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Intimate Strangers

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He had been living in a state of pressing fear for several days. He glanced up to see Nikita standing in Operations' office, as he passed in front of it; the look of pain and confusion he saw on her face would normally have torn at him horribly. . . . Now, however, the very fact that she was alive made him far too grateful to be unhappy.

Michael had spent the last several weeks ingratiating himself to a dangerous sociopath because of his fears for Nikita. He had known for that long about Operations' plan to test her by putting her in charge of Karen, and while he--like Walter--had been forbidden to say anything negative about the recruit to her soon-to-be trainer, he hadn't been forbidden from otherwise manipulating her opinions . . . at least, not explicitly.

He had found this loophole, therefore, and had used it as best he could, . . . although he hadn't been certain whether he could persuade her to be jealous of him. This plan, though, was the only way he had been able to find to try to convince her to agree to Karen's cancellation --and, thereby, prevent her own.

Nikita had never been jealous of him before, however, so he had known that this was a risk. . . . Of course, she had had no reason to be-- up to now. She herself was the only person who had been able to touch him emotionally since his wife's death--was one of the few to ever really do so; even in his pre-Section days, there had been few truly close friends. She, he knew, sensed this, so convincing her both that he was interested in Karen and that she should care had been a challenge.

It had been the second part, in fact, which had worried him the most. Nikita had only recently been seriously involved with another man, and she still had the memory of many of Michael's denials of her to contend with in any attempt to have feelings for him. . . . He was amazed every time her emotions for him won.

He had, indeed, worried a few times during his fake dalliance with Karen. He had felt like he had had to hold on to her waist for eternity --in Madeline's dressing room--before Nikita had bothered to notice. . . . Her statement later, too, that "I don't know you at all" had hurt --and scared him slightly. She, after all, knew him better than any other living soul; if he were still a mystery to her . . .

Their relationship had always been a conflicted one, however. While, in one sense, Michael was very much in charge of it, he was simultaneously at her mercy, . . . although she never did seem to understand this fact. She didn't see that his distance--his coldness --even some of his manipulations were attempts to protect himself from the frightening new emotions she brought out in him. She could walk straight into his soul--into his heart without warning, without her ever realizing that she had penetrated the impenetrable. . . . It was a terrifying ability--and one from which he needed to keep a constant vigilance, if he had any hope of protecting his sense of control and self.

Of course, there had been many times--since he had met her--when he had tried to consciously deny this knowledge, when he had attempted to shield himself from the dangers of this reality. Knowing, though, just how close to cancellation she had come this time, he was incapable --at the moment--of pretending that his emotions weren't real.

All of this self-knowledge tumbled through his head and heart in seconds, as he looked up at Nikita in relief. He had, only moments ago, finished cancelling Karen--almost happily pulling the trigger, while fearing that she had cost him his former material--fearing that Nikita's heart had overtaken her calculation once again.

Evidently, however, that fear had been misplaced; Nikita *had* seen Karen clearly. She broke the gaze they were caught in and looked away, obviously understanding Michael's part in her latest ordeal.

He wanted to talk to her, wanted to see how she was; he waited in the hall for her to return from Operations' office, watching her through the glass. He could see that she was holding back tears.

He wished that he could feel more remorse for his actions, as he watched her. He wanted to be able to feel guilt when he hurt her.

Usually, though, he didn't, or--at least--he didn't allow himself to. . . . He had reasons for his actions; most of the time, they were done to protect her. He told himself this frequently, replayed old rationalizations endlessly, because--on at least a subconscious level --he understood that to admit the ways he had hurt her would mean the complete destruction of his carefully-built facade, . . . and that-- he knew--could prove deadly.

He continued, then, to try to excuse his recent actions. It certainly wasn't like he had enjoyed his shallow seduction of Karen; she was insane and highly dangerous. He had been wearing a kevlar vest under his clothes ever since Brian had been killed on her first mission. He wasn't taking any chances with her. . . . He just wished he could have told Nikita to do the same. . . . Who knew it would be an aging, ersatz bank teller who would pull the trigger on him, instead?

Nikita moved out of his line of sight, and he went to lean against the wall. When he tried this, however, he was immediately made more aware of his recent wound and stood back up quickly, closing his eyes.

