Michael was having a bad day.
He was supposed to have had the day off. He was supposed to be home, sleeping. He was supposed to be blissfully unconscious.
He was not supposed to be blindly treading his way through a forest amidst a swirling snowstorm. He shifted the small load in his arms again, and turned to check on Nikita, wearily following behind him.
Nikita was worse off than he, and Michael felt a small twinge of guilt for indulging in his moment of self-pity. There had been more shooters than expected on-site, and Nikita had been caught by surprise. She could have avoided the shot had she not been so intent on protecting the valuable end game Michael carried now.
His practiced eyes took in her increased limp, even as her face showed nothing. Both of them knew there was nothing to be done until shelter was found. The extreme temperature was slowing the bleeding out of her thigh, but she had lost a lot of blood already. A makeshift field dressing was not going to last for long.
Michael slowed down a bit, weighing the value of Nikita's endurance against the need for refuge, soon. He tried to make his tracks through the snow wider, easing her way as much as he could.
By the time they reached the cabin shown in the schematics, Michael had slowed their pace as much as he dared, and Nikita was still falling behind. His numbed fingers could barely manipulate the keys to the door. With a whoosh of cold air and snow, they stumbled their way inside.
Michael carefully laid the weight in his arms on the couch. The blanket fell back, and a mop of blond curls sprung free, followed by two inquisitive brown eyes.
"Where are we? Is this your house? Where's Nikita? I'm hungry." Michael blinked at the onslaught of questions from the little girl who had been so silent during their journey. "Is this your house?" she repeated impatiently.
"I'm over here, Ellie, I'm all right." Nikita's weak voice carried across the room from the bed on which she had collapsed upon entering. She tentatively raised her head and gave the girl a reassuring smile.
Ellie relaxed a little. Nikita was barely surprised that the child wasn't more upset than she was. At only four years old, Ellie had been through quite a lot in her short life. As the daughter of a high-ranking dignitary, excitement and adventure were becoming commonplace for her. Of course, kidnapping was new, but not unduly frightening. Ellie had great confidence in her mother's guards.
Normally, this sort of thing was beneath Section One, but Ellie's mother held quite a few key positions in international politics. Madeline had felt it would be prudent for Section to intervene in this case.
Ellie shook off the rest of her coverings, ignoring the chilled air of the cabin, and set off to explore the other rooms. Michael didn't spare her another glance, his concern for Nikita's condition growing.
"Nikita, you need to -- "
"Michael, I'm fine." Nikita grimaced as she peeled off her parka. "Just find me a Med Kit and I'll be fine." she amended, slowly inhaling as she cut away the material around surveyed the injury. Not good, but she had survived worse. However, she was not about to let Michael treat it. He had already crossed the room to the bed, clearly intent on ministering to her wound. "No." She grabbed the Med Kit out of his hands and got to work.
"Nikita, -- "
"No way, Michael. You can just stay right where you are." He fell silent. Her stubbornness was asserting itself again, and he knew a lost cause when he saw one. Besides, she could probably treat it just as well as he could. He didn't know why he felt such a need to do it himself. He certainly wasn't encouraged by the hostile woman muttering to herself as she poked and prodded her leg, occasionally taking time out to glare at him.
"Did you need something?" Nikita asked pointedly. He shook his head, and moved away reluctantly. "You know, if you're so intent on helping, you could find something useful to do, like start a fire." Irritability emphasized every word.
Great. Michael had forgotten how much fun Nikita was when she was injured. And exhausted. Oh, and apparently cold. He knelt by the fireplace and focused his attention on the damp logs inside. This was going to be interesting.
Nikita concentrated on getting the bandage on before Ellie returned. She had no desire to calm the girl down after the sight of so much blood. Unfavorable thoughts of Michael punctuated each stab of pain she felt as she worked. Who did he think he was, anyway? Clara Barton?
"Nikita." What the hell did he want now? She carefully ignored the softly accented statement. "Nikita, you should take this." She exhaled loudly and looked up to see the pill in his outstretched hand. "Oh, no. No." His look of warning didn't deter her. "Michael you know how much I hate meds. I'm just going to fall asleep, and then I'll be useless for the rest of the night."
"Margolis isn't going to be coming after us tonight. No one could get through that storm."
Nikita instinctively glanced out the window at the whirling chaos, biting her lip. "Fine, give me the damn thing." Michael turned over the pill, grateful that she had given in so easily for once. He walked over to the fallen blankets and began arranging them on the couch and floor. Nikita tossed the pill behind the bed and gulped the water he left on the table.
