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It was amazing, really, how even blowing up buildings could become routine. She supposed that would be hard for a normal person to imagine, but life in Section didn't afford you the luxury of being "normal."

Nikita sighed and stared out the window of the plane she and the rest of the team were returning on. This latest mission had called her away from Carla and her latest, more serious, man troubles; she wasn't sure if she was happy for the reprieve or not. After all, Carla's problems were a distraction from her own, and that--at least--was a blessing.

Nikita looked across the aisle and a few seats up to where Michael was sitting alone. She was still on his team, apparently, but he had washed his hands of her completely; she was just another op. to him now. She closed her eyes and laid her head back on the seat.

Her life had been bad enough recently without having Michael disclaim her. He had picked the time, as well, when she was most in need of him. The Gelner mission had seemed so typical, to begin with--ingratiate yourself to the target, then take him out. Easy. But the mission profile hadn't made plans for betrayal, estrangement, and long-dead operatives. . . . No. That was Operations' personal agenda.

How she had come to be Operations' pawn she had no idea. He had taken great pleasure during this last mission, though, in using her to further his own ends. She had gotten stuck in the middle of his manipulative plans--had been forced to help him betray both Madeline and her husband. . . . If he had planned it from the beginning, it couldn't have been more perfect for him.

Nikita went back to staring out the window, her diverted face hiding her reddened eyes from the other operatives. She wondered whether she could have gone through with killing Sand, if Madeline hadn't intervened. Could she have pulled the trigger on a man whose main crime was coming between his wife and and another man? Could she have forced herself to act as Operations' personal assassin? She rested her temple against the seat, turning further to the window. God, she hoped not.

Still, Madeline had taken care of that dilemma for her. Nikita closed her eyes again. She couldn't believe the older woman's stoic acceptance of the situation or her ability to kill someone she seemed to have cared for; it defined "sang-froid."

She opened her eyes. Operations had betrayed his second-in-command in a conniving, premeditated way, but Madeline had simply continued as though nothing was amiss--as though shooting her own husband was all in a day's work. Nikita shuddered a bit; she would never understand Section's executive strategist, . . . but she *was* grateful to her. Without her cold-blooded action with Sand, Nikita had no idea what would have become of her.

This last thought rang in her head for a second; Madeline had, in a perverse way, protected her soul this past week. As relieved as this partly made her, it also caused her to think again of the person who hadn't been there.

It had been a week of betrayals, really, she thought, as she looked over at Michael's profile again; she didn't really understand how he could have abandoned her just now. Usually, after all, in times like these, he was there --acting as a buffer between herself and Operations--keeping her, relatively, safe from the older man's power plays.

But he wasn't there anymore. Nikita had become, over the past week, just another team member--another body in mission blacks who he would instruct on a pre-set pattern. . . . She was nothing to him.

She turned her head away quickly to face the window, trying to hide the tears which threatened to fall. She had been a fool, she supposed, to think that he cared. He had abandoned her--had retreated into himself completely, leaving her to Operations' mercy.

She willed back her tears, looking up. It wasn't that she wanted Michael's protection; she wasn't some fragile glass doll in danger of breaking. But, as little as she liked where his protective instincts usually led, they were the main way he had shown her he cared recently. Now, with even that gone, maybe his feelings for her had vanished as well.

She closed her eyes as a lone tear finally escaped. The pain of the complete emotional separation from him was overwhelming. She could feel it in every bone--every tissue. It overcame her body like a cancer, cancelling out all joy, all hope. She wouldn't have been surprised to look down and see blood flowing from open gashes. She practically expected to find herself a stigmatic, to start feeling the wounds of Christ; after all, being crucified had to be easy compared to the emotional mutilation of this.

She hated, in a way, that she needed him so much, but she couldn't fight it. As masochistic as it frequently felt--as delusional as it had made her feel more than once, she knew that her soul had found its mate in him. Her love for him certainly made no logical sense, but it was imbedded in her soul too deeply for her to ever be free of. She opened her eyes and unobtrusively wiped away a tear, propping her chin in her hand. If reincarnation were real, she knew she would spend the rest of her lives on a search for him. . . . Maybe-- in some other one--they would finally find one another.

She swallowed and sighed quietly. She couldn't understand his distance. Why now, after all? Even when she had been in abeyance a year ago, he hadn't disclaimed her. . . . Why start now?

Her eyes were a bit frightened. Where would she end up with Operations now that he had abandoned her--now that she had no one to turn to for advice on survival? Was Section's chief through with her, or was Sand only the beginning of a pattern she would now have to face without Michael's support? She shook her head almost imperceptibly. She had a feeling the hard times had just begun. Her thoughts were interrupted by someone sitting down beside her. Her heart leapt for a second in hope, before she caught sight of Randy's reflection in the window. "Hey, Nikita."

She took in a big breath to steady herself and then turned to him. "Randy," she smiled slightly.

"Look," he was a bit nervous, "me and the guys're going out for a few beers, when we get back. You interested?"

Neither of them noticed Michael turn his head slightly in their direction. It wasn't a wholly unprecedented invitation. It was always a bit awkward, however, because--despite how well-liked she was--Nikita would never be "one of the guys." She was too attractive--too generally desired for that. Still, about once a month or so, they would ask, half-hoping for her company, half- thinking that the proximity might make them more desirable to her.

None of them were too obvious about it, though; they were all way too frightened of Michael to openly challenge him. Still, there were a bunch of them who hated seeing the way he treated her--hated seeing her sad. If nothing else, they would like to prove a distraction for her, and the fact that they were a group gave them some distance from her constant shadow; even the ultra- possessive Michael, after all, understood that Nikita wasn't going to do anything too perverse with all of them there.

She smiled more genuinely at Randy. While she had no interest in him, or any of the other "guys," sexually, she knew they were trying to cheer her up.

Part of her, as well, remembered Walter's recent advice: "Find a man." She tried not to laugh. She already had one of those, and he was a total pain in the ass.

"I appreciate it, Randy," she finally answered him, "but I'm kinda tired. I think I might just head home." She really couldn't leave Carla on her own forever, after all.

"Okay," Randy accepted reluctantly, patting her arm lightly, "but if you change your mind, come find us."

"You got it."

He moved away.

Nikita looked over at Michael again, and her smile faded. He had stopped her from going out with them before by finding the excuse of some work he needed her to do. Now, however, she wondered if he would care or object--even if he found her stretched out naked under one of them on the conference table. . . . Probably not.

She looked back out the window again, feeling the emotional distance between them grow. Her hand moved to rub unconsciously over her heart, and she wondered for a second if it was possible to get heart trouble simply from overwhelming emotional pain. . . . She had a feeling she was going to find out.

***********

Michael had heard Randy giving his invitation for drinks to Nikita and had had to resist the urge to go over and begin slowly breaking every bone in the young operative's body. His recent disavowal of her meant nothing; that was an act he had put on to assuage Operations. If anyone--including Operations, however--thought that he would let Nikita go so easily, they were fools.

He remembered all-too-clearly what Section's chief had told him the other day: "It's never easy, but you're going to have to let go of her sometime."

He looked out his window and thought about the older man's words. . . . No. He didn't. He didn't ever have to let her go. And, while he was still breathing-- while he had any vital signs at all--he was never going to.

Nikita was his--body and soul. Anyone stupid enough to challenge that-- including her--would suffer for it.

He was well aware that his possessiveness was dangerous, that it had hurt her --had hurt them both--frequently. He couldn't let it go, though. She was entwined through him as though they were one, and the fact that he had to repress this essential truth made it all the stronger. He wanted to tell her-- wanted to tell everyone--his feelings, wanted to admit openly that he loved her. Having to deny this publicly made him needy, made him cling to her like a greedy, wayward child with a favorite toy; anyone who touched that toy or tried to hurt it was bound to end up unhappy.

He knew she couldn't understand his recent actions--his distance. She didn't know about Operations' order, although she undoubtedly suspected it. Still, he knew his actions had hurt her. . . . They had hurt him, as well. Separating her from him, pushing her away, was like having parts of his body cut away; she sustained him far more than any physical part of him did. . . . The day he lost her would be the day he ended his life.

Still, Nikita didn't understand this; he had played her for too long. He sighed. She might love him, but her trust of him ceased the second they were out of bed. And, considering they had only been physically intimate twice, her belief in him wasn't very far-reaching.

This lack of trust, though, as much as it pained him, he could bear; it was her lack of faith in the truth of his emotions which really hurt him--that she could actually believe that he didn't care.

She couldn't know that, even during the mission against Gelner, he had been protecting her. He had known details in Gelner's file of which she was unaware.

Gelner was a voyeur; if he thought that he might get more fun out of you by watching, your other uses became expendible. That was why Michael had cut off his interrogation about their relationship; the terrorist had been fishing to see if they fit his profile of sexual entertainers. . . . It had been with much relief to Michael that Gelner had, after further testing Nikita and trying to sow dissension between them, accepted them as financial advisors only.

He wanted to explain things to her--to tell her why he had warned her off the other day, . . . but he knew he couldn't. Operations was watching her too closely.

He sighed. They were both being tested now, he knew. Operations had used her to dispose of his old rival. Michael had heard of Madeline's husband before, but had been told--like everyone else--that he had been killed; that had happened in only his second year as an active operative. No one had openly questioned Sand's "death," although rumors had flown even then. Since Operations was in charge, however, nothing ever went beyond that.

Now, Operations was using Nikita to cover his tracks--to clean up after himself. It was, Michael feared, too effective a way of destroying her soul. . . . Evidently, his stalling with Section's chief had been ineffective.

He had overtly agreed to relinquish Nikita from his oversight for her own safety; if Operations thought he had stepped aside, after all, she stood a better chance. He had tried, though, to give her a hint that the release wasn't real--to guide her in the proper direction with her new orders, before apparently giving way, by reminding her to "think it through"; he knew she had listened, as well, since she had obviously gone to discuss the situation with Madeline.

He didn't know how immediately she had taken his advice, though; she had waited until only later that same evening and had then returned to rouse Birkoff--testing out her feeling of unease about the mission. His words, however, simply hadn't been enough to convince her of her former trainer's feelings; it wasn't enough to offset his actions.

There was another reason he had allowed Operations to overtly distance them, however; he trusted her--a fact of which he frequently had to remind his more possessive side. Nikita was strong and capable. In moral decisions, especially, she needed no guidance. It seemed, then--he had thought logically, the right time to supposedly step back.

He had no idea, though, of how much he had hurt her, of the gaping emotional wound he had caused. He hadn't taken her background into consideration in his logical assessment of the situation. Nikita had, after all, been abandoned too often in her life. From her mother on down, she had felt the weight of disapproval, had been told--in action and words--how useless she was, how unwanted. He had continued a pattern, therefore, which had always left her with emotional scar tissue, which had hurt part of her beyond words. Besides having left her to Operations' whims, he had--to her mind--reasserted her utter lack of value.

Michael didn't see this, though, didn't understand the deeper damage he had caused. He couldn't even imagine Nikita's struggle with her self-perception, because he saw her as the one thing of value in a shallow and meaningless world. She had more light than the rest of the earth combined; he couldn't imagine that she was unaware of this.

He wasn't thinking of any of this right now, though; his mind was occupied by other things. He needed to be certain that he was allowed to stay close to her, that Operations wouldn't separate them permanently. He wanted, as well, to protect her soul, to keep her safe from any further damage the older man might be planning. . . . Unfortunately, however, he had no idea how to do any of this yet.

***********

Calculated calm had always covered emotions, for her. It wasn't obvious, upon seeing her, therefore, that anything was wrong. . . . Anyone making this assumption, however, would have been entirely erroneous.

Madeline had never claimed to be a forgiving woman, and Operations' recently- revealed actions with Charles were testing her limits. He had forced her into a situation where she had had to shoot her husband, regardless of her dislike for the job. . . . The fact that he had tried to force the assignment onto Nikita, instead, made her no happier.

Madeline still had a fondness for the younger woman; she still reminded her of what she would like to have been. The recent tests to destroy Nikita's soul hadn't been her idea. She had gone along with them because she had seen the logic in Operations' decision, but she had regretted it, nonetheless.

She had especially had no fondness for Operations' plans to distance the younger woman from Michael. In fact, not only did some long-repressed romantic instinct in her find it sad, but she even thought it could be dangerous.

Nikita had a tendency, after all, to be more alert when Michael was nearby; he, in turn, was more concerned about his possible safety with her around. To separate them seemed, to Madeline, to be a mistake, but she reluctantly allowed Operations this decision.

His actions with Charles, however, were harder to forgive, especially given her recent liaison with Section's chief. She felt . . . used; it was an unpleasant sensation, one she had no intention of ignoring.

Her feelings about Operations, however, couldn't be allowed to affect Section as a whole. She was a patient woman, and he would be repaid by her in time. For now, though, they would need to work together to deal with another problem entirely. Their recent confrontation with the super computer, Brutus, had made it clear that another situation was coming to a head. . . . Adrian was back. . . . Her revenge could wait.

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

Nikita had been hoping, once they arrived back at Section, to be able to go to Madeline's office, debrief quickly, and then head home. Even if Carla still had to be dealt with, her friend's problems seemed like a relief compared to her own.

Her wish, however, wouldn't be granted today. In fact, she had no idea of the hell that was opening before her.

Nikita was a bit suspicious when she saw that Operations was there. She was still surprised, however, at the turn the conversation took, once the debrief on the last mission was over.

"Are we done?" Nikita asked, about to stand.

"No." Operations was seated on the edge of Madeline's desk. "We have another assignment for you." He was smiling.

Nikita blinked. This didn't sound good; her orders usually came from Michael. "Okay." She tried to settle herself in the chair again.

