Synopsis: Jim and Blair die in a car accident. But Jim is "reborn" in Section One. Can he survive without his Guide? Or does he have to? (Before I'm flamed, please note that I do NOT believe in the death of fictional main characters. They aren't mine to destroy.)
This may be considered an AU since 1) it takes place in the near future and 2) Section One is about as alternative a universe as one can imagine.
The story is over 100K, so it's in two parts. Part I is below. Click on Part II if you need to jump ahead.
*for offending any viewers of either show. I'm sure someone's favorite character was shortchanged in the creation of this work;
*and finally for the ending. What can I say? The Christmas Spirit just took over and I had no control. Special apology for fans of Dr. Seuss.
Chelan County Medical Center
They were both supposed to die.
There were eyewitnesses, a couple returning from their honeymoon ski trip. They hadn't really noticed the metallic blue Jeep until after the black sedan had zigged around them to get behind it. Then they had watched in horrified fascination as the car edged closer and closer to the Jeep, bumping bumpers on the narrow, curving road. When the car moved around the Jeep and tried to nudge it completely off the side, they gasped and realized the deadliness of the situation. The bride spotted the ubiquitous sign of a public phone and her husband stopped and made the quick call to 911. Thinking that maybe they could help, they continued along the road looking for some sign of the trouble they had reported.
The broken guard rail was the first clue they spotted. Then they saw what they hoped was a pile of old clothes someone had carelessly tossed out, but it ended up being the taller of the two men they had seen in the Jeep. Tire tracks which led to the edge of a 400 foot rocky drop to the Columbia River filled in the blanks. With grim diligence, the couple stayed with the gravely injured man until help arrived.
Surprising the medical staff, the injured man had awakened briefly in the emergency room, calling desperately for someone. A nurse was sent to the waiting area to ask about the person. It was explained to her the requested soul was his companion in the Jeep, that they were two police officers who had transferred a prisoner to Spokane and were on their way back when their vehicle was forced off the road. One had been thrown out but the other had plunged down the cliff inside the Jeep, which had disintegrated upon the rocks before being swallowed up by the river.
But mere walls hadn't stopped the injured man from hearing what was said and by the time the nurse returned to the cubicle, he had given up and let death take the pain away. The nurse went back to the waiting room and sadly passed on the news.
And for the second time that night, Simon Banks cried.
Section One: Medlab
Jim woke up and wondered why. He'd heard the woman talking to Simon, heard his captain's replay of Blair's death. As he listened he realized there was no reason to live, so he gave in to the encroaching darkness. Yet, here he was, awake and in too much pain to even hope he was dead.
Instinctively, he turned down the mental dial that controlled his sense of touch and the pain dimmed to only merely annoying. Well, that answered one very important question. Early on in his life as a Sentinel, a person with genetically enhanced senses, traumatic events sent his special gifts offline. Then his Guide, a friend who helped control his "powers", would come up with some sleight of hand and voila, he would be online and ready to save his city of Cascade, Washington. Apparently after seven years with his Guide, he'd learned some things for himself. Which was good, because he didn't have a Guide anymore. Or a best friend. Or a brother whom he had loved dearly.
He forced his eyes to look around the room, refusing to go where his mind wanted. Sandburg was dead, he was alive, and he had to start to dealing with that. With a burning sensation in his stomach, he realized that not only wasn't he dead, but he had been placed in a particular hell he'd been envisioning every since he became aware of his hyper abilities. Despite the IV running into his arm and the conventional monitors sitting disconnected near his bed, he knew this was not a regular medical facility. This one reeked, literally, of a high tech experimental design. This was a government laboratory and he was the new pet mouse.
But if he was rodentia du jour, why wasn't he hardwired with sensor probes? Why weren't they monitoring every function his body was capable of? He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His head swam from the suddenness of the new position, but eventually he recovered his balance and took stock of his condition. His chest was bare except for the swath of bandages protecting his broken ribs. The rest of him was covered by a pair of loose white pants. Better than the standard hospital gown by a mile, he thought with a humorless chuckle.
He felt his head, noting a new buzz cut and stitches. Good. The short hair took him back to a time before--before his senses shot off the scale, before he knew a man named Blair Sandburg, before he knew how capable he was of caring. Those had been barren years, spent alone except for his brief marriage to Carolyn and even briefer partnership with Jack. But even that was too recent. No, he would go further back, back to his first days of being a government owned and operated animal. To the days of his military career where he did what he was told without question, without thought. It had been a hard life and more than one man in his command had commented that he was the coldest son of a bitch he'd met in the army, which was truly saying something.
Surely he could become that person again for the short while he would be here. Whoever had been in charge of retrieving him had perpetuated the usual governmental snafu-situation normal; all fucked up. A Sentinel without a Guide was like getting a robot without the reset button; it did what you wanted it to for a while, but eventually the wiring would cross and you ended up with something that would destroy itself, if not you as well. Blair had called these glitches zone outs, periods of time when Jim focused so intensely on one sense that he was oblivious to any outside stimuli and only his Guide could rouse him. The milder zones mimicked daydreaming and a simple touch or sound would bring him around. Medium ones left him as aware as a statue. Whether in the middle of the street and about to be flattened by a truck or in the middle of a shoot out with criminals, if he zoned he was completely helpless. The major zones inevitably led to hospitalization because he would go so deep into his own senses that he would forget to breathe. And that was all with a Guide.
Oh yeah. One hell of a snafu.
Section One: Madeline's Office
Michael tried to hide the fact he was startled. Just yesterday, Medlab had told him it would be days, perhaps weeks before their newest recruit would regain consciousness. "His condition?"
"Mobile," Madeline said as astonished as Michael. The profiler, strategist, and very effective interrogator only knew one other operative who recuperated so fast, and he was standing before her.
"No, but there are two men outside his door. However, I don't think escape is uppermost in his mind. I've been watching closely and he has ignored the door. I think he is merely getting used to not being dead."
"When he was brought in, there was some concern he may be suicidal when he awakened. You are no longer concerned?" he asked, knowing Madeline did everything with a purpose in mind. If she had thought it necessary, there would have been two guards and restraints.
