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The time since Michael's capture had seemed endless. From the second he had been taken--when she had been ordered not to pursue--Nikita had feared that she might never see him again--that they might just abandon him. She remembered, all too clearly, when he had been left behind before; if it hadn't been for Operations' desire to extract Petrosian, Michael would have been allowed to die then. . . . She had prayed that wouldn't be the case this time.

Nikita had never bought into Section's "everyone is expendable" policy, but it upset her even more when that "everyone" was Michael. All of their problems and their tangled relationship aside, she had no intention of seeing him hurt.

Fortunately, though, Operations had agreed with her--this time, and they were now here to rescue him. . . . "And get Perez," she added finally; whatever the mission profile, she knew what her primary goal was.

Once inside the building, Nikita made her way quickly down the hall to the room Michael was most likely in. When she arrived at it and saw him, though, her heart caught. He was locked into some hellish torture contraption, and he didn't look good; his eyes were rolling up into his head. She snapped quickly out of her shock and went to him, carefully freeing him from the device--praying that she was doing it correctly so that she wouldn't hurt him any further. He watched her movements questioningly, wonderingly, once she had removed the major part of the device.

"Michael." She put her hand on the side of his face gently. "Can you walk?"

"I think so," he responded. His mind didn't feel clear. He focused on her beauty. Why was she here? Then, the beautiful woman put a gun in his hands; he looked at it, holding it limply. "What's this for?" He had no practical experience with guns; what did he do with it? . . . Why would he need one, anyway?

She misunderstood his question. "The area's not secure yet." He looked out of it, she noted. God, what had they done to him? She heard a noise behind her--as if on cue to her words, and she turned to shoot one of the Red Cell operatives before looking back at Michael.

His mind was trying to clear itself. He looked around. "Where are we?"

Nikita was at the door, trying to see if it was safe for them to leave yet. His question, though, worried her; she turned and walked back to him. "Michael, it's me--Nikita. Come on." He didn't follow, however; he just looked confused. She was getting really concerned. "Michael? *Let's go!*" she yelled, trying to see if an order would jump-start his Section instincts.

He half-smiled at her, in complete confusion. "Why . . . why do you keep calling me `Michael'?"

Nikita felt all the air leave her lungs for a long second, as though she had just been hit. Then, her training kicked in. "Okay, Birkoff, it's me. I've got Michael." She was taking off her jacket to put it around him, as though warming his body could somehow restore his mind. "How do we get out of here?"

"Nothing's secure yet," Birkoff informed her. It wasn't what she wanted to hear. "Can you augment a tactical?"

"No," Nikita replied, in one of the understatements of her life. "Michael's been sedated."

"At least," her brain added silently.

"I'm gonna have to keep him close." She started putting Michael's arm into her jacket.

"Okay, let me see if I can create some space for you," Birkoff offered.

Nikita was liking this situation less and less. Michael wasn't even helping get the jacket on himself. She was dressing him like he was a little boy.

Michael half-watched her; he didn't understand all of this, but the beautiful woman seemed very sure of herself. He didn't know why she wanted the jacket on him, but he let her do what she wanted.

A few seconds later, Birkoff told her to go. She confirmed and then addressed Michael. "We gotta go now."

Why did she seem to keep talking to no one? Michael wondered. And why was she so determined to get him out of here? "I don't know who you are," he said honestly, completely oblivious to the urgency of the situation.

Nikita tried to get him to understand. "You've been drugged. I don't have time to explain ("There's another understatement," she thought briefly), but I'm here to help. These people are trying to kill you."

He attempted to process this. He had trusted her from the moment he had first seen her, although he could remember nothing to account for the emotion. He was still confused, though. "Why?"

Nikita did the best she could to explain quickly. "Because you're their enemy. You're an anti-terrorist operative."

Okay, he trusted her, but that was nuts. He laughed; surely she was joking with him? "No, I'm not."

She looked at him, becoming more alarmed by the second. "Who do you think you are?"

He hadn't thought about it till she had asked. Now, he was scared; the part of his mind which he knew should tell him this information just didn't seem to be responding. "I can't remember," he said haltingly.

Nikita heard Birkoff in her ear, rushing them, and decided to cut this short. "You wanna live, you're gonna come with me. Come on." She helped him to stand up.

He followed her trustingly, unsure of what else to do. Once they were well into the hall, though, people started shooting; he saw the woman shoot at someone above her, and he retreated behind a wall, too terrified to follow.

"Michael?" she called him. "Michael, get over here!"

He couldn't move. He could barely breathe. She had been right; they did want him dead. . . . Why? He cowered by the wall, until a man came through a door and shot at him twice. His hands and arms took on a life of their own and lifted the gun he held; of their own accord, they fired it once and killed the man.

All he could do was tremble, then, terrified--horrified, watching the body of the man he had just somehow killed. "I shot him," he thought. "I killed him.. . . I killed someone." Then, though, a hand pulled him up and tossed him against a wall.

"Stay with me," the beautiful woman said. He nodded, not able to comprehend the events around him. "Ready?" she asked. He nodded slightly again. That seemed to be the answer she wanted.

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

Nikita managed to get Michael and part of her team out of the building somehow. On the flight back, she kept him isolated from the rest of the group.

Bringing him some black coffee, she tried to talk to him quietly. "How are you doing?"

He took the styrofoam cup from her and sipped at it but then grimaced and handed it back. "I don't like coffee."

She gave a half-smile and took it back, feeling a bit like she had just fallen down a very odd rabbit hole.

"What are you drinking?" he asked.

"Tea," she smiled.

"I like tea," he nodded.

"Curiouser and curiouser," her mind added ironically.

She gave him her cup, and he took a sip, while she watched him. "Do you remember anything yet?"

He frowned, brow furrowing, for a second. "No," he said finally, shaking his head.