"This is a delicate matter," Madeline continued. "In fact, only you, I, and Operations will be informed of it."

The hairs on the back of Nikita's neck were beginning to tingle. "Go on," she said warily.

Operations did. "We believe you will be contacted soon by a woman known as `Adrian.' . . . We need you to bring her down."

"`Contacted.'" She stated the word cautiously.

Madeline smiled. "We think the method will become apparent in time."

Nikita nodded uncertainly. "How am I supposed to do this?"

"Approach her with caution," Madeline instructed. "She'll expect it. After a reasonable period of time, however, you should agree to work with her." "She'll ask you to take certain actions against Section," Operations picked up, "possibly even *within* Section. You'll need to do . . . whatever it takes . . . to win her trust."

Nikita seemed even more wary. "What's she going to ask me to do?"

"We don't know," Madeline lied. "Whatever it is, though--after your initial show of reluctance--you'll agree."

"And my actions are going to go unnoticed around here?" she asked, thinking of Michael's usual habits with her.

"No," Operations replied. "In fact, we suspect--in the end--that we'll have to capture you with her in order to bring her in."

Nikita nodded cautiously. "So, you're asking me to be a traitor?"

"No." Madeline's face was unreadable. "We're asking you to appear to be one."

The younger woman rolled her eyes and looked at the floor. The danger of all this wasn't lost on her.

"It should be obvious," Operations got her attention, "that neither of us will be able to admit knowledge of this assignment, until it's over."

Nikita shook her head. "Who *is* this woman?"

"That's unimportant." Operations locked eyes with her.

Nikita's stubborn streak planted its heels. "Why should I do this? I mean, you expect me to go in unprepared, with no knowledge of this woman or what I'm going to be asked to do, and succeed? . . . Why should I?"

Section's chief bristled at her disobedience. "Because we told you to."

His second-in-command saw instantly that his approach was wrong. She tried a subtler one. "Because the future of Section One rests with you." Nikita broke off her irate staring contest with Operations to focus on her. "Everyone you know--Walter, Birkoff, . . . *Michael*," she stressed his name quietly, pausing, "is depending on *you* for their survival." Her eyes pressed home her point. After another pause, she continued. "It's especially important that Michael *not* know about this. Any uncharacteristic reactions he might have to you could endanger both the mission and him."

Nikita's eyes widened slightly. . . . She got it. They were threatening Michael, were hanging a sword of Damocles over his unsuspecting head and telling her what would happen, if she refused. . . . How could she, then? They were planning to test both of them, and she would have to either agree or endanger his life; they knew she couldn't do that. She sighed. "Where do I begin?"

"Adrian will contact you," Operations smiled. "We expect you to inform us, when she does. After that, you're on your own till the end; we'll handle the rest of it."

Nikita swallowed unobtrusively and wondered if she were being hung out to dry. Would they really admit their knowledge of the plan, when it was over? . . . Was she even going to make it out of this alive?

She couldn't help realizing, either, that she was about to take the same deceptive path with Michael that he had taken so often with her. She hated herself for that, just as she hated him for his betrayals. How could he forgive her--how would she forgive herself--when it was over? . . . Would there be anything recognizable of her left to forgive? She sighed quietly. If this was Operations and Madeline's final plan to tear them apart, it might just work. There was no other way, though. Michael's life had been put up as the stakes for this game she had been dragged into; she had no other choice. She sighed slightly once more and then gave the only answer she could. "Alright."

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

Carla had really only been waiting at Nikita's apartment for around an hour-- about the time, roughly, that it had taken Nikita to debrief. . . . It had seemed like much longer, however.

She wasn't looking forward to this. She didn't enjoy betraying Nikita. The other woman had become her friend over the two years this set up had taken. . . . She liked her.

Carla couldn't help regretting what was about to occur, really. She had watched Nikita and come to appreciate her strength and kindness for too long not to. After all, she was in the other woman's home because of an act of kindness--because Nikita believed she needed her help. . . . It was hard to hurt someone so generous.

Still, this was necessary; Nikita was their best chance. And, Carla felt sure, she would come to sympathize with Adrian's cause in time; it reflected well everything the young woman believed in.

She sighed; she knew her betrayal couldn't be helped. She took a sip of wine, as she waited. It was all of Nikita's better qualities that made her so perfect for Adrian's needs. As much as this present course saddened her, therefore, she knew there was no way back now.

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

It was amazing how things could keep going from bad to worse. As though being Operations' pawn hadn't scarred her--or having Michael turn his back to her hadn't devastated her heart--or being squeezed by the combined force of Operations and Madeline wasn't frightening enough, now she was waking up, half- clothed, in a strange bedroom, feet bound, because her only friend had never existed at all.

The last thing Nikita remembered from before she passed out had been Carla's face, as she reported back on her progress. Carla--the only person outside of Section she had ever trusted, the woman whose love life outdid any soap opera-- was a sham. Every time she had ever been comforted by her had been done with an agenda. . . . The woman made Michael look sincere.

Nikita staggered over to the window, leaning on its sill; she watched an older woman trimming flowers, as her conversation with Operations and Madeline came back to her. . . . Adrian--this had to be her. Now, if she only had any idea what was happening . . .

She didn't know what her future held or how she should proceed. Certainly, acting suspicious wasn't going to be tough for her, but what was she really doing here, anyway?

She shook her head slightly and righted herself into a standing position, her body beginning to clear itself of the sedative which had been forced on it. All she knew right now was that there were no solid answers, anymore; she didn't even know what the questions were. She sighed slightly, becoming less tranquil by the second. How were you supposed to bring down a target you knew *nothing* about?

This was a question, however, which was doomed to go unanswered. By an hour later, when Nikita was on her way back to Section, she was--if anything--even less certain about her latest assignment. Now, after all, she had had Michael's life threatened twice--both by Section and Adrian. . . . She wasn't sure what Adrian wanted with her, but she was sure she wouldn't like it.

She sighed and stared at the plane's wall. She would have stared out the window, but the shades were down, and she was being watched by Steven. She hated all of this. She was, apparently, being blackmailed on all sides, . . . and she didn't even know who all the sides were.

Just who the hell *was* Adrian, anyway--and how did she know so much about the Section? She acted as though she were personally acquainted with its members, but Nikita had certainly never heard of her before all this. How did she fit into things?

She sighed again. The older woman had suggested that Section had been tracking their young operative for the past six months--that they had implanted a crystal in her to force her own body to betray her. . . . It wasn't a suggestion which gave her much confidence in her masters.

She wondered, as well, whether Michael had been aware of the device. . . . Had he, in fact, been the one to order it implanted? Was he keeping watch of her that closely?

She didn't know how to feel about that--about any of it. She was the betrayer and betrayed on all sides. . . . And she could see absolutely no way out of it.

She shook her head and looked back at the ever-watchful Steven. She was being asked to play Judas to these people, and she didn't even know who they were. What sort of diabolical chess game had she been thrown into the middle of this time? Just whose pawn was she? She sighed once more and looked back at the wall, as she wondered whether she would be alive long enough to be able to find out.

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

Her questions unanswered, her fears unabated, Nikita made her way into Section, acting--to those around her--as though nothing were unusual, as though her life weren't fragmenting around her. . . . She even managed to smile. Once she reached the area in front of Operations' office, however, she paused for half a second and looked up at him. She gave him a very slight nod and then pretended to be working a kink out of her neck. He acknowledged her with a vague smile, as she walked on.

She reached Michael's office, as he glanced up from his computer. His eyes betrayed the otherwise emotionless surface of his face, flashing for an instant with a dozen deep emotions. She entered and closed the door, as he activated his security.

"What happened?" he asked instantly, managing to keep most of his feelings from showing in his voice.

She sighed and looked down, approaching him slowly. She hated all this but knew it couldn't be avoided. "L'Heure Sanguine," she responded, looking up at him, a few seconds after she sat down.

Michael felt a moment of guilt clutch him, before suspicion set in. "They don't exist."

Nikita braced herself and continued the game. "Well, apparently two of them do." She leaned back in the chair. "They grabbed me at my apartment." She shrugged. "Didn't think I was going to get away for awhile."

She was lying. He knew it. "How did you?"

"They let their guard down for a minute. I broke away."

"Where'd they take you?" He was looking for some obvious hole in her story.

"Vienna." She met his stare.

Michael was about to confront her, when a knock sounded on the door. He shut off the security, just as Birkoff entered. "I've got the numbers." He broke off for a second, seeing Nikita; he was relieved that she was okay, but his timing was obviously dismal. He decided to make this as brief as possible.

"You want a final look before I send them to the profiler?"

Nikita smiled at him and stood, seeing her way out. "We done?" she asked Michael.

"Not even close," he thought.

"Yes," he answered aloud, his eyes not hiding his displeasure; he would find a way to talk to her later. "We're on close-quarters 'till the briefing."

Nikita nodded and then slipped out, happy to escape. She was feeling an almost physical pain at betraying him. He would--she knew--protect her, and she would repay him by lying, by leading him into Section's waiting trap. . . .

Operations' recent assertion was apparently correct; she *had* become one of them.

Michael was still staring after her once she was gone from his sight.

Birkoff had to regain his attention. "Uh, Michael?"

The older man refocused on him with eyes which were shuttered but ungentle.

"No. Send them over to Leeds."

Birkoff nodded. "Okay." He backed out as fast as he, casually, could. Whatever was going on with Michael and Nikita, he wanted to be well outside of it.

Left behind in his office, Michael stared at the closed door. He had been terrified when Nikita had been grabbed, but--now that she was back--the terror was haunting him even further. Nikita was into something, and he had no idea what it was. . . . It was the realization of his worst nightmare.

"I never should have pretended to let her go," he thought, painfully regretting his recent actions. He had only been trying to protect her, but his effort had gone dangerously awry.

He wasn't sure what was happening. He hated feeling so weak--so vulnerable. For her own safety, Nikita needed him to be strong--to be dominating, no matter how little she may like it. If he was in control, he could anticipate the upcoming dangers and circumvent them. As capable as Nikita was, he simply wasn't willing to let her take responsibility for herself; he had tried that by giving her over to Operations, after all, and it had only led them here. Besides, her compassion was dangerous; it might lead her astray in any of a hundred different ways.

Michael's rage was growing--at himself, at Nikita, . . . at Operations. Section's chief, he suspected, had partly been paying the younger man back for blackmailing him about his relationship with Madeline by toying with the woman Michael loved. He tried to hold down his rage. It was just the sort of game which amused the older man. . . . It was just his twisted sense of humor. Michael stood and headed for the door. He had to get a message to Nikita to meet again about this latest abduction; she was hiding something from him, and nothing angered him more than that. Even though he kept most of his life hidden from her, he needed to be allowed into every part of her soul. . . . It was the only way--to his mind--to have a chance at keeping her safe.

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

Please note that this part jumps forward a bit to after the botched mission (where Michael is shot at) and Nikita's conversation with Walter in "Adrian's Garden."

"Sugar, what the hell have you gotten yourself into now?" Walter pondered silently, as he looked over his inventory. He sighed, his emotions thrown off balance. How had Nikita come to hear about Adrian, anyway? He thought, with some discomfort, over her recent trials and rolled his eyes slightly. . . . What was she being asked to do now?

He had been worried about her for awhile. How she had ever managed to get herself stuck in between Madeline and Operations, in her separate promises about Sand, was still beyond him. Sometimes, that girl just seemed like a bad luck magnet.

It seemed so cruel, somehow, too. He pulled down a gun and looked at it before deciding it needed cleaning. She was the most human person here, and-- because of that--she was a constant target.

He put the gun in a tray with a few others and went back to looking over his stock. He wanted to help her, but he had no idea of just how to manage it. After all, if she were on an assignment of Operations', all he could really give her was information and moral support.

It was possible, of course, as well, that she had just heard the name somewhere--that she was just trying to understand the background to Section One. He hoped this was so; it was just too dangerous, otherwise.

Still, the last time she had asked about a name from the past the reason had been more immediate. He stopped, momentarily frozen. What if she were working against Section--if she had a different agenda? He forced himself to move and transferred another dirty gun to the tray--half-distracted from his work, before leaning against a case. Might she be looking for information on Adrian to decide whether to find her--to side with her? Walter had no doubt that Adrian would love the support. He shook his head. Would she really do something that could get them all killed?

He sighed. No. . . . Not knowingly, at least--she would never willingly hurt her friends, he was sure. . . . It was possible, though, that she had been tricked into it, that she believed that her actions could free them. He shook his head once more. "Sugar, be careful," he thought, his fear rising. "God knows what I'd do without you."

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

By the time Nikita was being returned by the silent twins to see Adrian, her mind was a jumble of confused thoughts. Adrian was, indeed, blackmailing her with Michael's safety, just as Section had; she had killed almost an entire team of ops. just to prove a point to the younger woman.

Nikita sighed, disgusted. So far, she saw little difference between the older woman and Section. Still, she supposed this shouldn't surprise her.

Adrian had started Section, after all; why shouldn't it follow her lead? Her current tormentor having conceived the organization explained, to an extent, as well, how she came to know so much about it and its workings. What it didn't fully explain, however, was why Nikita had been assigned to bring her down; Operations and Madeline had said that she would be asked to betray Section, but she had yet to be told how.

She rolled her eyes and plunked her head back against her seat. What had she gotten herself into? Was this just some internal power struggle that she was being asked to take care of? Was this more of Operations using her to clean up after himself, like the Sand mission? . . . Was she ever going to be free of this nonsense?

She sighed and regretted again that Michael had let her go--had given her over to Operations. Having gotten his hold on her once, the older man seemed to have no intention of giving her up.