"He's shown no such tendency. Perhaps his friends did not know him as well as they thought. Just in case, however, I think it is time you told him about his new purpose in life."
Michael nodded. "Any special orders?"
Madeline smiled. Michael knew her so well. "His background is uniquely compatible. I don't think he will need the standard two years of training."
"As you wish."
She watched Michael leave, then turned toward the screen. She had learned to trust her instincts in this business and they were telling her that Michael had discovered something very special with this recruit. Michael and Nikita. Never taking her eyes off the screen, she dialed a familiar number.
Section One: Medlab
Just as he was starting to calculate how long he would last before self-destructing, Jim heard someone approaching the room. It was about time. He knew they were aware he was awake and moving around. He'd heard the hum of the surveillance equipment, had known when guards had taken their places outside the door.
The man who entered the room was unexpected. Instead of wearing a white lab coat and a patented smile of comfort, he was dressed in black and smiled not in the least. He was lithe but muscular, with light brown curls draping his neck. He looked less like a scientist and more like a mercenary-- not the grungy kind that killed for money, but the really intelligent ones that killed because they could. Jim started to rethink his earlier assessment of where he was.
"James Ellison is dead," the man said without false greetings. "His funeral was well attended and it was heard to be said by several of the mourners that it was best the detective had died, that without his friend and partner, he had nothing to live for."
Jim wanted to look away as the words reached a part of him he no longer wanted to admit existed. But the man had come closer and Jim found himself fascinated by his eyes. They revealed nothing and thereby showed all. He was intrigued and watched the man's languid movements.
"Perhaps that was true of Detective Ellison, but not you. You have a reason to live and that reason is Section One. We have resurrected you. You will serve us. If you fail, you will be canceled and this time, death will be permanent. Do you understand?"
"No." Jim's voice was rusty from disuse and he was pretty sure the throbbing in the left side of his face meant a jaw had been broken, but was healing. How long had it been since... No, that was the past and it had ceased to exist."Why didn't I die the first time?"
"The Section saw purpose in keeping you alive. We are a covert anti-terrorist group. You have usable skills. We will train you. We will give you a new identity."
"I have no say in the matter?" Jim questioned, knowing the answer, but wanting it clarified in his mind. There had been whispers of the existence of a covert organization such as the man was describing, rumors he hadn't really believed until one evening in a warehouse in Cascade.
Michael decided to test Madeline's observations. If the man was suicidal, it was best to get it out in the open. "There is no free will in Section One. You have one choice: life or death. Decide now."
Jim started to answer when he felt another presence join the two outside the door. But this one wasn't content to wait outside. The door opened and he sensed the man beside him tense as the person approached. "Hello, Jim."
The tall blonde was in civilian clothes and not a field suit, her long hair hanging loose, but he recognized her instantly as the woman in the warehouse. "Nikita," he acknowledged. The man in black made an indiscernible sound and Jim turned to him, surprised to find something in those eyes after all. "So this is your outfit, huh?"
She nodded. "You saved my life once. Let me save yours now."
"You arranged this?"
Nikita flicked her eyes to the other man, before turning her cool blue gaze back to Jim. "No. But our brief encounter called attention to your existence. If at some point you wish to hate me for that, I will understand."
"Your Section One is not what it seems?" What was she hinting at? That the group wasn't anti-terrorist?
"The Section is exactly as it seems, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of terrorists-- by any means necessary. It is not for the ... humanitarian." The word seemed to mean something painful to her.
Jim shrugged. At least this way he wouldn't end his days as a lab rat. Now he had the chance to at least take out a couple of bad guys before death raised its dark head again. Which it would, because a Sentinel without a Guide was mere fodder for the Grim Reaper. "I'm not feeling much like a humanitarian these days. Where do I sign up?"
"That has already been done for you," the man replied. "My name is Michael. I will be your trainer."
"Whatever." Jim closed his eyes and wondered if he had summoned this hell by committing virtual suicide, by giving up. No matter. One hell was just as bad as another and living his old life without Sandburg probably would have been worse. A hand brushed against his and he opened his eyes.
"When you're ready, we'll talk," Nikita said softly.
The blue of her eyes reminded him of another. He nodded and watched the two leave.
Section One: Michael's Office
"You lied to me," Michael said softly.
Nikita wasn't fooled by the tone. "I never lied."
"You said you didn't talk to him."
"Then how did he know your name?"
She shook her head in frustration. "I don't know, Michael. You were the only one who said it."
His eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"The only time my name was mentioned was when you said, 'Nikita, report.'"
"He couldn't have heard me from the comset. It is not possible."
"Then you come up with an explanation, Michael."
"Don't worry, Nikita. I will."
Section One: Hallway
Jim, dressed in a gray sweater over jeans, aimlessly roamed the halls of Section One, a late evening activity that was quickly becoming routine since his release from Medlab. Nikita had instigated the habit; she came to visit him every day except for the times she was away on mission and to keep her from probing too deeply, Jim had suggested walking. The Medlab doctors had agreed it would be good exercise so Nikita had led him around the underground facility showing him the various aspects of Section life, the levels of training he would go through and other things he could expect. She'd also taken the opportunity to introduce him to her friends. One of them was Walter who was in charge of the Weapons Division. He was a little quirky, but what did one expect from a person who willingly worked with explosives?
Jim frowned as the thought led him to remember Joel Taggert who headed the Bomb Squad in Cascade. Joel had been a good friend and slightly quirky too. Hell, all the guys on the force had been friends and he missed them. But not enough to go back, even if he could. Too many memories, ones that would now be painful, lurked in the shadows of Cascade.
And quite frankly he was tired of battling shadows. He'd been out of Medlab for a week now and in that time he'd maybe had a total of ten hours of sleep. If he tried sleeping without being totally exhausted, he was haunted--or maybe he should say taunted--by a recurring dream and he awakened panicked and frustrated.
He's in the jungles of Peru--a fitting place because this is where he received and accepted the gifts of a Sentinel. It is a peaceful place, the familiar scents and sounds comforting. Then his spirit guide joins him, appearing in the form of a wise old man. "Sentinel, why have you left your Guide alone?" the man asks curiously.
"My Guide has crossed over to where I cannot go."
