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Sine Qua Non

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Flames engulfed the walls of the mansion, first swiftly streaking up to the ceiling, then striking down like lightning to ignite the golden wood flooring and priceless Persian rugs. The ropes of fire twisted and writhed like vibrant, orange and crimson serpents, hissing and spitting...utterly enraged. Then they furiously surged forward once again, rising and tangling together, melding into one, roaring, savagely wild creature.

By this point, it was beyond taming.

Shrills of human panic sounded above the sizzling and popping and crackling...even above the sudden and deafening collapse of part of the house as the fire gluttonously consumed it.

The air shimmered with sweltering heat. All her toys were melting, everything in her room was burning, and nothing could be touched--nothing!

She was utterly petrified. Sweat poured down her forehead and cheeks to mingle with her frightened tears as she huddled in the only corner of the room that wasn't alight in flames. But she couldn't escape the smoke. It insidiously whirled around her, thick and black and completely indifferent to her whimpering cries. It was disorienting her--she couldn't see!

Terror consumed her. "Mama! Mama!" she wailed in Russian. The ashes burned her watering eyes and plugged her nose. She couldn't breathe! Weeping and coughing hoarsely, she hunched in on herself, desperately trying to hide from the horror encircling her.

"Mamaaaa!"

"Masha! Where are you?" a gruff, deep voice called out in snarling alarm over the roaring of the flames. "Masha!"

The girl jerked her head up toward the close sound of the voice--but it wasn't her mother calling for her. Then suddenly she cried out in pain as someone heavy tripped over her. Embers rained down in a torrent of fire from the smoldering wooden beams above them and the someone--a man--screamed in agony.

Her panicked shriek echoed his as he writhed on the floor next to her to put out the flames that were hungrily eating into his flesh and muscle. Then, gasping, weeping, he lurched to his feet and grabbed her, yanking her up and off the floor, half-dragging, half-carrying her away from the blazing inferno.

"Red!" Masha sobbed wildly in distress. "Red!"

"I'm here, baby. I'm here!" a fierce whisper answered her as strong yet gentle hands gathered her close.

The real world snapped into focus as the little girl woke abruptly from her night terror. Everything around her was unrecognizable and cold and so very dark. Then she saw his familiar green eyes come into her line of sight.

"Red!" she whimpered in relief, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I'm here, Masha," the man soothed, stroking her long hair away from her sweaty brow before wiping her tears and nose with a soft cloth. Christ, she was shaking so hard. "I'm here. Breathe with me, sweetie. Like this. Slow and deep. Good. Good girl. That's it."

"Red, there was fire," her small voice was tremulous as she remembered the ghastly horror that she had just been rescued from. "It was burning us. It was everywhere!"

"It was just a dream, baby. You're safe. There's no fire here." The man called Raymond Reddington cradled the traumatized four-year-old girl in his arms, his heart breaking for her. Hearing a creaking step just outside her bedroom, he looked up.

His friend, Sam Scott, slipped inside. Softly the older man padded over to kneel down on the floor beside the bed so he could be on eye level with them, his taut expression quite pained indeed.

"This one was really bad," Sam murmured. "She has them more often than not, Red. Sometimes I can wake her up. Sometimes I can't." He glanced away from Masha to give his friend a grateful look. "I'm glad you were able to bring her out of it."

"S-Sam?" Masha stammered uncertainly.

"Yes, darling, I'm here."

"I'm so scared," she whispered, clutching at Red even more tightly. "D-don't leave me alone."

It was a plea that came from the very depths of her soul. The anguish in her voice pierced Red's heart, and he closed his eyes, arms tightening around her as he brushed the tip of his nose against her temple in immediate response to it.

"We aren't going anywhere, honey," Sam crooned reassuringly, stroking the back of his index finger soothingly down her smooth cheek. "We'll stay with you."

Trust and intense relief glittered in her beautiful blue eyes as the exhausted girl nestled further against Red's chest, sniffling, her lids already heavy as sleep began to reclaim her.

Tenderly Red wiped her runny nose again, glancing at Sam. "Have you given any more thought to my suggestion?" he asked quietly.

The other man shook his head, lips pressed in a tight line. "You mean that fringe science crap? No, Red. No. I haven't changed my mind. I don't want those fucking people anywhere near her."

"She remembers the fire. She remembers me, Sam. She remembers I was there."

The older man's expression was stony.

"She doesn't remember now...but you know what she'll remember when she's older."

"She may not."

"If she's anything like her mother, which I have no doubt she is, she will remember," Red snapped, then quickly bit the inside of his cheek, reining in his temper while glancing down at the girl. Luckily his raised voice hadn't woken her.

God, she was such a pretty little thing. Angelic. Seeing her now peaceful, sleeping face slightly eased something tight inside of him.

"That shit is unpredictable and unreliable. What if something goes wrong?"

Red looked at him, a brow raising. "Unpredictable and unreliable? For most patients it's been proven to work. You've read the same research I have."

Sam made a scoffing noise, but his expression was not quite as closed as it had been a moment ago.

Sensing his opportunity, Red pressed, "It should stop the night terrors. She won't remember any of it, Sam. Nothing. It's for her protection." From those who wish her harm.... And from herself.

"I don't like it, Red."

Red placed a hand gently on the girl's dark, silken hair. The need to protect this innocent child was near overwhelming. "I don't either." The intense look in his flinty eyes, however, was gravely resolute. "But to keep her safe, it needs to be done."

Masha mumbled something in her sleep and both men glanced down at her apprehensively, waiting to see if she would begin to wail. But all she did was press a curled hand more tightly against her cheek, burrowing closer into Red's arms.

"I know you're the one raising her, Sam," Red murmured as he gazed tenderly down at the girl. "And I wouldn't normally interfere with the decisions you make for her well-being." Then after a moment, his fierce eyes met the other man's once more, and his expression was vehement. "But after the Hell I saw her go through again tonight, I'm not going to stand idly by and just wait for you to fucking see the sense of what I'm proposing. It needs to be done. In fact, I insist on it."

Sam pursed his lips unhappily--but he knew better than to argue any more about it tonight. Sighing out his lingering anger and frustration, he looked pityingly down at Masha. Reaching out, he softly touched her cheek again before he rose to his feet. "I'll be awake for a while. I know you will be too. Coffee?"

Red shook his head.

Sam gave the little girl one last lingering look, then inclined his head deferentially at Red before quietly leaving the room.

After waiting a few minutes, Red tried to gently maneuver Masha back down onto her bed. But the girl stirred and clutched tightly at his shirt. He instantly stilled his movements, unsure of how to disengage himself without waking her.

Then a soft snore escaped her, those thick lashes of hers fluttering against her pale cheeks as she heaved another, snuffling sigh.

A genuine smile ghosted at the corners of his mouth at that.

Ah, well.

Gingerly Red scooted backwards, inch by careful inch, until he was pressed more comfortably against the headboard. He made sure his hold on Masha was secure before he leaned his head back against the wood paneling.

The aromatic scent of the brewing coffee sure smelled good. Maybe he would have a cup after all. In a little while. For now, he would just rest his eyes for a bit....