Still, though, Michael wasn't done with her entirely, as she had recently feared, . . . although it might have been easier on both of them, she thought suddenly, if he had. He was only being set up to be "tested" by them, after all.

She wondered for a minute how far this would all go--what lengths they would go to in order to test his loyalty. She prayed that he would be spared from choosing between her and Section. . . . She doubted, however, that they would be that fortunate.

She hated betraying him like this, regardless of all his similar betrayals of her. It had become obvious lately that he still cared for her; he hadn't stopped trying to be her protector. Now, though, the situation had reversed their positions. She had to continue on in her multiple betrayal or risk his safety. She just hoped she would be able to live with herself, when everything was over. . . . She had no doubt that he wouldn't want to.

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

So far, things were going as planned. This was good, but it wasn't enough. Nothing short of perfection would be acceptable here; anything else could be . . . dangerous.

Adrian was waiting now for Nikita's arrival. She regretted having to blackmail her in order to ensure her initial cooperation, but it couldn't be helped. The child would learn in time; until then, she needed some persuasion.

Nikita was, too, precisely what she had been looking for; she had suspected it from the moment of her recruitment. Still, there was no such thing as an excess of caution, so Carla had been sent in to evaluate her.

Her young operative, in fact, had formed quite a bond with her newly-assigned friend. Adrian rather suspected that she enjoyed her assignment, although she sensed that she regretted having to betray her target. . . . Since the older woman trusted her agent's judgment, as well as her information, Carla's fondness for the young woman had really been the deciding factor.

Adrian had, in fact, been ready to move a year ago but had been derailed by her chosen one's "cancellation." She had been well aware that the girl was still alive, but there had been nothing to do, until she was somehow repatriated.

The road from her reintegration into Section to now had seemed entirely too long. Section's former head had needed to wait, however, until Nikita was firmly restablished--until she was, relatively for a level 2 operative, above general suspicion.

It had helped, of course, that Adrian could count on several people within Section to protect their young friend. Walter and Birkoff watched out for her regularly, and Michael was borderline obsessive about her; if they hadn't been living the life they did, in fact, he would have qualified as a stalker.

Still, the young man's absolute devotion to his ex-recruit was extremely helpful. It allowed Adrian more leeway than she might normally have had; had he been less possessive, after all, the young woman's abduction would have been harder for her to hide.

Nikita's affection for him, as well, had proven very useful. . . . Now, she just had to hope that it didn't trip them up.

Yes, Nikita was going to prove very helpful indeed. And, in just a few days --she hoped--the young girl would no longer need to be blackmailed to aid them.

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

Nikita rarely became particularly nervous on missions, anymore, but she had only once before been on one within Section. Then, too, it had only been Petrosian's neck in the noose; now, both she and Michael were at stake. She had no doubt that Operations and Madeline would deny her completely, if she were caught.

It didn't help matters, as well, that she was becoming increasingly ambivalent in her loyalties. After all, she had seen little evidence that what Adrian had said about Operations was untrue. In fact, most of her time in Section really seemed to support it.

Still, Section's founder wasn't an innocent, either. Nikita had already seen her kill relatively indiscriminately, on top of her threats about Michael. The fact that she was even more cultured than Madeline didn't hide the steel beneath the polished surface.

Nikita's choice of apparel didn't very well reflect the work in which she was currently engaged; it was not at all covert. It had been more of a subconscious decision, however. The entirely backless black dress reflected both her strong desire to be touched by gentle hands--a pleasure she had missed to the point of self-doubt recently--as well as serving as a silent plea for Michael's attention on another level.

In a very strong, subconscious way, after all, she needed Michael to rescue her. It wasn't that she had any desire to play the helpless damsel-in-distress to his knight-in-shining-armor, though; such images did nothing for her. She needed him, however, as a confidant--as a friend to trust and turn to. . . . She needed his advice and support now.

Still, this was an obvious impossibility--especially at the moment; she was *his* protector--not the other way around. If she forgot that, the results could be deadly.

Nikita managed her mission for Adrian much like she did those for Section-- with great efficiency and silent torment. She had almost gotten through it, in fact, when Michael appeared. . . . It was one of those times she wished he hadn't.

He had the face of a gentle executioner. "Hi."

She gave a nervous, forced smile. "Hi."

"What are you doing here?" He was checking behind her with his eyes, making sure no one else had seen her.

Nikita was lost for a second, so she simply smiled and forced him to retreat slightly to allow her into the elevator. She turned her back on him--a mixed signal, considering her attire.

He ignored her silence and continued to press her. "How did you get access to this level?"

Nikita tried to avoid looking at him. In this situation, it made it harder to lie. "I had clearance."

"From whom?"

Nikita followed Adrian's spoken instructions. "I can't tell you that."

Michael's eyes continued to ignore his orders and scanned her naked back. "Why not?"

"I'm tracing a linkage vector."

He continued to inquisition her softly. "For whom?"

She looked at him briefly. "Section Four--Northern Europe."

"Why would they use you?"

Nikita continued to follow Adrian's directions. "That's all I can tell you."

She left the elevator, as it arrived at the floor. "If you want to know more, you could ask Operations. . . . If you do, he'll want to know what you were doing down there."

Michael faced her and asked his final question, his voice slightly harsher, as his frustration and anger grew. "Which bureau op?"

Nikita, following instructions, said nothing and left, trying desperately not to scream. Her heart was clenching. . . . The manipulation of him had truly begun.

Michael watched her go. His nightmare was getting worse. Whatever she was doing, it was becoming more and more dangerous.

He couldn't help wondering, as well, if he were partly responsible for this. Had pushing her away to please Operations led her to turn against Section? Could she be foolish enough to try to bring them down? He swallowed back his anguish. He wasn't sure about anything at the moment except that he would have to watch her far more closely.

He hated, too, that his mind had been so preoccupied, when he had been questioning her. It had only been his intense fear for her safety, in fact, which had kept his body in check at all, while he had been so close to her in that dress. He had been completely unable to keep his eyes off her beautiful back; of their own will, they had wandered, time and again, down to trace the gentle curve of her muscles, the soft surface of her skin.

He couldn't force back his thoughts. He remembered, much too clearly, how that skin felt--how it tasted; he remembered the tension in those muscles, as their bodies were locked together in love and passion. The memories had been too intense; he had wanted to make love to her then and there. If nothing else, he thought ruefully, it might have gotten him some answers; it was only in those times, after all, that she dropped her protective walls to let him in.

He sighed. He only wanted to keep her safe; he just needed to protect her. It seemed, though, that it might be too late; there had been one too many betrayals, on his part. She had frozen him out.

He closed his eyes for a second, before he turned to walk off, his heart aching. All he could do was keep watching and hope that he would be able to pull her back from the precipice, when the time came. It was, however, a faint hope . . . and a desolating bit of consolation.

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

Please note that we're skipping forward in time a bit again in this chapter. We're now up to soon after the end of "Adrian's Garden." :)

Nikita's eyes opened--blearily and sadly. It wasn't so much that she was surprised that recent events had given her nightmares; it was more that she had hoped that those dreams would give her guidance, as well.

She had agreed to be part of Adrian's plan after having watched the successful assassination of Marin--an assassination planned by Operations. Of course, her agreement had been planned by him, too, . . . but she was no longer sure if she were following his plan.

She sighed, shaking her head against the bed. How on earth had she ended up in this current assignment, anyway? She rolled onto her back from the fetal curl she had somehow maneuvered herself into in the night and pondered her current dilemma. Why did this have to be her?

She knew the answers, of course: she was the most likely ally for Adrian-- someone the woman could trust; she was obviously Operations' pet project, as well--an amusing soul to torment. . . . She knew it didn't hurt matters, either, that she was--in his mind--entirely expendible.

They couldn't have chosen a more perfect Judas than her, she realized. She was competent yet disposable and--with one mention of a threat to Michael's safety--easily manipulated. She shook her head. . . . Wonderful.

She was growing more and more frightened for her soul lately; she was no longer entirely convinced that it could be protected. She really wasn't sure, given a choice between it and shielding Michael, which would triumph.

She had given up a huge part of it for him already, after all. From the moment she had carefully aimed past him, lining up her first victim in her sights, and had pulled the trigger to save his life, something within her-- something she had never wanted to die--had been irretrievably lost.

Now, the same thing was happening again, only on a larger scale; she was working against all she felt was right, was fighting to protect things she knew were evil, in order to see Michael safe. . . . She hated it.

In some ways, she was coming to understand him more, though. She, after all, was the one who was lying, who was playing two roles, who was manipulating him to work against himself--in order to save his life. *She* would be the one to test *his* loyalty, . . . and she saw no way to do that without giving up her soul, as well.

It wasn't that she forgave Michael for his betrayals and manipulations; she still had no absolution for him. Suddenly, however, she had no forgiveness for herself, either; she would follow this damning path to protect him, but she would give up herself in the process.

Her eyes were teary, and she closed them to hold back the sensation. What would she say to him, after this was over? "Sorry, Michael, it had to be done"? "I had no choice"? . . . "It wasn't what I wanted for us, but . . ."?

She swallowed back the tears burning her throat. Operations had won, and it wasn't even over yet. She could no longer occupy the relative moral high ground she had taken before; she had willingly thrown herself into the same pit Michael had occupied for years, . . . and she was now every bit as damned as he was.

She opened her eyes, as a few tears escaped down her cheeks. For four years, she had struggled to save him--had balanced on the edge of the moral quicksand which had almost entirely engulfed him and had tried to pull him out. Now, though, she had been taken as well; she had lost all solid footing from which to help him.

She wondered how much further it would go--how much lower she would sink, before the end finally came. No doubt she would next start working full-scale valentine ops.--would mutely allow some faceless, soulless man to paw at her most sacred parts--to take his pleasure from her body as though there were no soul animating it, as though she were simply empty flesh, . . . as though her lack of desire were completely inconsequential.

She closed her eyes again; maybe the nausea which encompassed her at the thought would even pass in time. She could probably learn to be entirely without self or will--to simply become an empty vessel of others' needs.

She opened her eyes once more, still feeling sick at the thought. They would make her their permanent rape victim; there was no other way to describe such an act. Forced consent was *not* willing consent; she knew this only too well from her own experience. She also knew that it would be the final death rattle for all she was.

It was perfect, after all. She could cause them no problems without a soul. She wouldn't even be able to love Michael anymore. She would become a machine, as he frequently was--but without the layers of repressed emotions he had; there would be nothing left to repress.

It would kill her, of course, but not soon enough. She would be praying for death long before that sweet release came to her. . . . Perhaps, this time, however, she could just go through with her suicide plans. No convenient knock of Michael's would save her again.

She stared numbly at the ceiling. She hated where her thoughts were taking her, knew--in some ways--that she was torturing herself. Still, it was the only logical conclusion to her present path.

Nikita wished--not for the first time--that Michael was with her now. She needed him more completely than she ever had before--needed to feel his arms around her--his warmth and strength surrounding her, healing her. . . . Still, that seemed unlikely to ever happen again.

She rolled onto her side and stared at the empty half of her bed--stroking it with her hand. "It should be his," she thought, touching it. Regardless of all the pain and injury, they only formed a whole together--not a perfect one, admittedly, but, . . . well, it was somehow holy, nonetheless.

She sighed and rolled away, out of the bed and onto her feet. She was simply tormenting herself by dreaming of the man she was betraying; she was, after all --with her own hand, destroying any future they could have shared. . . . She deserved whatever hell she got for that.

She grabbed her robe and shrugged it on wearily, as she headed down the stairs to her kitchen. More sleep tonight was obviously a bad idea. She started to make herself some coffee, as her mind returned to her dream. There were only fragments of it left in her mind; maybe, though--she decided, she should pull herself out of her funk enough to examine them.

Nikita had come to respect her dreams when she was a child, although she had had little idea of their deeper meaning, then. On the street, as well, she had learned to trust what impressions she could wrestle from them; doing so, after all, had protected her from some very nasty characters more than once--had taught her when she needed to move on.

It had been during her six-month absence from Section, though, that her study of them had become more refined. She had bought a book on dream interpretation, which had reaffirmed some things she had instinctively understood and told her some she had not; it had been lost in one of her flights from identity to identity during that time, however--a pity, since its dictionary of symbols had proven useful more than once, but its general knowledge had stayed with her.

What it had confirmed for her most, of course, was that instinct was more important than logic in interpreting dreams. The subconscious wasn't a linear thing; it couldn't be approached like a math problem.

She poured herself a cup of coffee, added cream and sugar, and then went to sit on her floor, leaning against the wall--trying to cast her mind back. How had her dream begun? She shook her head slightly; she couldn't remember exactly. What she did know, however, were the impressions.

The dream had been set--supposedly--during medieval times, although it had been a rather modern and surrealistic landscape. She had been . . . a knight, was it? . . . on a quest of some sort--a search for something--something holy.

Perhaps she had been after the grail--the vessel which had caught Christ's blood at his crucifixion, or maybe the object of the search had simply been unclear. She shook her head again and took another sip of her coffee. She couldn't remember; perhaps it was unimportant.

Anyway, she felt as though this quest had been ordered . . . by Operations? Yes, she nodded, pondering, she thought so--or, at least, an odd dream variant of him. She had the feeling that he wanted the object in order to corrupt it-- in order to gain some demonic power from it.

She thought back. What did she know about the Arthurian legends she was sure the dream was partly playing off? . . . Not bloody much. She did remember, though, that it was only the purest of the knights--Galahad--who had been able to reach and fully attain the grail. She also remembered reading about the Nazis' attempts to find and capture holy relics in order to corrupt their power for their own ends, although she had to close her eyes for a minute to keep the facts straight from the Indiana Jones versions which tried to get in her way.

