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Protective Instincts

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He had only had one main thought circling in his mind for the last few hours: he didn't want it to be true. . . . He didn't want to believe.

Michael was sitting in his office now, trying to fill out a report--was attempting to concentrate. His mind, however, kept being drawn back to what Nikita had told him--to what she had seen.

He tried to focus on the screen. He wanted desperately to be able to tell himself that Nikita had been mistaken, that she was wrong; he wanted to believe the commonly-accepted truth that human cloning was simply a theory, a mad scientist's pipe dream. . . . But something in him told him that to believe this would be a dangerous self-deception.

He had tried to tell Nikita that she was wrong, when she had come to tell him of what she had witnessed. Some part of his mind had hoped that maybe, if he simply denied it long enough--disbelieved it strongly enough--he could make his desires real.

He gave up trying to concentrate on the text on his screen, seeing that it was useless to pretend, and began simply staring at the other side of his office. The beautiful woman who was never out of his thoughts, the one who held his heart as a tender captive, had asked him the question which had cut through his denials--which had made him face his own truths: "What are you afraid of?" . . . It had, indeed, gotten him to follow her, but it hadn't gotten him to answer her--too insightful--question.

He *was* afraid--was terrified. He knew, in his heart, that she was right--that Section had succeeded in their cloning efforts, that they were in the process of raising an indeterminable number of children, were training them toward their own private, demonic ends. . . . And he felt in his heart, as well, that he--like Nikita--was now one of those unfortunate experiments.

It wasn't so much that Michael was capable of being shocked by Section's actions anymore; he had always wondered, for instance, what had happened to the unlucky children who were born to operatives. There had to be a reason, after all, that they had kept Terry alive until the birth of her child, despite her betrayal of them. He had always suspected that their masters were raising a new generation in their own image. . . . He had never, though, imagined just how far they would go to get them.

His reactions to this dawning knowledge weren't simple ones. He wasn't a man who was really capable of moral outrage anymore--if he had ever truly allowed himself to be. He understood that children were simply a commodity for their masters, like any others; Birkoff, in fact, had been little more than a child when he had been recruited, and he and Nikita had only been in their late teens.

No, there was little that shocked him anymore. . . . There were, however, some things that could frighten him.

Perhaps it was a sense of . . . spiritual fear which caught at him--a bit of cosmic injustice. He had always told himself that--when he finally died, when he was finally out of this life, he would be free; Section could no longer touch him.

Now, however, he was beginning to wonder whether that were true. He didn't know, with any certainty--of course, what the requirements would be which would tell their masters that a specific individual should be cloned, but he was certain that, whatever they were--comprehension, execution, physical strength, the ability to follow orders--he would be one of those unlucky few. He knew that he was valuable to his masters, that--despite their torments of him--they had no desire to lose him. . . . Now, perhaps, even with his death, they wouldn't have to.

He closed his eyes for a minute and tilted his head into his hand to rub over them. He couldn't bear the thought of being caught in this life again--of some small version of himself being forced to live out once more the pain he had been taught to accept as his due. Maybe *he* deserved this half-life he was condemned to, but a child which was him did not--would have done nothing to be damned this way . . . except having been an innocent pawn in the scientific crime of having been reproduced from himself.

He sighed wearily. He had no real ability to understand something which no theologian or scientist had come to grips with yet--the question of how much of a person's soul might be transferred to a clone--but he feared the worst. Would he one day die, only to find himself in this place once more? Would it turn into a nightmare of eternal waking--of always believing the end had come, only to find that the nightmare wasn't over? Was he damned to be reproduced eternally in Hell--to never find reprieve or escape?

He looked back up finally, his hand lingering on his chin for a second before he sat back up and continued his vacant-eyed perusal of the wall. It was possible that he could accept this outcome for himself, as painful as it was--was possible that he could believe himself worthy of such an eternal death sentence. . . . No--that wasn't what tormented him most. What made him truly fear--what seemed to make his soul ache with waves of convulsive pain--was the thought that this was a fate which Nikita, too, might share.

Part of him had wanted to scream in torment, when she had told him what she had seen. Part of him had known the truth from the outset and had wanted to beat against walls, howling in pain against the brutal fate which had been set before him.