He shakes his head as if he doesn't understand. "He is lost. He weeps for you. Go to him."
"Blair is dead, damn it!"
"He needs you, Sentinel. He is alone." The old man is pleading now.
"I know he is! I tried to follow. I wanted to follow. But it was not to be."
"Go to him!" This is an order, the cajoling tone disappearing.
"I can't! I would give anything if I could. Why won't you understand? Why do you keep torturing me with this!"
The old man morphs into the panther, the spirit's usual form. The animal growls, its blue eyes so like Blair's, and full of tears...
He turned, startled to see Nikita at his side. Not a real zone, but close. He was going to have to be careful. "Mission over?" he questioned lightly, noting she was still in black field uniform.
Nikita dismissed his question; she wouldn't be back at the Section if the mission wasn't complete. "What's wrong, Jim? Usually it seems like you hear me coming a mile away. Just now, you weren't aware of me standing next to you until I called your name."
Jim shrugged. "It's called being lost in thought," he said flippantly.
"Thoughts of...?" She knew she was prying but her new friend worried her. He had closed off a part of himself she knew existed. She'd heard it in his voice that day when he'd stumbled into a Section mission. He'd been concerned for her and for his friend, a friend who was now dead. But Jim never spoke of his past and she'd never seen him grieve for that friend. If she thought he had done so in the privacy of the quarters given him by Section, she might feel better. But she had an uncanny suspicion that he was just as closed off alone as he was with her--maybe even more so.
"Michael tells me I'm scheduled to meet with Madeline tomorrow. That should be interesting," he said and Nikita sighed, knowing she had once again failed to reach him. Maybe Madeline would have better luck.
"Madeline is an enigma I hope I never figure out," Nikita admitted. "Because if I do, it will mean I have become her."
"And that's a bad thing?" Jim already had an opinion of the woman he'd heard about but never met. His opinion came from Michael, Michael who seemed rather pleased to tell Jim about his appointment with the Section's second-in-command. And Jim knew if Michael was pleased, it didn't bode well for him. His trainer didn't like him and Jim knew the reason for that dislike was standing beside him right now. "You don't like Madeline?" he asked when she shrugged her answer.
Nikita smiled ruefully. "The odd thing is that I do."
Jim shook his head at her contradictory statements. "I guess I'll just have to figure the lady out for myself."
"That's the best way I think," Nikita agreed. "But, Jim, when you're with her, be on your guard."
"I always am, Nikita. I always am."
Section One: Madeline's Office
Madeline activated the switch that opened the automatic doors to her medieval-motifed office and watched the newest member of Section One enter. She was immediately impressed by his straight stature and confident walk. Some of the recruits actually cowered when they came in for their initial interviews. Those were quickly tagged.
But she didn't think this one had ever cowered in his life. Even after nearly dying just a couple of weeks ago, he appeared virile and very capable. She had watched him on the Medlab monitor since the night he'd been brought in. Something about him intrigued her. Maybe it was the fact that Michael was so interested in him. He had had Jim's files flagged years ago. So when the hospital keyed in his name, Section had been notified and Michael had arranged the recruitment.
She had asked Michael why he was so determined this man be recruited but Michael, being Michael, merely shrugged and said if Section didn't want him, it was fine with him. Which made Madeline even more curious. And there was Nikita's involvement, which wasn't unexpected, considering she loved making Michael's business hers. But Jim had called her by name before introductions were made.
"Hello, Jim, I'm Madeline."
Jim smiled as he stopped in front of the desk. "It's nice to meet you, Madeline," he said politely.
"Please, have a seat," she said when it appeared he would remain standing. Could it be that Section had finally recruited a gentleman? "Michael reports that you have agreed to join our family."
"If you will have me."
She steepled her fingers and sat back in the chair. "Your background is most impressive. You've done work like this before. Why did you leave?"
He shrugged. "It was time."
"Did it have anything to do with the eighteen months you spent in Peru?"
Everything had to do with the time spent in Peru. Especially my decision to get out of covert ops. "I found I had a talent for working with people. If you look in my file, I'm sure you'll see the words, 'he works well with others'," he said with a smile.
Madeline smiled too. "Do you? Work well with others?"
His eyes twinkled mischievously. "Define 'well'."
Madeline surprised herself by laughing. He was actually flirting with her and some part of her was reacting to it. That hadn't happened for a while. "I think I'll take your file with a grain of salt because nowhere in it were you described as charming." And he definitely was. From his background, she had assumed he would be assigned to sniper duty or support crew. But now that she'd met him, he had first team member written all over him.
Yes, she thought as she stared at him and made up her mind. He would make a fine addition to what she called her chameleons, her corps of undercover agents used to charm, seduce, and subvert the target. Different targets fell for different types and Jim and Michael were opposite enough to cover the whole realm. Michael was Cary Grant, the suave European that ladies swooned over. Jim would be John Wayne, the tall stalwart American whose whole demeanor said, "Trust me. I will protect you." And those blue eyes...
"Have I dribbled something on my shirt or are you just sizing me up for conquest?" Jim asked with amusement.
"Can you be conquered, Jim?"
"Depends on the challenger and what she's after."
Oh, yes. He was good. That remark hadn't even sounded cocky or arrogant. Now, maybe Michael wouldn't have to be in the field as much. It was time he took his rightful place as her second. "What's your opinion of seduction?" she asked.
"Same answer as before."
"Sometimes getting the answers we need requires more than just gunplay and threats. Some operatives are uncomfortable with that."
"I was a cop. I've been undercover before. You will find, Madeline, that I am dedicated to achieving whatever goal is set before me, no matter what."
Madeline had to stop herself from shouting in glee. This man had to be the best thing that had happened to Section in a long time, certainly since that unfortunate war with Red Cell when their ranks had been depleted. Maybe Section should change its recruitment strategy; prisons really didn't have the quality inmates they used to. The military might make better grazing grounds.
She flashed her eyes over to the rows of clothes she had in her office. None of them seemed right for the specimen before her. Well, that was a problem easily solved. "Come on, Jim. You get to take me to lunch."
He glanced at his watch. "It's only 9:15 in the morning."
"I guess we'll just have to find some way to kill the time," Madeline said, grabbing his arm possessively.
