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The mission had quickly gone from bad to worse. The contact, a squirrelly character who had proven in the past to be unpredictable, had not shown on time. When he finally made an appearance almost two hours later he was high on some mind-altering drug and the information he'd provided had been useless. Nikita had tried to ply him with sweet words and caresses - when that hadn't worked, she'd resorted to threats and physical violence. He had been undaunted, too hammered to know his life was in danger.

Finally, Nikita had shoved him away in disgust. "We won't get anything from him," she growled angrily into her comm-set. "He's wasted."

Michael said softly, "Cancel him and get out." He dreaded the backlash he knew he would hear from her. He waited for the silence, and was surprised when a shot rang out. He heard her quick intake of breath, an indrawn sob, and minutes later, she was back in the van with him. He stared at her, trying to ascertain whether she'd fooled him by firing into the air, or whether she'd followed his orders.

The look on her face told him everything - she appeared ready to collapse, and her eyes were full of tears. She was fighting back a wail of anguish, he knew. She'd done what he'd commanded her to do, and she hated herself for it. Michael hated himself, too, for having to give the order. There had been no other recourse, and perhaps in time, she would come to realize that. For now, though, she was damaged emotionally, and she needed someone strong. Michael wished he could be that person... He went to her side and took her arm.

"Nikita," he whispered, and his hand caressed her very gently. "I know how difficult that was for you to do. It went against everything you've ever held true."

He fell silent, seeing that she was on the edge of her control, close to breaking. He longed to pull her into his arms and hold her until she let her tears go, but there was no time for it now. The mission parameters had been jarred, and a new profile had to be developed on short notice. There had been no failsafe this time - Operations had not deemed it necessary in light of the fact that the contact was harmless. He apparently had forgotten that the contact was also unreliable. Michael pressed a button on his cell-phone and a moment later, he said calmly, "Send housekeeping. We're coming back in."

The drive back to Section was silent. Michael was trying to think of a way to help Nikita through her ordeal without compromising his standing with Operations. Nikita was fighting for control, thinking fervently, I don't want him to see me cry. I don't want him to think I'm weak. I can't let him control me. It had nothing to do with pride. It had to do with self-esteem. Nikita had always been self-sufficient, had always made her own decisions and lived with them, for good or for bad. She hadn't had anyone to take care of her, and now, to be in Michael's care, yielding to his strength in her weakness, was not acceptable to her.

She stood a little taller, sniffed, wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, and said, "I'm fine, Michael." Her eyes fixed his with a stare that seemed to dare him to look away. He finally did, surrendering the battle in the hopes of winning the war.


The debrief was, as he'd known it would be, brutal. Endless questions, cross-examining, demands for details. Once he'd exited the room, he felt exhausted, as if he'd been either flayed or raped. He escaped to his office to finish the paperwork - every government organization had it, but Section One seemed to excel at it. He typed rapidly, his mind elsewhere. Finally, the necessary "meat to the lions" was completed, and he rested his head in his hands for a moment, shielding his eyes from the glare of his computer screen.

He retraced the events of that day, from the inception of the meet to the disastrous end result. He thought of Nikita, and wondered where she might be now, how she must be feeling. He knew she wouldn't stay around Section. Every moment of freedom she could grab was precious to her - she would not waste a second of it in the dank, dark hallways of the underground prison she knew as Section One. She would make a beeline for the light, the fresh air, the birds, the rain... Whatever was taking place outside in the real world, Nikita would want to be there, absorbing as much of it as possible before her life sentence pulled her back like a reluctant, spirited dog on a tight leash. Michael logged off his PC, turned off his desk lamp, set his security and left the office on a mission of his own. He wanted to try to find Nikita, but as he left the premises he realized he had scant knowledge of her whereabouts. She wouldn't go home, unless she was truly as exhausted as she'd looked earlier. No, she would be in the middle of something lively, cheerful, colorful, noisy...