He knew, after all, that he had been brought into Section because of his sins--because he had, on some level--to his mind, deserved it. But his beloved--the bright, beautiful angel who had his heart--she would *never* deserve such a fate. . . . She had never deserved to be here at all.

He knew, in many ways, that he had turned the wife of his heart into a killer--that he had, repeatedly, tarnished and diminished her bright . . . her priceless soul. But he had always been painfully comforted by the fact that her imprisonment here wasn't eternal--that, when the day came that he failed to protect her, she would be free to return to her angelic sisters--would be free forever of the pains of this life.

Now, however, that was no longer true. Now, he was her complete corruptor, was the man who had destroyed any hope for her--present or future.

It pained him more deeply than he could express that this was so, but he was incapable of seeing it in any other way. He was bound tightly to the belief that he was Nikita's guardian--her protector. If part of her soul died, then he couldn't help but see himself as its murderer.

In some ways, of course, he was correct in this belief. He had, after all--many times--insisted that she give up some part of her conscience in a struggle to protect her physical life.

But this wasn't really where he saw his culpability ending; he truly believed that he was charged, while she existed in any sort of physical form, with looking after her--with seeing that she came to no harm. . . . And it was the fact that she had come to so much of it that made him despair for his own soul--for his own eternal worth.

This mission, in fact, had made him fear for her safety more than once. While he knew that she was capable of protecting herself, he had been listening when Chernov had uttered six words which had made his heart clench in cold terror: "You're going to be a mother."

He closed his eyes for a minute to hold back the tears he felt coming to them. He had feared so often about this danger--about his beloved being raped, . . . about being unable to save or protect her.

He knew--more from instinct and character study than from her words--that it wouldn't be the first time for her, . . . but that fact only made the fear stronger. He felt like a failure enough, irrational though the feeling may have been, that he hadn't been there earlier in her life to protect her from the predators who had abused her.

That he might be forced to listen, therefore, while it happened again had made an indescribable, feral need to protect her burn in his soul. While nothing could make him stop loving her--while no violation of her could lessen her in his eyes, he needed desperately to protect her from experiencing such pain again--for her own sanity's sake.

He had immediately found his team then and had started in motion the final phase of the mission. He had wanted to be able to listen to everything her comlink had broadcast back to Section, of course--had wanted to listen during the mission prep. and on the entire journey to free her, just so he could know what was happening--what she was going through, . . . but it hadn't been possible. Instead, therefore, he had demanded frequent updates from Birkoff--but it had been hard for Section's computer genius to tell entirely what was happening.

Michael had only gotten the entire story from Nikita, in fact, awhile after he had arrived to save her. He had been only mildly relieved when he had first asked her whether she was alright; her answer had been distracted, and it had been hard to tell whether it was a distraction caused by Chernov's death or by what might have come before.

He had only waited until he had gotten her out into the hallway, in fact, before he had asked her what had happened. There had been a few moments of distraction in her eyes before they seemed to focus on his in love, finally registering his deeper concerns. She had stroked his arm for a second, told him, "I'm alright," and then proceeded to help with the rest of the clean up of the facility--telling the operatives of the places they needed to look for any records or survivors, things she had noticed when she had been allowed to wander the building earlier.

Once she had returned to the plane and they were on their way back again, though, she had finally relieved Michael of his misery by "debriefing"--by telling him what had happened in a way which wouldn't send rumors among the other operatives. . . . The two of them, after all, didn't need to give their masters any further fuel--any hints at improprieties which would cause them to be separated again.

It was then that he had discovered that she had been telling the partial truth--that she hadn't been hurt sexually. The revelation of the egg they had harvested from her did, indeed, explain the pain she seemed to be in--the distress he had felt in her.

He had wanted to take her in his arms and hold her then, had wanted to give her his comfort for her pain and trauma. Instead, all he could do was try to tell her with his eyes how sorry he was--how much he loved her.

He knew . . . he felt, however, that he had--yet again--failed his beloved, that he had failed to save her from the twisted plans of yet another soulless defiler. . . . Now, too, he realized that Nikita wasn't the only one he had failed. Now, he knew that he was failing--as well--a long line of her, child after child--small visions of innocence whom he was damning with his incompetence.

