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Michael was in a small listening room, the headsets on his ears blocking out all sounds except for the audio feed from Nikita's comm unit, piped directly to Michael's location courtesy of Birkoff.

He closed his eyes. Every moan, every soft cry she uttered burned in his belly like swallowed lye, eating him alive from the inside.

He heard her voice, deep and thick in passion, "Michael."

NO.

"Oh, god, Michael."

NIKITA, NO.

"What did you call me?" the man's voice was cold and furious, all desire gone in a flash.

The last thing Michael heard was the horrible gurgling sound from Nikita as Karl Peruze slit her throat.

***************

NO.

Michael started awake, the echo of his own cry ringing in his ears. His body was drenched in sweat; his nightclothes were plastered to him and his sheets were tangled and disarrayed, evidence of his nightmare-driven distress.

He rolled out of bed and bolted for the bathroom, barely attaining his goal before his stomach revolted and he vomited what little dinner he had choked down.

Staggering slightly in reaction to his body's mutiny and the lingering tendrils of his dream, Michael reached for a washcloth, soaked it in cold water and laid it on the back of his neck. He leaned over his arms, his hair dangling in damp clumps, his forehead nearly touching the countertop, and concentrated on steadying his breathing.

He had been experiencing this particular nightmare on a regular basis for nearly a month; ever since Madeline had briefed him on her profile to entrap the Peruze brothers. The mission had run successfully, but still the dream stalked him, retreating to the darkest corner of his mind, luring him with the hope that it had faded away, only to strike him anew and with revived vigor.

He raised his dull hazel eyes to regard the . . . specimen . . . in the mirror. Not a man. No man would have done what that succubus had done. She despised him; hell, he despised himself. If he were a man at all, he would turn that damn glock on himself and rid the world of the creature that called itself Michael.

But he wasn't even man enough to do that.

He was in hell, a hell of his own making. Michael had been raised a devout Catholic and the dogma of the Church still hovered in the recesses of his mind. God was merciful, but not to him. There was no mercy, no relief for the damned.

So why not do it? Why not? So many times, so many missed opportunities. A crash on his beloved motorcycle. A bullet, self-inflicted, or on a mission.

Because, said a small voice in his head, first there was Adam. Now her. The only chance he had to expiate for his sins was to protect these poor innocents thrust into his pathetic care by some cosmic god with a masochistic sense of humor.

He closed his eyes again, ending his scrutiny of the chimera reflected before him. He hated every breath he took, every heartbeat that pulsed the blood through his body, but while he lived, he would protect her. At all costs. Even at the cost of her soul and his.

***************

Madeline had played him well, very well indeed, he acknowledged. She had begun setting her trap with her customary thorough ruthlessness.

She had called Michael into her office for the preliminary briefing. Spread across her desk were pictures of the Peruze brothers, Simon and Karl, and the evidence of their crimes.

She picked up a picture delicately with two fingers and extended it to Michael for his perusal. A dark haired woman lay on her back on a table, her throat slit, her life's-blood coagulated into pools under her head.

"Martine, from Section Two," Madeline informed him coolly. "She and her partner were assigned to make contact with the Peruze brothers in connection with a store of anthrax virus the Peruzes are attempting to market."

Michael kept his face calm, his voice cool and controlled. "And?" he prompted softly.

"Apparently one or both of the brothers took a fancy to Martine. They killed her partner and then raped Martine, both of them, several times. When they were through with her, they slit her throat and left her to bleed to death." Michael blinked, the only outward reaction he would allow himself to show in front of Madeline. "We plan on getting our hands on Karl Peruze in the next 72 hours. We will, of course, attempt standard interrogation procedures, but I anticipate these will fail. Karl and Simon are interwoven personalities, they will not betray each other."

"And your next step will be?"

"Memory modification." Madeline gave him a cool smile, one that as usual did not reach past the stretch of her lips. "We will adapt Karl's memory and attach a female operative to him. Karl will believe she is his fiancée and will take her to Simon and, eventually, the anthrax stash."

