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It looked like it was going to be another endless, difficult night. She knew she should be used to this by now; she had certainly seen enough of them before. Their frequency, however, had increased dramatically since she had been living in their house.

Nikita lay before the fire in Michael and Elena's living room, praying for sunrise. It was, unfortunately, just one of many nights she had done this, since she had moved in here.

She had hoped, when this mission began for her, that the intensity of her torment through these dark hours would decrease with time, but the truth was just the opposite. Every day spent watching Michael play the perfect husband and father made her dread the coming of night that much more.

She had never before had to maintain a cover this difficult for so long. Usually, her missions were brief--a few minutes pretending to be someone else, target secured, then out again.

The role-playing wasn't even the hardest part of this one, though. Her only other previous long-term, constant missions, after all, had allowed her freer interaction with Michael--had usually presented them as a married couple. . . . This was *very* different. Not only was her new cover full-time, she was now just the distant, platonic relative, brought in as a favor to Michael's *wife*.

Nikita let out a breath and ran her hands back into her hair. His wife. She laughed slightly. What a shock that one had been. She still vividly remembered hearing his voice behind her that day, as the terrible realization had caught her--as she had learned that she was *not* at the wrong house.

She let her elbows fall to the floor and put her hands behind her head, as she stared at the ceiling. She hadn't thought there was much of anything that would distract her mind from the fact that she was Operations and Madeline's next target, but she had been wrong. Those few seconds on the doorstep had quickly redefined the whole concept of "bad day" for her.

She smiled slightly and shook her head. She was still a little surprised that she had been able to keep any sense of self-possession at all. Inwardly, after all, part of her had been shouting, "You stupid bastard! You've been stringing me along for *four years*?!" while throwing bits of driveway gravel at him. That she had been able to simply look like a bewildered (and rather angry) deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi was really something of a personal triumph to her.

Because the situation demanded it, though, she had forced herself not to focus on his marriage for several days--until she was temporarily safe again. Her subconscious, however, hadn't agreed with her plan at all; it constantly roamed through every horrible, possible truth of the situation and presented them to her in her hour or so of sleep during these nights. In the fragment of one of these dreams she remembered the most, in fact, the scene at the door had been replayed in the most terrible way her mind could imagine. In it, Michael--still holding his son, while gently pulling Elena with him--had begun to retreat into his house, as he closed the door on her. She had put out her hand, keeping it open, while she begged him, "Michael, what's going on?" He had stopped closing it for a second, given her a bemused half-smile and told her simply, "You were only an assignment, Nikita." Then, he had shut her out, going back to his true family.

Nikita took her arms out from under her head and crossed them over herself, as she shivered. She got onto her knees and then pushed herself up, going over to stoke the fire.

Once the blaze was going again, she settled herself back in front of it, her arms around her raised knees; she stared into it, rocking herself.

Her fears about the marriage had become more contained once she was finally able to talk to him about it . . . or, rather, when he would finally talk to her.

It wasn't, however, like the truth had really made her that much happier.

While she was relieved that he hadn't just been stringing her along for the past four years, part of her had already recognized this truth; it was only her fears which caused her nightmares. And it wasn't like the fact that he was playing an innocent woman--going as far as to marry and have a son by her--exactly made her ecstatic.

She turned her head to look out the window at an upstairs bedroom to see that their light was already off. She sighed and stretched her legs out in front of her, propping herself on her hands, as she stared into the fire once again.

She wasn't jealous, really. She understood that--on an emotional and probably even on a spiritual level--Michael was hers. It was more that--at times like these--she wasn't sure why she wanted him.

She knew he had been ordered to seduce and marry Elena; he had probably been ordered to have a child with her, as well. She understood all of this.

What she couldn't grasp was how he could go through with it.

She had seen Michael carry out brutal orders before--more times than she clearly wanted to remember. This, though, was somehow different. It wasn't an in-and-out job; he couldn't just pull a trigger or push a button and then leave. He had to live day-by-day with a sweet, innocent woman he was duping and the angelic, loving child he had fathered and watched grow-- knowing all-the-while that both of them were ultimately expendible.

