Involuntary Recruitment

By: Kathy


Consciousness returning, Jim willed his eyes to remain shut; not wanting his captors to know that he was now awake, he extended his senses in the hopes of discovering something about his surroundings. When nothing registered, sound, scent, touch revealing nothing, he opened his eyes a fraction of an inch. Not moving his head, his gaze roamed around taking in every detail of his environment; taking in the limited view, he found himself in a stark white room.

Giving up the ruse, he allowed his eyes to open completely; glancing down at the restraints encircling his wrists, he strained against them. Giving up after a few seconds, realizing that there would be no escape this time, he slumped back against the chair in which he was being held captive. Conveying an image of complete acceptance and surrender; he was actually just bidding his time, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. Waiting for a chance to escape, Jim thoughts turned to his current predicament.

'Shit,' he cursed, 'I don't even know how long I've been here. Wherever here is.' Extending his hearing, Jim sought out the sound of Blair's heartbeat. Growling softly in frustration when he encountered the sound of a white noise generator, he fought to go pass the disabling noise; on the verge of a zone-out, he shook his head slightly as he pulled back his hearing. 'Is Sandburg here too?' he wondered. 'I can't remember if he was with me. Hell, I can't even remember someone grabbing me. What in the hell happened?'

Jim emerged from his musing as a soft hissing sound broke the eerie quiet filling the sterile room. Glancing towards the area in which the noise originated, Jim warily watched as a man stealthily entered. Instantly acknowledging the newcomer as a potential, and dangerous, adversary, Jim didn't say anything as the stranger slowly approached him.

Glaring up as the man came to stand beside him, Jim found himself locked in a silent confrontation. Not wanting to be the first to break the intensely locked gazes, Jim found his appraisal confirmed when the other man refused to back down or to be intimidated. Finally his impatience got the better of him and he growled, "Who are you and why did you grab me?" Fighting the urge to track this new opponent, Jim remained still as the other man began to walk around the chair; slowly circling the increasingly irate detective.

Locking gazes with Jim as he completed his circuit around the chair and came to stand in front of captive detective again, the man said, "My name is Michael and this… This is Section One."

A slight widening of his eyes was Jim's only reaction to Michael's proclamation; however, the movement didn't go unnoticed. "I take it you've heard of Section One before?" Not receiving a response, Michael continued, "No matter. The life you had is gone, Detective. From now on, Section One is your entire existence. There is no hope of escape and resistance will only lead to unpleasantness on your part."

"You can't do this," Jim protested. "There are people that will be looking for me, and they won't stop until they find me."

"There is no one looking for you, Detective," Michael replied, a hint of emotion coloring his words. Bringing out his hands from their position behind his back, Michael held out a group photographs. Slowly showing each of them to Jim, he explained, "As far as the rest of the world is concerned, you are dead." Holding aloft the final photograph, a scene from what was presumably Jim's burial service, Michael added, "Quite a tragic incident actually. You were returning home from a late night stakeout when you apparently swerved to avoid a car accident that was blocking the road. Unfortunately, you lost control of your vehicle and crashed. The ensuing explosion resulted in your body being severely burned. Beyond recognition actually. Fortunately we arranged for your dental records to be switched, allowing for a positive identification to be easily made."

Scanning the photograph, Jim saw the grieving images of Simon, his father and brother, even Carolyn. He saw all of his family and friends gathered together to witness him being laid to rest. Everyone, that is, except for one very important person, everyone except for the most important person. Almost against his will, his lips formed the name. "Sandburg," he whispered; flinching as the word echoed in the unnaturally quiet room.

Once again placing the photographs behind his back, Michael said, "Oh, yes, Sandburg." Beginning to circle around Jim once again, he continued, "Your … Now how did one of our mutual acquaintances refer to Sandburg? Yes, your guide I believe is the term he used."

Glaring up at Michael, Jim asked, "Brackett? Is he here? I'll kill that son of a…"

"Calm yourself, Detective," Michael interrupted, not unnerved in the least by the other man's outburst. " Brackett isn't here at the moment. He was, in the past, a guest at Section One. However, he managed to secure his release after relating some rather … interesting information. Fortunately for him, he now maintains a mutually beneficial relationship with Section." Coming to stand before Jim again, he added, "As a matter of fact, you may find yourself working with Brackett at some point."

Not rising to the very obvious bait, Jim sarcastically asked, "Don't tell me that you bought Brackett's line about that super senses crap?" Laughing, making sure that his ridicule was evident to the other man, he said, "If so, then the rumors about this place are way off base."

Leaning over, bringing his face close to Jim's, Michael warned, "You're right, Detective, the rumors are somewhat mistaken." Voice lowered, he continued, "In reality, this place is far worse than you could ever imagine." Straightening up, he began to pace in front of Jim. "We know all about your sentinel abilities, Detective Ellison. That is why you are here. Section One wants you as an operative."

"No way!" Jim exclaimed. "There is no way that I'll ever work for this place!"

"On the contrary, Detective," Michael replied. "You will become an operative for Section One and you will perform all the duties that are required of you." Pausing for a moment, Michael turned away from Jim. Quietly, his voice softer than a whisper, he said, "After all, you wouldn't want anything to happen to Sandburg, now would you?"

Jim's response was instantaneous and extremely volatile; struggling against the restraints, not even noticing when they cut into the flesh of his wrists, he threatened, "If you go anywhere near Sandburg, I'll…"

Turning around, face remaining expressionless in spite of the other man's agitation, Michael said, "So, I guess Brackett's assertions weren't so far-fetched after all, were they?"

Mentally berating himself for letting the other man get to him, Jim ceased his struggles. "Leave Sandburg out of this. He's of no importance to you."

"That remains to be seen," Michael cryptically replied. "If you do as you are told, your friend will continue to remain unharmed. If you don't…" Trailing off, the threat clear, Michael started over to the door. Turning to face Jim after the door opened, he said, "By the way, Detective Ellison, welcome to Section One."

"Wait," Jim called out as Michael started to walk through the door. Seeing Michael pause, Jim said, "You never did say… About Sandburg … Where is he? He wasn't at the funeral, or at least he wasn’t in any of the photographs. Tell me something." Not really expecting an answer, Jim was surprised when Michael turned to face him again.

"Like I said, Sandburg is currently unharmed," Michael replied. "However, how long he remains that way is up to you. Cooperate, and he will be allowed to live in peace; resist, and he will suffer the consequences of your actions."

After Michael left, Jim allowed his head to fall forward; wanting to appear defeated and discouraged, he didn't permit any of his inner thoughts to show. 'I swear to God, I'll find a way to get out of here, Chief,' he thought. 'Don't give up on me, buddy. Know that I'm still alive and that I'll come back. Keep your faith, Blair. It may be the only thing that gets both of us through this.'

* * *

Entering Madeline's office, Michael was immediately questioned by Operations. "What's your evaluation, Michael?"

Eyes drawn to Madeline's desk, Michael found himself confronted with the image of a seemingly broken Jim Ellison. Gesturing towards the screen, he replied, "As you can see for yourself, it would appear that Detective Ellison has accepted his recruitment into Section One."

"All I see is what he wants us to see," Operations replied. "Now I've asked for your evaluation of the situation. What are your thoughts on Ellison?"

"He will need to be closely supervised," Michael answered. "Since he has previous combat experience, obviously some sections of training can be bypassed and he could become a fully functional operative before the two year induction period is completed. However, even after that, he will need to be kept under constant scrutiny. If what Brackett told us is indeed the truth, Ellison will stop at nothing to be reunited with Sandburg. As such, he will most likely appear complacent until a chance of escape presents itself. When such an opportunity arises, it is highly probable that he will successfully slip away from Section One's grasp."

When Michael finished, Operations merely said, "Dismissed."

After nodding, Michael turned and left Madeline's office. Waiting until after the operative had left, Operations turned to Madeline. "What is your opinion?"

"I concur with Michael's evaluation," the emotionless woman replied.

"I still think that we should have grabbed Sandburg too," Operations said as he studied Jim's image. "Are you sure that we won't need him?"

"You know that I gave the matter extensive study," Madeline answered. "Ellison will be more easily controlled if Sandburg remains outside of Section. If Sandburg were here, he would only prove to be some type of distraction or deterrent. Nothing must usurp our hold on Ellison; and Sandburg, by his mere presence in Section, would indeed undermine our position of authority over Ellison."

"Well what about this zone-out thing that Brackett mentioned?" Operation inquired. "How are we going to prevent these … theses episodes from occurring?"

