I posted this story almost a year ago... finally I got a beta reader (thanks, KT!), so this version is free of any pesky grammar and spelling mistakes... nothing really new, though. This story is AU and set several years after the season three arc.



Mirage



Later Nikita asked herself if she knew that this day would be different.

It started exactly like every other morning: she almost crashed her alarm clock in the attempt of getting up.

Groaning, she turned, just to find herself alone in the bed. Damn! She knew that Michael was at Oversight, because George and he had an important meeting, and that he would be back in a few days. Yet, she missed him. his quiet "good morning" and the smell of fresh coffee.

Rubbing her eyes, she got up, showered, dressed and then, deciding to skip her breakfast, went to Section.

~~~

On her way to her office, she was greeted by most of the operatives. She greeted back, and waved at Walter, who was building a new bomb. Nikita grimaced.

Then, suddenly she changed direction, approaching Birkoff and snatching one of his cookies.

"Hey, Birkoff, sweets in the morning aren't healthy for you. You'll get fat," she teased him, ignoring the irritated glance he shot her.

"Good morning to you, too," he muttered.

Nikita chuckled, shrugged, and while munching on her prey she asked, "Anything new? Aliens who decided to visit earth and didn't come in peace, for example?"

"Oh, yeah, Alex said there'd be a candidate for recruiting." He was already hammering on his keyboard again.

Nikita sighed. She never liked recruiting, but it was one of her jobs, so she went to Alex and peered over her shoulder.

"Birkoff says that you have a possible recruit for me?"

Alex, who was still quite new in headquarters, nodded. Nikita liked her. She was 25 years old, and had transferred from Substation 9 three months ago.

"Yes, it looks pretty good, albeit we don't have much information yet, but it's interesting." Alex pulled up a screen and quickly scrolled through the page.

"Here... 32 years old, female.. her whole family is dead. her parents had been only children. mother died when she was 19, father is missing for 26 years... her husband died four years ago in an accident.. they had a son."

Nikita shifted uneasily, this was strangely... familiar.

Alex continued. "Somehow, that's still unconfirmed. She suffered from depression after her husband's death, moved, and was then blackmailed for money. When she refused, they broke into her house and killed her son. She freaked out. shot two of them with their own guns. Unfortunately for her, this was big business, and the men had connections. We'll get more intel about that. She was sentenced to life in prison for the murders. Very intelligent and beautiful. so, what do you think?"

Nikita chewed on her lip. could be too old for a field op, but she could be trained in other areas... then Alex found the picture, and she felt her blood running hot through her veins and her legs growing shaky.

"The woman's name is Elena Samuelle."

~~~

No. It couldn't be. Impossible. Completely impossible. Section had Elena and Adam under surveillance.

The thoughts in Nikita's head were spinning. She didn't realize that she had gripped Alex's shoulder hard. The younger woman let out a little cry of surprise and pain, and Nikita was catapulted back into reality and released her.

"Hey." Alex rubbed her shoulder. "What's wrong?"

She looked up and noticed Nikita's pale face and her huge blue eyes, which were glued to the screen. That was strange. Her superior was never touched by anything. She was, after all, a Level five op, and third in command. She couldn't afford to be shocked in front of her subordinates.

Then, abruptly, Nikita pressed her lips together and blinked. "I want this intel transferred to my office - immediately." Her voice left little doubt as to what Nikita would do with Alex if she didn't follow her order. Then, the older woman, who was completely clad in white, turned around and left a wondering Alex behind.

~~~

Sighing, Michael fished for his keys and unlocked the door to Nikita's and his apartment.

It had been a long week and his flight had been delayed - the disadvantages of taking an ordinary airplane - so he was just glad it was night, and thus too late to go Section. At this thought he smiled. Unless there was an important mission, Nikita would be home, too. Michael never called her on his "business trips"- calls could be traced back. Both Section and he didn't want Red Cell to find him in the middle of a meeting with George. these meetings were unpleasant enough.

When he pushed the door open, he was surprised to see Nikita sitting in the middle of the room cross legged. It was dark, except for a few candles, and completely quiet... so quiet. She sat with her back to him, dressed in a white top and pants, unmoving, but she must have realized that he had entered. When she made no attempt to greet him, Michael knew something was wrong.

Even when she was mad at him, she never ignored him. He carefully shut the door, dropped his bag on the floor, and kneeled in front of her to look at her face. Her eyes were closed, but her face was red and puffy - it was obvious she'd cried. He was taken aback. Nikita hadn't cried in a long time. In fact, the last time he could remember was when he proposed to her. But those tears had been happy tears, tears of joy and surprise.

"Nikita?" he asked softly, "what's wrong?"

Her eyes snapped open, and slowly, she reached up to embrace him. She quietly sobbed on his shoulder.

"Adam is dead."

~~~

No. It couldn't be. Impossible. Completely impossible.

As Nikita's were two days before, Michael's thoughts were a mess.

He whispered hoarsely," No. That can't be. Section had them under surveillance, it would have been reported if there was an anomaly..."

"Adam is dead," his wife repeated. "He was shot during... during..." She couldn't speak further- it was too painful. One moment her world was okay, in Section's sense, and the next moment - poof - and your little fancy world was in pieces.

Michael froze slowly. Why? Why was Adam shot? Why was his son - his only child and the only child he'd ever have - dead? He gripped Nikita's upper arms and shook her.

"Dead? Shot?" he whispered in a voice she could barely understand.

She avoided his eyes - she knew they'd be filled with anguish and pain - and stared instead at his chest, the black shirt and a necktie. Michael despised ties, she noted absently.

"Yes.. he. Elena was blackmailed and didn't pay and then they came to her house but she was awake and tried to stop them and tried to fight and they. they shot Adam for revenge..." This all came out of Nikita's mouth in a rush before she looked in his eyes to see his reaction. None. His eyes were void of any emotion, just... empty.

"Michael? Michael!"

He heard her call his name. and that was the last thing he heard before everything went black.

~~~

Strange... strange pictures and sounds invaded Michael's mind. dreams he hadn't had in long time. Elena and Adam, smiling happily, playing in their garden, planting a tree. The garden he hadn't seen in over four years.

Wait.

Something wasn't right.

Elena. Adam. Adam?

Daddy, daddy, look at me, look at me...

Michael could hear Adam shouting and giggling. And then, a single shot rang out and all turned red. Blood red... And his son looked at him with sad eyes.

Daddy why did you leave me?

He awoke with a jolt and panted. Adam? Blood? The oblivion of sleep was gone and made place for the ugly reality. His son was dead. Shot by some crazy - he didn't even know who. It didn't matter.

Stop.

It did matter. Whoever shot Adam, and whoever was in charge of watching them at Section, would pay.

Michael closed his eyes to block out the bright sun rays that poured through the windows. Nikita loved these windows. They were big and reminded her of the French doors in her old apartment. Actually he liked them, too, but now the sun seemed unbearable to him . It was already noon, 11:54 a.m. to be exact. Groaning, he fell back on the bed, now fully awake.

Adam. Adam...

Nikita must have heard something because she came quietly in the room and sat next to him to stroke his hair, like you would have to do with your child when it woke from a nightmare. Silently, Michael sat up and embraced her.

"What happened to Elena?" he asked softly, for the first time consciously thinking about her, and although he was sure he wouldn't like to hear what had happened to his former wife.

"She." Nikita swallowed.

She couldn't explain this without hurting him more than she already had. But he had to know.

"She freaked out. she shot two of the men."

Michael winced but he was quiet.

Nikita continued. "The men, they belonged to another big organisation and had connections... Elena was sued for murder and sentenced to a life in prison without the possibility of amnesty."

Michael felt the world fall apart. His former wife, albeit it was a fake marriage, was imprisoned to never see outside again. Their son was dead and he had done nothing to save them... nothing.

"Michael... why weren't they under surveillance?" Nikita asked gently.

"I... I don't know... but whoever is responsible for this, will pay."

His voice had gotten firmer and Nikita knew that this wasn't a threat, but a promise.

~~~

One week later

Michael was standing in the perch, looking over the main hall. Operatives were busy preparing a mission he didn't know about. During the week Nikita and he had been absent. Madeline had been leading Section One, and for once had not had the time to play mind games.

Right now she was standing behind him, lost in her own thoughts. Adam, Michael' s child was dead and Michael had returned to wearing only black clothes. Madeline almost sighed.

She didn't know how long Nikita had tried to convince Michael to wear brown or green or gray. Of course, Nikita was now wearing black, too. That alone gave Madeline an impression of how deeply these two grieved. It was amazing that the younger woman grieved at all. Madeline herself wouldn't have shed a tear if the son of her husband by another woman had died.

She thought that she was lucky not to be Nikita.

"What's the status of Section?" Michael/Operations asked. His voice showed no emotion, nor did his face, but Madeline knew that he was mourning.

"95% capacity," the second-in-command answered. "During the two weeks you were absent we lost five operatives. That's within parameters."

In the instant she'd said those words she could have slapped herself. This sounded as if she had made mistakes and that the operatives who were lost had been valuable. Which they weren't - at least not in Madeline's opinion.

Michael winced inwardly. Normally, when Nikita profiled most of the missions, there were hardly any losses. She spent much of her free time in front of her computer to ensure that there were as little losses as possible. Madeline profiled her missions efficiently. They almost always succeeded, but she didn't care for the operatives or innocent bystanders. She should have learned to value them by now, after three years under Michael, but old habits apparently died hard.