She opened her eyes and laughed. . . . It was perfect. She was Operations' Galahad--sent because of her, relatively, pure soul to (in this case) complete an impure quest.

Okay, so she had the background down. What about the details? The first she remembered was carrying out an order for the Operations figure by adding bones to a deep well--one which was filled almost to capacity with those particular human remains. She couldn't forget the name which had come into her mind for the place, either: Golgotha--the place of skulls--the place where Jesus had been crucified.

She took a deep breath. Okay, that was a heavy symbol. She sipped at her coffee pensively. What did she do with it?

Well, she was certainly playing Judas of late--both to Adrian and Michael; that could account for her adding the bones to the pile. However, she couldn't help feeling, as well, that she was also playing Christ.

It made her feel a bit egotistical, but she knew better than to discount her interpretive instincts. She was, she supposed--in a rather perverse, Section way, suffering to protect others--both Michael and, possibly, Walter and Birkoff, as well--as Madeline had suggested. She huffed out a breath. That was a heavy image to deal with, though.

She sat for a minute, a bit overwhelmed. Then, she shook her head slightly.

"Keep going," she reminded herself; she didn't really have the energy to ponder that particular image too deeply at the moment.

What was next? Oh, yes, she had gone to a . . . tavern? . . . to meet Michael.

No. She stopped herself; that was just what the place--rather surrealistically--had resembled. No. . . . It was a whorehouse. . . . And Michael wasn't a customer.

She shuddered a bit--especially at her choice of words for the place. She had always hated that term; it always seemed to cast blame on the wrong people --on the ones who were forced to sell themselves to survive. Still, she understood that word choice was important to interpretation, here, so she made herself stick with it.

It made sense, in a way, she supposed; Michael was--both in his own mind and in their leaders'--Section's whore. Except, he never even received payment for his work.

The image made her heart ache. As little as she could understand his ability to sell himself, as much as his ordered seductions had hurt her, she knew--in her calmer moments--that those missions damaged Michael as well, had caused wounds in his concept of self which might never see repair.

She *hated* the pain he had been caused--hated even more that she was now the one causing it. . . . Still, she remembered, in the dream, that she had not come to use him; she had simply come to visit and to offer hope--a promise, maybe. . . . In fact, she felt certain that she had agreed to the quest for his sake--that the Operations in her dream had promised an end to his torment, if she cooperated.

She closed her eyes. How heart-rendingly appropriate. . . . She just wished she could offer the real Michael the same thing.

She could still remember his dream version's eyes, when she had come to visit, too. They had pleaded with her for salvation--for rescue. He had asked for nothing with his voice, but his look had begged her for release.

In the end, though, she had had to leave him in his hell in order to try to save him. . . . And it tore at her soul to know that he had understood completely.

Some tears escaped her eyes, as she forced herself to open them; she gulped down a sip of coffee to keep the feeling in check. She needed to continue her self-examination if she hoped to gain any insight into her situation.

There was only one more part of her dream she could bring back, anyway--the finale . . . unfinished, if she remembered right. She had successfully found . . . whatever it was she was searching for and had returned to Operations' fortress to try to use it as a bargaining chip for Michael's soul.

When she had returned, however, she had found two robed skeletons playing a chess game for the lives of herself, Michael, and her other friends. Her dream had obviously been influenced by the fact that she had recently been rereading Coleridge--"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," although her subconscious had replaced his entities' dice game with something more calculating. . . . Again, it seemed appropriate.

Here, too, she had known who the contestants were: Death (Adrian) versus Life-in-Death (Operations). She knew that whatever it was she had acquired held the key to turning the tables in her direction. . . . Unfortunately, she hadn't stayed asleep long enough to find out which of the gamesters she had finally backed.

Nikita puffed out a breath and set down her cup. . . . Wow. She wasn't used to having--or at least remembering--such classical dreams. It was a lot to sort through.

Most of it, she knew, was obvious, but she was sure it was more than just a simple reflection on her life; she knew it held a course of action, if she could only discover it. . . . She just wished it had an ending.

She blinked. "Duh," she thought. "Of course it doesn't have an ending; I haven't given it one yet."

Her heart rose slightly. Maybe she wasn't just a pawn, after all. Maybe she *could* affect the outcome of Operations and Adrian's little chess game. . . . But how?

Adrian had told her, in the meeting following their last phone call, that she would next be trying to find Gemstone--Adrian's holy grail, . . . Section's weak link. What if--after she found it--she could make her own copy--could use it as a bargaining chip? Could she, after all, help save her friends?

Yes, maybe, but which side did she choose to help them? Her dream had been appropriate--siding with Adrian might get them killed, might destroy them along with Section, but Operations' way meant death to all they were--all they held dear. . . . How could she choose?

Then, suddenly, it occurred to her. She wouldn't--not alone; instead, she would hold a trial--Operations versus Adrian. The winner would be whoever could promise the best future to her friends. . . . The one who lost would be destroyed.

It occurred to her, of course, that she might well be destroyed in all of this, as well--whichever side she chose. . . . That didn't matter, though; she wasn't afraid for herself, only for her friends.

She smiled--genuinely, for the first time in many weeks. She once again had some hope to cling to; all wasn't lost yet.

Her plan of attack set, Nikita stood up to wash out her mug. Why was she drinking coffee, anyway? She had never really liked the stuff. She proceeded, instead, to make some tea and then started refining her plans, blessing her subconscious for coming through for her again.

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

Birkoff was finding his work harder to concentrate on lately. Ever since Nikita had been kidnapped and then mysteriously reappeared the other day, things had been odd. . . . *She* had been odd.

No, that wasn't quite it, exactly. It was more the effect she was having on Michael that worried him. He hadn't seen the older man go home since-- wasn't even sure he was sleeping. He hadn't been able to have a two-minute conversation with Nikita, either, without her former trainer demanding a full debrief of it.

It wasn't, of course, like Section's most enigmatic operative hadn't been a bit obsessive about his former material before, but lately he had practically become a stalker. Nikita could barely draw breath without him trying to analyze its meaning.

Birkoff sighed. The two of them could always be like this, to an extent, but this was different. Michael's actions lately were tinged with an emotion he was reputed never to experience: fear.

Unfortunately, too, Birkoff was beginning to share in his feeling. The pattern Nikita had shown of disappearance/unexplained (or poorly explained) reappearance, after all, was common among ops. who had been turned. That was why being kidnapped always had to remain secret, here; you fell under immediate suspicion, otherwise.

Even with this accepted fact, though, Birkoff couldn't imagine Nikita turning against them. Might she question Section, its policies, and its leaders? Definitely. But it didn't then follow that she would work with Red Cell, or any of the other groups he knew she found equally abhorrent. She couldn't be bought, . . . and even a threat to her life wouldn't make her turn on her friends.

Still, something was going on. No matter how much he disavowed believing in them, Michael had good instincts--especially about her; he knew when something was wrong.

It almost seemed, too, that Nikita was desperate for her ex-trainer's help, although Birkoff wasn't sure that she knew this consciously. The dress she had worn the other day was an example; entirely backless, it had screamed for attention--for Michael's attention. Anyone else's she would have either smiled politely at or shrugged off as a minor annoyance.

Nikita was becoming more concerned about her former trainer, as well. Just the other day, Birkoff had heard her ask him nervously before a mission if anything unusual was expected--as though she had somehow foreseen the helicopter which had menaced him. . . . It was rather eerie.

All of Birkoff's concerns led him nowhere, however. He was still clueless as to details.

He sighed and looked up from his terminal to see a rather distracted Walter pass him. He could tell the older man shared his recent fears, but they had yet to discuss them. . . . Maybe it was time.

He disabled the relevant surveillance equipment, logged out of his terminal, and followed Walter over to his area, just as another op. passed close by.

"Walter, have you finished the latest inventory yet? Operations needs it."

The older man was turned away from him. "I think it's over there." He pointed distractedly.

Birkoff checked the area he indicated and saw nothing but wire and equipment. "Over here?" He turned to see that the other op. had gone; he took his chance and returned to his friend's side. "*Walter*," he got his attention, speaking softly. "We've got three minutes. What's up with Nikita?"

The older man focused on him suspiciously, suddenly afraid that his recent encounter with her on Level 2 had been monitored. "What d'you mean?"

Birkoff shook his head. "There's no time for games. She got grabbed the other day, and--ever since she's returned--Michael's been seriously watchful. What's up?"

"She got grabbed? How? By who?"

The younger man shrugged. "I dunno. Somebody high-tech. enough to remove her clock. Michael's said nothing about it, since she returned."

"God." Walter leaned against a wall, staring into space. "D'you think she's been turned?"

"Do you think she can be?"

Walter pondered it, a feeling of dread clutching his heart. "If they threatened Michael." He made contact with Birkoff's frightened eyes, as they both remembered the botched mission from the other day--the one which had almost killed her former trainer.

It took a minute for the younger man to find his voice. "Who do you think it is?"

"We don't know that it's anyone," Walter denied, shaking his head, as he looked away. He was remembering too clearly, however, Nikita's recent questions . . . her questions about Adrian. He wouldn't tell that to Birkoff, though; the less he knew, the safer both he and Nikita would be. "Whadda we do?"

Walter sighed. "We watch her." He looked back at his friend. "Michael'll look after her, but we better keep our eyes open, just in case."

Birkoff nodded worriedly. "Right." He started to leave, but stopped, turning back to his friend; his eyes were suddenly very young and frightened.

"What'll we do if we lose her?"

Walter shook his head, looking like he was facing his own death. "I don't even know where we'd start."

Birkoff nodded slowly, in terrified agreement, and then returned to his work. They were going to have to make sure they never had to find out.

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

Please note that we're jumping forward again here. We're now up to just after Michael has been ordered to find the traitor (from the selection of three operatives) in "End Game."

Somehow, in the course of about a week, his life had suddenly been reduced to a lower level of Hell than even he was used to. Like an accident, like watching a bullet fired directly at his soul which it was far too late to escape, everything was in slow motion. . . . He was living out his worst nightmare: Nikita had turned so far against him that she was beyond his ability to aid.

Michael was still in shock from his meeting with Operations and Madeline. He had suspected something since Nikita had been snatched, of course, but he hadn't been able to put the pieces into place then. Now, everything was coming together in the most frightening way possible.

He had hoped that he would be able to stop her before whatever she was doing had become irreversible, but that was no longer a possibility. . . . Section knew. She was working with Adrian--and he was being asked to bring her in.

How had it gotten this far? . . . How could Nikita work against them . . . against *him* like this?

He tried to hold in his rage; he should have seen this coming, should have predicted this contingency. His anger, however, suddenly melted into despair. He hadn't, though. He had been useless, had seen nothing. . . . He had been blind.

"Damn Operations," he thought. If it hadn't been for the older man's uncontrollable desire for Madeline, this never could have happened. It was due to this weakness, after all, that Nikita had been removed from Michael's oversight.

It wasn't, of course, like Michael didn't understand what it was like to have an overwhelming need for another person. He, though, had very rarely forced his dirty work onto anyone else. If he had been in Operations' position-- although he hoped he wouldn't have followed his leader's jealous, manipulative path--he would have killed Sand himself; he would never have pulled in an operative to do his personal chores.

He entered his office, his recent orders burdening him, weighing him down to the point where he wondered how he could continue standing. Now, because--like a fool--he had temporarily let her go, Nikita had sided with the enemy.

It didn't surprise him, really, that Adrian's ideas might appeal to her; she could be a very persuasive woman. He wondered how she had phrased it, though-- what she had promised her--freedom? self-determination? a future without games and lies?

He sighed slightly, walking slowly across the room. Did Nikita really believe any of that was possible? *Could* she believe it?

He closed his eyes for a second, as he sat at his desk. Yes, she could. Even with all she had seen, she still hadn't learned that they were trapped-- that there was no way out. And now, that siren-like sense of hope would lead her, would lead them both, to a painful death on the rocks.

A sudden, terrible thought came to him, and he refocused on his surroundings. She had said once before that she wouldn't run again--that it wasn't the life she was looking for. She had intimated, however, that she would have gone, if he would be with her.

Was he part of the bargain, then? Had she been promised a life with him somewhere, if she helped to destroy Section One? My God . . . would she have done it, believing it was what he wanted--that it was their only chance? His heart ached. He hated that part of him wished that she had--wished that their escape were possible--wished that she *would* destroy Section for a single chance of happiness with him.

He forced himself to push back that rebellious desire. He knew that dream was impossible; all his training told him so. . . . There was no way out for them.

It hurt him, as well, that--even for this possible end--she would lie to him, would deceive him. He knew, after all, that she was the one who was helping Adrian; even without the Level 2 encounter, he knew. He needed no proof. It was just there in her--marked in her soul.

Nikita had never been able to lie to him; her soul was too pure to lie well. But, even since she had acquired this skill--to an extent, he could still read her. He knew and understood her more intimately than he ever had another person--even more than he knew himself. The second something was wrong with her, he knew--even if she was far away. He *felt* her. . . . They shared one soul.

He closed his eyes again and rubbed one temple. This was, furthermore, why his soul ached so acutely at the moment; his whole body seemed to throb with its pain.

She was changing, was being compromised--not by Adrian, but by herself. She had allowed Ames to die to cover her tracks, had said nothing while he had taken her punishment for her. He shook his head slightly. The Nikita he had always known would never have allowed that to happen; *his* Nikita was noble-- never allowing anyone else to suffer, especially for her own sins.

He ruthlessly held back his tears. What had happened to her; what had happened to them? . . . Where had he failed her?

It was this last question which gnawed at him the most. He was overcome by guilt and by the fear that his recent denial of her--his handing her over to Operations--had destroyed her. Maybe, after all his tormenting orders to destroy her conscience, his work had been completed, instead, by his inaction. . . . Maybe she *was* lost.