She shook her head. How could he do that? How could he keep that sweet, loving mask on, knowing what was to come? . . . How could anyone do that and still be called "human"?

She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to control her anger, giving him some sympathy. She knew that the situation made him sad--could feel the waves of sorrow roll from him when Adam ran into his arms. She opened her eyes. That just wasn't enough, though. Feeling bad about being a member of the Gestapo didn't make your part in the atrocity okay; nothing could . . . except not being a part of it to begin with.

She couldn't understand how he could have agreed to this--why he possibly could have consented to it. What sort of man would do something this evil?

She leaned back on the floor again and put her hands over her face.

What sort of a freak was she to love him? Worse yet--what did it say about her that she was now part of this, as well?

She uncovered her eyes and stared at the ceiling. She hated herself for having talked Elena into seeing her father--for having helped bring her closer to her miserable, undeserved fate. . . . She knew this was a choice of which her soul would never be cleansed.

She couldn't really understand, either, why Michael had suggested that she become part of this nightmare. She lay her hands across her stomach.

When she had told him about her new orders to befriend Elena, after all, he had simply nodded and--upon further questioning--admitted that he had suggested it, allowing her only that, "You can help bring this to a close."

. . . Why the hell he thought she wanted to be involved in it at all, though, was beyond her.

She twisted her head around to stare at the window again, but Michael and Elena's bedroom was blocked from her view. She refocused on the ceiling. She shook her head slightly. It wasn't that she doubted that Michael cared for her; in fact, since she had come here, she had become increasingly convinced that his feelings for Elena consisted primarily of guilt and a sense of responsibility.

That didn't make it any easier, though; it didn't change the fact that his loving mask for his mission wife was always in place. . . . It was very hard to watch their domestic bliss, even if she could clearly feel that it was just a pretense for him.

The reason, in fact, that she spent so much time at night down here was because of something that had happened soon after she had arrived. Michael and Elena had retired upstairs about 45 minutes before her. As she passed their room on the way to hers, however, she had heard the soft moans, the little whispers through their door; she had been temporarily shocked into stillness. The sounds had continued--those of a married couple--alone and in love. Coming back to her senses, she had crept by their room as quickly and silently as possible.

Those sounds still haunted her, though. She closed her eyes. She had been well aware that there was a heavy valentine element to this mission; she hadn't needed the reminder.

She resumed her study of the ceiling. Since then, she had made it a habit to stay downstairs until the early morning hours, since she knew it was then that Michael would get up to start attending to his "business."

Although there were no guarantees that this technique would work, she was praying that it would help her avoid hearing anything of that sort again. . . . Considering what her dreams were like--the nightmares or fantasies of him--it wasn't like she much missed the sleep, anyway.

She sighed. She couldn't deny that seeing Michael with another woman every day caused her pain. It did. . . . It always would.

It didn't help matters, either, that she really liked Elena. She was sweet-tempered, intelligent, funny, beautiful; she deserved someone who loved her--someone like the character Michael was playing. . . . Nikita sighed. That gentle woman, however, would never have survived the man he truly was.

She turned her head to the side and rubbed her cheek against the carpet. It hurt her--it was true--that her Michael--the true one--was cold and ruthless. She wished she could share Elena's Michael--the sweet, tender family man--the one Nikita had only met for three days by accident. . . .

She found herself thinking about that man a lot these days, but she knew, unfortunately, that he was no longer real.

As tempting as it could be, then, she couldn't be jealous of Elena. Her Michael was an illusion--a lie. Nikita's, for all his incalculable faults, was at least a reality, if a brutal one.

She knew that--in his own, repressed way, as well--her Michael had been trying to tell her about this for months. She knew now that this was what he had meant when he had told her to "Be patient." He had hinted at it after the Armel mission, too--reminding her that his secrets had "nothing to do with how I feel about you."