His heart seemed to bleed with the thought; he swallowed heavily. He had always dreamed--both consciously and subconsciously--of being able to be a true parent with his beloved, not the failure he felt himself to be with Adam--with the son he had been forced . . . assigned to sire. . . . No--he dreamed, instead, of fathering a small picture of Nikita herself, of living a blissfully normal life with his beautiful wife and their small, lovely daughter.

Now, he had found that that child existed already--not a daughter, but a young Nikita herself. He knew--without ever seeing her--that the child would be beautiful, inquisitive, playful . . . full of energy and life. He *ached* to see and hold her--wanted desperately to raise that small girl with all of the love and advantages of which her older version had been so long deprived.

But no. That child--that innocent--was being tended to by scientists, was--no doubt--an experiment. The tests may or may not have been physical or medical ones, but certainly they were aimed toward turning her into a soulless creature--into a well-trained, logical--but mindless--*thing* . . . a commodity. . . . And his part in her young life was simply to sit back and allow all the old pains and betrayals to be replayed--to permit strangers to tamper with her young, bright soul, until it was ready to be removed.

He took a deep, shuddering breath. It pained him deeply that he had failed her again--that his love couldn't save either of them. All he wanted was to be able to love and protect her, . . . and all he did, instead, was destroy.

His intercom broke him suddenly from his painful reverie; had he been less well-trained, he would have jumped.

"Michael," Madeline's voice softly commanded his attention.

He took a soft, deep breath to steady himself, swallowed back the tears in his throat, and answered her as tonelessly as possible. "Yes."

"I need the Chernov report."

He refocused on the barely-touched document on his screen and tried not to sigh. "You'll have it in five minutes."

There was a slight pause--as though Section's executive strategist was completely aware of the cause of his tardiness and was letting him suffer her silent appraisal for a minute before answering. "Good." The intercom clicked off.

Michael closed his eyes for a second to steady himself. He knew that there was nothing to do about this; wherever their masters had moved the next generation of incarcerated souls, it was somewhere that he would likely never be able to find them.

He knew, too, that--wherever it was--there was nothing he could do about it, even if he did; he was too well-conditioned to ever question Section's logic openly. . . . For all of his torment, then--for all of his fears, he knew he wouldn't act--even if it were possible for him to.

He swallowed heavily and opened his eyes. He had to return to his duties. He couldn't allow himself to fear for too long; it was counterproductive. He was incapable of protecting the young version of himself which he was now certain existed, just as he was equally incapable of protecting Nikita's young self.

He began filling out the report in front of him mechanically. He needed to focus his attention elsewhere--needed to concentrate, instead, on looking after the beloved woman whom Section so frequently tried to destroy. It was all, indeed, that he was capable of in this lifetime. . . . In the next, he would worry about her young double. ************

It was surprising just how well some days worked out. A slight smile curved on her beautiful but cold face, as she waited for Michael's report. . . . All of the things she had feared were now--fortunately--in the past.

Madeline tapped a key to cut off her surveillance of Michael. The fact that he had allowed himself to be distracted from his work for almost a half hour spoke volumes about his mental state.

She was rather pleased with her subordinate's pain, however; it meant that her plan to keep him focused on Section's needs was working, so far. If she could manage to sever the bonds between him and Nikita--by forcing Nikita to turn on him, then Section would--in her mind--be far better protected.

Of course, this mission hadn't been focused specifically on this goal, but she did see it as a way to begin establishing the groundwork for what would come. They may have just allowed their most troublesome pair of operatives an unacknowledged week of downtime together, but it was not something she intended to allow them again in the future; Section's aims were too easily ignored by a couple focused only on each other. If she could fan the flames of dissent between them, then their focus could once more return to the necessary areas.

This, though, was a goal for the future; this mission, while it had caused both Michael and Nikita a great deal of distress, had still allowed them to turn to each other a bit too much for Madeline's peace of mind. . . . In the future, she would ensure that that outcome happened less frequently.

What had been accomplished on this mission, however, was a confirmation; they now knew for certain that one of their most confidential programs was in no danger of being replicated. The person they had thought to be their main scientific rival had only been testing the waters before he began his experiments; they had nothing to fear.