He forced his reddened eyes to open. If that were true, then so was he. He would find a way to die--to end this hell. He refused to live without her light.

His mind, however, suddenly found an opening for him. It realized that, in an odd way, he had been given another chance; Operations' orders, perversely, would allow him to question her--to find out the truth. If she had been misled by Adrian, he could help her--he *would* help her, regardless. He would find an escape--some way out for her. He would find a hole in Section's plans if he had to cut it himself.

He couldn't have lost her. Not now. Not when the past six months had brought them so much closer, not when his hopes for a future for them were so near. She had seen more of him than anyone else--was more tightly bound to him than anyone before--even Simone, although he had shared himself far more openly with his late wife. His mental, emotional, and spiritual intimacy with Nikita frightened him; it was uncomfortable to be that completely bared to another person's view.

He couldn't lose that bond, though; he *wouldn't* lose it. Nikita was his, as he was hers, and anything else was a delusion . . . or a well-played lie. He refused to let her change the rules. He refused to let her lose herself. He was going to see her today to demand accountability--to know why she would turn on them--what possible motive she could have. He was also going to offer his help, knowing that--whatever happened--he would give it to her, whether she willingly accepted it or not.

He sighed and stood up from his desk, a little unsteadily. If she wouldn't trust him, then things would get difficult, but he would still be there for her. He had to be. A man couldn't live without his soul.

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

So far, her plans were working beautifully. She had extracted Gemstone and had made a second copy as a bargaining chip. Michael was suspicious enough to hopefully satisfy Operations and Madeline but not enough to get in her way, as she carried out her end game. She had even passed through Operations' sham general inquiry without too much problem. . . . It was only too bad that the price for her success seemed to be her soul.

Nikita was home now. She couldn't deliver Gemstone to Adrian yet; she felt certain--as did Adrian--that she would need to throw off Michael's suspicions one final time before another meet would be safe.

On paper, then, everything was perfect. To Adrian's self described "crazed supercomputer" mind, there was only one more small task for Nikita to finish, before the final stages began. Nothing major. . . . All she had to do was break every tentative bond of trust she had ever formed with Michael.

Her soul twisted horribly, at this thought--sending shards of excrutiating emotional pain throughout her body, but--being monitored by Adrian--she couldn't let it show. She couldn't break down, couldn't fall apart; she had to brace herself in order to deliver the coup de grace to all of Michael's feelings for her--to any hope they may ever have had. . . . She was about to become their executioner.

There was no choice, though. She took a deep, steadying breath. If Michael had any chance of survival, he had to pass Operations and Madeline's sadistic little test; he *had* to be her Judas. Otherwise, his operational viability might be questioned, and the worst would then come. If that happened, something very fragile and fundamental in her would shatter, and there would be little recognizable of her left. It was a brutal situation--one that damaged her simply by being part of it, just by having been forced into it. Michael had--far more than she had ever wanted him to--become central to her sense of self. No day began without thoughts of him; no dreams of the future came without him in them. While he was still one of the main sources of torment and pain in her life, she could also form no concept of love without him. . . . He was part of her.

Now, in order to protect him, she had to destroy *them*. She had no choice. This was the moment she had dreaded for too long. She would have to become like him, in all of his darker moments--lying, betraying, manipulating-- destroying the fragile trust between them it had taken four years to build. All of the parts of him she despised, she would now emulate. . . . It was a painful irony.

She sighed and unpacked some flowers she had bought to brighten her home. She had hoped--she supposed--that they would add the beauty she no longer felt she had. After today, certainly, she would never have it again.

Her mind wandered, trying to avoid this thought--going back to her recent security breach, when finding Gemstone. She was still unsure whether it had been her downloading of that sensitive file or her foray into Michael's which had set off the alarm, although she suspected that it was the latter.

She wasn't sure how to process this. She understood that Michael was a Class 5 operative, that information on him would be hard to come by, but she had never imagined that it would be *that* highly protected. She had managed to find out about his past with Rene' and L'Heure Sanguine, after all; why not this? What did it mean?

What was Section hiding about her former trainer, anyway? Was there something else important about him she was missing? She remembered that he had told her, just after the Armel mission, that she didn't know everything about him. Was whatever was hidden in that file what he had meant?

She shook her head. This was no time to ponder such things. Whatever secrets Michael had would have to remain his own; chances were that she wouldn't be around long enough to challenge him on them, anyway. . . . She certainly wouldn't ever be close enough to him again, after this, to have the opportunity to ask him; she might as well just accept that it was no longer any of her business.

Nikita closed her eyes for a second to regain her control, to keep her depression from overtaking her, before continuing on with her work. Even her clothing was reflective of her mood today. She had unconsciously chosen a white shirt with a central and growing pattern of formless black. It seemed, at the moment, to represent her fears for her soul--that its purity was being overrun by the darkness she had allowed into it.

And, yes, she had--to her mind--allowed it in. She had found no alternative this time--no way to circumvent her orders. She was about to knowingly lead the only man she had ever loved into a soul-crushing fate; she could imagine no forgiveness for such an act.

Still, maybe--in the end--there would be some compensation. Maybe, when it was all over, Michael could be free of Section--ready to begin a new, better life with whomever he chose. Maybe she could at least give him that, even if she was certain she wouldn't be his choice; even if she weren't dead after all this, he could obviously never trust her again, never love her after so complete a betrayal. At least, though, he would have a chance elsewhere.

She sighed quietly and swallowed back the building tears. If she survived all this, physically, maybe she, too, could build a new life. It couldn't have any true joy, of course, but maybe it could at least be one without constant violence. . . . That would have to be enough for her.

She wasn't certain, however, that even that would be possible; she was worried about whether she could hang on to the fragments of soul she possessed long enough to get through all of this. She had, after all, only a while earlier, allowed Ames to be cancelled (and Hillam to be unwittingly killed) for the crime of unknowingly becoming wedged in the middle of this meaningless game. The poor guys--two of those who sometimes invited her for drinks--had been calculatedly sacrificed by Adrian, Operations and Madeline in order to shield their plans from each other, . . . and Nikita had simply watched and allowed them to do it.

She hated herself for this--hated what this was doing to her. Operations' plot to kill her soul might be proving successful, after all. Even if she could manage to carry out her own end game, she wasn't at all certain that there would be much of her left to appreciate it.

Still, if things went as she planned, at least Operations might no longer control them all. That in itself might be worth the sacrifice.

She tried to brace herself for the inevitable pain to come, as she pulled out a couple of vases for the flowers and waited. Michael would be here soon--she was sure; it would be over before long. All she had to do was wait . . . and pray that she had the strength left to save him, since--as it seemed--she could no longer save herself.

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

By the time Michael got to Nikita's apartment, his soul was an open, untended wound; the pain was almost too great to bear. For Nikita, as well, it was like suddenly finding yourself living out a prescient, recurring nightmare. . . . It was utterly inescapable.

The proximity, even before he entered, made it even worse. Their unbreakable, unspoken bond simply forced them both to--unknowingly--take on the other's pain as well as their own.

Nikita forced herself to accept the inevitable by opening the door to him with faked casualness. "Come in." She then retreated quickly into her kitchen to tend her flowers; they gave her mind somewhere else to pretend to focus.

Michael entered very slowly, reluctantly. He was still wearing his gloves, as though the chill his fear of losing her gave him were physically tangible.

He couldn't focus on her yet. He walked with apparent, forced calm through her apartment--the apartment he had chosen for her, that--in its stark, cold appearance--no longer seemed to reflect her. "What are you trying to do?" He was forcing himself to remove his gloves.

Nikita concentrated on her flowers. "What d'ya mean?"

"Ames was innocent." He looked up slightly, gathering strength before he focused on her. "And you knew it from the start."

She looked at him with little expression, listening.

He couldn't bear keeping eye contact; he turned away. His voice quavered slightly, betraying the depth of his emotions. "You're working with Adrian."

Nikita focused on him innocently. "Who's that?"

He made himself resume his study of her.

Her innocent air deepened. "Why are you looking at me like that? I'm telling the truth. . . . I don't know anyone named `Adrian.'"

He broke his examination of her, looking away for a second before refocusing on her. "I want you to let me help you."

"Help me?" She looked away, smiling--in a false front. "Help me do what?"

"You know what." His voice was deep with his pent-up feelings.

She refocused on him, and he closed in on her gently, as she took in a slight breath. The last thing she wanted, right now, was his proximity.

"It's gone too far, Nikita. They won't let this pass." His eyes roamed over her face, in unconscious need. "If there was ever a time you had to trust me," his voice and face were open, eyes pleading, "it's now."

She looked at him suspiciously. "You want me to confess . . . and then lead you to Adrian?"

He briefly traced her lips with his eyes before refocusing on hers. "I thought you didn't know Adrian."

Her eyes were accusing. "I don't. You seem to think I do." She looked back to her flowers disgustedly. "Section sent you."

Michael glanced down before watching her again. "Yes, they did." He walked slowly behind her to the other side.

Nikita shut her eyes to close out the pain for a second before looking up and then resettling her face to a more neutral state, waiting for his next words.

This was--by far--the worst event of her life; the abuse at home, the fear on the streets, being falsely convicted of murder, being recruited into Section, pulling the trigger for the first time on another human being--the lies, the betrayals, the manipulations--none of them could compare to the pain of this.

Unaware of her turmoil, he continued. "But they don't control me. Let me help you," he pleaded. "Where's the file?" He refocused on her.

"The file?" She didn't look at him.

His voice grew harsher. "The Gemstone file you stole from Section." He moved back to her other side. "The one Ames died for." He pinned her softly with his stare.

That one struck too deeply; she faced him, forcing herself to deny all knowledge. "Okay, Michael. Now you lost me."

He moved within inches of her; his hands went to her shoulders. "You're in over your head."

She understood full well the menace inherent in his touch, at the moment. "Take your hands off me, please."

He searched her eyes for a moment and saw nothing he could recognize. She moved to shrug off his hands, and his control broke. He grabbed her arms painfully and slammed her up against the refrigerator.

She watched him with frightened eyes. She had never enjoyed the times he had intimidated her with his strength, and now was no different. She was even more terrified of the unshuttered look in his eyes, however--afraid that she might break and tell him the truth.

She *had* to see this manipulation through; his life depended on it. She couldn't allow his naked emotions to move her.

His stare never flickered. "Now listen to me. If Adrian succeeds, every operative will be cancelled." His words were breathy, his emotions breaking through. "No exceptions." He searched her eyes. "They will roll up Section like it never existed." His eyes were increasingly desperate. "And if you think Adrian can protect you, . . . you're wrong." His voice trembled slightly, his accent a bit more prominent in his anguish.

Nikita squirmed, but his grasp held; she wanted--so very desperately--to tell him the truth, to keep him from this deception--from this stupid, meaningless test--even if it meant both their deaths. She knew, though, that she couldn't; she couldn't let him die. She had to stand firm.

She said nothing, while he watched her, praying his words had gotten through.

"Where's Adrian?"

She kept her resolve. "I don't know."

"Where's the file?"

She shook her head. "I don't know."

His grasp slipped; the pain was too much. She leaned more loosely against the door. "You're *lying*." He knew; he *felt* it. She refused to open up to him, even though it had never been more important than now.

She couldn't stand much more of this; she was choking back tears. "I *don't* *know*."

He released her completely and stepped back slightly. "Why?" His eyes searched her face. He couldn't remember any greater pain than this. He loved her, and she was attempting to destroy him--to destroy them all. His hand stroked her face--the face of his soul, of his light. "Why?"

She was about two seconds away from tears, from breaking down completely. She jerked her head away from his hand slightly, scalded by the guilt his gentle touch invoked--afraid that his roving fingers might find Adrian's com. link behind her ear.

The bond between them made the torment of this unbearable. He could feel her pain, her guilt, her deception but had no idea it came from so different a source than he imagined. "This is your last chance." His hand wouldn't leave her face. "*Our* last chance."

She closed her eyes. She couldn't withstand this--didn't want to; it was too cruel. His emotions had never been this raw--this open to her before; they reached out to her--*begged* her to work with him, to help him save their bond --their future. The hand on her face was stroking her soul, . . . and her soul wasn't allowed to respond.

He was holding back tears, as well. "Where's Adrian?"

She swallowed hard and forced her eyes to open--to tell the final lie of their life. "I don't know."

His eyes became half-lidded with pain, as the back of his fingers gently stroked her cheek. It was a look she only remembered seeing once before, after she had saved his life by killing Rene'--a trauma which was, she knew, one of the most devastating of his life. His voice was very breathy. "Then, you leave me no choice."

His eyes searched her face one final time. He blinked back tears before forcing his hand to leave her soft skin, as he stepped back from her. He watched her for another lingering second, before he slowly crossed to the door and made himself leave. Whatever was to come, he knew, his life was over. The sound of the door closing behind him was the most tormenting of her life.

She had heard cell doors which seemed more musical.

She stayed, against the refrigerator door, in the position he had thrown her into--frozen. Her eyes were wet with tears; her soul had been ripped from her, but she still felt its phantom pains. There was nothing recognizable left of her.

Adrian's voice rang in her ear: "Excellent, Nikita." . . . She had accepted her thirty pieces of silver. She had given up her soul.

**********

It was only about an hour after his confrontation with Nikita that Michael was on his way to face Operations. He couldn't overcome the encroaching feeling of hopelessness, of emptiness which was possessing him; it seemed to be taking him over--bit by bit replacing every cell in his body. He was very close to a total loss of self.