He went to the art fair downtown. City blocks were cordoned off to traffic, and various booths were set up. A live band was playing reggae music and there were jugglers, mimes, people in costume, people with bouquets of flowers or helium balloons to sell. Michael strolled through the crowds, not hearing the music, not seeing the vivid colors and animation around him. He was riveted on his search for a certain tall, blond woman and nothing else mattered to him...

Several booths down from where he was standing, he saw her, lingering near an artist who was drawing a charcoal sketch of a girl about seven years old with dark hair and tight braids. Nikita was smiling, entranced, breaking off small pieces of an elephant ear and nibbling as she watched. She seemed to be completely unaffected by the events of earlier that morning. But Michael knew that if he were to look into her eyes, he would see torment and tears. He walked toward her, weaving his way through the throngs of people, careful not to brush against anyone too roughly, lest he draw attention to himself. He wasn't aware that his mere presence drew attention - his height and the regal, graceful way he carried himself was noticeable to anyone with eyes. His exceptional good looks added to the air of mystery and eroticism he projected seemingly without knowing it. He didn't hear one woman breathe to her friend, "My God, look at that guy! He's the most gorgeous piece of work I've ever seen!" If he had overheard, he would not have reacted - the voice would have been in his peripheral hearing only.

He approached Nikita, catlike in his stealth. Not wanting to startle her, he said her name before he was at her side. She looked over, her mouth half-full of sugary-cinnamon pastry. Seeing it was Michael, her eyes fell. Is she disappointed? he wondered with a pain. He wished for a moment that he hadn't tried to find her. She'll never see me as anything other than the enemy, he thought in remorse. Nevertheless, he spoke in a soft voice.

"I wanted to talk to you," he said by way of a lead-in.

Nikita turned to face him, the sugar and cinnamon from the elephant ear still on her fingers. To Michael's mild surprise, her eyes were not the flinty blue color to which he was accustomed - they were cerulean, sad and vulnerable, like a child's eyes. Michael wanted to say the right thing, but the words were impossible. Nothing he could say would make her feel better about what she had done - what she had been forced to do.

"Talk, then," she said softly, and her voice held no rancor - only submission. "Please, Nikita..." he began, and then swallowed. Forging ahead, he went on, "Don't let this kill your spirit. Don't let it take away your fire."

The words he spoke were not the ones Nikita had expected to hear. She stared at him, forgetting everything as she searched his green eyes for some hint of a manipulation. She saw none. The words were coming from his heart, of his own volition, not from Section One. She listened as he went on softly, and the crowd around them seemed to melt away until it was only the two of them standing there.

"What you did, you had to do. Not because it was an order, but because you knew what would happen if he'd been allowed to live. He would not have lived very long, and his death would have been extremely violent. You learned that lesson the hard way with Shays." He saw her close up for a moment then, her eyes becoming dark and dangerous. Quickly, he went on, "But you learned. There are some things that are absolute. Sacrificing the inner strength that keeps you alive isn't one of those things. Too many people surrender their morality too readily in an effort to survive." He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was low and held a note of remorse. "I did."

His words shocked Nikita, and she couldn't speak for a moment. To hear him confess something so deeply private and painful was a giant leap forward for him. Nikita was surprised he would entrust this knowledge to her. I won't betray your confidence, she thought, and waited for him to continue, even as she protested his statement. You didn't surrender your morality, she thought vehemently. You still have a soul...You still make decisions that preserve lives...You have a heart worth saving...

Silently, she watched him. His eyes roved from her eyes to her lips, then completely away from her for a moment in an effort to gather his control around him like a protective cloak.

"Part of the reason I keep requesting you for missions with me is because of your spirit," he said, very gently. "You balance everything on a mission, and your decisions are sound. They may not always be within the parameters, but your end game is always life, not death. I think we all need to remember that sometimes." He looked down, almost pensively.

He was startled when he felt Nikita's hand on his upper arm, gripping it tightly. She had dropped the remains of her elephant ear, and the fingers she put to his lips were sweet with sugar and cinnamon. Without thinking, Michael stunned Nikita again by breaking character completely. Eyes closed, he kissed her fingers, tasting them with his tongue in an incredibly sensuous response to her touch. He could feel her take a step closer to him, feel the heat from her body supercharging his own energy field, and he began to vibrate internally as if he had a high-voltage wire running through him.