He continued to think for a minute, sipping the tea, and then handed the cup back to her with a shy smile; she realized that he was sharing it with her. It was an oddly sweet gesture. She smiled and accepted, watching him.

After another few seconds, he asked, "What's going to happen now?"

Nikita sighed, broken from her observation of him. "We're going back to headquarters. I'll try to keep you from having to debrief for a while."

He nodded and thought again. "Nikita . . ." "You remember my name?" she asked, growing excited.

"You told it to me," he clarified--sorry to disappoint her, then continued with his question. "How did I become an `antiterrorist operative'?" He said the words slowly, as though he were very unsure of them and was just parroting them back to her. He had accepted that she was telling him the truth; recent events certainly supported her. Besides, he felt certain--somehow--that she would never lie to him about something so important.

"Oh Lord, Michael," she thought to herself. "You can't even remember your own name; you aren't up to knowing that."

She smiled at him. "That's not important right now. Why don't you get some rest until we get back?"

He nodded, confused, and lay down on a cot, but he never closed his eyes.

Nikita watched him, heart tugging at how innocent and helpless he looked.

How was she ever going to protect him? "Please God, Michael," she thought. "Please tell me this is temporary."

***********

Several hours later, they arrived back at Section, and the real gauntlet began. Nikita managed, somehow, to get Michael past Operations and into Medical, where she waited while they checked him for any obvious physical trauma. Finding little unexpected, though, they released him.

It was with a great deal of relief that Michael--as he noted he was evidently named--found Nikita waiting for him. He had had a few terrifying moments wondering what would happen to him if she abandoned him. "What now?"

She tried to smile reassuringly. "We're going to gather a few of your clothes from your quarters, and then you're coming home with me." He looked a little surprised and curious--although not at all adverse to the idea. She shook her head once and clarified. "You need looking after."

"Besides, I have no idea where you live," she threw in mentally.

He gave her a shy smile and walked with her to the room she said was his quarters, where he gathered up the items she had directed him to on their walk over. She had said the quarters weren't safe to talk in.

Nikita waited for him in the hall. What on earth was she going to do with him? She had never seen him so vulnerable, and she had never seen him be trusting at all. Now, he was like some lost little boy who needed nurturing. It was heartbreaking, . . . and, God help her pedophiliac instincts in his case, it was oddly arousing, too.

Michael had never been so open before. She only remembered him smiling a couple of times. In some ways she was starting to see, this was the side of him she had always wanted.

She shook her head. There was more to it, though, unfortunately; she was in an odd reversal of the roles they had taken on so often, early in her training. She was now the one who would have to explain Section's brutal policies and prepare him to face them, regardless of how little she--unlike what she knew of Michael--believed in them. She was the one who would have to try to keep his soul in check (at least at Section; she had no intention--again, unlike Michael in those early years--of doing so outside its walls). . . . *She* was the one who might destroy *him*--the innocent.

She sighed and watched the door, trying not to continue these thoughts, as she waited for him to return. As much as she might be attracted to this Michael, she couldn't allow herself to act on it. This Michael needed her; he was relying on her completely . . . blindly for his survival. She couldn't focus on that if she seduced herself. . . . Besides, who knew if this Michael (or the other one, for that matter) even cared for her? She closed her eyes for a minute, deciding that she might be happier if she didn't find out.

"Nikita, I'm ready," he said, startling her slightly from her reverie.

She nodded, smiling slightly, but found herself staring at his lips for a few seconds, noting that--even though this Michael said her name rather haltingly--his lips, his tongue still seemed to cherish the word. He still breathed it like a prayer. She repressed a sigh and met his eyes, smiling again. "Let's go."

They met in the parking lot a few minutes later, Nikita having told him the way. Once they were in her car and on the way to her apartment, he asked, "Why did we split up just now?"

"It would have looked suspicious, if we had left together."

He crinkled his brow at her, watching her drive. "Why? Don't we spend any time together?"

She was thankful she had the excuse of driving to avoid his eyes. "We spend a lot of time together at work."

"And at home?" he pressed.

She swallowed a lump in her throat at both the question and his word choice. "Not really."

"Oh." It was all he could manage. He was still trying to figure out their relationship--what they were to each other. He knew they weren't just workmates, even close ones. He felt it, . . . and there was something buried in Nikita's eyes when she looked at him which confirmed the feeling.

He continued examining her, as she drove. . . . She was so beautiful. He was certain he wasn't the first man who had hoped that she had feelings for him. It frustrated him, though, that he was sure he had known before all this whether she cared or not. If for no other reason, he wanted his memory back to be able to understand their relationship.

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

Nikita led this new Michael into her apartment after a mostly silent drive to it. He looked around appraisingly, once inside. "It's not you."

She looked surprised. "What do you mean?"

"It's too stark," he assessed. "It should be lighter . . . brighter."

She locked the door, took off her coat, and put it in the closet. "It was once." She was turned away from him.

He looked at her. "Why'd you change it?"

"I changed." She returned his gaze.

Michael shook his head. "No you didn't."

She was a little taken aback by his directness and looked away, walking to her kitchen. "Do you want something to eat . . . or drink? Or would you rather just get some sleep?"

He thought about it. "I'm not very hungry."

She smiled to herself. He couldn't have eaten for 24 hours or so; his mind might be altered, she noted, but his body's resilience certainly hadn't diminished. She looked back up at him. "Why don't you go change, then? Get some rest."

He considered and nodded. "Can I use your shower?"

Nikita ruthlessly repressed images of a showering Michael. "Of course."

He looked at her.

"Oh. Upstairs through the bedroom," she directed, trying to break herself out of her distraction.

He smiled and, once again, followed her instructions.

***********

The following section includes extra spoilers for "Half Life," "Simone," "Mercy," "Hard Landing," and "Escape."