"During our lengthy observation of Ellison before his recruitment," Madeline explained, "we saw no occurrences of these so-called 'zone-outs'. If indeed they truly occurred, it is most likely that Ellison has learned how to prevent them."

"But he could have only done that with Sandburg's help, right?" Operations asked.

"If you disagree with my conclusions, then feel free to acquire Sandburg," Madeline coolly replied.

"No, no," Operations hastily reassured. "I'm sure that your evaluation is accurate, just as they always are. We'll go with your assessment."

"Besides," Madeline said while staring at Jim's image, "if Detective Ellison does encounter any problems, I'm sure that I can adequately perform Sandburg's guide duties."

Pushing aside a sudden flare of jealousy, Operations reached past Madeline and turned off the screen. "Well now that the Ellison situation has been taken care of, we need to turn our attention to more pressing matters. So, have there been any new developments with Red Cell?"

"No," Madeline answered. "They're still being usually quiet at the moment. However, we both know that it won't last long."

"Yes, well, when they do strike again we'll be ready for them," Operations stated.

"As always," Madeline added.

* * *

Returning from another unsuccessful mission, Jim found Michael waiting from him when he arrived back at Section One. "Not now, Michael," Jim said when the other man started to speak.

Grabbing a hold of Jim's shoulder, Michael suddenly found himself lying on the floor with Jim's foot pressing against his neck. Remaining calm, he merely stated, "Madeline wishes to see you."

Sighing, Jim helped Michael up. "Does it have to be now?" he asked. "I am really not up to a visit to her den right now."

"Yes, it does have to be now," Michael insisted.

"Michael…"

"Oh, by the way, I believe she received an update on Sandburg while you were gone," Michael said, his tone matter-of-fact. "Maybe she'll share something with you this time."

"You really are an unfeeling bastard, you know that."

A slight, sardonic smile playing about the corners of his mouth, Michael replied, "A trait that we share, if I'm not mistaken."

Walking off, Jim murmured, "Only since I came here."

Staring after Jim's retreating form, Michael whispered, "Same here."

Although he heard Michael's words, Jim let no expression show on his face as he walked down the corridor. Entering Madeline's office, military training took over and Jim found himself automatically standing at attention in front of her desk. "Michael said that you wanted to see me."

Not looking up from her computer screen, Madeline distractedly answered, "Yes, I do."

Refusing to give Madeline the satisfaction of seeing how uncomfortable he was in her presence, Jim continued to stand at attention as the woman made him wait for several long minutes. 'You just love these little mind games, don't you, Icequeen?' Jim thought as he stared at the wall behind Madeline. 'Sandburg would have a field day with you, lady. Then again, he'd probably turn this place into some academic paper on power structures within a secret, militant society.' Attention focused on thoughts of his friend; Jim didn't immediately notice the surreptitious glances that Madeline was directing his way.

"If it isn't too much of a problem," Madeline said, "can I have your attention please, Ellison?"

Irritated, Jim growled, "What is it now, Madeline?"

"Your mission was a failure, Ellison," Madeline stated. "In the six months that you've been functioning as a field operative, your success rate has been rather disappointing. Frankly, we had higher expectations for your performance." Opening a folder that had been laying on her desk, Madeline began flipping through the contents as she continued. "Now, what was the reason for your failure this time?"

Zooming in on the papers Madeline was perusing, Jim noticed a photograph of Blair. "It was… um …" he stammered. Recovering his composure, he said, "Their perimeter defenses included motion detectors that emitted a low pitched hum. It wouldn't have been audible to the normal range of hearing; but I guess that I unconsciously picked up on the noise and, without my even being aware of it, my hearing focused in on it so much that I eventually experienced a mild zone-out."

"That makes ten of these 'mild zone-outs' now," Madeline stated, "and ten failed missions. I've told you before, Ellison, if you continue to experience these problems, we will be forced to…" Trailing off, she passed a photograph of Blair across the desk and it came to rest in front of Jim. "Well, I suppose that we'll have to pay a little visit to Sandburg."

"I told you before," Jim replied as he leaned over Madeline's desk, "if you go anywhere near Sandburg, I'll…"

"You'll what, Ellison?" Madeline interrupted, contempt lacing her words. "You are in no position to issue threats or ultimatums to Section. Now, you will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that you no longer suffer from these zone-outs and I will aid you in this."

"It won't work, Madeline," Jim protested. "You and I both know that there's no way you'll be able to help me control my senses."

"I think otherwise, Ellison," Madeline countered. "You will accept my guidance and together we will eliminate this recurring problem." Reaching out a finger, Madeline lightly traced the photograph. Running a nail along Blair's image, she warned, "Otherwise… Well, let's just say that I would rather enjoy making Sandburg's acquaintance. I'm sure that the two of us would have some interesting and … intimate … conversations."

Jerking the photograph away from Madeline, Jim said, "I'll go along with you for now; but, if this fails, the fault will be yours and yours alone. A fact that I will be bringing to Operations' attention."

"That won't be necessary, Ellison," Madeline replied, "I've already apprised Operations of the situation. Oh, and you can keep the photograph, by the way. I've plenty more."

Tightening his grip on the photograph, Jim turned to leave but paused when the door opened.

"Was there something else, Ellison?" Madeline asked. "Did you have something that you wanted to ask me? A question pertaining to a certain anthropologist we're both familiar with?"

"I've agreed to accept your help, Madeline," Jim said. "The least you could do is tell me something, anything, about him."

"Our reports indicate that Sandburg is functioning adequately," Madeline stated, "and I've no reason to doubt the validity of those reports. After all, they are being made by someone very close to him; though the fact that this associate is in fact a Section One operative has so far eluded him."

"A Section One operative," Jim repeated. "You bitch! This wasn't part of the deal; you were supposed to leave Sandburg alone."

"Did you honestly believe that you had any kind of agreement with Section?" Madeline asked. "Section One does not make deals with operatives. You are alive because we believe that you serve a purpose. If for any reason you no longer have any usefulness, you will be eliminated. Your senses do not provide you with any special standing here."

Turning around, meeting Madeline's cold gaze with one of his own, Jim replied, "Really, Madeline?" Laughing, relishing the slight flicker in Madeline's eyes, he said, "We'll just have to see about that, won't we?"

"Are you challenging me, Ellison?" Madeline asked, a touch of disbelief slipping past her normally stoic mask.

Without replying, Jim turned and left Madeline's office; smiling when the woman's muffled curses reached his ears. 'Checkmate, Icequeen,' he thought.

Tracking down Michael in tactical, Jim uneasily glanced around as he approached his fellow operative. "Michael, we need to talk."

Not looking up, Michael replied, "Not now."

"Yes, now," Jim insisted.

Finally looking up, Michael stared at Jim for a few seconds. Standing up, he ordered, "Follow me." Without waiting for a response, he walked over to weapons. Waiting until after Jim had joined him, Michael turned to Walter. "Ellison and I need to talk. Privately."

Hearing the emphasis placed on the last word, Walter walked over to a control panel. After pressing a sequence of buttons, he looked over at Michael. "You've got about five minutes, Michael. That's the best that I can do." Glancing over at Jim, he added, "I'll … I'll just be in the back."

"What is it, Ellison?" Michael asked after Walter had left.

"I need a favor," Jim answered.

"A favor?" Walking over, seemingly intent on studying the array of weapons laid out on Walter's workbench, Michael said, "Favors don't come cheap in Section One and usually the price is more expensive than you could ever image."

"I don't know who else to turn to, Michael," Jim replied, his desperation showing in his tone. "I've heard things, Michael. I've heard how you sometimes don't agree with Section's methods. Especially when a certain operative named Nikita is concerned."

"Just what exactly have you heard about Nikita?"

"That the two of you are close," Jim answered, "and that there have been times when you've disobeyed Operations' orders when those orders would jeopardize her. You care for her, Michael." When the other man neither confirmed nor denied the statement, Jim continued, "I also know that she hasn't been in Section for awhile. At least not since I was brought here. It must be tough on you. Being separated from her for so long, I mean."

"What is it that you want, Ellison?"

Sighing, Jim said, "When I met with Madeline, she told me that she has an operative assigned to Sandburg. I need to know who it is, Michael. I need to know if this person … I just need to know that he'll be safe with this person. Well, as safe as he can be with any Section operative around him."

"He is safe with this operative," Michael stated.

Curiosity aroused by the conviction in Michael's voice, Jim asked, "How do you…" Trailing off, he glared at the other man. "You know who it is, don't you? You know who this operative is."

"Yes, I do," Michael confirmed. "And as long as this operative is safeguarding your friend, you've got nothing to worry about."

