Part X

        The night sky was clear, and it seemed to Nikita that she had never seen so many stars.  The moon was full, and it cast its argent light on the scene below.  In short, it was a night made for lovers, but given the current state of affairs, Nikita would have preferred a moonless sky, one covered by clouds, the darker the better.  She would have also preferred black mission gear as opposed to the silver evening gown she wore as she tried to conceal herself among the statuary that surrounded the asymmetric pool.  Where the hell was Michael?  She'd been waiting at least thirty minutes, and the fear that something had happened to him began to clutch at her heart.  She knew she was being silly.  Michael was unparalleled in an operation like this, but still the nagging fear remained.

        Surely, fate would not be so cruel as to rip him from her now.  Not now.  Nikita had no idea what their relationship would be like when they returned to Section.  It might be business as usual.  It might be something more.  Certainly not something less.  They would always have the idyllic hours they had spent together to remind them that they were human beings, capable of passion and love.  Capable of surrender to overwhelming desire always colored with tenderness.

        Not now.  Nikita didn't think she could bear to go on without him.  She could feel his need for her as he'd thrust, seemingly unable to slake his thirst for her warmth.  She could hear him call her name as he'd rode the crest of his climax and slid into the oblivion that followed.

        "Nikita."  A hushed voice and a touch on her shoulder brought her back to reality.

        "Michael,  Oh, thank heaven, you're safe."  Nikita thrust her arms around his neck and kissed him, but Michael was fully into mission mode and would not be distracted.

        As he crouched beside her, he began to speak in low tones.  "I took out the third team.  I've re-programmed two of their comm devices so that we can contact Section, when they arrive on the scene.  The others we can use to monitor the terrorists' transmissions."  Michael arranged the weapons and ammunition that he had procured along the way.  Nikita added hers to the growing collection.

        Nikita nodded.  Michael was in charge, and he was a master of strategy.

        "They are a multi-lingual group, so I'll do any communicating necessary to confuse them.  After I make initial contact, you handle the communications with Section."

        "Will they be able to pick up the Section transmissions?

        Michael gave Nikita a rueful grin.  "Not if I've done the re-programming properly."

        Nikita arched her eyebrows and swallowed.  "I'm sure you did fine."

        "Yeah," he agreed, suddenly smiling and showing teeth that sparkled white in the moonlight.

        At the sight of Michael's radiant smile, Nikita's heart clutched in her throat.  The man was too beautiful to be believed.

        "Are you ready?" he asked.  "There are only twelve or thirteen more to go."

        "Ready." Only twelve or thirteen more....

        Birkoff sat in Systems.  He and his assistant Greg Hillinger sat back-to-back.  Hillinger was a major source of pain in Birkoff's posterior.  Not only was the younger computer genius arrogant beyond belief, he also talked too much, way too much--about crap that had no business being discussed during the tactical of a flash mission.

        All Birkoff wanted to do was concentrate on coordinating the mission, and all Greggie wanted to talk about was Nikita and Abby.

        "Say, Semour, what was she like?  I mean you had her right there in the Ready Room."  Not waiting for an answer, Greg leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head and continued, "You must have thought you were in testosterone heaven.  She's the hottest babe in this place.  A major wet dream.  Woo Hoo!"

        Birkoff's face flushed with anger and embarrassment.  Nothing was ever secret or sacred in Section.  He whirled to face the adolescent weasel.  "None of your damn business.  Pay attention to the mission.  I'm not going to tell you that again."

        Greg laughed.  The sound of his obnoxious laughter was another thorn in Birkoff's side.  "Hey, Birky, I've got all that knocked.  I can do this tactical crap with two hands tied behind me.  I don't know why you're in such a ‘dither.'  Oh, I know.  You still have  the hots for Nikita,  and you're ‘worried about her.'" Greg said with a sneer.  "Besides, I imagine the studly Michael is quite capable of protecting her pretty a$$.  He's been doing it for quite a while from what I hear..  Yeah, quite a while, Birky.  I don't think you have much of a chance with her as long as he's around."

        Greg's smarmy attitude drove Birkoff over the edge.  He pulled Greg from his chair by the shirt and told him tersely, "Keep your mouth off Nikita.  She's totally capable of taking care of herself.  She's saved my butt a time or two, and nobody around here, including me, will put up with you bad-mouthing her."  Birkoff released Greg's shirt and shoved him into the chair."