********

Lost--he was terribly lost. One second, he was watching an office building being bombed, nails flying like shrapnel to hurt the innocent; then, he was holding a young girl--his sister?--trying to protect her. He saw a beautiful Asian woman he knew he cared for, too, ordering him away before she blew herself up, . . . and there was an explosion in a building he had ordered Nikita into, as well . . . and then a kiss with her which seemed like the beginning of his life--as though nothing before it had been real. . . . And more, so much more. . . . Death. Pain. Betrayal. His betrayals.

Michael opened his eyes and didn't recognize his surroundings for a few seconds. He sat up and blinked, his confusion being replaced by a sudden feeling of warmth--of love. He looked around. It wasn't the room--or the sun shining in on him. He searched for it, and his eyes fell on the light's real source--Nikita. "Beautiful," he thought.

She was sitting in a corner, watching him. Even though he didn't know what their relationship was, he had been disappointed that he couldn't hold her, as he slept. He was sure she would have chased away the nightmares. She smiled at him. "Hi."

"How long did I sleep?"

She shook her head. "Not long. A couple of hours." Hours she had spent watching him, her heart clenching at the sight. She wanted to hold him so badly; even though it had happened so rarely, she still missed the feeling of his arms around her in bed.

This Michael was fragile, though, she had reminded herself. She couldn't just go around throwing herself at him. Their time was short, too; they had to get his memory back. They didn't have spare hours . . . days ("lifetimes," her mind had further interjected) to waste being close--if he even wanted to be, that is.

Michael was unaware of any of her recent thoughts, of course; he was caught up in other things. He looked haunted. "I had strange dreams."

Nikita seemed hopeful and started to come toward him. "Did you remember anything yet?"

He shook his head haltingly. "N-no." He wasn't entirely sure of his answer, but the dreams' images were just out of his conscious grasp--were only with him enough to taunt him.

Nikita tried to hide her disappointment and sat on the edge of the bed, turned away from him.

He made a connection from his dreams. "Maybe we should contact my family. They must be worried."

Nikita shook her head. "You don't have any family . . . not in the ordinary sense of the word."

Michael tried to process this fact.

"The organization we work for is . . . so covert that none of us have any real identities." She wasn't making eye contact; she looked sad and a bit angry. "We're all dead--as far as the outside world's concerned."

"Do I have friends?" he wondered.

She looked at him. "I don't know." He noticed an odd look in her eyes. "I don't really know that much about you." She was smiling, but he could see that the words hurt her.

"How long have you known me?" He couldn't imagine knowing this woman for any length of time and not talking to her about himself.

She looked away. "Over three years. You trained me." She looked back at him briefly.

A quick thought passed through his mind. "I *trained* her? I must be good."

He smiled a little, his mind returning to a more confusing question. "Why don't you know me better?" He was at a loss.

She gave him a look that held volumes, but they were in a language of the past he didn't understand. She seemed resentful, deeply hurt. "It's hard to explain." She looked away.

He felt a bit like he was in shock. He was certain that her obvious pain had been caused by his hands--intentionally? How could he possibly have hurt this creature of light? There was only one conclusion he could reach. "I must be a real jerk."

Nikita laughed suddenly, as though she had never heard anything more honest in her life. It was a laugh which suggested that she didn't entirely disagree. Then, she spoke six words he was sure had to be the most beautiful he had ever heard. "Actually, I'm very fond of you." She looked at him with an incredible depth of emotion.

He seemed a little shy. "I'm happy to hear that." He looked back at her.

She smiled at him but then turned her head away.

Michael was relieved at her words, was happy to know he hadn't imagined her feelings. With that question somewhat answered, then, his mind changed gears, remembering the images in his dreams. He was looking at the bed. "Yesterday, when I killed this man." He paused. "I've done that before, haven't I?" He refocused on her.

Nikita couldn't answer him--couldn't hurt him that badly. She reached up and tucked a strand of his hair behind his ear, looking at him.

He watched her hand, as it lowered, wanting to touch it, understanding her silent message. He looked away. "What will happen if my memory doesn't return?"

"Dear God, he sounds so innocent," Nikita thought, her heart clenching again. She looked devastated, but she refused to lie to him. "They'll kill you."

"And I wouldn't survive it," she added silently.

Michael looked confused, refocusing on her. "Why don't they just let me go?"

Nikita seemed angry. "Because they don't let anybody go."

He looked away again, shaking his head. "I can't accept that."

She reached back to pat his hand in both reassurance and confirmation, focusing on him briefly. "But you have to."

"I may not know who I was, but I know who I am." He was becoming increasingly upset. "I'll never be treated like a caged animal." He looked back at her.

Nikita was silent, knowing anything reassuring she could say would be a lie. She watched him sadly and stroked the hair from his face again.

He paused and watched her hand, as she lowered it, understanding the sympathy she was offering him, knowing that she was doing all she could for him. This time, though, he caught her hand in his and held it gently.

Nikita froze and watched, as Michael began to lovingly stroke her fingers in a way he had once before--only that time had been a manipulation. Now, the man before her was completely guileless. She closed her eyes at his touch. It was too much--too honestly, innocently sensual.

She hated the realization she had had several hours before. She wanted this Michael . . . even more than the one she loved. He was honest, completely trustworthy; he showed his emotions without hurting her afterwards for having seen them. She wanted, more than anything right now, to hold him--to feel his arms wrapped close about her--tenderly, his love flowing through her, . . . but she knew that was impossible.

If Michael was going to live at all, this Michael had to die. There was no choice. Section was their life, and this Michael--full of honesty and love--would never survive there. He wasn't hard, wasn't cruel, and wasn't ruthless enough to live. . . . And she hated herself more than she had words to express that she would be the one to destroy him.

Michael brought her hand up to kiss her fingers, his eyes never leaving it--the hand of the woman he loved. The longer he was with her, the more certain he was of this fact. Whoever the monster was who had hurt her--who normally existed in his body--he was certain that despicable being loved this woman with all of whatever soul it possessed, . . . and it comforted him somewhat to find this one human, redeemed trait in the loathsome creature he evidently was.

