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by Nestra

Spoilers: Set after the end of the series

Thanks: My personal cadre of betas, who listened to me whine and steered me right: shrift, grit kitty, Athena, and delle. s.a., for another perspective. ita and Shanola, who triggered the idea in the first place.

Michael returned to Section the day after his eight-year old son's funeral, without fanfare and without regret.

The sun had been shining in Brussels, bouncing exuberantly off the small casket, reflecting the clear blue sky overhead. Section was dim and sterile, and he welcomed the subterranean comfort.

He entered through Van Access, as he had done hundreds of times. A few people went out of their way to meet him. Walter. Jason. Two Level Three operatives who'd often been on his team. But three years away from Section, combined with its change in leadership and direction, had resulted in profound personnel changes, and he did not recognize most of the faces that he saw.

Nikita had abandoned the policy of recruiting prisoners, so most active operatives were ex-military, ex-police, ex-intelligence. As he stood on the fringes of Comm, watching the familiar bustle of activity, he wondered if it should disturb him that he considered this place his home. The small house in Brussels where he had lived for the past three years had been a haven, but not, as he had hoped, a home.

Perhaps the years with Adam had been the happiest of his life, but he had little experience to judge by.

When he looked up at the Perch, she was there.

He reported to her immediately. Unlike Section, she was unchanged. Her blonde hair was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her neck; her dark suit was severe and clean-lined. She was as beautiful as she had ever been.

"Welcome back," she said.

'Thank you."

"I know I already..." She swallowed and closed her eyes briefly. "I'm so sorry about Adam."

He did not reply. There was no reply he could make, and she seemed to understand. She reached for a button and dimmed the Perch's windows, and when no one else could see them, she walked over and took him in her arms.

He spent three weeks getting back up to speed on Section's current procedures and policies and refreshing his combat and weapons training. He took shifts in all of the major departments, sifting intelligence, profiling missions, assigning personnel and resources. Within a month, he was back in the field, leading missions. He spent most nights with Nikita, in her Section quarters, making love to her, and trying to forget what the sun looked like in Brussels.

It was Walter who first approached him, nearly two months after he'd returned.

"Hey, Michael," he said, "hang around for a second, will you?"

Michael nodded at the other three members of his team, who picked up their gear and headed to Van Access. Walter looked around furtively, in a way that would have been comic if he hadn't seemed so uneasy. He stepped back into the weapons locker, and Michael, curious, followed him.

"You know me, I don't like to make trouble. But I kinda figured you'd have done something by now." He stared at Michael expectantly.

"Done what?"

"C'mon, Michael! I know you looked at the numbers. It had to be part of your re-immersion."

Walter clearly expected Michael to understand what he was talking about, but he didn't. He was about to ask for clarification when Jason craned his head around the corner. "Michael? You in here?"

Walter started and backed into a shelf, sending computer components raining to the floor.

"Jeez, Walter," said Jason, "relax. Take a Valium or something." He looked over at Michael. "First team to Van Access for immediate departure."

"I have to go," he said to Walter, swinging his bag onto his shoulder. As he walked past Jason and through Comm, he glanced at the Perch. Nikita was watching him, and he felt the warmth of her gaze on his back.

When Walter died two weeks later, he didn't question the diagnosis. For someone of Walter's age and lifestyle, a heart attack wasn't unexpected, and even in Section, sometimes people just died. Nikita spent most of the night after the funeral sobbing in his arms. The next morning, at the mission briefing, her eyes were red, but her voice was steady.

He awoke from a dream of pushing Adam on a swing, watching the slight form fly higher and higher. When he opened his eyes, he imagined he could still see the outline of a small boy against the blue sky. He looked over at Nikita and laid a hand gently on her ribs, feeling the sheet covering her shift with her slow breaths.

When he regained consciousness in MedLab, all he could think about was the unforgivable mistake that had gotten him shot. The first lesson he'd learned as a new recruit was that his life belonged to Section. The second lesson was to never allow anything to distract him while on a mission.

He wondered if he had somehow lost his edge, his skills, in the years he had spent on the outside. He wondered if his colleagues were thinking the same thing. Section operatives had become competitive, now that the threat of abeyance was no longer held over their heads. Perhaps men and women twenty years his junior were criticizing his performance and imagining themselves in his job, plotting ways to impress their superiors while Michael was on a six-week sick leave.

For the first week, while the doctors had him confined to a bed, Nikita visited him in five-minute increments before being called back to her duties. He spent the rest of the time staring at the ceiling and reviewing tactical scenarios in his head.

Three weeks into his recovery period, he remembered what Walter had said to him.

*"I know you looked at the numbers. It had to be part of your re-immersion."*

He had forgotten it in the tumult surrounding Walter's death and his own injury, but it crept into his memory, and once recalled, refused to leave.

The numbers. What numbers? There were thousands of different numbers associated with Section. ID numbers, casualty rates, probabilities, budgets, filing systems, statistics...

He closed his eyes and tried to envision every detail of the conversation, every nuance of Walter's body language. He'd been...uneasy. Nervous. Even scared. Scared of what?

He still had another three weeks before he could begin re-certification for field readiness. His muscle tissue didn't heal as fast as it had fifteen years ago. Spending eight or ten or even twelve hours a day poring over research still left him with free time, and Nikita was so busy that she barely made it to her quarters to sleep.

He absently massaged the healing wound on his aching thigh and switched on his terminal.

The noise in the cafeteria overwhelmed him as he limped to an empty table and sat down. He'd never been fond of large groups, and it seemed as if every operative in the building had decided to eat dinner at the same time. The room resembled nothing so much as a group of schoolchildren, removed from the need for restraint by their teachers' absence.

