Madeline, still in a fine, understated mood of frenzy, barked, "Birkoff, report!"

        Her eyes narrowed as she surveyed Systems and the usual analysts. The old adage came to Birkoff's mind, ‘When momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.' The air of tension was evident in the jumpy movements of everyone.

        Michael stood at her side. He had been unsuccessful in locating his suspect. He was about to ask Madeline for her assistance. Michael suspected that he was already waiting where ever he had secreted Nikita.

        Birkoff was as nervous as the rest of his staff. The computer generated sim rep shone eerily in blue. "Everyone has reported, Madeline. Nikita has not been found.  Every sector is negative, but her internal clock is still functioning normally, and it says
she's here, somewhere."

        Michael spoke, "Birkoff, were there ‘any' anomalies in the search? I want to interview everyone. I want to make certain every inch of Section has been searched."

        "No one reported anything unusual, but I will call everyone to the briefing area."

        "Fine. Do it now." Michael turned to Madeline and said, "I need to talk to you privately for a moment."

        Madeline looked at Michael with an air of frustration. "Can't it wait?"


        Michael and Madeline left Systems. Michael's office was closer. As they entered Michael's office, he activated his scrambling device. Madeline's only response was a raised eyebrow.

        "All right, Michael. What is so important that you pulled me away from the search for Nikita?"

        "I know who the killer is. I think you do, too."

        Madeline gave Michael a questioning look and said, "If I knew, he would be apprehended by now."

        "He's already in hiding. I've tried to communicate with him, but he's not responding. I think he's with Nikita and waiting for me. He missed me once, and he's not going to take any chances this time."

        "Well, who?" Madeline asked.

        "The one who was ‘already' a serial killer, Madeline. You can't deny it. I have my sources. Serial killers are ‘never' good risks. You wrote the book on covert psych-ops. Why did you break your own rule?"

        "We don't have time for this now, Michael. Let's find him."


        He emitted a tuneless hum, but he was happy. Soon Michael would be under his power, and soon Michael would be dead. The power of life and death over such an elite group of people had kept him elated for days. Never again would he be derided for what
he did or who he was. He would be a mythical figure for ages to come. He never considered that he might fail, or what would happen after he killed Michael.

        Nikita's cell phone rang again. "Oh, we must do something about that irritating little gadget." He scrambled in the refuse and found the offending object. He removed the battery with one deft manipulation. "Guess that won't be getting on our nerves now,
will it, Nikita?" He took out his 9mm and stroked it's gunmetal blue surface. His face was enhanced with a beatific smile, frightening to see in one so tormented.

        Nikita's heart sank. As long as the phone continued to ring, she knew they were still searching for her. Someone might even have heard it and investigated the source.  She could only lie there and try to keep her muscles relaxed. Breathing was becoming
more difficult, as the gag was becoming more and more intolerable. As much as she wanted to be rescued, she feared what would happen. She couldn't bear to lose Michael, and that was clearly what the devilish little man had planned.


        In the main briefing area, Michael, Madeline and O'Brian began the search for any unreported anomalies. For ten minutes, they each interviewed operatives. Finally, Ken Stiles spoke, "I didn't think anything about it at the time, but one of my rooms to search
was already marked with yellow tape."

        Michael and Marco rose in unison.

        "Take us there now," Marco demanded.

        "Wait," said Michael. "Locate it on the sim rep. We can't make a frontal attack. He's already there waiting for us."

        Stiles quickly noted the position of the room in question in the maintenance area.

        "Birkoff, is there another way in?" asked Michael.

        Birkoff quickly brought up the maintenance area itself and a glowing red arrow marked the exact location of the room. "This is it. There is an air vent, large enough for one."

        "Fine, that's enough. Marco, you will distract him at the door, and I will enter through the air vent." Michael's fears for Nikita were not allayed, but having a target and a destination gave him a focus, and that's all he needed.


         "Why isn't he coming?  What's taking him so long to find you, Nikita?  Maybe he doesn't care so much about you, after all.  Maybe I was mistaken."

        Nikita made no sound and was, in fact, unconscious.  The gag was slowly choking her as the irritation to her throat made the mucous membranes swell, reducing the size of her airway.

        He stood over her and kicked some of the trash to the side.  He noted her poor color.  "Well, he'd better hurry, if he wants to see you alive, Precious.  I guess it really doesn't matter, because he will be dead the moment he steps in that door."  He began to look about for a means of escape.  He didn't suppose Michael would be foolish enough to come alone.  The air vent was reachable, and he  positioned a trash container underneath the vent.


        Michael snaked his way through the vent.  "Are you reading me, Birkoff?" he asked as he contracted his shoulders to ease his passage.