Nikita managed to suppress the sob she felt rising in her, pulled her hand away from his touch, and opened her eyes, knowing she could stand it no longer. Anymore and she would cling to this Michael and cause his death. She stood, not making eye contact--knowing that would destroy any will she had managed to pull together. "I'll go make us some breakfast. Why don't you put on that robe and come join me?" She pointed and then left the room. She knew she wouldn't be able to keep her resolve if she saw him in the outfit he had slept in.

He watched her sadly, the embodiment of beauty and love pulling away from his touch; he could see the unshed tears she was trying to hide from him. . . . He felt heartsick. How could he ever have hurt her?

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

This section includes further spoilers for "Escape."

*******

They ate in relative silence--Nikita attempting to avoid eye contact, Michael trying to understand their obviously complex and painful past. Finally, he couldn't just wonder anymore. "Can I ask you something?"

She didn't want to let him but had no good reason not to. She took a deep breath and focused on him. "Alright."

He looked down at the table. "Are we lovers?"

She turned her head away quickly, wishing he hadn't asked. She was feeling defensive again. "That's not an easy question."

"Why not?" he wondered, looking up at her. "Did I do something to break us up?"

Nikita gave a small--slightly bitter--laugh; he wondered about the reasons for it but thought he might be better off not knowing. "Our organization doesn't allow personal relationships between operatives." She sounded like she was reading from regulations; she still wouldn't make eye contact.

He was certain she was only telling him part of the truth. "Haven't we ever made love?" He knew that anything between them would be real; he was certain he couldn't be enough of a monster--killer or not--to see this woman in purely sexual terms.

Nikita closed her eyes and swallowed hard. It was his absolute innocence which made the question so cruel.

"I didn't mean to hurt you." He was chastened and wounded that his question had obviously pained her so.

She gave a rueful half-smile to herself. "You never do," she thought.

She opened her eyes. "You didn't," she lied, standing up. She paused--her defenses cracking slightly--and then turned to him to answer his question. "Yes, . . . we have." Her eyes held deep love and regret; they seemed to search his for something. Then it was gone, however, as she ruthlessly repressed it, turning away to walk to the closet.

Michael was heartsick at her look. He wanted, so desperately, to be able to hold her in his arms, to feel the life--the love flowing through them both, as they held each other close. He wouldn't hurt her, wouldn't . . . couldn't cause her any pain. His feelings for her were the warmth of close friendship and an eroticism born of deep, trusting love; he just wanted to be able to share that with her, to assuage whatever pain the monster sleeping in him had given her.

Nikita kept her back to him, unwilling to see the look in his eyes, knowing it would break her--however unintentionally. She opened the closet and began fumbling in the pockets of her coat. "Go sit in that chair." She pointed behind him.

He did, slowly, watching her, wishing he could manage to connect with this woman he was sure was part of his soul. She retrieved a small object from the coat and then walked toward her bedroom. She returned with a belt, some alcohol, and a few cotton balls, setting them down near him.

Michael looked curious, trying to temporarily put aside his other concerns. "What are we doing?"

She smiled to herself at the word "we"; Michael almost never used that word about them outside of missions, and--even then--it was usually "Nikita and I." "I need to get some blood," she replied, having made a vow to herself to look at him as little as possible. She went over to her c.d. player and put on some music, hoping to distract her mind from her environment--from the pain of having him so near--so vulnerable and so beautiful, body and soul.

She returned to him to find him staring at the belt. "Which arm?" he asked.

"Let's try the right."

He nodded and started to wrap the belt around it, trying to be helpful. She finished the job, thankful for the help--attempting to touch him as little as possible; physical contact with him was the last thing she needed right now. She looked up briefly, once she had the needle in hand. "I'll do my best, but I'm not great at this. I'll try not to hurt you."

Michael nodded. It had never occurred to him that she would. He watched her work. "Why do you need my blood?"

She studiously avoided looking at him. "Well, if there're any drugs in your system, maybe they'll be able to tell us something."

Michael watched the blood being drawn and then looked at her, feeling a sudden need to state the obvious. "You're a good friend, Nikita."

She refused to look at him, watching his arm; his words seemed to have upset her. He ducked his head, trying to catch her eye. "Did I say something wrong?"

She focused on him briefly, trying to remain expressionless. "No." She looked away again. "It's just hard to get used to."

Michael continued watching her face, a little confused. "What?"

"You."

"Didn't I ever tell you things like that?" he wondered.

She looked at him briefly. "No." She took out the needle, held the cotton to his arm, removed the belt, and held his arm up.

Michael was--once again--astonished by the completely abusive idiot he seemed to be. "I can't believe it." How could anyone, after all--he wondered, not praise Nikita daily for a hundred different things? How could *anyone* take her for granted?

He looked around her apartment. If--as she had told him--they had made love before, had he romanced her? Or had he taken her for granted in this area, too? "Did we ever dance?" He refocused on her.

She looked at him and shook her head. "Only under orders." ("Or when you were manipulating me," she finished silently). She stood up.

He took her hand and stood up, as well. Although he was still holding onto his arm with one hand, his intention was clear.

She looked at him, hoping--for the sake of her heart, to get out of this. "Oh Michael, I don't think so."

"Please," he requested softly.

Nikita held up the vial of blood--*anything* to use as an excuse. Michael took it from her and placed it on the table near him. He missed Nikita biting her lip slightly--disconcertedly, looking as though she wished she could run.

"Just a little bit," he promised.

"Okay," she agreed, seeing no way out of it. She ran her hand over his hair for a second--unable to resist the unconscious impulse, as she reluctantly took a dance posture with him, uncomfortably. She drummed her fingers on his shoulder once--nervously--and then looked away.

