised as a ticket agent. Nicholas, Michael, and Nikita also took seats, pretending to be waiting for the plane as well. The other two passengers from Secord's flight, a young couple, turned up soon after.

At Jim's signal, Max, Michael, and Nikita fired their knock-out guns at their targets. As the two bystanders gasped in shock, the three men slumped in their seats.

Jim walked over to the couple and showed them some wonderfully authentic-looking Interpol identification. "I'm sorry for this disturbance, but we have been after these three men for some time now." He directed their attention to Grant, who had pulled up in front of the gate with a passenger tram. "This man will take you to the correct gate. The plane will wait until you get there. I would really appreciate your not discussing this with anyone as this is an ongoing case." He held out his hand to the young man, effectively drawing him up to his feet and leading him to Grant. The woman followed. "Thank you for help."

Still in a bit of a daze, the couple got on the tram with Grant, who rapidly drove away. Jim turned back to Secord and his bodyguards.

"All right. Max, are you all set?"

"Just about, Jim." While Jim had been talking to the others, Max, Michael, and Nicholas had been unpacking and unfolding some wooden crates. Once the crates were put together, each of the three men was loaded into one. Then, the crates were loaded onto a dolly. By this time, Grant had returned. Max quickly donned some coveralls like Grant's, and the two manuevered the heavy dolly out of the airport. The rest followed at different intervals. Once the crates were stowed on the delivery van Jim had rented, Max and Grant went back into the airport to remove Grant's little gadgets. Jim and the others took the van back to their temporary headquarters in an old warehouse.

"Jim," Michael asked, "is it time for me to contact Section yet?"

"I think I would rather you wait until Max and Grant are back -- I don't want them running into your team. Nicholas, do you need anything else from Secord?" They had already unpacked the three men from their crates and removed everything from their pockets.

"No, Jim. I have everything I need."

About ten minutes later, Grant and Max appear, assuring Jim that everything had gone well, and that all traces of their presence had been removed. Jim nodded to Michael.

"All right, Michael, you can call Section now."

Part 30

Using his cell phone, Michael called Birkoff, who put him through to Ken. "Ken, are your people in position?"

"Yes, Michael."

"All right. I will meet you outside the building and bring you in. This is simply a retrieval mission -- do not assume unknown personnel are hostiles unless I tell you so. Clear?"

"Clear, sir."

"Good. I will be in position in approximately two minutes." After he hung up, he turned to Jim. "Jim, I'd like you to take your people upstairs and keep them out of sight."

"I will, but are you sure this is necessary?"

"I want you out of sight for two reasons -- some members of Ken's team have nervous trigger fingers, and they won't shoot you if they can't see you. Second, they are going to be curious just who Nikita and I are working with, and I would prefer not to satisfy their curiousity. You've managed to keep your existence a well-guarded secret; I don't intend to jeopardize that here."

"All right, I agree. Upstairs, everyone." Jim took his crew up the metal stairs that led up to the scaffolding that surrounded the warehouse.

Once Michael was convinced the IMF team was out of sight, he left Nikita guarding the three unconscious men, and walked out to meet Ken. As soon as Ken saw Michael, he motioned for his six-member team to approach the building. Ken left one agent outside to keep a lookout, and took the rest inside.

"Hi, Ken!"

"Hello, Nikita. These the guys?"

"Yeah. The one in the center is Secord, the other two are bodyguards."

"Do you want all three going back to Section?"

"Yes," Michael replied, "Madeline may be able to get something out of them."

Ken called for transport to come in. "How long will they be out?" he asked Michael.

"About twenty-four hours, but you'd probably better keep an eye on them."

Once the transport arrived, the unconscious men were taken from the crates and loaded on the truck. Nikita waved good-bye as the team of black-clad men and women left. Michael called up to Jim, "Okay, you can come back down now."

Part 31

As she watched the black-clad Section team enter and leave, Shannon thought she finally understood why Michael and Nikita looked and acted so differently from the agents she was used to working with. She thought of Michael's earlier analogy of being at war, and she knew she was looking at soldiers in that war. Despite the cameraderie she saw between Nikita and the team leader, Shannon sensed that none of them had let down their guard, and were prepared for anything. The quietness with which they all moved was especially eerie because of all of the firepower they were carrying.

As they packed up the prisoners and began leaving, she realised why Michael and Nikita sometimes had an air of having fallen down the rabbit hole. She suddenly had this picture of asking those grim-looking people who had just left to play volleyball with her and had to fight against the slightly hysterical giggles that ensued. Fortunately, she was able to get herself under control before they went back down.

Jim gathered them together. "Our plane leaves in two hours, so we need to get packed up and move out of here. Once we arrive at the airport, I want you five," nodding at Max, Nicholas, Grant, Nikita, and Michael, " to assume your roles. Grant, have you downloaded that information about General Ling-Cheong Li to Michael's PDA?"

"Yes, Jim. Everything we know is there."

"All right. Michael study up on that during the flight. Any questions before we head out?"

There were none, so they quickly packed up their equipment, made sure there were no remaining traces of their presense, and left for the airport. When they got there, Grant semi-purposefully positioned himself behind Michael and Nikita. They were walking side-by side, flanked by Nicholas and Max. Remembering how close Michael and Nikita were, he was curious how they would react to the coming separation.

When it came, it was so subtle, he almost missed it. They had been walking together, although they weren't holding hands. At some signal known only to them, Michael's hand brushed against Nikita's and they clung together for an instant. To the casual observer, it appeared to be a simple handclasp, but Grant was close enough to see the tendons stand out on Nikita's arm. Then they separated -- Michael walked a little closer to Nicholas, and Nikita entwined her arm through Max's -- and entered the airport terminal.

