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"Beauty and the beast," he pondered, while watching Nikita disappear from sight--walking away down a corridor with Rudy. "Two innocents lost in a maze of lies."

Michael sighed and turned to begin the slow walk back to his office, giving up the vantage point in the hallway he had taken some 15 minutes ago. He had used it to watch Nikita's entire briefing with Operations, clearly reading her emotions through the glass.

No one had questioned his motionless, concentrated presence. After all, he had--years ago--semi-purposely molded the image of himself as the most dangerous cold op. in Section's history; only an innocent like Nikita would willingly walk into the den of a rogue lion, a smile of friendship on her beautiful face.

Michael reached his office and closed the door behind himself--sign enough to warn off almost anyone. He slowly sat at his desk and then mutely watched the activity outside his window.

Nikita didn't belong here. She wasn't cold--wasn't ruthless. Every time he tried to make her either of these, as well, he failed; her humanity was too strong.

He smiled slightly; she seemed like an innocent child, sometimes, playing gleefully among adoring or confused adults, while Walter, Birkoff--even Madeline, on occasions--watched with amusement. . . .

She could still enjoy life--still *wanted* to enjoy it; she could light up any room with her presence--could bring life to the most deadened places--like Section . . . or his heart.

Michael stopped smiling, growing angry with himself, and turned back to his desk to work on reports. . . . No. He wasn't in love with her.

She was his material--nothing more. He had just put too much effort into molding her to let her be cancelled too easily.

He erected these denials around himself like military fortifications, trying to ignore that they felt more like a hair shirt he was forcing himself to wear, in some sort of perverse penance for his own humanity.

He was typing furiously, trying to repress his feelings--to ignore them. . . . It was only when he saw that he had no idea what he was typing--and had to delete several paragraphs--that he realized he couldn't simply avoid his current train of thought.

He wanted to slam his computer shut, to throw something, but--logically--he knew that these would be childish, stupid things to do.

He decided, therefore, to go to the range, where he would only harm paper targets. His shoulder still hurt from the bullet he had taken in it on his last big--ill-fated--mission; rehabilitating it, though, would give him an excuse to be on the range.

He left his office, thinking back to his earlier assessment of Nikita and Rudy. Rudy wasn't a beast, really. In a rather subtle way, in fact, he had shown a good deal of cunning; they had underestimated him and had suffered the loss of several critical hours, as a result. Michael could think of few others who had managed to slip through Section's grasp so easily.

He was angry with Rudy--but not for escaping or for anything about him personally. . . . No. He was angry, instead, at the memories the man had brought back to him--at the fears he made too pressing.

Walter looked up, slightly confused, as Michael entered his work area. "Is there a mission up?"

"No. I needed range time," Michael explained, stone-faced.

"Yeah, right. You need range time like Madeline needs assertiveness training." The older man looked him over. "What's really up?"

Michael's expression was unchanged. "Just give me the gun, Walter."

Section's grizzled armorer shook his head but relented--not really surprised at the younger man's determined emotional isolation--and pushed the gun, several cartridges, safety glasses, and the sign-out computer page toward him. Michael typed in the essentials, took his equipment, and left.

After he was gone, Walter pulled the laptop back toward himself and read his excuse. He smiled; the younger man's healed wound was at least a better reason than "proficiency," the ubiquitous answer of most ops. who just needed to let off steam on the firing range. He had wished, more than once, that they could put their real reasons down; "Pissed off," "Sick of being in Section," "Having trouble keeping relationship with fellow op. secret," etc. would make for much better--and more honest--reading.

He walked over to the range and--from a glass wall behind it-- watched the younger man blasting away for awhile. Whatever the variation, there was only one reason Michael ever really needed to randomly shoot at things: his continued denial of his feelings for Nikita. "Sugar," Walter thought, "I sure wish he'd let you in." Among other things, it would save a hell of a lot of money on cartridges and targets.

Michael was unaware of Walter's continued interest. He was too wrapped up in his own thoughts.

The whole situation with Rudy--and Nikita's protectiveness toward the civilian--had taken him back to a similar situation many years ago. He had been in Section for six years by then and had been an established mission leader for over two of those. He had been capable of ruthless, heartless actions on a daily basis, . . . but there had been a recent variable in his life: his relationship with Simone.

He had already emptied one clip and now began slowly loading another.

He and Simone had been together for half a year by that time, with Section's agreement--but not their blessing. In most ways, he had still been the perfect operative, but his private life had begun--for the only time since his recruitment--to have real meaning. . . . There had been a reason to go home, something--someone to think about outside of his missions.

While he had still--ostensibly--been the same operative, then, changes had begun inside of him. For the first time in his life, something had struggled to life within him, . . . and he had been entirely unwilling to let that hard-won miracle die easily.

He took aim and began shooting again. It had been at that point that the Pontavedro mission had happened: hundreds of hostages--an entire, tiny Texas town--with one fairly simple witness who could give them the information they needed to strategize.

Michael had been called down to the Dallas substation to help. It had all gone surprisingly well; with Willie--the "idiot savant"'s-- insight, they had managed to neutralize the situation and free the town before any major damage had been done.

It had been Michael who had suggested the simple man's release, had assured Operations that he was no risk. With the new feeling in him just coming out of its birth struggles, he hadn't been able to look the innocent young man in the eye and order his death. . . . It was his mistake, however, . . . and Willie and the entire Dallas substation had paid for it.

He had hardened again then; he had had to. While there were deeper emotions still in him for Simone, he had purposely destroyed the possibility of transferring them to others.

It had been then, as well, that he had truly lost his battle with Section--that they had begun to "test" Simone and himself--intentionally putting them through the cruelest of assignments to punish him for the results of his humanity. . . . It had been a period of unspeakable hell; he wanted desperately to be able to save Nikita from a similar fate.

He blinked, realizing he was out of bullets once more, and began another reloading. Rudy had brought it all back to him: his naive--and, ultimately, deadly--belief that there were innocents, that some people shouldn't be expendible. The memories, he knew, were a warning; for Nikita's sake--for both her sanity and her physical well-being in Section--he had wanted Rudy dead.

He began shooting again, aware that this was his last clip--his last chance to vent some anger for awhile. Nikita didn't know this story, of course; he would never have told her. She needed to be tougher to survive, and that wouldn't happen if he opened up to her.

Her humanity had put her on the fringes of abeyance too many times; he knew there would come a day when he wouldn't be able to save her. Michael's hands seized up at this last thought, and he stopped shooting. He froze for a second, unable to cope with the possibility of losing her. Then, angry with himself for such feelings--angry at her for causing them--angry at Rudy for his innocence . . . for the memories he had brought back and for his love for his young sister--too similar to Michael's own, he began firing rapidly, emptying his gun at a blameless target in silent fury.

Once finished, he took off his safety glasses, picked up his equipment, and walked quietly away, unaware of the minor sensation his vicious precision had had on the other operatives at the range.

They watched him go, before one murmured, "Glad I'm not his target." Then, they slowly resumed their activities. Walter, still watching, shook his head.

Michael returned his gear to Walter's station, in the older man's absence, and began walking back toward his office. He wasn't any less angry with himself now, but the violent impulse--born of his inability to admit or express either his love or his desire to protect his former "material"--had at least temporarily passed.

He didn't know what to do about Nikita, though--how did you acclimate an innocent to Hell? His problems unsolved, therefore-- his memories still haunting him, he returned to his lair and worked in self-imposed exile from life, wishing--in some still-beating part of his heart--that innocence, once lost, could be regained.