Michael caught her verbally before her head dropped away from him. "Thank you."

Nikita looked at him briefly and then away again. She closed her eyes; her breathing was heavy. She remembered too many dances with Michael--all of them special and painful. His embrace--the closeness was always overpowering for her; there was an intimacy between them when they danced which only couples who are deeply in love and in tune with each other could ever truly understand. To be this close to him now was too much for her; she had to destroy this Michael to save him, and this closeness with the light side of Michael's soul--the part of him she had always loved, which had always drawn her to him--was torturous.

Michael watched her. If he had thought for a second that her attempts at refusal were prompted by a lack of desire, he wouldn't have pushed her. He felt, though, that they stemmed more from the pain he had obviously given her--from her desire to protect herself from him. He felt a desperate need to try to apologize for whatever, unforgivable, things he had done. . . . He couldn't change the past, but he could show her some small part of the love he felt for her--which the monster which was also him felt for her. Even if that evil, flawed part of himself couldn't give her his love, he could.

Michael took one of her hands and pressed palm to palm with it. Then, he leaned in toward her beautiful face and started to kiss her cheek.

Nikita practically sprang back from his kiss. "Please don't."

"Why not?" Again, he could tell it wasn't a lack of emotion.

She looked into his eyes, trying to put her feelings into words. "Because this is not who you are." Her eyes fell unconsciously to his lips. She wanted to kiss him--to be kissed by him--to lose herself in all of the tenderness of the man in front of her. Her breath was shuddering; she wanted to cry. . . . She wanted *this* to be her Michael.

Michael accepted her words, as much as he could. They resumed dancing.

He needed this woman. He had no memory of their past--knew nothing of her but what he had seen in the last day or so, but he loved her more than he could possibly have put into words. His heart ached to know that he had hurt her. He wanted to draw out that pain as one would draw out venom and then become lost in her love, as she could lose herself in his. He put his head on her shoulder softly and closed his eyes. It was like being embraced by the light of God.

Nikita felt his head rest on her and thought that--if this continued for one more second--she would break down completely. . . . Then, they would both be lost.

She had never been so thankful to hear the phone ring. She jumped away from him to answer it, leaving him to watch her--sadly and lovingly.

She hit the remote to shut off the music and then brought the phone back to him. "It's yours."

All of Michael's previous thoughts fled, as terror took hold of his heart; his eyes widened. "What do I say?"

"Just agree," she advised.

He watched her fearfully, as he tried to control his voice. "Yeah . . . uh huh." Nikita, watching, ran her hand through her hair. He closed the phone. "They want me to come in."

"Well, we've got work to do," she replied, relieved to be called away from her dangerous romance with the tender Michael.

Part of her mind paused for a second to take in the irony of that thought. *She* was the one who was afraid of making an emotional commitment--out of a fear of Section's reaction; *she* was the one breaking them away from a dance, so they could return to their duties. . . . That one might have elicited a small smile even from the old Michael.

"What do I do?" this Michael asked, frightened--depending on her like a child.

"Did you pack the clothes I told you to from your quarters?"

He nodded, still scared. "Yes."

"Go get out the pants and shirt I told you about."

"Do I have to wear all black?" he wondered.

"That's all you ever wear, except on a few missions . . . as far as I know," she shrugged.

"Don't I look alright in anything else?"

She laughed slightly at the childlike tone in his voice. "You look good in many things," she said, their eyes meeting deeply for a second, before she pulled her mind away. "We don't have time for this. Get dressed now," she ordered.

He nodded and went to do as she said.

***********

Michael returned in the clothes she had told him to wear. "What now?"

"Your hair," she noted.

He looked confused. "What's wrong with it?"

She looked over his tossled curls with hidden appreciation. "Nothing, . . .but you never willingly wear it like that. Come here." She was standing behind a chair.

He sat down obediently.

"This may hurt. I'll try not to." She began to comb out his curls, straightening the unruly mane in front of her.

She rarely pulled at it, managing to shield him from the pain of any detangling, and Michael sat there, feeling her fingers run through it, massaging lightly at his scalp, as she combed. He closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation of having her loving touch on him, wishing he could know more of the intimacy between them--wishing he could share that intimacy with her now, when the monster that he normally must be couldn't hurt her.

Nikita began to brief him on who he would be meeting and how to act. She was trying not to think about what she was doing. Running her fingers through his hair now reminded her of the other times she had been able to do this, and--right now--those memories were dangerous. If she thought of him as her lover, she was lost.

"What?" Michael asked. He had missed the beginning of what she had said; he had been too wrapped up in her gentle touch.

Nikita let out a breath. His lack of concentration gave her the opportunity to let him take over this job. She was a bit relieved; they both had to focus.

At Section, Michael tried to follow Nikita's instructions: show no emotions, make no extraneous movements, stay calm, and look like you know what you're doing. He knew this was important, and he understood that Nikita was risking herself to help him.

He had failed, though; he knew it. Operations hadn't bought it; Birkoff had thought him insane. He was done for. Once she finally got him to his office (its location was one of the things she had forgotten to brief him on) and they were secured, he told her. "I can't do this, Nikita; they're going to find out. I don't know what I'm doing." His hands made little nervous gestures, taking on a life of their own.

"Just do what I tell you," Nikita stated calmly.

He was almost hyperventilating. "But for how much longer?"

She tried to reassure him. "Walter's gonna know something when he analyzes the blood."

He finally voiced what he had feared all along. "And if it's not the blood?"

She looked worriedly at him. She didn't have an answer.

He stood up. "I can't--I can't go through with this." His breath was shuddering.

"Yes, you can," she stated.

"No, I can't." He walked over to her. "I've gotta get out of here." He went over to the window--the window which only showed more of his prison.

She couldn't look at him; she was too terrified at the thought of losing him. "You'll never make it. They'll find you."