Part 32

When the team arrived in Hong Kong, the three groups of team members checked in to their hotel. Grant looked around in amusement -- no one would guess that the seven people were part of the same group. Jim and Shannon went first as two vacationing Americans. Nikita and Max made a nice Australian couple, and Nicholas, Michael, and he brought up the rear. After they reached their rooms, Jim called them all together for a final briefing before the reception which would be in two hours.

Nikita had one final question, "Jim, do you want me to make an entrance, or just ambush him?"

Jim thought a minute, running the scenarios in his head. While an entrance would keep Chen from noticing the other team's exit, he never really liked drawing outsiders' attention to his people in the middle of a mission. "Let's stay with an ambush, but if you can manage to catch his eye sooner, take advantage of it."

Back in their suite, Nicholas and Grant began setting up their equipment to transform Michael into General Ling-Cheong Li. Michael watched with some fascination as Grant opened an innocent-looking suitcase and revealed a complex-looking ... something ... into which he poured chemicals from bottles from another suitcase.

"What *is* that?" he asked Grant.

"*This* is our mask-making unit. Several years ago, it occurred to me that using digital technology, it was possible to make a very precise map of a person's face. Why not transfer that information to a computerized fabrication unit? As long as it has both full-front and profile shots, this unit can create the basic mask out of our special latex."

Nicholas chimed in, "When Grant first showed it to me, I'll admit I wasn't enthusiastic about it. I didn't think a machine could create as good of a mask as I could, but I was wrong. It still has *some* drawbacks -- the mask is only as good as the resolution of the original photos, and I still have to handle pigment variations -- but it is *so* much faster than the old way that I let it handle all of the basic mask work that it can."

Michael watched as Grant hooked the unit up to his laptop computer. After Grant downloaded an image file, he saw the face of the General appear on the unit's monitor. Watching the monitor, he saw the unit map the image and convert it to a flat representation. The lower right portion of the unit began to turn red, and a slight stream of smoke feathered up from the vent. Then the lights went out, the smoke stopped, and a little light labeled "Finish" lit up. Grant opened a panel and drew out a mask of General Ling-Cheong Li.

Part 33

Grant went to help Jim and Shannon get their equipment set up for the evening -- Shannon would be positioned to see everything at the reception and transmit it back to Jim. Michael watched Nicholas apply makeup to the mask.

"Jim told me Max came to his attention after pulling off a one-man rescue of his brother in VietNam. I know Shannon came here from the Secret Service, and I presume Grant is here because of his father. If you don't mind my asking, why are you involved?"

"Actually, you are one of the few people I feel I *could* tell. I was a drama teacher for a fancy boy's preparatory school back east. I had always been a good actor, but I had no desire to enter the high-pressure world of either Broadway or Hollywood, and I enjoyed teaching. In addition, my wife3 had an excellent job that she loved, and so I had no desire to move. We had been married about four years when my life fell apart." Nicholas paused, took a deep breath, and plunged ahead.

"I came home one day, and found two solemn-looking men in my living room. They told me my wife had been kidnapped by a group of white-supremicists. I had known her company did work for the government; what I didn't know was that she was responsible for developing a new chemical accelerant that could turn ordinary gasoline into a deadly firebomb. That wasn't her original intent -- she was looking for a better rocket fuel -- but that's how the terrorists wanted to use it. When she wouldn't cooperate, they k-killed her." His voice broke. After a moment, he was able to continue.

"I was able to help the authorities catch them by infiltrating their group in disguise. By the time the case went to trial, it was summer, and I was at a loss what to do with myself. That's when I met Jim." Nicholas focused his attention back on Michael. "How do you stand it, working with your wife like this -- knowing she might be killed?"

Michael sighed. "Sometimes it seems as if it's more than I can take. I know she often feels the same way. We've tried staying separate, but we finally came to the realization that no matter what pain we face because we are together, it's better than the pain we went through being apart."

Part 34

Once at the reception, Nicholas, Michael, and Grant wandered around the room, keeping a lookout for Chen. Shannon had found a perch at the top of one of the stairs, so it surprised no one when she was the first to spot their target.

"I've got him, Jim. Guys, he's over in the corner to your left."

Nicholas, Michael, and Grant slowly made their way over to their target. Chen saw them approaching him and tensed up, a wary look coming over his face. Nicholas smiled at him in greeting.

"Mr. Chen? I am Harland Secord. I believe you were expecting me?"

The Chinese gave him a short bow of acknowledgment, and motioned for Nicholas to follow him to a more secluded corner.

"You know my terms?"

"Yes. We are prepared to pay you $3.5 million for trigger. When can we expect delivery?"

"I will need a day to make arrangements, so I will have it for you Monday morning. How can I get in touch with you to arrange the pickup?"

"We are staying at this hotel, room 615."

"Very well. I will call you tomorrow evening at 6:00 to set the time and place."

"That will be fine." Nicholas made a short bow to Chen. "I hope it will be a pleasure doing business with you, Comrade Chen Yi." He turned and left, with Michael and Grant following closely behind.

Chen had planned on leaving as well, when he caught sight of a beautiful young woman heading his way. While she had made no overt move to capture his attention, he suddenly found himself unable to take his eyes off of her. He only vaguely noticed the tall man following closely behind her.