"Nothing to worry about," Jim repeated. Pulling out the photograph of Blair, Jim said, "That's a load of bull, Michael." Slapping the photograph down on the workbench, he demanded, "Take a look at it, Michael. Take a look at Sandburg and tell me not to worry."

Glancing down at the photograph, Michael asked, "What exactly am I looking at?"

"Madeline let me keep this picture of Sandburg," Jim explained. "He looks so… God, Michael, he looks so alone. This is just a picture and I can still notice the weight that he's lost, the circles under his eyes. I never really… Being a cop, I always knew that something could happen, that I could be killed. But, I didn't allow myself to think about what it would do to him. What my death would do to Blair. I guess… I guess that I really didn't want to think about it. But, now I have to. He's hurting, Michael, and I'm not there. This time, I'm not there to help him."

Averting his eyes, Michael replied, "There's nothing that I can do, Ellison."

"Yes, there is," Jim protested. "You can tell me who this operative is; the one that's been assigned to Sandburg. At least give me some kind of reassurance, Michael. Please."

"Nikita," Michael replied. "Nikita has been assigned to Sandburg."

"Can you get in contact with her?" Jim asked. "That way, she can tell Sandburg…"

"Tell him what?" Michael interrupted. "Tell him that you're alive? We can't take that risk." Pausing for a moment, he added, "You can't take that risk."

"I don't care what happens to me," Jim replied.

"That may be so," Michael said, "but you do care about what happens to him, don't you? If Section even suspects that you've been in contact with Sandburg, they won't hesitate to have him cancelled. Or brought here. So which do you prefer for your friend, Ellison? Death or Section? Of course for a man like him, those two alternatives would seem to be the same."

"That's what I don't understand. When Section grabbed me, why wasn't Sandburg taken too?" Jim asked. "God knows, I don't want him in this place; but, it doesn't make sense. Especially since they received their information from Brackett. He saw how much Sandburg helps me with my senses and he must have told them about that too. Why would they believe him about my heightened senses but not believe him about Sandburg's role in this whole sentinel thing?"

"They didn't take him because Madeline doesn't want him here," Michael answered.

"But why…" Trailing off, Jim paused for a moment and then exclaimed, "Shit! That cold-hearted bitch really does want to be my guide, doesn't she? She actually thinks that she can take Sandburg's place."

"If you are just now figuring that out," Michael stated, "then you haven't been putting those senses of yours to very good use since you've been here."

"Save the sarcasm," Jim requested. "This is no good, Michael. You know that, don't you? Madeline will never be able to function as my guide."

"You'd better hope that she can, Ellison," Michael advised. "Because if she can't then Section will have no choice but to acquire Sandburg. They want you operating at full capacity and they will takes whatever steps are necessary to make that happen. So you either solve this problem on your own or accept Madeline's help. Or else you'll find yourself reunited with your friend sooner than you'd anticipated."

"Sooner than I'd anticipated? What in the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Never forget that you are always being watched, Ellison," Michael warned. "Section is always aware of what its operatives are doing. As such, Madeline and Operations always know what we are doing, what we may be planning. There are no secrets in Section One. At least, not for operatives." Picking up the photograph, Michael handed it to Jim. "We have a mission briefing at 0800 hours. I suggest you use the downtime to get some rest."

When Michael walked away, Jim looked at the picture of Blair again. Gripping it tightly, he returned to his cell; being very conscious of Operations' watchful gaze tracking him as he left the room.

* * *

Frustrated, Jim jerked the blindfold off of his face. "This isn't working, Madeline."

"It isn't working because you are not cooperating," Madeline replied. "Now, once more." When Jim didn't put the blindfold back on, she impatiently asked, "What is it?"

"I just don't know what you hope to accomplish with this," Jim said. "We've been trying for a week now and we haven't made any progress. Face facts, Madeline, your being my guide just isn't working out. Why don't you let me work on this on my own? Given enough time, I'm sure that I'll be able to stop theses zone-outs."

"Time is one luxury that you no longer have, Ellison," Madeline replied. "Section's patience only goes so far and you're already pushing the limits of that patience."

"Then let me work with someone else," Jim suggested. "I need someone who can go out into the field with me and I seriously doubt that you're likely to be joining in on any missions anytime soon."

"I can guide you from Section," Madeline reasoned. "As long as we maintain voice contact, there shouldn't be any problems."

"Who are you trying to kid, Madeline?" Jim asked. "You and I both know that there's a lot more to this guide thing than just verbal contact. If someone is going to effectively act as my guide, then they'll have to employ touch to back-up their voice." Throwing down the blindfold, he said, "You know, for someone who claims to know so much about sentinels and guiding, you're not exactly coming up with any helpful suggestions or methods here. I don't know what kind of twisted, warped misconceptions you have about being a guide; but if this is your way of trying to get close to me, you're out of luck."

 

"Don't be ridiculous," Madeline replied. "Why would I want to get close to you? Perhaps your recruitment into Section One has been more emotionally and mentally stressful than previously thought, especially since it seems to be the cause of your suffering from such delusions."

"The only delusional person around here, Madeline, is you," Jim stated. "I know why you want to get close to me. You're always looking for another advantage around here, and what better advantage than a sentinel to spy for you? You think that if I accept you as my guide then that will give you some power, some control over me. That's not how it works."

"Then tell me, Ellison, how does it work?"

"If you know so much, then you don't need me telling you," Jim replied. Turning to leave, he said, "I've got a mission in a couple of hours and there's some stuff that I need to go over with Birkoff before then."

"You will not leave until I tell you that you can leave, Ellison," Madeline said, her tone icy. "You will not defy me, Ellison," she warned when Jim didn't rejoin her. "If you do…"

"Spare me the melodrama," Ellison interrupted. "Let's get one thing straight right now. You can stop with the threats against Sandburg; because, if I believe for one instance that you're gonna harm him, I'll save you the trouble and eat a bullet the first chance I get."

"The second you do, Sandburg's life will become worthless to us and he will be canceled," Madeline warned.

"I don't think so," Jim replied.

"Really?" Madeline asked.

"Yeah, really," Jim said. "Because I know what's going on here, Madeline. Operations doesn't what Sandburg eliminated. In fact, he wants Sandburg brought here, doesn't he? And you just can't stand that, can you?" Turning around, seeing the look of surprise that Madeline couldn't stop from showing on her face, Jim smirked. "Sometimes my senses actually do cooperate. You want Sandburg canceled because you see him as some kind of threat. So you see, Madeline, I've already decided. If I do end up having to take myself out, I will be taking you with me. In all your studies of sentinels, you've overlooked a very important fact; one that I had to learn the hard way."

"And what would that be, Ellison?"

"A sentinel does exist to protect the tribe; but a sentinel, at least this one, will put his guide's safety before anything else. Even the tribe that he was born to protect." Pausing for a moment, Jim then added, "And Sandburg will always be my guide."

"You’ve just made some very grave errors in judgement, Ellison."

"No I haven't, Madeline. You have," Jim replied. "The first was bringing me here. The second, and your most dangerous one, was threatening Sandburg."

"Tell me something, Ellison," Madeline demanded. "If Sandburg's safety is so important to you, then why did you allow Alex Barnes to kill him?" Seeing Jim's minute flinch, she smugly added, "Apparently his safety wasn't always so important to you, was it? And the Barnes incident was by no means an isolated occurrence. Exactly how many times was Sandburg endangered or injured during his association with you? You haven't exactly been very successful in protecting your guide in the past."

"A mistake that I don't plan on making any more," Jim responded. "Like I said, it's a lesson I had to learn the hard way. A lesson that, like you said, resulted in him being killed. Something that I won't let happen again; not if there's anything that I can do to prevent it, that is."

Unconvinced, Madeline scoffed, "You expect me to believe that you would really give your life to save his. Not likely, Ellison."

"Try me and see, Madeline," Jim challenged. "Just don't be too surprised when I wrap my hands around your neck and choke the worthless life out of you."

When Madeline started to reply, a beeping noise issued from the com panel. Walking over to it, Madeline pressed a button. "Yes?"

"Madeline, I'd like to see you immediately." Operations' voice issued from the speaker.

"I'm in the middle of a session with Ellison at the moment," Madeline replied. "Perhaps…"

"Ellison has a mission scheduled," Operations interrupted, "and I need to speak with you now."

"I'll be there in a moment," Madeline said.

Turning away from the panel, Madeline started to say something but Jim cut her off. "Better hurry, Madeline. You've been summoned."

Storming past Jim, Madeline warned, "This isn't over, Ellison."

"No, it isn't," Jim called after her.