"Michael," Nikita said very softly. "I know things will never be easy between us. Section life is not a normal life, not even for you." His eyes opened as her fingers left his lips. She leaned in, then, and replaced her fingers with her lips, kissing his mouth lightly, briefly. He was too dazed to respond for a moment and just waited, hoping she couldn't hear the trip-hammer beat of his heart. He couldn't protest her action, couldn't tell her to stop what she was doing. The words froze in his throat, and mercifully, she didn't press her advantage. Instead, she stepped back, looked down as if astonished that she'd allowed her emotions to govern her movements.

Michael said, obviously shaken, "Will you be all right?"

She nodded, still afraid to meet his gaze - those green eyes, when he turned them on her, always burned like lasers into her very bones, leaving her feeling as if she'd been loved intensely from the inside out by someone who knew every nuance of her desire. Then, she realized that Michael was such a person. He'd loved her fiercely, that night in Lyons. He knew her inside out, from her profile and from his contact with her. She inadvertently revealed herself to him everytime she said something or made a decision. There was no one in her life who was closer to her than Michael was. There was no one she trusted and mistrusted more, no one who could evoke such extreme emotion in her, from anger to passion, in so short a time. Michael, she thought, I can't be with you, but I can't be without you...

Aloud, she said, "I'm always all right, Michael." She didn't dare say more - the tears were too close to the surface and she didn't want him to see her cry. She regretted her actions - she hadn't wanted to cancel the contact. He was stupid and unreliable, but he posed no immediate threat and had not maliciously and willingly taken lives. Even now, Nikita wondered if she'd done the right thing. She wondered if she could live with her decision.

She didn't tell Michael she was afraid to go back to her apartment because she would have to face herself. The surveillance cameras had been removed, but it didn't matter. She still felt the omnipresent "eye" no matter where she went, even here in the middle of the fair. She was only putting off the inevitable. She knew Michael had already reconciled himself with the mission. He'd already rationalized his actions and decisions and was ready for the next event. How do you do it, Michael? she asked silently. How do you shut off the pain? More questions to which she would receive no answers, even if she braved those icy green eyes and asked aloud.

"I guess I've seen enough of this place," she said with a sigh. "I think I'll just head home now."

"Can I drive you?" Michael offered, not wanting to let her escape in her present state of mind.

Feeling reckless, Nikita said, "Sure. Why not?"

Michael took her elbow in an asexual, gentlemanly manner, and escorted her to his car, oblivious to the stares they were garnering from people who noticed what a striking couple they made - two young lions prowling through the crowd, removed from everyone else, surrounded by an air of invincibility and power.

Michael opened Nikita's door for her and helped her inside, reluctant to take his hand away from her arm. He walked around to the driver's side door, and was a little surprised to see that she had leaned over and unlocked it for him. As he got in, he said softly, "Thank you, Nikita." The drive was silent, each of them lost in their own private thoughts.

Nikita's voice pierced the quiet, causing Michael to jump almost imperceptibly. "Michael, how do you justify what we do?" she asked softly. He looked over at her as he drove, trying to gauge her mood from her expression. He saw no challenge in her eyes - just an earnest plea for an answer to which she could cling.

"Nikita, we've been through this before," he said, his attention going back to the street as he drove. "It may not always seem right, but we're fighting a global battle. Our enemies play dirty, and they play for keeps. If we do less, we're allowing a world full of innocents to be exposed, and they aren't trained for a fight like that. We are. It's what we do, and we're good at it." He was silent for a moment, letting her digest his words. When she didn't reply, he looked over at her again. She had a pensive look on her face, her gaze faraway.

"I tell myself the world needs what we do - what I do. In every mission, I try to see every possible end game and how many people will be affected. I don't like it when even one person dies, but sometimes there's no other choice - one, or a thousand." He heard a sniffle, and saw that Nikita was crying softly, tears sliding down her cheeks as she fought bravely to keep him from knowing. He reached over with his right hand and gently wiped tears with his thumb, wishing he could stop the car and take her shaking body into his arms and comfort her until the pain went away.