         "Reading you fine, Michael.  The blue team is already positioned about ten yards from the door.  There's no indication that he has detected them.  You are about twenty yards away from the opening, but you have to make a tight left turn about ten yards from
where you are now."

         Birkoff's computer screen showed Michael's position and progress clearly.  Madeline and Operations both stood behind Birkoff's shoulders as they waited for Michael to reach his position
         "Marco, on my command, Blue team will advance to the door," Birkoff instructed.

         "Birkoff, I have reached the left turn," Michael reported.  His heart was racing.  He still had no idea if he would be in time to save Nikita.  He maneuvered his body around the turn with some difficulty and waited to see if he had been detected.

         "Blue team to the door position, Michael is ten yards from the vent opening.  Hold till Michael is in position."

        The tension level in Systems took a quantum leap.  Operations and Madeline both appeared to be holding their breath.  Birkoff's eyes behind his shaded lenses were motionless, but he had a tiny tremor in his right hand.  He wanted an Oreo or a gummy bear to relieve the tension, but he couldn't bring himself to stuff his face while Nikita's fate was unknown.


        It wasn't a loud sound, but it was loud enough.  The snick of someone checking a shell cartridge, and he heard it.  He jumped with a nimble movement onto the garbage can and lowered the grill.  He would shoot, then flee.  He knew they would never find him in
the maze of air vents, and he would be free of Section One.  He would again be free to administer justice to the outside world, as he had before.


        Michael gave two pulses which signaled the blue team to attack.  Michael could hear as the shots rang, but could not see if any of the blue team were hit.  The vent opened in front of him.  Michael was prepared.

        After firing two rounds, he struggled into the vent opening, pushing his shoulders through the opening and scrambled with his feet against the wall.  He hadn't seen Michael, but it was time to make his exit.
        "Hello, Hector.  Looking for me?' came a soft wry voice.


         "Yes, it's me."  Michael wasted no more time in conversation.  He used a stun gun to immobilize Hector, much like the one Hector had used on Nikita.

         "Blue team, I have the target."  The firing had ceased as soon as Hector had stopped firing.  There was too great a danger that Nikita might be felled by ricochet.

        When Stiles from the blue team entered the room, he could see Hector's motionless feet protruding from the vent.  He gave a mighty pull, and the former housekeeper slid from the vent.  He looked again.  Michael's face appeared and was followed by a more graceful exit.

        "Report." Michael said.

         Ken  reported, "Marco's down, and on his way to MedLab, no other serious injuries.  Where's Nikita?" he asked.

         While the  rest of the blue team dragged Hector from the room, Michael and Ken began searching the room in earnest.  Michael located Nikita under a large pile of trash.  His heart nearly stopped when he saw how she had been bound and her cyanotic lips.  He
quickly felt for a carotid pulse and was rewarded by a faint one.

        "She's still alive," he said hoarsely.

         His mind prayed, Let her live, while he cut the treacherous bonds behind her back.  He gently pealed the duct tape from her mouth and removed the foul gag.  There was no sudden gasp for air, and Michael pressed his lips to hers and began to force air into her

         Nikita's body responded suddenly as her hands grasped Michael about the neck.  She struggled and tried to choke him.

        "C'est moi, Nikita.  You're safe now."  He began to peel the tape that had covered her eyes as he marveled that she was still alive after the ordeal.

        "Did you get him?"  Her voice was raspy as she tried to talk.

         "We got him.  Shh.  Don't try to talk."  Michael cradled Nikita in his arms and carried her to MedLab, as he whispered in her ear the words that he needed to say for so long.


        Madeline circled her prisoner in the white room. Hector sat there quivering, afraid to follow her movements or to look her in the face. This woman held the power of lifeand death over him, and she would surely use it.

        Madeline always used the maneuver of circling her victims to intimidate them. Any Section One operative who ended in the white room knew that their hours and minutes were numbered. Once Madeline had what she wanted, that was it. It had been a long time since she had to mete out the sentence herself; but she ordered it often enough, and she would order this one without a single qualm.

        "I don't suppose you would like to tell me why you summarily executed five high level operatives. Do you even know?" she asked sadly.

        "Don't take me for an idiot, Madeline! Hector hissed.

        "Oh, no, quite the contrary, Hector. You led us quite a little dance here. We were quite foolish to overlook you as a main suspect; however, you must have wanted to be caught or you would not have gone after Michael. Surely, you knew Michael would not
be taken so easily as your other victims."

        "Michael!" he spat. "He would be dead now, if he hadn't been found so quickly.  He was no more difficult than the others. It was bad timing. That's all."

        Madeline offered Hector a sad smile. "But you kidnapped Nikita. Surely, you knew that Michael would leave no stone unturned to retrieve her. Don't you wonder why he didn't kill you on the spot?"