Michael folded his hands in his lap, over the cold pit in his stomach that was growing exponentially. "A female operative," he parroted calmly. "And the operative you have in mind?"

"Nikita." Even though he expected that answer, he still felt the twist of the knife in his gut.

"Nikita is not a valentine operative," he pointed out, knowing his argument was obvious.

"No, she's not," Madeline agreed. "And she proved on the Markali mission that she is not able to complete a valentine mission."

Michael sat silently for a moment. "So why have you chosen her?" His voice was low and respectful, but the question was a challenge to her decision and they both knew it.

"Because a woman with her looks who can kill in cold blood is a worthy addition to Section's resources," Madeline replied, quoting Michael's own initial evaluation of Nikita back at him. Michael clenched his jaw, knowing even as he did it that Madeline saw and noted his reaction.

"She has not been able to reach closure on a valentine mission to date," Michael took a strategic step back and tried a different tack. "She is obviously not the right choice for this mission."

"I disagree, Michael. This is a step that Nikita needs to take to reach her full potential in Section. I am fond of Nikita and would not risk her life unnecessarily. Karl and Simon Peruze are extremely dangerous and one mis-step by Nikita would surely end in her death. I propose that we assist her in performing this mission, both to assure her safety and to acquire the anthrax."

"Help her?" Michael queried, knowing even then that the argument was lost.

"The profile on the Peruze brothers will be two-fold. I will be asking Operations for approval to test a new emotion-enhancing drug. We will simultaneously attempt to alter Karl's memories and assist Nikita in completing her mission assignment as Karl's fiancée. The drug treatment will both enable us to successfully close the Peruze mission and ensure Nikita's safety."

***************

Michael sat in his darkened office, letting his posture sag slightly in an uncharacteristic admission of fatigue. Another mission, successful as usual, with Nikita as cold and remote as usual.

Why does that bother me? he thought dully. I deserve nothing better, nothing more. So why am I continually troubled by the evidence of her fury at another of my betrayals?

As if his mind had conjured her up, Nikita stalked into his office, giving his door a perfunctory knock in passing. She stood in front of him, her eyes burning in a cold blue rage.

"I want to know how long this has been going on," she began abruptly, her voice harsh and edgy, barely giving him enough time to screen his office surveillance.

"How long what has been going on, Nikita?" He sat up straighter and met her glare with an unblinking stare of his own. He kept his face blank and his voice cool; the last thing she wanted from him now was sympathy.

"How long have you been programming me? From my first day in Section? When did you start, Michael? After my first mission date with you, when I moved into my apartment? HOW LONG?"

Michael let a frown cross his face "The preliminary planning for the Peruze mission began only a week or two before our original briefing. You know the timeline involving the tampered DVD."

"Don't lie to me, Michael, I am so sick of your lies," she spat out in a venomous tone.

Now he was confused. "What exactly am I supposed to know?"

Her fury seemed to radiate from every pore of her tightly controlled body. She rose and leaned over the desk, bringing her face within inches of his. "Those fucking images and words in my apartment, Michael." She spoke slowly, as if to an idiot, vitriol dripping from every syllable.

Michael sat completely still, cold realization flooding over him. Shit, I should have realized this. There was more going on than I knew. He didn't try to explain to Nikita, she wouldn't believe him even if he tried.

"We need to talk away from here," he said flatly, fighting down the urge to strangle Madeline with her own deceitful webs.

"As if I would go anywhere with you," she said coldly.

He let his mask drop, meeting her furious gaze with a pleading one of his own. "Please, Nikita, I will tell you everything I know, but not here. And not your place," he continued before she could speak, "it's probably still under surveillance because of the drug trial."

"How convenient," she ground out, "I guess that leaves us with the option of going to your place."

Michael paused, thinking. "Perhaps, but I can't guarantee they're not watching me too. Let's go for a walk in the park."

*****************

They had selected a park bench in the wide-open greensward to talk. No one could approach them or walk past them without being noticed from a long distance.

Nikita sat at one end of the bench, Michael at the other. She gave him a cold dead stare. "So, Michael, talk."