        Greg's eyes grew big in surprise, but he quickly responded in feigned awe, "Yes, sir, Mr. Birkoff, sir."

        Birkoff was tempted to ignore Greg's insolence, but he knew there would come a day when he would have to deal with him on a more personal level. He might as well draw the line in the sand right now.  "Look, we're here for a reason.  I don't want to hear any more of your smart-aleck bull shit..  We can take this to the white room and settle it now, or you can keep your trap shut, and we can do our jobs.  Your choice."

        Greg looked Birkoff up and down, saw that he was still smaller than his ‘boss' said, "I was just teasing, Semour.  Can't you take a little kidding around?"  Greg shrugged and turned to his keyboard, shaking his head as if he were simply misunderstood.

        "Birkoff!" Operations paged from his elevated office.  "Where are we as to time?"

        "The team is en route.--about twenty minutes from the site.  What about the locals?" Birkoff asked.

        Operations smiled his usual wolfish smile and said, "We have been guaranteed cooperation from the local authorities.  They're only too happy to let us handle it."

        Madeline walked into Operations office and said in her quiet manner, "That way if it goes sour, they won't be held responsible."

        "Exactly," Operations replied.

        "Sir, we have another incoming on an insecure channel!" Birkoff announced.
        Michael's voice came through, calm and clear.  "We have eliminated seven of the terrorists.  There are approximately twelve to thirteen left.  Their leader is unknown to me.  Given enough time, we can eliminate most of them, however, there are close to three-hundred hostages, including guests and hotel staff at risk.  Nikita and I have accumulated a small cache of weapons, ammunition and their comm devices.  We're monitoring their channels, as well.  They are looking for me."

        Operations stopped his pacing and gave Madeline a quizzical glance, as he asked "Michael, looking for you?  Why would they be looking for you, Michael?"

        Madeline raised an elegant eyebrow.  She stood with arms folded, patient as always, waiting to hear Michael's explanation of his cryptic statement.

        "No idea."  Michael was succinct if nothing else.  "The leader Jorge has dispatched several more of his men to find Michel Therrien.  They have a description of me from the bellhop who took us to our room."

        Operations took a long drag on his cigarette as he considered.  "Describe Jorge, Michael," he ordered tersely.

        "Mid-thirties, Hispanic, 6-4, barrel-chest.  I haven't been close enough to determine more."

        "Birkoff, search our files for anyone named Jorge," Operations snapped.

        "Yes, sir," Birkoff replied.  "Any other parameters, sir?"

        "You heard Michael's description, do it."

        "Yes, sir," Birkoff replied initiating the search sequence.  As intel went, it wasn't much.

        Madeline thought a moment before speaking.  "Should we leave it to Michael and Nikita to handle?  It seems as if they are managing quite well."  Wait and see was not a favorite pastime with Operations, and Madeline knew it would go against his grain to let the duo work from the inside without interference from the Section One team which would be on site momentarily.

        Operations looked at her as if she'd lost her mind.  "Two against thirteen?  If it were anyone but Nikita with Michael I would say Yes, let Michael handle it.  She's still too much of a unknown factor.  I never know what she's going to do," he argued.

        "You are in the habit of underestimating Nikita.  She is an excellent operative.  No, not in Michael's league, yet.  There ‘is' her propensity for impulsive response, however, I think with Michael in charge," Madeline paused for effect, "as he obviously is, she will be under control.  She won't defy him.  Together they are a formidable team."  She leveled a steady gaze at Operations, daring him to question her assessment of the situation.
        Operations nodded.  "Birkoff, have the team stand-by as soon as they are on site.  Michael, proceed as you think best."  Having given this unprecedented cachet of approval, Operations gave a brief shake of his head.  Time would tell.  It would tell very soon.

        "Good," Madeline responded, barely heard, along with a hint of a smile.

        Together they would wait.

        Michael motioned for Nikita to follow him.  Stealth, never easy for the sometimes awkward and coltish Nikita, was made more difficult by her flowing silver gown and stilettos.   Finally, she kicked off the stilettos with an air of irritation.  She was sure she would trip on the evening gown before the night was through, but she couldn't bear ripping the fragile shimmering fabric.  So much for being Grace Kelly!

        Together they managed to remove their cache of weapons and ammunition to safer area.  Michael had chosen the security room with all its lovely cameras.  What better way to keep an eye on the terrorists that to use the Hotel's security system for monitoring the gamblers.  Naturally, Michael wasn't the first to think of the cameras.  Jorge had already installed two of his men there.  Bait once more,  Nikita waltzed by in full view of one of the nearby cameras.  As they rushed to investigate, Michael was waiting.  Two more down.  Only ten or eleven to go.