Section One: Hallway
Birkoff, a twenty-something computer genius, was mildly amused as he watched his friend Nikita pace the length of hallway outside the control room. He knew she was worried about her friend Jim who had gone off with Madeline early in the morning and now it was after 5 P.M. and they had yet to return. He didn't know why she was so concerned. A cancellation wouldn't have take so long. Probably Madeline had gotten into one of her shopping moods and needed a packhorse. And tall, muscular Jim fit the bill. Of course he fit the bill for something else too. He shuddered as an image came to mind.
By the time Birkoff got rid of the disturbing thought, Michael had joined Nikita and the pacing had stopped. Good. Now he could concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing. Or he could try to eavesdrop.
"I don't know why you're worried. So far Jim has settled into the Section quite adequately," Michael said, ignoring the jealousy he could feel seething beneath his usual facade. He just couldn't understand Nikita's fascination with the man. Just what had occurred in those few minutes in the warehouse? Or was it something more? Had Nikita and Jim met more than once?
"That's what scares me, Michael," Nikita explained. "He's settled in too quickly. I--" She stopped as she heard a strange sound. She turned her head quickly toward the source. Surely that wasn't Madeline giggling?
But it was. She appeared in the corridor from the parking area, her hand wrapped around Jim's arm, and she was laughing as he said something in her ear. They slowed to a stop when they saw the welcoming committee.
"Michael, Nikita," Madeline acknowledged, not releasing her firm grip on Jim. "You're both here late on your day off."
"Michael was just keeping me company because I thought I had been stood up for dinner," Nikita replied, staring meaningfully at Jim.
Jim's eyes narrowed. He didn't remember any plans with Nikita save their usual walk. Apparently this was her way of saying she wanted to talk. "I'm sorry, Nikita, I guess we just lost track of time." He turned to Madeline and raised her hand to his lips. "Thank you for lunch, milady. It was interesting."
Madeline smiled and for a moment Nikita thought she saw a faint blush on the older woman's cheek. "No. Thank you, Jim. It's been a while since I've had such a stimulating afternoon. But you should have told me you had plans with Nikita. We could have come back hours ago."
"And where would the fun have been in that?" he teased. He truly liked the striking, elegant, auburn-haired woman. She reminded him of a feminine Simon. Tough on the outside; marginally gooey on the inside--if you dug deep enough. Her profession didn't scare him. Years of working covert ops, under the guise of the Army rangers, had acclimated him to her way of thinking. He didn't totally agree with it, but it wasn't enough for him to scuttle a relationship with her.
Madeline grinned and reluctantly let go of his arm. "By the way, Michael, Jim's training starts tomorrow and I've decided he'll be on first team."
Michael merely nodded, although it was unusual for a recruit to be designated to a team before he even began training. What was it with this man and Section's women? "As you wish, Madeline."
Madeline disappeared into one hallway and Michael into another, leaving Nikita and Jim alone. "First team, huh?" Nikita said bitterly. "You must really be good."
Jim's steely blue eyes captured hers. "It sounds as if you're asking a question, Nikita, and if you are, I want you to remember I promised never to lie to you. So before you ask the question, be sure you want to hear the answer," he warned.
She sighed. He was right; she didn't want to know what he and Madeline had done all day. "You're still recovering and if I know Michael, he's going to work you hard tomorrow. So forget the dinner invitation, okay? I think your rest is more important."
He nodded in agreement. He was tired and Michael was going to push him to the limit in training. Especially since Nikita had obviously been worried about him. "Walk me to my quarters?"
"Of course." They walked together in silence, a slight distance between them until a group of recruits passed them in the hallway. She felt Jim tense and she looked up to see the recruits give him a very hostile stare before going on their way. "What was that about?" Nikita asked curiously.
"I'm not too popular among the lower echelon here in the Section."
"Why?" She'd never seen Jim be deliberately non-friendly to anyone.
Jim laughed at her naivete. "Where were those recruits heading?"
"To dinner," she answered without hesitation.
"And how did you know that?"
"Because recruits are only allowed out of their quarters to eat and train."
"And what am I classified as?"
"A recruit." Nikita understood now. So far, Jim had never followed the same rules as the others. He roamed the halls freely, had left the compound with Nikita on several occasions, and now had spent the whole day out with Madeline. "Teacher's pet, huh?"
"Something like that. It's bad enough that I'm older than they are and didn't come from prison. Worse, I was a cop. People like me put them in a place where Section could get to them."
"Does everyone treat you this way?"
"No. I get along quite well with the seasoned operatives. They know there's no such thing as a teacher's pet in Section One. Everyone is expendable."
"Let me know if the situation gets worse," she said defensively.
Jim laughed. "Back down, tiger. I can handle it."
She even laughed at herself. "I know you can, Jim." She sombered. "I know you think you can handle everything."
"We're back to Madeline, aren't we?" He sighed. "I wasn't manipulated, Nikita."
This time she was the one who rolled her eyes at his naivete. He just didn't know Madeline like she did and he was going to have to find out for himself. "Just be careful, okay? Games are as natural as breathing here in Section. I don't want you blind-sided like I was."
"One of these days, we're going to sit down somewhere outside of Section and you're going to explain these cryptic remarks, okay?" he told her, seeing the glimmer of tears in her eyes. "I won't be hurt, Nikita. I can't be. Not anymore."
As Nikita walked back toward the exit she wondered if all the men in Section were as incredibly stupid as the ones she cared about, or was it something in her that was attracted to such foolishness. Both Michael and Jim were convinced they could shun emotion, turn on and off their feelings at the push of a button. Yet in the eyes of each, she saw enough pain to cry for them.
"Going home, Nikita?"
She realized she'd almost crashed into Michael. "Yes, I'm going home. And I'm going to wallow in my outrageous, useless, futile, emotions. And you know what, Michael? It's going to make me happy!"
Michael stared nonplused at the long blond hair as she stomped off and wondered why she thought she waiting until she got home.
Section One: Gym
Nikita watched as Jim did the last of his rotations with the weights. If he had been physically fit before, now he could be considered a poster boy for Muscles magazine. Michael had put him through some punishing workouts and only because she knew Michael put himself through the same punishment, she didn't protest his treatment of Jim.