* * *

Entering Operations' office, Madeline demanded, "Couldn't this have waited? I was conducting some very important tests with Ellison."

"Important but unsuccessful," Operations responded as he continued to maintain his ever vigil watch over Section. "I've been monitoring these little sessions of yours. So far, your results have been less than satisfactory. Care to explain that, Madeline?"

"Ellison just needs time to adjust," Madeline reasoned. "It will take a little bit of time for him to learn how to respond to someone else's guidance. But he will learn."

"Unfortunately, time is something that we are short on," Operations replied. "We've been receiving reports that Red Cell has been increasing their activities. Due to this, we will undoubtedly be requiring Ellison's abilities sooner rather than later. If you can not bring him fully on-line, then we will be forced to resort to other methods."

"What other methods?" Madeline asked.

Turning to face Madeline, Operations merely replied, "Do I really need to tell you?"

"You mean Sandburg, don't you?" When Operations didn't say anything, she continued, "We've already discussed this. I told you that bringing Sandburg here would be counterproductive. Not to mention the fact that Sandburg hardly qualifies as Section material. He wouldn't last through one mission in the field and we both know it."

"I disagree," Operations stated. "I've been doing some research on this matter. From what I've discovered, Sandburg not only managed to hold his own during several dangerous situations, he has also shown a great deal of ingenuity, resourcefulness and fortitude. The very qualities that we try to teach to and instill in our operatives. By my calculation, he would make a very good addition to Section One. Not just in his role as Ellison's guide but in his own right as well." His gaze never wavering from Madeline, he added, "The only thing that I haven't figured out is why you are so against Sandburg's recruitment. Tell me, Madeline, exactly why are you so opposed to bringing him here?"

Instead of answering, Madeline said, "As I told you before, if you disagree with my evaluation in this matter then feel free to acquire Sandburg. The choice is yours."

"Yes, it is, isn't it?" Operations replied. Then, walking over to his desk, he picked up his phone. "Birkoff, get me Nikita."

* * *

Consciousness returning, Blair let out a low groan as he opened his eyes. Gaze roaming around the stark white room, it took a moment for him to notice the restraints holding him captive. Squirming around in the chair, attempting to free himself, he muttered, "This is just great. Where’s some oil when you need it?"

Glancing up as a hissing noise sounded, Blair stared as a menacing looking man entered the room. Immediately, Blair stilled as the stranger approached. After the newcomer had come to stand beside the chair, Blair glared up and said, "So, let me take a wild guess here. This is some kind of top secret organization and you’re the big bad agent guy that’s supposed to intimidate me into accepting my … um … what? Recruitment? Induction? Look let’s just forgo your usual little threatening spiel so that I can see Jim, okay?"

"What makes you think that this has anything to do with… What did you say his name was? Jim?" Michael asked.

"Okay, now see this is why I didn’t say you were a top secret intelligence organization," Blair sarcastically replied. "How stupid do you think I am, anyway? Like anyone like you would be interested in me if Jim wasn’t involved? Look… Hey, what is your name anyway?"

Caught slightly off guard by the abrupt change in topic, it took a few seconds for Michael to answer. "My name is Michael."

"Michael what?" Blair asked. But, before the other man could reply, he added, "On second thought, never mind. This place probably isn’t too big on last names. Speaking of this place, where exactly am I?"

"This is Section One."

"Hey, that was pretty good," Blair remarked. "Do you like practice that in front of a mirror or something? ‘Cause I gotta tell ya, that tone was just perfect; just the right mix of intimidation and mystique. I’d probably be pretty worried right about now; but, unfortunately for you, I’ve faced off against psychopaths, serial killers and insane terrorists, not to mention a ticked off roommate who probably has more house rules than this place has regulations. So, don’t take it too personally when I don’t immediately start quaking in fear and terror. It’s not your fault. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m sure that you’d have most people peeing in their pants right about now."

Mouth twitching, Michael barely managed to hold back a slight smile. Turning to the surveillance camera, he stared at it for several seconds before facing Blair again. "Mr. Sandburg, your life as you knew it is over…"

* * *

From Madeline’s office, Operations and Madeline were watching as Michael introduced Blair to Section One. "He isn’t exactly what I was expecting," Operations stated. "I didn’t really expect him to be so … so nonchalant about his recruitment to Section."

"I believe that Mr. Sandburg will never react how you expect him to," Madeline replied. "A fact that will, at best, make him unpredictable and hard to control."

"Unpredictable, maybe. Hard to control, no," Operation stated. "We’ll control him just as we have controlled Ellison; use threats against the other. Sandburg will not risk any harm coming to Ellison just as Ellison won’t risk any harm coming to Sandburg."

"And when they’re on a mission together?" Madeline asked. "How long do you think it will be before they attempt to escape? Having the two of them together will only serve to increase their desire to leave Section One."

"They’ve got other people that they care about," Operations replied. "Banks and his son, Ellison’s father and brother, the detectives that they worked with, Sandburg’s mother. Ellison knows that we can eliminate any of them at a moment’s notice. Their emotional attachment to these people is their weakness and it’s one that we can exploit."

"We shall see," Madeline said.

* * *

Returning from his mission, unsuccessful once again, Jim was surprised when he didn’t find Michael waiting for him. Shrugging, he started towards tactical so that he could debrief when suddenly his hearing spiked. Picking up a familiar heartbeat, Jim cursed, "Shit!" Tracking the sound, he raced down the corridor. Running through tactical, not noticing the odd looks he was receiving, Jim paused for a moment to get his bearings. Pinpointing Blair’s location, he started towards his guide again. Arriving at the room where Blair was being held, Jim grew agitated when the door refused to open. Pounding on it, he began to yell. "Open this door! Let me in!"

"That’s not going to do you any good," a soft, feminine voice spoke up from behind Jim.

Spinning around, frustrated that he didn’t notice the woman’s approach, Jim growled, "And how do you know that?"

"Michael won’t let you in until Operations and Madeline tell him to let you in," the blond-headed woman replied. "If you keep acting like this, they’ll just make you wait even longer. You’re providing them with some good entertainment, after all."

"Who are you?" Jim demanded.

"I’m Nikita," the woman answered.

Calming slightly, Jim said, "I’ve heard about you."

"And I’ve heard about you," Nikita countered. "Quite a lot actually."

Advancing towards Nikita, Jim asked, "Why did you bring him here? How could you do that to him?"

A trace of regret showing on her face, Nikita answered, "I was following orders. You know how this place is, you should be able to understand that."

"I may be able to understand it," Jim replied, "but it’s something that I’ll never be able to forgive."

"Neither will I," Nikita whispered.

While Jim was trying to think of an appropriate reply to Nikita’s confession, Madeline and Operations joined them. "Well, Ellison, it seems like your senses are functioning properly again," Operations said.

"Madeline said that you weren’t going to bring him here," Jim replied.

"Yes, well, Madeline overstepped her bounds when she made that statement," Operations answered, ignoring the scathing look Madeline directed his way. "I felt that Mr. Sandburg’s presence would alleviate your reoccurring sensory problems. And it seems as if I was correct in that assumption."

"He doesn’t belong here," Jim protested.

"For your sake, as well as his, you’d better hope that you’ve underestimated your guide," Operations warned. "Because if he can’t adequately function as a field operative, then he will be canceled and we will train someone else to take his place."

"Why didn’t you do that in the first place?" Jim asked. "You could have done that instead of brining him here."

"You do not question my methods or my actions, Ellison," Operations coldly replied. "My authority over Section is absolute and I won’t have anyone, especially you, challenging me." Turning to Nikita, he asked, "Were there any problems in acquiring Sandburg?"

"Not really," Nikita answered while glancing at Jim.

"Not really," Operations repeated. "What does that mean? I want a full report and I want it now, Nikita."

"Since there were no alternate plan available, I had to use Madeline’s scenario," Nikita explained. "Normally, I don’t think there would have been any problems. Unfortunately, Madeline didn’t respond to any of my reports on Sandburg. If she had, I believe that she would have devised a revised method for acquiring Sandburg."

"What leads you to believe that Madeline’s method was faulty?"

"In my reports, I noted Sandburg’s unwavering belief that Ellison was still alive," Nikita replied. "Even when confronted with seemingly conclusive proof that it was Ellison’s body found in the wreckage, he still insisted that it wasn’t Ellison; so much so that Captain Banks was considering psychiatric treatment for him."

"This is all very interesting, Nikita, but what does this have to do with Madeline's method of acquiring Sandburg?" Operations asked, growing impatient with Nikita’s lengthy explanation.