He had known, then, that she would find out and had tried to prepare her; he had tried, too, to tell her that he cared--to reassure her. Lately, furthermore, he had openly sided with her against Section, had even presented a--failed--ultimatum to Madeline to try to save her life.

He had tried to give her little hints while she had been here, as well. From the embrace he had given her at the door when she had first found him to the occasional goodnight half-hug--his hand always stroking her shoulder in a way which appeared to be, but was not, platonic--he had attempted to give her reminders that it was the two of them that was real, nothing else.

She wanted to be comforted by this, but she couldn't be. Yes, she still loved him--still wanted him but not at the price of an innocent woman and her child. . . . Nothing between the two of them could make that alright.

He and Elena *had* had a son together, after all . . . Adam. It was far more than Nikita could ever hope to have with him in Section.

She closed her reddened eyes for a second. Adam was so perfect; he almost appeared to be formed--created in the pure essence of love. She had never known a sweeter or more loving child. She found it hard to watch him with his father, in fact; she could always feel the guilt--the pain which flowed from Michael when faced with him.

She really wasn't sure, however, what Michael's feelings towards his son were. She couldn't really imagine the man she loved *not* loving his own child, but she sometimes wondered if that weren't the truth, anyway. It wasn't that she suspected that he hated his child--more that he had distanced himself so far from his own emotions that he couldn't allow himself to feel that love. She had seen him stay at Section, after all--without complaint or unusual concern, for months at a time, with no opportunity to leave; she had also seen him try to end his life at least twice--when he had been faced with the deaths of Simone and then Rene'.

Somehow, that didn't suggest to her a man who had a dearly-loved son at home.

She wondered a little what would happen to Michael once the mission was over. Could he allow himself to admit his love for his own flesh and blood then? Or would he simply bury that need so far into himself that it would simply become another untended spiritual wound?

She looked out the window into the dark again, finding no answers there.

It was still, she noticed as well, several hours till dawn; she would have to stay here for awhile longer.

She hated all this. She didn't really know how it would end, but she did know that it wouldn't be well. When it was over, too, there would be several shattered lives. . . . The fact that hers might not be one of them didn't increase her chances for peace.

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

He hated the night lately--hated the dark. It seemed to reflect something in him--something that was growing; it seemed to reflect his own soul.

This had always been a . . . difficult assignment for Michael. He had never wanted to hurt the gentle woman whose head now rested on his chest, her breathing soft and even--her worst nightmares incapable of suggesting to her the unspoken truth of her life; he had never wanted the beautiful child his body had somehow helped create, either--so completely unaware in his innocence of the pain which lay in store. He had never wished for any of this hell he was fostering. . . . Most of all, though, he had never wanted to have any of it forced upon the woman he loved.

He was in bed with his "wife" now--his target . . . Elena, while the mate of his heart and soul sat downstairs, waiting for dawn. She had never told him her plans--had never said that she had heard Michael fulfilling his mission requirements with his assigned spouse, but he had known. Quiet as she had been, he had heard her; he had felt her torment crashing over him from the hall, . . . and he had shared in every moment of it.

So many times, since Elena had asked Nikita to share their "home," so many nights, he had dreamed of going to her--to his heart and soul . . . to his life. He had fantasized so often about lying in bed, stroking her soft hair, as she slept contentedly--her head on his shoulder, after they had made love almost fiercely--to remind themselves that they were still alive, still together. He closed his eyes, his hand stroking down Elena's silken hair, wishing she were his beloved.

She wasn't, though. He sighed and opened his eyes. The sweet, gentle soul curled near him wasn't Nikita. And, as beautiful and unique as Elena was, his soul was empty of anything like romantic love for her. He looked down at her. She deserved better--deserved someone who actually felt for her all the things he claimed to. . . . She didn't deserve to be seduced and betrayed.

He had tried to tell himself, when all of this had begun so many years ago, that it might make things easier for him that Elena was bright and sweet-natured, funny and beautiful; maybe that would be easier to go home to than someone less noble--someone plastic, status-minded, and preening. Over time, however, he had realized--painfully--that it was really the opposite. Had she been any of those latter things, she might have been easier to betray; he could have told her it was just an assignment at the end of it and left with less guilt.