She knew Michael's feelings (oops, that's right, he didn't have any) toward Jim were directly related to her feelings toward Jim. But what Michael didn't know, and should have, was that her feelings for Jim weren't anywhere similar to her feelings for him. Jim was her confidant, her best friend, and any sexual tendencies they may have felt for each other in the beginning had turned into sibling affection. In fact, Jim knew more about the relationship between her and Michael than anyone else. That was why he promised never to lie to her.
"Magnificent, isn't he?"
Nikita nodded, barely acknowledging Madeline. Hypocrite, she called to herself. Here she was bashing Michael for feeling jealous of Jim when the same thing could be said about her attitude toward Madeline. Jim's and Madeline's relationship had continued and although both seemed happy, the whole thing bothered Nikita. She had concluded it was because despite his toughness and his former background in covert activities, Jim's soul was still pure. She wished she knew how he managed to pull off such a feat, how he had worked with corrupt government officials, captured criminals, delved into the dregs of human evilness, and yet left his soul untouched, untainted.
Nikita figured if she had one gift, it was insight into the soul. Michael's was tortured, by things that had happened before he came to Section and by the myriad of "crimes" he'd committed in the name of the covert organization. Madeline's was dark. She knew the names of so many evils that they had been incorporated into her and although she wouldn't classify Madeline as being totally morally corrupt, the essence existed in her. Speaking of evil, where was the head devil?
"I haven't seen Operations around lately," Nikita said to Madeline. Operations was the head of Section One. He and Nikita thoroughly disliked each other.
"There was some minor trouble at a substation."
Aha. That explained why Madeline felt so comfortable flaunting Jim as her boy toy, Nikita thought sullenly. "Needed hands-on management, huh?" Madeline nodded. "I'm surprised you weren't sent in. Hands-on management seems to be your forte."
Madeline smiled sympathetically. "Jim doesn't blame you for his involvement in the Section. Isn't it about time you forgave yourself and let him go? Your guilt is unnecessary."
Nikita laughed. "You think Jim and I are about guilt?"
"It explains why you are so protective of him."
Nikita took a deep breath and counted to ten, a technique Jim had taught her. There was no way she was going to let Madeline goad her into a catfight in the middle of Section. "I'm protective of him because he is my friend. You see, that's the way friendship works among my species."
"We must work on your attitude, Nikita. Come by my off--" Just then a recruit walked by Jim and deliberately bumped his arm. The heavy barbell barely missed landing on his foot. Nikita started toward him, but Madeline held her back.
The recruit, Eddie, Nikita recalled, stood there defiantly waiting for Jim's reaction. But Jim merely picked up the weight and put it in its place on the stand. Then he picked up a towel to wipe the sweat from his face. Eddie mouthed something and turned away. It was then that he realized Jim's towel was wrapped firmly around his throat. Just as quickly as he was caught, he was let go and Jim slowly walked toward the women, never looking back at the man he could have so easily killed.
"Hello, ladies. Checking out the meat market today, are we?" he inquired teasingly.
"Wanted to see what was on the dinner menu," Madeline quipped, her eyes watching him closely.
"Sorry, but Nikita got to me first. We're going to mark the occasion of my first mission tomorrow. Let me shower and I'll be with you in a minute, Nikita."
The women watched him walk away. "What was that about?" Madeline asked, knowing Nikita wasn't nearly as shocked as she should have been.
"He's had some trouble with the recruits that were already here when he came. They don't like it that Jim has more freedom than they do."
"I was not aware their likes and dislikes were of any importance," Madeline said coldly. "This is a serious breach in discipline. Have that recruit report to my office as soon as he showers."
"Jim's not going to like you interfering," Nikita pointed out.
"This is not about Jim, Nikita. This is about discipline and respect."
"Whatever you say, Madeline."
A Public Park
"So what's on your mind, Jim?" Nikita asked as they walked along a dimly lit path. For most citizens, it would have been foolish to take such chances at night. But these were Section operatives; the only fools would be those who attempted to attack them. "Are you nervous about tomorrow's mission?"
"Not really. At least I know about it." Which was better than Nikita had had it. She had thought she was merely having dinner with Michael when suddenly her trainer had given her a gun and quick, and deliberately inaccurate, instructions.
"Then why are we out here away from the mechanical probings of Section?"
Jim didn't know how to begin because he didn't want to have the discussion at all. But despite all his attempts to become the military drone version of Jim Ellison, some aspects of the kinder, gentler form still survived. And that part of him recognized and accepted Nikita as a friend-- a friend who needed to know at least a partial truth about him for her own safety.
"Something will happen when we work together, Nikita," he began slowly. "It may not happen tomorrow, or the next mission, or even the next, but it will happen."
She stopped walking and tugged on his arm until he looked at her. "What are you talking about, Jim?" His tone was scaring her.
"I have a... problem. At times, usually at the worst possible moment actually, I... space out." That sounded better than "zoning", didn't it?
"Define 'space out'," she demanded in a panic.
"Here in body, gone in mind."
Nikita looked at him in confusion. Was he telling her he had some form of epilepsy? No, Medlab would have spotted that from the beginning and he would have been canceled immediately. Flashbacks from drug use? Not Jim. He didn't even pop the pills he should have been taking. That thought connected with another. "Does this have something to do with your reaction in the sims chamber?" Advanced training was performed in a simulation room with holographic enemies and a sensor badge which let you know every time the bad guys got in a good shot. The first time Jim tried a sim, he passed out. The second time, he lasted two minutes before a migraine sent him to his knees in agony. There hadn't been a third time. For once Nikita had been glad Jim was sleeping with Madeline.
"Yes." Nikita was a quick thinker. The holograms and his enhanced eyesight seemed to operate on opposing frequencies which fried his brain.
"I take it from your matter-of-fact outlook that you've had these episodes before?"
She struggled with the urge to slap him. "Damn it, Jim. Stop it with the yeses and tell me what's going on! How the hell did you survive the army and the police department with a problem like this? And how the hell are we going to get you out of Section without them canceling you?"