He sighed inaudibly. "What's the status of Elena? Have you looked at her file?"

"Yes," Madeline said, "the group which blackmailed her could be a target for us. They call themselves Black Wing and they're involved in everything: blackmail, prostitution, hacking... however, I updated her psyche profile. Do you want to see it?"

That was a purely rhetorical question. She knew he would read it over again and again, just to make sure that there were no mistakes.

"Yes," Michael whispered.

Madeline nodded, put the disk on his desk, and slipped out of the room.

~~~



Michael sighed, rubbed his temples in the vain attempt to get rid of a pounding headache, and closed his eyes.

It had been a long day. First he'd had to deal with Madeline, then he had to look over all the profiles she'd designed in his absence, and the only thing he was looking forward to - dinner with Nikita - had been cancelled because of a sudden mission. Damn.

He had read the profile of Elena that Madeline had given him, and that made his bad day really bad. He looked at the data again. The 10th time. After his supposed death and her father's real death, she had fallen into depression. She didn't care for Adam or anything else. She didn't even attend the funerals. This went on for at least three months; then she went therapy and things got better. She got a job in a hospital, moved into a new house, and then, somehow, came in contact with Black Wing. The file didn't say much about that. She'd probably bought a house that was one of Black Wing's properties.

If there had been just minimal surveillance, this wouldn't have happened.

Section would never work that sloppily, and once you knew what you were searching for, Black Wing was an easy target. Operations - Paul - had promised to protect them. And obviously had broken this promise.

When Michael became Operations, he'd gained the required clearance to see videos of them, their files, everything. He had done that one time.

And had seen that he couldn't live in the past.

Nikita had helped him through that time, encouraged him, comforted him. But he had decided not to watch the videos again, because it reminded him of a time he couldn't go back to. So Michael ensured surveillance, at least until Adam was an adult, and ordered that he be notified in case something went wrong. You could have thought that blackmail, murders and imprisonment was important enough, but there never was a report about them on his desk. That meant that there hadn't been any surveillance at all.

And this, Michael promised himself that he would find the person responsible for this mess and punish him. or her.

But now he focused on the file again. Elena's psyche profile wasn't very good. It indicated that she went into shock after Adam's death. Now all the people who'd been dear to her were gone. She was mentally fragile and wouldn't survive in prison; her soul and spirit would be crushed. If she hadn't appeared on Section's recruitment list...

Michael had thought of all the possibilities. Setting her free was one of them. Getting her out of prison was easy, but Black Wing had too many connections. They would realize that something wasn't right, and would begin searching, and it wouldn't be long until they knew of her father, who was practically nonexistent, and of her husband, who almost had no family background, whose schools and universities had been burned down or destroyed otherwise, who had no old school friends...

One step farther and they'd know about Section. Michael wasn't going to let her die. She was innocent, despite her murders, and if she hadn't met and married him, she would have led a happy life without terrorists, clandestine organisations, and a husband who was a killer.

There was one possibility left. the worst.

~~~

"You want to do what?" Nikita asked her husband incredulously. "Recruit her? Are you insane?"

She stood behind him, her arm in a sling, a reminder of her latest mission. She was dumbfounded.

Recruit Elena? Out of the question. This woman was sweet and innocent. Elena couldn't kill on command, Nikita was sure. And she would be shocked to find out that Michael was alive. Sooner or later she would have to face that fact, and the reality of Nikita's relationship with him. She didn't even want to think about that scenario.

But she wasn't stupid. She had read the profile and knew that a woman like Elena, seemingly weak and still in shock about the whole affair would be welcome prey for the women in jail. Nikita knew that, having had experienced it herself.

"But... can't we just set her free? I'm sure Birkoff could cover her identity and..."

Michael interrupted her softly. "No. Black Wing's speciality is computers. They have connections to Red Cell and other organisations. Elena wouldn't survive. The only possibility is to recruit her, train her and prepare her..."

Suddenly, Nikita understood. "I'll train her?" That was a statement, not a question.

"Bring her in."

~~~

Brightness.

Whiteness.

And a voice, female, deep and husky, eerily familiar.

"Good morning."

Elena's eyes snapped open. The first thing she thought was, my God I'm in heaven.

Then her eyes started to roam and she sat up from what looked like a military cot. Everything white.

Stop.

Not everything.

Next to her was a chair, with a person sitting on it, completely dressed in black. A person she hadn't seen in over four years.

"Nikita?" Elena asked unsurely. "Where am I?" Nikita smiled, a very, very sad smile, and rose.

Elena noticed visible changes. This wasn't the vibrant woman who had been a relative of her husband. The blackness of her suit and the white room behind her let her appear surreal. Her face expressed nothing, and her eyes were sad and didn't sparkle.

"You're not in prison anymore. The world thinks you're dead. Suicide. This is your funeral."

With these words, exactly the words Michael had spoken to her so long ago, Nikita took out a photograph and gave it to Elena, who sat very still on the stretcher, dressed in white, her dark hair loose and tousled, hanging in her face. The woman stared stunned at her, mouth slightly agape, her eyes full of wonder.

"Funeral?" she whispered and grabbed the picture. It wasn't as empty as Nikita's had been; some men and women stood around the fresh grave, some of them crying.

Elena looked at the picture numbly, trying to get a grip on reality. One moment she was in her cell, crying herself to sleep, the next moment she was in a white room, with a photo of her own funeral in her hands.

However, Nikita didn't give her time to recover because she saw the questions in Elena's eyes.

"You're in Section One, the most covert anti-terrorist organisation on this planet. We'll train you, beginning tomorrow, five a.m."

Suddenly Nikita wanted to get out of this room. Out of this room, out of Section, out of everything. She looked a last time at Elena who still stared at the picture, turned around and walked through the door.

Elena still couldn't understand. What was Nikita doing here? Elena had thought she was perhaps dead, too, because she never saw her again. there never was a trace of her. Perhaps she was so shocked that she had fled without a conscious thought.

The door opened. She looked up, expecting Nikita again, but instead saw an elderly woman with short gray hair and watery green eyes, which looked as sad as Nikita's.

"Come with me," she said quietly.

Elena slowly stood up, clutching the photograph to her breast, and followed the woman out the door. She shivered - it wasn't really warm in this... dungeon - and she was barefoot. The woman went along a corridor, into an elevator and waited patiently for Elena to come. Then she punched in a code and the doors shut silently.

Elena was still caught in her own little world of despair and didn't pay much attention to her surroundings until they stood in front of a gray door.

Much here was gray.

Again, the woman without a name, typed a number in the panel next to the door and it opened. The room wasn't very big - a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, some shelves. Another door. the bathroom, she supposed.

"These are your quarters," the woman said in an eerie unemotional voice, almost detached. "You can't leave them until tomorrow morning. Be ready at five a.m.."

The door shut and Elena was left standing in the room, completely alone and very, very frightened.

~~~

She didn't know how long she stood there, just brooding.

'5 a.m.', the woman had said. How late was it anyway? She began to look around the room and sat on the bed. On the small table next to it was an alarm clock.

11:43 a.m.

Quite late morning, almost noon. Elena stood up and opened the wardrobe. It was full. Full of new, unused clothes. White, gray, black, a grayish blue. Nothing colorful. Now she registered that her feet were as cold as ice. She quickly donned a pair of socks and went to the bathroom.

White.

A white sink, white floor, white toilet...

And now, in this moment, Elena knew that her old life was over. in these quarters where everything was new and unused, so sterile and impersonal that it hurt. How could she live with so much unfamiliarity?

A quiet sob escaped her lips. With her hands on the sink, she stared at her face in the mirror. She was pale and too thin. Her eyes had lost every sparkle and looked lifeless. Her hair, always brushed and shiny, was now a dirty black mess which hung in her face.

Who are you? Elena asked her reflection.

A murderer, it whispered back quietly. She smiled bitterly. A murderer. That she was indeed. A woman who'd killed two men and didn't really regret it. It was the first time she realized that she didn't regret their deaths.

They killed Adam in cold blood. They had deserved it - hadn't they?

~~~

Nikita sat next to Michael in his office and watched Elena through the camera. She looked so fragile and breakable. Now she went to the bathroom and Michael cut the surveillance.

"What do you think?" he asked softly. "Will she make it?"

Nikita sighed. She wasn't so sure about the answer.

On the one hand, Elena was strong. Not many people could witness the deaths of their husband and father and find the strength to go on with life. Perhaps it was good for Elena to know the reasons for the shooting. At least she wouldn't blame herself for the incident anymore.

On the other hand, for almost her entire adult life, she had believed that she had married a loving and caring husband. How would she react to his betrayal? Perhaps she would shut herself off. Feel nothing but hatred. Or she would break completely. Or try to ignore the facts...

"Nikita?"

She snapped out of her thoughts and realized that she had zoomed out. Michael looked at her patiently. He was concerned, too. He hadn't foreseen that it would be so painful to see Elena again. Of course, it was only by video, but he could almost feel her anguish. He wanted to comfort her and take away her pain and guilt. But instead of easing her pain he only would make her suffer. She would hate him for what he had done, understandably so. He wished he could transfer her so Elena wouldn't meet him. But that wasn't possible. She would be treated like any other recruit and she needed special training, training that only Nikita could give her.

Damn.

"I think so." Nikita answered after a silence that had lasted for a minute. "I have to make clear Section's way of operating... especially Paul's way of operating."

She had hesitated before finishing the sentence. A lot of bad memories surfaced with the name of the former Operations.

"Shall I introduce her to Madeline first?"

" Yes," Michael replied, "after that, take her to the training rooms and evaluate her personally. You know what to do."

Nikita nodded. "And you? You can't hide for very long, you know. Sooner or later she'll find out who you are."

"I know," Michael whispered. "I know."