He couldn't do this with her, however. He kissed the top of her head, as she smiled and snuggled closer to him in her sleep. She deserved a life of happiness and joy, and he had--instead--given her a prelude to emptiness and pain.

He unwrapped his undeserving target from around him and slipped out of bed; he couldn't be close to her anymore. She murmured unhappily to herself at his loss and shifted around, staying in the warm spot he had abandoned.

He looked down at her with familiar regret and brushed her hair from her face with an almost brotherly gesture before moving away from her to get his robe. He put it on and went to the window, looking down at the still-lighted living room . . . and the woman who had his heart.

He had probably always hated most of all the valentine aspect of this mission. It wasn't, though, that Elena was an unappealing lover; to the contrary, she was exceedingly sensual and gently arousing. Had he cared about her at all--had he not been deeply in love elsewhere, she would have been a fulfilling and wonderful partner.

As it was, however, she meant nothing to him sensually. He could force his body to respond in the expected ways, but he couldn't force it to gain any true arousal or pleasure from her. . . . He did his duty by her but no more.

He couldn't, after all. He looked out at the trees beyond his window. When he had accepted this mission originally, he had done it solely as a way to allow him to stay married to Simone; had he refused, they would have separated them.

He couldn't allow that to happen, of course--had refused to allow it to. Both he and Simone had agreed early on in their relationship to take any assignment--no matter how brutal--so long as they were allowed to stay together. He looked at his false wife's reflection in the glass. Elena, however, had still been a cruel stroke for them.

Operations and Madeline had hoped, of course, that this mission would do their work for them--that the strain of Michael's frequent absences--of his constant, "legal" relationship with another woman, would tear them apart. Fortunately, though--for all the good it had eventually done them--it hadn't worked.

He knew the relationship had hurt Simone, however, although they had agreed never to discuss it. She had understood, though, that it hadn't been much easier for him.

He sighed and looked up at the darkened sky. After he thought his true wife had died, he hadn't wanted to continue . . . with anything. In fact, had it not been for one person, he wouldn't have.

Michael looked down at the light in the living room again and felt his heart clench. Nikita. She had given him a reason to live, . . . and she had made everything so much harder.

He held his hand up to the glass. He could see little of her from where he was--just a dim shadow. . . . It seemed grievously symbolic of much of their life.

If he had had trouble having any true sexual response to the beautiful Elena when Simone had been alive, every even vestigial reaction of that sort to his false wife had died completely with the arrival of Nikita in his life. . . . She had changed everything. Valentine ops.--including the ones with Elena--had gone from rote, unemotional missions to journeys to the heart of Hell.

He sighed, lowering his head, as he rubbed at his tired eyes. How else could he explain the change of feelings she had wrought in him? Even before he had consciously admitted his need for her, his body had more and more rebelled at everyone who wasn't her. For three years, it had ached for her, while his mind had refused to admit that anything had changed. He gave an ironic half-smile before looking up. It had been a grand feat of denial.

His growing torment hadn't been helped, either, by several events in their relationship. The first had been the mission against Bauer. That one real, first kiss had jolted his body back into almost painful life--after his emotional death with Simone. His mind had had to admit--at that point-- that he was, at least, *definitely* attracted to his material; his body had made it too obvious to him too often to deny any longer.

It had only gotten worse, as well, after he had half-seduced her to keep her from running with Eric. He had told himself before then that he could handle it--that it was just a seduction like any other. . . . But it wasn't . . . not at all.

What had made the valentine ops. completely unbearable, however, had been their first night together. Finally, after six months of torment, thinking her dead--after three and a half years of his body and soul reaching out to her, begging to feel her near, he was able--at long last--to join with her, to be completed, body and soul.