Once again glancing at Jim, Nikita answered, "Sir, Madeline's plan involved making it appear that Sandburg committed suicide."

"Suicide!" Jim exclaimed. "Nobody will ever buy that; even if Sandburg wasn't so adamant about me still being alive. Committing suicide isn't in his nature; he'd never be capable of doing that."

Nodding, Nikita stated, "I concur with Ellison, Sir. In my earlier reports, I suggested that it might be best if Madeline came up with an alternate plan; but, as usual, she didn't listen to me. Since no viable alternate plan was in place, I had to preceded with our pre-arranged one."

Turing to Madeline, Operations demanded, "Is this true?"

"Yes, making appear as if Sandburg had committed suicide was part of the mission parameters," Madeline stated, "and I stand by them. If Nikita followed my plan and carried out her orders in a manner that was both believable and efficient, then there will be no problems. Part of the mission involved her creating doubt and suspicion regarding Sandburg's mental well-being; enough so that when his suicide occurred, those close to him would have no reason to question the manner of his demise."

"Did you do that?" Operations asked. "Create enough suspicion?"

"Wait a minute here," Jim spoke up. "Are all of you people nuts? No, forget it, I already know the answer to that one. Look, I haven't got the time, patience or inclination to stand here and explain to you just how much of a colossal screw-up this whole disaster is. All I want to do is get in there and see Sandburg. Now!"

Glancing between Madeline and Nikita, Operations informed them, "We will be discussing this matter in great detail later. But for now, I concur with Ellison. It is time for a little reunion of sorts."

"It's about time," Jim said as Operations walked past him and entered in the sequence to unlock and open the door.

Standing aside, Operations gestured for Jim to precede him into the room, "After you, Ellison."

Taking a moment to give the others a final glare, Jim stalked past Operations and finally entered the room where Blair was being held.

* * *

Looking up as the door opened, Blair exclaimed, "Jim!"

Pushing past Michael, Jim walked over and knelt down beside Blair. "Hey, partner," he whispered. Turning around, Jim glared at Operations as he entered the room. "Let him go! Now!"

Raising an eyebrow at the commanding tone, Operations merely turned to Michael and nodded.

After Michael released Blair, Jim grabbed a hold of his partner's wrists and began to examine them. Frowning as he saw the bruises encircling the wrists, wrists that were a great deal thinner now, Jim looked up and found himself pinned by two startling, misty blue eyes.

Clearing his throat, his voice husky, Blair murmured, "I knew you weren't dead. Everyone told me that you were. Simon, Joel, hell even Naomi after she finally showed up, they all tried to convince me that you were gone; but, I wouldn't believe them."

Unconcerned about their audience, Jim reached out and pulled Blair to him. Embracing the younger man, he whispered, "Chief, I didn't want you here, didn't want you exposed to this place. But God help me, I'm so glad to see you. I missed you, Blair. God, I missed you so much."

Emitting a sound that was part laughter, part sob, Blair tightened his own hold on Jim. "Me too, Jim. Me too." Pulling back slightly, just enough to look Jim, he simply stared at the other man.

"What?" Jim finally asked after several long seconds of silence.

Shaking his head slightly, Blair answered, "Just trying to convince myself that this isn't a dream."

Glancing at Operations and Madeline, Jim softly said, "Believe me, Chief, this place is a lot of things, but a dream certainly isn't one of them."

Alarmed by Jim's words, Blair finally turned his attention away from Jim and looked at the room's other occupants. His gaze coming to rest on Madeline, Blair shivered. "Nightmare is more like it, huh?" he asked, his question for Jim's ears only.

When Jim's only response was to clench his fists in the back of Blair's shirt, Blair reassured, "We're together, Jim. That's all that matters. As long as we're together, there's nothing that we can't handle." But as he continued to stare at the stern-looking man and cold, unemotional woman who were studying them, he couldn't help wondering, 'But how much of ourselves are we going to have to give up in order to survive this place.'

Seeming to sense Blair's thoughts, Jim leaned forward and touched his forehead to Blair's. Lips barely moving, his murmured, "We'll get out of here, Blair. I promise you."

Looking askance at the others, Blair replied, "I know."

Stepping forward, Operations said, "As much as I hate to break up such a touching scene, it's time Sandburg began training."

Finally breaking off his contact with Blair, Jim stood and faced Operations. "I'll handle it."

"I don't think so, Ellison," Operations replied. "You're too close to the situation. Michael will handle matters involving Sandburg."

"And while Sandburg is in training, you and I will continue our sessions," Madeline added. Glancing over at Operations, she added, "With your approval, of course."

"I really don't think that's necessary," Operations argued. "With Sandburg here, Ellison should be able to regain control over his senses fairly quickly. Certainly in time enough for the upcoming mission to Tanzania."

"I disagreed," Madeline replied. "I think that…"

"Whoa, wait a minute here," Blair interrupted, earning a cold glare from Madeline. "How long have you been experiencing trouble with your senses?" Blair asked Jim. "What exactly is going on with them? Is it like problems you've experienced in the past? Is it like sensory spikes or is it something else? Talk to me, Jim. Tell me something here."

Smiling, Jim said, "Well, if you'd stop to take a breath I might be able to get a word in there someplace." After a moment, Jim explained, "I've just been experiencing some zone-outs."

Suspicious, Blair asked, "You mean you've been zoning when you're here, right?" When Jim didn't reply, he said, "Please don't tell me that you've been out running around doing all of this covert-ops, secret spy, clandestine, extremely dangerous shit while you’ve been zoning."

"Well…" Jim began.

"I don't believe it!" Blair exclaimed. "What kind of brain dead, moronic imbecile let you go out in that condition?"

"I did," Operations stated.

Swallowing nervously, Blair looked towards the domineering man and stammered, "Well… um… what I meant was…" Coming to a halt, Blair stood up. Brushing off Jim's restraining hold, he took a few steps forward. Squaring his shoulders, he stared at Operations. "No. You know what? I meant exactly what I said. "Only a total idiot would let Jim go out and do … well, do whatever it is that you people do … while he's suffering from reoccurring zone outs. Do you have any idea as to the kind of danger you put him in?"

Surprised that the younger man was standing up to him, Operations willed his face to remain expressionless as he replied, "I put him in no more danger than I do the rest of the operative here at Section One."

"Are you nuts?" Blair exclaimed. "You actually sent a screwed-up sentinel out on missions, assignments or whatever the hell it is that you people call what you do?"

"Screwed-up sentinel," Jim repeated.

"Stay out of this, Jim," Blair ordered. "This is between me and … and double o seven over there." Walking over to Operations, Blair continued his rant. "Here's how it's going to be from now on. In all things sentinel related, I've got the final say. If I don't think Jim is able to go out on a… on a…"

"Mission," Jim helpfully supplied.

"…mission, then he doesn't go out on a mission," Blair finished.

"Are you done?" Operations asked when Blair finally quieted down.

Realizing how close he had come to the other man during his tirade, Blair quickly took a few steps back. "Um… yeah, I'm done. For now, anyway."

"Very good," Operations said. "Now, Michael will take Sandburg and start his training. Nikita and Ellison, report to tactical for debriefing. That is all. Dismissed." After the operatives had left the room, Operations turned to Madeline. "You were saying something about Sandburg not being Section material."

"He hasn't gone out on a mission yet," Madeline replied. "My opinion stands until after his first field assignment. After he does go on his first mission, and if he comes back alive, then I may re-evaluate my opinion of him."

Shaking his head slightly, Operations merely said, "The mission to Tanzania is scheduled to go in forty-eight hours. Ellison and Sandburg will be needed. Make sure that they're ready."

"Do you really want to send Sandburg out so soon?" Madeline questioned. "The odds of the mission being successful will be greatly reduced if he is included."

"I don't share that viewpoint, Madeline," Operations responded. "If this mission has even the narrowest margin of success then Ellison will need to be there. And for Ellison to function properly, Sandburg will need to be there. Talk to Michael and make him aware of the situation. He'll need to alter Sandburg's training accordingly."

"As you wish."

* * *

Crashing to the floor once again, Blair looked up at Michael. Slightly annoyed, he sarcastically asked, "Do you treat everyone like this? Or am I just getting special treatment?"

Reaching out a hand to help the younger man up, Michael replied, "Normally, a new operative wouldn't be facing such extensive training yet; however, I've received orders to accelerate your training."

"And why do I rate the honors class?"

"I don't know," Michael answered. "I don't question my orders, I merely carry them out."

"Yeah, well, that makes you either extremely loyal or extremely scared," Blair remarked as he let Michael pull him to his feet.