~~~

He sat in front of his laptop, searching for the surveillance data on Elena and Adam. He knew if the surveillance had been cancelled, he could find out who was responsible. Only operatives with level five status or higher could access this file. In headquarters, those were Nikita, Madeline and himself. Well, and Birkoff, if he really tried. Having found the file, he typed in his code.

ACCESS DENIED flashed in happy green letters across the screen. He frowned and retyped the code. Same result. Michael looked at his screen and the message for a moment, then rose and headed for the elevator.

~~~

"NO!"

Elena awoke with a start and realized that she'd had the nightmare again. She never could remember it, but she knew that all the people she loved had died.

Again.

Her mother.

Michael.

Adam.

Her father.

Did she love her father? Elena never knew him. He had left her and her mother. He had never been there when her mother had cried. He hadn't been there when her mother died, partly of a broken heart. He hadn't been there when she married Michael, or when Adam was born.

But he had been there when you almost died, a tiny voice in her head whispered.

And then he died.

Elena sat up and stared into the darkness. No, she didn't love her father. But she kept telling herself that she was responsible for his death. He had died because of her. She didn't know why, but in the end it was irrelevant. All what was dear to her was gone. Adam had been her last anchor to this world, the only person who could still make her smile and laugh. She had lived because of Adam, to give him an illusion of normality. When her son had died, the last part of her heart was crushed.

She had been in shock after his death, of course. She had cried, but not for Adam. For herself, the lost person she was. When Elena had been in prison she often thought about suicide. To end it all would have been so easy.

But because of her, people had died. She didn't deserve death.

Elena stood up and switched the lights on. The brightness seemed cold and unforgiving. She slowly walked to the desk and stared at the picture that lay on it. the picture of her supposed funeral. She sat on the metal chair and touched the gravestone in it. She couldn't make out the text on the stone, just her name.

Elena Samuelle.

Did she deserve that name?

She wasn't buried next to her husband but in the local graveyard near where she had lived. Elena hadn't written a testament. It had seemed so unnecessary. death had been so far away. None of her new friends had known the details of her past, and she had broken all links to it. How stupid she had been.

Now Adam was alone, too. Utterly alone.

Elena stared with hollow eyes at the photo, then picked it up and tore it slowly to shreds. Her past was dead. Nobody really knew her anymore.

And she was alone.

~~~

Nikita was nervous.

She had to bring Elena to Madeline and she didn't look forward to seeing Elena again. She would have to show her the still, cruel world of Section, teach her how to fight and how to survive. And then she would show Elena the truth about her father and beloved husband. Just great.

A part of Nikita hated Michael for his decision to recruit Elena. They would destroy what was left of her, destroy her peaceful memories. But it was clear that Elena couldn't survive without training in the real world anymore.

Black Wing knew her face; even with a new identity they could recognize her. She would be unprepared and defenseless. But the only thing that had Nikita convinced to train Elena was her psych profile. It indicated that she blamed herself for the death of Michael and Adam, and that she saw no reason to live anymore. If Section showed her that she was innocent, perhaps Nikita could pull her out of the abyss.

She sighed and knocked on the door to Elena's room.

~~~

The sharp knock on her door jerked Elena out of her brooding. After her nightmare she couldn't find peace in sleep. She had taken a very long shower until she couldn't bear the cold water anymore and had dressed. Something dark. Gray slacks, a black sweater. And she had waited.

Now she rose and opened the door, not surprised to find Nikita there. Today she was wearing black, again, and her hair was down and flowed over her shoulders.

"Come with me," Nikita said softly.

"Where are we going?" Elena asked.

Yes, where were they going? They reached a big hall. There were many people; most of them were sitting at computers and typing. It was quiet. Almost too quiet. Elena looked up and saw something like a vantage point; it had dark windows and she couldn't see what or who was in it, but she couldn't get rid of the feeling of being watched.

Nikita led her to an office. A woman was sitting behind a desk, typing on her keyboard and looking completely relaxed. When she looked up, Nikita nodded shortly in her direction and retreated. The woman was beautiful. brown hair, chocolate brown eyes, and she was the first person in this place who smiled. But the smile didn't reach her eyes, and she had a coldness around her that made Elena want to run away.

"Sit down, please."

Her voice was soft and should have sounded warm, but it also held a hardness, an indifference that was difficult to describe. She sat down hesitantly, suddenly feeling frightened again. Elena stayed silent and after a while the woman smiled again, colder than the last time.

"My name is Madeline. You are in Section One, the most covert anti- terrorist organisation on this planet. We'll teach you all you'll need to work for us. To the world outside, we're ghosts, and don't exist. We're going to be your new family, Elena."

~~~



When Elena was dismissed, she felt half dead. The woman, Madeline, had shown her her a schedule and explained the basic philosophy of Section. The whole "any means necessary" thing gave her the creeps.

Killing people? She should do that? During the whole session she had felt like she was in a cage or under a microscope. She wasn't aware of the fact that any operative could have given her this information; for Madeline this was an evaluation of her mental condition and a way to update her file.

Elena found Nikita talking to an old man who looked more like a biker than anything else. Leather pants, long hair in a ponytail and a bandana. And in his hands he held a gun so casually, like another man would have held a notebook or a sandwich. But he didn't have an aura of dangerousness or coldness like Madeline, or the indifference of the woman who had shown her her room. He had an aura of friendliness and calmness that astonished Elena.

When she approached them, Nikita smiled. "This is Walter, our weapons expert. If you have problems or questions about the equipment, you can ask him, okay?"

Elena nodded and waited for Nikita's introduction of her; but nothing happened. Did this Walter know her? Walter grinned.

"So you're Elena. Nikita told me about you, and that you'll be her recruit."

She nodded again, hesitantly.

Nikita cleared her throat. "Ahm, Walter, I think I'll need a helmet."

Elena was still pale and looked slightly stunned - well, that wasn't an uncommon reaction after an hour with Madeleine. Now she'd learn to defend herself. Nikita grabbed the helmet and took Elena to one of the training areas.

~~~

"Again." Nikita ordered.

Elena kicked, tried to block Nikita's blow, and landed on the mat for the umpteenth time. She groaned. Every single bone in her body hurt, bones she hadn't even known existed. The last three hours had been hell. Her 'trainer' beat the crap out of her, and she hadn't even started to fight seriously yet. Elena saw other people - operatives, as Madeline had referred to them - fighting, and groaned again. She was supposed to learn that? Impossible. Completely nuts.

She wasn't James Bond for God's sake, she was Elena Samuelle!

Nikita waited patiently, but when Elena didn't rise she ordered with a sharp voice, "Again. Concentrate on my moves and try to block them. Now, stand up and try again."

Something snapped inside of Elena. It was enough. For hours she'd fought, or at least tried to, and now Nikita expected her to stand up and go for another round?

She wearily stood up and hissed, "Who do you think you are? Do you really think I'm in any condition or the mood to fight you?. after three hours called 'training'? Training. this is ridiculous! You're supposed to teach me something, show me something, moves or whatsoever! But no, you just kick and I land on the mat! And me, I just stand up and the whole thing starts all over again! I think you can go to hell!"

She panted heavily. Elena had spent all of her energy, all her bottled up anger and rage. Perhaps she was too weak for this, or too stupid. She didn't care about punishment, she just wanted to rest. Perhaps they'd kill her on the spot; at least it would all be over then.

She gazed at Nikita's face, expecting to see surprise, anger, perhaps even pity - but. nothing. Her face was totally void of any emotion and blank as a mask. Her eyes seemed huge, a dark blue, hard as stones.

And then, suddenly and totally unexpected, Nikita kicked out and Elena found herself on the mat again. Nikita was over her in a second, gripping her arms and pinning her to the floor. Her voice was soft, almost a whisper.

"If you prefer to live, you'll do as I tell you. I won't accept further insubordination; neither will Madeline or Operations. Now, have a shower and come to my office in 20 minutes. Understood?"

Without waiting for a reply, Nikita rose and left the room.

~~~

At first, Elena couldn't move. She was too stunned. This wasn't the Nikita she thought she knew; this was an entirely different person. Sure, four years changed a person, especially in this place, from what she'd seen, but not so thoroughly. She seemed so cold, so aloof. Oh, she smiled, but the most time, Nikita's beautiful blue eyes were blank. Elena had seen this before. Michael's eyes had looked like this.

One evening, they'd watched the news on TV. He'd returned from an important business trip that day, and was tired. But then there was a report about a blown up factory, an accident, nothing special. Michael's body had gone rigid in her arms, and he hadn't said a word during the rest of the evening. The next day he'd returned to his normal self again, but his eyes had had the same haunted look as Nikita's.