Nothing before had ever come close to it. No one before had ever been her. As perfect--as overwhelming as his lovemaking with Simone had been, it paled into insignificance compared to that one night of union with Nikita. With her, it wasn't simply an act of two people joining in love and desire; it was the act of one--divided--soul, finally reunited.

He closed his eyes, the memories overwhelming. When he had forced himself to remember that he would have to return to Elena, after that night, he had pondered dying. He had thought, though--had told himself, that the mission was drawing to a close, that he just needed to hold on a little longer.

He had tried telling Nikita this, as well--in a coded way, but, after three years of only knowing his love when he was ordered to--or when he was manipulating her, she no longer believed his words; it was just another way of saying, "I'm sorry. It had to be done" to her. He opened his eyes. And it had been one time too many.

The fact that she had tried to pull away from him, however, didn't help him happily resume his assigned role with Elena. Instead, he had been forced to pull back--to withdraw into himself while trying to force a smile around his assigned wife. Otherwise, he would have lost control--would have found some dark corner of Section to meet Nikita in, where he would have spent the next several days--until they were both caught and cancelled--fanning the desire he knew was still latent in her in order to begin enacting some of his most tormenting repeated fantasies.

He sighed. Elena had noticed the change in him, as well--had felt some tiny part of his rioting emotions. Especially with all of his prolonged absences around this time, he had had to work very hard to force himself to appear to still be the man she had married.

Every time since then that he had had to be with Elena--or anyone else-- however, he had had to try not to cry with sorrow and frustration. All he had ever been able to really think about was that this was *not* Nikita.

He watched the living room window, thinking he saw her moving. He wanted to be with her now--wanted to go down and make love with her, wanted to remind himself that there was some purpose in this meaningless life-- something holy he hadn't entirely corrupted.

He looked up briefly to force his reddened eyes not to tear. He had only once since that night in Paris allowed his need to control him. The situation, after all, had called to him, begging him to weaken--to take advantage of what fate was offering.

He had known, of course, that requesting her presence on the Armel mission would only make continuing to lie to her about his life more difficult-- would make returning to Elena and Adam shatteringly painful. He had done it nonetheless, though--unable to resist the siren song of a week-long fantasy with the woman he loved.

He had been right about it, too; in many ways, it had been hell. The comparisons between it and his life with Elena were impossible not to make. He ached every moment of that week, never wanting to have to return to his primary mission--feeling the pain increase daily, . . . but he would have brutally damaged *anyone* who had even thought of depriving him of one single moment of beautiful torment with his beloved.

He had come the closest then of any time to breaking down and admitting the truth to her. He had wanted to tell her that he loved her--that everything between them was and always had been real, . . . but he couldn't; he couldn't admit that truth to her without admitting this other, as well.

Otherwise, when she found out, she would think that everything between them had been a lie. In the end, he had come as close as he could afford to the truth . . . closer, actually. It was the best he could do at the time.

He sighed and closed his eyes for a minute. He was glad she knew now, that she had found out, but he wanted--needed so much more. He ached to finally speak the words to her which had always been true--to tell them to her when he was capable of remembering the whole of their lives together, when he could afford not to deny them hours later. He was finding more and more, with her here, that he wanted this to be over, however little he wanted to hurt his assigned wife . . . and his child.

He opened tear-rimmed eyes to look out at the night. As little as he looked forward to hurting his wife, Adam . . . Adam was a story to himself. . . . He was a child who should never have been born.

He had been told before the mission, of course, that having a child might be necessary--might even be helpful, but he had never intended to actually follow this order. He had tried, very subtly, to convince Elena--several times--that it wasn't the right time yet for them to have children, that they should wait a little, and Elena, being the gentle-natured soul that she was, had usually agreed--after a few playful attempts to convince him.

In the end, it had happened by "accident." Her purse had been stolen on holiday, and--with no prescription on hand and the efforts to replace them being a waste of vacation time he would have little excuse for insisting on--she had stopped taking her pills for awhile.

He remembered it all too clearly. He had wanted to scream--or to demand that they do something else to make certain--knowing full well that Section was behind it, but--playing the loving, happy husband--he couldn't. . . .