Nikita had--through her denial--pushed him away, had chosen a path which would lead to their destruction. He couldn't help, though, feeling partly responsible. If he just hadn't told her not to come to him any more, if he hadn't turned her over to Operations' utter lack of mercy, she might not have been pushed over the edge.

The situation with Sand, however, had evidently proven to be the final betrayal she could take. She was obviously now bent on the destruction of Section's leader--even if it meant destroying all her friends, as well.

His heart felt as though it were beating more slowly, as he made his way to Operations' office--as though he were in the final stages of freezing to death. He had extinguished Nikita's heat of life, and--without it--they would both die.

It hurt him more deeply than he could ever consciously comprehend that she had refused to trust him. He knew, of course, that he had given her ample reason not to, many times, but her refusal froze his soul, nonetheless. He needed her trust so desperately, after all; it was the one hope he had of keeping her safe. Without that, now, they were doomed.

He was determined, however, to make one final effort to save her. He had just finished putting plans into place which would allow her escape from Section. Maybe, somewhere out in the wider world, she could rediscover the soul he had apparently stolen.

He was no longer certain, though, that he would be around to find out. Even if he weren't cancelled for his obvious part in her escape, he was uncertain whether he would bother to keep himself alive long enough to continue to ensure her safety. . . . He simply didn't know whether he could survive without her presence again.

Their fate, however, didn't matter; their move had been played. Now it was simply a matter of waiting for Operations' checkmate. There was no longer a way to avoid it.

Michael resignedly reached the office of Section's lord. He was no longer able to hide his emotions from the older man; his eyes were obviously tear- filled.

It was inconsequential, though--he knew; his fate had been decided. All that was left was to play the role which had been choreographed for him; he proceeded, therefore, to turn in his Jesus.

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

Nikita was feeling decidedly cold; she was no longer wearing her coat for simple physical reasons. She had betrayed the only person she had ever truly loved. . . . Nothing could wipe her soul clean of that.

She was on a plane back to meet Adrian now--was on her way to carry out yet another betrayal. She had no idea where this would end for her, but she was certain that--wherever it was--she would no longer be recognizable there.

Even in the plane, she wasn't taking off her sunglasses, as she stared out the window; she couldn't stand the humanity of simple eye contact, anymore.

This feeling wasn't helped, either, by the fact that she was sharing the plane with Carla--her ersatz friend, who she was still ignoring.

Carla, though, couldn't take any more of the silence. "You've done the right thing, y'know."

Nikita couldn't help feeling an urge to hit her. Instead, however, she simply continued to stare out the window.

Carla sighed slightly. "This will be a really long flight, if you don't talk."

She wouldn't make eye contact. "It'll be long, no matter what."

"Nikita, it was an *assignment*. It had to be done."

"Is that what you tell yourself to get to sleep?"

"Don't you?" her friend returned.

Nikita finally looked at her. "Why are you bothering with this? We don't have to like each other in order to work together. Let's just maintain the distance *you*'ve set up and get on with the job."

Carla looked saddened and quizzical. "Do you think I enjoyed betraying you, Nikita? You think I liked watching the pain you were in and not being able to really help?"

Nikita's eyes, behind the dark glasses, were cold. "Didn't you?"

"*No*," she stated simply before looking up and sighing. She then refocused on her. "I knew the cause of every depression you were in--the reason for every disappearance. Hell, I even knew when you were planning that escape with Eric, . . . and I also knew that I couldn't tell you that it would be fatal." She shook her head. "I watched Michael manipulate and twist you, and I saw you, as well, miss several dozen clear signs of his love for you."

She cocked her head at her. "I've known you for two years, Nikita--through bad and worse. And, if you want my opinion--which I know you don't, I think I got the worse end of the deal, because I had to watch without ever reaching out and giving any real help."

Her arguments were fairly convincing, but Nikita wasn't feeling very forgiving today--of herself or anyone else. "Look, Carla, I know it was just an assignment, but do me a favor and spare me the old friend act."

Carla rolled her eyes before refocusing on her. "Dammit! You are so pig- headed, sometimes! What d'you want--a pint of blood?"

Nikita, despite herself, laughed. This sounded too much like the woman she had come to know.

Carla smiled. "Look, it was an assignment, yes, but the friendship was real --for me--after the second week I'd known you." She sighed, still smiling.

"I mean, admittedly, I'm glad I'm not the really pathetic girl I pretended to be. You have no idea how boring the whole girl-who-can't-find-the-right-man shtick was becoming." She leaned toward Nikita. "But I enjoyed every one of our talks, our meals, our time together. It meant a lot to me. . . . You were a good friend."

Nikita looked down. "Carla, I . . ."

"Hey, I don't expect our friendship to continue, really. I don't see how it can, in the same way. I just . . . I just want you to know that the friendship was real, even if everything else wasn't."

Nikita sighed. She wasn't good at forgiveness for major betrayals; she had gone through too many to be. Still, she believed Carla's words, knew this was the truth; it would be cruel, then, to just deny her completely.

She looked up at her and nodded, giving her a slight smile. "Deal."

Carla smiled back. Now that was the sort of answer she expected from Nikita.

She sat back, and the two women then continued the flight in a more companionable silence.

***********

We're jumping ahead a bit again here to Adrian and Nikita's return to Adrian's home, after the failed mission attempt.

It really only took a few hours for things to come to a head. Shortly after Nikita had learned of the further depravities of Section One--from its own file --she was returning with Adrian from their aborted mission to make Gemstone public.

She was becoming increasingly nervous. She hated this--hated the lies and betrayals even more now that she was the one dealing them than she had when she had been on the receiving end. Still, there was no stopping the inevitable.

Section was close. . . . Michael was close; she could sense his presence. Seeing Carla dead was still a bit of a shock, however, even if it hadn't been entirely unpredictable. And, if there hadn't been so much more on Nikita's mind at the moment, it would have affected her much more immediately.

Much of her concern for getting Adrian away, admittedly, was pretense; she was far too wrapped up in her own plans and fears to concentrate clearly on the impossible. She was hoping, fairly soon, though, to be able to help Adrian in her own way. Until then, there was little way to protect her.

Her attempt to run with the resigned Adrian was halted by two operatives and --more significantly to Nikita--Michael's voice: "Don't shoot." He sounded deeply grieved.

He might have appeared stoic to anyone else, but it was obvious to her that he was barely holding himself together. His eyes were liquid, and their sadness seemed to caress straight into her soul. He approached her, and she surrendered her gun without a spoken request.

He barely managed to focus on Adrian long enough to ask for the file; she was an afterthought to him. The moment was his and 'Kita's--was theirs in the most soul-destroying way. He ordered the others to take Adrian, allowing him the moment he needed with his beloved.

He offered her back her gun. "Go."

"What?"

He took a deep breath, looking away to draw his strength before refocusing on her. "Outside, you have a very small chance." His eyes fell to her lips momentarily before recapturing hers. "Back at Section, you have none." He swallowed back his tears heavily. His voice was breathy with emotion. "Go now."

Nikita raised her eyes again from her momentary lack of focus. She knew she couldn't run; she had an end game of her own she needed to see through.

Besides, after all her agonizing work to protect him, she wouldn't destroy everything by running now.

Her eyes were slightly hard. "What's the point?" She shook her head and laughed very slightly, with absolutely no humor. "I'm not going to run." She swallowed back her tears a bit; it only added to her pain that he would, even now, try to protect her. She knew, after all, that he was only going to be repaid for that kindness by an even greater betrayal than he imagined. Her eyes held a knowing, intense sadness.

He didn't know if he could withstand this; no words, no action of hers could have hurt him more the ones she had just given him. He was offering her a chance at life, and she was turning it down--refusing to be saved. His heart seemed to suddenly beat less and less, as the chill of her inevitable loss settled into him.

She turned to walk away from him, to the waiting operatives outside. She paused on the doorstep, however, needing a second to build up her resolve to keep going. In her mind, she said the words she needed to: "Michael, I'm sorry. . . . I love you."

He looked at the floor, as she retreated from him. As she stopped, though, he glanced up, confused. It was almost as though he had heard her thoughts-- could feel her apology. By the time he turned to watch her, however, she had moved on, and the thoughts had receded. He tried to repress his chill at their inevitable future and then followed her out, making plans--even now--for a way to save her.

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

Back at Section, Nikita's defection wasn't entirely a secret. Most operatives, however, didn't have the courage to watch her return.

Birkoff and Walter were there, though--still not able to believe the news. They felt trapped, unable to help their friend when her need was greatest.

Michael exited van access first, unable to watch Nikita handcuffed and guarded. He didn't make eye contact with either of the men--both of whom were a bit shocked at his participation in this. Michael, after all, had succeeded in protecting her so often; what was it, this time, which had prevented him from helping her?

The sight of both Nikita and Adrian being led into Section was like a terrifying nightmare; the one real ray of light the place had was about to be extinguished. All they could do, however, was watch in mute disbelief and fear before retreating to try to make some sort of contingency plan.

Michael felt as though he were leading his own funeral procession, as he escorted Nikita and Adrian to face Operations and Madeline. He couldn't make himself watch. He stood, instead, to the side, focused on his own thoughts, until Operations ordered the handcuffs to be removed.

Michael walked over slowly behind Nikita, retrieving the key. All the while, his mind was replaying placing that cold metal around her lovely wrists. He had done it very gently, keeping them as loose as possible, while stroking her wrists unconsciously. His eyes had searched hers but had found no recrimination. Instead, he had seen only acceptance and pain; it was a torturous combination.

As he approached to take them off, however, Operations silently demanded the key. The look he gave his subordinate reminded him again that Nikita was no longer his--that Michael had already given her up. . . . It was a cruel point to make just now.

Nikita was holding back tears, as Operations freed her; she understood too well what was coming. This was his moment of triumph, and he had no intention of being denied it. She braced herself, as the fatal words came: "Excellent work, Nikita."

It was only Michael's formidable self-control which kept him from gasping; too much fell into place for him in a matter of seconds. The woman who owned his soul had knowingly, premeditatedly betrayed him. His love mixed with pain, as he fought to understand--to survive.

For Adrian, too, the deception was shattering. She had believed in Nikita-- had put her faith in the idea that she was different--more noble. It was, perhaps, the most painful revelation of her life--only slightly above Operations' initial betrayal of her.

After the first shock, however, she understood; Nikita did believe her-- did understand the truth of her words. Somehow, though, they had managed to get to her before she had--through Michael, probably, she decided.

She went on to deliver some very accurate character studies of Madeline and Operations; profiling had always been one of her greatest strengths. Then, becoming more professional, she turned her attention to inquiring after her operatives, only to find little hope there, as well.

Through all this, Michael was still attempting to process these latest events. He was hurt beyond all conscious attempts at expression at Nikita's betrayal, but his love for her hadn't diminished at all. He wished, however-- desperately, that they were alone, that he could wrap his hands around her arms, drag her close, and demand, "Why? . . . How could you?" He was torn between the desire to kiss her demandingly--to seek in silences the answers no words could convey and the need to hold onto her arms roughly, bruising her soft skin, until she told him the answers which he knew couldn't be formed.

Nikita looked up, feeling his eyes on her. She understood his thoughts--his conflicting desires. Right now, though, she almost wished for death rather than having to face the pain of knowingly having betrayed him.

They continued to be tangled in each other's unspoken emotions, almost oblivious to the events around them, until Nikita came back to awareness by demanding her further role in their leaders' game. . . . She wouldn't let Operations win so easily.

Michael attempted to take in this new turn of events. Had she, after all, only begun this ordered betrayal with the intention of enacting her own?

Nikita was too caught up in her showdown with Section's chief to be aware of his thoughts; Gemstone had simply proven to her what her time in Section had always hinted at. "You support *butchers* who kill their own people by the thousands," she accused Operations. "You sponsor terrorism on every single continent. We're supposed to be *fighting* these people, not *helping* them," she spit out.

Michael watched, unsure of what to wish for, in this scenario. He knew very well, however, that all of her words were true; he had no real idea how Operations would be able to defend Section's actions to her.

Their leader, though, took an approach he hoped would be convincing; he used every alarmist defense he could muster, hoping to terrify her into submission. . . . That he was well aware that everything he said was nonsense he had forced others to create in order to justify his need for power was irrelevant.

Michael was slightly horrified; he knew these were lies. While part of him, of course, wanted Nikita to side with Section in an attempt to save her own life, he couldn't bear to see her compromise her soul that far. He was afraid, however, that Operations' tactic might work--might play off of Nikita's conscience enough to make her fear the results to others if she went against him.

Adrian shared Michael's fear. She stepped in, therefore, to present her own scenario--easily picking apart Operations' rationalizations, as he swallowed slightly in fear--listening.

Michael, too, was a bit impressed. He had forgotten how powerful a speaker Adrian was.

Nikita listened to both sides, as her mind worked furiously. After both factions had presented their views, she turned her attention to the person she trusted the most here--still unable to make eye contact with him: "Michael . . . any words of wisdom?"

His mind, during all this, had been partially working out the details of a contingency plan. If Section ended, he could free her; he would even go with her. It couldn't--happening like this--be the way she wanted it to be, though. He would only be with her to protect her--to keep her alive. They wouldn't be equals; he would be her bodyguard--whether she needed one or not, and--as such --he was both fierce and strict. He wouldn't be her lover or her friend; he could only be a machine. . . . She would hate it.

In some ways, however, it still seemed their best option. If she decided not to destroy Section, after all, they would cancel her. And, if she ran on her own, he would once again have to live with the constant, tormenting uncertainty about her safety. . . . He couldn't do that again.

He knew what he wanted to tell her, therefore, but he was also aware of the dangers of siding too obviously either way. Instead, he spoke to her in code about all of the brutality, pain, and humiliation it had hurt her so deeply to be allied to since her recruitment: "What have you seen with your own eyes?"