Some time later Ellie wandered into the main room again. Her exuberant greeting was quickly stifled when she saw Nikita spread-eagled across the bed. "Shhhh," she warned Michael, who had been sitting before the fire, silent as always. "Nikita is sleeping." she announced in a stage whisper.
Michael didn't answer. The thought suddenly entered his mind that he was responsible for the child for the rest of the night.
"Why didn't you cover her up?" asked Ellie reproachfully.
"Nikita doesn't like to sleep covered up." he answered automatically.
"How do you know?"
Michael found himself at a loss for words. "She kicks the blankets away." he finally decided on, dodging the question. He looked Nikita over again, noting her deep, even breathing. She had flung her arms to the side, one hand hanging limply off the edge of the bed.
The silence soon became awkward. Ellie was gaping at Michael, and Michael was carefully looking at anything but the wide-eyed girl before him. He cleared his throat. "It's time for bed."
To his surprise, she didn't put up a fight. The ordeal had been rather tiring, and there wasn't anything to play with in this cabin anyway. She crawled up on the couch he had prepared, laughing when he tried to boost her up without touching her too much.
"What about pajamas? And brushing teeth?"
"Ah, you don't have to wear pajamas tonight."
"But what if I get cavities?"
"It's okay for tonight." He saw the next question forming on her lips. "Pretend we already brushed our teeth."
"I still need a bedtime story." She saw his head start to shake even before he answered. "Please? I can't go to sleep without a story. I promise I'll be quiet and go to sleep then. Please?" Ellie stared forlornly at him. He had a feeling she knew exactly what she was doing, but he still couldn't resist such a face.
"All right." He sighed, and put his hand to his chin, thinking for a few moments.
"Don't forget a happy ending." she admonished.
He flicked his gaze in her direction again, his eyes widening a little. Happy ending, no problem.
"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess."
"Did she have yellow hair?" she interrupted.
He almost smiled. "Yes, she had yellow hair."
"And brown eyes?" she added helpfully.
His eyebrows lifted slightly. "Beautiful brown eyes. She --"
"What was her name?"
"Her name was ... Nichole."
Ellie sighed. "Oh, that's pretty. I like that."
"Nichole was very sad." The girl's face fell. "Every day, she became more sad. Her friends tried to cheer her up, but Nichole would not listen."
"Did they share their morning snack with her?"
Michael paused. "Ahh -- yes, but she was still sad."
"One time, when I was sad, Sarah shared her morning snack with me, and then I was happy." Ellie interjected.
He stared at her, unsure of how to respond. He decided to just continue. "Nichole's father, the king, didn't care that she was so sad. He was too busy running the kingdom."
"Did he boss lots of people around? Someday I'm going to boss lots of people around. Grown-ups."
"The king was very mean to people. He didn't understand Nichole, and he kept punishing her, and sending her to her room." Michael started to relax. This wasn't so hard. "The queen did not help Nichole either. She ruled the empire with the king."
"I bet she was smarter than the king. Was she smarter than the king?" Ellie was nodding already.
Michael paused. "Yes. The queen was very clever."
"Girls are good at being in charge. My mommy is good at that." She smiled, satisfied with the story so far. Then her facial expression changed as she remembered the plight of the princess. "Poor Nichole. She's all by herself."
"Ah, but Ellie, Nichole had a very special friend."
"What was his name?"
"How did you know it was a boy?" he asked her, curious.
Ellie rolled her eyes. "Of course it's a boy. Every princess gets a boy." Four-year-old confidence answered.
"Nichole's -- boy, was named ... Andrew."
"No, I don't like that. That's not his name." She waited expectantly.
"Mmmm -- okay."
"Jacques cared about Nichole very much. He always tried to watch out for her and protect her, and he tried not to let anybody else hurt her."
Ellie thought for a moment. "Did Jacques hurt her?" Michael closed his mouth, surprised. "You said he didn't let anybody else hurt Nichole, but did he hurt her? Did her hurt her feelings?"
"Well, sometimes he did." Ellie shook her head disapprovingly, and Michael proceeded quickly, "But Jacques never meant to. He never wanted to hurt her, and he felt very bad when he did. Sometimes Nichole didn't understand that, and she didn't want to hear him say he was sorry."
"You should always say you're sorry, and then they say 'It's okay' and then you can play again." She advised.