From a short distance away, Michael watched with some amusement as Nicholas and Grant looked on in shock at Nikita's "ambush" of Chen. He, at least, had known what to expect, having seen the dress before when she had worn it to seduce Alec Chandler. The gold and black dress seemed to capture all of the light in the room; the short skirt combined with the gold high heels made her legs look even longer than they were. She looked both fragile and elegant, and she had focused her attention on her prey.

He didn't have a chance.

Part 35

Once Nikita had captured Chen's attention, the others used the diversion to go back to their room. With Nicholas's assistance, Michael was quickly transformed into the general. While they were preparing, they listened on their com links as Nikita introduced herself and Max to Chen.

"Mr. Chen Yi? My name is Amanda Forsythe. This is my friend Max Carter."

"Yes, Ms. Forsythe? Is there something I can do for you?"

"I'd like to make you something of a proposition, Mr. Chen."

Grant had set up his notebook to tap into Shannon's transmissions, so they saw Chen's surprised reaction to Nikita's words. They watched as Nikita turned to Max and laid her hand on his arm.

"Darling, why don't you go get us some drinks? That punch looks especially delicious, and I'm sooo thirsty." She watched Max leave and turned back to Chen. "Max is very sweet, but I don't like to involve him in my business affairs."

"What kind of business are you proposing?" Chen was obviously trying to maintain his composure, but Nikita had gradually been inching closer, and her nearness was affecting him.

"Why, I'd like to make you an offer on your nuclear trigger, of course!"

Grant and Nicholas snickered as they saw Chen try to drag his thoughts back to his *nuclear* trigger.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, don't be silly!" Nikita laid her hand on his sleeve. "I know you have a nuclear trigger for sale. I know Sons of the Red Dawn is your top bidder for it. I'd like to offer you a better deal -- monetarily and ... otherwise." She ran her gaze up and down Chen's body, giving him a very good idea what the "otherwise" might entail. "I'm prepared to offer you $4 million dollars for the trigger." She opened her purse, pulled out a slip of paper, and handed it to Chen. "Meet me at this location tomorrow at 4:00 pm with the trigger, and I'll have the money for you. We can discuss any ... other arrangements at that time."

Still a little shell-shocked, Chen nodded his head in agreement. Nikita gave him one of her brilliant smiles, turned, and walked back to Max. Before Chen could quite get his bearings again, he heard a voice behind him speaking Chinese:

"Quite lovely, isn't she, Comrade Chen?"

Turning, he faced a man whose face he recognized from his work for Deng, but whom he had *never* expected to see here, "Comrade General Ling-Cheong Li!"

Part 36

As Max and Nikita left the hotel the next morning, they were determined to enjoy themselves a little before meeting up with Jim and the others. Both had been to Hong Kong before, but had never had much opportunity to play tourist. Jim didn't want them all leaving the hotel at the same time, so Max and Nikita had volunteered to go first, giving them time to wander around. Their part of the mission was over, and everything was going well.

They had shared a laugh after watching Shannon's transmissions of Nikita's and Michael's conversations with Chen. They hadn't been able to understand what Michael was saying, but they knew the gist: the "General" knew about the trigger, and if Chen wished to avoid any "unpleasantness" during his stay in Hong Kong, he would come visit the General the next morning at 10:00. Jim wanted them all over at the hospital by 9:00, so they had a little over an hour to wander around.

Their hour was almost up, and they had begun heading toward the hospital, when they found themselves surrounded by five very tough-looking men. Before either could react, Nikita was being held with her arms pinned, and she could feel a knife being held against her side; one of the others discreetly pointed a gun at Max when he started forward. The leader of the other four smiled at them.

"I do apologize for bothering you this morning, but I'm afraid we need to make some ... alterations in your plans for this afternoon."

"What do you want from us?" Nikita hissed out.

"I'm going to offer you a *very* generous price for the nuclear trigger you are picking up this afternoon, my dear -- your life." He turned to Max, "I want you to pick up the trigger as you agreed last night. We will then make you a trade -- the trigger for the girl." He motioned to his men, and they departed with Nikita into a waiting black van.

Part 37

Jim and Michael were going over some of the final details of the upcoming meeting with Chen, when Max's voice came over their com links.

"Someone's grabbed Nikita!"

"What?! What happened?" Jim exclaimed. Michael just stood there as a sick wave of despair washed over him.

"We were just on our way to you when five guys came at us from out of nowhere and grabbed Nikita. They said they would exchange her for the trigger," Max elaborated.

Michael turned to Grant who had frozen in shock at the news. "Grant, can you track a signal for me?"

"Uh, sure, Michael." Then it hit him, "Oh! Is Nikita wearing a tracker?"

"Of a sort." He then gave Grant the frequency Nikita's ring transmitted on. "It's an intermittent signal, so it might be a little difficult to find initially."

Grant made some adjustments, and then exclaimed, "I've got her! Looks like she's still moving." He adjusted his computer to show a layout of the city with Nikita's position marked. "Looks like we can intercept her ... here!" he pointed out to Jim.

"No, Grant."

Grant looked up. He saw the stern expression on Jim's face, and knew he wasn't going to win this argument. He looked over at Michael, expecting to see some form of rebellion, but Michael's face was blank -- no expression, no reaction. "What do you mean? Aren't we going to get her back?"