Elena got up and staggered out of the room.

~~~

Darkness.

Stillness.

No sound audible. Nikita was in her office, the blinds closed, the door shut, the light off. She released her breath and opened her eyes to see nothing than blackness.

Her outburst had surprised herself the most. Her anger wasn't even directed against Elena; she had done relatively fine for her first day.

Nikita vividly remembered her first training session with Michael. It had been a disaster. He'd been so cold then, and his lack of emotion had infuriated her so much that she had shouted at him and stomped out of the room. Why she hadn't been cancelled on the spot was still a mystery to Nikita.

No, her anger had been bottled up for weeks, since Michael's decision to recruit Elena. The knowledge of Adam's death, another potential enemy for Section, no free time, and the absolute helplessness of the whole situation. Plus Madeline's "the-cat-ate-the-canary" smile. Michael had seldom been at home, mostly just to sleep and eat. Just great. He searched, with Birkoff's help, for clues of the cancellation of surveillance, with no result.

And Nikita had to keep her trainee away from Michael until she was emotionally stable enough to face him and the lies of the past.

Nikita sighed. These walls... always so gray and restricting. She just couldn't bear it anymore. Nine years stuck in this... this hell. Well, it wasn't hell anymore. Operatives had more freedom, almost no abeyance missions and no Paul - but the walls were still the same. How would all this darkness appear to Elena? She'd been in prison for so long...

And then Nikita had an idea.

~~~

The monotone sound of his keyboard was the only thing Michael had heard for hours. He'd used all of his hacking skills to trace the surveillance team in charge for the file labeled "Samuelle", but it was pointless. It seemed as if surveillance had never existed, simply vanished and gone. Which was impossible.

He ceased to type and stared at his screen.

Of course, he could always ask Madeline, but he'd rather bite his tongue off. He suspected that his second in command had something to do with this; he doubted that Madeline had forgiven him for removing Operations. She was too smart to express this in any overt way, but Michael had read her file, and it indicated an involvement with Paul in her earlier years.

Interesting.

He didn't want to get Oversight involved, and to hack into their system was a bit too risky if he could get this information some other way. Besides, they only had the absolute minimum of Section's files; chances were slim to none that they possessed highly classified surveillance tapes.

But if Madeline had something to do with this, would she destroy all material, or would she keep at least a part of it for her own purposes? Where would she keep something like that?

Michael closed his eyes. He was exhausted; he had worked during the night and the night before; now he just wanted to go home and sleep. But first he had to look over the current missions, then he had to read Madeline's and Nikita's daily reports, go through the abeyance list... he started to type again.

~~~

Elena knocked on the door and entered. Nikita's office wasn't what she'd expected, yet it fit in this strange place.very small, with dim lights, and the only furniture was a desk and two chairs. Nikita sat behind that desk, reading. She looked at Elena.

"Please, sit down."

She sat down hesitantly, unsure how to react. Nikita was so calm again and looked impeccable in a dark blue suit, her wet hair pulled back, her makeup perfect.

"I. I wanted to apologize for my behavior. It wasn't your fault that I was in a bad mood," Nikita said softly, looking directly at Elena.

That was certainly unexpected. Of all the things Elena had thought Nikita might say, this wasn't one of them. But Nikita sounded so sincere, so honest...

She smiled slightly. "It's. it's okay, really. I shouted at you first." The younger woman stood up.

"Come on, time for your next lesson. I think you'll have to change clothes first, though."

A little embarrassed, Elena looked down at her clothes. In her hurry not to come too late, she'd dressed only in new sweatpants and a top.

"For what?" she asked as casually as possible, trying not to show how nervous she really was. Yeah, what was next? Learning how to shoot? Please no. She didn't think she was ready to hold a gun again. Nikita sensed her nervousness.

"Oh, don't worry, just wear normal clothes. We're going out."

~~~

Very interesting.

Madeline watched Nikita's office through a special surveillance camera she'd installed herself. One of her personal informants had sold it to her. a new model, undetectable if you searched for the normal type of surveillance equipment. When Michael had became the head of Section, he'd removed all surveillance cameras except those from the recruits' quarters and the abeyance operatives. But luckily Madeline had her own sources.

Now she saw Nikita telling Elena that they were going out. That did surprise her. She'd expected something like that, but not so soon. Sometimes Nikita still managed to mess up with Madeline's sims. Well, not that it mattered. She valued a good challenge.

~~~

"Going out?" Elena asked, taken aback.

Madeline had explained that only recruits who'd passed a couple of tests were allowed to go out. Elena thought it cruel to be stuck in this place without seeing the sun or breathing fresh air. She missed her garden, the park Adam used to play with his friends, and sometimes even the noisy city when she'd been in prison. But she'd sunk so deep in her misery that she hadn't really realized that.

~~~

Nikita stood next to Elena, watching her. She had her eyes closed and let the sun shine directly on her face. She inhaled deeply and smiled.

"Thank you."

Nikita was glad that she had brought Elena out. Sure, it was against protocol, but in this case... She was aware of the risk - Elena couldn't defend herself, nor did she have a gun. But to see her smile alone was worth it.

She remembered perfectly the first time she'd been out of Section, with Walter. After three months underground, she'd been sick and tired of her small room; she'd gone to Michael and had asked him about going out. The answer was a quick glance, and a "Not yet", and she'd found herself in front of his closed office door, fuming. But Nikita had wanted out badly, at least for some hours, so she'd gone to Walter and flirted a bit with him - and he had taken her out for three hours 'survival training'.

The look on Michael's face when she'd come back had been priceless.

"Where do you want to go?" Nikita asked Elena.

She opened her eyes, seemingly surprised. "Where can I go? Can I buy something?"

She wasn't too sure if she wanted to buy anything at all. After all, she'd woken up in a scary white room barely 36 hours ago... two days ago she'd been in prison.. it was all so far away it seemed almost surreal. But here she stood, nearly free to go anywhere, and she wasn't going to miss one single moment.

~~~

Two hours later and Elena was exhausted. Her body still ached from her workout and Nikita had dragged her through the whole city on foot, or so it seemed. She'd shown her shops, parks, cafes, basically everything you had to know if you lived in this city. But did she really live here now?

Although Nikita had talked and explained a lot to Elena this day, she'd managed to keep her emotional distance and to avoid all personal questions. But now they sat in a bistro drinking coffee, and Elena asked Nikita the question that had bothered her since Nikita's cool "Good morning" the other day.

"Why are you here, Nikita?" she said finally.

The younger woman stirred slowly in her cup and stared out of the window. She didn't even seem surprised.

"I mean, I wake up... and am in some kind of James Bond thing... you know what I mean... but you.of all people! I expected you to be the last person to be in a place like this," Elena gushed when Nikita stayed silent.

Eventually Nikita looked at Elena and sighed. "There's a lot you don't know about me or my past... but you aren't ready to know yet. One day I'll tell you all you want to know, but not now."

Now Elena got a little bit angry. Why wasn't she ready? What could possibly be so bad that Nikita couldn't tell her about it? Or was it forbidden to speak about such things?

Nikita took one last sip and stood up, thereby effectively ending their 'talk'.

"Are you finished? Then let's go back."

~~~

When Michael got home that evening, it was late, even for him. His car clock showed 2:14 a.m. when he finally got out of the car and took the elevator to the apartment. Nikita would probably be asleep; it had been a hard day for her, too. He missed her. Having a recruit changed her schedule, and she hadn't come to see him today.

Only one day without seeing her and he already missed her. Talk about weakness.

As he opened the door, he couldn't have wished for a more beautiful sight: his wife, still fully dressed, soundly asleep on the couch. He smiled and shut the door with a soft click. Nikita didn't stir. He slowly approached her, laying his coat on a chair, and kneeled in front of the couch so he could see her face. It was peaceful; she looked like an angel with her blonde hair around her face. Michael didn't want to wake her but he couldn't resist the temptation. He gently touched her lips with his, letting them linger there for a moment before he leaned back and cupped her face with his hands.

Nikita's eyes fluttered open and when she saw Michael she smiled broadly and embraced him. It was an awkward position: she, still lying half on the couch, he, sitting on the wooden floor. But it didn't matter now. He was home, with her; that was all that mattered.

~~~

Nikita awoke feeling quite refreshed and relaxed despite the early hour. The smell of fresh coffee greeted her, which could mean only one thing: Michael was still home. The last week had been pure stress, due to the absence of both him and her for a week. Not that Madeline wasn't capable of doing her job, but one person alone couldn't run Section, not even Madeline.

Michael was making French toast when a pair of warm arms slipped around his waist and he was greeted by Nikita's somewhat sleepy "Good morning." He grinned faintly. She'd never been a morning person, and could be in a very bad mood if she didn't get enough sleep, a fact that Michael had learned the hard way.

"Good morning. Slept well?"

"Mmmh," Nikita murmured. "I always sleep good with you beside me..."

Which wasn't too often in this days. he knew that. As Operations, he always had to be on call and near headquarters. Some of the substations were revamped, and in headquarters itself, a new area especially for trainees had been built. Sometimes, when Michael's work was done, he'd look at his watch only to realize that it was already morning.

But Nikita had known this when she married him and she never complained. well, almost never.

Although they talked during breakfast, they only talked about things a normal couple would discuss: a new novel, articles in the newspaper (although the articles about politics were awfully wrong sometimes), and Nikita wanted to do a bit redecorating. Again.

But they avoided the topic of Section One almost completely. It was an unspoken agreement between them not to discuss job-related matters in their free time unless it was absolutely necessary. It was an attempt to maintain a sense of normality, and to keep their jobs separated from the rest of their life. They spent most of their time in Section anyway, and although relationships were generally allowed, open displays of affection were not. Most of the operatives didn't even know that Michael and Nikita were married; it was better so, and they had decided to keep it that way.

~~~

They were on their way to Section when Nikita broke the silence.

"Michael, what about Elena?"

"What about her?" he asked back.