Instead, he kept driving. His next words surprised even him. "With every death, I die a little more inside," he whispered. "And with every life we save, I come back to life a little." There was nothing else he could say, nothing else he could do. It had taken more out of him to share the sacred contents of his heart with her than it took out of him to complete a difficult mission. He felt exhausted and depleted.

As he pulled up to the curb in front of Nikita's apartment complex, he looked over at her again. Her tears had stopped, and she met his gaze with a level one of her own.

"Michael, thank you," she breathed. "For finding me." She climbed out of the car and shut the door, then walked around to the driver's side. He rolled down the window, wondering what she was doing.

She leaned into the window, put her hand tenderly on his cheek, and kissed his mouth for the second time in the space of three hours. Michael was inwardly reeling - he tried not to respond too ardently to the press of her lips. Just before he would have raised his hand to gently push her away before he lost control she stepped out of range, opening her eyes and managing a sad smile. "Not exactly the backlash you were expecting, I guess," she said, and looked down, a little abashed.

Michael's eyes widened. How did you know? he wondered in astonishment. Then, in the next second he thought he'd figured it out. Some time during the drive she must have mentally run down every mission, every time she'd been ordered to do something against her principles, and her reaction to each indignity. She must have realized that every time she'd rebelled, the backlash had invariably wounded him and had sometimes put him in a precarious position with Operations. She had to be painfully aware of her actions and their effect on him by now. This most recent mission had brought it to her attention in a large way, and he suspected she would never be the same again. He was already seeing changes in her...

Aloud, in answer to her somewhat rhetorical question, he said, "No, it isn't."

He looked away, unable to face her eyes for the intensity of her stare, wondering where, if anywhere, this conversation would lead. He had no more words - the play was obviously Nikita's now.

She cleared her throat a little self-consciously and asked, with forced bravado, "W-would you like to come up for coffee?" Michael stared at her sharply, then softened his look, seeing that she was truly having a difficult time extending herself to him.

I won't make it any more difficult for you, Michael thought tenderly. "Yes, I'd like that," he said aloud.

He shut off the engine, got out of the car, locked the doors and followed her inside the building. The elevator ride was made in silence, almost as if the two of them were on a mission. At the fourth floor the bell rang, the doors opened, and Nikita was fishing for her keys as they stepped out of the elevator. She stopped in front of her door, frozen with a fear she couldn't explain. Whether it was fear of facing her demons or fear of letting Michael in willingly, she didn't know. She was dismayed to see that her hand was trembling so violently she couldn't fit the key into the lock.

Michael gently took the keys from her shaking hand, unlocked and opened the door for her and escorted her inside. He knew she was frightened, probably of him, and it hurt his heart to see her so fragile now, when he'd already seen how strong she could be when the situation demanded it. He walked quietly past her and put the keys on the countertop, then idly ran his fingers along the surface of it, his eyes downcast, allowing her to take control if she chose to do so.

When he looked up again it was because soft music had begun playing in the background - something by Sade; he recognized the vocals and the insinuating, throbbing bass. Nikita was sitting on the couch, hands clasped together to keep them from trembling. He went over to her, crouching down in front of her and taking her hands in his - they were cold as ice in his warm ones. Nikita, what are you going through? he asked himself, and wished he could ask her. Without giving himself time to think twice, he voiced his thought and waited for her response, not looking in her eyes.

He was surprised when she pulled her hands from his and put her arms over his shoulders to lock behind his neck. She arose from the couch, forcing him to come up with her. He didn't breathe, waiting tensely to see what she would do next. She remained against him, not moving, her voice coming to him very softly, like a spring breeze.

"Just hold me, Michael," she whispered, and rested her cheek against his neck. His arms went around her waist, his eyes closed, and they stood together, not moving, not speaking, letting the music surround them with a temporary cloak of invisibility. For those precious moments there would be no remorse, no pain - only the sweetness of the touch. They both knew it would have to be enough, for the present. Together they would face the backlash - later...