"I have every intention of getting Nikita back, Grant, but we can't do it now -- Chen is due at the office in less than an hour. Let me know when Nikita's position stabilizes." With some difficulty, Jim turned away from Grant's accusing eyes to face Michael. He wasn't sure whether he felt better or worse that there was no corresponding look of accusation in Nikita's husband's face. Michael knew the rules -- the mission came first. "Max, I want you to go back to the hotel and wait in your room. At this point, there's nothing you can do, and we don't want to draw any attention to our position here."

"Okay, Jim."

Jim responded to the unanswered question in Max's voice, "We'll keep you informed, Max ... about everything."

"Thanks, Jim."

Several minutes passed. Nicholas began turning Michael back into the General. Finally, Grant spoke up, "Looks like she's reached her destination. The signal hasn't moved for the last two minutes."

Jim moved over to stand at Grant's shoulder. "Do our files show anything about that address?"

"I'm still looking. Our files have nothing; I'm checking the CIA files right now." He muttered to himself for a moment, then looked up. "Still nothing." He then started as he realized Michael had noiselessly crept up on them.

"Let me try." When Grant handed over his computer, Michael connected himself into Section's files and, after a few moments, a file entry appeared on the screen. The others heard a strange sound come from Michael -- it was as if someone had sucker-punched him in the stomach.

"What is it, Michael? Do you know who has her?" Jim asked.

"Freedom League."

Part 38

"Who's Freedom League?" Grant asked.

"Freedom League is a terrorist organization that Section has been trying to eradicate for almost a year now. They have a network of bases around the world, including Hong Kong." Michael paused. He had hoped the dry recitation of facts would allow him to supress his fear and despair. So far, it wasn't working. His voice was rough as he continued, "It's particularly unfortunate that Nikita was captured by them because she and I were instrumental in destroying one of their major bases several months ago." He looked over at Jim. "That's the mission I told you about on the plane."

Jim's face paled as he remembered Michael's description of what had been done to Nikita. "Will they know she did it?"

"We were ... interrogated ... before we destroyed the base, and I'm sure they were able to upload all of the data they had on us before that happened. As soon as they run a scan of her picture through their computers, they'll know. They won't know about Section, because we went in posing as agents for another terrorist group." He paused again as another thought occurred to him. "We should probably tell Max to change rooms -- they might decide to grab him as well once they find out about Nikita."

Jim agreed and quickly told Max to move his and Nikita's things to Jim's room.

"Shouldn't we worry that they'll go ahead and kill Nikita once they can't locate Max?" Shannon asked.

"One thing they won't do to Nikita is kill her," Michael replied. Keeping his voice steady with an effort, he continued, "They'll keep her alive as long as possible -- they'll want their revenge to last a long time." He turned away from her and sat back down in front of the mirror, motioning for Nicholas to continue applying the mask.

Shannon and Grant couldn't believe he could just sit there so calmly while his wife was about to undergo torture. Shannon opened her mouth to begin questioning him further when Jim caught her eye and shook his head as he spoke.

"You need to leave in 5 minutes, Michael."

Michael nodded in reply, and Nicholas picked up the pace of his work. Five minutes later, Michael was out the door, heading to the office that Jim had rented for this purpose. Shannon could contain her indignation no longer.

"Doesn't he care about her at all?"

Part 39

Jim sighed. While it had seemed a nice idea to use Section agents to shake up his team, he would have wished for a less extreme example. Surprisingly, it was Nicholas who defended Michael.

"What did you want him to do, Shannon? Cry, and wring his hands, and blow the whole mission?" No one could remember ever hearing Nicholas sound so angry. "I'm sure Nikita would've *really* appreciated that! That would be much more useful than capturing the man who is central to this whole plot!" He turned away from her in some disgust, remembering the conversations he'd had with Michael last night. The two men had discovered they had a lot in common, as well as similar personalities. Nicholas knew -- not just thought, *knew* -- that Michael loved Nikita with everything that was in him, and he also knew that Michael was carrying on in the only way that he could, burying his feelings deep within himself.

Jim decided it was time to change the subject at bit. "Grant, I'd like you to come with me to investigate the neighborhood around Freedom League's location. There's something about that area ..." he rubbed his forehead in consternation, "... maybe I can remember once I see it. Anyway, grab all of the analysis equipment you think you might need, and let's go."

When they were near their destination, Jim looked at the old buildings and tried to remember. Freedom League had picked an old section of the city -- the buildings, mostly apartments and warehouses it seemed, were crammed next to each other. As Jim and Grant drove around Freedom League's neighborhood, they could hear Michael speaking with Chen through their com links. Jim heard Michael make the blackmail terms clear to Chen -- 10% of the sale. In return, the "General" would ease Chen's way out of China. Michael had just reached the conclusion of his terms, when Jim heard him call to Chen with apparent great concern. Finally, Michael's voice, in English, spoke in their ears.

"Chen is unconscious."

"All right, Michael," Jim replied. "Nicholas," he called over the com link, "since Max isn't here, I'll need you to take the ambulance over to pick up Chen. Take an extra uniform for Michael. Michael, that's how you'll leave the building, helping Nicholas carry Chen.

"Sure, Jim."

"Understood, Jim."

Now Jim was able to focus on what it was about this area that had triggered something in his memory. He'd been in Hong Kong so many times over the years -- when had he ever been in this neighborhood? After thinking hard for several more minutes, he finally remembered. The solution was so perfect, he almost smiled in relief.


"Yes, Jim?"

"Can you check the ground around here?" he pointed to the building that Freedom League was using as well as the ones on either side. "You should find a tunnel running underneath each building."

Part 40

"You're right, Jim! There *is* a tunnel under there." Grant looked at Jim in amazement. "How did you know?"