Madeline turned to her computer again and pressed a series of keys to view another part of Section--one which officially didn't exist. She scanned the circle of beds there, all of them containing sleeping children in gray uniforms.

She smiled slightly at the sight. Project Gemini--as they, admittedly, rather unoriginally, had termed it--was, so far, going quite well. One day, these projects would make quite formidable operatives in their own right--operatives, even better, for whom all the flaws and failings would be known beforehand--who they would, by that point, understand completely.

Another woman--another human being--might have been touched or moved by the sight of these uniformed children sleeping so quietly. Another person might have questioned the morality of creating small replicants to train in death and deception. . . . But Madeline was not one of those easily-moved people.

Nothing--to Section's doyenne, at any point in her life--had ever been a question of morality, only of feasibility. She had never wondered, "Is this right to do?"--only "Will this be effective?" . . . And the alphas were proving very effective indeed.

It didn't worry her that one of the primes had finally discovered their plan--Nikita was incapable of changing or endangering their progress. In fact, it was her small alpha which had alerted them to the intruder.

Madeline sighed. While she had long tried--with a fair amount of success--to teach Nikita prime to distrust--her alpha version had yet to understand this lesson; there was something in the small version of her--as in the adult--which was inherently trusting, which wanted to believe the best in people. . . . It could be quite annoying; for now, however--in her alpha version, it was proving to be a helpful trait.

Section's executive strategist found the alphas to be a fascinating study, even more so than their prime counterparts. After all, their young versions were untouched by outside influences and contaminants; for many of Section's operatives, indeed, had they been raised in different environments, they might never have ended up being recruited at all, so past traumas which occasionally had warped their personalities were eliminated here--making more of them viable long term.

It was, indeed, the whole nature/nurture question which was proving so fascinating in the study of the alphas. For some, they were almost exactly like their older selves; others, however, were radically different.

Predicting which alphas would fall into which category, however, was the science which they were perfecting. As their personalities made themselves apparent, both in the tests they were given and in their interactions with each other, their future viability was assessed. A few--it was true--had been disposed of already, when they proved to be less than useful; most, though, were working out rather well--were molding themselves to Section's training right on schedule.

Her eyes scanned the rows of sleeping replicants--she only thought of them as "children," on occasion, for ease of reference--as she assessed their choices for the program. Not all operatives--for obvious reasons --were considered useful for duplication, but those who were were entered into the study for a variety of reasons.

Certainly, intelligence and physical strength were usually considered necessities for any candidate, although--in some cases--the strength was overlooked, if the prime's capabilities were useful for some other reason; her eyes looked to Birkoff's young alpha, who had certainly been one of those cases. Some were chosen, too, because their prime versions were too important to not train a substitute; her own and Operations' alphas were cases in point there--although they were trained away from their fellow replicants to teach them self-sufficiency.

There were many different reasons that primes were chosen for the program, yes, and many of their alphas did quite well in this structured environment--much like the sculpted plants she favored. There were some, though, who held special fascination for her; she scanned the camera to one figure--a boy of ten with short brown hair. His green eyes opened as soon as the camera--hidden to his view--turned on him, and he focused on it, as though he realized she was there.

Madeline took in a breath which she would never admit was a steadying one. Michael alpha had the ability to unnerve her in a way none of the others did. The small boy was almost preternatural in his understanding of his environment and people; he seemed to know that his surroundings and upbringing were unnatural ones, although he had never known or seen anything different.

Like his adult version, as well, he had already learned not to show his emotions--had understood for some time that the expression of feelings was dangerous. Unlike his prime version, however, he seemed to refuse to fear his captors--his instructors, even covertly. . . . Perhaps, though--she thought, that was only because they had yet to truly prove to him how much he could lose.

Madeline scanned to the other side of the room--to the small figure of Nikita alpha. The child had finally fallen asleep after crying for awhile; she had been upset ever since she had realized that the reason they had all been moved was because she had told of the older woman's unscheduled presence among them that afternoon.