He looked back at her. "How do you know?"

She turned her head toward him but didn't focus on him. "Take a look around." She sounded slightly bitter.

He approached her. "Well, you told me they were gonna kill me anyway." He was quietly panicking. "I've got nothing to lose."

She looked at him, as he walked toward the door. Then, she told him the truth. "I do."

He turned and refocused on her, his heart in his eyes. . . . She needed him--*she* needed *him*; he had no idea why or how. He couldn't leave her--couldn't abandon her to face this place alone.

He silently agreed. Nikita coached him through a response to his intercom and reassured him. . . . Then, he went on a mission he was entirely unprepared for, because he loved her, and he couldn't let her down.

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

The mission was hell. He was lost and scared--a little boy playing at being a spy, . . . and he knew it. He survived it, though, solely because of Nikita. Unfortunately, he wasn't conscious at the time to thank her.

Nikita could breathe again--vaguely--after they were back at Section, but it was only faithful Walter who gave her hope--handing her a possible salvation. . . a way to destroy the Michael she loved and to bring back the one who always hurt her.

She found him in a Medical hallway and knew she had to bring him back to his old persona, before he was put in abeyance; operatives at his level *always* got their own rooms.

After getting rid of the nurse, she watched Michael sleeping for a minute; he looked so peaceful, . . . . so beautiful, . . . .so vulnerable. She ran her hand down his cheek but pulled it back quickly when he woke up.

He gave a brief smile when he saw her. . . . Oh, what she would do to see that smile more often. "How did we do?"

She nodded, lying. "We did great. How are you feeling?"

He looked away and then back at her. "Okay, I guess." He didn't remember having been shot before to compare it to.

"Good."

He turned his head away again. He knew his time with her was growing short. "And they still don't know?"

"No, but they will if we don't do something soon." She looked away.

He refocused on her; he was scared. He wanted to stay, but he knew they would kill him if he did. For her sake--because she had told him she didn't want to lose him, he had to again become the cruel bastard who had so obviously hurt her. "Is it gonna work?"

"I don't know," she answered honestly. She walked over to empty the needle into the i.v.

He watched her and then turned his head away. "Have I ever told you that I love you?" It was his one chance, he knew, to tell her what was true for both him and his dark side. She needed to know; she deserved to have been told years ago. . . . He just prayed that she would believe him now.

She paused for a minute. "This really *isn't* Michael," she thought.

She walked back to him, thinking about it, trying to cover her feelings with a casual air. "Actually, no."

"I do," he reaffirmed, looking at her, willing her to believe.

His eyes spoke straight to her soul. She couldn't respond--not without crying, not without clinging to him and begging him not to leave her. . . . She was killing the man she loved--burying him alive under a persona built by Section.

With a lump in her throat, she lifted his hand and kissed it, closing her eyes briefly, telling him without words how deeply she cared; for once, she--not him--was the one who couldn't take down the barriers enough to express the depth of her feelings in spoken language. Fighting tears, she looked at him one final time and walked away, unable to stay to watch this side of him die.

"Goodbye, Michael," she thought.

He watched her leave sadly, knowing that soon he would once again be the monster who put such pain in her eyes, who shut down the joy which belonged inside her. "I'm sorry, Nikita," he thought.

***********

Nikta returned when Michael had fallen asleep. She then sat by his bed for several hours, until he began to wake up. She felt guilty . . . and lonely, as though she had betrayed the only real friend she had ever had--the true love of her life.

She looked up when he began to move and then went quickly to his side. Michael opened his eyes and looked at her; she could see, subconsciously--just from that look, that the old Michael was back.

He tried to raise his head but realized quickly that was a bad idea.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"I've been shot." It was a statement; he had been wounded in various ways enough to identify each of them by now. He looked at her.

"Yeah." She sighed. "You were shot on a mission yesterday in Luckenval, Germany."

"Germany?" He looked confused, like he was piecing things together. "No, no, we were in Amsterdam. In a dance club. You were trapped in a room. I broke position, then . . ." He put his hand on his forehead and paused. He couldn't go on, . . . but, for the sake of his sanity, he had to continue to pretend he didn't remember.

It was a hard facade to keep up, though; it always had been. . . . No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't be the man she wanted; that man couldn't survive in Section. He rubbed his eyes briefly. "Where's Operations? I need to debrief," he asked, continuing the lie. He forced himself to look back at her.

Nikita realized that she needed to explain. "Something happened, Michael. Um . . ." She sat on the bed. "You were grabbed in Amsterdam and taken to Perez. He did something to your memory. You haven't been able to remember who you were for the last three days."

"Do they know?" Michael asked, finally able to get to the information he had been wondering since he woke up.

She looked away briefly before refocusing on him. "No. I protected you."

He looked at her deeply, telling her what he had wanted to from the beginning--what he should have told her from the day they had met. "Thank you."

Nikita nodded. She wanted to say so much, but none of it was to this man. She realized suddenly that she was stroking his arm and stopped.

She stood up and looked at him. She wanted to hold him--to lie down on the bed with him and put her head on his chest--to be held in his arms--to tell him that she loved him, too, . . . but he wouldn't understand. He couldn't. The Section side of him didn't feel--wasn't the man she had protected for the last three days. Never had she met a man who more completely led two lives. .. . At least now she knew that the other side of him he had told her about really existed, . . . but there was nothing to say here. She walked away.

Michael watched her leave silently, then closed his eyes for a second, shuttering back the pain--reinterring the soul which had been free the last few days. He looked back up. He remembered it all--every second. He was ashamed that he had broken under torture--knew that he would have told Perez anything had Nikita not saved him when she did. . . . It only made him more determined to shut back the weakness in himself.

He remembered, too, how Nikita had protected him--from Section, . . . from himself. She had gotten him through this last mission as well as anyone could, but he was deeply ashamed at how poorly he had performed--brainwashing or not.