"A long time ago, I was here working with an old Chinese man who told me about them. They were used during some of the early struggles against the British rule, I think."

"Won't Freedom League know about them? It's *their* base."

"I don't think so. The ones I saw had very well-disguised entrances, and it's not something you generally think about checking for."

As they talked, Grant had been mapping out the tunnel on either side of Freedom League's building. Jim then motioned to the building two over. It appeared to be fairly abandoned.

"Let's try that one. What can you tell me about it?"

Grant was able to find an unobtrusive entrance to the building, and with some further searching, they found their way down into the basement. After some searching, Grant found the concealed entrance to the tunnel. Pushing their way through the spider webs and assorted clutter, both Grant and Jim were impressed by the condition of the tunnel.

After some time, they found the entrance to Freedom League's building. Grant checked for any security devices. He found none, but that didn't keep them from being cautious as they opened the door, to be confronted by a pile of boxes.

Fortunately, they weren't *heavy* boxes, so with some judicious shoving, Jim and Grant were able to make a space large enough for them to slip through. Still detecting no surveillance, Grant was able to get a much clearer reading on the layout of the building, and Nikita's position in it. Figuring they had done all they could do for the time being, Jim and Grant went back through the tunnel entrance. They were heading back to their original entrance point when a strange sound came over their com links.

"So b***h, did you enjoy your stay in Mindanao? We'll try to make you *just* as comfortable here. Take her, men."

Grant and Jim looked at each other. It appeared that Nikita had finally been able to activate her com link.

Part 41

Michael heard Nikita's captors over his com link, and the hollow feeling inside him that had begun with Nikita's capture grew even more intense. He walked over to Grant's communication setup and set up a direct channel to Nikita. Nicholas and Shannon were shocked by his first words to his wife:

"Can you tell me what is engraved on my ring?" Before he went any farther, Michael wanted to be it really *was* Nikita on the other end, and that it wasn't some sick joke on Freedom League's part after finding her communicator. He closed his eyes, his whole body tensed, as if he could physically force the answer he wanted. As hard as he was listening, he almost missed the whispered answer that came back.

"Whatever it takes."

As soon as he heard this, Michael looked over at Nicholas and Shannon in a naked bid for privacy. They nodded. They couldn't go far, but they did go into the "hospital room" where Chen was sleeping. Michael sank down on the sofa in the small office and began pouring out his love and support to Nikita.

"My heart, I will be there with you. I don't want you to feel alone." He stopped as he heard various thumps and bangings in the background. He then heard the voice from before.

"You know b****h, we don't really care about finding out about who you work for, or even who you are. All we care about is entertaining ourselves until we pick up that nuclear trigger. You are just so much dead meat."

Michael heard ripping sounds and knew Nikita's clothes had been torn from her. "All right, love. We both know what's coming next. I want you to find some dark corner in the room." He heard Nikita give a sharp inhalation of breath and knew the raping had begun. His voice grew husky as he continued, "I want you to picture me sitting there as I was in Mindanao. I know you can't see me, but I'm there looking over at you. Remember, there is no one in our universe but us." Over and over, Michael poured out his heart and his love. He knew all she had to hang onto was his voice. He kept going until finally the grunts of the rapists had stopped.

He heard the leader exclaim in disgust, "She's out. Take her back to her cell until she wakes up again." More thumps and bangs, and soon the com link was quiet again.

Part 42

Grant and Jim walked back in to the room. They hadn't been sure what to expect from Michael; Grant certainly hadn't expected to see Michael calmly sitting on the couch. Jim wasn't fooled, though, and saw the desperation that Michael was trying so hard to hide.

"I think we've found a way, Michael." Even Grant didn't miss the changing emotions on Michael's face -- disbelief, hope, then nothing as Michael brought his expression back under control.

"What did you find, Jim?"

"There's a tunnel running under Freedom League's building." Jim went on to describe what they had discovered. Nicholas and Shannon came back in while he was talking, so he filled them in on the discovery.

"What's our next move then, Jim?" Nicholas asked when he was finished.

"Our best window of opportunity will be when they are expecting to grab the trigger," Michael inserted quietly.

Jim nodded, "Right. I think we're going to need Max to take the meet with Chen. That should divert most of Freedom League's attention. He can then go with Chen to 'confront' the General. The only problem with that ..."

"... is it could lead Freedom League to the actual trigger," Michael finished. "Would you like me to call in a Section team to run security for the General?"

Jim considered the offer. On a gut level, he disliked asking for more help from Section One, but with Nikita, and now Max, unavailable, he was running out of people. Also, since he had managed to "lose" a Section agent, he felt obligated to do all he could to get her back.

"Can you get one put together in time?"

"I think so. If I get it approved by Operations, I should be able to pull a team from our substation here in Hong Kong."

"All right. Contact Operations, but let me talk to him first." Jim felt it was his responsibility to break the news to Paul.

Part 43

"... and that's the situation, Paul. I can't tell you how sorry I am that this happened," Jim finished rather glumly.

"It's not your fault, Jim. It sounds like a case of bad luck all the way around." Operations had been slightly surprised to receive another call from Michael, had started to become worried at the utter lack of expression on Michael's face, and had had his worst suspicions confirmed by Jim. Even at their level of expertise, none of them had found a way to completely eliminate Murphy's Law.

"It may not be my fault, but it's still my responsibility. Michael and I have devised a plan to get her out, but in order to make it work and still carry out our primary mission, he suggested using a small Section team for some security work. I'll let him explain the mission parameters." Jim turned the conversation over to Michael.