        Nikita watched Michael as he set about securing their new base of operations.  She could see his mind analyzing the situation, checking on the status of the hostages, planning their next move.  Michael never seemed to be at a disadvantage.  He had the singular gift of taking whatever he was given and turning it into an advantage.  She guessed it was like the old adage, "If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade."  Michael was certainly in his element.  Could ‘citron presse' be far behind?

        "Michael, what's going on?" Operations's irascible voice came over the comm unit.

        Nikita responded.  "We've established ourselves in the security area, taking down another two.  Hostages are for the most part okay.  Do you have any intel on the leader?" Nikita asked.

        There was a slight hesitation before Operations answered.  "We have a couple of likely candidates.  I wish we had a visual. Where's Michael?"

        "He's right here.  He wants me to handle comm with Section--"

        "I don't care.  I want Michael, and I want him now."

        Nikita rolled her eyes and handed the unit to Michael.  "He wants you."

        Michael took the unit.  "Yes?"

        "Michael, the leader could be Jorge Anselmo, a remnant of L'Heure Sanguine.  He's been accumulating resources and men for the last year.  He was on our secondary list of targets, but it looks like he's a little ahead of his game."

        "That's why he's looking for me," Michael said simply.  "It's personal.  I never met him.  He has no valid reason to suspect I'm here, but he's acting on instinct."

        "Don't go turning this into some kind of personal vendetta, Michael," Operations ordered.

        "It already is... not mine... his." Michael handed the comm unit to Nikita with a smile.  "If Anselmo wants me, we'll give him what he wants," he said with an expression that sent a chill spiraling down her spine.

        "Michael, no."

        Michael turned to Nikita and said softly.  "Knowing that I am here will divert him from his original purpose.  If he is seeking revenge for René's death, that will become his focus.  He will become careless.  I don't intend to hand myself over to him.  Anselmo will come to me, Nikita."

        "I was afraid that maybe you had some idea of --"  Nikita hesitated to put into words her actual thoughts.  She remembered his surreptitious visit to her apartment when René was a prisoner at Section One to say good-bye.  She also remembered Michael standing with eyes closed waiting for his old friend to kill him.  Dian would surely have killed Michael had she not intervened.  She'd almost had to lead Michael from the room where the remaining members of L'Huere Sanguine lay dead.  After closing René's eyes, he'd stood for a moment, broken .  Then in a  supreme effort of will, Michael had pulled himself together and walked from the room.  Relations between them had been strained for weeks.  Nikita had understood that Michael blamed her for killing René, even though the choice had been simple for one for her.  She wasn't about to let him attempt the same thing again.

        "No, Nikita.  I'm not offering myself in sacrifice for René."

        "Good," she said quietly, restraining herself from breathing an audible sigh of relief.

        Michael held the comm unit to mouth and muttered in Spanish, "Jorge, I've found Errol and Gunnar.  They're dead."

        "What?  Where are you?"

        "Hall way outside security," Michael rasped again, then listened.

        "Helmut, Tadashi, investigate," Jorge ordered.

        Helmut and Tadashi complied, but cautiously.  Their number seemed to be dwindling rather rapidly, and they had no intention of joining the ranks of the deceased.  Guns drawn they stopped at the hallway entrance to the security area.  Two still bodies, camouflage-clad, were half-sitting, half-leaning against the wall in an untidy jumble.  Helmut, a man of medium height and Aryan blonde good looks, advanced slowly, followed by Tadashi Kanawa.  Helmut looked from side to side, then leaned over the first body.  It was still warm.  As he pulled up the cap to see Errol's face, he was more than surprised to see the face of a beautiful woman.

        It was the last thing Helmut saw.  Nikita fired one shot at close range into Helmut's heart, while Michael took out the equally surprised Tadashi.   Michael and Nikita quickly sprang into action, pulling the bodies from the hall into a closet already occupied by two other bodies. . Helmut's and Tadashi's weapons were added to their growing cache of armaments.

        Two more down, and nine to go

        Nikita smiled ruefully as she looked down at the fatigues.  "I liked the dress better, but at least now I don't have to worry about tripping and breaking my neck."

        Michael gave Nikita the blank stare, then almost imperceptibly the corner of his mouth twitched.  "I liked the dress better, too."

Part XI