With a sigh, he filled her in on his history. How the senses hadn't kicked in until his period of isolation in Peru which was at the end of his military career. How an anthropology student, Blair Sandburg, had come up with the Sentinel theory and had become his Guide and police partner. The only thing he left out was the small fact that all five of his senses were heightened. He admitted only to having enhanced hearing because, whether she was aware of it or not, Nikita already had evidence of it.
"So that's how you knew my name," she said wonderingly.
"I heard Michael the same way I heard the shots even thought you and the targets were using silencers."
"And when I joked about you hearing me coming from a mile away..."
He shrugged. "It wasn't a joke."
Nikita slumped onto a bench. "This is incredible. Why did you keep this from the Section?"
"Because they would want to exploit it and I'm too unstable without my Guide."
"But couldn't someone else learn to be your Guide?"
"A guide, with a little 'g', yes. My captain assumed the role on a couple of occasions. He was effective during some milder episodes, but if I was drawn in too deep, only Sandburg--my capital 'G' Guide, could reach me."
Her forehead creased as she tried to understand. "But you've made it this far with no guide."
"Because I've been extremely careful and I've only been in controlled situations. Out in the field anything could happen. That's the reason behind this confession, Nikita. I want you to know if it happens, when it happens, there's no need for you to feel guilty. Just protect yourself and get out."
"Leaving you behind?" She shook her head. "Couldn't you give me a crash course in being a guide? Maybe with you trying and me doing what little I can do, we can keep you from 'spacing out'."
"Actually, the term is 'zoning out' or just 'zoning'. And all I can do is tell you some of the triggers and the signs that I'm in a zone. If you suspect it, you should talk to me or shake me."
"Any way to prevent you for getting in that state in the first place?"
"This is going to sound odd, but I need to be kept from concentrating. It's when I key in on one thing that I'm most susceptible. Talking, touching, whatever breaks my focus is a help."
She took his hand as if practicing. "Are you in pain when this happens, like in the sims chamber?"
Unconsciously, he stroked the hand in his. "That was slightly different. I was overwhelmed by input in the chamber and that caused the pain. If I had been subjected to it much longer, I would have either sunk into a deep zone to protect myself or gone insane."
Nikita leaned against his strong shoulder. "I knew you were a complicated man the moment I saw you."
"High maintenance is my middle name," Jim said with a trace of bitterness.
She laced their fingers and pulled him to his feet. "Maybe so. But you're worth it."
He followed her back to the car. "About this code name business. Who came up with the idea of naming me Atlas, Josephine?" he asking, using her code name.
"Jim, with shoulders like yours, what else would we call you?" she replied with a grin, that turned into a laugh as the interior car lights revealed his blush.
Nikita kept her hand firmly on Jim's back as the deal was being made. In the past two months, she'd gotten good at finding excuses to touch Jim. This mission was easy; she was posing as his girlfriend in crime so keeping hands on her man didn't need explaining.
Jim smiled at Nikita, aware of what she was doing. She was dedicated to being his guide and he grew dizzy trying to name all the ways she managed to distract him without alerting Section (mainly Michael) that her movements were deliberate. He hadn't even come close to zoning, partially because of her efforts and partially because a Section mission was so carefully planned he hadn't had to use his Sentinel senses beyond normal usage.
Like hearing Michael from Nikita's comset. With his short hair it was hard to hide a comset and the ones embedded in the handles of glasses irritated his hearing (he only admitted that to Nikita), so Section had granted him the ability to choose when he wanted to wear one. Nikita had smirked when she heard that. Since Jim's arrival, Section had been allowing more and more choice and to everyone's great astonishment... Section still survived! In fact, according to Birkoff's statistics, mission-related injuries were down significantly. Nikita knew that was because the operatives went out into the field with a less pessimistic view.
Of course all that would probably change as soon as Operations returned. He would have a fit over the changes Madeline had implemented. And the things she let Jim get away with... Operations was not going to be a happy man. She smiled at the thought.
"Nikita, there's a prob--" Before Michael could finish, the comlink died in her ear. She looked quickly to Jim to see if he'd heard.
He had... and something else as well. "Tyrell, who else did you try to sell this disk to?" he asked the thinner of the two men in front of him.
"You were the first," Tyrell Anderson said.
"But we weren't the last," Jim supplied. He could hear the rapid pulse of a liar. He'd had his doubts about Anderson since the beginning of the deal. The man was too desperate for cash. He had blown his entire inheritance and was now selling company secrets just to support a very nasty, and expensive, cocaine habit. Back in his cop days, he would have busted Anderson for using. However, Anderson was of little importance to the Section and had the deal played out, he would have walked away without repercussion. However, it wasn't going to end that neatly now.
"The other buyers have just arrived. Give me the disk."
Anderson reached into his pocket and pulled out the requested item. "I don't know what you're talking about, man."
"I do." The man beside Anderson pulled out a gun. Percy Thompson was the vice president of Anderson's Electronics and was supposedly the owner's best friend. Jim added the supposedly when Thompson shot Anderson without a blink of his eye. "Sorry, my friends, but someone bid higher."
Jim held up his hands to back away. At the beginning of the deal, Thompson had made him shed his coat and frisked him for weapons. He'd started to do Nikita next but Jim had stopped him by saying he didn't allow her with guns. "If you saw how she handled kitchen utensils, you would know why I don't let her carry a gun," he had explained with a grin. "But, hey, you don't keep a woman like her because she can cook anyway."
Nikita had been offended, but it had kept her from being searched. Suddenly she doubled over in pain, startling Thompson. When she unclutched her stomach, she was pulling the trigger. Thompson crumpled to the floor beside his "friend". "Let's go," she called to Jim. He didn't move and she reached out to grab his arm with a silent prayer.
"I'm still here, Nikita," he told her, hearing her heartbeat race. "We can't go out the way we came in. They're already in the foyer."
They had both memorized the schematics of the house. "Through the back?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Follow me." He started out the door of the library, then turned around and hurried back to where the two bodies lay. "Have to get my jacket," he told her. "It's Madeline's favorite."
Only the sound of nearby gunfire kept Nikita from making a nasty comment. She gave a slight protest, however, when Jim headed for the stairs. "We can't get out this way," she whispered.
"The windows are only sealed on the first two floors."
"Yeah, which means we'd have to jump out of the third floor."