"We have a plan for extracting Nikita, but it's going to leave us shorthanded for the primary mission. Also, with Freedom League in the picture, we're concerned about the trigger's being exposed. If we could put an eight-man team on security detail, that should be enough to get the trigger and the thief back to China."

"All right, call Edwards in Hong Kong, and have him put together a team for you. Please keep me posted about Nikita." Operations signed off.

Michael contacted Edwards, and informed him he would need a team ready to meet him near the office at 3:00 pm. Nicholas then turned him into the General one last time, while Shannon cut off the sedative that had been part of Chen's IV. When Chen finally began to stir, they were ready.

As Chen regained consciousness, he heard a voice he vaguely recognized calling out for a nurse. As he opened his eyes, he recognized General Ling-Cheong, and his memory started returning to him. He also remembered his afternoon plans and began to panic when he couldn't see a clock anywhere. Michael saw his agitation, guessed the cause, and began to soothe him. Speaking in Chinese, he reassured Chen that the meeting was still several hours away. Chen still tried to sit up, but was dismayed to discover how groggy and light-headed he was. Shannon, dressed as a nurse, came bustling over at this burst of activity from her "patient".

"Now, Mr. Chen, you have to remain still! You had a mild heart-attack, and you should be resting!"

"A heart-attack?!" Chen was flabbergasted.

"Yes. It doesn't appear to have done any damage to your heart, but it is wisest to take every precaution."

"When can I leave?" Chen started getting nervous again.

"Let me get your doctor -- I'm sure he can tell you everything." Shannon left the room.

Several minutes later, Jim entered, wearing a lab coat, with a stethoscope around his neck. Speaking Chinese, he greeted Chen and Michael, and gave his best doctorly "Hmmm" when presented with Chen's request to leave.

"I'd really like to keep you overnight for observation, but I'll tell you what: if you'll rest -- and I mean irest/i -- for the next few hours, I'll consider releasing you to go home."

"So I could leave around 3:00?"

"If you rest now, yes."

"All right. Thank you, Doctor."

Jim nodded, and left the room. Michael, who had been preparing to persuade Chen to allow him to retrieve the trigger was rather startled when Chen immediately turned to him and said, "I need you to get the ... merchandise ... for me."

Part 44

"Are you sure?" Michael was suspicious of Chen's motives.

"Yes. There is no way I can retrieve the trigger and make the rendezvous if I'm not released before 3:00. You told me yourself, you're not a greedy man -- I believe you. Get my trigger for me, and we'll both have what we want."

"All right. Where can I find it?" Michael knew Grant would be recording this conversation, but he paid close attention anyway. Chen gave him detailed directions on where to find the trigger. He had hidden it in a locker at a bus station on the outskirts of the city. It would definitely take a couple of hours to find it and bring it back.

Assuring Chen he would meet him at the rendezvous point at 4:00, Michael left Chen as Shannon came back in to urge Chen to get some sleep. While she was adjusting his pillows, she turned the sedative drip back on and watched as he slowly drifted back to sleep. She walked back into the office just as Michael and Jim were translating Chen's instructions for Nicholas.

"I thought Grant was supposed to get the trigger." Shannon asked about the change in personnel.

"He was, but Michael and I are going to need him to set up the mission profile for the Section team, as well as the rescue mission for Nikita."

Just as Nicholas was leaving, they all were dismayed to hear sounds coming through the comlink with Nikita. She had been quiet, presumably unconscious, but it seemed her respite was over. From the yelling going on, Nikita wasn't coming quietly. After a vicious-sounding smack and some cursing, they heard the leader begin to describe exactly what he and his men were going to do to her.

Jim cut on his own comlink and said, "Everyone but Michael, switch to channel B." Turning to Michael, he said brusquely, knowing the stricken man would not care for sympathy, "You can remove the mask now. I'll get Nicholas started on his way, and then we'll discuss the new profile." He managed to herd everyone else out of the room without being too obvious about it.

In spite of the misery he felt at what was being done to his wife, Michael spared a thought of gratitude for Jim's actions. He was holding on to his control by his fingernails, and the slightest bit of pity from Jim would have been unbearable. He pulled off the mask, sank down on the couch, and resumed giving Nikita what help he could -- trying to reach her through his words, trying to give her another focus beyond what those animals were doing to her.

Part 45

Jim finished briefing Nicholas, and sent him on his way. Grant and Shannon then left to go pick up some lunch. Jim knew none of them were hungry, but it needed to be done, and it gave them something with which to occupy themselves while they waited for Michael to finish.

Jim walked back into the office. Michael was sitting on the couch, his eyes closed, and his face drawn and tense. His lips were moving as he spoke softly to his unseen audience. Jim switched his comlink back to channel A. He stiffened as he heard the pants and groans of the men raping Nikita. His throat tightened as he also heard Michael whisper: "Do you remember our lake, beloved? The sparkling water reminded me of your eyes, especially after we made love. A blue so deep, I could willingly drown in it, the depths hinting at the secret beauty lurking below the surface. I will always love you, my heart. You brought me out of the darkness and into the light. Remember what I told you, 'Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it.' Stay with me, love. Do not despair. I am coming soon, do not lose heart."

Jim finally switched back to channel B, unwilling to intrude on Michael and Nikita any longer. He could tell when she finally lost consciousness as Michael's shoulders slumped. He walked over to the younger man and rested his hand on Michael's shoulder, trying to offer whatever sympathy Michael would accept. Michael stiffened when he felt Jim's hand, but let Jim see both the pain he was feeling as well as the gratitude for Jim's support before he pulled his usual blank expression back into place.