He knew, to a degree, that it was his determination to split himself into two parts which had allowed the last few days to happen. Nikita, he was certain--even if she would have had trouble performing after a similar experience, would never have lost all of her tactical skills. Her soul wasn't divided; . . . she wasn't half a person.

He understood that his good side had walked the earth in his place the last few days, . . . but his good side was a lousy operative. Nikita's good and bad intermingled; both of them were strong. Sometimes they fought, but neither completely cancelled the other out.

His did, though. The sides of his personality not only fought--they killed. Each was determined that the other be eradicated.

He knew it was an unhealthy way to live, but he couldn't help it; he understood no other path. This was his life--his emotions held in a stranglehold by his dark side. He couldn't be integrated like Nikita; he had to submerge his personality or die.

Michael closed his eyes. It wasn't lost on him that Nikita liked his light side better--that she wanted someone who could laugh and smile . . . and feel. She hadn't pulled back from him at her apartment out of disinterest. She had done it, because she knew that side of him had to die, and she couldn't stand to let herself get too attached.

He opened his eyes. In some odd ways, he was grateful for the last few days; they had allowed Nikita to see the side of him she always wanted, to let her know for certain that it existed. . . . He had also been able to tell her one of the most important truths his dominant personality couldn't--was too afraid to: that he loved her. . . . He just wished that he could have done it himself.

He wished, too, in some ways, that he had been able to make love to her, while his usually-submerged personality was in control; it was that side of him which held all his tenderness and most of the depth of his love. He wished he could have used that side to make love to her as he always should have--with tenderness and gentle passion, not with the need and desperation he had always shown her before. She deserved that, and he couldn't give it to her.

He blinked and looked at the floor. These few days had proved one thing to him irrevocably; his love for Nikita was the one thread which connected the two sides of himself. Be it violent or tender, he loved her with everything that he was. . . . And he would never be able to tell her again.

He sighed. She had protected him once more, had looked after him when he had been no stronger than an infant. She could have taken advantage of that weakness, too--could have become his lover again, as his tender side had so passionately desired. . . . She hadn't, though. And, as much as he might regret the missed opportunity, he loved her for protecting him from himself; she had restrained her love for him, refusing to give in to it when he wasn't in his right mind.

He laughed slightly at himself. Was this his "right" mind? Was this the way he was supposed to be? His good side had thought of this one as a monster; was it wrong? With all the people he had hurt and killed--with all of the pain he had caused Nikita--was it really better that this personality be dominant?

He paused and looked in front of him. Yes, he decided--maybe not better but necessary. This was the only side, after all, which could keep Nikita alive. .. . That in itself--to him--was enough to justify its existence.

He leaned back and closed his eyes, trying not to think about the pain he had caused her--the pain he would no doubt cause her again. . . . She was alive, and--to his mind--that was enough to justify both their pain. He opened his eyes. He just hoped Nikita would be able to agree.

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

This section includes extra spoilers for "Half Life."

* * * * * *

About an hour after she left Michael, the murderess slowly returned to her apartment. Or, at least, that was how Nikita felt about herself.

She entered, locked her door, slowly turned around, and then went over and put her keys on her kitchen counter, leaning onto it with her hand. She stared at the living room through the darkness, almost afraid to turn on the light.

She had been here earlier today with him--with the man she loved . . . the man she had killed. She had wanted to hold him close, to love him, to protect him from a life he didn't want and couldn't understand. . . . Instead, however, she had destroyed him.

Nikita finally decided to turn on the lights. Candles would have made the room seem too romantic; she couldn't have stood that. She looked back at the room again and saw nothing but reminders of his presence: the chair he had sat in, as she had combed his hair; the comb itself--still holding some of those auburn locks; the table with their breakfast dishes still on it. As much as she wished she could pretend, it hadn't been a dream.

She sighed and tried to do something practical, moving to clear the dishes from the table. Nothing was going to distract her mind from her thoughts, however. . . . The loneliness was engulfing her, was drowning her; it was like a tidal wave, and she was standing, watching it, waiting to die. . . . Only this feeling, unfortunately, wouldn't kill her.

She finished putting the dishes in the sink and turned her back on them, trying to will away her tears. She got some water ready to boil for tea and then moved to try to clear the rest of the room of his memories.

She was still having trouble processing the events of the past three days. She moved a chair back to its proper place; if she weren't constantly running into the evidence, she could almost force herself to forget.

She wasn't sure, though, that she wanted to. She lightly touched the hair in the comb. This Michael had been so tender . . . had loved her; she had been able to trust him. They were all things she was unsure of with him normally.

Nikita wanted to believe in him--wanted to take the lessons of this gentle side of his soul and apply them to his motives on a day-to-day basis. She couldn't, however; Michael had hurt her too often. Parts of her soul had been reinjured so deeply and so regularly by him that they had developed scar tissue; they just didn't feel the way they once had.

She ripped the hair off the comb with numb anger and took it over to the waste basket. Once she was about to discard it, though, she paused, feeling it in her hand, then laughed at herself slightly. "That's just what you need, Nikita," she thought, "to become a fetishest." She let it go and then continued to tidy up.

Michael was a constant puzzle to her, but she had understood the man she had gotten to know those last three days. It was difficult to believe he was part of the man she knew as Michael.

He was, though. That's what was so odd about it. The Michael who had stayed here wasn't some pre-Section version of the man; no . . . that man had been a terrorist . . . a bomber. Michael had described him once as being angry at everything--at the world around him. She shook her head, as she continued to reorder her living room. The Michael of the last few days was none of those things. He was kind, gentle, and loving; he couldn't possibly have ruthlessly helped plan anyone's death.

She sat down on the couch, suddenly tired. The Michael she had been so recently allowed to see wasn't a creature of the past; he existed in the present. He had been buried so deeply inside of Michael, however, that he seemed in constant danger of suffocating.