She hesitated. "Well, you know... I can't keep her away from you forever. Sooner or later she'll find out that you're alive, and in her state of mind, that'll be a dangerous thing - she's too fragile."

He could see the problem: sure, he could hide from Elena for a few days, perhaps even weeks, but not until she was finished with training.

He frowned. "How far along is level 10?" That was the huge area currently being built for recruits and operatives in reprogramming.

"It'll be at least two or three weeks until it can be used. They're testing it right now. There are still some difficulties with the simulators though. I'll get the report today."

Two weeks. That was still within schedule, even ahead of it, but still too slow for his taste. But it should be possible to avoid Elena for two or three weeks. after that, all recruits would be transferred to level 10 anyway, and he could deal with this issue later.

Having reached their destination, one of the entrances to Section, Nikita embraced Michael and kissed him softly on the lips. He responded enthusiastically but she pulled away before it could get too passionate.

" 'Til later." she whispered. "I love you."

With those words, she kissed him once more and stepped into the waiting elevator. He stayed there until the doors had shut, then turned and walked in the opposite direction to another entrance. Another agreement, not to enter Section together. It would be too conspicuous if Operations and his third in command entered together every day.

As the elevator descended, Michael sighed softly. Another long day had begun.

~~~

Elena got up at 5 a.m. again. Then, after a quick breakfast in the cafeteria, she had her first lesson with computers.

Ugh.

The man who'd explain this to her introduced himself as Birkoff and was young, around 25. He looked like the proverbial computer geek with baggy clothes, pale skin and tinted glasses. He showed her the basics of the system, but she didn't really pay attention. In her opinion, computers were complicated and uninteresting, and she was glad when two hours had passed. Where was Nikita anyway?

The hall was huge and Elena stood a bit helpless in the middle of it, looking for Nikita. Her office was empty, and she didn't know whether to go back to her room or to wait in the office.

Just then the perch, which had been dark, was illuminated and a moment later a person came in and stood with its back to her in front of the computer monitors she could make out at the back of the perch.

Elena couldn't get rid of the feeling that this person - male - seemed familiar. She wasn't able to make out his features, but there was something, a fleetingly quiet feeling that was gone before she could grasp it... Just then Nikita appeared and called her to her office. Elena followed her, but when she cast a last look to the perch, it was dark again.

~~~

"Oh." That was all she could muster to say as Nikita handed her the daily schedule. It was certainly... interesting.

Good God, how was she supposed to learn all this stuff?

Martial arts, survival training, computers, equipment, first aid, etiquette (why the heck did she have to learn that?), weapons... the list seemed endless. And to make this already horrible day better, the next subject was a workout with Nikita. Elena groaned.

~~~

The walls of the shower were covered in steam and the water was already getting cold again, but Elena stayed just a little bit longer under the refreshing stray, just to enjoy the cleansing feeling that came with the water. When she stepped out of the shower she stood in front of the mirror, clearing the steam from it with her hand so she could see her reflection.

The face that stared at her wasn't the face that had entered Section six months ago.

It was fuller, tanned due to two weeks survival training in wilderness, and the dark circles beneath her eyes were long gone. She looked down at her body; it had changed, too. She'd gotten muscles and had never been in a better shape. Elena almost didn't recognize herself anymore, and sometimes she wondered who this girl in the mirror was. this girl who sparred daily with her sensei or Nikita, who made jokes with Walter while cleaning a gun, and who almost fell asleep while running sims.

She went to her wardrobe and opened it. Today was her free day, and she was going to spend it with Alex.

Alex worked at level 10 permanently, teaching her and the other recruits how to use the computers. The two women quickly became friends, as Alex had been pretty new in headquarters, too. And because Elena couldn't leave Section alone, she'd asked the younger woman to go with her. Well, she'd asked Nikita first, but she'd just had a week downtime herself and had no time to skip her schedule for a shopping trip.

Sometimes Elena wondered how her trainer spent her free time. Where did she live? Did she have an apartment or a house? Did she have friends outside Section, a boyfriend?

When she decided on a long skirt (she knew that Nikita would scold her because it was unpractical to run in) and a white blouse, she made the decision to prod Alex about Nikita; perhaps she knew something.

~~~

After a week to herself, without calls in the middle of the night, not even her full schedule could bring Nikita's good mood down.a week with scented bubble baths, long sleeps until noon, shopping trips, a good book and, of course, the best... Michael.

She sighed happily and stared dreamily at her computer screen. Michael could take only two days off, but he'd managed to come home every evening, and she'd almost felt like a normal wife with a normal husband who was always home in the evening... and the nights... her smile began to widen to a grin when the intercom beeped.

Damn, you couldn't even have a decent fantasy here without being interrupted.

"Yeah, what is it?" she snapped somewhat impatiently.

"Could you come to my office, Nikita?" When she heard her husband's slightly amused voice, Nikita almost blushed as she stuttered out a "Yes" and hurried out of her office.

~~~

Michael was seated behind his desk, reading Elena's file. It was positive, and most of her scores were above average. She'd done well; he was a bit surprised by that. He'd expected low scores in the first week because of Adam's death.

The thought of Adam still caused him pain; but it was a small pain and Michael had realized long ago that he'd really grieved for his son at the time he had to leave them.

But with Elena, it was a different matter. She'd watched her son die a terrible death; it was amazing how stable her psych profile seemed. Then, on the other side, recruits were kept busy during training; you hardly had time to think.

As Michael saw one of Elena's latest pictures, he smiled. She looked healthy. Almost happy. Perhaps it wouldn't be necessary to let her know the whole truth; perhaps it would be possible to let out certain parts in the story of her father and the role he had played. For this purpose he'd called Nikita: Elena's training was almost finished; she was ready.

~~~

The bright colors and the lively noises of the town never ceased to make Elena happy. She spent a very pleasant day with Alex, shopping, watching a movie, talking. The chance to ask Alex about her trainer came when they had a late lunch.

She waited until the waiter had taken their orders and asked as casually as possible,

"What can you tell me about Nikita?"

The other woman looked surprised. "Nikita? She's your trainer. I think you know more about her than I do."

Elena looked down for a moment. "Well, it's just, she never talks to me about her personal life. She's always so serious and businesslike."

"That's funny." Alex said. "Nikita's one of the most open and friendly people in Section. Everyone likes her; especially the people who knew Paul."

Elena nodded. She knew that story: it was an open secret that Nikita had helped the current Operations to get his power, and rumors were that Paul had ordered her cancellation more than once, which seemed strange because Nikita was one of the best operatives Section had.

But she asked nevertheless, "What was it like? Was all really so different then?"

"Well, I'd been in Section just for a short time when the command changed, and I was at a substation. but yes, it was different, very different. You got in abeyance much easier, for example; only one botched mission and you had a nice little number on the termination list. Another factor was the permanent surveillance. Speaking freely inside Section wasn't possible; there were cameras everywhere. And even if you got your own apartment eventually, that was observed, too. Can you imagine what it was like to be watched 24/7?"

The waiter interrupted their talk, bringing water and a Coke.

Alex took a sip and continued. "You could handle all this once you'd gotten used it. Kind of.habit, I guess. But the worst thing was that personal relationships were forbidden."

"What!" Elena exclaimed. When several people looked at her, she blushed and spoke in a hushed tone. "But... how's that possible? They can't prevent that if you are in Section all the time."

"It wasn't exactly forbidden, but unwanted. Besides, most of the people kept to themselves anyway. You couldn't be sure if your friend was really your friend, or just an operative with a mission to watch and manipulate you."

Elena stared at her hands. How could a person live like this? No life of your own, no friends... now she understood why Nikita's and Walter's eyes seemed so old sometimes.

Her friend smiled slightly. "That, however, is luckily the past. But you wanted to know something about Nikita, right? As I told you, I don't know her that much longer or better than you do, but there are rumors that she and Operations are involved with each other."

For the second time during this conversation all Elena could say was "What?!"

Alex began to grin. "Have you ever seen her when she comes out of his office? Sometimes she smiles so broadly you'd think she won in lottery. And if you see both of them together... considering the looks of him, I don't wonder." Her grin broadened. "It should be against protocol to have a boss who looks like him, or what do you think?"

"Well..." Elena hesitated. She had never noticed, but as she thought about it now, she'd never seen Operations. Why not? Yes, she spent most of her time at level 10, but when she was on the main level he was never present, except that one time six months ago - that strangely familiar person in the perch had been him, she was sure.

She was about to answer when Alex's cell phone rang. The younger woman scowled and picked up her call from Section.

~~~

Madeline terminated the phone connection and stared at her bonsai trees. They were so small, so easy to manipulate...

Today, she'd get her revenge. the revenge she'd waited so long for. In destroying Elena, she could show Michael and Nikita that they were still in Section, and that it was still deadly to mess with her plans.

~~~

Elena stood before Madeline's office, mentally collecting herself. In her time in Section, the hours she'd spent with Madeline had been the scariest. The older woman wasn't unfriendly or rude. But she had an aura around her that made Elena want to run in the opposite direction almost every time she saw her. But the second-in-command had called her immediately to her office after she and Alex had returned, which increased her nervousness. Hesitantly she punched in her code and entered the office.

"Sit down, Elena." Madeline smiled as she stepped in, as always.

She sat down somewhat anxiously, straightened her skirt and twisted her fingers. It was a bad habit she'd tried - without success - to get rid of, because it showed her emotions too clearly. Was it her imagination, or did Madeline's eyes seem colder than on other days?