"Shannon and Grant should be back in a few minutes. Are you ready to start going over the security setup?" Jim asked.

"Yes." Michael forced himself up from the couch and over to the table where Jim had a map of Hong Kong spread out. Between the two of them, they outlined the revised mission plan, and when Grant and Shannon showed up with lunch, they were ready with the briefing.

"Shannon, you will be responsible for tailing Chen and being a lookout at the rendezvous site. I will be following the real General, once his plane lands at 3:15. Grant, you and Nicholas will go with Michael to rescue Nikita. A team from Section will be in place around the office to insure that the trigger makes it back to China; Shannon, I'll probably want you to be in communication with them. Max," Jim had switched his comlink on so that Max could hear the full briefing, "you will meet Chen at the rendezvous point, and then go with him to the office. Your presence should help us flush out some of the Freedom League operatives following you."

"Okay, Jim, I've contacted Edwards and given him the mission profile," Michael said as he rejoined them at the table. "Grant, I'd like you to come with me to check out Nikita's location, when we're done here."

Part 46

Nicholas had notified them that he had found the trigger and was on his way back. Michael and Grant did a quick scan of Nikita's prison, so that Michael would be familiar with it. Gradually, events were starting to come together. Jim had taken advantage of the lull to finish bringing all of their equipment back from the hotel. With Freedom League in the picture, he didn't want there to be any time wasted between the end of the mission and their boarding the next plane out of Hong Kong. Michael and Grant came back as he and Shannon were unloading the suitcases from the car.

"Oh, that reminds me, did you happen to bring Nikita's luggage?" Michael asked as he helped them carry things inside.

"No. I didn't want to take a chance of drawing any attention to Max, so I was leaving those until later. Was there something you needed?"

"Well, ..." Michael's voice trailed off a bit. Then he continued, "I was hoping to pull out one of her nightshirts or gowns or something." No one said anything as they thought about iwhy/i Nikita would need clothes to wear.

Finally, Shannon spoke up, "Michael, I know we're not quite the same size, but I have an extra sleepshirt she could borrow."

"Are you sure? To be honest, it probably won't be much use after she's worn it."

Shannon gulped a bit at Michael's brutal honesty, but nodded her head. "I'm sure. It's an old spare one I always pack 'just in case'. She's certainly welcome to use it." She hurriedly turned to her suitcase, opened it, and rummaged through until she found the shirt. Pulling it out, she handed it to Michael. "Will this be okay?"

Michael replied gently, "This will be fine. Thank you." He could tell the shirt had definitely seen use, but the frequent washings had only made the soft cotton knit even softer, and he knew it would definitely be comforting to Nikita.

It was now 1:30. The four of them settled down to wait.

Part 47

2:30: The waiting was almost over.

Nicholas had come back with the nuclear trigger. Grant had examined it to be sure it really was the trigger, and that it was intact. Michael and Grant began briefing him on the building where Nikita was being held. When they were finished, Michael pinned them in place with a fierce stare.

"I want to be sure we are clear on something. I will be shooting to kill. Do not get in my way."

Grant was rather taken aback by this pronouncement, but he nearly fell over when Nicholas responded, "I understand. I will be shooting also."

Grant started, "Nicholas, ..."

"Grant, I'm serious. This is not a game; these people are terrorists -- you heard what they did to Nikita. After I take one of them down, I don't want them to wake up in 24 hours and start killing people again."

"But Nicholas, ..."

"But nothing. I know what you're going to say, 'Doesn't that make us just as bad as they are, etc.' But let me tell you something: If you see a rabid dog attacking someone you care about, you shoot it. You don't ask yourself questions about whether you're being brought down to its level. These people are rabid dogs." Nicholas turned away from Grant and went over to where they kept their small supply of guns. Pulling his usual revolver out, he examined it, loaded it, grabbed some extra ammunition and turned to Michael. "I'm ready."

Disturbed but thoughtful, Grant made his preparations as well, and joined Michael and Nicholas in the van. Michael drove by the office first, in order to check on the Section team which was just arriving on the scene. After satisfying himself that everything was in order there, and that they fully understood the scope of their mission, he drove Nicholas and Grant out to the Freedom League building.

Part 48

By 3:45, everyone was in place. Max left the hotel to make the walk to the rendezvous point. Shannon, after picking up Max's and Nikita's belongings, was in position so that she would be able to see both Max and the recently released Chen approaching from opposite directions. As soon as she spotted Max, she would notify Michael, who waited with Nicholas and Grant in the basement of the Freedom League building. Jim was tailing the real Chinese general who had been informed by circuitous routes that it would be in his and his country's interests to be at this particular location at this particular time.

The Section team was in position around the office building. Michael had told them their three primary objectives: (1) get the "package" to the airport, (2) make sure Target A (the general) made it to the airport with the "package", (3) make sure Target B (Chen) made it to the airport with Target A. Objectives 1 and 2 were not optional, but Target B could be sacrificed if necessary. They knew there was a Freedom League team in the vicinity, and had already spotted several of them. Shannon would signal them as well when Max and Chen were on their way.


Michael waited. One really couldn't call it patiently, there was too much tension in him. It was more of a stillness, the way a jungle cat waits motionlessly before attacking its prey. Then came the signal, "Michael, Max is in position. You are go."