The reason the girl had fallen asleep at all, however, was rather fascinating to her observer; Madeline had watched earlier, indeed, as Michael alpha had gotten out of his bed, given a withering look at a guard--all of whom were more than a bit nervous around him, despite his young age--and gone over to the small, blonde-haired child. Her soft sobs had reduced to sniffles immediately on seeing him nearby. He had put his small hand up to and stroked over her temple twice, telling her simply, "Go to sleep." A small smile had then appeared on the girl's face, as she swallowed back her tears and drifted off immediately.

Madeline sighed deeply and scanned back to the young Michael. The boy's eyes opened promptly again, and she repressed an involuntary shudder.

She had wondered, of course--when this part of the study began, whether this Michael would show the same predilection for his former material as his adult counterpart, but she had truly expected nothing like what had come about. What she had found frequently in her study of all of the alphas, after all, was that the relationships the adult ops. had formed were only sometimes reflected in their younger versions--and almost never to the same extent.

When she had introduced the young Nikita to the boy version of her adult mentor, indeed, she had expected nothing too serious. What she had found, therefore, had surprised her.

Michael had always worked well with the other alphas--could lead them with a quiet authority which was surprising in a child so young, but he had formed very few real relationships with any of them. In fact, the only one she had seen him form was a simple friendship based on trust with the young Simone, . . . but neither of them had seemed to be as deeply attached as the relationship between their adult counterparts might suggest; Simone, indeed, had been taken from him and put in a different group a few years ago, and--while it had made neither of them happy--they had both gone on without too much overt adjustment.

Nikita, however, was another story. She had been introduced to the others at age 3--like all the rest; by that time, Michael alpha was already 8, since he had been created back in the earliest days of the program, which had started several years after his prime counterpart's recruitment.

With all of the other young alphas Michael had been introduced to, he had accepted them without particular emotion or comment and had simply helped integrate them into the community to the degree which was expected of him. When Nikita alpha had arrived, however, Madeline had seen the first deep emotion which had ever been displayed in the young replicant's eyes; he had seemed transfixed, unable to look away from her.

When he had come closer, indeed--when Nikita had been told that she was now to answer to what Michael asked from her, the younger child's bright blue, trusting eyes had focused on him, as she smiled up at him sweetly, and Madeline had noted the change in the young boy's breathing pattern. . . . But it was when the young girl had reached up and taken his hand that his face truly seemed to melt from its usual mask, as his hand--almost instinctively--gently grasped hers and held it protectively; it had taken Madeline a second to get his attention again, to wrest it away from his devoted look at his new charge.

Madeline had never known entirely what to make of that incident, just as she was unsure how to fully comprehend either of the Michaels' protectiveness toward the Nikitas. It didn't make sense to her that they both responded so much more differently to their charges than they did to any other person; for the young Michael, especially, it obviously hadn't been sexual--as she had long realized could not be the entire motive of his older version, either. It was almost as though the man's genetic code insisted that he protect this one woman--whenever they met, whatever the conditions of their lives. She shook her head, taking one last look at the burning green eyes which seemed to evaluate her from the screen. She couldn't understand it.

She turned back, finally, to the report Michael prime had managed to submit, at exactly the time he had said he would. Project Gemini was creating more questions for her, at times, than it was answering--it was true, but she wasn't complaining. Maybe, indeed, it could someday provide an answer for her to the, to her mind, puzzling question of why Michael had so invested himself in his ex-material. . . . And, if it could do that, then maybe it could also tell her what the best way to part them without incident would be.

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

He was being watched again; he could feel it. His eyes opened to focus where he was certain the camera was placed, his gaze burning at it. He was still angry at them for having made Nikita cry. . . . *No one* did that and got away with it. Michael alpha, as he was unaware he was called by the scientists who observed him, was uninformed about much of what went on around him, but he had always been aware that something about his life was . . . wrong. Lately, too, he was beginning to put together just what that problem was.

He had understood for some time that he--that all of them--were being trained, but he wasn't entirely certain for what. He could tell, though, that the consequences for failure at this unknown task were severe; already, there had been others he had worked with who had disappeared, who were taken away--never to return. . . . He knew, instinctively, that they were dead.