        A cagy look crossed Hector's face. "You still want to know something, don't you, Madeline? Well, ask it. I have nothing to lose now." Hector looked directly into her eyes and saw no pity there.

        "What about Coriascue in the Balkans?"

        Hector laughed, "I can't help you with that one, Madeline. As you can see, I haven't been to the Balkans lately. Why, did you think he was murdered, too? Yes, that would have been a nice one to add to my total."

        "Why, Hector? Why did you kill Carrey, LaFontaine, Judith, Redmond and LeBlanc? You always had good reasons for your other kills prior to coming into Section, even if the authorities didn't appreciate your unique method of law enforcement. You served Section quite well in your capacity as Housekeeping."

        "I felt I was getting rusty, Madeline. I needed to prove myself once more. The first four were warmups for Michael. He was the supreme challenge, your best operative, and he bested me." He ended with a shrill whine.

        "Is there anything else, Hector?" Madeline asked. She was tired of flattering the little toad.

        Hector gave her an eerie smile. "I wanted to pay you a visit, too, Madeline.  Wouldn't you have loved to awaken and find me there with one of my many toys of terror?" Hector erupted with a shrill giggle, that made the hair on the back her neck rise.

        "I can only say that I'm not sorry you omitted me, but you would have had a fight on your hands, Hector." With this riposte, Madeline turned and left the white room, leaving Hector to his imagination.

        "Cancel him, now," she said to Stiles as she left. "Don't even wait one minute."


        Mandelita stood and watched as the nurses, technicians and Doc rendered expert care to Marco. She had seen the chest tube placed, the transfusions initiated, and surgery commenced. She knew she was in the way, but for some illogical reason she couldn't
bring herself to leave. She had already been recalled to the Agency for another assignment, but she and Marco had begun a tentative friendship before being interrupted by Hector during the search for Nikita. Mandelita had investigated the circumstances behind Marco's recruitment into Section and had been surprised to find that he was not a run-of-the-mill murderer. She found it sad and ironic that he should be surrounded by those he would have gladly imprisoned.

        Their brief conversation had begun with her apology. "I don't know quite what to say, Marco. I'm sorry for treating you the way I have. It's just that this place makes me nervous." She had looked into his eyes and had seen the gratitude there.

        "Apology accepted," Marco had said. "I never expected to end up in a place like this," he had added. "It's beyond anything I ever imagined existed in the covert world."  Marco shook his head as if still in disbelief of his circumstances.

        She had then asked "How much longer do you have before your ‘training' is over?"

        Marco had given a rueful laugh. "You mean how long before I know whether or not I ‘make' it or get canceled?"

        Mandelita had found it difficult to look him in the eye at his blunt assessment of her question. "Yes," she had admitted softly.

        "I have about six months to go. I've had no major screw ups, but there's no wayto tell what my trainer will recommend. He's not too fond of cops, even ex-cops." Marco shrugged. It had been at this point when they had been interrupted by Hector.

        Mandelita could see that the telemetry readings were excellent, along with the blood gases. It was lucky for Marco that Section had a trauma surgeon on site. Time was always of the essence in sucking chest wounds like Marco's, but Section One's trauma
team was the best she had seen. She supposed they had a lot of practice.

******** *

        Nikita listened as Michael whispered all the things she had ever wanted to hear from him. She kept her arms around his neck and marveled at the love she heard expressed. She had tried to speak, although her throat was raw. Her throat ached with the emotions that she needed to express, as well.

        "Nikita, my love. Never forsake me. You are the light of my life and the only reason my heart continues to beat. It must, for I must see your beautiful face, your eyes, and your beautiful soul." His voice was soft and hoarse with emotion. No one could hear him but Nikita, and she was the only one who mattered.

        "Michael," she tried to say, but ended with another raspy whisper.

        "Shh, don't talk. You're going to MedLab, where we can take care of you."

        "I'm all right." The tears began to well in her eyes, making them more luminous than ever. She snuggled her head on Michael's chest and sighed. If only we could always be this close, she thought. Why does it take a life or death situation to enable us to express our feelings to one another, she asked herself.

        When he reached MedLab, Michael was shown where to take Nikita. He lay her on the exam table with a gentleness that was exquisite. He brushed the hair from her face and kissed her cheek. "You'll be all right now. Marti is here. I'm here. I won't leave you."

        Martinelli stood and watched Michael's tender ministrations. She sighed, too. She had dreams of Michael, but could see that his heart and soul belonged to Nikita.

******** *

        Michael and Mandelita passed each other in the hall as they paced. Michael gave her a questioning glance. He wasn't sure why or for whom she paced.