Although the vest had probably saved his life, he still had a few seriously bruised ribs which would be making themselves known for a while; had it been anyone else, they would still be in Medical. The combination, though, of being left alone with his thoughts and to the untender mercies of Section's medical personnel--many of whom were recruited because of gross and widespread malpractice or medical experimentation--gave him enough reason to want to try to recover on his own.

When he opened his eyes, he found Nikita standing an inch in front of him. She looked cautiously concerned. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," he lied.

She nodded and started to move off. She was more hurt than angry, but she didn't particularly want to be near him just now.

"`Kita." He stopped her by putting a hand gently on her arm.

She paused and sighed, then turned back to him, eyes sad.

He tried to say something, then stopped. "Do you want to talk?" he managed finally.

She *needed* to talk--badly, but she half-thought that being near him might just cause her more pain. She opened her lips but said nothing, the conflict evident in her eyes.

"Why don't we get some coffee?" he suggested, reading her thoughts but needing to find out her more general emotional state.

She shook her head, her decision finally made. "I don't feel like going out, Michael."

"Go sit in my office, then. I'll bring us some."

She sighed slightly; she wanted to refuse but she was too drained to protest. She simply looked away from him, therefore, and nodded, before slipping out of his grasp quietly and beginning to move slowly toward his office--her arms wrapped around herself as if to keep out the cold.

Michael watched her walk away, consciously repressing the slight clutching feeling in his heart. He knew that--no matter how dangerous it was--he would never stop wishing he could be her friend--would never be able to distance himself from his unattainable desire to earn her trust. Irrational as he was certain it was, he knew that she would always have part of his soul.

A few minutes later, Michael had tried to push his conflicted emotions into the back of his mind; he arrived in his office with two steaming mugs and placed one on his desk in front of her, before going back to close the door. She picked up, blew on, and then tasted her drink absently. Doing so, however, she looked a little surprised, finally registering something outside her own thoughts. "Tea." She looked at him.

He raised an eyebrow slightly, took the mug from her hands and replaced it with his own.

She sniffed at it, then put it back on the desk and pushed it toward his side, taking her own mug from him again. "I prefer the tea."

He nodded slightly and walked behind his desk to sit down, looking at her, waiting for her to speak.

"It never was about Karen at all, was it?" she asked, staring in her mug. "It was about me all along."

"Yes," he replied softly.

"You could have told me," she responded, knowing--even as she said it--how unrealistic this was. She looked at him.

He stated the obvious quietly. "I wasn't allowed to."

She nodded. "Were you attracted to her?"

He just looked back at her. He had no idea how she could even ask it.

She nodded again--taking his silence as a simple refusal to discuss his emotions; she still knew, though, that his actions hadn't been motivated by anything he may have felt for Karen. "How long had you been setting up that manipulation?"

He paused, evaluating her. "That's a loaded question, Nikita."

"How long?"

He sighed. "A few weeks."

She continued nodding. "You really do think I'm easy to control, don't you?" When he just looked at her, she went on. "Do you always do these things for a reason, or do you simply do it for fun sometimes?"

His eyes closed briefly, as he looked down at his desk; the pain she was causing his heart was immense. "I don't enjoy hurting you."

She laughed slightly. "That's rather a shame, since you certainly do it enough."

He looked back up at her, wells of pain showing in his eyes.

She smiled crookedly, ironically and took a large sip of her tea to wash down a lump in her throat. She looked back down at the desk.

"You remember telling me a few hours ago that I should know you pretty well by now?" She focused on him again. "I think I do." She took another sip of tea and deposited the mug on his desk before rising and heading for the door.

He rose. "`Kita."

She turned back to him. "Don't worry, Michael. I'm not mad at you." She shook her head. "I'm not going to do anything stupid."

She sighed and looked him over, resignation setting in further.

"It's just who you are, isn't it?" She shrugged. "All the beauty's external." She smiled slightly, her eyes still registering pain. "Goodnight, Michael." Then, she left, too tired and in pain--at the moment--to admit any deeper emotions for him.

He watched her go and then closed his eyes. Once again, without even realizing it, she had reached in and taken hold of his heart.

And, despite all of his Section-trained desire for self-protection and control, he wished to God he could hold her there.