His instincts, though, had been downplayed by their trainers--he had been told repeatedly to disregard them. He was intelligent enough to realize, though, that his trainers only did this when he had struck upon something they didn't want him to know; otherwise--whenever this trait had been to their advantage, it had been encouraged.

He sensed that he wasn't being watched anymore and closed his eyes again.

He wasn't really sleeping; he didn't sleep much, anyway. He had always been certain that to be unaware of his surroundings for too long could be dangerous. . . . Especially since Nikita had been brought to join them, too, he had focused on sleeping as little as possible--for fear that she might be gone, if he allowed himself to lose focus for too long.

He looked over at the young girl's sleeping form, and his heart clenched.

He couldn't explain the emotions he felt when he saw her--the feelings it gave him to be around her. He had never been taught about love--or any other emotion; it simply hadn't been deemed an important part of his education. But, had he had a true comprehension of the term, he would have known that he loved this little girl--very, very deeply.

He had felt this tormenting emotion from the first time she had been introduced. Although he couldn't name his feelings, he did notice the physical changes in himself--his increased blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature--the way his heart felt like it was doing some odd, fluttering maneuver in his chest. He had, in fact, even made the mistake of being unable to hide these reactions from Madeline--a first for him. . . . He hadn't understood what was wrong with him at all.

This was a question, in fact, which was still unanswered for him. His eyes took her in devotedly; he still wasn't certain what it was that made him react so to her, but he had long ago given up attempting to define it. He just knew that he was there to look after her--that he *had* to, was compelled to do it. Whatever the reason was that caused him to feel this way was indefinable and--therefore--irrelevant.

He sighed quietly, as he watched her whimper--caught in a bad dream. He wanted to go to her, to hold her until the nightmare disappeared, but he knew that was a bad idea; although he was aware that his--to him-- unnameable feelings for her were well-understood by their trainers, he still somehow knew that to express them too openly could be a danger for them both.

He sighed again and forced himself to close his eyes once more, cutting off his view of the child. He knew he needed to focus on her safety a bit more; he had been preoccupied lately--his attention caught by the fact that he was beginning to put together the clues he had been given about the purpose of his existence.

This was aided, indeed, by the fact that his training had been changing lately. Madeline had been showing him videos of what she had seemed to suggest would be a future for him--videos of "valentine missions."

These tapes, indeed, were meant as a way of teaching him--along with various reading he had been given on the subject--about the sexual functions of the human body. . . . Of course, only being ten meant that such training was still in the future for him--she had made clear--but she had just as certainly told him that it would come.

He was learning about sexuality, then, in a way which was completely free of either morals or moralism. Human bodies were shown to him almost mechanically--as objects which could be manipulated in certain ways in order to achieve certain results. Sex was shown--and seen--as neither right nor wrong; it was simply a means to an end. Desire was something in others to be used; pleasure--for the operative--was talked about as an occasional by-product which you couldn't allow to distract you from your goals. . . . Love was never mentioned.

He had no way of knowing, of course, just how warped a bit of education this was, but--unlike many young boys his age--there was no sense of titillation for him in these tapes. The nude forms he saw moved him very little; he took instruction almost robotically, . . . or, at least, so it appeared.

There was, actually, something about the tapes which had moved him, however. . . . One of them, in fact, had sent his mind almost spinning.

Several of the tapes had featured the same man--a man who almost resembled himself in coloring, although this operative was--obviously-- much older and more developed. This man, too, had seemed to approach the women he was with almost mechanically--or so you could tell whenever they lost their focus on him in any way. . . . This man even shared his name.

Michael alpha pulled a blanket more securely over himself. The tape which had so disturbed him recently, however, seemed to show another side of this older man; all of his expressions in it had seemed genuine this time--his focus complete and intense. . . . And, when the woman he was with convulsed in his arms, the older man had done something the young Michael had never witnessed in him before--he had joined in her pleasurable convulsions.

This change in the man the boy was forced to view was departure enough to cause him to wonder what lay behind it--was enough to make him curious. . . . What had left him almost breathless, however, was the woman the man was with in this tape.

None of the women in the other videos he had seen had ever registered particularly with the young boy, but this one--this one left him almost shaking. She was beautiful--blonde and blue-eyed . . . and she was also "Nikita."