Once Blair was upright again, Michael said, "Again."

"Do we really have to…" Abruptly cut-off, Blair found himself on the floor once again. "You know, I'm getting pretty tired of that."

"Then I suggest you start defending yourself a little bit more efficiently," Michael reasoned. "Now again."

Several hours later, Jim walked into the training room and found a bruised, out-of-breath, flustered Blair pinning Michael to the floor. "What the…"

Turning his head, Blair greeted, "Hey, Jim. I think that I'm finally getting the hang of this. I…" Finding himself flipped over onto his back, Michael's foot pinning him down, Blair said, "I'm getting so sick of this."

Craning his neck, finally managing to look at Jim, Blair was concerned to see a look of barely suppressed rage on Jim's face. When Jim started stalking towards them, gaze focused solely on Michael, Blair said, "Um… Michael, I think you might want to let me up now."

Quickly releasing Blair, Michael took a step back and watched as the younger man hurried over to the irate sentinel. "Jim, cool it," Blair ordered. Placing a hand on Jim's chest, he added, "What is up with you anyway? I've been knocked around by plenty of times before and you've never had such an extreme reaction."

"It's nothing, Sandburg."

"Yes, it is, Jim," Blair argued. "Talk to me."

"Not here," Jim replied. "Besides, we've got to go to Madeline's office. Seems she's going to personally brief us for this mission."

"Why do I get the feeling that that's something I'm not going to enjoy?"

Following behind Jim, somewhat dazed by the maze of corridors they were traveling through, Blair asked, "So what's up with this Madeline? I get the feeling that she doesn't like me very much."

"The Icequeen doesn’t like anyone who can't further her agenda."

"And that would be…" Blair prompted when Jim didn’t elaborate.

"Power," Jim answered. "And the chance to manipulate a person's feelings and mind." Coming to a stop, Jim turned around to face Blair. "Listen, Chief, I want you to watch out for her. She's dangerous, probably the most dangerous person here. She's an amoral, cold, domineering, controlling bitch. Don't mess with her because if you do, she'll use whatever means are necessary to bring you down."

"Don't you mean bring us down?"

"No, Sandburg, I don't," Jim replied.

"So I guess you've enamored her with that Ellison charm, huh?" Blair joked.

Reaching out to grip Blair's arms, Jim warned, "I'm serious here, Blair. This woman … Madeline didn't want you brought here because … Hell, Blair, she wanted to be my guide. She still does, and she'll use any opportunity to eliminate you."

"Why does she want to be your guide?" Blair questioned. "Are you… I mean are the two of you, well, you know."

"You trying to ask me if I'm sleeping with her?" Jim asked. "No, Sandburg. I am not sleeping with Madeline!"

"Just checking," Blair replied. "Because, if you think that she'd be a better guide for you then…"

"What in the hell is the matter with you?" Jim exclaimed. "Do you honestly think that I would want…" Sighing, Jim lowered his voice and continued, "Blair, you're my guide. Nobody else can do what you do for me. I wouldn't want anybody else to even try. Okay?"

"Okay."

Releasing Blair, Jim said, "Let's go. We'll never hear the end of it if we keep the Icequeen waiting."

Arriving at Madeline's office, Jim entered and kept himself between his partner and the woman. "You wanted to see us?"

"Yes, please take a seat," Madeline replied.

"We'll stand," Jim stated.

"As you wish," Madeline relented. Turning to Blair, bestowing a seemingly caring smile on the younger man, she asked, "How has your training been so far, Sandburg?"

"F… fine," Blair stammered.

Giving Blair a final smile, Madeline said, "Good." Turning to Jim, become serious once again, she asked, "Did you complete your de-briefing?"

"Yes."

"Then we can get started." Taking a seat at her desk, Madeline began to explain the upcoming mission. "Michael will be directing this mission from tactical. Nikita will be team leader. The two of you are to remain in the van and provide the team with intel on Red Cell activity in the vicinity."

"Exactly what vicinity would that be exactly?" Blair asked.

"Red Cell has a subsidiary base located in a weapons depot that was abandoned by the Tanzanian government several months ago," Madeline answered. "They have apparently been able to re-establish the defense mechanisms as well as employing several of their own surveillance systems. As such, penetrating the perimeter will be extremely difficult. However, Operations believes that Ellison's abilities will allow the team to accurately pinpoint and exploit any weaknesses and gain access to the base."

"From the van," Blair stated.

"Yes, from the van," Madeline confirmed. "Is there a problem?"

"Exactly how far away will the van be?" Blair asked.

"Far enough away to avoid detection," Madeline answered. "That's all you need to know."

"Once Nikita and her team have gained access," Madeline continued her explanation of the mission, "they will plant several incendiary devices that they will detonate by remote after they make a successful extraction from the base and return to the van." Intently staring at the two men, she asked, "Any questions?"

"No," Jim replied.

"Um… I guess not," Blair said.

"Then I suggest you go and continue with Sandburg's training," Madeline suggested. "Even though you won't be actively participating in the mission, there is still the possibility that you may face some hostility. He will need to be prepared. Start with weapons."

"A gun?" Blair asked. "I really don't…"

Cutting Blair off, Madeline said, "That is all. You are dismissed." Turning her attention to her computer screen, now ignoring the two men completely, Madeline didn't look up as Jim and Blair turned and left her office.

* * *

Hours later, seated next to Jim as they rode in the back of a black van with Nikita and several other operatives, Blair studied each of the others before turning to face Jim. Inwardly cringing at the cold, emotionless expression on the other man's face, Blair whispered, "You okay, Jim?"

Turning to face Blair, his expression remaining hard, Jim glared at the younger man for several long seconds before giving Blair a quick wink.

Letting out the breath that he had been holding; Blair turned his attention away from Jim only to find himself now facing Nikita. Still slightly angry with her for deceiving him, Blair simply gave her a quick nod.

After giving Blair a slight smile, Nikita addressed the group of operatives. "We'll be arriving at the target area soon, people," she said. "I want everyone ready to move out."

Rocking forward as the van came to a sudden stop, Blair flashed Jim a smile when the other man placed a steadying hand on his arm.

Exiting the van, standing by as the rest of the operatives deployed, Nikita turned to address Jim and Blair when they remained behind. "What are you two doing?" she asked. "It’s time to deploy. You’re with me."

"What are you talking about?" Jim asked. "Madeline said that Sandburg and I were to monitor the situation from the van."

"That’s not in the mission profile," Nikita replied. "The others are going to be planting the bombs while we attempt to retrieve some intel."

"What the… Damn that bitch. Madeline didn’t say a word about any of this to me," Jim explained. "Sandburg isn’t ready for a field op. I’ll go with you, but he remains behind in the van."

"We have our orders, Ellison. Sandburg comes with us," Nikita argued. "Operations was very clear. He wants both of you in on this."

"Let’s go," Blair spoke up. Getting up, starting to join Nikita, Blair halted when Jim reached out and grabbed his arm. Looking over at his friend, seeing Jim’s concern, he reassured, "It’ll be okay. I’ll be okay." When Jim refused to let go, he added, "We have to do this, Jim. If we don’t, what do you think they’ll do to us when we get back to Section? So c’mon."

Standing up, moving in front of Blair, Jim said, "Okay, we’ll do this. But I want to stay by me the whole time. Understand?"

"Okay," Blair agreed.

"Then let’s move out," Nikita ordered. "We only have a small window of time here."

"What’s the plan?" Jim asked as he and Blair joined Nikita outside the van.

"Like I said, the others are going to be planting the bombs," Nikita answered. "The three of us are supposed to get into their headquarters and access their computers."

"Um excuse me here," Blair said. "I know that I’m new to all of this, but won’t that be just a little bit difficult? I mean, won’t there be like a ton of guards surrounding their headquarters? There’s no way we’ll get past the security systems and the guards."

"There’s a way," Nikita stated, "but we’ll need Ellison to make it."

"Shit!" Jim cursed. "Madeline is going to pay for this when we get back to Section."

"Don’t you mean if we get back," Blair countered.

Glaring at Blair, who simply shrugged in response, Jim said, "Let’s hear it, Nikita."

"When the depot was built, there was an escape route installed," Nikita explained. "We simply go in, make our way to their headquarters and retrieve the intel from their computer system."

"Well if it’s as simple as you make it sound," Blair said, "then why do you need Jim for this. What’s the catch? What aren’t you telling us?"

"What makes you think that I’m not telling you everything?" Nikita asked.

"Maybe the fact that you’ve been lying to me for the past nine months," Blair sarcastically replied.

"Blair…" Nikita began.