He couldn't prevent it--not while maintaining his ever-important cover. It had been a nightmare--the ultimate cruelty. Not only was he setting up a sweet woman to be abandoned, but he was also forcing upon her a child to look after. . . . Pretending to be happy had been brutal.

He had actually plotted, for awhile, ways to force Elena to miscarry.

Although she would have been heart-broken, it would have been kinder in the long run--better than finding out that your child was simply a contingency planned by others in a mission against a father you didn't know . . . not to mention the impact on the "contingency."

He had had the right chemical in hand, in fact, when he returned home to find Elena happily telling the news to "Aunt Madeline." . . . From then, he had simply had to accept that he would now be responsible for the destruction of two innocent lives on this mission, instead of one.

He had tried to help Elena as much as possible during her pregnancy, had played the ecstatic expectant father. He had even been there to watch the beautiful child he had somehow sired born and had been the one to name him; after all, like the Biblical first man, his son, too, would one day be thrown out of paradise by his creator.

He was just lucky, really, that Elena had had a difficult enough time in delivery to allow him to convince her that one child was blessing enough. . . . Adam needed no brothers or sisters to join him in his wretched and inevitable fate.

Michael blinked back tears. He understood that Adam was his child when it came to biology or responsibility. In any other way, however, he was like a little, loving stranger. His angelic beauty, his sweet, playful temperament were so much the image of his mother, after all. It had hurt him to think that finding out the truth of his creation would destroy all of that . . . could very well remold him into his father's image, instead. . . . It was a fate no parent could wish for.

He sighed slightly. It hurt him to know that he couldn't love his own child, but he knew he couldn't change that. He was aware--every single day--that his son was only his temporarily. Adam was simply the unfortunate, beautiful by-product of a cruel mission; he was the child of a man who had never existed. . . . Besides, he was certain that nothing that angelic could truly be called his.

His soul ached to watch the child, however--so innocent and trusting. He could see the coming shattering of that innocence so clearly, after all; even if he would never find out the truth of his creation--with Section's current plan, the inescapable separation from the "father" he adored would still scar him permanently.

Michael swallowed heavily. He wanted so much more for the child; Adam --like his gentle mother--deserved a real man to care for them--someone who could feel . . . someone who was still alive.

His eye was caught by more movement in the living room; he, once more, swallowed back tears. Adam, after all, wasn't the first innocent he had destroyed.

He had requested that Nikita be made part of this mission partly to keep an eye on her, to try to keep her out of Operations and Madeline's schemes. . . . Mostly, though, he knew he just needed her close.

He hadn't anticipated just how much Elena would like her, however . . . had never expected her to move in. While he was relieved that his wife's initial suspicions had disappeared, the constant proximity of his true love was becoming torturous; watching her with Adam made him ache for children of their own--children which would truly be his, the offspring of his heart. Having to keep his painful need to be close to her hidden was becoming maddening. . . . He just wanted it to be over.

He knew it was no easier on her--could feel the pain she was hiding.

When he had heard her in the hall that night, in fact, he had begun to cry slightly. He had had to kiss Elena much more profoundly to keep from screaming for the only woman he would ever need. He had actually been relieved--a few nights ago--when Adam's nightmare had given him an excuse to bring him to their bed; it had given him one night's reprieve from the possibility of another such scene.

He kept telling himself that the end was getting near--that he could soon hold Nikita again, if only briefly--if only erratically; he could soon ask for her forgiveness. He looked back at the woman on the bed.

He was quite certain, however, that he deserved none at all.

***********

Elena woke up to find him gone. Although she was a little disappointed, she wasn't really surprised; Michael had always been an early riser. She indulged herself for a second by taking in a breath near the sheets, which still had his scent. She then smiled and rolled out of bed.

She stretched and headed toward the shower, before she remembered that she had gotten Nikita to promise to let her run with her today. She changed paths and went to get out her clothes instead; the shower would wait.