"Tell me about the words and pictures," he prompted.

She gave him a look full of contempt. "Why? So you can find out how much I know? Find new and improved locations for more subconscious programming?"

"Nikita." Michael leaned forward, laying his hand on the rough wood of the bench. "You have no reason to trust me. I know that. But think carefully. I have not lied to you in the past several months. Failure to tell you all the information I have access too..." he shrugged. "I can't apologize to you for doing my job. But I have not lied to you since you found Elena and Adam." He paused, letting her mull over his statement.

"All right, Michael, I'll concede that point to you. It seems a very convenient semantic ploy to discern between lying and omitting the truth, but let's put that to the side. What's your point now?"

"To make you understand that I'm telling you the truth now: I don't know what you're talking about when you accuse me of planting words and images. What words? What images? Where?"

She was silent for several long minutes, her eyes never leaving his. Sifting through her memories, her emotions, he knew. Trust me, he pleaded wordlessly. You have every reason not to, but trust me now.

"When I went home today after the mission debrief," she began, looking down at her clasped hands, "I was resting on my couch. Looking up at the light fixture, the big white one with abstract prints?" Michael searched his memory briefly, then nodded as he recalled the item in question. Ugly as sin, it had made him question Nikita's taste in art. "I started seeing a pattern to the prints," she continued, "just like when Walter showed me the subliminal changes in the DVD. I kept looking at the variations in the patterns, and your face appeared." She raised her gaze to his face, her eyes now cold and distrustful again, her body stiff. "As I looked around, words appeared in my framed posters. Love. Trust. Obey. I destroyed them all."

Michael sat silently, letting his focus drift across the park, thinking through her revelation and the possible consequences. "So you think you have been programmed to care for me since you first entered Section," he stated, his voice flat and factual.

"Have I?" she challenged.

He met her gaze. "No," he whispered, his voice hoarse, "not to my knowledge. And I have not been programmed to care for you."

She gave a hard, bitter laugh. "Care for me? You care for me, Michael? Is this how you show your affection, by being my pimp?" He flinched. "Even if you weren't involved in the subliminal programming, you were aware of the mission profile, you knew they meant for me to whore myself."

"Yes," he agreed tonelessly. "I did what I had to do. I gave you the disk with the hallucinogenic powder. I allowed your mind and emotions to be manipulated by the images that Madeline created. I did it to save your life; because I am a selfish bastard who would rather destroy your soul than lose your presence in my life."

She was unmoved. "And that makes everything all right? Just apologize again and poor, stupid Nikita will forgive you? Try a different tactic, Michael, I'm tired of this one."

"What would have had me do, Nikita?" His voice was still low, but laced now with anger and self-loathing. "Should I have refused to give you the DVD? Sent you to perform for Peruze knowing that one slight error, one miscalculation, and your cover is blown? Do you know what they do to the women they use? Or should I have refused to let you go on the mission? Do you really think I have that power? Or that Operations and Madeline would accept such insubordination? You'd be cancelled within the hour; possibly me too. Or perhaps they would simply kill Elena or Adam, to remind me who holds my leash." Her eyes flickered; that thought had not occurred to her.

"You think they would..."

"I don't think, I know." There was an extended silence between them.

Finally Nikita rose to her feet. "Thank you for talking to me, Michael. It actually helps me to know that I am not the only one who was manipulated on this mission." She lifted her eyes to meet his solemn gaze. "I don't forgive you for what you did; I don't know if I ever can. But I understand why you did what you did."

He was relieved to see the look of contempt had left her face; instead she looked hurt and thoughtful. There was less chance of her doing or saying something careless once the hard edge of her fury was dampened. He clasped his hands lightly in his lap and regarded her calmly.

"I need to work through this, Michael." He nodded. "Would you... could you not put me on your team for the next few missions? I need to be away from you."

"Certainly." She nodded her thanks and began to move away. He spoke again, moved by an impulse he couldn't define. "Nikita?" She stopped and glanced over her shoulder at him. "It's not worth much, but I am sorry."

She swallowed hard. "Yeah," she replied, "me too."