"Enough," Jim interrupted. "Save it for later. Let’s move out."

"Follow me," Nikita ordered.

Following behind Nikita, Blair whispered to Jim, "Something tells me that this is going to be a whole lot more complicated than what she made it out to be."

"Just keep your eyes open and stay close to me," Jim replied.

After several minutes of silently making their way through some dense forest, Nikita abruptly came to a halt. Crouching down, she motioned for Jim and Blair to join her.

"What now?" Jim asked.

"We’re almost to the base," Nikita whispered. "You need to check and see if there’s anyone in the area or if there’s any kind of surveillance equipment."

Next to Jim, Blair leaned over and placed his hand on the sentinel’s back. "Dial up your hearing, Jim," he instructed. "See if you can pick up on anything."

Closing his eyes, head slightly tilted to the side, Jim began to scan their surroundings. "I’m not picking up on anybody but us," he informed the others. "But there’s…"

Alarmed when Jim didn’t continued, Blair began to rub circles on Jim’s back. "Don’t zone on me, Jim," he murmured.

Shaking his head slightly, Jim gave Blair a quick smile before saying, "There’s some motion detectors around here."

"How do you know?" Blair asked.

"Because I recognize the sound," Jim explained. "I zoned on them once before during a prior mission."

"Where are they?" Nikita asked.

"Give me a minute." Closing his eyes once again, swaying towards Blair a little bit, Jim pointed in front of them. "There’re in front of us," he said. "Probably about twenty feet in that direction. We must be close to the base."

"That’s the same area that we need to go," Nikita stated. "Our access point should be about thirty feet ahead, just past the motion detectors."

"How are we going to get past them?" Blair asked.

"Don’t worry," Nikita reassured. "Walter came up with a little toy for us to use."

"Walter?"

"He’s alright, Chief," Jim replied. "But more important, he knows what he’s doing."

Before Blair could reply, Nikita said, "We need to go ten more feet before we can use Walter’s device. That will leave us out in the open, so keep alert. We don’t want any surprises."

Nodding, Jim waited for Nikita to proceed. Turing to Blair, he said, "Remember, Chief…"

"I know, stay by you," Blair finished. "I will, Jim."

Exchanging one final look, the two men followed after Nikita.

* * *

Walter’s device having effectively disabled the motion detectors, the three operatives quickly gained entrance to the escape route. Traveling down the dark tunnel, with Jim leading the way, Blair uneasily gripped his gun in one hand while the other was tightly clenched in the back of Nikita’s shirt.

Coming to a sudden standstill, causing Nikita to run into his back and Blair to stumble slightly, Jim held up a hand indicating for the others to remain silent.

After several nerve-racking seconds, not able to wait any longer, Blair finally hissed, "What is it?"

"There’s a faint light up ahead," Jim whispered. "I think that we’re almost to the exit point."

"Can you tell if anyone is around?" Blair asked.

"I’m still not picking up on anyone," Jim answered. "Not even any of the other operatives."

"Don’t you find that just a little bit odd?" Blair questioned. "I don’t know about the two of you, but I’m starting to get a very bad feeling here." After a second, he added, "Not to say that I haven’t had a bad feeling all along, but now it’s starting to be a very bad feeling. There’s something way funny with this whole situation. And I don’t mean ha-ha funny. I mean like totally bad, suspicious, creepy, very bad mojo, colossal fuc…"

"Sandburg!" Jim interrupted.

Giving Nikita and Jim a rather sheepish look, Blair mumbled, "Sorry."

"Let’s keep going," Nikita ordered.

After they had traveled a little bit farther, Nikita and Blair were finally able to make out the light that Jim had seen. Motioning for Blair to stay behind him, Jim approached the door from one side while Nikita approached from the other. Glancing at Blair, making sure that the younger man was staying back, Jim turned to Nikita and held up three fingers. When she nodded, he began to count down. Reaching one, he moved to throw open the door. Guns extended, Nikita crouched down and entered the room low while Jim entered high. Covering the hallway in both directions, they lowered their weapons when no one confronted them.

"Let’s get what we came for and then get the hell out of here," Jim ordered.

"This way," Nikita said as she started down the hallway.

Successfully avoiding detection thanks to Jim’s senses, they quickly located the computer system and downloaded the intel. Removing the disc from the computer, Nikita stated, "We got what we came for, time to go."

Retracing their path, they managed to make it back to the escape route and away from the base. After they had once again reached the concealment of the forest, Jim reached out and grabbed Nikita, halting their return to the van.

"What is it?" Nikita asked as she turned to face Jim.

"We’re not going back with you," Jim stated.

"You have to come back," Nikita replied. "If you don’t, Section will never stop trying to find you. You can’t escape. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried and it didn’t work. They found me and they’ll find you too."

"We’ll take our chances," Jim said.

"I’m afraid that I can’t allow that," a voice called out from behind them.

Not turning around, Jim replied, "Let us go, Michael. We don’t belong in Section."

"That’s irrelevant," Michael said as he emerged from the trees and came to stand beside Nikita. "You will be coming back. Both of you."

Taking a step towards Michael, Jim warned, "You’ll regret this decision, Michael."

Gesturing with his gun, Michael merely said, "Let’s go."

Walking back to the van, Jim suddenly stiffened. Then, without warning, he tackled Blair and brought the two of them crashing to the ground just as gunfire broke out all around them. Shielding Blair with his body, Jim looked around and saw both Nikita and Michael dive for the ground. Smelling blood, he briefly wondered who had been hit.

Spying some cover, Jim yelled, "Follow me." Then he began to crawl towards the fallen trees. Sensing Blair’s presence beside him, Jim stopped and none too gently shoved Blair behind the sparse cover before moving behind it himself.

"What do we do?" Blair asked, panic making his voice quiver slightly.

"Give me a minute," Jim replied, wincing at the loud sounds surrounding them. Peering over the top of the tree, flinching back when a bullet splintered the wood a few inches from his head, Jim said, "We have to get out of here."

"What about Michael and Nikita?"

"They can take care of themselves," Jim answered. "The first chance we get, we’re getting the hell out of here."

"We can’t leave them behind," Blair protested. "We have to help them."

"Sandburg…"

"We have to, Jim," Blair interrupted. Pausing as another barrage of gunfire erupted, Blair felt himself being pushed closer to the ground. Managing to break free from Jim's restraining hold, Blair made eye contact once again. "Nikita… She may have been sent to spy on me, but she… She seemed to care, Jim. I don't think that it was all an act. When I thought… It was rough, Jim. She helped me get through it. I owe her."

"You what?" Jim asked as he shot off a few more rounds. Ducking back down again, he faced Blair. "She brought you into this, Sandburg."

"She brought us back together, Jim," Blair replied. "No matter what else she's done, we both owe her for that. Don't we?"

Relenting, Jim briefly sighed in defeat. Glaring at Blair, he ordered, "You stay put. I'm going to try and circle around behind these guys. Draw fire off of Michael and Nikita's position long enough for them to find some better cover."

When Jim started to move, Blair reached over and grabbed his arm. "Be careful, Jim."

"You too," Jim replied as he laid his hand on top of Blair's. "You've still got your gun. If it comes down to it, use the thing." When Blair nodded, Jim tightened his grip on Blair's hand briefly. Then he moved off, crouching low as he tried to maneuver behind the men firing at them.

Watching from behind the cover of the trees, Blair held his breath until Jim disappeared from sight.

* * *

Returning fire, Nikita glanced around her surroundings as she re-loaded her weapon. Spotting Michael a few feet away, alarmed when she saw the blood covering his side, she quickly jammed the new clip in place and squeezed off a few more rounds before making her way over to the wounded operative. "Michael," she called out as she approached his position.

His concentration never wavering, Michael replied, "We need to find some cover. We're too exposed here."

"I saw some fallen trees not too far away," Nikita said. "It's not much, but it'll be better than here."

"We'll try for it," Michael agreed. "But we'll need some type of distraction. They've got us pinned down."

"What if…" Before Nikita could finish, the gunfire that had been surrounding them suddenly paused and then started up again, this time directed at a new location.

"Now's our chance," Michael said. "Let's go."

"But why…"

"It doesn't matter. Move!"

Obeying the command, Nikita rushed over to Michael and helped the wounded man to his feet. Then, the two of them began to run for cover. Finally reaching the fallen trees, they collapsed to the ground.

Spotting Blair, Michael asked, "Where's Ellison?"

"Saving your asses," Blair answered. "He drew those guys' fire off of you so that you could make it to cover."

"He shouldn't have taken that risk," Michael said. "Nikita and I could have handled the situation."