Madeline chose her next words carefully.

"Over the last few months you've developed well. We are very pleased with your progress. However, we think it's time for you to know the truth."

The truth? About what? Elena's anticipation grew. Had this to do with Nikita? Or the men who had killed Adam?

"Your recruitment was no coincidence. You were registered in our databases long before your imprisonment. Elena. What do you know about your father?"

That caught her off guard. Her father?

"He left my mother and me when I was a child," she whispered hoarsely. "He... he died five years ago."

"How?" Madeline inquired. She already knew the answer, but she wanted to see Elena tell about it herself.

Elena swallowed. Hardly. It still hurt, after all these years. "He was shot. When he. when he visited me in the hospital. It was an accident. He worked undercover for the government and a hostile organisation found out his true identity and killed him."

Section had excelled itself with this mission and the aftermath of it. Even Vacek's own daughter believed the story Section had set up for her. Hilarious. Vacek, an undercover agent for the government. It explained everything: his absence, no traces of him anywhere, his hesitation to meet his only child. Perfect. It was almost a pity Madeline had to destroy this picture perfect for Elena.

Almost.

She waited a moment, then smiled a fake compassionate smile. "Yes, that's what was told to you. It's wrong. Salla Vacek, your father, was a terrorist. He was one of the most dangerous men in the world. Section One tried to find him or links to him for years."

To say she was shocked was an understatement. Elena breathed out sharply, a ragged, agonized breath. She tried to look at Madeline, but the room had begun to blur, and Madeline's words kept spinning in her head.

Father... terrorist... dangerous...

terrorist...

terrorist...

terrorist...

Shock, labored breathing, confusion, paleness... that was expected.the analyst in Madeline noticed Elena's reaction automatically and dispassionately. A tiny part of her, a part which she believed dead, screamed that this wasn't right, that this was cruel... however, it was just a tiny part, one that Madeline had learned to ignore a long time ago. Still, she gave the other woman some time before the next blow, a blow which would shatter her and her world into thousand pieces, irrevocably.

Long minutes passed, minutes that stretched into eternity...

Finally Elena managed to say, " How? How did you find him?"

"We put pressure on him with your illness. As you know, he came and was cancelled immediately."

Eyes full of unshed tears that would flow later, Elena lifted her gaze slowly. "No... no, you had no. how did you know I was ill? It was so sudden. You had no time... unless Nikita. had Nikita something to do with this? Was she sent to watch me?"

"No." Madeline saw Elena's pale, anguished face and had to suppress a smile. "No, Nikita was an accident. To be honest, she almost destroyed the cover which was set up much earlier. No, the operative watching you was another person."

Madeline's serene face.

The almost inaudible hum of her notebook.

Her perfect manicured fingernails, clasped together.

The gray wall behind her.

A soft whisper. "Who?"

"Your husband. Michael Samuelle."

And the world broke apart.

~~~

Later, Elena sometimes tried to remember the day her past was destroyed, but all she came up with was a fuzzy blur.

Most of her memories were blocked in an attempt to save her sanity, but not her feelings. She might not remember Madeline's face as she showed her Michael's file, nor Nikita as she tried to comfort her, nor the horrible night that followed. But she felt her shock, anguish and utter desperation every time she thought back to her life then, as if it had been yesterday.

And sometimes, in the lonely nights she couldn't find peace in sleep, she'd lie awake for hours and stare in the darkness around her. After that, the nightmares always came, every one different. One was the worst, a blurry, forgotten memory, pushed aside: her aiming a gun at Michael and threatening to kill him.

~~~

The main hall was deserted. A mission had just been completed and most of the operatives had taken a break. The perch above her was black and seemed empty, as always. It was always dark, at least every time she'd seen it. And he'd been there the whole time, watching her, observing her...

Elena quietly looked around, checking her surroundings without really seeing them. If someone had been near her, he'd have seen a pretty woman around thirty years old, her dark hair in sharp contrast to her pale face. Her posture was stiff as she stood there, looking at the perch above her with huge, almost black eyes. And if this someone had come nearer, he could have seen that those eyes seemed lifeless and that there were tears in them.

How long she just stood there, she didn't know. Time seemed to have stopped. It could have been seconds, some minutes, even hours. The world outside of Elena had ceased to exist, had faded into darkness and chaos. All she could do was to feel - feel her emotions trying to grasp her reality, trying to hold together what was left of it. Her reality... deep down in her mind, she remembered a quote, something about a knife, someone's definition of reality.

Elena wanted to cry; she had the small hope that she'd cry and fall asleep and wake up in the morning, next to Michael, only to see that this nightmare of the past four years never happened... but stop.

Michael... he'd betrayed her, too. He'd never been her husband, he'd never loved her, her or Adam.

Adam. Her son.

Madeline's words kept coming to her, words she hadn't wanted to hear, had tried to block them out... yet they came and she could recall them clearly: "Section needed Vacek by all means necessary.. a blood cover seemed appropriate." Appropriate. Adam, her only son, had been betrayed before he'd been born.

A single tear rolled down Elena's cheek. She absently wiped it away, now focussing on her goal: Adam had died because of Michael; her whole life had been destroyed by him. It seemed only fair that Michael should suffer, too.

Elena reached for her purse, opening it. She felt the cold metal in her hand, and, her decision made, she went in direction of the stairs.

~~~

Nikita saw that Elena was heading towards the perch. Actually, she'd been watching the other woman for a while. She'd been puzzled by her behavior: standing in the main hall for a full ten minutes, staring at the perch... what was going on? Michael stood next to her, and suddenly he grabbed Nikita's hand.

"She knows."

~~~

The pad looked ordinary, like all the others which were used in Section. Elena hesitantly punched in her code. Nothing happened. Of course not. Only full operatives could enter Operation's office without special permission. But Madeline had given her a new code, after Elena hadn't wanted to believe that Michael was alive.

"See for yourself", the older woman had said.

See for yourself.

The door opened and Elena stepped in.

What had she expected? Shocked faces, panicked voices? This was Section. She should have known how things worked by now. But as Elena entered the office it seemed as if they'd awaited her. Nikita... and Michael.

At first she could neither move nor speak.

Michael.

Even though she'd seen recent pictures of him, seen his file, a tiny part of her hadn't believed Madeline. He was dead, she'd witnessed it with her own eyes. But now he stood there, staring at her with those eyes that were uniquely his. Seemingly green, but when you looked closer you could see many different shades in them... Elena had loved those eyes, they'd always shone with love... but not anymore. They were emotionless and seemed like steel.

Elena took an unsure step further into the room, breaking free from Michael's gaze. He'd changed so thoroughly, he seemed like a completely different person. His hair had grown long again, and he wore a black suit - completely black.

Another step and the door shut with a soft click. This tore Elena out of her trance and she raised her head. Her voice sounded smooth, soft.

"So it's true."

The silence in the room was deafening. Michael, for once, didn't know how to react. What could he do in a situation like this? What to say? He couldn't apologize for this; he couldn't make up for stealing a woman's life.

At last, Elena spoke. Her voice had this unemotional quality that sounded strange in her own ears.

"What? Do you have nothing to say? Don't you have anything to say, either of you? Or is this the way you handle all things? Simply ignore them?"

She didn't even notice the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. The last two hours had pounded her reality to pieces, and that began to take its toll on her.

"Elena..." Nikita said quietly, and made a step towards her.

Nikita.

A supposed friend.

A person to rely on.

A friendly and caring woman.

Nikita, Michael's wife.

"Shut up!" She screamed as all emotions suddenly seemed to break free. "Just shut up! I don't want to hear that Section crap from you! What you did to me... what you do to me... YOU'VE BETRAYED ME! You stole my life from me! You stole my son, you KILLED HIM!"

The tears flowed freely now, as if a dam had broken.

At these hateful words, Michael flinched and Elena noticed the motion. "Hit a nerve? What was your reward for another successful mission? Were you happy when you finally killed my father? Finally you got rid of us and could return to your precious Nikita and marry her right away! Or did you marry her before? During one of your 'business trips'?"

Elena could see herself waiting for Michael for weeks with almost no word from him. And when he returned he was often tired and moody. She could see herself kissing him, making love to him... giving birth to Adam, his son. She could see Michael, playing the cello for him. All fake, all a lie. He'd had someone else all the time. He'd never loved her, he'd never loved Adam.

The gun in her hand was cool and firm. She'd gotten it soon after her recruitment, from Walter. Normally recruits didn't get guns that early, but she was a special case... The barrel gleamed silvery in the dim light, and there was a soft click as Elena cocked the weapon and aimed it at Michael, her arm steady and unwavering.

"Tell me," she whispered, "tell me one reason why I shouldn't kill you."

A few seconds went by. Time slowed down and then, an equally soft whisper.

"I don't know one single reason."

She inhaled sharply, unbelieving. Just now, after hearing his voice again, she became aware of her actions. The gun... she stared at it in wonder, as if she were seeing it for the first time. She'd practiced shooting, but never in the simulator, with persons. Not since that fateful night so long ago...