Madeline, however, understood only too well what he was up to. She stepped in to reinterpret his words. "Yes. Are the crimes we've committed worse than the crimes we've prevented? And the people we've brought down--is the world a better place without them?"

The thoughts that had been running riot through Nikita's mind through all this finally began to coalesce. She realized, in the space of a few seconds, that it was not as much the fate of the outside world which bothered her now; Section was only one small part of the larger puzzle which held together the terrorism it supposedly denounced. Rather, it was her friends who concerned her. Section should end, yes; she had known that for many years, but she couldn't destroy it at the cost of destroying the lives of those she cared about.

She told Madeline, therefore, a half-truth: "Yes, it is." It wasn't the time to mention the Bauers, Chandlers, Mijovichs, and Formitzs which Section had routinely supported for one thin reason or another. She had to appear to have changed her mind; it *might* give her a chance of surviving long enough to play this game again, only--next time, she hoped--with a different outcome.

When she answered Adrian's plea to reconsider, therefore, she told her the partial truth in her first sentence: "It's not as simple as you make it sound."

She remembered her dream and realized now that it had an ending. She had chosen Life-in-Death; it was the option her friends best understood.

When she called off the plans, she did it with the full knowledge that she might not be around to get a second shot. Hopefully, though, one day, someone else would come along to free them.

Michael closed his eyes from the pain of watching her--apparently--side with Operations--from seeing her actually agree with his reasons. His angel had lost her light, had finally been overtaken by darkness. There was little left for him.

Adrian, knowing she had lost, made one final plea to Nikita: "*Swear* you'll do everything in your power to keep Section from becoming a place of *pure* *evil*."

And, silently, she did. Then, she watched Adrian's first disciple betray his teacher with a kiss before sending her to her death.

Only when everyone else had left did Nikita finally turn to look at Michael, to be greeted by the immense pain in his eyes. "I didn't enjoy deceiving you, Michael, but Adrian was listening. It had to be real." She couldn't tell him the real reason for her manipulation in the first place.

That omission, however, tore at his soul. He looked up to blink back tears and then approached her slowly. He could only whisper; if he spoke any more loudly, his voice would give. His eyes were teary. He gave her the only option he could think of: "You have at least six hours before they make a decision. You're level two. They'll need to clear with Oversight."

"I told you before." She shook her head. "I'm not gonna run." Her face was determinedly blank.

He walked up to her side, unable to look at her, his voice becoming even softer. "They'll cancel you."

She nodded. "Probably."

He was out of words. He looked at her, drawing his eyes lovingly over her feeatures.

She was drawn into his look for a second before forcing herself away from it. She couldn't afford to feel her love for him right now; it might make her want to live.

He looked forward again, then took a step to his side, closer to her. He closed his eyes and pressed his lips gently to her face, with all of the tenderness his love for her possessed.

She closed her eyes, as her breath caught. The deceptively simple gesture brought down all of her walls. Her arm half-raised and then trailed around his neck, drawing him close to her. She held him loosely, delicately, patting his shoulder lightly. . . . She hadn't time enough left on earth for anything less gentle.

Her reaction to him changed the symbolism of his kiss. It had been a goodbye, a last parting before both of their deaths. The depth of emotion which swept from her altered everything, though. He stared over her shoulder, eyes open, not moving to share the embrace, as his mind began again to work on contingencies. He would find a way out for them--he had to--whether it was in this life or another.

He gave her a final look, as she let him go, before walking slowly away, his mind working. He heard her brave, whispered words, as he went: "I'm not afraid." He vowed to himself to try to fulfill those as well.

**********

Madeline sat in her office, waiting for Operations to arrive. She wasn't at all pleased with recent events. Things had been allowed to get much too far out of hand; Operations had been allowed to play altogether too many games lately--with herself, with Nikita, with Michael, . . . with Section as a whole. It had to end.

She had never believed in forgiveness, and she had no intention of starting now. She had been separated from her husband and then forced to kill him because of Operations' possessive power plays, only to then be used by him in another show of power, when he had brought in Ray Leeds to torment her--a little reminder, if a temporary one, that she wasn't irreplaceable. Now he was going to cancel the one operative who--in a perverse way--she could trust, who-- despite his warnings--had come to tell her of the impending situation with Charles. . . . She wouldn't have it.

Madeline had always been fond of Nikita, even if she found her trying, at times. The young woman had a mind unlike any other in Section, one which was capable of achieving great things for them, if handled correctly.

For the last several months, however, Section's most charming conundrum had been mishandled on a disastrous scale. Nikita responded best when she was given the illusion of having a modicum of free will; without that small requirement, as the last few hours had proven, she was the most dangerous and skilled opponent they could have.

It went against all of Madeline's economic instincts to willfully waste so potentially precious a resource. Nikita could be Section's best--a rival to herself or Michael--if she were only utilized correctly. To treat her, as Operations had demanded recently, like an abeyance op. was the height of short- sighted egotism.

There were two other primary reasons--aside from the one she planned on telling to Operations--that she wanted to keep the young woman alive, however.

The first was the rather odd sense of kinship she had always felt with her. Nikita--even when furious with her--had always treated Madeline as a feeling person, despite the fact that Section's doyenne had calculatedly attempted to destroy that aspect of herself many years ago; it was difficult not to appreciate such empathy. Also, though, Section's most promising young operative reminded Madeline of herself--of what she would like to have been; she wasn't willing to let that die again.

The second reason was a bit less personal but was equally incapable of being understood by Operations. The fact remained, however, that, if Nikita were cancelled, they would lose Michael, too; there was no question about it.

Nikita had grown in the young man's affections to the point of near obsession; her loss would destroy the already-shaky foundation on which his personality had been built.

Operations ignored this at his peril. He was too easily, too simplistically --in Madeline's opinion--fooled by the emotionless mask the younger man had developed; he--dangerously--ignored that the extraordinarily passionate, deeply sensual nature Michael had worked so hard to repress was linked entirely to his former material and that attempting to completely sever that bond would result in a cataclysmic explosion of emotion.

Madeline had absolutely no doubt that what passed for Michael's emotional and psychological stability rested wholly on the woman she knew he loved. If the decision were made to cancel her, he would demand to do it himself, . . . and-- a few seconds after he had completed this task--he would end his own life, as well. She stared down at her desk. This was an impractical outcome; they couldn't afford to lose him.

She sighed. She was well aware that she couldn't present these simple facts to Section's chief. He would ignore the obvious because of his personal feelings and would, therefore--once again, endanger them all. He was a fool, and his desires had to be circumvented.

The easiest way to do this, of course, was with a half-truth, which was precisely the course she would take. He would demand his pound of flesh, though--would need some promise that his ego would be sated. The best course she knew of, then, was to increase Nikita's mission frequency but also leave her on Michael's team--the last part of which Madeline had no intention of pointing out to the older man.

Michael would look after his former material possessively, if not denied it through force of arms. He would do so especially, she knew, if he were aware of the coming increase in her duties; he was too conscious of the workings of Section to mistake the deeper meanings there.

Her eyes focused unblinkingly on the other side of her office. Operations had no idea of the formidable enemy he had created in her. . . . He would find out, however.

She sighed again. Section's problem, at the moment, was its chief, not Nikita. . . . He was a problem, however, which would eventually take care of itself. . . . And, if Madeline had any say in the matter, Nikita would be part of his future despair.

**********

The six hours Nikita had until a decision was reached were almost over. . . .

The time until his execution was running out.

Michael had disabled the surveillance to his office, even though there was little to see there. Other than using his computer a few times, he had sat almost motionless for most of the six hours.

That fact was misleading, though. He knew that the mask was cracking; his face was a picture of despair. He had even, a few times, had to wipe away a few recalcitrant tears which refused to be contained.

He wouldn't live without her; every bit of determination he had was focused on this simple fact. All that was left now was to decide how to face his death. His body ached. Every nerve and muscle was in the process of trying to shut down, was attempting to drown out all sensation in preparation for this final act.

His heart, especially, felt as though it had been removed. Watching Nikita give up her soul to Operations, yet knowing by her reaction to his kiss that she still loved him, had destroyed it; it couldn't withstand the pain.

How could she have done this? How could she have given up on everything she believed--on all she held dear?

There was so much pain for him in her actions of late that he couldn't sort it all out. That she had betrayed him was the least of it. He understood too well the self-loathing she had gone through in following her orders; he had done the same thing too many times to judge her there.

What he couldn't understand was why she had taken the orders to begin with. Usually, she simply refused if an order upset her too much; why had she agreed this time?

He covered his eyes, as he rubbed his temples. Maybe he had done it; perhaps the death knell of her soul had not been siding with Operations over Adrian but had been rung by him on the Gelner mission, when he had seemingly rejected her. . . . Maybe the death blow was truly his.

He closed his eyes. He couldn't stand to think about it--couldn't bear admitting that he had extinguished her light.

He had set her up for this from the day of her recruitment, after all--had taught her to blindly follow orders, to deny her own judgment. He had taught her that she was unimportant in the larger scheme of things--that she was always expendible--that she should have no emotions to show. . . . He had instructed her in becoming himself.

The tears were flowing now; he couldn't stop them. His light was gone. Even her final effort at reasserting her soul had been short-lived. She had allowed Operations to frighten her into allowing a system she hated to continue.

He looked up, the tears still on his cheeks. He was angry now--angry that she would deny herself, even if he had tried to teach her to for many years. Didn't she know--wasn't she aware of just how important she was, how central to his and so many others' existence?

He swallowed back his tears. How dare she ignore that? How dare she destroy her light? Without it, the earth had *no* meaning, and life was just a penalty you paid for someone else's sexual mistake.

He shut his eyes for a second to close back the pain before reopening them. There was little choice left to them now; she had refused to run. And, since she had sided with the devil, she would now be cancelled by him. . . . All that was left was how.

Michael knew that he had to be the one to do it; he had to be her executioner. No one else had the right to be near her.

Maybe, he pondered, this was where it had been heading all along. Maybe by killing her, he was just finishing the job he had begun the day he had recruited her; maybe this was where their cycle of hopeless despair had always been destined to lead.

He sighed, his breath shuddering. If it had to happen, it would be done his way; he would demand the right to cancel her. Anyone who denied him--even Madeline or Operations--would die. Madeline--he was sure--would know this to be true and would, therefore, allow him this condemned man's final request.

Once given this assignment, he would go to her. He wouldn't, however, simply kill Nikita outright; he couldn't. He had to say goodbye.

He would make love to her one final time, would be certain that she understood the depth of his love, before the end came. He would share with her once more the only sacrament of which they were capable, would bind his soul to hers so tightly that he would be able to carry a little of her light with him-- to light his way into Hell.

When they were finished, when she again understood that they had always been parts of a whole, he would give her one final chance at life; he had the plans set. If she agreed, they would run. He would act as her protector, until they were found, until he was dead. . . . It was, under these conditions, the closest they would come to a life together.

He sighed and closed his eyes. He wasn't sure whether he wished for this outcome or not. She would hate him no less in it; his lies and manipulations would only become more frequent, as he would do anything necessary to keep her alive. It couldn't be a perfect, wouldn't even be a happy ending; it never could be while he had an immediate reason to fear for her safety.

He opened his eyes again. The other option might actually be more merciful.

Should she turn down his offer to run, he would agree and allow her to fall into the deep, blissful sleep which always overtook her after their lovemaking --the sort of sleep his body had always begged him to share but that his mind --tormented with visions of their possible, hopeless future--had never allowed.

Once he was certain she was unaware of her surroundings, he would kill her. He had narrowed down the possible methods to three. Whichever one he finally chose, however, it would be painless; her sleep would simply not end that night. Once that was done, he would take his gun and end his own miserable existence, thereby avoiding a fate far worse than Hell--the fate of life without her presence.

He sighed. His course was set. All he needed now was the final word on her fate to set him in motion.

As if tuned in to his thoughts, his intercom beeped, and Madeline's voice spoke to him. "Michael, would you come to my office, please?"

He took a deep breath, forcing as much of the pain as he could from his voice. "Of course." Then, with an effort of sheer will, he rose and went to meet his fate.

**********

A few minutes after he had been summoned, Michael punched in his code and slowly entered Madeline's office. Every step was a battle for control.

She watched him, as he came to a halt in front of her; his mask was in place but not particularly effective. "I have some data on the next mission. You'll need to go over it before the briefing." She pushed a p.d.a. across the desk to him.

He nodded slightly and picked it up. There was nothing unusual in the profile. "Is there any extra intel. I need to know about?" He wasn't looking at her.

"No. Everything's there."

He refocused on her. "Is there anyone in particular I should use?"

She shook her head slightly. "No. Your usual team will be fine."

He wasn't sure how much more of this mind game he could take. He became more blunt. "And Nikita?"

"What about her?"

He couldn't keep his voice from being breathy. "Is she still part of my team?"

"Of course."

He was trying to keep his eyes from watering further; he forced himself to ask the question. "Is she in abeyance?"

Madeline smiled slightly and shook her head. "No." Her eyes locked very seriously with Michael's. "In fact, we're going to be using her much more frequently from now on."

The look of horror in his eyes told her he understood her deeper message. "I see."

She continued to visually probe him; their real conversation had begun. "Do you think you can handle that?"

His eyes grew steely. "Yes."

She nodded and smiled again. "Good."

Michael was amazed. Yes, Operations wanted Nikita dead, but Madeline was giving him a chance to watch over her, instead; she had found their only way out. He continued their surface conversation. "Is that all?"

"For now," she intimated.

He nodded and walked toward her door. He turned to her at the last minute, though, his eyes strong and grateful. "Thank you."

She gave him a small smile and the vaguest of nods. Her plans were already going well.