"Yes, Nichole knew that, but it was very hard to forgive Jacques. Sometimes she didn't want to play with him anymore." Michael's head dropped a little.
"Jacques was sad then, too." Ellie reached for Michael's hand, playing with his fingers while she talked. He didn't know why he allowed it. "One time I told Sarah she couldn't sit next to me at lunch, and then she sat by Brian, and then I said 'I'm sorry, come sit by me,' but then she didn't, 'cause she was still mad at me. I was sad, 'cause I hurted her feelings, and then I had to sit by myself." Michael swallowed.
"Well, one day Nichole went to visit Jacques. She told him that there was going to be a big ball, and she wanted him to come with her."
"Did she have a big pretty dress?"
"Yes, she had --"
"And sparkly shoes?"
"Yes, spar --"
"Nichole was going to go shopping for the ball the next day." Michael smoothly inserted. Ellie sat back, mollified. "But Jacques could not go to the ball."
"Why not? Did his mommy say he couldn't?"
"Was he naughty?"
"No, Jacques was not naughty. But he had to stay home. He had to finish the job the king had told him to do."
"What kind of job?"
Michael sighed. "A secret job." Ellie pursed her lips, releasing his hand, and he rushed on. "It was a secret even from Nichole, so Jacques could not tell Nichole about his job. Nichole was very mad at Jacques. She wanted to go to the ball."
He smiled ruefully. "Really bad. Jacques wanted to go to the ball too, but he couldn't."
"Because of the mean king." She nodded.
"Nichole was very sad, because she thought Jacques didn't want to be her friend anymore. Jacques could not tell her about his secret, so he didn't know how to make Nichole happy again."
"Why didn't he just tell her about the secret anyway? I bet she wouldn't tell the mean king. Then they could be secret friends."
Michael opened his mouth, and shut it. "Well, Jacques didn't do that. He thought that the secret would hurt Nichole's feelings."
"But why would the secret -- "
"Nichole went shopping anyway after she left Jacques's house, and bought a purple sparkly dress."
"With ribbons? Did it have ribbons on it?"
"Many ribbons." answered Michael, relieved.
"And did she have pretty jewelry?"
"Yes, lots of jewelry."
"I like sparkly jewelry," sighed Ellie happily. "One time, I had a pink dress, with -- "
"Nichole didn't know what to do. She thought Jacques didn't like her, and she was very sad."
Ellie narrowed her eyes. "I said a happy story. When is the happy coming?"
Michael's eyes turned a little softer, and he beckoned Ellie to come closer, whispering, "Ellie, you know that Jacques really was Nichole's friend." She grinned conspiratorially. "In fact, Jacques liked Nichole the best of everyone, but he never told her." Her eyes grew round. "Jacques knew how the story would end."
"Do they get to go to the ball?" predicted Ellie.
Michael half-smiled. "Jacques knew that one day he would finish his job, and then he would go to the castle and tell Nichole how much he liked her. Nichole and Jacques would leave the kingdom and go live far away, and they would try to make each day very happy."
"That's not how you say it."
"You're supposed to say 'They lived happily ever after.'"
Michael thought for a moment. "Jacques and Nichole knew that sometimes they would be sad again, but they knew they would always be together, and that made the sad not so bad." Ellie crossed her arms warningly. He sighed one last time. "All right. Nichole and Jacques lived happily ever after."
Ellie smiled in approval, and spread her arms wide. Michael stayed where he was, suspiciously taking in her position. "You said you would go to sleep now."
She giggled. "Silly. I need a bedtime hug." Michael choked on his breath.
"A -- what?" She just lay there, waiting. Michael glanced around the room, checking for intruders who had snuck in the cabin, after trudging through three miles in a blizzard, in the middle of the night. No one. Damn.
Her arms were starting to wilt, and that look was returning to her face. Finally, he leaned over her, slowly, slowly ... suddenly her little arms were creeping around him, squeezing childishly tight. She smacked a kiss on his cheek before let him go, once again grinning up at him.
Michael blinked, and pulled away. Resisting the urge to raise his hand to his cheek, he stood and tucked the covers in around the girl. She wiggled her arms out again and yawned. Her eyes were closing even as he turned away. "Bonne nuit, ma petite." he half-whispered
Michael laid down on the floor beside her, arranging the blankets almost unconsciously as he relived the past half-hour in his mind. He closed his eyes, but sleep was slow in coming.
And across the room, a soft smile crept across a face, as a tear dropped from a tightly closed eye.