Elena could feel it again, the horror at seeing Adam's dead body, the initial confusion and the uncontrollable rage. the rage that made her act without thought, that made her want to kill everyone... the rage she felt now against Michael. Her hand began to shake more and more. A sob escaped Elena's lips before she threw the gun to the floor and fled from the room.

~~~

Elena's sobs were the only thing that interrupted the darkness and the silence of her room. She laid crouched on her bed, hugging herself and crying out all her desperation. The almost unbearable rage she'd felt earlier was gone, completely vanished, and now she just wanted to die. Her body shook violently with each sob, and it began to hurt.

How could this have happened?

The look in Michael's eyes as he whispered those words to her, no longer cold and unemotional, but full of pain and regret. In that moment he wasn't the cruel Section operative who'd manipulated her for years but her husband, the Michael she'd fallen in love with.

And she couldn't pull the trigger.

How could she even have considered it? Killing him? In those moments, Elena had relived all the happy times she'd had with him, like in a film: their first date, his proposal, their marriage, Adam's birth...

And when she'd finally realized what she was doing, training a gun at a person, she'd panicked, remembering the last time this had happened. Elena had done the only thing she could do: run and hide in darkness and try to forget everything. And so she cried.

~~~

The door opened soundlessly and Nikita entered. Adjusting her eyes to the darkness, she could make out Elena in the corner of her bed, huddled and crying. She gingerly kneeled next to the woman, not daring to switch on the lights. It was probably not wise to try to comfort Elena now, but she couldn't just stand back and watch Elena's misery - it tore her apart.

As the other woman didn't seem to have noticed her, Nikita spoke softly. "Elena." but didn't touch her. The other woman flinched and crawled away until her back was against the wall. It was still black in the room, except from the small light from the notebook, signaling that it was currently on stand-by.

"What do you want?" Elena asked bitterly. "To tell me more lies?"

"No," Nikita replied softly. "I... I want to help you."

"Help me? You come a bit late, don't you think? Where were you when Adam was killed? After you used me for years, you'd think you could at least protect us. But wait, perhaps it was another little plot, courtesy of Section, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, come on, Nikita, don't play dumb. A living reminder of a mission... of Michael... plus the wife. You probably decided that we were 'acceptable collateral'. And why not? Just another two innocents, another family tragedy: 'woman commits suicide after killing the murderers of her son'. Or was it jealousy? Were you jealous of me?"

"NO!" Nikita answered fiercely. "I was never jealous of you. How can you think that of me? Killing in cold blood? I thought you knew me better than that."

"I know you?" Elena hissed. "I'll tell you what I know about you. I thought I knew a woman related to my husband who miraculously disappeared after his death. I thought I knew a woman who was my trainer and who I could trust. All I know about you now is that you deceived me all along and on top of that, you're married to Michael! Didn't you see him often enough so you decided you could pay a visit to us? To have something to laugh about? So you could make a fool of me? Are you happy now? After you destroyed everything I had? After taking me into Section? You should at least have left me in prison. At least I'd have the knowledge that I had a father who did good even if he was never there and a husband who loved and cared for me! Now I have nothing, thanks to you and Michael. You've got your revenge."

The tears had stopped; she simply felt too drained and tired for crying. She just wanted to be left alone.

Nikita chose her next words carefully. "That's not true, Elena, and I think you know that. I never wanted to hurt you. I. I didn't know about Michael's mission when I came to your house."

"What did you want then, Nikita? A good screw from your husband, perhaps?" Elena lashed out hatefully. In this moment it didn't matter that the other woman could cancel her in the blink of an eye; she wanted to hurt Nikita as she'd hurt her.

Nikita winced but stayed calm. "No... I needed help - very badly," she admitted. "I saw no other way than to contact Michael. We didn't have a relationship then, and I didn't know about you, I swear. Please... please believe me."

Slowly Elena curled up on her bed and said in a muffled voice, "Go. I don't want to hear your reasons or your apologies. I have every reason to hate you, Nikita, and why should I believe you? You betrayed me long enough, so why should you tell the truth now? Go away and let me alone."

Hesitantly, Nikita rose. At the door she stopped for a moment, looking at the dark figure on the bed before she left the room, and quietly shut the door behind her.

~~~

Madeline watched Elena's room, sipping on her tea. There wasn't much to see, but the conversation was certainly interesting. She had to suppress a smile. Sometimes people reacted so predictably, it was laughable.

The door opened and Michael came in; she looked up from her screen and quickly disconnected the link. He moved seemingly unhurried, his face a mask as always, but Madeline knew that he fumed inwardly.

Good.

"Explain," he hissed. He didn't need to say what, and she didn't play dumb.

She carefully place the china cup on the saucer, crossed her legs and looked openly in his face. "It's better for her to get the facts now, the earlier, the better. She has time to deal with it now; she'll be over it by the time she'll be on full operative status and will be able to work with you."

That was a lie. Elena would never be able to work with Michael on a strictly professional level; she was too emotional and too attached to him. But he couldn't object. If he did, it would be grounds for Elena's cancellation; that had been her intention all along.

Michael was livid and close to exploding. Still, he managed to keep his voice even and unemotional.

"It wasn't your decision to make, Madeleine, but mine, and Nikita's, who's her trainer. I warned you once Madeline, not to play games with me. Don't cross my affairs; should you mess with this again, I'll notify Oversight and have you replaced."

Both knew that 'replaced' meant cancellation, but that wasn't Madeline's concern.

"What's there to tell, Michael? As far as I know, Oversight doesn't even know about Elena's recruitment. They'd be very surprised about that, don't you think?"

Suddenly Michael's face was only inches away from hers as he whispered, "Behave, Madeline, or I'll kill you myself." With that, he turned around and left the room.

A cruel smile played around Madeline's lips. Her plan had worked.

~~~

Two days had passed, two days since Elena had found out the truth about her father and Michael. Two days had passed since she'd left her quarters. She refused to speak with anyone, not with Nikita, not with Walter, not with Alex, who had no clue what was going on, and Nikita and Michael began to get seriously worried.

Madeline really had chosen the worst time possible, because the evaluation was near. Every four years, Section One was evaluated, beginning with Operations and Nikita. It was the second time since they had taken over Section, and if George wasn't satisfied with the results, they'd be replaced. And considering their current emotional state, this was going to be very, very difficult.

~~~

Michael's face darkened as he read the intel Birkoff had provided him with.

First the evaluation: he and Nikita would be gone for several days. Second, an impending abeyance mission would take place during their absence. It was a dangerous mission with no chance of survival; the base was heavily guarded; it would take at least ten operatives to accomplish their goal: to destroy their computer system. The problem was, once the system was deleted, the whole building would blow up automatically.

No, he didn't like this at all.

Michael had a bad feeling about leaving Elena alone under Madeline's reign. So far, the other woman had done nothing but wreak havoc on Elena's already fragile psyche, and he wasn't sure what she planned next. It was time to take Madeline out of the equation permanently.

He sighed and began to prepare his leave.

~~~

Nikita paced in her office, waiting for Michael. She was impatient and nervous, not having slept the last few nights, and still concerned about Elena - and Madeline. The older woman had chosen the worst time possible to drop her little bombshell, and Nikita wondered what she was up to. Madeline did nothing without a plan. And Elena...

She sighed deeply and sat down, only to stand up a moment later and resume pacing. She glanced out of her window, closing the blinds and checking her bag for the fifth time.

She hated those evaluations. She'd lived through one and in her opinion, once was more than enough. But George insisted on them after the incident with Paul - understandably so. But still...

Nikita had a bad feeling about this, a nagging little feeling that told her something wasn't right - her instinct. Michael didn't believe in instinct, but she did. With one last glance around her office, she slung her bag over her shoulder and headed for Birkoff's workstation.

~~~

"Please, come in." Madeline sounded amiable, but there was an underlying threat in her tone, leaving Elena with no doubt as to what could happen if she refused to do so. She sat down without an invitation, not really caring about the other woman's power over her.

Madeline's face remained unreadable but she sighed inwardly. Elena was a mere shadow of her former self. hair loose and uncombed, face red and swollen from weeping, eyes huge and empty.

"We understand that you had some... difficult issues to deal with, Elena. However, we can't accept that you defy direct orders and lock yourself in your room. Operations may tolerate this; I don't. You're a Section operative. We expect that you can deal with the personal matters concerning Michael and your marriage."

Elena winced slightly but otherwise showed no reaction. It didn't matter anymore. Currently she felt like she wanted to die; that was the easiest way out. Perhaps Madeline would cancel her; it seemed like mercy. She was in Section; she'd lost all, even her freedom. If she couldn't even have that, Elena saw no reason to live anymore. She shrugged.

"Whatever."

Madeline nodded, seeing Elena's reaction and knowing her thoughts. "As I said, despite that, we're pleased with your progress... and due to our shortage of operatives, you're required for a mission next week."

"What?" That got her full attention. A mission! That was impossible! She'd had only six months of training. "But... but I'm not ready and..." Elena stuttered nervously.

"You meet the requirements for this specific mission. Certain aspects of your training are already finished. I'm sure you'll do fine. The briefing is scheduled for tomorrow, 10:00 a.m. I expect you to put your emotions aside and be prepared. Failure is not an option."

Still speechless, Elena understood the dismissal and hurriedly left the room, eager to escape.

Madeline smiled, just a little bit. Another part of her plan was working. She looked at the screen, bringing up Elena's file and updating it. She quickly scanned through the pages. Yes, all was as it should be... including the newest, encrypted part:

Abeyance list- Termination number one.