She leaned her head back on the couch. Michael had divided himself into two different people so radically that he was practically suffering from multiple personalities--none of which seemed quite aware of the actions of the others.. . . She wished that she could see the tender one more often.

Nikita closed her eyes. She wished, as well, desperately, that she could have made love with this Michael. It wasn't that Michael had ever been lacking in tenderness or love--in their few times together, but he always seemed more driven by need and desperation. She opened her eyes, lifted her head, and reached for her c.d. remote, turning back on the song they had danced to, remembering.

He had been so delicate and gentle with her, earlier. It hadn't been a seduction; it seemed more like an apology, even if he hadn't remembered what he was apologizing for. When he had put his head on her shoulder, she had almost broken down and wept violently, clinging to him.

The music flowed over her, and she closed her eyes and remembered. She needed this Michael so desperately. She needed to be able to feel his sincerity, when he held her--to know that it wasn't just some manipulation--some mission.

She opened her eyes. It wasn't really that she wanted all of this Michael's characteristics to remain with him normally, however. While he would have been wonderful in the outside world, he had been helpless within Section. She sighed. She wasn't interested in being the tender Michael's mother, but neither did she want to be controlled by the Section one; she wanted . . . needed a more equal relationship--but with a partner who was more tender--more giving.

If she could spend a night every few months just holding Michael . . . if she could just believe in the reality of his supposed affection, regardless of physical contact, she could be happy. All she wanted was belief, . . . but he had stolen that far too often to ever be able to recover it.

The sound of her kettle broke through her thoughts. What had she set that burner on, anyway--low? She went over to make her drink but paused just as she was about to steep a teabag, remembering how the tender Michael had shared her love for the drink. She looked at the cup and then repacked the bag. She had to go to bed. She turned off the stove and then switched off her c.d. player before mounting the stairs to her bedroom.

It had been quite a while since she had slept. She stripped off her clothes and reached for her nightgown . . . but paused, seeing her robe . . . the robe Michael had worn. She lifted it and held it close, rubbing her face lightly against it.

He had been here--in her robe--in her bed. She turned suddenly to look at that particular piece of furniture. . . . Michael had slept in her bed. She laughed a little ruefully to herself. And now he didn't even remember. She shook her head. . . . Perfect.

It was probably . . . no, it *was* better that they hadn't made love, she reflected, putting on the robe. As tender, as passionate, and as gentle as this Michael would have been, it would have been too painful to form a bond that close and then to lose him; even if she had managed to take the actions she had needed to in order to keep him alive, she couldn't have withstood the transition. The memory of a Michael that loving might have killed her, once she had seen the return of his Section twin; she needed that other side too deeply.

Nikita turned away from the bed and went into her bathroom to prepare to go to sleep. She knew that both parts of Michael were real, but she wished that she could see the one she cared about more often. She didn't want to only be able to view him, as she had spotted him before--once or twice, peering out at her through Michael's eyes--as though he were trapped behind barbed wire and begging for her to help him.

It tore at her heart that she had reconfined him--that she had sent him back to that fate. She knew, too, that he had only agree to it for her sake; she suspected that he would rather have died than have to live Michael's life, otherwise. No, he hadn't run--he had gone on the mission, and he had agreed to be imprisoned within Section--and his other self--once more, because she had needed him, because she couldn't let him go.

"I didn't kill him," she realized, switching off her bathroom light, as she emerged. "I gave him an even worse fate." She had forced a delicate, gentle soul into a life of inescapable pain and betrayal. That she had had his permission wasn't an excuse; it *hadn't* been informed consent.

She turned off her living room light and headed toward her bed. She sat down on it and rubbed her hand over the sheets where Michael had lain the night before. He had been so beautiful . . . so innocent. . . . Now, that innocent was trapped in a living hell because of her.

She turned off the light and slipped slowly under the covers, still wearing the robe. She lay down and then pressed her nose into the sheets. They still had his scent--subtle and indescribable; how does anyone describe the scent of the person they love? She closed her eyes, as it reached into her soul and wrapped itself through her; it moved through her blood. It was part of her, as he was. . . . She just wished he could have been there, as well.

Her mind kept retracing the day's events. He had finally told her he loved her; they were words she had waited a long time to hear. . . . Would they still be true for his Section side, however?

She would never understand their relationship, she knew. She began stroking the sheets again. Even though she had met the side of him she cared about most, she knew that she and Michael defied rational explanation, try as she might to comprehend it.

It was almost as though Michael and she had been fated for each other; they shared bonds which weren't simply the result of proximity, need, attraction, or loneliness. None of a hundred different excuses, in fact, could really explain it. It was as though the lines between them had been forged before birth, and they were now left to sort out some scheme they could no longer access the reason for.

Why, then, did they also seem destined to hurt each other? Why did they always cause one another so much pain? She pulled the blankets more tightly over herself. What sort of cruel, cosmic joke forced them to endlessly follow the same paths again? She shook her head; she would never understand it.

She loved him; that was an essential truth of her life. She snuggled deeper into the covers and her robe, trying to absorb his presence. She wished agonizingly that she could have saved him from the fate she had reconsigned him to today, but there had been little way out.

"Bullshit," some part of her mind responded. "If you had really wanted to free him, you would have let him run . . . or killed him yourself. . . . You just wanted him to stay."

Nikita started to cry. She knew that this new realization was true; her primary motive in bringing his Section persona back had been her need for Michael--in one form or another. As much as his actions--and the memory of his past betrayals--made her hate him at times, she couldn't let him go. He was part of her; as little as she frequently liked it, she couldn't be without him.

Nikita weeped into her sheets, his scent still filling her senses. "I'm sorry, Michael," she thought. Then, she cried, until she finally fell asleep, convinced that the feeling of his ethereal arms about her--of his lips kissing her hair--was all in her imagination.