He picked unenthusiastically at the beef stew in front of him. His doctor kept making pointed comments about his weight and muscle tone, but the food quality had certainly not improved during Nikita's tenure.

He looked up to see her enter by the side entrance. She caught sight of him and began to work her way through the tables, heading in his direction. Perhaps because he had been so conscious of the noise level, Michael noticed immediately as it dropped in Nikita's wake. Tables full of raucous operatives quieted and stilled.

She sat down next to him, apparently oblivious to the effect her presence had on the room. The dark circles under her eyes seemed to grow more noticeable every time he saw her, and she gave off a nearly palpable aura of weariness.

"Hi," she said.

He reached out and took her hand, and they sat together while the noise level rose again.

*Increase in budget deficit over the past three years: seventy-two percent.*

He had correlated and re-correlated the data in every fashion he could think of. Pulled information from every department in Section. Used his status as Nikita's lover to intimidate analysts into providing information that he did not have security clearance to access.

*Decrease in number of new recruits: fifty-six percent.*

A disturbing pattern was emerging. He understood why no one but Walter seemed to have noticed. There were few people left who had served under the previous Operations, few people who remembered the old procedures and the old numbers. But Michael remembered. Had he not been staggered by his own grief and his need to take solace in Nikita, he would have noticed earlier.

*Decrease in mission success rate: forty-eight percent.*

Section was in dire trouble. And Center had not noticed, because someone had been camouflaging the decrease in efficiency by adjusting the statistics. Any mission in which any member of the team returned alive was deemed a success, no matter whether the mission objectives had been accomplished. The shortage in active operatives was explained as an increase in overall training time for recruits.

Several failed missions had simply been removed from the records, as if they'd never taken place, but he'd traced them through resource allocation. He scanned the list again. Kabul. Bali. Istanbul. San Francisco. Brussels.

Brussels. When had a Section team come to Brussels? And why?

He thumbed the comm. "Jason."

"Yeah, Michael?"

"I'm sending you a file number. I need you to find the details of the mission for me." He keyed in the number and sent it to Jason's terminal.

Jason didn't speak for a moment. Then, "Uh, Michael? You know that suffix on the file number means that this is a buried file."

"Just do it."

"I don't think this is a good idea." His drawl smoothed out the words, but the panic was clear.

He shut off the comm in disgust, knowing he could have coerced Birkoff into retrieving the file for him. He had the necessary skills to uncover the information, but it meant hours of circumventing security without alerting Jason or anyone else who might be monitoring the system.

He accessed the bare bones of the file and prepared himself for a long night.

Nikita slipped in the door and stood for a moment, silhouetted in the light leaking in from the corridor. Having apparently oriented herself, she stepped the rest of the way in, allowing the door to slide closed. He heard clothing rustle as she undressed, felt the mattress compress and release as she maneuvered herself into bed.

"Why is recruitment down by fifty percent?"

She froze, the sheet held above her body like a shroud waiting to be placed. "What?"

He turned on the light and watched as she blinked against the glare. "Why have you buried unsuccessful missions?"


"Why are you lying on your reports to Center?"

Her lips drew tight and pressed together as she shoved the sheet out of her way and sat up. "Is this an interrogation?"

"You've been lying to me."

"Excuse me?" she snapped. "You've been out of the field for a month while I've been working sixteen and eighteen hours a day. What have I been lying about?"

"What haven't you? Success rates. Casualties. Personnel. Resources." He felt the words drop from his lips like stones. He had allowed personal pleasure to cloud his judgment. He had failed in his responsibility to Section, to himself. He had returned to the world he thought he understood, only to find it unfamiliar.

"Things have changed around here, Michael. Section is a better place. No one is put in abeyance. No one rules by terror. No one grabs scared teenagers from prison and turns them into assassins or whores."

"That's not an excuse for failure," he said.

She stood and reached for her clothes. "You know, I don't think I want to play this game right now. I have a briefing in four hours. I'll go somewhere else and get some sleep."

"Why did you send a team to Brussels?"

She paled, the tracery of veins on her face melting into visibility as the hue around them faded. "What?" she whispered.

He recognized the knot clenching in his stomach as anger. "One of the missions you tried to erase was to Brussels. I found the records. The two operatives you sent died on subsequent missions."

"Oh, god." She sank back onto the bed, clutching her shirt in her white-knuckled hands like a child might hold a precious stuffed animal. "I knew Walter told you. I knew it."

He frowned, confused by the change in subject. "Walter?"

She didn't even seem to hear him. "You have to understand, Michael. Things were falling apart. Success rates were dropping. Center was after me all the time."

Against his will, the connections began to make themselves, his training surfacing at the moment he wanted to banish it.

"I knew you'd never come back as long as you still had him."

Nikita. Brussels. Adam. A buried mission. Walter. Numbers. New policies. Nikita.

She was sobbing now, hunched over, arms wrapped around herself. "I couldn't do this job without you! I didn't want to hurt Adam, but people were dying! Operatives and civilians! What's one or two lives compared to millions?"

Of course. What had she done? What Section had taught her. What he had taught her. To make the difficult choices. To serve the greater good, no matter what the cost.

"You killed my son."

"And Walter...oh, god, Walter..."

"You killed my son." He heard his own voice, flat and unaffected, stating a simple fact. He felt her shaking next to him and heard her sobs, ripping through her and echoing off the walls of the small room.

He closed his eyes, and all he could see was the blue sky over Brussels.

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