He grinned and pulled her along. "Sounds like a challenge."
She looked at the long drop to the ground outside the bedroom they'd chosen and shook her head. "Jim, didn't Michael ever tell you never run 'up' from trouble? Because that just takes you further away from 'out'."
"We can do this, Nikita. Trust me."
She did, but... "Can't we just hide out until the Section gets control?"
Jim shook his head. "Section's outnumbered. If we don't get out of here on our own, we'll be left behind."
"How can you tell we're outnumbered?" She knew this wasn't the time for curiosity, but she had to know. Besides, this was the first time she'd actually seen him deliberately use his hearing.
"Our people are wearing soft-soled boots. The enemy are in hard-bottomed ones. They make a different sound."
He climbed onto the window sill. "I did higher jumps in the military," he said to reassure her.
"I was never in the military."
"Okay," he said, seeing she was really worried. "I'm going to jump and when I'm set, you follow me. But I'm going to fall feet first. I want you to just drop." Her eyes really widened at that. "Don't worry. I'll break your fall."
"Trust you, right?" she asked wryly.
"Trust me." With those words, he jumped. When he hit the ground he rolled, absorbing most of the impact. Damn, he thought as he rose to his feet. It had been a lot less painful when he was younger. With practiced ease, he turned down his pain receptors and waved to Nikita. She jumped.
Using his enhanced vision, he followed the rapid flight of her body and captured her before she hit the ground. The impact sent them both rolling across the grass. He looked up from where her body pinned him. "Was it good for you?"
She grinned, winded but unhurt. "I think I now know why Madeline keeps you around." With belated modesty, she pulled down her short dress and helped him to his feet. "Where to now, Sentinel?"
That gave him a moment's pause. It had been a while since anyone had called him that. "Let's go find our ride home."
Jim sensed the relief Michael felt at seeing the two of them, but the younger man never let it show. He merely called in the team and they proceeded back to the Section. "How did you get out? We were trying to clear the entrances for you."
"Jim took us on the scenic route." Michael looked at her curiously. "We jumped out a third floor window at the back of the house."
"A little extreme."
Jim shook his head at Michael. The poor guy had been in the Section much too long. "Shooting our way out would have been extreme."
Nikita just realized what Jim had done. "I only had to kill one person," she said bluntly. Daringly, she reached over and pecked Jim on the cheek.
"Who?" Michael demanded to know.
"Thompson," Jim said. "After he killed Anderson."
"What happened to communications, Michael?" Nikita asked.
"Something shut us down. Birkoff and I are going to have a late night."
Minutes later, the driver signaled their return to Section. Jim knew immediately that something was wrong. Madeline had taken to greeting them after a mission, but it wasn't her he sensed outside the van; it was Birkoff.
As soon as Michael stepped out, the computer expert was whispering in his ear. "Jim, Nikita, with me," Michael ordered tensely.
"Jim?" Nikita questioned softly as they moved to catch up with their mutual mentor/trainer.
"It seems your friend has returned."
She frowned. Friend? She stopped in the middle of a step. "Operations is back?" she nearly shouted.
"Nikita!" Michael chided sharply, but he too wasn't anxious to see his boss. Especially since he reappeared on the night a mission had been blown, the only one without closure Michael had been involved in during the leader's absence. "Remember who and what you are."
Nikita nodded, reluctantly continuing to the briefing room. Whenever Operations wanted her in on a debriefing, he usually wanted to shout at her and/or point out her incompetence as an operative. She had learned to accept it, but the respite had been so soothing.
Jim took one look at the blue-eyed, silver-haired man and knew he was looking at someone who had sold his soul. Flashing back to what he knew of his mysterious boss's background, he concluded the sale must have been the price of his freedom from a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. Being a soldier himself, Jim felt empathy for the man.
"What the hell happened tonight, Michael!" Operations demanded, his eyes grazing across Nikita and ignoring Jim altogether.
"Anderson had another buyer who didn't appreciate being outbid."
"Not Anderson, Thompson," Jim clarified.
That got Operations' attention. "Who the hell are you?" he asked, fixing his icy stare on the impudent stranger.
"Jim. I was recruited while you were away."
Operations turned swiftly to Michael. "I've only been gone six months. What is this man doing on a mission?"
"Jim is a special circumstance," Michael replied softly. "I will bring up his background for you." He moved toward a control panel.
Operations cut off Michael's movement with an impatient slash of his hand. "Not only has he skipped the mandatory two years of training, but am I to assume he worked with you on first team tonight?"
Michael set his shoulders defiantly. "Jim and Nikita were in play. I was merely the observer."
Jim was impressed by how tightly Operations controlled his rage. "And here I am trying to figure out what went wrong tonight... What the hell were you thinking, Michael? We have rules in the Section for a reason--so we don't have situations like this!"
"Jim wasn't at fault!" Nikita shouted angrily. "And neither was Michael."
"Speak when you are spoken to, woman!" Operations ordered.
Jim saw the situation was rapidly getting out of hand and moved to calm everyone down. Still a cop, aren't you, buddy? "I don't see what the problem is," he interjected reasonably.
Operations stared at him. "You don't see the problem? The problem, Jim, is that some other organization has the information we needed, an organization we haven't identified yet!"
Jim reached into his jacket and pulled out the disk. "You mean this information?"
Nikita was astonished. In her panic at losing communication with Michael and trying to get out, she'd forgotten the disk. Then she remembered Jim going back for his jacket. Madeline's favorite? Right, Jim. And that led to another question as Michael examined the disk. "Where is Madeline?"
Operations was watching Michael and didn't see Jim's interest in his answer. "I sent her to her office. She was acting peculiar about the debriefing. I guess I know why now. She approved all this, didn't she?"
"Her reasons were valid," Michael said and Jim heard approval in his mentor's voice as he handed the disk to Operations. "The intelligence has been verified. Jim, Nikita, good work."
One gift of a good leader was to know when to push and when to back away. Operations decided to let the issue of Jim drop for now, but eventually he would get to the bottom of this serious breach of Section One doctrine. "Michael, get with Birkoff and find out what happened to our communications net. Nikita, I want to know who these 'competitors' are."