Michael alpha had had a great deal of trouble hiding his emotions--on many levels--from Madeline after this particular tape, a fact she had obviously enjoyed. The couple on it were unlike any of the others; there was something different about the sex here, something which made it feel more real--which gave it far more impact, on every level--even to an inexperienced observer.

He was too young, too stoically and perversely trained, of course, to understand that what made this tape different was that the couple was in love. . . . What he did realize, though, was that these two people were --both physically and in name--apparent older versions of Nikita and himself.

He wasn't sure what to make of this, at first. He had wondered, for awhile, whether the tape had been altered as a way to shake him up-- whether it had been shown to him as a projection of what his, and Nikita's, futures might hold. . . . They had already learned the basics of such methods of video manipulation, after all, so he knew that they were possible.

He suspected, somehow, though, that the truth was far more frightening than that. For many years now, he had noticed that their trainers also seemed to be their observers, that they seemed to watch them in the same way that he and the others watched experiments under a microscope. He had also seen how the newcomers among the guards were almost always either frightened of or hostile toward them; he had even overheard a few conversations where they had called them "freaks" or "unnatural," . . . although those were the newcomers who didn't last very long.

He had read, furthermore, in part of his training--part he was now half-certain had been left as a clue--to test his powers of deduction, about "clones" and "gene splitting," so he understood that such things were possible, as well. . . . Now, however, he was beginning to wonder whether those things were not only possible but whether they could also be the true explanation for what seemed so wrong about the life he and all of his companions lived.

It made such sense, truly. He had examined his own eyes in a mirror, after watching one of the videos Madeline had left for him, and had been struck by how similar they were to the man's in the video. His face, as well, was not completely dissimilar; he could see the ways in which it could one day develop into the structured lines of the older man's.

It was with seeing the older Nikita in the video, though--and, even more, with that woman's accidental arrival among them earlier that day-- that his conviction had been sealed. He was now certain that the young girl who he felt such a strong need to protect was the same woman who the older version of himself had shown such intense emotion toward. . . . And, furthermore, he was certain that Madeline was showing him these particular tapes mostly in order to test him--to be able to view his reactions.

He was a little uncertain, however, of just who it was who was being tested--himself or his older counterpart. He still wasn't sure whether Madeline were trying to work out something for his own future--or whether he and Nikita were simply experiments meant to gain her some information about the older couple, instead. He sighed. Perhaps it was both.

The uncertainty of it worried him a bit, though. He wasn't truly sure, after all, what all of this meant for his and Nikita's future. As yet, they were both *far* too young to be of any use in the sort of scenarios the tapes he was watching showed. He was wondering, more and more--in fact, if they were even intended to live that long, or whether they would simply be disposed of once Madeline came to better understand their older counterparts. He let out another, frustrated sigh. . . . He didn't know --and it was an uncertainty which gnawed at him intensely.

What he did know now, however, was that the girl who sparked such unnamable emotion in him was *meant* to be near him. The tapes had simply convinced him further that the two of them were destined to be together in some form or another, although whether it ended up to be a sexual or-- he barely had a nascent concept of the term--romantic relationship was immaterial to him. He just knew that he needed her near him in order to feel whole, that his life hadn't seemed entirely real until she entered it.

He didn't know whether she returned his feelings as strongly, of course--whether she would ever, when she grew older, want him as much as the woman on the tape obviously wanted his older self--but he did know that she shared the bond he felt with her, knew that she was always happier when he was nearby, that he never saw her look truly worried except when he had been removed from her for too long. . . . He was certain, then, that--so long as she wasn't taken from him--they would both be alright. The one other fact of which he was certain was that he *was* going to look after her, whatever may come. He was young, and he did not yet possess the powerful body of his older self, but he would damage irreparably anyone who was foolish enough to try to hurt her.

He might not have the words to express his feelings, but words here, he knew, were irrelevant. He had simply sensed it again in the tapes of his adult self; Nikita was his to protect and look after. He would no more hurt her than he would willingly take his own life. They were meant to be paired--in whatever form they had been created, in whatever ways may evolve in their own time in their future. . . . And anyone who dared to get in the way of that natural progression--he knew with absolute certainty--would be reminded, painfully, of their error.