Michael left her office with his mind spinning. He knew he was being trapped in an internal struggle between Operations and Madeline, but he really didn't care. So long as Nikita was alive, none of that would matter.

Madeline, in fact, had been a cold--a very changeable--ally of his for sometime; in a very distant way, she had watched over him for many years. Now, she was apparently acting as Nikita's protector, as well.

He understood some of her motives for doing this, while others were a mystery to him. It wasn't important, however; Nikita was alive. . . . Now, he just had to focus on keeping her that way.

He had turned down another corridor on his way back to his office, when Walter fell into step beside him. "Well?"

All of Michael's Section instincts to play innocent had been obliterated by the events of the day; Walter had a right to know. "She's alive."

The older man was agitated. "For how long?"

"I don't know," he answered honestly.

Walter stopped him by putting his hand on the younger man's arm and turning him back till they met face to face. His voice was gravelly and warning. "Don't play games with me, Michael. Is she in abeyance or not?"

If anyone else had grabbed the level 5 operative this way, they would have regretted it, but he shared Walter's fears too much to fault him. "No. In fact, her mission frequency is being increased."

"The rotten little son-of-a-bitch." His hand tightened on Michael's arm, until he realized what he was doing and let him go. Michael looked up at the cameras, but Walter just shook his head. "Birkoff's blocking surveillance.

Is she still on your team?"

Michael accepted this information and answered his question. "For now."

The older man took Michael's arm again and stepped closer to him, his eyes pleading and fearful. "You're going to look after her?"

Michael's eyes darkened; the look in them froze Walter's soul. He whispered menacingly. "*Nothing* will happen to her."

His eyes made Walter unconsciously loosen his grip for a second; Michael's fierce look was terrifying, even if it wasn't directed at you. He regained his composure, though, and reclasped his arm. "Birkoff and I . . ."

The younger man cut him off. "I know." He formed a silent agreement with Walter and then pulled away from him to return to his office. He needed to call in Nikita.

Walter sighed. The situation was probably the best it was going to get for a while; Michael could be a very dangerous protector, but he could certainly keep you alive.

He shook himself out of his reverie and went to tell Birkoff. They had to increase their vigilance, or they would all lose their light.

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

It was amazing how calm you became once you realized that death was inevitable. Nikita had spent the last six hours or so at her apartment, enjoying her favorite tea, listening to music--just sitting and thinking. For the last hour or so, too, she had been on her porch, staring out into the night.

She should be cold, she realized. After all, it was definitely coat weather, and she was standing outside on a windy night in a sleeveless shirt. She just didn't feel it, though; the cold had evaporated like her fear.

She knew she had to die--knew Section would feel they had no choice. Hell, Operations was probably looking forward to it.

She had made her point, though--had put into their minds a seed of doubt in their leader's plans. Word of what she had done would spread. . . . She wouldn't die in vain.

She wished that she could have ended it all today, of course--wished she could have ended her friends' pain. She knew, though, that it wouldn't have worked out--not this way. Had they been forced to run from the agency, they would have died--except for Michael, maybe, . . . but she couldn't really imagine him free . . . not in this scenario, anyway.

She had dreamed of creating a better future for him . . . for them, many times, of course. Michael was so deeply tied to Section, however, that he would need extensive help to break himself free of it; he would need both the motivation to change his old habits and a full-time, sympathetic companion to help him.

She had dreamed many times of being both of these--of forging a new future with him. The plan she had been able to implement today, though, didn't allow for that. In it, who was dead and who alive would be too obvious; they would be sitting targets.

She wouldn't be around to see it all go someday, unfortunately. She would have to hear about it second-hand from whatever part of the afterlife she ended up in.

She sighed and wondered again how it would be done--how she would die. Bullet? Knife? Poison? Another abeyance mission? Would she see it coming, or would she simply find it was over without warning?

She wondered, too, who would do it. Would it be someone she knew? . . . Would it be Michael?

In some odd way, she rather hoped it would be. His presence was a comfort to her. . . . Besides, she thought in a harsh self-judgment, he probably deserved some retribution after today.

How would he go about it, though? She almost hoped that he would catch her off-guard; she didn't want her last sight to be the look of betrayal in his eyes.

She shook her head slightly. She knew it didn't really matter. She would die today--sometime soon--and there was no way to change that.

She let out a small sigh. She kind of wished that she could have one more goodbye with Michael--one more chance to tell him she loved him, although she knew she shouldn't get greedy. He had said goodbye to her once already--had openly kissed her in the middle of Section; it had been a tender and shocking gesture. To expect more from him would be asking too much.

She looked down. She wondered, again, where she would go, when she died. She knew her soul was heavy with the pain she had caused others; she had lost count a long time ago of the people she had killed. . . . They didn't let murderers into heaven.

Maybe she would be lucky, though. Maybe the Christians had it wrong. Perhaps she would get the chance to live again--to make a second effort at living without hurting others. . . . She hoped so.

She couldn't help wishing, as well, that she could meet Michael again in another life--in one where they hadn't spent years tearing each other apart . . . in one where she could trust and believe in him. It was a fantasy, of course, but she hoped it was true.

She sighed again and looked back into the night. This life had almost run its course. If the Eastern religions were right, she wondered whether she had learned what she was supposed to from it. . . . She really wasn't sure.

She watched the lights twinkling from the nearby city and was happy, once more, to have such a view. If Michael was her executioner, she really would have to thank him for the balcony first.

She smiled slightly. It was amazing, given the life she led, how many things and people she had grown attached to. She would miss Walter and Birkoff, especially; she hoped her death wouldn't upset them too much.

Still, it couldn't be helped. The choice now was Operations', not hers. In fact, she was just wondering it they would ever reach a decision, when the phone rang.

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

Nikita had been a bit surprised at being called in. She supposed, though, that bodies were easier to dispose of here.

She walked through Section to a variety of reactions. Some people avoided her; others gave her frightened smiles before turning away. Some watched in open admiration. . . . A few even looked at her in awe.

She made her way to Michael's office, fully expecting to be told when she would die. She noted that his blinds were drawn--that was rare; she wondered what it presaged. She knocked briefly and opened the door, unaware that a dozen or so people seemed interested in her every move, until she disappeared from their sight, closing the door behind her.

Michael took in a breath, when he saw her; she was so achingly lovely. He punched in his code to jam surveillance. . . . This was a private conversation. She noticed how tired he seemed--almost drained of life. "You wanted to see me?"

There was so much to say. He couldn't find the appropriate starting place, so he fell into mission mode. "We have a briefing in 20 minutes."

She smiled. She hadn't left her place near the door. "Is it another Shays' mission?"

He opened his mouth to speak, then stopped himself. He was obviously just beginning to pull himself under control after several very difficult hours. He got to the point. "You're not in abeyance."

She raised her eyebrows at him and laughed slightly, walking toward him. "I'm not." Her tone was ironic.

"No." He took in a steadying breath, at her approach. "They're increasing your mission frequency."

She laughed softly, stopping in front of his desk. "They're hoping I'll get myself killed and save them the trouble."

His eyes were wet and haunted. "Yes."

She nodded, then laughed again. "Figures," she smiled. They wouldn't let her off easily, would force her to continue the life-in-death she had been surviving for four years.

She almost turned away, before she looked back at him. "So, am I still on your team?"

His eyes were tracing her face. "Yes."

She nodded and turned to go.

He wouldn't let her leave like this, though. This was his one chance to talk to her--his one chance to understand. . . . He would die without this opportunity. "`Kita," his voice caught her before he did.

She turned to find him very close, his presence washing over her--through her. She took in her breath, bracing herself. "Yes?"

His soul tangled further with hers the closer he got; it was almost unbearable. His eyes traced over her features possessively, sadly. "Why did you do it?"

She tried not to really answer him, still needing to protect him. "I told you, Michael. I had orders. I had to make things convincing." She backed up a bit to put some distance between them, but he followed.

He shook his head and reached up to run his fingers lightly down her hair, his barriers disintegrating. "Not that." He understood that one; his fingers were softly running more deeply through her hair. "Why did you side with Operations?"

She didn't want to answer this. "Does it matter?" She was up against the wall now, becoming increasingly distracted by his touch.

"Yes. It matters." His voice was soft but demanding. His eyes begged for her honesty. He was now tracing the outline of her cheek.

She closed her eyes. She couldn't stand much more of his touch without breaking down and falling into his arms, begging for his comfort . . . for his love. She had made it through the last several hours--the last few days--on sheer will power. If she opened up now, she would need him more desperately than she could bear. . . . It only made things worse that she knew he felt the same way about her.

"Please," he whispered. He was stroking her cheek.

She opened her eyes, the emotions his touch conveyed having broken down her will. "I couldn't let them hurt you."

His hand left her face suddenly, her words stinging him. He looked as though his life had ended. "You did it for me?" He backed up.

He couldn't bear this, didn't know where to begin in surviving; she had given up her soul for him. The pain was too great, too overwhelming; it was shredding him. He wasn't sure how much longer he would be able to stand.

His retreat left her cold, frightened. "Michael?" She stepped toward him.

"I'm sorry, Nikita." He turned away. She caught him by the arm and turned him back, gentle but determined, a little confused. "You're blaming yourself for this?" She shook her head. "Michael, I made my own decisions."

She couldn't tell him her original reasons for taking the assignment; he couldn't handle them. She had no idea how he might react--or what Operations and Madeline might do to him.

She focused, instead, on her most recent actions. "If I had ended Section today, I would have sentenced you and Walter and Birkoff and everyone else to death." She shrugged. "How long do you think Walter would make it on the run --or Birkoff?" She shook her head. "I'm not going to see *any* of my friends hurt."

His eyes grew wide. Her choice of words had shocked him out of his guilt; he wasn't sure he had heard her right. "`Friends'?" He couldn't imagine being called that by her; he had been her enemy and her tormentor far more than he had ever been her friend.

She understood and largely agreed with his thoughts; the word had been an unconscious choice. She was stymied for an answer for him. Her lips opened to try to respond, but nothing came out.

He saved her the trouble. His relief overtook him; his angel still had her soul. . . . She still loved him.

He leaned forward slowly, pulling her face to his, taking advantage of her open lips to explore the depths of her sweet mouth. He didn't need an answer. She was surprised for a second but then responded fully, running her hand into his hair to hold him close.

They shared their emotions, their love through the soft kiss. Their hands framed each other's faces. Their souls seemed to mingle somewhere in between them, joining in a way the physical world could never fully allow.

It was a tender and achingly erotic moment. They were both painfully aware of the other's arousal, knowing it couldn't be acted on.

He could feel it; she hadn't lost her light, hadn't compromised herself. She was still his Nikita--the woman whose soul aroused him so deeply. He wanted to weep, holding her in his arms; he hadn't lost her.

She, as well, received deep comfort from their bond--soothing her tormented mind and soul. He didn't hate her--hadn't turned away from her. . . . She had never been more grateful for miracles.

The kiss, though it only lasted a minute or so, seemed eternal. The realization came finally, however, that they had to pull back from it--had to return to their separate bodies.

They did so reluctantly, caught in each other's eyes, a breath apart, each desperately attempting to pull their bodies and emotions back into some reasonable facsimile of control.

He couldn't pull away from her just yet. He wanted--tormentingly--to tell her that he loved her, . . . but he knew he couldn't. There were still too many lies between them, too much she didn't know. To admit this truth between them now and then have her find out about the painful masquerades he played would wound her too deeply. . . . There would be no way back.

He settled, instead--as he had had to so often, on showing her. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to her cheek, feeling the transcendent, ethereal depths of their connection in that simple touch.

Nikita gasped softly; she understood, too. . . . He was kissing her soul. She held him to her lightly, as she closed her eyes and breathed in his ear.

"Michael."

His breath shuddered in hers, at the sound of her saying his name; it was the voice he heard in his fantasies every day, a torment more beautiful than words could describe. "`Kita," he sighed, all of his soul focused on her. He held her as well.

The embrace echoed the one they had shared earlier that day. Now, however, it wasn't a goodbye. They were here, together in spirit if on no other level, and they would survive, if only for each other.

The intercom broke them from their reverie but not their closeness, their cheeks still resting lightly against one another's, eyes closed. "Michael," Birkoff's voice broke through. "I've got the final profile." He paused. It killed him to interrupt whatever was happening in there, but he really didn't have a choice; he tried to make it brief. "I'm going to download it to your computer."

"Thank you," Michael breathed into Nikita's hair. Her hand tightened on his shoulder.

Birkoff, relieved that the older man had accepted this way out, clicked off the com. link, leaving the couple to their unspoken reconciliation.

They sighed finally and leaned back from each other; they knew this would probably be their last chance to be close for sometime. They each quietly straightened bits of clothing or smoothed out any disturbed hair on the other.

Nikita brushed a bit of lipstick from Michael's mouth, and he took her hand-- bringing it up to his lips to kiss her fingers. Their eyes caught for one more minute--holding on for as long as possible to their stolen moment of connection, before they pulled back completely--reluctantly returning to their operative roles.

He returned slowly to his desk, as she walked to the door. At the last second, however, she looked back at him. "Thank you."

His eyes held a hundred conflicting emotions for a second, before he reluctantly composed himself, returning completely to operative mode. "The briefing's in ten minutes."

Nikita nodded and gave him a brief smile before she left.

He closed his eyes, once she had gone, trying to store her love in his heart for the hard times to come. He then refocused on his computer and got back to work.

Nikita sighed, as she left his office. They were back in Hell, but it was a hell they were both used to--that they both understood.

It wasn't perfect, but--finally, once again--there was hope. And, as long as they each knew the other was safe, they would survive. . . . For now, that was all they would ask of life.