She was finding herself happier and happier that Nikita had come into their lives, although she was still a little embarrassed at the suspicions she had had when she had first found her at the door. But . . . well, what *were* you supposed to think when a beautiful woman shows up and seems shocked at finding your husband married, while your husband starts acting upset and insular? It was a little hard not to question it all at first, she knew, . . . but she was still a little ashamed at her brief suspicions.

She continued pondering their houseguest, as she dressed. Once she had gotten to know Michael's cousin, she realized how wonderful she was. She was easy to talk to, sympathetic, and very funny. She understood now why Michael was so fond of her.

Of course, he had never really said that. When she had questioned him about her--when she was still just a touch suspicious--he had just repeated that it had been years since he had seen her. When she had pressed him as to their relationship, he had only said that, "We used to be close once."

She laughed a little, as she put on her sweatshirt. Living with Michael had taught her to get used to interpreting silences. It wasn't that he didn't talk to her, but he did seem to feel that his problems were his own--that she shouldn't be burdened. This, though, drove her *crazy*, since she wanted to be able to help him in the same way he always had her.

It was really only with his kindness and presence, after all, that she had been able to finally work through the grief of her mother's death.

She stopped smiling. Without him, . . . she didn't know where she would have ended up.

He had been so encouraging about her father, too. If he hadn't talked her through it so much, she probably would still just have written him off--would just have abandoned that part of her life.

She sighed. She didn't really feel like thinking about that now, however. She headed into the bathroom to get ready. It was just that she would have liked to have helped Michael as much as he had her. I mean, he had had two of his cousins die since they had been together--one not all that long after their marriage, one just a year ago; both times, though, he had kept most of the grief to himself.

She had suspected, however, that the most recently-deceased one had been the closest to him. After both, he had thrown himself into work, but there had been around six months this last time that she had barely seen him--he had almost never been home. And, when he was, he had been so sad; he had tried to hide it, but she had seen it anyway. Things had only begun to turn around, in fact, when an old client he thought he had lost had come back, but he had seemed to spend a lot of the last few months trying not to lose him again.

Anyway, she supposed that all of this was partly why seeing his cousin again had seemed to affect him so. He had obviously been thinking about the ones he had lost.

Elena, in the course of putting all of this together, had told Nikita about it the other day, but she had then regretted it a bit. She, too, had seemed so sad--so overtaken by memories, . . . but she had said little about them. Apparently, the tendency to keep problems to themselves ran in the family.

She was happy she had invited her to stay, though. She could feel that Michael drew energy from having her around, even if she also seemed to remind him of his losses.

She sighed, exiting the bathroom. She was so lucky to have Michael. Even if he was away a lot, it would be hard to find anyone more attentive and loving than him.

She supposed the absences had their merits, too. She sat down to put on her socks and tennis shoes. With the exception of his serious depression over the death of his cousin a year ago, his affection toward her was always fully expressed when he returned. . . . He was always so gentle.

Lately, too, he had been making a point of keeping their lovemaking very quiet. They always did this to an extent, anyway--trying to avoid having Adam enter their room to ask in shock, "Daddy, what are you doing to Mommy?!"--but he seemed to also want to spare Nikita any possible embarrassment in overhearing them. It was his typical, thoughtful self. She smiled, slipping on a second shoe, continuing to run over a list of her husband's merits. He was such a perfect father, as well; he loved Adam so much. She still remembered finding him, soon after the birth, looking in at the door--just watching him sleep in his crib; it was obvious that he had been crying. . . . It was the sort of tenderness she had come to expect from him.

Her mind returned to her own father, as she began to head downstairs. She wanted to meet him, she supposed, but she was still angry at his years of silence. . . . At least, she thought happily, she could be certain that particular pain was something their son would never have to experience.

She saw Nikita and smiled. "You ready?" Nikita gave her a smiling half-nod, and they left to begin their run.

Yes, all in all, her life was wonderful. The future--reconciliation with her father or no--was bright. . . . She was an almost blissfully happy woman.