Since he hadn't been mentioned, Jim left with Nikita. "I'll help you with the search," he said.
She smiled gratefully at him. "It's just a simple matter of going through the tapes of the mission, isolating whatever clean shots we can of the enemy, feeding them into the system, and hopefully finding a match in the database. Shouldn't take us more than six or eight hours, if we're lucky," she added dryly.
"Consider yourself very lucky," he said with conviction. With his vision, he could easily identify the faces straight off the videotape. Then he would visually run through the criminals on file. Sandburg had taught him how to do so with amazing speed and accuracy, saving many hours of investigation.
Besides, he owed Nikita for making her jump out the window.
Section One: Madeline's Office
Jim was getting ready to turn a page in the book he was reading when he heard her approaching. He liked the way Madeline walked; no hesitation, only supreme confidence in each step. He rose to his feet slowly, his bones mildly protesting from the double impact they'd had.
"Jim," she said as she saw him standing at her desk. She was startled but covered well.
"Hello, Madeline. Hope you don't mind that I borrowed some light reading material." He held up the book, An Intimate Journey Into The Psychotic Mind.
"Whatever is mine, is yours, Jim," she said exhaustedly. Operations had been a bear for the last four hours. It was a good thing she was used to working with unreasonable people.
"Is that still the case?" he asked softly. "I haven't been siting here for two hours because of this fascinating book, Madeline. I wanted to know if you were going to hand me my walking papers."
She deliberately misunderstood. He could tell by the change in her pulse. "You can't walk away from the Section."
"It's not the Section I'm concerned about leaving." She was silent. "Operations were exceptionally clear on his opinion of me. Will I be canceled?"
"No," she declared adamantly. "I have spent the last four hours justifying my actions, all my actions, to Operations. He will abide by my decisions. That has no bearing on the future, however."
"I understand that, Madeline. No one is above cancellation. Not even you. I don't want our relationship to hurt you."
Madeline smiled grimly, thinking she understood where he was leading. "You want to drop me for my own good. If that is a salve to your conscience, you have my permission, Jim."
He let his senses flow out and discovered this time she really didn't understand. Women. "Damn it, Madeline! I'm not deliberately looking for an out. I don't want to give you up. But I will, if being with me gets you into trouble with Operations."
Madeline moved close to him, putting her hand to his jaw and forcing him to look her in the eye. "You actually care for me?"
He kissed her roughly, possessively. "After all these weeks, months, you have to ask me that? Hell, woman, why else would I be sleeping with you?"
Her penetrating brown eyes watched him closely. "You said you would do anything to achieve your goal. I thought you considered the goal was to satisfy me. It was a logical assumption for you to make. After all, I asked you about seduction, then proceeded to seduce you."
"So are you saying this was a training exercise? That you have been screwing me for weeks to teach me the art of seduction?" Jim asked warily.
"You didn't need teaching," she admitted.
"So was it to hone your own skills?" She shook her head. "Then what was it about, Maddie?"
She stared at him blankly. "I don't know."
He took pity on the bewildered profiler. She had spent so many years analyzing everyone else, she'd neglected herself. "I know I make you happy." He couldn't explain to her that he was sure of this because of her body's reactions to him; the speeding of her heartbeat, the widening of her pupils, the spray of pheromones that she released when he was near. "I think maybe you've forgotten what happiness is. Let me help you find it again."
"I don't understand what's happening to me."
Even in her confusion, she didn't lower her head. His proud, regal Maddie. "I know you don't, sweetheart. But I do, I'll help you if you let me." He wrapped his arms around her, feeling the fine trembling coursing through her.
"Okay, Jim," she murmured against his shoulder. "Teach me to be happy. Teach me to care."
Jim shifted Madeline's head to a pillow and rose from the sofa as he heard footsteps outside the office. He and Madeline had just snuggled together in an attempt to teach her about simple comforting. It must have worked because all the tension had left her and she'd fallen asleep in his arms.
Without glancing at her monitors, he listened to the precise cadence of the approaching person and concluded it was Michael. He pushed the controls to the doors. Michael was startled to find him there and even more shaken to see Madeline lying on the sofa, covered with an afghan. She looked far too human that way.
"She's sleeping," Jim said softly. "Operations ran her hard tonight. You as well, apparently."
Michael held out a data disk. "I came by to drop off an update of my report. You and Nikita are to be commended for your quick identification of the competition."
"I told Nikita not to tell you of my involvement."
Michael gave a small smile. "When have you ever known her to simply obey?"
Jim gave a soft laugh as he headed to a cabinet. "Brandy?" he asked, holding up two snifters. Michael paused, then nodded. Jim figured he wasn't keeping Michael away from his bed; if his instincts were any good, Michael didn't sleep any better than he did. They were similar in other ways too. "Do you know why you're here, Michael?"
"To drop off my report," he answered, watching the light of the single lamp play in the liquor.
Jim shook his head. "No, you're here for the same reason I am. You were worried about Madeline. You checked your internal spy network and found she was still here and you were concerned." Michael started to deny it, but Jim wouldn't let him. "I know care is a four-letter word, Michael, but it is not profane. Profound, maybe, but never profane. You care for Madeline. You care for Nikita. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"I am not ashamed."
"Then why do you deny it?"
Michael took a sip of the brandy and savored its smoothness. "Never give hostages to fortune."
"Your denial doesn't make them any less of a hostage for you. How many times has Nikita been used against you?"
Michael sat the snifter down before his tight grip caused it to snap. "As many times as I have been used against her."
"Yet, does she deny what she feels for you?"
"It is not the same," Michael argued. "Besides, she never mentions her feelings anymore."
"But you know they exist."
Michael nodded. Over the years Nikita had learned how to hide what she was feeling, but never from him. "They wanted me to cancel her," he said softly. "I couldn't."
"They almost destroyed you." Jim knew Madeline was included in the "they" and he was saddened by that. Section One was a cruel master to please and its servants often lost themselves in obedience.
Michael shook his head. "There was nothing left to destroy."
"I think Nikita would disagree with that."
"Nikita is... different."
"Nikita is special."
Michael bowed his head, then looked up. "Yes, Nikita is special," he agreed and with those words, he made peace with his jealousy... and Jim.