~~~

The soft beep pulled Birkoff's attention to the screen. Frowning, he scrolled through the pages and typed in some commands. There it was, a new entry had been made in the classified files, files he was supposed to keep hidden on Nikita's orders. Very few people had the codes to access those files. Scanning for the update, he knew that something was wrong when the computer came up with nothing. Some commands later, he had the entry. Birkoff's face grew pale, and he stared at the screen for at least ten seconds before he frantically began to track down Michael and Nikita.

~~~

The phone rang.

Damn.

Michael stared at it crossly, contemplating whether to pick it up or to toss it out the window. Could it be some trick of Oversight? Another psyche test? But what if it was important? An emergency? Sighing, he picked up.

"Yes," sounding emotionless and cold. He listened for about ten seconds and if one could've seen Michael's face through the darkness he would have read nothing. no surprise or distress or anger. But as he hurriedly dressed and proceeded to wake Nikita, one could've seen the tremor in his movements and the unconcealed fury in his eyes.

~~~

Elena crouched in the shadows under the trees, avoiding the lights and surveying the building before her. It was night - a clear, beautiful, cold night, with millions of stars scattered across the sky. a night made to watch the stars and the moon in the warming arms of your lover, just enjoying life and sharing a kiss here and then.

Such nights she'd spent with Michael, basking in his apparent love, relishing the tenderness with which he'd made love to her. She'd lie in his embrace for hours, listening to his heartbeat and feeling like the luckiest woman alive.

What a fool she'd been.

"Report," the team leader ordered, jolting Elena back into reality. Oh, the irony wasn't lost to her: here she was, looking out for hostiles, her own gun in her hand. She'd probably be dead by the time dawn approached. The man who was responsible for this was the same man who'd died over four years ago, the same man who'd betrayed and hurt her beyond repair. And yet here she was, dreaming about him...

"Elena, report!" The impatient voice startled her. Blinking, she glanced around.

"No movement, everything seems quiet", she spoke into her com unit.

"Proceed." The order sounded harsh, cold. Would it always be like this? Was this the way she'd spend the rest of her life?

Elena didn't realize that her hands were shaking as she ran toward the building and stopped at the small door. Her breathing was uneven; she wasn't prepared for this, wasn't ready. Of course, she didn't really care if she died, but to die like this... what had they thought when they'd sent her on a mission? She was only a recruit, not trained for this; and yet here she stood. What a crazy world.

"I'm entering now."

Elena swiftly kicked the door open, her gun aimed at the darkness. She was in a storage room, small and dirty. There was another door, closed. She tried to open it, surprised that it wasn't locked. The voice in her ear was quiet, reporting that the system had been destroyed. Then, gun fire and a single cry.

Silence.

She winced. Had the other operative died?

Again, the team leader. "All teams, hold positions."

Why? They'd reached their aim, so why stay?

But Elena obeyed, taking a few steps farther. Weren't there voices? Panicked shouts? She strained to hear something, momentarily forgetting her surroundings.

A single shot rang out.

~~~

Elena turned around rapidly, stunned, just in time to see a dead body drop to the floor. Who...?

Two people stood in the doorway, black clad from head to toe. She shrieked as one of them approached her and grabbed her hand. She was too afraid to do anything.

"Come on, get out, run!" a familiar voice shouted.

She was pulled out of the corridor, out of the storage room and back into the night. But they didn't stop, they increased their speed. The one who'd taken her hand yanked Elena's com unit out of her ear and threw it behind them.

And suddenly the world exploded into red and yellow flames.

~~~

"Oooow," she slowly came into consciousness. Elena's whole body hurt and her head seemed to burst. She gingerly sat up and looked into the concerned faces of Michael and Nikita.

"You?" she asked, "What are you doing here?"

Michael gave her a small bottle. "Drink that. You'll feel better after it."

Elena took a sip and coughed. The liquid burned in her mouth and throat, but she really didn't feel as dizzy as before.

"We don't have much time," Nikita explained.

Elena was confused, stunned, and most importantly, angry. "What was that?" she hissed, "Why did you send me on this mission?. and why did you come? Were you in the mood to play hero?"

"No." The word was spoken quietly but firmly. "No," Michael repeated softly. "You weren't supposed to go on this mission. That was my... mistake. I didn't pay enough attention to Madeline."

"Madeline? She didn't plan this mission, you did! And you screwed up! All... all the operatives in there! They're dead because of your mistake!"

Michael looked down. Should he tell her the truth?. crush her more with the ugly reality? Or lie to her and let her remain in the dark? He looked at Nikita; her eyes were bright, two blue orbs in the darkness. She nodded almost undetectably, smiling a small, sad smile. He swallowed.

"Yes... that was my mistake. an unforgivable one. But I swear, I never sent you on this mission. Madeline did."

"But why?" Despite all, Elena believed him. He'd lied to her for so long, and yet she found herself believing his eyes once more.

He sighed. "You aren't fully trained. She hoped you'd make a mistake and get yourself killed."

She winced. Killed? Many questions shot through her head. So many things unclear, so many questions unanswered.

"Michael." Nikita sounded urging before she left them and went in direction of the woods, leaving Elena and Michael alone.

"Elena, I have to go before they discover our absence. But please, believe me, it was never my intention to cause you so much pain. I. I always wanted to keep you safe."

He looked intently at her and she felt as if he was staring right in her soul.

"You're free, Elena, free to go wherever you want to go. I didn't want it like this, but now it's too late to change it. Here." The disk in his hands was small and shined silvery under the stars. She stared at it, not understanding.

"This disk contains all the things you'll want to know. the whole truth and... some things you'll need. You're free, but never, ever return to Paris, Elena." Before she could say anything, he leaned toward her and kissed her softly on the forehead.

She stood there for a long time, the disk in her hands. Gently touching the skin where his lips had touched her. She turned around and went into the darkness.

~~~

The door opened quietly and Madeline was surprised to see both Michael and Nikita. Of course she didn't show her surprise. "Come in," she invited the couple. Then she waited for them to say something; when they were silent, she looked up.

"Is there anything particular you need? The report about the week you were absent is almost finished; you'll have it in another hour."

"I have a question," Nikita said. "Did you really think you could get away with this?"

Madeline didn't even pretend not to know what the other woman was talking about. She regarded her calmly. "It was a necessary step; she was a liability and I think you know that. You both were too emotionally attached to Elena to evaluate her properly; It was my duty to ensure that she didn't interfere with our job."

Michael's eyes bored into hers, making her feel uncomfortable. If looks could kill...

"Was it your duty or your wish for revenge? You wanted to cancel her from the beginning; it was your plan. And our evaluation was a lucky opportunity, wasn't it?"

Madeline's smile was frosty. "Perhaps. But you can't prove it, Michael, so I suggest we move on to more important matters."

"Yes," he whispered, "more important matters." He took out a disk from his pocket. "Do you recognize this? It belongs to you. A disk containing all your contacts to Black Wing... and the order you gave the surveillance team watching Elena. All on one disk. I almost thought you wanted it to be found."

She stared at the silvery disk.

"You're wondering where I got this? George was helpful after he witnessed some of the things you did to Adrian."

Madeline paled and looked at him silently.

Michael leaned against the wall. "Was it worth it? Was your revenge for Paul more important than your own life? Was he worth it?" He took Nikita's hand and the door opened.

"I hope it was. To know that you failed completely in all your tasks must be a hard burden for you. Although I don't think you have to carry it much longer."

He looked back at her. He and Nikita, they seemed almost... pitying as the security team entered. Madeline had little doubt what her destination would be.

"Goodbye, Madeline."

~~~

Anne inhaled deeply, put on her best smile and rang. She was holding a small plant in her hands, nothing extraordinary, just a welcoming gift.

After a moment the door opened. "Yes?" the woman asked, a bit unfriendly.

"Uhm", she hesitated briefly. "I'm Anne... I'm living in the flat next to you and I thought since you were new here, you'd like something green..." She gestured towards the plant. "But if I came at a bad time, I'm sorry... I'll come back later?"

The woman opened the door completely and smiled a little. "No, no, you weren't interrupting anything. I just wasn't expecting any guests. Please, come in."

Anne slowly stepped into the apartment and looked around. It mirrored hers, a big living room with separated bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Not very big, but nice. "Uhm, should I put it on the table?" Anne asked the woman.

Now she laughed. "My, I'm rude. Yes, thank you,...?"

"Anne. Anne Winters."

"I'm Elena. Sorry if it's a bit messy, I haven't had time to clean up yet. Would you like something to drink? I can make coffee, or tea."

"Coffee would be great."

"I'll come back in a moment" Elena said, going to the kitchen.

Anne could hear her rummaging through the cupboard as she looked around the living room. Some boxes were standing on the floor, still closed. On the table were several books and an open notebook. Curious, she stepped closer. The screen showed a picture of three people, one of which was Elena herself, a man, and a small boy. Her family?

"The coffee's ready."

Elena's voice startled her and Anne quickly stepped back. If the other woman had noticed her surprise, she didn't comment on it, but set two steaming cups on the table. Then she carefully closed the laptop and sat down.

~~~

While sipping on her coffee, Anne couldn't contain her curiosity.

"Do you have a family?"

Elena seemed taken aback, then sad. After a moment, she answered slowly.

"I had one... a long time ago. They died in a car crash five years ago."

Realizing her mistake, Anne hastily excused herself.

"I'm sorry, if that... I'm really sorry." Pretending to glance at her watch she stood up. "It's late... I should go. Thanks for the coffee..."

"Yes, no problem..."

Elena smiled as she closed the door.

Anne just stood there, breathing out slowly. Something seemed wrong with the other woman. of course, if she'd lost her whole family... Shrugging, she opened the door to her flat and shut it softly behind her.



FIN