        "Marco," she said. "He's in recovery. I know I could go in there, but I'd be in the way. He's going to be okay," she said with a small sob. "Is Nikita all right?"

        "Yes, she'll be fine. She's only sleeping," was his ubiquitous Section response.  He was surprised at the thought of O'Brian and Lopez. His initial impression of her had been that she was quite assertive and arrogant, and he had heard that she had been
extremely obnoxious to O'Brian on more than one occasion. Michael had often observed that the environment of Section One made for strange bedfellows, and relationships often formed where they would, in spite of regulations and recommendations from above.

        His own relationship with Nikita was a perfect example. A scrawny, nearly feral street kid, given to him as material, had blossomed into a beautiful vibrant woman who held the key to his heart and soul. He had to become Operations soon. Nikita could not
go on risking her life on missions. Without Nikita, he could not continue this existence.  He knew it only too well. His weakness and his strength, combined in one intriguing and loving creature, was Nikita.

        Together, yet separately, Michael and Mandelita paced the hall outside MedLab, in opposite directions, symbolic of the direction of their lives. Marco and Mandelita would have to part, while Michael and Nikita would remain together, as long as they could manage to
stay alive. Michael pondered the future.


        Operations and Madeline had a conference over breakfast. She sipped her tea with an air of delicacy. He watched her, remembering the night they had recently shared.  Madeline was beautiful as always in a simple black suit. The large diamond on her right middle finger dazzled with fiery sparkles in the light.

        "Well, what do we do?" he asked.

        "About what?" she asked, not being able to read his mind this early in the morning.

        "Well, we have our serial killer, but we still don't know who killed Coriascu.?"

        Madeline paused before answering, "Perhaps, we shouldn't worry about who killed him. He or she did all of Section a favor. It's apparent from the intel we've received that he was rash and becoming reckless."

        Operations argued, "You would just let it go. That sets a terrible example."

        Madeline sighed again and gave a little smile, "Perhaps, not."

******* * *
        Michael paced his standby quarters. Nikita had been released from MedLab over an hour ago. He wanted to go to her, take her home, make love to her. He wanted to express to her physically all his emotions, but he knew there were things he still could not
share with her, things that would wound her. The words he had spoken to her after her rescue echoed in his mind and tortured him.

        Again, Michael's two lives tore at him and kept him from indulging his emotions. His love for Nikita was constant, but would his love hurt her more than leaving her would. He didn't know the answer, not yet. He punched in Madeline's extension. "I need some down time, Madeline," he said simply.

        "I thought you might. How long:? We are somewhat short of Class five operatives, as you know."

        "I need three months at least. I have to sort all this out, Madeline. Too much has happened. I have to tie up the loose ends before I can think clearly."

        "Yes, Michael, I can see that you need this time. Is three months enough?"

        "It will have to be." Michael wasn't sure that it would be, but at least a deadline gave him a focus. "Thank you."

******** * *

        Nikita hugged Sylvia as she packed her bags to return to Italy. "I'm so excited, Sylvia. I know that my relationship with Michael is stronger than ever. If you could have heard the things he said to me. It was wonderful, and there I was unable to talk at all."

        Sylvia giggled. "Maybe that's why Michael is so quiet, Nikita. You don't give him a chance to talk." Sylvia returned Nikita's hug. "Take care of my old friend Michael, and don't let him go back to his old ways. He needs you, and I think he knows that now."

        "I hope so, Sylvia. I really do."

        Nikita had a blissful smile on her face as she walked toward Michael's office. She was surprised to see that it was dark. It had an unoccupied look. There were no stacks of reports or profiles in progress.

        Puzzled, she wandered into Systems. Birkoff was almost asleep at his terminal.  Poor guy, he'd been on duty for days with very little rest. She touched his shoulder gently. "Birkoff, have you seen Michael?" she asked.

        "Michael's gone." Birkoff's eyes tried to close again.

        "What do you mean ‘gone?'" Nikita's abrupt tone of voice opened his eyes again.

        "Madeline just informed me that he's on an extended leave." Oh, no, Nikita's going to kill the messenger, he thought.. Michael must not have told her he was leaving.

        Nikita's mouth formed an ‘O,' but she was unable to speak. As her stomach rose in her throat, she collapsed weakly into the nearest chair. "Gone," she said softly. He had betrayed her trust again, she thought. I'm going to kill him, when I see him again.

        "Well, you can tell Madeline that I'm gone too." Nikita rose and rushed for the door.

        "Nikita," he called. "Where are you going?"

        "You can tell her that I've gone looking for Michael, and when I find him, I'm gonna kill him."

        Birkoff threw his head back and whimpered, "Oh, god, why me? Why me?"


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