"Yeah, well, I thought that you could use a little help," Jim replied as he quietly approached the group.

"Jim!" Blair exclaimed. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine, Chief," Jim answered. "And I've taken care of our friends over there. It's safe to move out now."

"We need to treat Michael's wound first," Nikita insisted. "He's lost a lot of blood."

"I can make it back to the van," Michael stated. "Any treatment can wait until we get back to Section."

"Wait a minute," Jim said. "I saved you and Nikita, Michael. You owe me."

"And exactly how am I supposed to repay this debt?" Michael asked. "As if I don't already know."

"Just tell them that we were killed in the ambush, Michael," Jim replied.

"They will never believe that."

"Then tell them that we slipped away in all the confusion," Jim countered. Pointing to Blair, Jim said, "Take a look at him, Michael. Tell me that he belongs there."

"Ellison…"

"He's right, Michael," Nikita interrupted. "We have to help them. Ellison did save our lives and we all know what life in Section would do to Blair. What it would do to both of them. Michael, the two of us, we've already been assimilated by Section. There's no life for us outside of it. Not anymore. But Ellison and Sandburg, they still have a chance, a chance for freedom and a chance for a life. We have to give them that chance, Michael. Maybe, just maybe, this is our redemption, our redemption from the things that we've had to do to and the people that we've had to become in order to survive in Section. We have to do this, Michael. We have to let them go."

"What point is there in letting them go?" Michael wearily asked, his resolved weakened by Nikita's plea. "Section will find them eventually. And when they do, we will all regret this decision."

"They won't find us," Jim insisted. "We're going someplace where they'll never find us."

"What about your family and friends?" Michael asked. "By doing this, you jeopardize their safety."

"They'll be safe from Section," Jim stated.

"Jim," Blair finally spoke up, "how can you be sure? I don't want anything happening to them. I mean, my mom, Simon and the guys, your dad and brother, I don't want anything happening to them. If our staying in Section will guarantee their safety then…"

"I'm telling you that they'll be safe," Jim said as he turned to face Blair. "Trust me on this, Chief. I didn't spend all those months in that hellhole without picking up on a few things. I've got a plan to keep them, and us, safe."

Nodding, Blair said, "Okay. I trust you on this, Jim."

Turning back to Michael, Jim asked, "Well?"

Instead of responding, Michael looked at Nikita and said, "Let's get back to the van. We've got a lot of explaining to do once we get back to Section. Operations and Madeline won't be very pleased once we tell them that Ellison and Sandburg managed to slip away during the ambush." Then, without looking at either Jim or Blair, Michael stood and began to walk away.

After bestowing a smile on Jim and Blair, Nikita stood and hurried to Michael's side. Slipping an arm around him, she whispered, "Thank you, Michael."

"Don't thank me," Michael replied. "What we just did may end up causing them more pain than if they had stayed at Section. And, odds are, we'll probably be seeing them again soon."

"I don't think so," Nikita said. "I think that if anyone can escape this hell, it's them. I think that together, they're more powerful than Section realizes. Maybe more powerful than even they realize."

"For their sake, as well as ours, I hope that you're right," Michael warned as he leaned more heavily on Nikita. "Because if Section does find them, then we'll know just how much of a living hell Section can be; Madeline and Operations will personally see to that."

Watching the two operatives walk away, Jim dialed up his hearing and listened to their hushed words. 'Section finding Sandburg and me is something that you don't have to worry about, Michael,' he thought. Turning to look at Blair, Jim noticed the scratches and bruises covering his guide's face. 'But if they ever should, the only hell will be the one I unleash on them.'

"Jim," Blair called out when the other man continued to silently stare at him. "Is everything alright? Shouldn't we get out of here? Like now?"

Shaking his head slightly, Jim smiled at Blair. "Yeah, Chief, we're getting out of here."

"Where are we going?" Blair asked. "We can't go back to Cascade."

"You're right, we can't go home," Jim replied. "At least not for awhile."

"Then where…"

"Like I said, Chief," Jim interrupted. "We're going someplace safe." Laying a hand on Blair's shoulder, he said, "Look, we need to get out of here now. As soon as we get a little distance between us and Section, I'll explain everything."

"You'd better," Blair warned.

"I will," Jim promised. "Now let's go."

Without another word, the two men stood and walked off; quickly fading into their surroundings, they disappeared into the night.

* * *

Arriving back at Section, Michael and Nikita found a very irate Operations and Madeline waiting for them. Walking up to the two operatives, Operations yelled, "What in the hell happened out there? How could you have let them escape? Do you realize what you've done?"

Leaning heavily on Nikita, blood loss and shock having weakened him, Michael said, "The fault is mine. I failed my mission. No one else to blame for this."

Glancing towards Nikita, Operations replied, "Somehow I doubt that." Then, finally noticing Michael's wound, he ordered, "Nikita, get Michael to medical. After his wound is treated, I want both of you to report for debriefing."

"Yes, Sir," Nikita replied.

"What do you think?" Operations asked Madeline after the operatives had left.

"I think that we need to focus our efforts on finding Ellison and Sandburg," Madeline replied. "We need to reacquire them."

"I realize that, Madeline," Operations said, his irritation showing. "So how about proving some useful information and give me some suggestions on how to go about achieving that."

Before Madeline could reply, Birkoff came running down the corridor. "Sir," he called out, "there's something that you should see."

"What is it?"

Glancing between Operations and Madeline, Birkoff said, "Um… it might be best if you just come, Sir. Madeline too."

After following Birkoff back to tactical, Operations said, "Well, what is it?"

"Just a couple of minutes ago, I detected an authorized, remote access to our systems," Birkoff explained. "Before I could track it down, whoever it was severed the connection. Then, well then this showed up." Reaching over, Birkoff pushed a button and then stepped back.

Scowling, Operations watched as Jim's imaged showed up on the screen. "What the…" he began but was interrupted when Jim's voice issued from the speaker.

"Operations, Madeline," Jim image said, "if your seeing this then I guess that means I'm no longer your guest there at Section. It would also mean that I've finally been reunited with Sandburg and that we've managed to slip from your grasp."

"That son-of-a…"

"Quiet," Madeline ordered.

Glaring at Madeline, Operations quieted down and they both continued to listen to Jim's message.

"I'm also guessing that the two of you are currently racking those devious, little minds of yours trying to figure out some way to find us. Don't bother because you won't succeed. And even if you do, you won't like the consequences." After pausing for a moment, the words continued. "I suppose you're wondering why you shouldn't look for us. Well, you see, during my brief stay at Section, my senses weren't really as out of whack as I made it appear. Over the years, with Sandburg's help, I've developed a great deal control of my senses and it's easy to fake a zone-out. I knew that you wouldn't bring Sandburg in unless there was a compelling reason to and I also knew that if I did escape, you'd be able to get to him before I could reach him. So the only way I could get away from Section and ensure his safety was to have you bring him to me. After the two of us were reunited, I knew that we'd be able to get away. But then, there's the little problem of having you two jackals on our trail. So I came up with a way to keep you at a safe distance. It's a plan that I think you'll appreciate, Madeline. See, I know about your little troubles with Oversight. I also know about plans that you have to eliminate certain problematic individuals. If you attempt to find Sandburg and me, your little plans will be exposed. You may think that you're all-powerful, but even you aren't safe from cancellation. If you mess with us or anyone that we care about and your lives are worthless. Just so that you take this little warning seriously, I've let a little something for you. Tell Birkoff to access a file called, 'Blessed Protector'." With that final instruction, the screen went black.

Turing to Birkoff, Operations ordered, "Bring it up."

Quickly moving past Operations, Birkoff took his seat and began to issue commands into the computer. After a few minutes, a stream of data began to scroll across the screen.

"Shut that thing down!" Operations yelled as he blanched slightly. After the screen turned black again, he turned to Madeline. "He managed to gain access to everything."

"Yes," Madeline agreed. "It seems as if we have underestimated Ellison. He's a more worthy opponent than we first thought."

"So how do we proceed?"

"We bid our time," Madeline replied. "Ellison and Sandburg will eventually grow to miss their family and friends and attempt some kind of contact. By the time that happens, the threat from Oversight will lessen. That's when we'll make our move."

"And when we do, Ellison and Sandburg will regret ever defying us," Operations added.

* * *

One Month Later

Emerging from the dense rainforest, the two men were enthusiastically greeted by the village inhabitants. When the noise died down, one man stepped forward and approached the newcomers. Reaching out to grasp the taller man's arm, he said, "Welcome back, Enqueri."

The End


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