Michael swiftly climbed the access ladder from the basement to the main portion of the building, Grant and Nicholas in his wake. He and Grant had earlier marked out the likeliest position of the security/surveillance room -- that was their first objective. Once he had eliminated the current occupant of the room, he left Grant there to keep him informed of the enemy's movements, and he and Nicholas left to find Nikita.

He and Nicholas encountered very few people on their way to Nikita's cell, and Michael wasn't sure whether he was pleased by that or not. There was a burning anger in him that was disappointed there were so few people to kill for having hurt his Nikita, but the operative knew that the fewer people he encountered, they less likely anyone was to discover their presence.

They found Nikita's cell.

In spite of their haste, both men paused and opened the door slowly, a little unsure what they might find inside.

Part 49

Nikita was huddled up in a ball in the far corner of the small room. The harsh lighting hid none of her injuries, especially as she had been left completely naked. She had instinctively curled in on herself upon hearing the door open. When she didn't hear anything, she looked up to see the pain-filled eyes of her husband and Nicholas. Nicholas was amazed to see a genuine smile curve her lips as she said to Michael, "I knew you'd come for me."

Nicholas watched as Michael sank down on his knees beside Nikita. His hands shook slightly as he lightly reached up to touch her hair and then her face. "I said I would, didn't I?" He held out Shannon's sleepshirt to her. "I couldn't get to your luggage, but Shannon offered to let you borrow this."

Touched by the gesture, Nikita quickly pulled the soft shirt over her head. She tried standing, but her legs refused to cooperate. Michael swiftly scooped her up in his arms before she could fall, and motioned for Nicholas to lead the way back to Grant.

They met up with several more Freedom League agents, but Nicholas easily dispatched them. When they rejoined Grant, the young man had finished placing the charges they would detonate after they left the building. As a final gesture of misdirection, Michael had Nicholas and Grant line up some of the dead agents to make it seem as if they had entered the building from the rear entrance. Since the surveillance records would be destroyed, their secret entrance would remain secret.

Their next difficulty came when they needed to get Nikita down the ladder into the basement. Finally, Michael handed Nikita over to Grant, and descended the ladder. As Grant held on to her wrists to steady her, Nikita slowly descended the ladder until Michael was able to reach up to pull her down into his arms. Grant and Nicholas quickly descended. They erased all signs of their presence, and soon were back through the tunnel and out into the sunshine. After reporting the news of their success to Jim, the quartet went back to the "hospital" where Michael made good use of the medical supplies to treat Nikita as best he could. He didn't think she was as badly injured as her last Freedom League experience, but he would be glad to have a real doctor examine her.

Part 50

Jim sighed in relief as Michael reported in. Everything was finally working out the way it was supposed to. Max and Chen had met, Chen growing more and more nervous as time passed and still the General did not show up. Eventually, an appropriately angry Max went with Chen to confront the duplicitous General.

Jim watched Chen's reactions over a monitor Grant had installed in the room next to the office Chen was in. First, Chen couldn't believe that the General didn't seem to know what he was talking about. He then looked around for Max perhaps to help him steal back the trigger, only to discover Max had apparently vanished into thin air. The General then produced a carefully-edited videotape of Chen's admitting to stealing the trigger in the first place. The General's security team then escorted the General, the trigger, and Chen back to the Hong Kong airport and back to the mainland. The Section team had found the Freedom League team, and had been able to take them out of the picture with only one minor casualty. Grant's explosives would prevent the remaining Freedom League agents from having the resources to trace who their attackers had been, so they weren't under much of a time constraint to leave Hong Kong.

Grant came by to pick up Jim and their equipment, and after "sanitizing" the office, they picked up Shannon from her perch, and met with the rest of the team back at the hospital. Their end-of-mission enthusiasm was dampened slightly by the sight of Nikita's bruised face, but a general air of excitement/relief remained. Michael was finally able to pull Jim aside and suggest a plan that had occurred to him as he had waited for them to return.

"Jim, I'd like to arrange for a Section plane to take all of us back."

Jim paused in some surprise before responding. "Do you mind telling me why? I'm a little ... reluctant to borrow anything more from Section unless I have to."

"Well, I'd like to get Nikita some experienced care as soon as possible, but I know our flight isn't scheduled to leave until this evening, and I'm also afraid a regular flight would be too uncomfortable for her." Althought Michael would be too proud to ask for concessions for his own comfort, he had no compunction against trying to make Nikita as comfortable as possible.

Jim thought things over for a minute. The other issue that Michael was indirectly raising was probably the most compelling: if she boarded a commercial flight in her current state, Nikita would attract a ilot/i of attention -- attention that none of them wished to attract.

"All right. Go ahead and set it up."

Michael smiled his thanks, and contacted Edwards at the Hong Kong substation. Within a few minutes, a Section van appeared to spirit them away to the restricted airstrip that Section used for their planes. Soon, they were in the air flying toward the darkening sky. Michael knew Jim and the others considered they were flying home, but Michael knew his home was wherever Nikita was. Michael held her close, knowing that once again they had survived their enemies. He prayed, to a God he had almost forgotten existed, that it would always be so.

God was listening.

1 "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" -- Find this on video tape (third season) and watch it! It is such a twisty episode it makes any of Madeline's plots look straightforward and simple.

2 "Invasion" -- I'm not sure this is available on video tape as it is a sixth season episode. It's still very good, though.

3 Nicholas' wife is my own invention. I always found it odd that we were given motivations for everyone else except him -- all we are told is that he was a drama teacher at a boy's school. He just seemed like the dark brooding type that might have a tragedy in his past.